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Winter's Thaw

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Arya

Chapter 1: An Inconvenient Proposal

Gendry

He stood in awe like the others. Dragons. He'd heard the talk, who hadn't? They said dragons were alive once more, but far away, over the sea. He'd even been in Harrenhall; the burned stone proof of their fire, their might. Green, black, and red, beautiful things. One burned a bird flying nearby, a medium stream enough to char it. He couldn't help but imagine a perfect sword, forged from its fire.

They all marched forward, King Stannis, Ser Davos, and Gendry, who was actually surprised his uncle Stannis had asked him to come, and a few other close guards. Ser Davos must have suggested his coming for some show of house unity, or political trick, but he didn't care. He knew what people saw when they looked at him, what they always said. He could be his father's twin, with his black hair and blue eyes, tall build and strong frame. He'd never even met the King, but he was sure he would have been disappointed.

He was anxious to see her with his own eyes, the Dragon Queen, the Targaryan Usurper, or Kalesi, he wasn't sure about that one, but they were all common names around the men back at camp. His Uncle Stannis had been fighting for the throne for quite some time, and now it would all be taken away, by this blonde queen with dragons who had managed to take back King's Landing whereas Stannis' forces couldn't even breach the wall. They said her people were all freed slaves who chose to fight for her, that she brought peace. Gendry was sick of war.

The palace was exactly how he remembered it from the outside, looming and unreal from his place in Flea Bottom. They let them keep their weapons, and guided them to Her. He looked to Ser Davos to see what was expected of him, and the man gave him an encouraging nod. Thankfully Melisandre did not come, The Queen expressly forbid her attendance in this parlay, she apparently didn't trust magic users. He already likes her for that.

On the Iron Throne she sat. She was beautiful, but more than that, truly regal, Queenly. She was small, tan, hair blonde but she drew everyone's attention, sitting on the throne like she was born to it. To see such sights in his time, the wonders and the bad bits the same, what a life. He was meant to work and die in the armory, but here he was.

Stannis stood in front, ready to speak with the Dragon Queen, he did not kneel.

"Welcome, Lord Stannis, you and your companions are most welcome in my home." The Queen announces, gesturing them closer.

"Your home... that throne is mine, it belongs to me."

The Knight immediately pulls out his sword, but the Queen gestures to him and he backs down.

"Is it? Oh, I see. Because it was your brother's. Well he took it from my blood."

"The Mad King left us no choice."

"Perhaps not. He was mad, and a destructive force to the kingdom. And my brother was vain and selfish. I don't have to condone the actions of my ancestors in order to be proud of my name. It is my right and my duty to take back these Kingdoms. And you Baratheon, brave family of Westeros, you can learn to compromise or leave with nothing at all."

"King's don't compromise." Though Gendry could tell he was considering her words.

"Your brother tried to have me and my unborn child killed. Did you know that? He meant to wipe us all out. Shall I do the same to your house, your name? One of the greatest families in Westeros, destroyed here, today." Her voice had gotten steadily louder until she was shouting, never losing her composure.

Things tended to escalate quickly, he knew. He made to stand closer to his uncle, hand on the hilt of his sword, not drawing it.

A man must pick a side, that's what he'd always believed.

"Boy." Stannis orders in reproach, though he looks pleased. He takes his hand away. The Queen stands and her face takes on a softer hue.

"I did not wish to begin this way. And I do not wish to hurt any of you. I have what I want, I don't need revenge, and no more families need be destroyed."

"I have thousands of men outside the gates. If you harm me or my men they will attack. Are you so confident against so many men?"

"No, we would win. But a few might die, and many many of yours surely will. Is that what you want?"

Gendry was so tired all of a sudden. More fighting.

He is speechless after this.

"Think on my words, I am open to some negotiation. Camp life can be trying, come refresh yourselves and then come meet us for dinner later." A hot bath, a delicious meal.

"Thank you."

"Yes, thank you, Your Grace." Ser Davos agrees.

Gendry bows his head in reverence.

They are escorted to quarters in order to make themselves presentable and collect themselves. He is given his own room with a hot bath, soap, a razor, and a fresh set of clothes. Apparently, he's meant to come to the feast tonight.


A girl comes to bring Gendry to a large ornate dining hall, and shows him to his seat. At the head of the table is Daenarys, dressed all in gold. To her right is Tyrion Lannister, and on her left is Stannis. Next to him is Ser Davos, then Gendry. The seat on his other side is empty, but one space over is the Imp.

They pour wine, or in Gendry's case water, and herb encrusted bread is set on plates. He has to sit on his hands to stop himself from grabbing a piece with his bare fingers, and wonders if anyone would notice him taking a bite. The Queen seems to be waiting for something.

A young girl rushes through the entrance, she makes eye contact with the Queen and mouths 'sorry', which receives an eye roll from Her Majesty. She isn't as delicate as the Queen, or as colorful, in a fitted simple tunic and trousers the colors of the forest. They suit her, and don't lessen her effect in the slightest. She has pale skin and a few faint freckles on her nose and cheeks, brown hair in a simple braid down one shoulder, and remarkable steel grey eyes. Not much younger than Gendry himself, he thinks. She sits herself between Gendry and Tyrion.

The Queen makes a toast. "To a new era of peace." Everyone raises their glasses.

Before anyone can take a drink, Stannis makes another toast.

"May the Lord of Light protect us, guide us, and light the way."

Only Stannis, Gendry, and Ser Davos intone "In his name", in response, and the latter only half-heartedly.

The Knight comes from his place against the wall and takes the Queen's cup to sip it first, pausing a second, before handing it back to her. She takes a dainty but substantial drink. Tyrion drinks all of his. The Knight seems to be having water, and the dark haired girl is doing her best to keep up with the imp. He keeps glancing over to inspect her. She catches him and looks right back, an intensity in her perusal that makes him uncomfortable. He drops his gaze to his plate, but he can see her smirking out of the corner of his eye. He decides she is beautiful, in her way.

They all begin eating, and servants bring delicious dishes to heap on each plate.

The first course is a salad with leafy greens, red fruits, spicy peppers, and candied nuts with a vinegar sauce. He selects a random fork out of the dozen or so and starts spearing the vegetables, some of the nuts start shooting around the plate in protest to the tines. He feels a violent bump on his shoulder and looks over. The girl holds up a little spoon to use with the fork, he picks up his own and tries again. It works after a few tries. He turns again to thank her, but she is distracted talking to Tyrion.

The next course is boar braised in wine, and a creamy broth soup for dipping. He has to stop himself from drinking the broth down and making a fool of himself, so he settles with dipping the bread in it. He then helps Ser Davos cut his meat, a difficult task without all your finger bones. He feels eyes on him, only to see Tyrion looking at him interestedly.

"So, however did you take King's Landing? The dragons alone wouldn't do it, your ancestors spelled the walls against fire." Stannis always did lack tact.

"Thanks to my good friends, it was quite easy to sneak in. The back way." She motions to her right whereby Tyrion nodded in response, and the girl gives a small but genuine smile. Stannis looks bewildered, he stares for more than a minute at the slight brunette.

"Please introduce me to your friends. I recognize the Imp, of course. A Lannister." He almost growls.

"Why do I so often get that reaction? Well it's lovely to see you again as well, Lord Stannis, always so complimentary. How long has it been, since the Battle of Blackwater I believe? Do you recall?" Stannis sneers at the Half Man.

"And I'm sure you must know Ser Berristan Selmy? A true knight." Daenarys interjects.

The Knight puts his hand to his chest and nods, calling Stannis My Lord.

"Yes, you served my brother did you not?" Stannis asks.

"I did. But before that, I served the Targaryans, and always will." He responds.

The dark haired girl to Gendry's left watches everything in silence, keen eyes taking in everyone, even flicking back to himself from time to time.

"Ser Davos Seaworth, Hand to King Stannis."

"Pleasure Ser."

"And my brother's bastard. Gendry." Gendry is shocked to find himself singled out by Stannis; he's barely acknowledged him before. They're all looking at him now, even those steel grey eyes.

"Huh." Tyrion makes a noise deep in his throat. "Yes, I can see that now. Spitting image of Renly. I had no idea he had it in him." Many smile at the joke.

He continues. "Gendry, you said it was?" He looks up at him with patient appraisal.

"Ser Gendry. And, I… Yes, Robert Baratheon was my father." He corrects, feeling pride he didn't know he possessed.

"He had them all over The Seven Kingdoms. But Joffrey, that monster child, ordered them all executed. How are you alive?"

"He's the last."

Tyrion was still looking at Gendry expectantly.

"I travelled with The Night's Watch out of the city, My Lord. I meant to take the black, but…" He doesn't know what else to say. His skin is hot, he's sure he must be red, and he knows they are all scrutinizing him.

"The Wall?" The dark haired girl speaks up next, though only loud enough for him to hear.

"Aye, Milady." He answers her.

"Did you happen to see anyone named Jon Snow? We have similar coloring..." She's very intent on his answer.

"I never actually made it there. I apologize for the confusion." She deflates at that. Who was this Jon? A lover perhaps. Somehow he's irrationally jealous, though he's no right to be. She recovers quickly and addresses her next question to Stannis.

"And you do not know me, Lord Stannis?" Stannis seems confused.

"Do we know each other?"

"We have never met. Though I would know you from your brother. Would you not know me from my father?" His brow furrows further.

"Your father. You're the Stark Girl." He looks bewildered. "We all thought you dead."

"Not yet, My Lord. I find I still have cause to live."

The Queen gives her a stern look. She swallows and tamps down what she was about to say.

"As do we all." The Queen agrees. "So let us settle this. You have fought the Lannister threat well and deserve consideration."

"I deserve the throne." The girl, Lady Arya Stark, rolls her eyes. A Stark. He'd heard the tales, like everyone else. Wars waged, honorable men stabbed in the back.

"Well, you shall not have it. You may have a seat on the small council if you wish." She placates.

"No. No. I can't, I can't leave with nothing. You don't understand."

"It's not nothing. A seat on the council, a voice in public policy, an honorable title. It really is a great deal. I would take it if I were you." Tyrion comments as he takes another gulp of his wine, keen mismatched eyes never leaving Stannis.

"You're not me. I have honor. I don't have brothers and sisters who fuck. I didn't kill my own father in the privy."

"Pride you mean. I have both, as a matter of fact. And while I did kill my father, I daresay he deserved it. And I don't think I should be held accountable for what my siblings did. I wouldn't throw stones were I you Stannis, we've all heard the stories about your brother's untimely demise." Gendry looks over at Stannis for some kind of clue to what that means, Stannis just swallows and continues on.

"What about Dragonstone?"

"It is mine, however, you may keep Storm's End."

"And the North. It's so empty and cold; surely you with fire in your blood have no need for such a savage place. We could divide it, or…"

Arya stabs her knife violently into the table, skids her chair away from the edge and stands.

"You will never have the North. If you try I will kill you myself." The controlled rage next to him has him clutch the sides of his chair in reaction.

"I meant no offense, Lady. I loved your father, he was loyal to my brother, and he supported my claim."

"Yes, he did. And it's what got him killed. I support Daenarys as ruler in the South. But only the Starks may rule in the North."

"But there are no more Starks, only yourself. No woman can expect to rule by herself."

Ser Davos coughs pointedly.

"You think you can be king in the North? Queen Daenarys painted a heroic picture of your battles, but everyone knows you lost more than won. The Northerners will never accept you, not up there." Ser Berristan remarks.

"And a lone girl, even a fierce wolf girl, will not find it so easy to hold such wild territory either." He counters.

The Queen looks thoughtful.

"Danaerys, you're not actually considering this, are you? You promised." The girl looks worried, and its clear how very high the stakes are to her; life or death.

"I did. And I intend to keep that promise. But he has a point Arya. The North has grown even wilder in the past years without a firm hand to keep it in check. That is quite the task for any one person, man or woman."

"I can do it, it's my right, my duty." If sheer intent is all it takes, then yes, he believes her.

"And Lord Stannis, you want more territory, to better the Baratheon name, carve a wider legacy for your house." Stannis looks surprised she has put it that succinctly.

"Yes, that is all that I want. For the Baratheon line."

"It's settled then. We'll join the two houses. We can have the wedding tomorrow."

"What!?" Arya screeches. The Queen looks exasperated, Tyrion amused, Stannis shocked, and Ser Davos unsurprised. Gendry himself is unsure what is even happening.

"A Baratheon will serve as Steward in the North, and Arya will be… as a Lord. I'll write-up a contract, and all involved will sign it on the morrow."

"What!?" Squawks Stannis.

"You cannot do this, My Queen." Arya begs. And Gendry finds he also wants the Queen to reconsider. He doesn't like the thought of his uncle anywhere near this girl.

"Once upon a time, you made me a promise. Do you remember that? Do you?" Arya clenches her jaw and swallows loudly.

"Yes." She admits softly. She looks away from the Queen's gaze.

"And?" The Queen prompts. After no response she repeats. "And…"

"I agree." The words are painfully forced out her throat.

"You wish me to marry that insolent little pup? She might be fertile enough, but after one evening with her I can tell she'd make any man miserable." Stannis insists. Ser Davos sighs.

The Queen looks insulted and Arya smirks for an instant before frowning once more.

"There. See. He doesn't want me, so…"

"Actually, I was referring to your handsome young nephew there. Ser Gendry, was it?"

"Wait, what?" Gendry can only manage that much.

"It is my wish that you marry Lady Arya and unite houses Stark and Baratheon henceforth. What say you?"

Gendry looks around at the different faces, stopping only briefly on Arya who is somewhere between appalled and livid.

"But I… I'm… I'm not a Baratheon. I'm still a bastard."

"Perhaps I could legitimize you. If you prove yourself, if you obey." Stannis offers. He'd never made such an offer before, not in public, no chance to take it back. Ser Davos smiles at him in encouragement, excited in Gendry's stead.

A name. The thing he's wanted since before remembering. But at what price?

"And that's it? As far as you all are concerned, it's done? The matter in the North, settled?" Arya exclaims.

"It really is the best option Arya, surely even you see that. Else you would be throwing an even bigger tantrum now."

"I do not throw tantrums." She whines. Then looks over at Gendry, still seated. "And what about you. Don't you have anything to say? Say no, dam nit. Tell them how miserable I'll make you. Tell them being a damn lord isn't worth all the trouble." Grey eyes boring into him.

He freezes, completely unsure what to say. Any word out of his mouth could be considered offensive.

"Now Ser Gendry, you do have a choice. I certainly won't force you to do anything. Do you agree?"

"Of course he does. He will do as I say. Right?" Stannis looks expectantly at Gendry for an answer. "If you do not, there will be no surname, no land, no inheritance, nothing. Do you understand that, boy?"

The Queen scowls at Stannis, and turns a patient look back to the boy in question.

"No one here will force you, you must agree." The Queen is adamant. Arya pleads with her gaze, although for what he can't be sure.

"I… Yes, I agree." The words come out of their own accord. Most breathe sighs of relief, the Queen is pleased. And Arya storms out of the room in a huff.

Tyrion laughs.

"She's always doing that." And Lord Tyrion drinks the wine Lady Arya left behind in her cup.

Chapter Text

Gendry

Chapter 2: Coming to Terms

Gendry

He barely acknowledged them clearing his plates and goblet. He got to his feet less gracefully than he would have liked. Ser Davos looked concerned, and Gendry excused himself. The Queen agreed readily with a small amount of pity. He retreated to his quarters, not even remembering the journey. Mostly, he was in shock. He still needed to talk to Hot Pie, Lommy and the others. But he was too exhausted, too stunned. He took a quick piss in the chamber pot, stripped off his shirt, and fell on the bed. He wiggled his boots off, and fell asleep.

Hours later, a hand covering his mouth wakes him in the dead of night, and he gasps as he sits up abruptly. When his eyes open, it takes a few moments for the dark blurry surroundings to solidify. The first thing he sees is a petite girl, dark hair and grey eyes.

"For fucksakes!" He exclaims. She shushes him.

"You want everyone to hear?" She questions him in a whispered tone.

"What are you doing?! You can't be here." He says quieter. She rolls her eyes and stands up giving him the chance to steady himself. He can see she's wearing tight black leather pants and a fitted black tunic, her hair is hanging free and her feet are bare. The effect is potent. He wonders if he's actually awake.

"You need to tell them you changed your mind."

He rubs the sleep out of his eyes and messes with his black hair.

"I can't."

"Yes you can. Just tell them I'm unacceptable. That your sanity is more important than some title. The Queen won't mind."

"Well you ran out so quickly, perhaps you missed the part where Stannis threatened to disown me if I refuse. No name, no title, nothing. So, no, M'lady, I can't." He's still tired and a bit cranky.

"Oh." Her face falls.

"Why don't you do it? Since you're so insistent." She crosses her arms in front of her chest at this.

"I can't." He just raises an eyebrow at her.

"Oh?"

"I'm afraid it might start another war. And your stubborn uncle has a point. My family's position would be stronger with a political marriage. Even I know that."

"Why aren't you already married then?" She's lovely, if challenging. Surely there must have been plenty of men interested in her, or at least in Winterfell.

"Well, there have been a few offers, the Queen set up four in particular, but I turned them all down. She made me swear, the next one she picked, I'd say yes." She looks particularly annoyed, and Gendry finds it adorable. He has enough sense not to say it though.

"But surely she would reconsider, she doesn't really want the last Stark married to some bastard." He argues amiably.

"She doesn't care. And neither do I. My favorite brother was a bastard. That has nothing to do with it. I don't want to marry anyone, period." He is truly surprised to hear her say such a thing about bastards, and it makes him feel vulnerable in a way he hasn't in a long while, he doesn't say anything.

"Better than Stannis, I guess." She concedes. She eyes him curiously. He starts to feel nervous.

"Uh, M'lady, perhaps you should leave. You really shouldn't be here. People will talk."

She rolls her eyes again and sits on his bed. "Are you kidding? We're betrothed, they'll be thrilled." Wait, has she accepted their betrothal? "Besides…" And she pulls out a little knife, one he recognizes from the dining table downstairs.

"Uh." He backs up with his hands in the air and looks around guiltily, at what he isn't sure. She gets up again and puts the knife away.

"Okay. As long as we're stuck with each other, we might as well come to terms."

"Terms?"

"Yes. As in a treaty, an agreement." She explains with a hint of exasperation.

"I know what terms are. I'm just not sure what the hell you're on about." She grins at this.

"Compromise. I'll tell you right here and now what life with me will be like, and then you can tell me if it's still not worth Stannis' wrath." She crosses near the window, and the moon illuminates the side of her face, making her look delicately beautiful; only a trick of the night, he knows.

She takes a long time to say anything further, considering carefully no doubt. He believes in that instant she'd had no more plan than sneaking in.

"I don't cook and sew." She admits.

"What?"

"In fact, I don't do any of that girly stuff, I hate it. And I'm not any good at it."

"Me neither." He responds, amused despite himself.

"And I wear pants." He looks her up and down.

"I see that."

"And if I want to ride my horse, roll in the mud, go run with the dogs, or read battle histories, I will. Understand?" He is honestly baffled, this was honestly the last conversation he ever expected to be having in his life. Right after, you have King's blood.

"Uh, okay." She grunts in approval and pushes a strand of hair behind her ear. She also looks surprised at his agreement.

"Really?" She's skeptical. He nods.

"And what about you?" She asks.

"Actually, I quite like the pants, they suit you." He remarks. It's too dark, but he can almost picture her blushing.

"I meant, what do you want? It kind of goes both ways."

"Well I'm sure my uncle and the Queen are drawing up the papers…"

"Obviously, but that's between them. This is between us. If it's a real deal, we both have to get something we want, or it doesn't work." He's a little touched she's concerned with his needs. "This has to be a fair trade or else you won't be obligated to keep your end. Common sense really." Okay, not concern. Still…

"Help, I need help." She seems confused, and he smoothes the hair out of his eyes. "I'm supposed to be a lord. But I have no idea what I'm doing. I keep forgetting people's names and titles, sigils and courtesies. I know they're all laughing at me, but I don't want them to think me a fool. I need someone to help me." He wasn't looking at her eyes at first, but cautiously turns back towards her to see her reaction. She was considering once more before a small smile came across her face.

"I can do that." And he feels a large smile cross his face. She rolls her eyes again and then makes for the door.

"Thank you." He says too loudly. And then softer. "M'Lady."

"My Lady."

"I, yeah."

"No, you said M'Lady. Highborns say My Lady."

"Oh." He'd never even noticed before, it was so natural. "My Lady, then."

"Good. But don't call me that either."

"What? But you just said…"

"Call me Arya, we are going to be sharing a bed starting tomorrow." He is left speechless at that, his jaw hanging open as she leaves as quietly as she entered.

He was getting married tomorrow.

Author's Note: Next Chapter- The Wedding. Arya's perspective, I think. And no one will die, I don't think. There will be drunkenness. Any comments are helpful.

 

Chapter Text

 

wedding dress ideaChapter 3: A Royal Affair

Arya

 

After her talk with the boy, Gendry, she went atop the Keep, climbing past where the stone steps stopped. The fresh air calmed her down, though her feet were getting cold; she should have worn her boots. But she was stealthier without them, made less sound, and she wanted to be alone, to spend her last free moments high up, with the air on her face. She wasn't upset really, just pensive. Her last few hours as a free woman, and a Stark. The Queen had forced it upon her, and Stannis wanted it settled. Perhaps she wanted it settled too, no more waiting for the other shoe to drop. As the sun rose, she fell asleep.

She awoke hours later, not rested at all, all crooked from sleeping in a strange position. She climbed down to her room only to see frantic serving girls loudly conjecturing about Arya's whereabouts, panic evident on their faces.

"What's going on?" She asks, thinking there was an attack or some other emergency. They all sigh in relief in unison. They strip her and shove her into a lukewarm bath, scented with rose oils, and put a hair treatment clay on to set while she bathed. They laugh and giggle, making comments and asking questions. She just blocks them out, unable to be part of girly rituals on this day of all days. Let them talk, it meant nothing to her. She even heard one girl jibe about how big Gendry was, and how she bet he was big everywhere. Arya chose that time to officially tune them out and pretend they did not exist.

The Queen entered then, wearing a regal blue dress emblazoned with brass vine details, followed by a servant carrying an exquisite dress. She thought about her mother, and what she would have wanted. What she would have been doing. She wished very much she were here, to tell her what to do, what was expected of her. But that time was done, and she would never get to share things with her the way she'd always wanted to.

Daenerys must have anticipated this, because she didn't even scold Arya for disappearing.

"I had this dress made for you, well, I had a dress I already owned embellished, and it is perfect." It was beautiful, white and flowing, tight at the bust with long tapered sleeves, taken in at the waist with boning, it then hung down silkily. They put on a new undershirt, an extra underwire, and then another layer. She had intended to put up a fight, but Daenerys brought a fine bottle of Arbor Gold with her. The ladies insisted it would be easier to do her hair and makeup without staining the dress. The Queen took a strand of her newly brushed hair, ands spoke to fill the silence, obviously quite excited.

"You really will be so lovely, well, you're always lovely, but you will rival Lyanna Stark herself tonight. No eye will be able to stray from you." Daenerys was clearly vicariously enjoying the event in Arya's stead.

The look of horror must have shown on Arya's face, because she poured her more wine.

"I too was pushed into marriage. I was… frightened."

"I'm not afraid. That's not it." She insists. The Queen gives her shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

"Well, I was. And it's okay if you are. But I grew to truly love him. Really, I did." Seeing her so polished, silver blonde hair in place, sitting confidently; it's hard to imagine the delicate Queen ever frightened.

"My parents too. They were forced to marry out of duty and for politics."

"And they grew to love each other?"

"Yes. But…" Daenerys takes Arya's hand in her own in solidarity.

"But what?"

"It didn't end well for them, did it?" The women had begun separating out her hair and tying it into intricate braids, interweaving silver hairpieces in a few places.

"It's over now. We're at peace now, and some of that is due to you. The people can't take any more bloodshed, and this arrangement appeases everyone. You're very brave Arya, I want you to know I see that." She's touched by her sincere words.

"You are as well, My Queen." They share a warm smile, but all too soon The Queen must attend to other pressing wedding arrangements and rises gracefully, smoothing out the folds of her cerulean dress. She motions her attendant forward, taking from her a scroll, and then handing it to Arya.

"By the way, here is the contract, you'll need to sign it, and Ser Gendry will do the same. When you can." Arya looked at it once the Queen left. She finished her glass of wine, and began to read it once.

"What!?"

Then read it again.

"What?! No, No. Hell no!" And with that she stormed out of the room, down the hall, and into Stannis' room in her shift and underwire, ready to tell him where to stick it.

"What in the Seven Hells is this?" She asks rhetorically as she throws the paper in front of him. He doesn't act taken aback, he is somewhat used to her manner by now.

"The contract, you will sign it."

"What is this? You promised men to help keep order in the North and rebuild Winterfell."

"Yes, it says right there, 500 men."

"It says, '500 men to serve in the North, to be paid upon the successful birth of a Baratheon heir.' How dare you renege on our deal."

"I haven't. I will give them to you. But the boy is the only Baratheon left, my only daughter cannot reproduce, and Renly had no children. I need many heirs to continue the Baratheon line. And you as well, you need more wolves, am I right? New pups to replace the ones lost from your pack."

"I, of course. But this is wrong and you know it." She is flustered and reconsiders her position. "I want half now." He seems to be pleased with her negotiations.

"You can have some now." He pauses overly long. "And, when I return to Storm's End in a few months to check in, I will bring you more."

"Check in? Is that some kind of joke? Check what? How many months?"

"The boy. You've seen him. He may have my brother's blood, but he's still a bastard, he doesn't know any better. Your little Queen had to convince me quite thoroughly that he could be taught. But that means you have to train him, make him presentable."

"The rest of the men? All of them? You'll give them to me? Baby or no?" She clarifies.

"Yes, but the boy will have to pass my inspection. Do you think you can manage? Am I asking too much?" She shakes her head in the negative. "Do we have a deal, then?"

She signs the damn paper. He nods his agreement.

"Good. Is that what you're wearing?" Motioning to her shift and intricate boning. She keeps her silence, simply turning to exit, but not before picking up a fine bottle of port sitting on a desk. She's pretty proud of herself for how agreeable she is being.

Arya heads back to her room to have her make-up applied and to put on the final layer to her gown. As they put silver liquid on her lids to match the rest of the metal adorned throughout the ensemble, and blush on her cheeks, she keeps at the surprisingly potent wine.

A broodmare, a schoolteacher, a wife, a mother, a dutiful daughter, a lady and a lord. For fucksakes.

They showed her herself in the mirror, her reflection some lovely, evil twin. Or maybe, the one in the glass was the good twin. The one trapped somewhere while this darker, emptier Arya pulled her strings. She couldn't know. She would have to play a lady today to get through it, that was that.

One of the girls had a tear in her eye as she applied the berry lip stain. She had insisted on sensible boots, hidden by the layers of the dress, but still found her steps unsure. The wine, and then the stronger port, made her footing uncertain. She did manage it though. She heard the music, and walked onward, Tyrion came out to give her away. He gave her a gentle reassuring squeeze. How was it he'd become such a good friend? She might have broken down then, in the missing of her father, praying to the Gods that he understood what she had done, that he approved of her choices, were it not for Tyrion.

That was one positive about having a binding in the Red Keep, the marriage would be officiated by the Sept of the Seven, the New Gods. This marriage, while official, didn't really count. Not as far as she was concerned. Her father followed the Old Gods, and so did she. If she could never find it in her to love Gendry, if she never learned to stomach him, at least it wasn't forever. Maybe she'd be stuck the rest of her life, or his, but not in the afterlife. She could do this.

As she passed all the curious onlookers, most she'd never seen before, she tried hard to keep her gaze forward. She saw Gendry, standing beside his uncle and Ser Davos, looking so nervous she thought he might faint. He looked nice, dressed up in Baratheon colors, combed and groomed. Maybe he'd had the same treatment. He just stared at her as she walked closer, as if in a trance. She wasn't really nervous at all, she felt very pleasantly numb. As Tyrion handed her off to Gendry, she stumbled a bit but her husband to be kept her upright.

"You look nice." She told him, thinking that was already a very nice wifely thing she was doing by being complimentary. It was probably a good idea to practice now, she really wasn't good at shit like that. And she didn't mind saying it, it was true.

He looked about to say something, but the High Septon came in and began the proceedings, asking all to rise then sit again.

The whole thing was a bit of a blur, repeating oaths and exchanging cloaks. She did it all, a sour taste on her tongue, and hoped no one could tell how much she'd had to drink. At the end they said the words together, in sync, "Father. Mother. Maiden. Crone. Warrior. Smith. Stranger." Almost a magic spell. And just like that, the words are said and cannot be unsaid.

She looks up at him then, really looks, and he looks back, just as hard. This is him. Almost done, one final piece to complete the ritual, the official binding- she grabs his face and kisses him. She isn't sure how long it lasts, she isn't really conscious of time; the present or the future, but she feels as if she's done this before. When air becomes an issue she pulls away. The world comes back, and she hears cheering and shouting; blessings, songs, and laughter. She feels immediately self-conscious and makes to escape, Gendry lays his palm on her shoulder and follows her out, and she is reminded that there is no escape, not from the long night ahead.

Author's Note: Next scene includes the bedding, it will not be puppies and kittens. They can't just fall in love right away and all will be perfect. Angsty, right? Please review.

 

Chapter Text

ShiftAuthor's Note: As I mentioned, this is angsty, I believe all fluff must be earned. Enjoy.

Royal Wedding & Bedding

Arya

In the next room are a banquet, intricate table settings, and wall hangings. Everyone files in, and Gendry and Arya take their places at the head table beside the Dragon Queen and Stannis. She sees Gendry look longingly at a table towards the back, filled with shabbily dressed men, but he doesn't go to them. When the woman comes around with spiced wine, she sticks her cup out greedily. She feels her new husband staring at her.

"What?" She questions him.

"Nothing." He says. Looking away.

"I don't think you've had enough. Here." She tries to push her cup in his face, but he pushes it away.

"No thank you, My La" He stops himself at her annoyed look. "Arya." He does laugh a little at her behavior and the look on her face.

"Alright then." He can be stupid if he wants. She finishes off the cup.

"I was just gonna say. You look, very beautiful." His voice catches at the end, and she thinks he must be sincere, but she can't look at him.

"Thank you." She frowns a bit at her empty goblet. She places her cup down to flag down a passing cupbearer. They're all occupied and she turns around in defeat. She takes Gendry's cup and finds it full, she gulps some down without tasting it. They were meant to share everything now, after all. But it's only water. She drinks it anyways, and it is refreshing.

The Queen makes a toast, and everyone cheers. Lord Tyrion asks her for a dance, and she happily accepts. He twirls her round, she has to stoop a bit, but she finds herself enjoying the spinning immensely. As she starts to feel dizzy, Tyrion slows down.

"Quite alright, My Lady Arya? You seem a bit out of it."

"Just a bit dizzy."

"I meant other than the dancing."

"Why would anything be wrong?" She asks sarcastically.

"Oh, Arya, so dramatic." She holds out her arms to let him do a spin, and he does it with a low chuckle.

"He's not so bad, is he? Maybe a bit simple in the head, but he seems nice enough."

"That's enough, Tyrion." She will need to defend him, the other highborns will eat him alive.

"I only meant, he'll be kind to you. And he'll let you make all the decisions. You will always wear the proverbial pants, as it were. I know you'll love that. What more could you ask for, really?"

"Well said. What more indeed?" She takes a sip from the goblet Tyrion had managed to keep throughout the dance.

"Well... Tell me then. What more?"

"I want. I want. I don't know. I know I don't want to keep losing things. I don't want to give up my name. Not after all this, not after everything."

"You'll always be a Stark, no question. It is who you are. No vows can change that. Wild as the wolf. Honorable like your father, but not overly burdened with unnecessary loyalty. You will survive, keep your family line alive, and fortify the North until it thrives once more. No one can ever claim you have not done your family proud." And she did feel better at that.

Lord Stannis was next, it was a stiff dance, which she hobbled through. She looked over to see Gendry dancing with Daenerys, concentration on his face as he completed the steps adequately. Stannis looked on and commented. "All the paperwork is signed, now you must simply fulfill your part of the bargain. And it's official."

"I don't need any lectures on duty on my wedding night. I have Tully blood too, after all."

"That wasn't my intent. I am only trying to say, I'm pleased with the agreement. Our houses were always meant to be joined, and now it is so. I have faith you will keep up your end of the deal. You are a stubborn little thing." It occurs to her to be offended, but chooses rather to take it for the compliment it was meant to be. She thanks him and excuses herself for some fresh air, making her way to a balcony, desperate for some air and some space.

There the Red Woman finds her, seeks Arya out, far from the eyes of the court.

"Congratulations, Lady Stark. Or should I say, Lady Baratheon." The woman near purrs.

Arya studies her closely, as one would a flawless ruby with infinite facets. She finds her beautiful, of course, red red hair, soft skin, a confidence the likes of which she'd never seen. She knows perfectly well the reference to her new title was meant to unsettle her.

"As you like. And what shall I call you?"

"Melisandre, of course. I'm no Lady, and no family name." Her eyes flash for an instant, in amusement or warning she can't quite tell.

"They call you The Red Woman, they say you're a witch." Melisandre titters at that.

"No witch, merely a priestess. I serve The Lord of Light, he works his will through me." A fanatic, she trusted their kind not at all.

"Well perhaps you can serve him somewhere else. I'd rather be alone just now." She turns away from her, pointedly facing the edge of the balcony. She sees the woman smile from the corner of her eye, and she steps forward until she is right beside Arya's ear.

The Woman whispers.

"You Will Never Bear a Stag." And then passes on, soft confident steps fading as she takes her leave, mission accomplished. Arya is confused, stunned by the confrontation. Either the drink or the cool night air have sapped her wits. She has no reaction, she hasn't even fully comprehended her words. Daenerys had allowed the Red Woman on Stannis' insistence, but wasn't happy about it. Arya, for her part, didn't trust the woman, or her words. Another drink acquired from Ser Berristan, and the ominous warning is out of her mind.

By the end of the night, Arya had danced with Ser Davos, Ser Berristan, and every other knight and lord in attendance, except of course her own Lord Husband.

She was stuffing garlic butter shrimp with creamy pepper sauce into her mouth when someone shouted that it was time for the bedding ceremony. Without hesitation she grabbed a sharp fork from the appetizer table and pushed it up her sleeve, prong side out, she was ready. When some of the jeering men began to rip at her clothes, she stabbed at them with her fork, making them back up in shocked anger. She made it to her room with only a few tears in her dress, and Gendry was nowhere to be found. She had time to prepare, have the upper hand. She skillfully removed the layers of her clothes until she was at her bottom shift and poured herself more wine. She was still hungry, hadn't eaten all day, and she wished she had brought some of the shrimps with her or perhaps some lemon cakes.

Gendry stumbled in shortly after, closing the door, rather cute in his small clothes. He had no shirt, and she noticed he was tall, muscled, and strong. Big though, and she remembered what the girls said as they were conditioning her hair.

She placed the sharp fork on the table and poured him a glass, she held out the cup for him to take, yet he still refused.

"Worried I'll poison you? You haven't taken a drink from me all night."She hears him swallow.

"No. I just don't drink."

"Really? Why not?"

"I just. I don't. My father did, but not me." Hmm, she thought. He poured some water for himself from a pitcher and offered her some. She declined obstinately.

"We don't have to do this. I mean, not right now. I don't mind really…" He started to try to appease her.

"Well, I do. Come the morning they're going to check to make sure we consummated our marriage. It's not official until they find blood on the sheets. I'd rather just get it over with, I mean, if it's all the same to you." She puts the glass down and moves towards him, her shift rising up a little on her thighs and drooping off one shoulder, she sees his gaze wandering between her chest and her face.

"You're drunk." He points out.

"Yes, very, and I have been all day. What difference does that make?" She snaps.

"I just don't think you want…"

"Maybe you don't want. Am I not to your taste?" She feels hurt for a second. She glances downward and notices a tenting in his pants.

"No, no. It's not that. Definitely not that." He does look at her then, and she moves her gaze back up to his eyes.

"Alright then. There are no more reasons not to." She sighs with impatience then stands on her tiptoes to kiss him, only succeeding in bumping her eye on his chin.

"Ouch." She says, rubbing the area.

"You alright? Sorry. You okay?" He's laughing at her under his breath. She wants to take back control of things, it's what she always does.

"Fine. Fine." She reassures him. "I've had worse."

He blows out a rush of air.

"It's too bad you don't drink, you could use it. You're making me nervous." She comments.

"Sorry."

"And stop apologizing. What exactly are you sorry for?"

"I don't know. You seem so angry at me. Obviously I'm doing something to upset you."

"Haha. That's cute. If I was angry at you, you would know it."

"Oh, good." Sarcasm, cute.

"But if I was angry, it'd be because you're always apologizing for everything. And because you never say or ask what you really want to."

"Ask what, My La… Arya?"

"Well. For one. Surely you've heard the talk?" She gestures to herself.

"What talk?"

"Your uncle insisted on an examination to check that I was, 'intact.'" She makes quotation marks with her fingers. He makes a horrified face. "He only relented when Daenerys insisted it was barbaric. But now there's more talk than ever, you see. Is she or isn't she? You really haven't heard the gossip?" She takes another mouthful of wine.

"I don't listen to that nonsense." His ears are red.

"Well you should. Most of it is bullshit, but a few tiny kernels are true. It's good practice deciphering lies from truth. That's a lordly tip for you. Remember that."

"I will." He drinks water from the pitcher.

"Go ahead. Ask." He pours the water into a basin on a cherry wood side table.

"What?" He submerges his hands in the basin to get his hands wet.

"I know you want to." Then he runs his fingers through his hair, making the ends hang heavier.

"I just assumed... But it's none of my business." He dries off a bit with a little towel that was folded neatly next to the pitcher.

"Hah. Well it's more your concern than anyone else's. But if you don't care…."

He chooses not to answer, so obviously uncomfortable.

"And you?" Strangely, she's curious all of a sudden.

"Me? Well I. I. Yes, I have…" He tries to fold the little towel up as it was before, but it's not right, he doesn't know what to do with it.

"Figures. Men can do whatever they like, and women get inspected." Well, Stannis meant to inspect Gendry himself in a few months time, but that was a different kind of examination, and she would make sure he wasn't aware of it. He obviously wasn't great under pressure, it would be up to her. Nothing new.

Arya feels just drunk enough and proceeds to take the cloth from his hand, throw it on the floor, and pull him towards the bed. Her in her shift, and him in the tiny small clothes that men wore to protect their jewels, she kisses him, sloppily, and it was like how it was in the Sept, nothing else. He is so nervous, more than her, and she just wants it to be over. He kisses her back, she's sure of that. But the rest is a bit fuzzy.

She does remember pushing his small clothes down and pulling him towards her, and the pain as he pushed into her. Her mother had warned her how much it would hurt, or more, tried to warn her off it. A sword and a sheath. Maybe she'd only been trying to scare her into protecting her virtue, but what Arya had been expecting was completely different than the reality. He did pause, straining himself to keep still. She unclenched her bottom lip from her teeth and told him to "go on." It was quick, and uncomfortable the whole time. He had his eyes shut above her, and rolled off when he was done.

She looks at him more closely, his sweaty brow, and slick chest, his blue eyes flick over to her. "You okay?"

"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be." Bluntness is her default.

"I'm sorry about, I didn't mean to…" He trails off. She recognizes he's embarrassed, and she almost feels bad for him too.

"It's fine. I'm tired." She blows out the candle near her side. "Goodnight."

She turns over, her back to him and pulls the covers up to her chin.

"Goodnight Arya."

She feels his gaze on her back for a long time, but after many awkward minutes that feel more like hours, he lays back and falls asleep. She moves around a bit to get comfortable and feels the wet spot on the sheets from her maidenhead. She becomes acutely aware of the stickiness between her legs, the pounding in her head, and the dryness in her throat. She takes one more look at him, serene, too sweet for his own good, and suddenly she can't breathe. She has to get out. She slips out of bed, careful not to disturb the mattress or the covers or him. Padding on her bare feet she pulls the dress around her shoulders, not bothering with ties or fastenings, all covered. With the cloth from the floor she wipes between her legs, harder than she should and feels the soreness that she knows will linger for some time. Not knowing what to do with the cloth either, she balls it up in her fist, taking it with her. She creeps out of the room and makes it back to her own quarters unseen.

In the sanctuary of her room she feels only slightly more herself, and realizes she needs to get home. Immediately. This instant. It is the only way to be herself again. She would ready her things, and they could be gone from this horrible place with its terrible memories once and for all. And then she did breathe easier.

Author's Note: Next- Meeting the companions, setting out on the road, breakdowns and new connections.

Chapter Text

GendryA Rocky Start

Gendry

 

 

 

He awoke to a serving girl lifting up the covers and exposing him to the cool early morning air.

"Milord." The girl gasped. "I'm sorry, I thought you were already about." She had strawberry blonde hair beneath a white cap, and she had nice brown eyes. No one had called him Milord before, not being serious. It felt wrong.

"It's fine. Have you seen, my wife?" That didn't sound real coming out of his mouth either.

"I saw her down in the hall at breakfast."

He thanked her, pulled his smallclothes up, and hopped out of bed, he needed her to leave so he could use the chamber pot. She pulled up the sheets, and he saw the bright red stain, the blood Arya had been so concerned with, blooming like a poppy on the crisp white sheets. He wouldn't call himself a war hero, but he had seen a fair amount of battles under Stannis, and the Brotherhood, Harrenhall, and the road before that, so much blood and death. The amount of blood there on the sheets, it wasn't fatal, he knew that much, but it could have been from a deep wound. The maid looked startled, gave him a side-eye, and then went back to stripping the sheets. Fuck. As if he didn't feel guilty enough. After she left he peed and got dressed quickly. He made it down to the dining hall, only to be told his lady wife had gone to the stables. At the stables, they said she had gone to the laundry. There he ran into the same blonde girl from earlier, she was gossiping loudly with another, and he overheard her say how slowly Arya had sat down at the table that morning.

"Well, he's near a giant that one, most like split her near in half." And they giggled a bit before noticing him there, then turning bright red. He directed his question to the one he hadn't met.

"Have you seen Arya?"

"Lady Baratheon? Yes, Milord, she went to the kitchens, I think." She stuttered out the last bit.

"Thank you." He bit out.

When the kitchen girl told him she was out in the yard, he was beginning to suspect that Arya was avoiding him, and it gave him a deep churning in his stomach.

He had been so nervous last night, and had done everything wrong. He didn't have much experience, only one other woman, if that even really counted. He'd come close with Jeyne, but not... He was certain he hadn't done right where his wife was concerned. He could imagine what his friends might say, endlessly teasing him for performing so poorly. And despite it all, he had enjoyed it, enjoyed her. He really did want to see her, make sure she was all right. He was worried, even more so because he saw firsthand how ridiculously stubborn she was. More so than himself, and he had been nicknamed The Bull by his master, Tobo Mott. If there was something wrong, there was no way she'd ever tell him about it.

He made it out to the yard, where much of the camp was settled. The Queen, Lord Tyrion, and Ser Davos were about. There she was, in dark pants and a tunic, belted at the waist, talking to the Dragon Queen, who for her part looked frustrated.

"Arya, please wait, perhaps you should wait another day. I would prefer to say goodbye properly." She was tightening the straps on some of the supply bags, making sure they sat right on one of the horses.

"Whether we do it now or over the course of a week, the goodbye won't make it any easier."

Ser Davos motions him over, he starts over and loses the rest of the conversation between the two small women.

Ser Davos greets him with a clap on the back.

"Alright boy?" He asks with a grin. "You've got a stupefied way about you this morning."

"Fine. Looks like I'm leaving. Now." He gives a humorless laugh.

"Aye, you've got a long road ahead." He coughs, uncomfortable.

"Well I guess this is goodbye then, Ser Davos. Thank you for everything."

"Nah. No thanks necessary. Truly. You're a good lad. And I'll be seeing you in Storm's End in a few months time."

"A few months. But it's like you said. I'm a lad. Not a lord. Ser Davos, what if I can't do this?"

"Now you listen to me. You earned this. It's in your blood and it's in the blood you spilt to get here. You've always been Gendry Baratheon, only now everybody knows it. You'll do fine. And you've got the girl to help you. I'll miss you, though."

"And you." He will, Ser Davos had been a great friend and role model. "What about my uncle?"

"He's, talking with that woman. She said there was an emergency in the fire."

"Ah, of course." He is disappointed, despite himself.

"Never you mind. It's a fresh start, aye?"

"Aye. Good bye Ser Davos." And Gendry makes to shake his hand, but Ser Davos takes him into a hug. Ser Davos is no lord, but he's the best man Gendry has ever known. Ser Davos takes his leave and Gendry is unsure what to do with himself. He ends up standing around like an idiot.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees The Queen place her hand atop an ornate trunk, but he has no idea what's in it. Arya nods her head, but reacts in slow motion, watching emotionlessly as it's added to the rest of the baggage carried by the litter. There will be a few men transporting and guarding the bulk supplies they are taking with them up North. It includes bare necessities with a few precious stones hidden low, just in case. Of course the more personal effects will be kept in their own saddlebags. He thinks about going to Arya but can't figure out what to say to her, so he joins his friends as he catches their shapes out of the corner of his eye.

Tom and Anguy came with him from the Brotherhood, they followed him rather than follow her bidding. They all wanted away from the unnatural ghost leading the men, but it was only the musician and the archer who had left with him. Hot Pie, the baker, and Lommy, the dyer, had been with him since travelling with the Night's Watch and through Harrenhall.

He's not completely sure why they volunteered to come with him up North, instead of staying with the rest of Stannis' men in the warm capital, especially after the distance between them and himself, but he's grateful. He knows better than anyone how dangerous the King's Road can be, even now that the war was mostly done. Especially with Arya in tow, she seemed to be the least cautious person in the Seven Kingdoms. And they both still had enemies, she seemed keen to remind everyone at every opportunity. They would all meet today, his old world and his new one. At the wedding feast, his friends had come, but were seated out of the way. He looked on with envy as they ate and drank and talked and laughed. But all the way across the room had felt like a thousand leagues.

Gendry had wanted to talk to them, to be himself, not Lord Baratheon, even for a moment. And for their part, they seemed to understand the reality of their new roles, no one was mad at him, but he felt guilty all the same; and they were more distant around him. He was determined to remind them they were all still his brothers, no matter what his title was. He just had no idea how he was going to do that and impress his new wife as well. With the haste with which she was moving about, he suspected she would much rather be making this trip without him.

"I've made my choice Dany, please accept it." Arya insisted.

"As you say, I suppose I really can't reason with you." The Queen admitted. She is wearing another flowy robe, this one striped like a zebra, one of the animals from across the sea.

"Of course not, you should know that by now." But she was smiling.

"I don't know what I'll do without you. No one here knows me." Arya puts her hand on the Queen's arm and squeezes affectionately. The Queen's eyes are a bit moist, but she does not cry.

"I will miss you, as a sister. And know that as long as a Stark holds the North, you will be welcome. Someone there knows you."

"Thank you. I would be honored to visit your home, you've made it sound so magical."

"It is magic, Khaleesi, the Old Ways still live on. I look forward to showing the Mother of Dragons the wildness of my homeland." They are almost teasing with their formalities.

"Then I shall. And until then, care for yourself, sister." They share smiles and a brief hug.

"Ah, My Lady Arya, we shall all die of boredom here without your irreplaceable presence. I personally will cry myself to sleep every night." Tyrion exaggerates, but the fond look on his face belies his jesting.

"Somehow I very much doubt that. But I will miss you, Half Man. I hope very much our paths cross again."

"Oh, we will see each other again My Lady. I shall make sure of it." She stoops down then and hugs him, and a few of the men snigger at the sight. The Knight bows to her and then rights himself, she accepts his bow with grace.

"She really is a lady. You can't tell so well from the pants. But she's got noble blood, for sure." Anguy comments.

"I bet she'll like my sour cherry pie. Highborns love it." Hot Pie adds.

"She's gonna give you a rough time Gendry, make no mistake." Tom laughs.

Lommy is strangely silent. Normally he makes clever remarks and jokes around. But ever since he'd started following Stannis, Lommy had been vocal about his base complaints. And since the betrothal of his best friend, he wasn't speaking to Gendry at all. But he was still coming with him. So there was that.

He looked over to Arya to see what she was doing only to find her looking in his direction as well, before busying herself with the saddlebags. He decides to just get it over with, and makes his way over to her.

"Arya…" He starts. She freezes but doesn't turn around.

"Good morning." It's nearly noon, now that he'd spent the morning running after her, and the last hour just watching her from across the yard, but doesn't comment. She goes back to checking the bags. He notices one of the silver hairpieces still stuck in her hair, hanging by a single strand of hair loose from her braid. He walks up behind her and she slows her work. He reaches out to pluck the silver from her hair and she flinches away from him.

"Sorry." She says, still not looking at him.

He reaches out again, and though she might have wanted to, she doesn't move away this time. He takes the piece of jewelry from her hair and holds it up before her face to show her. She thanks him before going to inspect the other horses. He puts the little metal thing in a pocket, before checking that his own horse was properly saddled.

"Arya. Maybe we should wait a while yet, just 'til tomorrow even." The idea of riding today, of starting the journey; he had no idea what to do with her.

"We leave now, immediately." With that she swings up onto the saddle, and visibly grimaces as she does, swallowing painfully. He knows it hurts her, but she won't admit it. She trots over to the men to check their progress, and deems them ready. He gets onto his own horse, much less gracefully than his lady wife, and signals for his four companions to join them. She notices them now, and rides back over.

"Why aren't these men with the others? Do you know how to follow simple instructions?"

"Lady Arya, these are my friends. Lommy, Hot Pie, Anguy, and Tom. We've known each other a long time. They're coming with us up the road, at least as far as The Fork." He says.

"My Lady." They intone, though in Hot Pie's case it comes out mulidee.

"Which one is which?"

"This is Tom and Anguy, members of the Brotherhood Without Banners." Tom bows theatrically, and he looks ridiculous. But Anguy surprises him.

"Aye, Milady. I was in the Brotherhood, and 'afore that, I served Riverrun. The Blackfish. I'm glad to see Tully blood live on."

"Well met Anguy, I'm glad to have my grandfather's bannerman at my back." Anguy sits up straighter at that, pride evident.

"And this is Hot Pie."

"You're a soldier?" She is skeptical. Tom lets out a loud chortle before he can stop it.

"And this is Lommy. My oldest friend. We grew up together." Lommy looks up with his brown eyes, gives a slight bow from his horse, but says nothing.

"It's nice to meet you as well, Lommy."

"Ser." He corrects her.

"Apologies, Ser Lommy." That does sound off.

"And this is my wife, Lady Arya." He will never get used to calling her that. She nods.

"We'll keep a fast pace, you want to come along I expect you all to keep up." And she urges her horse forward.

They are stunned for a moment, but quickly follow her to the gate. The 20 Stannis soldiers follow at a crawl behind them, keeping a much slower pace. Gendry thinks right then and there, that this will be a torturous trip.

Chapter Text

Rough Riding

Gendry

They had been riding for hours upon hours. The entourage with the bulk of their belongings was far behind them. The men and himself had tried suggesting a lunch break, a rest break, a chance to water their horses and take a piss more than once, but she kept refusing, kept insisting. They needed to continue on, she said. No stops, no resting. All small talk he had attempted to start with her was met with silence or clipped responses, obviously having no patience for chatter. They ate dried fruits and sipped water from their skins as they rode. When one had to take a piss, they stopped, wandered off into the bushes, while the rest kept going. The man would have to trot his horse to catch up. In short, the journey was proving to be exactly as he had predicted, Hellish.

As the sky grew colder, and more of the men began to complain, Gendry had had enough.

He rode up next to her, she didn't slow or even acknowledge him.

"Arya, we need to stop soon." She sighed.

"It's not even dark yet."

"What about the horses? We can't keep them going like this all the way to Winterfell. You know that. They need rest, water, and food. The men too, we've been going all day, non stop, we need a break."

"Oh, I see, the horses need a break. Really, they need a break? Or the men don't want to admit to being tired? If they're not willing to be outridden by a woman, too bad. We just need to keep going." She sat up straighter.

"Their humans Arya. And so am I. It's okay if you are too. You don't have to make everything a fight." She did look at him then, chest heaving, eyes glaring, beautiful.

"Just a little bit further. That's all." He tries to grab her reins but she blocks his hands with her wrist, maneuvering away. He speeds up and cuts off her horse with his.

"Arya! Arya stop it. Stop." Her eyes are furious.

"How dare you try to take control of my horse. That's a great offense up North. It could earn you a few lashes and a day in the stocks."

"You're not funny. We're stopping now, that's it, and I won't hear another word about it."

"Oh, you're telling me what to do now?" The hint of disbelief in her voice gives it a manic quality.

"I'm telling you when you're being stupid, and acting like a spoiled child. So yeah." She makes no attempt to move her horse, both in a stand still, Arya's horse chewing on grass underfoot.

"Not even North yet and you're already the lord of me, eh? Good for you, starting to talk like a lord, act like one. Remember this Gendry Baratheon, I'm the Warden of the North; you don't give me orders." And with that she jumps off of her horse and heads straight for the trees, off the path and into the woods.

"For fucksakes!" He mutters as he dismounts his horse and follows after her. He signals the men to stay there and take a break; they are happy to oblige. They sigh in relief as Gendry goes deeper into the woods following her trail.

When he finds her she is leaning against a tree, forehead pressed against the bark, her fingers digging into the grooves of the wood. She looks as though she's trying to tear out the healthy bark with the strength of her fingertips alone, more likely to break her fingers than the tree, muttering all the while between shallow gasping breaths.

"Arya…" At once he feels guilty for intruding on her. She turns her head and seeing him, whines low in her throat.

"Why can't you go? Just go away." She turns her head back around.

"No. I'm worried about you."

"Well I don't need you. I don't need anybody. What I do need is five fucking minutes to myself, without you hanging around, looking at me like some kicked puppy. I just can't do it right now. Go away."

"Kicked puppy? Kicked puppy? If I'm kicked, it's cause you keep kicking me. What did I do to you? You're so angry, and I don't know what I did. You want to take it out on me, fine, but do not take it out on the men. Do you understand me, Arya?" She steps away from the tree and nods.

"You're right. Would you please apologize to them, for me?" She gave in far too easily.

"I think you should tell them yourself."

"You're right. And I will. Just. Just give me a minute." She circles around to the other side of the tree, out of sight. He rubs his face out of weariness.

"Fine." He goes around the tree only to watch her circle back to the front again. "I'll go." He follows her back around. "I will go. Just tell me what it is about me that offends you. I know it's not 'cause I'm a bastard. I know about your brother. What then? Tell me what wrong I did you, and I will go." He tries to get her to look at him but she won't.

"You haven't done anything. You didn't do anything."

"Well. I know that. But you're acting like…"

"A spoiled brat. You said that already."

"I shouldn't have said that." She looks at him then.

"Why not? You're right. I'm being horrible, and I know I am, but I can't seem to stop. And you're just so damn nice and understanding. I keep treating you like shit and you just keep taking it. It's driving me nuts. Be angry. Yell at me, scream." She inhales loudly through her nostrils.

"I'm not that nice. It's just hard to get me angry. And I don't wanna fight. I only want to talk. Tell me what's wrong, and maybe I can help." Her lip starts to tremble. Oh no.

"Arya no, please don't cry."

"I don't cry." She insists. At the look on her face, he is reminded of a spooked pony, horseshoe splintered into the hoof, panicking and pounding the slivers farther in.

"I don't want to make you miserable, Arya. That's the last thing I want." She sniffles once, twice.

"It's not you. It's them. You don't understand, you can't."

"Explain it to me." He rubs his hand over his eyes.

"Please just go." And just like that she's turning from him again.

"Okay, I am angry. You've officially made me angry. There."

"Good. Be angry. I was getting ready to slap some sense into you. Just go along with whatever they say. Do whatever they want. Yes Milord, no Milord. It's pathetic."

"I knew it! I knew you thought that."

"Yeah. I do. This is all crazy, ludicrous, preposterous." Why can't she use real words? "And you're acting like it's fucking normal. What the Hell is wrong with you?"

"Just 'cause I'm not yelling, crying, and throwing tantrums doesn't mean I'm not having a terrible time by the way, thank you very much for that." He throws his hands up in the air for emphasis.

"I don't cry." She growls. And she hadn't, yet. She seemed to be holding them back with sheer force of will.

"You are such a pain in my ass."

"You're one to talk. I'm still sore from last night." At that, he instantly feels guilty.

"Shit. I'm sorry. I wasn't thinkin', I..."

"No. I shouldn't have said that. I didn't mean it."

"Last night…"

"No. It's not about that. I told you this isn't about you. Okay. Please, get over yourself." He's not sure whether to be relieved or angry again.

"What then?"

"It's just, it's just one more thing. That's all it is. I have to remember that."

"One more what?"

"One more hurt. One more lesson. I promised I would do anything to get my home back. Anything. And I have. I have killed. And I've been shamed. I've been hungry and cold. I'm closer, but still so fucking far. I don't even know what I'll find when I get there. But I do know it'll be empty." Tears are falling down her cheeks. "Dead, all dead." She looks so haunted and small. "And now when I go back, I won't even be a Stark. I'll be a Baratheon. A wife. A lady." She spits out the word. And cries for real. She keeps talking through the tears, though it's hard to understand. "I'll be some stranger. That girl, sister, daughter. That girl, really is dead. They even made me give up my name." She hits the tree, hard.

"Arya, don't."

She hits it again, same hand, same knuckles, harder.

"I don't even have anything left to give up, to trade, to destroy."

"Stop, you're gonna…"

"There are no Weirwood trees this far south. You Southerners don't worship the Old Gods anymore because they require too much sacrifice. And there's always blood. The Gods demand blood." She forms a fist to punch the tree again but Gendry holds onto her wrist. She tries to jerk out of it, but he keeps the arm still, using his strength alone. She looks up at him with red watery eyes, cheeks moist.

"Let go." She sniffles.

"No. " She keeps wriggling, only to shove him hard in the chest and jump away. He grabs her again and wraps his arms around her, pressing her back into him.

"Stop." She stops struggling and cries in earnest. He turns her around so she's facing him and gathers her close to his chest. The crying goes on a long time; she curses until her voice goes hoarse, clutches at his tunic so hard it leaves scratches on his stomach, and snots through layers of fabric.

He just holds her, strokes her hair, and whispers nonsense that he thinks up in the moment. She seems to calm down because of it. He likes the way it feels to be able to do that. He likes that she lets him comfort her.

A twig snaps nearby and they both look over. It's Tom, standing in the path, looking sheepish. Arya looks away, hiding her face from the light. Gendry knows one thing for sure about his new wife, she hates showing weakness. Would have to be on her deathbed, maybe not even then, to admit it. He feels even more protective of her, and rather annoyed with the Minstrel.

"What is it?" He asks.

"The men want to know how much longer. Hot Pie wants to take a nap if you're still gonna be a while." He gets out in a rush.

"We'll camp here tonight. Go tell them." He doesn't move but looks relieved.

"Good. But what about the soldiers with the supplies? Shouldn't we inform them of our position, somehow we got off the main road." He says pointedly. Fuck, the supply train

"Yes, would you mind?" She asks. She's come up to Tom and Gendry, her face is still red and puffy, but her grey eyes seem to have dried out. Her head is held impossibly high.

"Yes, of course, My Lady."

"You go too. I'd like to freshen up a bit." She directs to Gendry.

"What? Are you sure?" He pulls a clump of dark hair free from where it was glued to her cheek, plastered with snot. He finds it very endearing.

"Yes. And please send someone over with my saddlebags. Thank you." She is clearly dismissing him, but she smiles at him and he doesn't mind. Impulsively he takes her damaged hand and presses a kiss to the torn flesh of her knuckles. She rolls her eyes but smiles wider before shoving him lightly back in the direction of the trail.

Gendry walks more slowly than he should, and looks back at her a few times, but they make it out to the men to announce their intent to stop for the night. Hot Pie is already asleep. Anguy is out hunting supper and Bray is taking care of the horses. He tells him to bring the Lady her bags. He only scowls and goes back to the horses who look as exhausted as he feels. They take their two.

He and Tom trudge back the way they came, both unhappy about being back on a horse but suck it up anyway.

"How much did you hear?" Gendry asks.

"Most of it." He tells it true.

"Don't say anything to the others.."

"I won't. It's no one's business. She's been walkin' around like the dead. But she ain't. If anyone deserves to cry, it's her. One o' the saddest stories in Westeros, and that's really sayin' somethin'. They say the Starks is cursed. Maybe so."

"Her whole family. I knew, but I didn't really know, ya know? She seemed so, cold. She said she's killed."

"I don't doubt it. Fierce li'l thing. Pretty. But bad luck. I was worried, ya see. Worried that you'd gone and made the biggest mistake a yo' life."

"Watch it, Tom."

"But. After seein' that. Eh. You'll be fine. I ain't worried no more."

"No?"

"Nah. You're gonna live happily ever after in your big castle and have dozens a babies."

"You know, I was actually believing you, and it was making me feel better. But then you went too far with the last bit. Thanks for your support." He says sarcastically, hitting his friend on the back of the head.

"I'm serious. I'm looking forward to writing the most romantic ballad the Seven Kingdoms have ever known."

"Yeah?"

"Yes, and you should feel honored."

"Definitely. Definitely I do." He says sarcastically. He looks around. "We've been here for a while. Where are they?"

"I dunno. But the tracks don't go past this point, so they couldna passed us."

"Maybe we could leave them a clear trail to follow to come find us?" He was getting more and more anxious to get back to Arya.

"I guess so, why not." Gendry ripped some pieces from his cloak and tied them to trees, leading the way to their camp. It was dangerous, but they were all armed, so he wasn't too concerned. It would be far worse to lose their things.

Back at camp they are sitting round a fire and Hot Pie is roasting rabbits on sticks. Arya sits beside him, splattered in blood.

"What the? What happened?" He goes straight to her and takes her face in his hands, checking her over for injuries, though he sees none.

"Stop stop, I'm fine. I was helping Anguy gut and skin rabbits. I'm a bit out of practice though." She ineffectually wipes at the blood on her neck.

"She's a fair hand with a blade." She smiles proudly at the praise. Okay, she likes to be told she's good at things, particularly violence.

"Doesn't surprise me much." Gendry says, and she smiles at him too. It was a unique combination, the sweet smile and the blood-spattered pattern dotting her front.

They all ate well and fast, Hot Pie explaining all the herbs he used and in what order. Tom drew the short straw and had to clean the dishes, which he only half-arsed. They waited for the other group, but eventually got so tired they fell asleep. Gendry was surprised when Arya lay down beside him, but glad of it.

"Gendry." She whispers.

"Hmmm?" He encourages.

"I don't think. I mean with everyone…."

"No, I wasn't. I didn't even think of it to be honest." That was not entirely true. And she snuggles even closer until they're pressed up against each other. He puts his arms around her once more and kisses the top of her head.

"'Night." He says.

"'Night, Gendry."

Author's Note: Review Please. Questions, things you liked, confusion, guesses, deep character insights… Reviews make me write faster.

Chapter Text

Follow the Trail

Arya

The sun is shining brightly when she wakes, and she realizes she can't remember seeing a sunrise from this side of it in quite some time. She's curled up against Gendry, her right leg asleep beneath her, she tries to get up only to feel his arms tighten around her, and she panics. But then he snorts in his sleep, and a rush of affection calms her down. She maneuvers out and up without waking him. He really is a deep sleeper, she's rather surprised he's survived that long. She's still up before the others, well everybody except Hot Pie. He's building up the campfire, which had dwindled down to nearly nothing over the night, he's got all the contents of the food supply bags laid out beside him. By the time she makes it over to him, the tingles in her leg have subsided, and she notices the soreness plaguing her since yesterday has become numb more than anything.

"Mornin', M'lady." Hot Pie greets cheerfully. He was one of the first to forgive her after her difficult behavior the first day. He always had a kind word for her.

"Good morning, Hot Pie. What's for breakfast?"

"Porritch, and some nuts and cinnamon. The trick is you gotta toast the cinnamon…" Well he always had a lot of words, and he would say them to whoever was listening.

"And ya gotta have the food ready before the others wake up. It's the key to everybody getting' along." She had tuned out of the conversation, but tried to get back into it.

"Really?" She interjected.

"O' course."

"I'll be back, I'm just gonna." And she motions over to the bushes. He nods and adds water to a pot above the fire, then proceeds to crush up the nuts.

She wants to be tough, able to do anything the men can do. And she can, most things she can do better. But she hates pissing in the woods, and never feels more like the highborn lady that she is while fantasizing about a personal privy or a hot bath. They'd moved well away from the river, and they had to conserve water to keep the men and the horses alive. She had to go without some things, and while she was surviving and would never complain to the men, she did not enjoy the smells emanating off of her. Of course, the men smelled much worse, so she wasn't self-conscious about it or anything.

On the way back to camp, she finds some sweet Berries, and gathers a bunch in her hands to bring back. Back at camp the men were already up, Gendry just barely. He was sitting up on their shared pallet, looking around. When he sees her reentering camp he breaks out into a full smile, and she smiles shyly back. She brings the berries over to Hot Pie who looks like it's his Name Day when he sees them, cheering her immediately. She winces when he throws them in without a wash, but decides not to say anything. She'll make sure to deal with such matters personally next time.

"Mornin' Milady." Tom and Anguy greet, still yawning and stretching respectively.

"Good morning." She'll have to get them to stop calling her that somehow. Or she'll have to live with it.

Gendry comes up and kisses her head. "Morning."

"Good morning." Arya agrees.

"Morning." Lommy says, though makes a point not to look at her. The other two look at each other, then her, then away. So someone else notices, it's not just her.

Gendry grabs his porridge, but doesn't say anything. The others do the same.

Last night Lommy had brought her her bag, he'd thrown it down on the ground roughly and left without a word.

She was determined to get to the bottom of it now. So when he wandered off away from the group, she followed him.

"Look, perhaps we got off on the wrong foot."

"Do you really care what I think, Milady?" His shoulder length wavy hair blowing in the wind.

"I do."

"I don't serve you, girl."

"Why are you here?"

"I came to take a piss, but you insisted on following me."

"I meant, what are you doing riding with us?"

"Gendry." Is all he says.

"You're loyal to him."

"Of course I am." He looks hurt that anyone would even question it.

"That's good. He'll need that. Look after him then. That's your job. You needn't serve me. Fair?" He just looks at her, eyebrows scrunched. After many moments he nods. Satisfied, she rejoins the group.

Lommy ignored her upon his return, and she couldn't help but be fascinated by his dislike. Did he just resent women? Many men could not or would not take orders from a woman. If that was the case, she was definitely annoyed. Maybe he just thought she was a brat. Fair enough. But he obviously cared for Gendry, and the new lord would need all the true friends he could get where they were going.

If last night had shown her anything about Gendry, it was that he lacked the guile to run a holdfast. He was sweet, caring, kind, and sympathetic. But he gave in too easily, and he didn't take as much offense as he should to being insulted. With her own two eyes she'd seen what an overabundance of honor might reap.

She worried he would be eaten alive, and worried further what Lord Stannis would make of him when they next crossed paths. She felt guilty for being concerned, but they needed those 500 men. Her brother had called all their bannermen to fight, and they'd lost most. The land needed lords, ladies, guards, soldiers, builders, farmers, merchants, maesters,… they just needed bodies. People to live. Theon had managed to ruin her home before disappearing, many people scattered or were killed, and the stones needed to be set to rights. When she found that fucking Greyjoy she would make him suffer, and find out once and for all what he'd done to her brothers. And, there were stories of disturbances from the Wall. She'd heard all sorts of things, but nothing firsthand, some of it contradictory. It had been years since she received a letter from Jon, and she feared the worst. The Stark words, 'Winter is Coming.' She knew better than to assume the danger had passed.

Where were the remaining soldiers in the party? She was becoming concerned. All their valuables, clothes, and extra foodstuffs were amongst them. Her face fell as she realized.

Her father's bones were with them.

She told the soldiers to take great care of the precious cargo, and had believed their vows. And now, she didn't know what to think.

Even though she hadn't mentioned the bones to him, one look at her face had Gendry deciding they should go look for the men. He suggested she stay there, but she insisted on coming. They followed their own tracks back until they found where another set veered off. They ended up going round in circles for hours, signs of a struggle. She was getting flustered and stressed. She had to fight down the urge to bark at the others, knowing none of them were at fault.

"We shouldna gone off the road." Lommy pointed out.

"And they should have been able to follow our trail." She countered.

"It's true. These tracks are very strange. Something off happened here." Anguy interjected.

"Well, what are we gonna do?" Hot Pie asked, more than a little nervous.

"Well. Let's see what we got. Then we'll figure out the next move." Gendry said first. It was actually a good pragmatic move, and she was proud of him. They settled once more to make camp, not far from the odd scene of the diverging prints, emptied the saddlebags, including hers, and took inventory. The had an extra set of clothes each, Arya's was a dress, to her dismay, their swords, Anguy his bow, Arya her blade and some special soap from Essos, a full package of spices from Hot Pie, oats, jerky, water, and more dried fruit. They had a fair amount of money between them, but things would be tight on their travels, and there would be no luxuries on this trip.

They were all disheartened, none more so than Arya. She was meant to take the bones home, to bury him in the crypt, where Starks belonged. Gendry apologized profusely, completely undoing the progress he'd made by taking charge earlier. She waved away his apology, it was hardly his fault, and she was still contemplating if it was hers. Lommy seemed to think it was. Anguy and Tom didn't have an opinion. And Gendry seemed to blame himself.

"At least we still have some of the food. It's actually a bit like the olden days. Remember Lom? Remember Gendry?" She wasn't paying any attention. She barely noticed when Gendry put a blanket around her shoulders and led her down to the ground, wrapping his arms around her and telling her to sleep. And she obeyed.

She dreamt of her father's bones scattered along the road, being gnawed on by animals, bandits pissing on them while laughing, and Ned Stark's ghost wandering the land, hollow and lost. He'd looked her right in the eyes, then turned away. She thought about calling out to him, but could think of nothing to say.

Author's Note: Next up- Gendry and Arya get to know each other better. This will be cute and less angsty. Should be up tomorrow, it's practically ready. Review!

Chapter Text

green dress

A Better Foot

Arya

The next morning, Arya awoke grumpy, but was determined not to take it out on anyone. Gendry was dead to the world, and it was easy to slip out again. She grabbed her bag and went to the bushes, tying a handkerchief to a branch so no one came looking for her. It was a system the boys had arranged, way back in the Brotherhood days, in order to travel together without killing each other. Don't come looking but don't worry. She quite liked the idea, though she suspected Tom made it up so he could go off and 'relieve' himself. He was always more cheerful after, humming or whistling. So she was glad of it. She personally was having a bad morning with the hard tack from the night before and did not want to be disturbed. In her bag she had only a dress left, and she debated if it would be worth it to wear something clean. Yes, she decided.

She stripped off the pants and tunic and stuffed them into the bottom of her bag. She saw some nice smelling leaves, mint she recognized, squished them in her palms and rubbed them underneath her arms and between her legs. The water was actually a bit low at this point, and she wouldn't be as selfish as all that. This wasn't technically an emergency. The dress was at least a comfortable one, light, a forest green. She could move her arms and shoulders, but the skirt was a little tight around the knees, and would make it difficult to ride the normal way. For she had decided, they must move on. She took her blade and slit the sides to mid thigh, making sure she could move in all directions. There. Done and done. Her mother always wanted her to be a lady, and now she would have to be, but a different kind. The oily feel of her hair against her skin motivated her try a more intricate braid to get the little pieces upfront. She could feel dark strands sticking out here and there, but oh well.

The others still aren't up, only Hot Pie. Upon seeing her his mouth drops open.

"Not one word." She warns. He just smiles. "Milady." She rolls her eyes.

Anguy wakes up a good ten minutes later, and when he sees her he says, "… by the Gods." Hand to his heart. Ass.

Gendry and Tom wake up at this very loud exclamation and stare as well. She gets defensive.

"It's all I had that was clean. Okay, what's the plan, what are we doing?" She gets down to business. Taking suggestions. Gendry sits down beside her, and she leans into him a bit, not really conscious of it.

"Depends on what you want to do. But there's no sign a the men or the cargo." Tom says carefully.

"Gendry?" She questions. He looks surprised for a second.

"We're running low on supplies, I think that should be a priority." Good, her thoughts exactly. She gets purposefully to her feet.

"We're low on water too." Hot Pie adds.

"Then we'll continue on and cut our losses. We'll stop at the next village we see." She can't afford to let deadweight tie her down.

"'Cept there ain't no towns for leagues away. We're still in the Flats." Lommy points out.

"Aye. True. But. Not more'n a day's ride away to the Peach." Tom says with a grin from ear to ear.

"No. No. Absolutely not."

"What why?" She asks.

"Come on Gen, be reasonable. We been riding fer days, and before that fightin' fer Stannis. We ain't had a fair bit o' fun in a while. We can't just pass through the Flats without visitin' the girls. You ain't thinkin' man." Anguy explains thoughtfully.

"What's this?" Arya insists. They ignore her.

Gendry grabs Anguy by his tunic. "I'm not taking my new lady wife to a brothel. I can't believe you would even suggest that." Anguy holds up his hands in surrender.

"A whorehouse?" Arya finally says.

"Well, yes." Hot Pie admits.

"But we're not going there. Don't worry." Gendry assures her.

Arya sighs, men.

"Do they have clean, soft beds?" She inquires.

"Aye." Tom says, encouraged.

"And hot baths?" He nods. "Good food?"

"Oh yes. The Peach is all that and so much more." Tom answers with deepest sincerity.

"Let's go." She announces before patting her horse on its nose.

"Arya, are you serious? You're a lady, you can't…" Gendry starts.

"Of course I can. This is our only viable option. Are you seriously worried about my delicate sensibilities?" She teases him.

"No, I guess not."

They clean up very quickly. The men all-eager to get to the Peach. Tom is singing in anticipation, Anguy is describing a particular girl to an uninterested Lommy, who is also ignoring Hot Pie, while he describes the buttery biscuits they'll have when they get there.

When she mounts her horse, the slits on her dress splay open, displaying most of her legs, letting her sit properly.

Gendry takes one look and bursts out laughing. She's irritated at his dismissal, and replies snippily.

"I'll not ride sidesaddle ever again." She gives by way of explanation. But his smile is warm, affectionate.

"You really are strange, ya know that?" He's still grinning. It was a pleased laugh, not one of condescension. If the others notice the exchange, they wisely say nothing.

"Of course I am. Are you just figuring that out? Maybe you are a bit slow." But she has a smile on her face to show she is joking.

"No, I could tell you were different, right from the first. Not a proper Lady. You don't much hide it."

"I can be though, in a fashion."

"You stabbed a knife into the dinner table."

"Well. Stannis needed to be taken down a peg. I stand by the sentiment."

"Don't get me wrong, I think it's brilliant. The look on Stannis' face when you threatened him. That one," And he taps his head. "I'm gonna remember for ages." She laughs. "He respects you though. I could tell." That's news to her.

"You think he respects me? There were 20 men. Where did they run off to? How do I know this wasn't Stannis' doing?"

"He wouldn't. He keeps his word, he doesn't have it in him not to."

"Unless he's vague on the terms in the first place."

"What does that mean?"

"Nothing. No one hands you what you want, you take it."

"I'll make sure he keeps his word to you Arya, I promise." And he does look intent.

"Good. I will take you at your word then." She'll have to.

"He promised. I will make sure it is done. He is my uncle. He can't ignore me forever."

"You don't get along, do you? You and Stannis." They're riding at a comfortable pace.

"I think he's disappointed in me. I'm a Baratheon, but just barely. Dirty blood they say, born in lust, given to base urges." She makes a 'pfft' noise through her teeth.

"Right. They used to say the same thing about Jon. Idiots. He never said a bad word against anyone, always worked hard but they all looked down on him. My mother worst of all. But he was my favorite brother." She feels his gaze.

"He died too?"

"I don't know. I sent letters, but I never heard back. He went to The Wall, thought it'd be noble. And now, the stories I hear, about the Others, I can only assume the worst."

"Don't say that."

"I wanted to go, you know, to The Wall. To see him. Maybe even join."

"They don't take women."

"Well, I would have made them change their minds. I thought about it, but in the end, I decided to do my duty. Home first. Settle the land, restore the family. Maybe one day, I could go see, but for now, I have to be a lady. For my family's sake, in their memory."

"But a lady who sneaks into stranger's rooms, skins rabbits, beats trees, and rips up her dresses. I've never seen your like before, and I've been through most of Westeros by now."

"I'm of the North." She says proudly.

"I don't think there are girls like you up there either."

"Maybe not." She smirks. "I used to make my mother crazy."

"I'll bet." He looks interested, so she keeps going.

"One time, we were meant to meet the King. Your father. And Mother insisted I look pretty, wear a nice dress, be clean, curtsy, say my courtesies, and all that. Well, you can guess what happened." As though it was obvious.

"No, what?"

"I spent the whole morning riding, I got back late with my dress splattered in mud and a helmet on my head."

"You didn't."

"I did. I rode right up to the King and Queen, dismounted, and got into place without apology."

"And what did Robert do?" It was the first time he'd called him by name, if not Father.

"He laughed. He liked me." She left out how much.

"Of course he did. Why wouldn't he?" It's almost bitter, and she feels the need to change the subject a bit.

"Well, according to my mother I was a devil child, sure to be cursed with a daughter twice as bad."

"I don't doubt it." He jokes, cheerful once more.

"I do remember what she taught me though. In a way I'm even grateful. I'll need it when I take the seat of The North. I'll need to be my father and my mother. And I will."

"I don't doubt it. You'll make a good Lord. I'm happy to let you make all the decisions." He says, and she can't tell if he's serious or not.

"I can't argue with that strategy." She realizes she knows very little about him.

"What about you? Were you a well-behaved child?"

"Aye. I had to be though. You gotta keep your head down, do your work, or else yer out on your ear. But I had a place to sleep, food to eat, a trade, I was better off than most." His accent becomes more pronounced whenever he speaks of his home.

"You're from King's Landing right?" She knows he is.

"Aye. Fleabottom. Street of Steel. Born and bred." He looks down at that.

"Your mother?"

"Died when I was young. Barely remember her. But she had yellow hair, I used to play with it."

"Anything else?"

"I remember her singing. Don't know what the song was called, but I hum it sometimes. Then I forget it like that. But, still, I remember how it felt."

"Then you went to the forge." He clears his throat.

"Yes. Everyone said I was lucky to be taken on. It was lonely at first, but I got good at it. It became everything."

"You were good at your trade." It's not a question, she's sure of it.

"I was. I was dedicated. It was my whole life."

"You made swords and armor?" He's lighting up.

"Aye. And shields, helms, keys, chains, engravings, and the like."

"Really? So you're a real craftsman, then." She appraises. He beams under her praise.

"I dunno about that. Still just an apprentice." Too modest. "I was learning how to reforge Valyrian Steel. But, well..."

Valyrian steel? Very interesting.

"But you were sent to join The Wall." She finishes for him. He nods.

"My master just said I should pack up and go, that I must join The Watch. I thought he was just sick o' me. Now I know he was tryin' to protect me. The Goldcloaks near killed him tryin' to find me. I owe 'im a lot."

"What's his name?"

"Tobho Mott. He near raised me after my mum died. A good man. Honorable. He said I was good with a hammer."

"It sounds like you loved him a lot." He nods.

"He loved you back. He must have. Does he know, about...?"

"I dunno. I don't even know if he's alive. I meant to go see when I could, after things were settled with Stannis. I was starting to think he'd never actually legitimize me. Thought I might end up right back where I started, tail between my legs. But I guess not." He's staring straight ahead, talking more to himself than to her.

"To go from Fleabottom to the Lord of a great house, that's no small thing. It must be disconcerting." 

"Yeah." He does look at her then. "It's strange. Like when someone calls me Milord, or the men look to me, or you being my wife. It's weird." He chuckles. "I keep wanting to turn around and check you're all not looking at someone behind me." This was the first time he'd ever mentioned his discomfort with the forced arrangement.

"They're not. I promise."

"It's just. I've been working for this, a long time. And then all of it just sort of happened, all at once. Now I'm a Lord, with a wife, and a hall, a family, or parts of one, or almost one. It's unbelievable is what it is."

"The Old Gods work in unknowable ways. You're here for a reason, figure out what you're meant to do with it." He stares at her then. Too long.

"I don't worship the Old Gods." He says.

"Oh yes. You believe in The Red God, like your uncle." Trying her best not to sound judgmental.

"I've seen things. Things I wish I hadn't. I believe."

"What things?" She is curious, despite herself.

"I've seen a man brought back from the dead, more than once."

"From the dead? Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"And he was human? Himself?"

"I dunno really. I never knew him before. But he said, he felt… less."

"Could Your God bring anybody back?" Without even his bones?

"I don't think it works like that." He says gently.

"Oh."

"What about your Old Gods. What are they like?"

"They. They're everywhere. Especially in the trees. " He looks closely at a tree they pass. "We even have sacred land, called The Weirwood, with Heart Trees. They've been around since the first men, faces carved into the bark, red sap tears smeared by the eyes. It's where you go to speak with the Gods, and the ancestors; to find peace."

"Your Gods sound nicer."

"No. Don't be fooled. The Old Gods are cruel, they take as well. They take more than you can spare."

"Still. I wanna see those trees."

"Alright." He's staring at her again.

"What?" She asks.

"Nothing."

"No. What?" He laughs.

"Why are you yelling?"

"I'm not yelling. You're staring at me."

"I'm not allowed to look at you?"

"I guess so. But stop laughing."

"I am not laughing at you." Though he's holding back a chuckle. "I just like to get you upset."

"Why?"

"Because you get all flustered, and your nostrils flare out, and sometimes I swear I can even see steam come out your ears. It find it oddly appealing."

She hits him from her horse, having to lean a bit in order to reach him.

"Ow." He exaggerates, still chuckling.

"Didn't anyone ever teach you what happens when you play with fire?"

"I was a blacksmith." She 'humphs' at his wit and nudges her horse faster. He just keeps laughing.

"Oh come on. Forgive me. Please." When he smiles like that he gets these little dimples.

"You're becoming quite the highborn ass."

"How about another deal? I won't call you Milady, if you promise to answer me one question." She's intrigued.

"Well what's the question?"

"Ah aha ah ah. You don't get to know the question beforehand. That's the rule." 

Damnit.

"Fine." He knew she would agree.

"Alright." He's drawing it out. Maybe this was a mistake. "You said you had to get married, for Winterfell. There were other offers. Who were they?" She's taken aback.

"That's what you want to know?"

"That's my question."

"Gods. You really are terrible at negotiations." 

"Oh good. More tips. I do enjoy your kernels of wisdom." He's enjoying this.

"You admitted I would make a terrific Lord."

"That's true actually. But you still didn't answer my question."

"What was the question? Sorry I forgot."

"Your other potential husbands." He says, a little too patiently.

"All of them, or just the four serious contenders?" She asks without a hint of irony.

"How many were there?"

She shrugs. "Not sure. The war killed half of Westeros, half of those were noble born. Pickings are slim. There are many who would like to get their hands on The North."

"Like who?"

"Well, Highgarden, Loras Tyrell."

"What? But everyone knows he's…"

"There were worse options, believe me. Who else. Dayne, of Starfell."

"Ned?"

"Yes. Do you know him?"

"Yeah, I do. Or, I did."

"Dull." She comments. And he loosens his grip on the reins.

"Hah. True."

"They tried to marry me off to my cousin in the Vale, sickly and weird. Lord Manderlay, honorable friend of my father, but old and fat. Tyrion…"

"Tyrion? The Imp?"

"Don't call him that. He's a good friend. And a good man. He can't help who his family is."

"You're right. I'm sorry. It's just, hard to picture."

"I can think of a lot worse lives. But even so, I'd rather die a thousand deaths than become a Lannister. He barely counts as one all the same."

"I suppose the most serious option was Aegon."

"Aegon?"

"Yeah, Dany's nephew. A hidden Targaryan. They switched him at birth so Robert couldn't kill him. He really wanted to marry me, said he was in love with me."

"Really?" He looks very uncomfortable.

"But I said no. He had a real claim to the throne, and I wanted no part in that. Besides, I would never betray Dany."

"He loved you?" She rolls her eyes.

"Of course not. He didn't know me at all. He was arrogant and reckless; barely more than a stranger."

"You did like him." He's sure.

"A bit. Like I said he was arrogant and reckless. Cocky. But I didn't want to marry him. Any of them, I didn't want to marry at all."

"And I was the best choice?" He's grinning like an idiot.

"Well. You were the least horrible choice."

"Thank you, truly."

"What about you? Weren't you a little old to be unmarried?"

"Well Stannis just legitimized me, I could hardly wed a proper lady."

"Well, what about other girls? You didn't want to marry anyone else?" Why had this never occurred to her before?

"No."

"How old are you?"

"Not quite sure really. But I'm older than you."

"Not sure? You don't know?" She slows her horse down, and he matches her pace.

"Never really figured. Maybe 20 name days, more or less."

"More or less? Hmmmm." And she looks him over closely. He has black hair, a full head of it. Those eyes, crisp and clear, bright. He has some stubble on his stark cheekbones just after the few days on the road, and she decides he must be young. And those chamber girls were right, he is handsome. He pulls on his ear under her gaze and looks a bit pink.

"I'd say 21, 22. Something like that." And she returns her attention back to the road.

"I don't feel like it. I feel 80 at least."

"Still. On our wedding night, you told me you had been with other women. You didn't want to marry any of them?"

"No. I…" He scratches at the back of his neck.

"Is that why you didn't want me going to the Peach? You don't want me running into one of your whores?"

"What?! No! What?"

"Really?" She lifts one eyebrow in disbelief then studies him.

"Yes. Really." He was actually displaying none of the most typical tells that she could see. Arya prided herself on being able to read people. Gendry was open, couldn't hide anything in his face yet. Or, he was even better than she knew.

"No. I didn't. I wouldn't." She believed him. But she won't back down, he likes teasing her, well it could go both ways.

"It's okay, Gendry. I know you had a life before me. It doesn't bother me. I would however expect you not to partake on this particular instance." He looks bewildered.

"What? No. I wouldn't." She takes pity on him.

"Right..."

"I swear, by The Old Gods and The New..."

"Never mind. Never mind. Don't hurt yourself. I believe you." She says, rolling her eyes. He visibly relaxes.

"I'm sorry about the men and the trunks." My father's bones, she thought. No, don't dwell.

"If you keep apologizing every time anything goes wrong, people will start to assume it's your fault. Don't let them. You're a Lord now. If you don't know something, you just lie and pretend you do. If something goes wrong, you take responsibility, but you move on. If you want something, take it." 

"More Lordly lessons? You're like Ser Davos. Can't go five minutes without spouting riddles." He seems annoyed. She decides she prefers him bristly than complacent.

"You asked for my help remember?"

"Well, yeah I did. I just didn't think you meant to point out every mistake I make all the time. I am a man, Arya. Tell me how disappointing I am often enough, and I'll take you at your word."

"I… you're right. I'm sorry." She says sincerely.

"Now don't apologize, that's not very Lordly." He jokes but with an edge.

"And you're not disappointing me. Or you haven't, yet." He lets out a breath.

"I've got no clue what I'm doing. They say, 'go here' I go. 'Do this' I do it. I'm supposed to be a Lord, but I can't change what I am, where I come from."

She says a silent prayer to the Old Gods and the bones of her father, wherever they are, that what he says remains true. That the pressure of leading, her nudging, and his uncle, don't ruin him, don't make him like all the other snooty lords she's known.

"I hope that's true. I like you better this way." He smiles then, the skin near his eyes wrinkling in delight.

"And I like you better this way." She gives him a side eye but he just chuckles. "Even though you're telling me what a terrible lord I am, calling me names, insulting me, you've just admitted you don't hate me. We're getting off on a better foot now, My Lady."

"Well it won't be a better foot for long if you don't stop calling me that."

"Maybe. New deal, if you promise not to correct me for a full five minutes, I'll stop for good, promise."

"Deal." Give and take. He's starting to get the idea, begrudgingly.

"But you really should have requested at least an hour." She jests.

He laughs heartily.

Author's Note: Next up- The Peach. Might be a bit sexier, but still nothing too explicit. They're getting to know each other and starting to feel comfortable. Review Please!

Chapter Text

A Whorehouse of a Different Color

 

Gendry

 

It was full on dark by the time they reached the brothel, and the music was in full-swing, booming through the front doors. It was a surprisingly nice place, decently sized with a number of private rooms, a spacious main salon, and a large kitchen. The men were overly excited, but Gendry himself was anxious. Despite Arya’s acceptance of the place, he was not reassured; he shouldn’t be bringing her here. She is a Lady, no matter how much she pretends otherwise, and his wife besides. What manner of Lord would bring his new bride to a whorehouse?

 

He looks over to see how she’s reacting, and she seems fine, if a little distant. They all dismount, the men faster than ever before, and walk up to the door.

 

Delia answers with screams and hugs Tom and Anguy to her ample bosom. Tom grabs a large chunk of her ass, and they all laugh together. Even Gendry finds himself smiling at their antics. Hot Pie says hi before shoving past, and Lommy looks a bit uncomfortable off to the side before following with a nod. At least Gendry’s not the only one.

 

“Welcome, welcome boys. Where the hell have you all been all this time?” Delia had run the Peach for some time. In her late 40s, Delia was done whoring, and used her organizational skills and business savvy to take over The Peach and run it well. Through her graying hair and wrinkled forehead, you could still see the stunning woman she must have been.

 

“Important business, Delia. The only possible reason to stay away.” Anguy said, not able to keep a straight face, or his eyes from the interior.

 

“Well, we’re back now. So no fear.” Tom comments.

 

“Get in, the lot of you.” She looks over at Arya surprised. Tom and Anguy rush in, and Delia moves aside before grasping Gendry.

 

“Oh, Gendry, my boy. Look at you. All grown, and so handsome.” He laughs uncomfortably.

 

“Hey, Delia.” He says blushing, looking back and forth between her and Arya.

 

“So delicious. And who is this?” She’s looking back at Arya with keen interest.

 

“This is…” Why isn’t he saying anything?

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, uh, Delia. My name is Arya.” Delia is surprised at Arya’s formal tone, but is pleased.

 

“And you, Milady.” Ah, Delia is quick. Now or never.

 

“This is my wife, Lady Arya.” It is impossible to tell if Arya is glad or not. Surprised, definitely, if the look on her face is anything to go by.

 

“What?!?” And she laughs, and hugs the both of them too. “Married? Oh my oh my. Haha. Adorable. And to a fine lady. Congratulations…” And she will keep talking if she isn’t interrupted.

 

“Thank you, Delia. We were hoping for something to eat, a nice room.” Gendry starts.

 

“Oh and I would be eternally grateful for a hot bath.” Arya finishes with a friendly smile. He’s proud of how kind she is to the aging Madame.

 

“Of course, of course. Here, let’s get some food in your bellies.” Delia leads them inside and towards the dining room.

 

“Actually, I would really prefer to freshen up first, if you don’t mind.” Arya insists politely.

 

Delia pauses her pushing, and then nods in understanding after looking her over thoroughly. She pulls another girl, brown curly hair, hazel eyes, and incredible curves by the arm from where she’s walking, and drags her closer.

 

“Merilee, dear. Please make sure you attend to our guest. Whatever she needs.”

 

“Of course, Delia.“ She answers after assessing the situation with clever eyes, and his wife disappears upstairs as Delia drags him over to the others.

 

It really is a nice place, and he feels immediately warmer as he gets closer to the fire in the modest kitchen. Tom and Anguy are busy eating at a large table and staring at prominently displayed cleavage before them. Hot Pie and Lommy are eating and drinking ale, the former smiling at Cherise and the latter ignoring Bella.

 

The girls see him and jump out of their seats to greet him.

 

“Gendry!” They each exclaim and run up to him, Tom looks particularly disappointed. Leera even plants wet kisses on his cheek as he tries to shove her off.

 

“Everyone. Listen up. Our little Gendry went and got married. She’s upstairs now.” The whores seem angry for a second, whining and asking why not them. But eventually they giggle and congratulate him, and keep kissing him. Bella gets way too close, and it’s only Delia who manages to get him free and lead him over to the table. Tom laughs at him, but goes back to his stew. Hot Pie had never even looked up. The girls sit down once again, clinging to the others, but leave Gendry be. They tease him and taunt him, uncover their breasts, and laugh at the shades of red he turns.

 

“I’ll need another bowl for Arya.” He requests. He kept thinking she would come down, but he realized she was probably hiding from the spectacle downstairs. Of course. And he was glad. Very glad that she hadn’t witnessed the prostitutes attacking him, she might get the wrong idea. Her questions earlier had worried him.

 

“Yeah, I’ll bet you will.” Anguy jokes.

 

“Hah.” Hot Pie sputters out a bit of his food.

 

“Leave him be. He’s a good lad. And they’re newlyweds who haven’t had a night’s privacy since they wed. Food’ll be the last thing.” Tom ends with a laugh, and the girls all snicker in agreement.

 

“Shut up.” Gendry says through a mouthful of stew-soaked bread.

 

“Oh go on then. Never keep a woman waiting.” Bella teases. As he looks at her, he notices the black hair and blue eyes, eyes he sees in the mirror.

 

“Bet he doesn’t even know where to put it.” Leera remarks loudly, pretty pink lips quirking upward.

 

“O’ course he does.” Lommy defends.

 

“Actually, Lad, I do wonder. Need a few pointers?” Tom adds with a raised eyebrow.

 

“For fucksakes! What’d I ever do to you?” Gendry asks exasperated.

 

“Now, now Boy. Only a fool turns down good advice.” Delia advises with a mischievous grin.

 

“The poor girl is miserable, I can tell that clear enough. He’s doin’ somethin’ wrong.” Anguy says, having completely finished his dinner in record time, now running his fingers down Leera’s arm.

 

“By the Gods.” Gendry groans in embarrassment and shame.

 

“Well girls, let’s give him some tips.” Cherise suggests, overly plump cheeks lifted in amusement.

 

“What are you doing with your tongue?” Bella asks.

 

“Where do you put your elbows?” Leera adds.

 

“Have you tried…” Cherise starts.

 

“Enough. Stop.” Gendry gets up from the table angrily. Tom pulls him back down.

 

“Enough ladies. Give us a sec.” He kisses Bella on the lips and pushes her away. He has to grab Leera by the skirt and drag her off, shoving her up and away. “Delia…” And they all scurry off in a huff, presumably to wait in the next room. Hot Pie looks sad to see them go, but starts in on the second helping he’s just received. Lommy continues his silent streak, except for the notable exception of standing up for him earlier.

 

“Look Lad, it’s nothing to get upset about. We know you’re honorable. We don’t mean nothin’.” Tom says.

 

“Too honorable. He’s been practically a monk. No wonder.” Anguy cuts in.

 

“Yeah. I mean we all know you only ever been with M…” Tom suggests.

 

“Don’t say her name!” Gendry insists, more angrily than he intended. The soulless redhead is the last thing he needs to think about.

 

“Sorry Lad. I’m only saying, your fumbling is understandable.” Tom appeases poorly.

 

“Just get her good and oiled first, that’s all.” Anguy adds, taking a long drag of ale.

 

“Oiled?” Hot Pie asks.

 

“Yeah, ready, slick, you know.” Anguy clarifies.

 

“Sweaty?” Hot Pie comments before he can think better of it. Anguy starts laughing involuntarily, and Tom smacks him upside the head.

 

“Oh shut up. I remember when you didn’t know your ass end from your elbow. Now listen, you take care of her first, and then, then you...” Tom says simply, unable to come up with the right words.

 

“Then what?” Hot Pie asks.

 

“That’s enough storytelling.” Lommy interjects.

 

“He needs to hear this. If he wants a chance at a happy marriage, and us a pleasant journey, he’ll listen to what we have to say.” Anguy comments, more serious since Tom’s scolding.

 

“I don’t think I can make her happy. In fact I’m sure of it.” Gendry whines, feeling a bit sorry for himself and eyeing the drink Anguy is swilling with interest. Gendry doesn’t drink, too aware of his own father’s weaknesses. He hates comparisons between them, wants nothing more than to be separate himself from the fat drunken king’s memory. But another part of him remembers the blissful oblivion of booze, and craves it even now, for courage.

 

“You’ve only been married a couple days, with no time to yourselves, and all this pressure. Besides, no one’s perfect their first time painting a portrait or composing a sonnet. Just get up there, and try your best.” Tom assures him.

 

“I don’t think. I don’t think she wants me to touch her.” Gendry admits, looking down and feeling a chilled sweat gathering on the back of his neck.

 

Tom and Anguy share a pained look.

 

“She’s been through rough times that one, lost everything. She won’t make it easy on ya. But if ya wanted easy, you wouldn’ta become a Lord and married a proper Lady, would ya? But you did, and she is, and now you are. So you can’t just give up on her, on everything.” Anguy bolsters him.

 

“I won’t. I’m not. I just… Maybe it won’t be like that, for us. I mean, that happens sometimes, right?” Gendry rationalizes.

 

“My parents were strange. They’d fight all the time. She’d say he was lazy with no head for numbers, he’d say she was fat and bitter as a crab apple. Sometimes they’d even throw things at each other; dough, plates, pots, even a cat once. But then they’d always make up and have loud, obnoxious sex in the other room. I heard everything. Very scarring. But, I think they loved each other. Maybe hated each other a bit too. But, it was love all the same.” Hot Pie adds his own unique insight, a tad nostalgic.

 

“See Lad, it takes all kinds.” Tom jokes. “Now get up there, never keep a woman waiting.”

 

Gendry leaves in a hurry, anxious to get away from their ‘helpful’ advice, not sure if he actually feels better or not. He knows his friends are honestly trying to help him, at his own expense, but he doesn’t really know what to believe. Tom is older, more experienced, and possibly wiser, but he’s never been married. Anguy either, though he does seem to possess a rare insight into his wife’s mind, one he is a bit jealous of. That night he saw Arya splattered in blood amidst the rabbit carcasses, was the first time he’d ever seen her smile, and it wasn’t down to Gendry. Anguy served her grandfather, and that meant something to her.

 

Actually, it’s Hot Pie’s story that gives him the most hope; it takes all kinds he supposes.

 

He grabs some stew for Arya and a big hunk of bread. He even has a pitcher of water clenched in his armpit, in case Arya is thirsty.

 

“Now wait a minute Boy, you’re not plannin’ on seein’ to your lovely wife like that are you?” At his lack of response she simply rolls her eyes and grabs him once more, this time leading him to a washroom. “We’ll get ya gleamin’ so pretty she won’t know what hit her.”

 

She deftly plucks the food items from his arms and places them to the side, before stripping his shirt. He tried to object, but she’d done it before he even knew what was happening. She was obviously quite skilled. He did manage to shove her away before she could strip anything else. She laughs good naturedly, and hands him the soap then points to the washbasin.

 

“Don’t listen to them. They’re not half as skilled as they think they are.” He hears over the sound of water splashing over his ears.

 

“Didn’t Tom say to leave us be? It’s rude to listen in, ya know.” He remarks.

 

“And I said that only fools ignore good advice. So listen up, I’m trying to help you.” And she offers nothing more, waiting for him to decide. While scrubbing out his armpits, he decides.

 

“I guess you have some advice for me then?”

 

“Well. I need to know where to start, don’t I then. How’s it been so far?”

 

“What do you… Not much. Once. On our wedding night, but…” He’s too embarrassed to even continue.

 

“Mhm. And she was untouched, then?” She’s very understanding.

 

“Yes.” He’s remembering the blood, the way she’d turned away from him that night.

 

“And those highborns, so careful about those things. Probably frightened, closed up tighter than a drum. It’s painful you know, for us women.”

 

“I didn’t want to hurt her, but she insisted, and it was so fast… She’s the most stubborn person I ever met.” He rubs his hand down his face.

 

“Oh dear.” She comments. He lets out a huff of agreement at that.

 

“What if… What if she doesn’t like it, doesn’t want, you know? I mean, that happens sometimes right? Most women don’t care for it.” He reasons.

 

“Oh, we all like it well enough. But we like different things. Most times men haven’t a clue.” She suggests helpfully.

 

“Like what? What different things?” He asks reluctantly, not looking at her, concentrating on combing his hair.

 

“We haven’t got all night, Sweetie. And I don’t know her, so I can’t guess. But I did see, when I hugged you, she didn’t like it.” She says with a knowing smirk.

 

“What? But I didn’t… I haven’t…”

 

“I know that. But she doesn’t. She was jealous, sure enough, and that’s a good sign.” He smiles a bit at that, surprised.

 

“It’s not hopeless. That much I know. A little patience and it will all come to rights.” He remembers then the nights in the woods, holding her under their blanket beneath the stars. She had let him, but it wasn’t all that promising.

 

“Patience? She’s upstairs hiding from me. No amount of time is gonna change that.”

 

“Not hiding. Waiting. Just… listen, pay attention, that’s all you can do. Women are complicated, but we’re pretty consistent. We want men who try, who pay attention, who listen. Also the fact that you are delicious doesn’t hurt.” She says, running her eyes over his bare chest before holding out a new shirt. He shakes his head as he puts on the clean black shirt, way too big.

 

“Whose is this?” He wonders idly.

 

“Your father’s.”

 

“Delia…”

 

“I’ve got eyes, Gendry. And he came here a few times. I knew him well. But I’ll tell you, you aren’t much like him. Not much at all. You’re one of those men all us whores hope to find, the kind meant to see past the whoring and take us away. Petty fantasies. She’s lucky, and if she doesn’t see that, it’s her problem, not yours.” She puts her palm on his cheek, and he feels for a moment like he’s being comforted by his mother.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Go on, before I jump on you myself.”

 

Cleaner, or at least fresher smelling, he picks the food back up and continues on.

 

He begins to walk up the steps, when Lommy blocks his path.

 

Hot Pie, Tom, and Anguy haven’t treated him much differently from when they first met, if tonight was any indication, then they were more comfortable around him than ever. It was Lommy, one of his oldest friends along with Hot Pie, who was the most distant from him. It had started with his legitimization and only gotten worse with his marriage. He was sorry for the state of their friendship, but he was sure it wasn’t anything he could help, and besides, he had been quite occupied with surviving Arya.

 

“Lommy.” He greeted, trying to go around.

 

“Gendry, wait. I just…” His light blue eyes look away from Gendry’s own darker ones, unsure, shy.

 

“What?” Gendry prods gently.

 

“I don’t like her.” He states.

 

“Not now, Lommy.” And he makes to push past.

 

“But, it doesn’t really matter if I like her, just that you do. And she you. And she does care about you, I know she does. Or she’s starting to. How could she not?” Gendry feels touched by Lommy’s concern.

 

“You’re a good friend, Lommy.” He puts his hand on Lommy’s shoulder in affection, and Lommy gives him a bittersweet smile in return before moving aside to let him pass. It seemed they were on better terms, and he was glad for it.

 

As he carefully ascends the stairs, bowl and pitcher balanced carefully to avoid spillage, his thoughts return to the lovely and difficult wolf he’d married. 

The first moment he’d seen her, he’d been completely captivated. Beautiful, but doing her best to hide it in pants and a tunic; it had only amplified her attractiveness.

 

She had taken pity on him with the fork, but then stabbed a knife into the table in retaliation against his uncle. Kind but fierce. Even a tad abrasive. Confident and assured, but in some ways quite innocent. Seemingly wise, but still very young, younger than himself. She was from a noble family, a big family, but even more alone than he was. He may not have the first clue who he is, but he does know what he is meant to do, his purpose, for the first time since leaving Tobho Mott and the forge.

 

He’s meant to look after her, his wife, get her home, and help her fix her home. His home. And while all that was terrifying, he craved it more than anything. He thought- ‘If I can look after her, make her happy, I can do anything.’ And with that, he shoved the door to their room gently open with his shoulder.

 

Author’s Note: Up Next- My attempts at sexier times. Bare with me, I’m not used to writing more sensual prose. They’ll still be tame, but if you feel the story deserves a more adult rating, please let me know. I don’t think it will make anyone uncomfortable though if the wedding scene didn’t upset you. Review please, it makes me happy, and inspires me to write more.

Chapter Text

Author’s Note: Okay guys, I’m really nervous. This is my first attempt at writing something sexier, so please give me honest feedback. I do want to paint a blurry watercolor, and I don’t want to be too explicit. I also don’t want it to feel forced. I think it works within the context of the story and is necessary to their relationship and the story itself. Somehow it got too long again, oh well. Anyway, enjoy.

 

Whorehouse Continued

 

Gendry

 

As he enters the room he doesn’t see her right away. It's a nice room, nicer than any he's stayed in at The Peach before, but then he was just a bastard in The Brotherhood then. There is a big bed, inviting looking, with thick sheets. In the middle is a large tub with intricate feet holding it up. There’s even a little desk with creams and girly things set out, a mirror against the wall, and a little chair. The floor creaks beneath his feet, and he sees a dark brown head shoot up out of the tub. He’s so startled he almost drops the bowl.

 

“Oh. Sorry. I’ll just…” He’ll just what? Stupid. “I’ll come back.”

 

“No. Stay.” She rushes out, rubbing at her eyes to dry them, wet hair plastered to her head.

 

“Okay. I mean, if you’re sure.” But he continues in anyway, slowly.

 

“It’s your room too, after all.” He shuts the door behind him.

 

“I brought you something to eat, I thought you might be hungry.” He holds up the food as if she couldn’t clearly see it. She smiles a very genuine smile at him.

 

The tub is quite deep, and he can’t actually see anything, well he’s trying hard not to. He wants to take things slowly and not have a repeat of their disastrous wedding night. He turns to the little table to set his burdens down, with his back turned he hears the distinctive sound of the water’s surface being disturbed, and he focuses intently on a little jar of some sort of goop, he smells it carefully, makes a face, and sets it back down.

 

“Thank you.” She says, and on instinct he looks over his shoulder. She has a towel wrapped around her and is squeezing excess water out of her hair back into the tub. He can see the curve of her waist through the fabric and surprisingly long legs still glistening. He finds himself hypnotized.

 

She comes up beside him and reaches for the bread, breaking off a chunk. “How are the others?” She asks conversationally. Eating the chunk quickly, she breaks off another.

 

“They’re good. Tom and Anguy are particularly pleased.” She rolls her eyes good-naturedly at that. “But none more so than Hot Pie.”

 

“I’ll bet. Finally full, eh?” Water drips down from the ends of her hair down to the tops of her breasts, the towel tied tight in a knot pushing them up further.

 

“Uh huh.” He agrees, not quite sure what he is agreeing to. She gets a little pinker and concentrates on finishing the bread, looking at him with big grey eyes, and then away.

 

“What?” She asks.

 

“What?” He asks. Not sure what she’s asking him.

 

“You keep looking at me.” And he can see for the first time she’s just as nervous as he is. The thought seems ridiculous to him, and it makes him smile, giving him a bit more confidence.

 

“I’m not allowed to look at you?” He jokes, partially nervous about her answer.

 

“Not like that. You’re making me blush.” She drinks some of the water at that.

 

“But I like looking at you. You’re my wife after all.” She blushes even deeper, and he is deeply endeared. She is adorable.

 

“True. I suppose I’m being silly. You have been inside me after all.” And then she goes and says something like that. She moves away from him at that, so he can’t see the look on her face.

 

His tongue gets away from him, “I want to see all of you.” He requests. Not even sure where his boldness has come from.

 

She freezes, shoulders tensed. She doesn’t move for the longest time, and he starts to regret it, wishing he could take it back. He’s about to apologize, pretend it was a joke, when she turns back to him. Shoulders bolstered with strength, she meets his gaze and lets the towel fall. Her chin is held high, but the shallow breaths, which puff out her modest chest, are an indication that she’s uncomfortable. He takes in every inch of glorious skin, every lovely freckle, every birthmark. He doesn’t think he could tear his eyes away if he tried. He doesn’t want to. 

 

“Are you done yet?” She jokes, pushing a strand of wet hair behind her ear; but her voice isn’t as confident as it usually is.

 

“No. I don’t think I’ll ever be done.” He says honestly. He shifts his gaze to her face to see her biting her lip.

 

“Well, it’s a bit cold, so…” She turns around and goes to wrap the towel back around her, but he stops her, hand on her hand.

 

“Please don’t, you’re perfect.” She laughs a bit at that, but also seems to relax.

 

“Perfect? I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of that before.”

 

From behind her, he runs his fingers through her hair, the wet strands even darker than normal. She doesn’t flinch or pull away, and he takes that as a good sign. His fingers trail down her neck and then her back, marveling at her soft skin. She shivers at his touch and he is encouraged. He can’t stop touching her, brushing her sides, slowly, then the curve of her backside. When she doesn't object, he moves to her breasts, and then between her thighs. Her surprised gasp gives him pause, fearing that he’s hurt her, but the way she settles farther back against him tells him to keep going; that and the slickness he feels coating his fingers.

 

“Is this okay?” He asks. He feels her head nod against his collarbone.

 

The noises she makes coupled with her bottom rubbing up against him, make the whole situation dreamlike. One from which he doesn’t want to wake. He feels her body start to tense against him so he tightens his hold around her waist.

 

“I’ve got you.” He whispers in her ear.

 

She falls into him with a cry, and drops her head back on his shoulder, completely boneless. He kisses her neck, holding her up, tasting a mix of her sweat and lemongrass from the soap. He wants to bury himself inside of her, but doesn’t want to disturb her, so he just holds her tightly against him. When her breathing returns to normal and she can stand upright on her own she pulls away from his chest, gripping the nearby chair and he lets her, though he’s sorry. But instead of moving completely away from him, she turns around and kisses him, and then everything becomes a blur. His clothes coming off, crashing onto the bed, his body falling into hers, and release.

 

They lay there together, him trying to get his breathing under control, waiting for the world to stop spinning, and the lights flashing before his eyes to calm down. Once he’s more himself, he looks over at Arya to make sure she’s all right. She must feel his gaze for she looks over as well.

 

“Was that, better?” He asks, unsure, reaching up to scratch his temple.

 

For a moment she’s silent, before she starts giggling.

 

At this a huge grin spreads even wider across his face, and she starts giggling again. He gathers her up to hold her close, much like they slept together on the road. He pulls the sheets up over them, and she falls asleep rather quickly. His body wants to join her, but he fights it, wanting to stare at her and keep this moment forever. Even so, his eyelids start to droop.

 


 

 

It’s sometime later that he feels hands sliding up his thigh and continue up. Arya is under the blanket, he can see her form underneath, and feel her skin smooth against him. He can barely move or even breathe, so surprised is he. The delicate hands move up his chest, kisses following in the wake of the caresses. This must be what one of the Seven Heavens feels like, he thinks, as Arya continues. As he pulls down the blanket to see her face, it’s not brown hair he sees, but red. Not freckled skin, but moon white, like a ghost long since dead. His whole body freezes, and his stomach clenches painfully.

 

“Gendry.” She taunts, with an accent from across the sea. He wants desperately to push her off, but can’t move. He wants to scream, but can’t get his jaw to work.

 

“Gendry.” She says again with a smile, fingers grasping at his chest, digging into him violently, and drawing blood. He feels tears behind his eyes, but won’t let them fall, can’t.

 

“Gendry.” He hears again, but the voice becomes younger, more hoarse, and the fingers aren’t tearing his flesh, only soothing him. It’s Arya, not her, and the breath he’s been holding comes out in a whoosh.

 

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” She reassures him. “It was just a dream.” She moves her hand up to his pitch-black hair and brushes some strands back, he can feel the sweat gathered on his brow. He takes her hand and kisses her fingertips.

 

“It was just a dream.” He repeats. Her large grey eyes squint at him in concern, and her pink lips tighten. The sorceress’ face fading from view.

 

“What was it about?” She asks. What can he tell her?

 

“I… I don’t remember.” He lies. She nods slowly in acceptance.

 

“Those are the worst.” She remarks. “You’re afraid, but you don’t even know what of. It makes you feel so, helpless.” And she cuddles back beside him.

 

“Yeah.” He agrees readily. But then something occurs to him. “Do you have nightmares?” He turns his head to look at her beside him.

 

“All the time.” She says staring up at the ceiling, betraying no emotion.

 

“I haven’t heard anything these last few nights. I couldn’t even tell…” Her fingers fidget next to him, nervously.

 

“I learned how to keep from crying out. I had to.” Her fingers trace invisible patterns in the wrinkles of the bed sheets. He grasps the hand in his own, providing her the comfort she’d just offered him.

 

“You can cry out, if you want. I’ll be here.” He promises. She looks over at him then with a small smile.

 

“And you can tell me about your nightmares, if you want. When you’re ready.” She is far, far too clever.

 

“Arya, I…”

 

A commotion downstairs interrupts their discussion.

 

“What the…” She starts but trails off. There’s more banging and lights turning on one after another.

 

“One second.” He says, reluctantly getting up, pulling his pants on hastily. He sees Arya eyeing him from the bed, pulling the sheet up higher around her, but her ear is cocked to listen for further disturbances. Some loud accusations make their way up the stairs and beneath the door.

 

And she jumps up too, looking around for her dress on the floor.

 

“Go back to bed, I’ll check it. I’ll be right back.” He suggests.

 

“I’m coming too.”

 

“No, Arya. It could be thieves or rapists. You just stay here and…” Why is it so hard to talk and think when she isn’t wearing any clothes?

 

“What, so they can kill all of you and then I’ll be alone all by myself? No, I don’t think so. I’m coming.”

 

She renews her search. He knows how stubborn she is, how she believes she’s always right, and how he always wants to let her win. But he has to keep her safe, that is his only, most important job. So, knowing she will probably kill him later, he grabs her dress from off the floor and holds it away from her.

 

“Oh there it is.” She says, noticing the garment in his hand. She reaches for it, but he pulls it back. His large frame makes it easy for him to keep the dress out of reach. Immediately understanding dawns on her face and she outright glares at him, thick eyebrows scrunched. Well, there go the cuddles. “Give it.” She orders. As if anyone could ever doubt she’s a highborn.

 

“Please, just stay. You can be mad at me if you want. But this is a waste of time. I need you to be safe.” He tries to emphasize how much he means it, his good intention. She only tries to grab the dress from him, but he knew exactly what she was going to do and moved it out of her reach. She looks furious. And while he does enjoy the sight of her naked bouncing, he knows there is a good chance she will kill him later. “I’m serious.” He says. She stops jumping, and he’s relieved that she finally understands. That is until she grabs his shirt and belt up off the ground and holds it for all she’s worth. He lets out an exasperated sigh, clutches his pants with one hand and runs out the door. He hears first one bang, then another, and he recognizes the sound of each of his boots being flung against the door. He doesn’t slow, but he feels himself getting angrier and angrier at whoever caused the disturbance and ruined their moment of peace.

 

He finds Tom, Anguy, Lommy, Hot Pie, and most of the whores gathered in the salon, and three men at the center being questioned. Upon seeing him, they open the circle and make way. He recognizes the men his uncle Stannis sent with him, and remembers the look of resignation on Arya’s face upon their disappearance.

 

“My Lord.” A young one greets. A few of the whores look over at him with surprise, but he doesn’t take his eyes off the soldier.

 

“Where have you been? Where are the others? There were twenty when we left.”

 

“We were attacked, Milord. We’re what’s left.” Another answers, and he can see they each have a number of scratches, bruises, and minor wounds.

 

“Attacked by who?” Tom asks. He’s about to answer when heavy footsteps clomp down the stairs, and a little figure rushes past. Upon seeing the soldiers, it stops.

 

“You.” She says, eyes flaring. Of course. There’s Arya, dressed only in his huge shirt, tied around the waist with his belt to keep it up above her knees. She blows straight past him and violently shoves the young soldier closest, a gangly thing with curly black hair and a few days of poorly grown stubble. Did he say she was wild before, he meant savage.

 

He grabs her before she can kick the youth like she’s obviously about to. She fights to get free until he says, “Arya. Arya! Stop! They were attacked. These three are the only ones who made it.” She stops struggling, but looks unconvinced.

 

“Out of twenty men, there are only three.”

 

“It was The Bloody Mummers.” The second says, chin sticking up proudly despite his lack of a neck, both answering the question and defending himself. Anguy looks at them with pity then. And Arya stops fighting him completely. He lets her go.

 

“Are you sure?” She seems skeptical.

 

“The Bloody Mummers have always been a problem ‘round these parts, I believe it.” Tom answers this time.

 

“I apologize. That was uncalled for. I shouldn’t have assumed the worst.” She concedes.

 

“No, I’m sorry, My Lady. We were meant to see you and your things safely home, and we've already failed in our task.” The young soldier apologizes.

 

“The supplies?” She asks, already knowing the answer.

 

“Gone. They lamed most of the horses before we could get to ‘em. And killed o’er half a us. Took ev’rything. We followed, got lost, and they killed the others. We was too tired and too disoriented ta fight well. We found this place, but, we thought we’d lost you lot too.” The third says by way of apology, the thick blonde stubble on his neck ringed in dirt. Arya closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, swallows, and then composes herself.

 

“Well I am glad you three survived. Things are just things. Human life matters more.” She says.

 

“I’m sorry for your losses. I will tell my uncle of your bravery.” He adds.

 

“Yeah, but…” Hot Pie starts. Everyone looks at him. “So they got everything? You couldn’t save nothing?” He looks incredulous.

 

The second reaches deep into his pants and pulls out a pouch. “Well, nothing ‘cept these.” He opens the drawstring and pours out a few precious stones, the ones gifted to them by Queen Danaerys. Tom and Anguy 'woop' in celebration. The prostitutes look awed by the sight. Gendry himself feels relieved, knowing the upcoming journey will be a little less harrowing. Arya pastes on a tight smile and praises them man on his cleverness. But overall, she still seems unimpressed.

 

“And the trunk, My Lady.” Her head snaps towards him. “That’s why it took us so long.” The first pipes up.

 

“What trunk?” She’s completely alert, focusing all her energy on this one soldier, as though he held her life in his hands.

 

“The one you told us about, My Lady. You said to guard it above all else, did you not?” She puts her hand to her chest.

 

“Yes, I…” She can barely get her words together. “Where is it?” And he points to the corner, where a rather ornate trunk he’d noticed on the beginning of their journey sits untouched. She lets out a mangled laugh and makes her way immediately over to the treasure, crouching down before it, letting her fingers hover over the sides without touching. The laugh continues but mixes with tears as she reverently fingers the lock, springing the trunk open. Everyone is leaned forward, trying in vain to get a glimpse inside the mystery box. What could possibly cause such a reaction from a highborn lady who completely ignored a handful of gems? But her body blocks any view of its contents, and everyone is too uncomfortable to go closer. They’re afraid she’ll start sobbing in earnest, the men especially wary of such a prospect, having witnessed it on the King’s Road.

 

Gendry alone makes his way over and puts his hand on her shoulder, at which she promptly shuts the lid tight.

 

“What is it, Arya?” Wondering if she will actually tell him. She holds her hand out and he takes it, she pulls him down lower to sit beside her, completely unmindful of their audience. She looks right at him, having to tilt her head a bit to compensate for his height.

 

“Gendry, this is my father, Ned Stark.” He hears Lommy curse under his breath. She turns her gaze back to the trunk. “Daddy, this is my husband, Gendry Baratheon.” Bella gasps loudly behind them.

 

He doesn’t know what he’s meant to do, what he’s meant to say. His bones, Lord Stark’s bones. No wonder she was so upset. She looks back at him expectantly.

 

“Ummm. Nice to meet you, Milord. Uh, My Lord.” He responds, and she smiles and nods, so he supposes he’s done the right thing.

 

After a moment, she rises, and he follows suit. There are happy tears still running down her face.

 

“Is everything alright, My Lady?” The curly-haired soldier asks.

 

“Oh yes.” She laughs. And she runs over to him, the same soldier she battered not minutes ago, and begins to pepper his cheeks with kisses. Gendry finds he doesn’t like that at all, but knows how stupid it would look to say anything. The soldier looks uncomfortable, but gives her a half smile anyway. She releases him and wipes the tears and snot from her nose, a smile beaming across her face. With her other hand she grabs Gendry’s own until they’re standing side by side.

 

“Delia.” She says, searching out the older woman, who for her part looks very surprised to be singled out. “Drinks all around, we’re celebrating.” There are loud cheers in response, and everyone is given a shot of something pungent smelling.

 

“A toast.” She says before anyone can take a drink. “You men,” She starts, and looks at each in turn; the three additions, Tom, Hot Pie, Anguy, and even Lommy. “All you men. I know you didn’t ask for this. To come with us. You were ordered or forced. You came out of convenience or duty. You don’t know me, we’re strangers. But each of you has been a friend, served me or my husband faithfully. I am both honored and grateful. And I want to say- all loyal men will have a place at my table, in my home.” She stops and shakes her head. “Our home, will be more than welcome. As honored guests, and Northmen.” And she raises her glass and swallows the entire contents, impressing more than a few. The men cheer, but they’re solemn, serious. It is obvious that no man mistook the depth of her message, the sincerity.

 

Gendry raises his glass in salute, and thinks once more, she is a much better lord than he will ever be. His Brotherhood drinks and laughs with the arrival of more strong liquors. Stannis’ men drink too, but look as though their eyes will shut at any moment, lounging on the couch, while one of the whores, whose name he can’t recall, tends to their wounds. Arya takes another drink, but only sips at it. She’s watching all of them, but not quite joining them, enjoying their carefree spirits. He leads her over to a sofa in the corner, and when he sits, she perches herself on his lap. She smiles at him, and he holds her closer. She tucks her head beneath his chin and settles backwards. Tom looks over and gives him a knowing grin, raising his eyebrows comically before directing his attention back to Leera. Anguy looks over too, though his eyes seem to linger on Arya’s displayed legs, up to Gendry’s disapproving face, then back over to Cherise’s throat. He feels someone take the cup out of his hand before he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

Road Trippin’

 

Arya

 

Delia gave them a nice enough horse, well not exactly gave, they had paid the Madame quite well for all their supplies. Arya truly didn’t mind though, she was in too good of spirits to mind.

 

They had three extra members now; the young curly-headed one that reminded her a bit of Jon was named Brent. The fatter one was named Begby, and the kind rough one was named Rik.

 

Tom suggested that they didn’t need the horse at all, that Merilee could ride with him, pressed up nice and cozy. Merilee told him that she would no longer be whoring in her new role as Lady’s Maid. Tom shut right up at that. Arya was proud of her for sticking to her convictions, but annoyed at how formal she was being with her. And so, as they set out, Arya stuck close to Merilee so they could chat. They rode towards the back, because that way they’d have more privacy.

 

“You’re sure? This is going to be a really long journey, probably dangerous. And I don’t even know what we’ll find when we get up North, so…” Arya warns.

 

“I am completely sure. I am ready for a new adventure.” Then she lowers her voice close to a whisper, so only Arya can hear. “How was last night? You two looked comfy this morning.” And she wriggles her eyebrows suggestively, which causes Arya to giggle.

 

At this the men turn around to look, causing both the girls to burst out in full-on laughter. They turn back around but look very confused.

 

“It was… good.” Arya whispers, blushing.

 

“Not too much pain?” Arya only shakes her head in the negative.

 

“Sometimes, I wish I was a girl. Just sos I could be a part of girly secrets.” Hot Pie remarks loudly. The others laugh loudly at that.

 

“What? Like you haven’t thought it.” Hot Pie says, a little offended.

 

“I think you’d make a splendid girl, Hot Pie. You got plenty a curves,” Anguy says, clutching at the air. “And you’re a good cook. I’d fuck ya. Hell, I’d probably marry ya.” Even Lommy laughs at this.

 

“I could do better.” But Hot Pie seems pleased.

 

“So Lommy likes everyone but me. Why does he hate me?” It was true; he had been rather polite to Merilee.

 

“He doesn’t hate you.”

 

“No? He mostly ignores me, and when he isn’t, he’s giving me evil looks.”

 

“Well, obviously. But it’s not hate, he’s just jealous.” She explains.

 

“Jealous? No way. He’s not interested in me. He really just doesn’t like me. If anything he’s too in love with Gendry to….”

 

“Uhumm.” Merilee raises her eyebrows to let her know the answer should be obvious. It takes Arya a second, but finally it dawns on her.

 

“Oh!” And she exclaims so loudly that the men look back once more. Merilee just laughs at her, almost falling off her horse.

 

“Oh.” She says again more quietly. “But that’s not my fault. I mean, I can’t help that.”

 

“Of course not. No one’s saying it’s your fault. I mean, for fucksakes, everyone wants something they can’t have. He doesn’t have to be such a little shit about it.”

 

“I guess so.” She says, a little disheartened.

 

“He’ll get over it when he sees you’re not going anywhere.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“Now go hang out with your husband, he’s looked back here so many times I’m worried he’ll break his neck.”

 

“Oh no. I’m sure he just wants to spend time with his friends.”

 

“No he doesn’t. He has that kicked puppy look and…”

 

Arya laughs, but it turns into a snort. “He does do that sometimes.” She takes a closer look at him amongst the men. “Okay, I’m going to ride with him for a bit.”

 

“Go on. I’ll talk with you later.” At that Arya speeds up to catch up with the others.

 

Gendry’s face lights up as he greets her, and she feels a little guilty for neglecting him that morning. She tried to make small talk with the others for a while, really she does, but she mostly wants them to go away. Eventually they get the hint and slow their horses, joining up with Merilee.

 

“Hi.” Gendry greets again.

 

“Hi.” She smiles back.

 

“So what were you and Merilee talking about?”

 

“Girl secrets, like Hot Pie said.”

 

“So that means I don’t get to be in on the secrets?” And he pouts in an exaggerated manner.

 

“Sorry no. But, I’m sure you guys have your own secrets.”

 

At a startled gasp they turn around to find Anguy cupping Hot Pie’s chest. “Nice boobs.” He says.

 

“No. No secrets.” Gendry says, looking embarrassed.

 

“Well, we will have secrets too.”

 

“I guess so.” And he smiles a toothy grin at her.

 

Her horse, a rather lovely chestnut mare named Sansa, walks over a particularly rocky patch, and she has to clench her thighs tighter atop the saddle to keep herself balanced. It’s then that she decides all over again how much she loves riding. Gendry is having a more difficult time, not quite as accomplished a rider as her. But Arya knows enough not to broach it with him, men could be so sensitive she knew. Her brothers always used to get upset when she beat them at things. She’s sad for an instant, but has had too much good fortune recently, and refuses to dwell.

 

They pass under a large, beautiful tree, the leaf covered ground crunching beneath the clomping of the hooves. A tiny little leaf falls and lands directly on the top of his head. He must not feel it because he doesn’t reach for it. Arya guides her horse a bit closer to his and plucks the greenery from his hair; he looks surprised before she shows it to him. As a reflex, he feels around on top of his head for more leaves, finding nothing, but searching for a few moments longer. She notices that he looks particularly handsome today. He had taken a full bath that morning, and Delia found him a razor to use. With his clothes newly cleaned, she found him extremely appealing. She was caught thinking again about the wasted featherbed. She decided they would definitely not waste their chance next time. Not that last night was a waste.

 

“Arya.” She hears, pulled from her thoughts.

 

“What?”

 

“Penny for your thoughts?” She takes one look at him and bursts out laughing. He looks very confused.

 

“You’re just like Mordane. She always used to say that to us.”

 

“Whose Mordane?”

 

“She was my Septa.”

 

“I’m not your septa, Arya.” He’s quite serious for a moment.

 

“I know that. You’re my husband.” He grunts. “What, is this because I rode with Merilee this morning?”

 

“No.” But the way he’s not looking at her tells her the answer is yes. "You were gone when I woke up again."

 

“I’m sorry. I just… It’s been a little rough being surrounded by men constantly. It’s kind of nice to have another woman along. I’m sure you’d feel the same if our situations were reversed.”

 

“Hum. Not really. But I get it.”

 

“You don’t count though.” He looks at her offended. “I mean, I don’t mind you being around. I’m glad for it.” He smiles again and reaches into a pocket. It takes him a while, but eventually he comes out with a penny and makes a big show of handing it to her.

 

“Are you serious right now?”

 

“Deadly.”

 

“I can’t.”

 

“What? Why not?” He looks hurt, a slight frown on his face. Arya sighs deeply, looks behind her to make sure the others aren’t listening, and leans in.

 

“Because, I can’t stop thinking about last night. And I was wondering how soon we can do it again.” Before she’d said it she’d been confident, but halfway through she realized how awkward it was, and wanted to take it back. Biting her lip she looks over to gauge his reaction.

 

He’s just staring at her, eyes wide, blinking every few moments. A low hanging branch bangs him painfully in the shoulder but he doesn’t even react. Arya is starting to worry that she’s said the wrong thing. She wouldn’t want him to think the wrong way about her. She is very embarrassed and wants to run and hide. “Please forget I just said that.” She begs.

 

At that Gendry turns his horse around and yells at the others, “We’re taking a break! Everyone just, do something!”

 

He jumps down quickly and reaches up to help her down as well. And then he starts running off through the trees, dragging her so forcefully that she has to hop over the branches to keep from tripping. As they get farther away from the others, Arya can swear she hears snorts and chuckles. Eventually they make their way to a clearing where they come to an abrupt halt.

 

“Gendry, what…?” But she can’t finish the sentence because he’s kissing her. He’s not as timid as the night before, and she no longer feels sorry for her admission earlier.

 

The rush of earlier slows down. It’s when he has her up against the tree that she realizes why she chose the dress. The bark hurts a bit, scratchy wood pressing into her back, but she doesn’t really mind. He strokes the flesh of her thighs from where they show through the slits in the dress. And she clutches at his back, slipping her fingers beneath the shirt. He makes a sound suspiciously like a growl, and she feels an answering warmth in her gut, and then they are hurrying again.

 

Afterwards, getting her breathing back under control, she can’t stop giggling. He brushes some hair away from her face and helps her smooth down her dress.

 

“Are you going to giggle every time?” He asks with a smile.

 

“I can’t really help it.” She answers, a little offended.

 

“No. I really hope you keep doing it. I like it very much.” She giggles again before clamping her lips shut. The grin has not left his face, and he caresses her cheek.

 

“We should probably get back before they come looking for us.” She starts back but he stops her.

 

“Wait, just…”

 

“What?”

 

“You look kind of…”

 

“What?” Arya starts to touch her hair self-consciously.

 

“No.” He pulls her hand down away from her hair, and laces his fingers through hers.

 

“It’s just, you look like, well… They’re all gonna know.”

 

She starts laughing. She then takes his face in her hands. “Honey, they know.”

 

“Wha?”

 

“You weren’t very discrete. I mean we just ran off and…”

 

“Oh, no. I’m so sorry. I didn’t even think. It’s just, you said, and then I couldn’t even help myself.” She is more flattered than she’d like to admit at that statement.

 

“I don’t care.” She assures him honestly.

 

“You don’t?”

 

“No. I’ve smelled all of their farts, I’m not particularly self conscious in front of them anymore.”

 

“Seriously? You don’t?” He still doesn’t believe her.

 

“No, not in the slightest. Unless you do.”

 

“Well, the others will never shut up about it.”

 

“Yes, they’ll probably tease you within an inch of your life. Sorry.” She’s not really.

 

“Probably. But it’s worth it.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Of course.” And he seems surprised she would question it.

 

“Good.” And then she grabs him and kisses him once more, moving her fingers up into his hair, and messing up the strands as much as possible.

 

“Well, we may as well make it look good.” They smile at each other conspiratorially, and head back. They find they’re in even better spirits than before.

 


 

When they return, they’re met with playful ribbing, which Gendry takes in stride.

Over the next few days, they take many more stops. At first, the others think it’s hilarious, rolling their eyes at each unscheduled stop. But rather quickly they become frustrated. Whenever they ‘sneak away’ the others begin to groan, not pleased with the continued slow pace, and more than a little jealous.

 

At night when they make camp, there are quite a number of handkerchiefs tied up on various bushes, though morale continues to sink. Even weirder, Arya notices a lot of lingering looks. When she asks Merilee if they are angry with her, Merilee laughs at her naiveté, as she was wont to do.

 

“They’re men travelling together with two women they can’t have. They’re imagining you, they’re imagining me. They’re imagining us together. Pretty soon they’ll be imagining each other.” She didn’t mention any of this to Gendry.

  

In fact, Anguy had propositioned Merilee a number of times. He reasoned that if he didn’t pay her, then she wasn’t a whore. But she stuck to her word. She confided in Arya that she simply wasn’t interested in any of them. Arya eventually switched back to the pants and tunic, so the little trysts with Gendry did become less frequent, but they still had a nice routine going. Merilee tried to keep her primped, but Arya gave up on that completely. And for his part, Gendry didn’t seem to care or even notice. Strangely, she was a little thrown by that, wondering if he really cared at all what she looked like. But then she realized she didn’t even really care what she looked like, so it was all moot anyway.

 

As per the routine, she crawled in beside Gendry like always, falling asleep cuddled up against him. With one major distinction.

 

“Arya. Arya.” She feels her shoulder being shaken.

 

“Huh. Wha?” She wakes to the ground beneath her cheek; drool creating a puddle of near-mud where her mouth was hanging open. She looks up to see Gendry smiling at her.

 

“Morning. I saved you some breakfast, but the others want to get going soon. We’re actually pretty close to the Inn, so…” Gendry was up before her? All the others were completely ready? What was wrong with her?

 

“No thanks, I’m not hungry. I’m just going to get ready.” Without a good morning or bothering to wait for a response, she slips away to where the horses are tied.

 

“Maybe she’s pregnant.” She hears Rik suggest loudly. She just ignores them.

 

She feels a nervousness in her stomach, and she doesn’t know where it’s coming from. Next, she finds it difficult to catch her breath. She has no idea why she’s feeling this way, why she’s hiding out, or how to fix it. Her first impulse is to call to Gendry.

 

And that’s when it hits her. How much she’s come to count on him. She counts on how good his touches feel, the way his hair is all mussed and he smiles when he wakes, that he’ll always be there at night. She always wakes first, has always been a light sleeper. But not today. She can’t afford to let herself get soft, complacent.

 

Once upon a time she’d felt happy, confident her peaceful existence in Winterfell would never change. And she’d lost all of it. Her skin feels hot and itchy. She even thinks the world might be spinning around her, the bright explosions taking hold of her vision. She squats down unceremoniously and tries to count her breaths, but is unsuccessful. She focuses on objects around her- a large rock shaped like a dragon skull, a little brown bird chirping as it walks, dark green leaves shivering in the breeze, thin cloud wisps that remind her of a newly planted field, and the lovely golden pattern encircling the trunk housing her father’s bones. Unable to get to her feet without succumbing to dizziness, she crawls to the trunk and plops down beside it.

 

“Father.” She whispers. Suddenly her voice is stuck, and the words have to fight their way out. But she’s more sure than ever at what she wants to say. “I’m scared, Daddy.” She chokes a bit. “I don’t know what to do. Something’s going to happen, I know it. I’m going to ruin it. Everything I care about gets lost.” And she does care; she cares about all of them. Somehow, they’d all become part of her pack. Most of them she knew would stay behind when they reached The Brotherhood. She knew The Inn was within their territory, and she was more than a little worried at what that would mean. And Gendry… He was stuck with her, she was sure of that, but... Anyone can be killed. Anyone can leave. She knew that well enough. She wasn’t sure that she would survive that again. “I can’t be alone again.”

 

Arya she hears. The name startles her. She looks all around, and there’s no one.

 

Arya she hears again. This time she looks down at her father’s bones.

 

“Daddy?” She asks aloud, equal parts frightened and hopeful.

 

Arya the voice repeats. And she knows she didn’t hear it, that there were no actual words spoken; she felt it. She looks up as the trees shake, more violently than the wind should allow. It’s not her father, she knows. The voice, the one she shouldn’t even be hearing, it’s not his. But the voice does sound familiar, and she’s strangely comforted by it. She feels less alone, a tangible presence all around her.

 

“Arya.” She hears, and gasps out loud, hand clutched to her breast. But it’s not the trees, it’s the young soldier, the one with curly hair who reminds her of Jon, Brent, his name is. “Are you alright, My Lady?” She calms down her racing heart, accepts his hand up, and shakily follows him back to the others.

 

“Hey. Everything okay?” Gendry asks, kissing the top of her head. She nods absently and he pulls her face away from him so he can look at her closely. He looks overly concerned for only a few minutes’ absence. Oh right, Rik’s comment about her being pregnant.

 

“I’m okay.” She reassures him, though she’s sure she isn’t. He still looks skeptical, but kisses her forehead, maybe a bit longer than normal. It's too late anyway, she thinks. You can’t stop caring.

 

A/N: Okay, a teeny conflict at the end. When will they ever admit how much they love each other? Huh? Huh? Next up- The Inn at The Crossroads. This didn’t turn out exactly the way I wanted it to, but oh well. Review Please.

Chapter Text

The Inn at the Crossroads

 

Gendry

 

The day was not a pleasant one. The sky was grey, and dark clouds were gathered up above. Gendry couldn’t decide if Arya was acting so cold and distant because of the weather, or if she was somehow indirectly controlling it herself. Both were equally likely in his opinion. She wasn’t being particularly mean, just distant. It all started that morning after she disappeared for near a half hour. Rik thought she might be pregnant and moody, but Merilee said it wasn’t so, that she would know. He did believe her, reluctantly. Despite the short amount of time the two women had known each other, they were already inseparable. If Arya were pregnant, her new friend would definitely know about it.

 

But, Arya was definitely distant, and he was not just imagining it. At first he thought she was just reacting to his reluctance to get to The Inn, but it was definitely more complicated than that. And he knew he was overreacting, being overly sensitive. When he had first married her, he had assumed they would be as strangers, that the occasional smile was the best he could hope for. But after The Peach, he knew he would never be satisfied with anything less than a partner. Not now that he’d tasted it. In his wildest dreams he couldn’t have dreamed of a woman who could help him sleep at night, who would moan and heat up beneath his touch, who would support him, smile at him, curse, and actually help him with his responsibilities. He knew she was stunning from the first, but it was the kind of beauty that showed him new facets at every turn; while flushing adorably, running around in pants, dressing up, or becoming genuinely frightening when she was angry. She was being very quiet, barely speaking to any of them; not even her new best friend Merilee.

 

And humorously, the latest backtrack in their relationship was not his only concern, and shouldn’t be at the forefront at all. As they approached The Inn, he knew they would find Jeyne Heddle there as well. Seeing her again after all this time, after how they’d left things, it was going to be extremely uncomfortable. And he was only thinking of his end. Jeyne would be furious, and rightfully so. Arya, well there was no way at all to predict her reaction. She could be jealous and territorial; actually he wouldn’t mind that at all. Or she might also be disappointed. That, he did not want. And at that, he could imagine the space between them growing wider. No more unscheduled stops, no more shy smiles beckoning him off the path.

 

But his greatest concern by far was The Lady Stoneheart. He knew it was ridiculous; the creature had only ever been at The Inn but once, her presence made the children uncomfortable. She made him uncomfortable. The woman preferred to be around the killing anyway, not in the company of life. Still, he didn’t know if he should tell Arya. The knowledge would only hurt her, he’d seen the way she was with her father’s bones, and never wanted to add to her pain. Clearly, the loss of her family was still a very open wound for her. Knowing her, if he told her, she’d run off to The Twins to go see for herself. And he couldn’t have that, something like that could destroy her. He couldn’t let that happen. No matter what, he needed to protect his new wife, from all kinds of harm.

 

His mind went round in circles, well, more of a square. Circles suggest constant motion, whereas he would purposefully look for the corners to hide out in. He even considered bringing up one or all of these topics with her, just to have something to say, just to get her talking to him, but he’s too much of a coward.

 

By the time they arrive, it is not quite dark, but no longer light either; the sky itself still threatening to pour down rain. At the sound of their approach, the entire Inn comes out to see them. A large chunk of The Brotherhood is there, and Gendry feels a smile make its way onto his face at the sight of Thoros and Lem. The smile grows wider at all the little orphan children that swarm around him. He looks over at Arya to see a small smile on her face. He is distracted by one tiny but strong body crashing into him, squeezing him tightly. He recognizes the little creature immediately as Willow.

 

“Gendry, you came back.” She says, making him feel guilty.

 

“Yeah Will, for a bit. You’re huge now, almost as tall as me.” He jokes. She giggles at that and finally lets go, giving some of the other children the chance to hug him as well.

 

Some of them had grown a lot in the year since he’d been gone. Had it only been one year? It felt like ten, or a whole lifetime ago. He breaks away to go greet Thoros.

 

Tom and Anguy are enthusiastically hugging their brothers, Hot Pie is in on it too, and he even goes the extra step of introducing the new members; Brent, Rik, and Begby, Merilee, and even Arya.

 

“Can you believe it? Gendry got married. She’s great…” He says this loudly enough that they all look from Arya to him, a deep silence permeating the air. A large basket drops forcefully to the ground, and his attention is drawn to the doorway where he sees Jeyne, looking shattered, before she flees back inside. The men he’s started to think of as his own give him sympathetic looks, but he detects amusement underneath as well. He looks around fro Arya, but has lost sight of her. He begins to panic until he feels her come up beside him.

 

“Go talk to her.” She instructs softly.

 

“Arya, it’s not…”

“Go. Or I’ll think less of you.” She turns and walks away from him at that, going over to introduce herself properly to the rest of The Brotherhood, lapsing back into the role of a lady. With an exhausted sigh, he follows Jeyne inside to settle this.

 

He doesn’t see her in the main hall, so he heads upstairs to check the guest rooms. After the fourth room, he finds her furiously folding sheets, purposely not looking up at the heavy sound of his footsteps.

 

“Jeyne…” He starts, not having any idea what more to say.

 

“What are you doing here? I didn’t think you were ever coming back.”

 

“I… we’re just passing through.”

 

“Oh, how lovely. You and your wife must be having a lovely trip.” The way she spit out the word wife made something clench in his gut.

 

“Her name is Arya.” He says patiently. She looks up at that.

 

“What a lovely name.” She says sarcastically. He just wishes she’d stop using the word lovely. He is getting very unnerved. “Did you find her at The Wall? That is where you said you were headed, right? Or was all that just bullshit?”

 

“I went to The Wall, but, a lot happened, and…”

 

“You never came back, until now. With her.” Her teeth are clenched. “She looks a bit like me, Gendry. Did you notice? Only not as pretty, She’s too… short.” His first impulse is to defend Arya, insist that she’s beautiful, but even he’s not that stupid. He supposed they did look similar, brown hair, thin. But Jeyne was taller, older, and closer to his own age. And her eyes were a soft shade of brown, not grey like winter itself.

 

“I’m sorry…”

 

“Sorry? You’re sorry! You said you would take the black. And here you are, married to someone else, some lesser version of me.”

 

“What do you want me to say?” He’s trying to be reasonable, a tack that usually doesn’t work with women.

 

“I want to know why? Why her and not me?”

 

“I don’t know. It just sort of happened.”

 

“That is bullshit! You don’t just sort of marry someone.” She swallows and calms down, hands on her hips. “Do you love her?” He doesn’t answer and her eyes start to water.

 

“I’m sorry.” He says again. “Truly, I never wanted to hurt you. I didn’t plan this, and that’s the truth. I want the best for you; I want you to be happy. Do you not want the same?” He can’t look at her after the question; he hadn’t meant to ask it. He feels her wrap her arms around him, a kind of uncomfortable hug, though the intended comfort is not lost.

 

“I do, Gendry. I want you to be happy. Are you?” He’s not sure how to answer exactly. He thinks he will be, someday, when things settle. But there are no guarantees. He wants Arya though, there’s no question about that. He is happy that she’s forgiven him, though. And he feels lighter.

 

“I am.” He says simply. Loud bawdy music breaks up the intensity of the moment, and he suddenly wonders how long they’d been gone. He hopes sincerely Arya hasn’t gotten the wrong idea.

 

At his worried glances back and forth to the window, she suggests he go down.

 

“Come with me.”

 

“I still need to finish folding these…” He only clasps her shoulder and gently directs her towards the door.

 

Out front there is a crazy party in full-tilt. The children are running around like wildlings, some jumping around to the music, others chasing each other in a large-scale version of hide and seek. Lommy was playing with them too, running around with his hands comically shaped like claws to excited screams and laughter.

 

Tom is the one playing; with his instrument back in his hands he looks more like himself than ever, back in his element.

 

Brent, Rik, and Begby are drinking and laughing with Merilee obviously feeling like the odd ones out.

 

Hot Pie is stirring a huge pot over a fire, he can smell the pigeon roasting inside, the ones Anguy had shot out of the sky. He has vegetables and herbs cut up and ready to be added. He is in bliss.

 

Anguy is having a great time, dancing animatedly, swinging a pretty young woman in circles, round and round again. It actually takes Gendry a moment to realize the woman is Arya. On the one hand he is glad to see her smiling and laughing, on the other he is deeply jealous. Instead of marching over to them and breaking them up he goes over to Merilee instead.

“My Lord.” The soldiers greet. Merilee just nods at him. He cuts to the chase.

 

“How angry is she?” He asks her.

 

“Who?” She responds.

 

“Merilee…” He warns, not at all in the mood.

 

“She doesn’t look angry to me.”

 

“Well that doesn’t mean anything, you can’t always tell when a woman is angry.” Begby comments.

 

“Go ask her.” Merilee advises. Well, he knew for sure where the ex prostitute’s loyalty lye.

 

“Thanks.” He says, though she didn’t help at all.

 

Instead of talking, which he knows he should do, he sits down off to the side and watches. Jeyne has since joined Lommy in playing with the children, if she was upset, she wasn’t showing it either.

 

Thoros sits beside him, hair as scraggly as ever, snarky grin always in place. “I hear congratulations are in order, a pretty young wife from a noble house, a Lordship. You’ve done well for yourself boy. Cheers.” And Thoros goes to offer him a cup; Gendry politely refuses, to which Thoros only shrugs. He drinks himself.

 

“Lady Stoneheart, is she…?” He asks.

 

“Off to kill more Freys, it’s all she does these days.” He answers. Gendry nods, relieved.

 

“I hope you know what you’ve done.” Thoros continues.

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“You know what they say, about Starks and Baratheons. You may have cursed us all. Or at least yourselves.”

 

“Fuck off, Thoros. And mind your own business.”

 

“I only thought, no one else will tell you that to your face. Now I’ve said it, I will mind my own business. Good luck boy, I have a feeling you’ll need it.” And he leaves him then. Gendry had forgotten how much of a prick Thoros was. And once again, Gendry really does want a drink.

 

“Gendry.” A soft voice draws his attention.

 

“Arya.” She’d come to him, he hadn’t expected that.

 

“Dance with me.” She says.

 

“I can’t dance.” She laughs.

 

“I know. But, we never danced at our wedding, so, what the hell.” And she holds her hand out. He reaches up and the force of his momentum nearly drags her down. He has to steady her. She’s drunk again, or almost. Will that make her more agreeable or less stable? As he holds her close and awkwardly fumbles over his own feet, he stops caring. He can no longer even hear the music.

 

“How’d it go?” She asks.

 

“Huh?”

 

“The girl. What’s her name?” Ah shit.

 

“Jeyne.”

 

“And… Did you tell her?”

 

“Tell her what?”

 

“For fucksakes, Gendry.”

 

“Uh, yes. I told her we were married.” She nods.

 

“And how did she take it?”

 

“Uh, okay, I guess.” And it’s not a lie.

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah, it was actually…” And he is distracted by her hands on his stomach. “Arya, what are you…” She then strokes her fingers along his throat.

 

“Well, she didn’t stab you in the gut or rip your throat out, so it must have gone alright.” And he captures her hand against his chest.

 

“She said she was happy for me.”

 

“Liar. Well, she probably means to stab me in my sleep. It’s what I would do.”

 

“She wouldn’t do that.”

 

“Like she could. I could take her, easily. She’s too, skinny.” And he smiles warmly at her.

 

“Are you jealous?”

 

“What? No.”

 

“Because you have no reason to be.”

 

“I’m not jealous.” She suddenly sounds perfectly sober. “I already told you. What you did before you met me doesn’t bother me. I just…” She goes silent, collecting her thoughts. And he lets her. “I don’t want to think of you leaving broken hearts all over the place and not cleaning up the mess. However many Jeynes you have out there…”

 

“Jeyne and I, we didn’t…” He tries to clarify.

 

“What? Seriously?”

 

“She wanted to, Hell she wanted to marry me. But I knew I couldn’t. I never wanted to have any bastards, so we never… But I did care for her, and I did hurt her.” He feels her rumbling against his chest, and worries she might be crying. But on closer inspection realizes she’s laughing.

 

“You’re so strange. But you’re a good man.” She kisses him gently on the lips, and holds onto him as they dance. He knows he’s clumsy, but she doesn’t complain, only holds him tighter. He looks around to see the others enjoying the night along with them. The stars can’t be seen through the fog, but despite the weather, the air seems warm. Jeyne and Merilee, the only other women, are singing along with Tom, slowing down the tempo of the music to a peaceful rhythm. And he thinks this feels exactly right, there is nothing cursed about this, about them.

 


 

 

The next day they set him to work in The Forge. Well, he volunteered, uncontrollable excitement coursing through him. It had been so long since he’d held the hammer in his hand, smelled the mix of fire and steel, let his muscles jump with every bang of the hammer, or felt the air change with the hiss of burning metal hitting cool water. He was home, or as close to it as he would ever be again. At least until he got settled in Winterfell with Arya.

 

Time melted away, fixing dented armor, broken swords, and bent horseshoes. He stoked the fire, feeling the cleansing flames draw more and more sweat down his forehead, off his chest, and onto the floor. He took his shirt off to mop up a bit, and then threw it in a corner. He had a very steady rhythm going, and for the first time in a long time he remembered who he was. This was him; the smith, the hammer and anvil.

 

“Gendry.” He hears, and barely avoids smashing his hand.

 

“Oh, sorry.” It’s Arya, looking gorgeous in her green dress, hair perfectly in place, a pink glow to her cheeks, and a tray of food in her hands. “Your busy, should I come back?”

 

“No, no. Of course not.” He wants to kiss her, but he’s very aware of the layers of sweat and grime on his skin, the soot staining his fingertips.

 

“Ummm, I brought you lunch. It’s long after midday.” She says, but her words sound hollow. It’s then he notices she isn’t looking him in the eye, but rather staring at his chest. He then wonders how long she’s been standing there.

 

“Thank you.” He says. And she snaps out of it, pulling her gaze back up to his face. He feels his back straighten with pride; she desired him. He thinks the warmth of the forge must be nothing compared to the inside of his chest.

 

“Of course, can’t let you starve.” She smiles, setting his tray down, trying very hard not to look at him.

 

“Stay and eat with me?” He requests.

 

“I already ate.” Disappointment crashes down on him. “But I can sit with you.” And just like that he feels on top of the world once more. He wipes his hands on a nearby cloth, which gets off most of the dirt, but some still remains, no matter how he scrubs. However, hunger wins out, so he eats the bread and cheese with grubby fingers. He’s eaten worse.

 

“Not too hungover?” He asks conversationally.

 

“I didn’t drink that much last night.”

 

“Good.” And, just like that, he’s out of things to say.

 

“You looked good, working I mean. You seemed focused, content.” And she looks down, picking at her nails. He is reminded of her shyness at The Peach, and he’s struck with the impossible question of which he prefers: the shy, blushing, giggly Arya, or the one who will shove him against a tree in the woods knowing perfectly well the others could hear them. He sincerely hopes he never has to decide.

 

“It’s natural to me.” He says through a mouthful. “It’s what I do, or what I was always trained to do.” He swallows.

 

She nods. “Right, I forgot.” She’s still looking down, still picking at her fingers. It’s then he recognizes she’s not being shy; it’s sadness.

 

“Hey, what’s wrong?” He asks concerned.

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Arya…” He prompts.

 

“It’s just.” And she sighs. “Seeing you here, in your element. I couldn’t help but notice how relaxed you looked, how free. I’ve never seen you like that. It made me feel guilty.” He opens his mouth to ask her what the hell she’s talking about but she puts her hand up to request further silence. “I know you thought you wanted to be a lord, but you must have realized how suffocating it is, how thankless. And this place, these people; you belong here. I guess I’ve been thinking, maybe you regret it, being stuck with me. It would have been so much easier to live here, work in the forge, and end up with Jeyne. I know you got stuck with me, and I don’t want you to resent me.” She rubs the back of her neck compulsively. He’s floored.

 

“Are you serious right now?”

 

“Don’t make fun of me.” And she’s angry again. This he could deal with. But he thinks he should probably tell her, he’d been wanting to for a while.

 

“I’m not. I’m trying to explain. So just listen, okay?” She nods reluctantly. “I don’t want to be a lord. I never wanted to be. Titles, responsibilities, all those facts and names to remember. Miserable. I wanted a name not a crest. A name to give my children, not years of a history I wasn’t a part of.” She scrunches her mouth in hurt. He continues on.

 

“And you’re always saying I’m stuck. I’m not stuck.” Her eyes get big at that. “When The Queen suggested it, and Stannis agreed to legitimize me, I just thought, what am I doing? I can’t do this, be a lord. I can’t…” He trails off, trying to find better words, knowing he’s gone off course. “But then they said, they said I would get you. And without even meaning to, I said yes. I would get to have you.” She looks utterly stunned.

 

“But, you didn’t even know me.”

 

“I didn’t have to. I did know. I knew. I still know.” At that, she takes his face into her hands and kisses him passionately, till the whole world is only the forge. He keeps his arms tight at his sides as she puts her hands all over him, fingers feeling grooves, and flat planes.

 

“What are you doing? Why are you just standing there?” She says out of breath.

 

He holds up his hands for her to see. “I don't want to ruin your only dress.” She shakes her head at him in disbelief, then shoves him down into the modest chair against the wall. He is surprised for a moment before she sits atop him, thighs on either side of his. She takes his filthy hands and laces her fingers through.

 

“Don’t be stupid.” She scolds with a smile, then places his hands on her waist, a dark mark already forming on the green fabric. That’s all the invitation he needs and then his hands are everywhere, kneading and caressing. Things progress quickly, and he says a silent thank you for the convenience of dresses. He also finds that he likes it just as much with her on top of him; dress smudged in his dirty fingerprints, laces half-open, eyelids hooded, and her hair only partly done. She kisses him once more happily before getting off him. He finds he can’t get up, but reaches out to grab her arm, stopping her.

 

“Where are you going?” She’s smiling, quite pleased with herself. She’s not giggling though.

 

“I’m getting an archery lesson from Anguy. Make him shut up about how ‘skilled’ he is.” His face falls at the mention of the archer.

 

“Oh.”

 

“Don’t be like that. Anguy’s good with a bow, I always used to shoot with my brothers. It’s not what you’re thinking.” She’s right, he knows that. “If you’re still working when I get back, I’ll stop by with dinner. Maybe something I shot myself.” Though he doubts it, given the abysmal gray of the sky. She’s still smiling and kisses him goodbye. He finds he can’t be too worried after all when she kisses him like that, also the very obvious hand prints on every inch of her mark her as his.

 

“Good luck.” He says. She leaves, but looks back once, a wicked smile on her face, before disappearing out the door.

 

It takes a while, but he is finally able to get back up. He tries to get back to work, but has trouble concentrating, remembering how she hadn’t minded his dirty fingers touching her in intimate places. Eventually he settles for polishing some of his finished works when he hears a sharp, pain-filled scream rip through the air. In an instant, though he’s never heard its like before, he knows it’s Arya. He runs out of the forge shirtless, hammer clutched tightly in his hand. He sees a large group circled around something, no one noticing his entrance. Frantically his eyes search out Arya, until he sees her at the center, staring at the ghostly figure of the woman who was once her mother, but now went by the name Lady Stoneheart.

 

A/N: Oh, longest chapter yet. Yup, the reunion had to happen. Think it will be a happy one? Do you think Gendry will ever get lucky again after Arya finds out he kept this from her? Review please.

Chapter Text

Disintegration

 

Arya

 

Arya was in a great mood. That sense of foreboding from yesterday was leading up to the confrontation with that Jeyne girl, but it was done, and now she could stop worrying. Gendry said he wasn’t stuck with her; he wanted her, forever, no matter what. It was like releasing a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. She knew Tom and Anguy might stay behind, so that’s why she was making sure to spend some time with them before then. And she would never miss an opportunity to beat a man at a sport; it made her feel powerful, like she was helping women kind. Though it was admittedly very difficult to leave Gendry just then. She would make sure Gendry spent plenty of time in the forge of Winterfell, where he belonged. He would like that, almost as much as she would enjoy watching him.

 

Another large chunk of the Brotherhood entered camp, and she was very impressed with what these people had managed during the war. For all their crass and drunken behavior, these men had defended the common people of The Riverlands, Tully land, her grandfather’s land. He was dead, but her uncle was supposedly still alive, perhaps she could leave some sort of message for him, she couldn’t afford to waste any family, even if she had heard he was an idiot. The men filed in, disheartened and bone weary. Last of the group was a woman, dressed plainly but of a good quality material, a dark pink, nearly red. It was only as the woman came closer that she recognized her, and screamed.

 

Tom and Anguy were close by and came out immediately at her scream, but her gaze never left the woman who was once her mother. Still too far away, but she could see the grayish tinge to her flesh. The woman, staring right back, doesn’t move, nor does her chest move in or out. Arya walks to her, as if spelled. She feels hands try to detain her but she single-mindedly breaks free and continues forward. She may even hear voices, but can’t be sure; her own heart beat blocking all other sounds.

 

When she’s close enough to see her mother’s bright blue eyes, now covered in a whitish film, she hears a ragged croak, “Arya.” The woman says, a hand covering her throat. Dead eyes squint in recognition. There is no denying it now; this is her mother, Lady Catelyn Stark, back from the grave.

 

“Mommy.” Arya says, still walking. Her voice smaller and younger than she’s ever heard it sound. Her mother takes her hand from her throat and spreads her arms in invitation. With her throat free, Arya can see a ragged gash nearly splitting her neck open. It looks fatal, Arya thinks, it was fatal, she knows. She’s right about the gray skin, but on closer inspection sees pieces hanging off the bone. There’s a smell, one of bodies left to stew, soaked in water, bloated and stretched thin.

 

“My daughter.” Catelyn doesn’t bother putting her hand on her neck wound, but Arya can still hear her, she has to concentrate though. With no more hesitation she runs into her mother’s arms, sobbing and clutching tight. The skin is cold and stiff beneath her fingers, she doesn’t feel like her mother, or smell like her. But when she feels stiff, claw-like fingers comb through her hair, she knows this is the closest she will ever get. Arya feels tear after tear escape down her cheek when one of her mother’s nails gets stuck in a clump of braid; the nail stays put, but a bloody clump of hair comes loose. Arya doesn’t flinch, doesn’t move away.

 

“Arya.” She hears, filled with concern, and knows its Gendry, but can’t look away. Won’t lose one instant with her.

 

After what feels like hours and seconds both, it is her mother who releases her first. Her mother pulls away to look at her daughter’s face, lovingly stroking her cheek, broken fingers scratching her skin. “Beautiful.” Her mother says, brownish tears welling in her eyes. And then her mother’s palm leaves her face, a smile graces the cold, blue lips, and suddenly the woman falls to the ground.

 

“No!” Arya screams. She drops to her knees, cradling her mother’s body. But as her fingers grasp flesh, the skin disintegrates, putrefying into a disgusting puddle. She keeps digging through the mush, strands of auburn hair and hard white bones beneath her fingers. She gags, but keeps going, unable to stop, trying to keep some part of her here, some part of her mother alive. Strong arms lift her up and pull her away.

 

“Stop, Arya. Please stop. She’s gone.” And she stares at Gendry then, recognizing utter pity on his face. It’s then she knows. She shoves him with all her might.

 

“You knew.” She accuses, not asks. He is mute.

 

“You knew! Didn’t you? Didn’t you!” She yells, shoving him again.

 

“Arya, I didn’t know what to say. I knew it would only hurt you. I was trying to protect you.” He defends.

 

“Protect me?” She starts laughing hysterically. “Protect me?” She shoves him once more. “Stay away from me.” And she walks away from him, ignoring the looks of The Brotherhood, stomping with purpose towards the open woods and away from The Inn.

 

“Arya!” He bellows, commands. And she stops, but doesn’t turn around. “You can’t go off by yourself.” It’s an order. She humphs in disagreement.

 

“He’s right, My Lady.” She turns around at this. It’s Thoros. “It’s not safe out there alone. We have many enemies beyond our borders, no one should be out alone.” She then looks at each person in-turn, everyone looking sorry for her. “You shouldn’t be alone.” She’s silent for a long moment.

 

“Fine.” She relents. Gendry moves towards her. “No. Not you.” Merilee steps forward next, but she waves her off. Arya just turns and keeps walking, but shouts over her shoulder. “Ser Lommy. I am in need of an escort. Please accompany me. Or don’t. I don’t care.” She doesn’t have to turn around to know he’s looking at Gendry for direction. She thinks she hears footsteps crunching behind her, but does not look back once.

 


 

She just keeps walking, no direction, no thought, and no destination. She clomps through bushes, over rocks; she takes lefts, and rights, goes backwards, and in circles. If she keeps moving, she won’t have to think, won’t have to feel. It was a trick she’d learned in Bravos, just keep working, mindless tasks really, anything to keep from dwelling on the past. Arya hated to feel helpless, unproductive. Unless she has a tangible solution in the works, she chooses instead to escape, to run. Well, in this case, walk, and shut down her brain. In the woods, in the wild, she is no one’s daughter, wife, sister, or lady.

 

“Oye! Stop!” She doesn’t.

 

“Come on, we’ve been walking for hours.” Lommy whines.

 

“Well you can go piss off then.”

 

“No. Gendry asked me to look out for you. If I go back without you he’ll never forgive me.”

 

“Then don’t go back. Go wank off on that rock over there. I’ll go my way. Everybody wins.”

 

“No.” He insists, walking faster until he’s behind her.

 

“Fine then. Do keep up.” The flat trail starts to incline, and she has to be more careful with each step, picking her way between uneven stones, steadying herself on loose pebbles.

 

“Where are we going?”

 

“Fuck if I know.”

 

“Are you trying to get us lost?”

 

“I’m only kidding. We’re going East, clearly.”

 

“Oh, clearly. Except East is that way.”

 

“Well, what’s the point of having you here if you can’t at least tell direction?” She hears an annoyed scoff behind her, and feels oddly comforted.

 

“Why did you ask for me?”

 

“You didn’t have to come. You can still go, I told you.” Her hands are on her hips as she debates where to place her next step.

 

“I’m serious. We’re not exactly friends.”

 

“That’s an understatement.” She blows a strand of hair from her face.

 

“Well then why me?”

 

“That is why. I thought you wouldn’t hassle me or ask me cloying personal questions. Please don’t prove me wrong.”

 

“Fine. Forget it.”

 

She can hear him starting to breath heavily behind her, and feels her own chest working doubly hard. She puts a hand to her throat and feels her pulse going wildly, pumping erratically. After that she becomes aware of a jelly feeling in her legs, the muscles tingling and unsteady. And still she pushes on. At one point, the incline gets even steeper, and she has to grasp at weeds and roots to pull herself up.

 

“Arya, come on.” She ignores him. On one particular plant, her fingers slip, the leftover goop making her fingers lose purchase.

 

“Arya, stop.” She keeps trying to climb, getting more and more frustrated, and after one violent attempt, her arms muscles give way as well, and she falls back painfully on her bum, twanging her tailbone on the ground.

 

“Stop.” He says again, but there’s no acid behind it.

 

“No no. Don’t talk to me like that.”

 

“Like what? I’m actually trying to get you to see sense.”

 

“I picked you because I know how much you hate me. That’s what I need right now, disdain and disinterest.” He sits down beside her and sighs.

 

“I don’t hate you.” He says.

 

“Really? You go out of your way to ignore me, when you call me Milady it’s like a curse.” He scratches at his scalp through the thick blonde curls.

 

“I know. But it’s not really to do with you. I mean, not exactly.” At that she starts laughing, snorting for maybe the first time in her life.

 

“I know.”

 

“No you don’t.”

 

“You’re in love with Gendry.” He looks frightened, like a deer that knows it’s in your crosshairs.

 

“No, I… what?”

 

“It’s okay, I don’t care. I don’t blame you. I don’t see why you have to take it out on me though.”

 

“You don’t care?” He seems bewildered.

 

“No, I mean I hardly think you can help it. And you have good taste at least.” He laughs at that before covering his mouth, hardly believing the situation can be humorous. She tries to get up, but her legs won’t listen. He winces in sympathy before remembering himself and schooling his features. She appreciates it.

 

“He was only trying to look after you, ya know. He wasn’t trying to hurt you.”

 

“Yeah, then why didn’t he tell me? Why didn’t you for that matter? I would think you would have gotten a kick out of my pain.” He tsks.

 

“Well, he’s in pain too now. You didn’t see the look on his face.”

 

“He should have respected me. He should have told me the truth.”

 

“You’re right. He should have. I should have. But he meant the best. You know that. Please don’t be too mad at him.”

 

“I’m not angry.” She admits, feeling the fatigue down to her bones.

 

“What, but… Why didn’t you let him come with you?”

 

“Because, I couldn’t stand to have him look at me like that.” His light blue eyes look confused.

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like he’s worried I’ll break, like he’s waiting for it. He wants to fix me, make it all better.”

 

“Sounds awful.” He says sarcastically. She’s glad for his presence.

 

“There’s nothing he can do. Seeing the pity on his face, it makes me feel worse that I don’t feel better.”

 

“It’s not pity.”

 

“Concern, then.” She clarifies.

 

“Devotion.” He says, swallowing. “Come on Arya, let’s go back now.” She shakes her head.

 

“No, I can’t. I’m not ready.” The idea of facing them again makes her breath quicken. “I’m not ready. I’m not. I can’t face them. I can’t.” Her voice catches, and she closes her eyes tight. Slowly she eases her back to the ground, the uneven stones digging into her back open up her lungs and let her breathe. She opens her eyes once more and sees the dark clouds, denser than they were just that morning, heavy and ready to unload. But it won’t rain, it’s as if they can’t let go, won’t let themselves. She feels a tentative hand on her shoulder, not expressing pity, but offering support. It’s then the clouds have their permission to release their burdens. They start slow, a drop here and there, before gaining the courage to let down sheets of cold lakes, of oceans.

 

“Shit!” Lommy curses. He gets up, shielding his eyes, looking around them. “We can’t stay here.” He has to yell to be heard over the rain.

 

“Which way back to The Inn?” She asks.

 

“I don’t know. But that’s hours away, we need to find shelter. Come on.”

 

He guides her lightly, but they still fall over frequently. Squelchy mud and unseen rocks make the path difficult, but eventually they find a sort of shelter in a cave. It’s not very big, but they both fit; glad to be safe from the downpour. It’s not long before they’re both shivering, a fire impossible. Lommy is shaking like a leaf, clearly miserable. She thinks he looks rather cute, damp curls stuck to his head.

 

“It’s cold.” She gets out through chattering teeth. He looks at her eyes narrowed, not mentioning it was her fault.

 

“Yes it is.” He agrees. She’s more used to the cold than him, so she knows there’s only one way to keep warm.

 

“Here.” She draws his attention. “We need to get warm.” And she starts peeling off her sodden dress.

 

“Woah, what are you…?” He looks terrified and maybe a little disgusted.

 

“Oh, relax. If I thought you’d enjoy it at all I’d choose a frozen death first.” Without looking at her at all he strips too. They lay back to back to stay warm, and it’s when her body stops shaking from the cold that she starts to cry silent tears. If he feels it, he says nothing, and this feigned invisibility allows her to cry herself to sleep. Tears for her mother that she could finally admit was truly gone.

 


 

 

Bonus Gendry Chapter

 

Where are they? Where the hell are they? They had been gone for hours and hours, and still he stayed put. He knew she needed space and that his face was the last she would want to see. But when the storm hit, the trail washed out, and he couldn’t see five feet in front of his face; his worry turned to true panic. They had to physically hold him back to keep him from running off blindly. They said he’d never find them in this. That they’d found shelter before the storm got too violent. He knew they were right, but the waiting near killed him. He imagined her cold and wet, tired and hungry. But more than that, he imagined her angry and hurting

 

And so, when the storm finally broke the next morning, he was determined to go out and look, Gods help the men who tried to stop him. No one did, both Tom and Anguy agreed to go with him. Anguy due to his skill at tracking, and Tom to keep Gendry sane. Merilee offered to come too, but Gendry insisted she stay. He wanted someone Arya trusted here to welcome her back, keep her calm, and convince her to give Gendry a chance to apologize without screaming and pushing. She understood immediately, and promised to get things settled while he was gone, whatever that meant.

 

They started off the way he thought he’d seen Arya go, but quickly found they had no idea which way to go next. Anguy said he noticed the grass looked more trampled going off in one direction, but Gendry didn’t think it looked any different. They continued on. Not one hour later, Gendry was relatively sure they were going in circles. And he was getting angry.

 

“What the fuck, Anguy? Do you have any idea where we’re going?” Gendry asks, exasperated.

 

“I’m only trying to help.”

 

“You’re a big fucking help.”

 

“Now now, Gendry. We all know you’re worried. But this isn’t helping.” Tom scolds.

 

“No, you’re not helping, you’re useless. She’s out there right now…” He rubs his palm across his mouth.

 

“She’s not alone.” Tom reasons. “Lommy’s with her.”

 

“Yeah, Lommy.” Anguy comments, a bit of underlying sarcasm.

 

“He knows the roads as well as any of us. He’ll have found a safe place for them for the night. He’ll look after her.”

 

“Yeah, I’m sure he’s doing a great job.”

 

“For fucksakes, Anguy, you’re not helping.” Gendry exclaims.

 

“I’m just saying, if I’d gone with her, I would have had her back by now.” Anguy asserts, ruffling his fine brown hair.

 

“Good for you, Anguy. Let’s go back, ey.” Tom says.

 

“Right, because you’re so good with her.” Gendry says.

 

“I understand her, yeah. I wanted to tell her, ‘member? If you’d listened to me in the first place, none o’ this woulda happened.” Anguy retorts.

 

“Shut up, Anguy.” Tom warns.

 

“Oh, so you were gonna tell her when you were off having ‘archery lessons?” Gendry taunts.

 

“What are you implyin’?” Anguy asks.

 

“Like I don’t know what your ‘lessons’ with girls are like. You find excuses to press against them, touch them…”

 

“You think I would do that with your wife?”

 

“Why not? You seem to have no problems staring at her shamelessly.” Gendry accuses.

 

“Alright, that’s enough now…” Tom mediates.

 

“So what if I look? You should be glad you have a desirable wife.” Anguy reasons, casually scratching his stubble.

 

Gendry looks about ready to punch him, But Tom stands in between them. He holds Gendry off, but directs his words to Anguy. “What is wrong with you. The man is clearly hanging by a thread. He’s about to snap and I’m gonna let him beat the crap outta you. Is that what you want?” It’s then that Anguy takes a close look at Gendry, heavy breathing signifying imbalance.

 

“Look, I wouldn’t touch her, alright? You're my friend, Gendry. I’d never steal your wife. I was just looking is all. I mean, we’ve all thought about her naked sure enough.” It was the wrong thing to say, and no sooner did the words leave his mouth than Gendry punched him full-force in the jaw. True to his word, Tom did not interfere. Anguy got in a few well-aimed hits, but Gendry’s rage and irrationality gave him strength; that and his 40 plus pounds of muscle and five extra inches of height. After a few minutes of rolling in the mud, Tom did come between them, Gendry letting him as his anger spilt out. He looked over at Anguy’s mangled face and almost felt a bit of remorse. Tom checked the archer over and helped him up, making sure he could stand on shaky feet.

 

“Alright there, idiot?” Tom asks him.

 

“Yeah. You’re welcome by the way.” He says to Gendry, grinning. Tom actually laughs outright at that. It’s as Gendry gets himself up off the ground that he realizes Anguy had done it on purpose. He was trying to give Gendry a release for all of his anger, fear, and helplessness.

 

“Sorry, Anguy.” Gendry says sheepishly.

 

Anguy spits out blood. “It’s alright. Let’s just get back now, aye.” Gendry agrees, if only to get back and split up properly, four groups, searching in each direction would cover a lot more ground.

 

They arrive back to The Inn, exhausted, disheartened, and chastened. They find the others calmly lounging about, in high spirits, if somewhat subdued. Gendry is furious that the others are so calm when his wife is out there, missing, with… When he sees Lommy hunched on a bench, being given stew, barely awake, he rushes over.

 

“Where is she?” He demands.

 

Lommy stands up calmly. “She’s fine, Gendry. She’s in the forge, probably passed out right now.” He answers. Gendry still can’t relax, not until he sees her safe. He nods once to Lommy, before hurrying inside. He hears Merilee tsk at Anguy and say ‘men’ under her breath.

 

He resists the urge to call out to her, not wanting to wake her if she is asleep. In fact he knows he should probably leave her be altogether until she’s ready, but he knows he won’t be able to breathe properly until he sees her with his own two eyes. She’s not downstairs, the site of their earlier tryst, so he climbs the stairs two at a time to the little room located above.

 

At the top of the stairs he sees the green dress in a heap on the floor, completely ruined. The little bed has a lump in the middle, covered by a thick quilt. The lump is unmoving, but he can see dark brown hair sticking out the top. He should be satisfied with this, he knows, but feels compelled to see her face. He toes off his boots and walks closer, carefully pulling back the sheet until he sees her lovely face, serene in sleep. It should be enough, but it’s not. He leans in close, just enough to feel little puffs of her breath on his face, also allowing him to smell her hair, which has a rather unpleasant odor. Still, he’s not satisfied; he needs to feel her warm skin beneath his palm. He pulls the blanket back further to expose her bare shoulder, knowing all the while that she might wake up and scream his head off, but he doesn’t care. He lightly caresses her shoulder, still soft despite the layer of filth.

 

She stirs, not waking, but coos, and moves closer. He has no idea if it will make things worse, but he knows he won’t be able to relax unless he’s holding her, and in that instant he’s so suddenly exhausted. He strips down as well and gets in beside her, pulling the quilt over them, and pulling her in close. It’s only moments before he’s fallen asleep.

 

 

Bare footsteps padding across the floor wake him. Arya doesn’t stir, which is odd; she’s a much lighter sleeper than he is. But she’d had quite a time recently, emotionally as well as her disappearance for a day and a half. He supposes the steps might be a dog or a cat, so he doesn’t bother himself. The extra weight on the bed does concern him, and he looks up just in time to see Melisandre, naked and ethereal and fearsome, pleased grin upon her face, wicked blade clutched in her fist. Only it’s not his heart she’s poised to stab, she’s hovered over Arya’s vulnerable bare back. He wants to fight, he wants to kill her, but he finds his hands tied above his head, like last time. He’s helpless, and he can’t protect her. He can only yell, ‘Stop, No!’

 

And then there are gentle fingers stroking his hair and soft lips on his, then his cheek, down his jaw. His eyes open, and his heart slows down at the realization that it’s Arya.

 

“You’re okay now, it was just a dream.” Her grey eyes are kind, warm.

 

“Oh, Arya, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

 

“Shhh. It’s fine. You were crying out, it was worse than the last time.” She tells not asks. He nods; only concentrating on the feel of her warmth beneath the blanket, concentrating on the steady beat of her heart, letting his own match hers.

 

She sighs and sits up, wrapping the quilt around her front.

 

“I’m sorry, Arya. I should have told you.”

 

“Don’t apologize. I’m not mad.” But she won’t look at him.

 

“No?” He puts his hand on her shoulder; she flinches, but doesn’t pull away.

 

“No. I understand. You were trying to protect me.”

 

“I was. And I didn’t know how to tell you. I hoped I wouldn’t have to.” She turns her head around to look at him.

 

“I know.”

 

“Please forgive me.” She wipes her face with her hand.

 

“I do forgive you, Gendry, but…” That pause is one of the longest in his life. “I think we need to talk.” She turns all the way around then, so they’re facing each other. “We need to decide what kind of marriage we’re going to have.” His heart picks up again.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“You kept something from me, something huge. I know you wanted to protect me, I get that. I’ve kept things from you. I was trying to protect you in my own way too, I suppose. I’m just as guilty.” What things, he worries. “And that’s not the same as lying, it’s omission. We can keep it up if you like. But here and now we need to decide, are we going to protect each other, or trust each other?”

 

“I do trust you.” He says without hesitation.

 

“No. You didn’t trust that I could handle it. And admittedly, I didn’t react the best. But maybe a head’s up would have made a difference.”

 

“You’re right.”

 

“It’s up to you, Gendry. I’ll let you decide. I won’t take anything from you you don’t want to give.” She runs her fingers through her hair, trying unsuccessfully to untangle the knots atop her head. When her fingers get particularly stuck, she just pulls harder, and he winces in sympathy. He reaches over and gently untangles the tangle, smoothing it down as best he can.

 

“My nightmare.” He starts, and she gives him her full attention. “It’s the same, or, about the same thing, it was different this time. But, it’s always her. It’s always Melisandre.”

 

“The Red Woman?” Her eyes gets wider.

 

“She was… we… She’s the one I…” Why can’t he say it?

 

“Oh.” Apparently he doesn’t have to. “She’s very beautiful.” She says.

 

“Yes.” He agrees. “And heartless.” He swallows deeply.

 

“She hurt you.” He nods. “She broke your heart?” He laughs at that, but there’s no humor behind it.

 

“No, I mean she hurt me.” He scratches his bicep until it turns whiter, not looking at her. “She found me, said I was special. She said my blood made me important, that I was meant for great things. No one had ever thought anything o’ me before.” Now that he’s started, he can’t stop. “I believed her o’ course. The way she talks, and walks and stares into you. She seemed to know everythin’.” He can’t concentrate on speaking right. “And then I thought she wanted me. She took off her clothes, and… well you know how I get, I couldn’t even think. But she didn’t want me, she wanted my blood. She took me, and then she tied me down. She put leeches all over me, I begged her not to, but she didn’t even slow, didn’t even flinch. She did some kinda spell with it, I don’t know what, I don’t wanna know.”

 

When he feels her hands cover his own he finally looks at her. She’s understanding and patient.

 

“And then what?”

 

“She wanted to sacrifice me.” Arya sucks in a startled breath at that. “Ser Davos convinced my uncle to spare me, but it was a close call. In my dreams, she’s here, laughing, drawing blood or hurting you, and I can’t move. I’m helpless and weak just like back then.” He says ashamed. She takes his hand and kisses it.

 

“So she is a witch then?” She asks. He shrugs.

 

“I dunno what she is exactly. She says her power comes from The Red God, but it’s terrible. And it’s real.”

 

“What else can she do?” He’s surprised at the line of her questioning.

 

“Besides bloodletting and ritual sacrifice? I dunno. She tells my uncle what to do, says she can see things in the fires.”

 

“And it’s true, what she sees? Has she ever been wrong, or lied?” She’s very intent on his answer, and the hands holding his squeeze even harder.

 

“I don’t know. Why are you asking, Arya?” She doesn’t answer, debating on what to say.

 

“I didn’t believe in The Red God, not even when you told me about Thoros. But now that I’ve seen…” She swallows painfully. “She spoke to me.” He sits straight up at that.

 

“Melisandre?” She nods. “What, what did she say?”

 

She has a sad smile on her face. “She said I would never bare a stag.” He feels as though someone just kicked him in the chest.

 

“And do you, do you believe her?”

 

“I don’t know.” She says honestly.

 

“When did… How did she…?”

 

“At the wedding, she sought me out to deliver her warning. And then she just disappeared.”

 

“Maybe she was just trying to unnerve you. Or get back at me. She has been wrong. Her visions aren’t always clear. You can’t put too much stock in that evil woman.” He reassures her, not at all sure if he believes his own words.

 

“I hope you’re right.” She doesn’t quite believe him either.

 

“I don’t care. No matter what, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me either way.” He swears. She smiles at him, but it doesn’t meet her eyes.

 

“But it does matter. Or it will.” He opens to mouth to deny it again but she silences him. “You didn’t read the contract did you?”

 

“What contract? Oh the marriage contract. Uh, no.” He doesn’t admit that he’d tried to, but despite Ser Davos’ lessons in reading and writing, he still had difficulty with big words.

 

“Your Uncle Stannis promised me the men for The North, but only once a Baratheon heir is produced.”

 

“What?!? He can’t do that.” He’s furious at his uncle’s meddling. “I’ll talk to him, I’ll make him do as he promised, Arya. I swear it…”

 

“I already talked to him.” She cuts him off. “He’s agreed to a compromise.” She’s not looking at him again.

 

“What compromise?”

 

“I was trying to protect you. I knew it would hurt you.”

 

“What compromise?”

 

“To turn you into a proper lord, an heir he could be proud of. He’s going to inspect you and decide if I’ve fulfilled my end.” He chokes at that, and she looks guilty. He swallows painfully.

 

“Ah, so that’s what all the lessons were about. You’re meant to fix me.” She grimaces.

 

“Yes. Imagine picking me though, I hardly set a good example.” She tries to joke.

 

“You should have told me.”

 

“Yes.” She agrees simply. “I should have trusted you. And I don’t want to change you, Gendry. Not a bit.” He gathers her close, and she wraps her arms around him in turn.

 

“We’ll figure this out.” He whispers into her shoulder, kissing the spot near her neck. “One way or another, together.”

 

“Okay.” She agrees, nodding. “But, can we go back to sleep now?” He pulls her back down and they get comfortable once more, settling against each other. They’re both still, but neither falls back asleep, minds working furiously.

Chapter Text

Almost to Storm's End

Arya

True to her word, Merilee had prepared everything. When Arya and Gendry awoke, at almost the same time, there was soap and water for bathing, and a set of clean clothes laid out. They helped each other wash, finding places the other had missed, and so the entire process took much longer than it should have, but neither minded.

They emerged clean, dressed sharply in pants and tunics. This was Arya's last set of clothing; it was a good thing Storm's End was so close; she was getting a little sick of the constant travelling. And she definitely did not want to stay here, in this place. When they left, they would be taking something important with them. Merilee had gone so far as to clean her mother's bones, wrap them carefully, and place them alongside her father's in the trunk. It was a thoughtful gesture, and Arya was thankful her parents would get to be together again.

It was a tearful goodbye as they bid adieu to Tom and Anguy. Arya was surprised at her display of affection, it was truly uncommon for her. Anguy said they would get to hunt with a bow and arrow some day, and that she had better practice until then. Tom said he was half way through with the ballad, and he would call it The Bastard Blacksmith Baratheon and The Beautiful She-Wolf, but he hadn't settled on that title yet. He promised to play it for her when they next met.

She saw Thoros off to the side, scraggly hair pulled into a messy bun, watching with intelligent eyes. She decided to talk to him, well, give him a piece of her mind.

"Thoros, Priest of The Red God. We never really got the chance to speak."

"My Lady Baratheon. No, I suppose not. A shame that. I would have liked to speak with you at length."

"As would I. I have more than a few words for you, none of them pleasant."

"You're angry." He observes.

"How could you do that? Turn her into… that? It was wrong, and you know it. You should have left her in peace." She points a finger at him accusingly.

"I didn't bring her back. That was Lord Beric. He gave up his life for hers. I would have never given her the gift, I could see she was gone too long."

"But you let her go on. You could have stopped it, could have ended her suffering, but you didn't." She clenches her jaw.

"Aye. But I'll not be judged by the likes of you." He says.

"A woman, you mean."

"No, a lady. You highborns can judge us all you like, tell us what to do, but you're not here. You weren't here. You've no idea what it's like. You start wars, and it's us who fight in 'em. I'll not apologize for the choices I made."

"You're right. I don't know what it's been like here." She says, watching Gendry with the little orphans. "But don't think I haven't been fighting too, in my way. I've lost as well."

"And it's not over yet, you should know that better than most. Take care, My Lady." He leaves her at this. It takes her a moment to think on the meaning of his words. But soon it came to her, the Stark words. Winter is coming. Always. Was he making fun of her, being overly cautious, or did he see things like Melisandre? There would be more fighting, that she did not doubt. But what more could she possibly have to lose?

Gendry took the time to say goodbye to each of the children in turn, asking them to come visit when they got settled, promising that they would need brave soldiers and loyal bannermen amongst them. The children loved him for it. Arya felt very awkward watching, and while she wasn't so much jealous, she got a true sense of what she had taken from these people. From one tall brunette in particular. She sought the woman out from within the Inn, apparently she hadn't come out to say goodbye.

"Jeyne." She called, wanting to give the woman a chance to ignore her if need be.

"Here." The woman called back. She found Jeyne wiping up tables, keeping busy.

"Hi." She says.

"Hi." Jeyne responds.

"We're leaving. I thought you might want to say goodbye. To Gendry, I mean." That wasn't why she had come in.

"We said what needed to be said. We've had our goodbyes." But she stops wiping.

"I just. I wanted to meet you, I guess. Thank you."

"Thank me? For what?"

"For Gendry." She scoffs at that.

"I didn't give him to you. And you didn't take him. He left, that doesn't really have much to do with either of us." Jeyne puts a strand of hair behind her ear.

"Still. I wanted to give you, something." She takes out a large ruby, one of the stones from the recovered pack and holds it out to the woman, who makes no move to take it. In fact her eyebrows rise in fury.

"What the Hell is that? Do you think you can buy him from me like livestock?" She is truly offended, and Arya wants to kick herself for the unintended slight. She quickly backtracks.

"No. I mean of course not. There's no price, no amount that would be enough. I just, I just wanted you to know that I know how valuable he is, beyond gold or jewels. And without him… I can't imagine. I don't want to. I just thought, with the children, perhaps it would help…" She breaks off. Jeyne takes the jewel, but doesn't look at her, or say thank you. Not that she would expect as much.

"Just look after him, yeah. He works so hard, he forgets to eat sometimes. Or sleep, or bathe. You'll have to remind him." She says kindly.

"I'll look after him." Arya promises.

Gendry enters and Jeyne quickly hides the jewel behind her back, which Arya is glad for. He looks extremely uncomfortable seeing the two of them together.

"Arya. Jeyne." He swallows. "What are you two talking about?" Arya decides to tease him a bit.

"Oh you know, girly secrets. Apparently we have a lot in common." Jeyne tries very hard to hide a smile at his discomfort.

"Apparently so." Jeyne agrees. He looks nervously back and forth between the two of them.

"I'll be outside." Arya says, giving them some peace. As she walks past Willow, the little girl gives her a dirty look. She only smiles at the child, and receives none in return.

Merilee is waiting with a knowing look.

"What did you two talk about?"

"Just… coming to terms."

"I noticed one of the jewels is missing." Merilee is far too observant.

"Leave it."

There is more hugging before they set out.


 

She was still emotional, even hours later on the road, very unusual for her. She also felt tired and not a little cranky. It wasn't until she felt the sensation of repeated kicks to the gut that she understood why. At the best of times, she disliked this monthly event, but now especially it seemed another bad omen of the dreaded prophecy.

Gendry was sweet and attentive, and she kind of wanted to hit him. But she curbed the impulse, mastering her emotions as best as she could. She had to make frequent stops, and when Gendry tried to come with her, she had to insist against it. This brought on his patented kicked-puppy look.

They were very close to Storm's End, and they could all tell that Gendry was very nervous. Brent, Rik, and Begby decided to take his mind off of things by getting Gendry to spar with them. He reluctantly agrees, and this immediately lifts Arya's mood considerably. Arya has always loved fighting with swords, the skill of battling an opponent, the rush of the attack and defense.

She watches them, and is quite impressed with Gendry. He's strong, has quick reflexes for his size, and takes a hit quite well. It's by the second match that he takes his shirt off, and Arya is upset all over again about her monthly visitor.

"Arya. Arya." A hand waves in front of her face. It's Merilee trying to get her attention, clearly amused at her friend's distracted gaze.

"What?" She snaps, to which Merilee sucks her teeth.

"Woah. What did I do?"

"Sorry." She amends. "I'm not myself."

"You too, huh?" Merilee asks.

"Ugh." Arya moans in answer. "How come you're acting so normal?"

"I'm used to being around lots of women, all in sync. I've even had to work mid-flow. This situation is a piece of cake." Annoyingly cheerful. Now she wanted to punch Merilee. Instead she interrupts the boys.

"Hey, I want a turn." She shouts, walking towards them. They stop immediately, mid-swing.

Begby laughs heartily at that, and Gendry smiles condescendingly. He must notice the look on her face, because his smile drops immediately.

"Arya, come on."

"What?" She asks, arms crossed.

"I mean. You can't."

"I can't what? Fight? I've killed men before. I've watched the life leave their eyes." Poor Brent looks a little frightened.

"Ummm. Honey. I just don't want you to get hurt."

"I won't get hurt. I'm better than you think. I trained with Syrio Forel, The First Sword of Bravos."

"Bravos?" Begby stares at her, doubtful. "Where they prance around with twigs?"

Arya's eyes widen to twice their normal size.

"No, it's called the Water Dance."

"A dance. Pfft." He answers simply.

"Come on. Right now. You and me." She says, finding a few good-sized sticks.

"Arya, you're not doing this." Gendry says.

"Excuse me?"

"You're going to get hurt. Some dance won't exactly do much against swords…" Gendry reasons.

"What do you know? I could beat you." He outright laughs at that. And Arya hits him with her stick on his arm. He looks shocked, but doesn't stop laughing.

"It's not funny. And your footwork is sloppy, you don't even stand sideface." She comments.

"Arya…"

She hits him again, on the other side. He isn't laughing now. This is what she needed.

"What's wrong, Gendry. Forgot how to fight?" She smiles now.

"We're not doing this." But he lifts his stick up in defense.

She aims for his leg, but he blocks her.

"Good, you can block." She taunts, immediately hitting him on the other leg.

"Ow." He exclaims, not faking.

Rik laughs at Gendry's pain.

Gendry lets himself get distracted, and she uses the opportunity to hit the same arm from before.

He looks a bit angry, and holds his stick harder, widening his stance, and looking intent. Good. She smiles wider.

They spar for a bit, but they're somewhat evenly matched. He's holding back, but only in force, he's really getting into this. The cramps, the bloating, the disappointment, it all dissolves into nothing. He is paying close attention, trying to discern her pattern, and failing. She shows no mercy.

He gets in one good hit to her shoulder, maybe a bit harder than he intended, and she drops her 'weapon' and clutches the injured spot. Gendry immediately drops his stick, looking horrified.

"Arya, I'm so…"

"Calm down. I'm fine." She's still rubbing her sore shoulder absent-mindedly. Syrio would not be proud of this performance, she was really out of practice.

"No you're not, you're hurt. Fuck, I knew this was a bad idea."

"Why? We were practicing. People get hurt sometimes. It's not a big deal." She'll need more practice.

"It is though, Arya. You're just a girl."

"Just a girl?" She shouts incredulous.

"Gendry, be careful man, they're always crazy when they're bleeding." Rik warns. To which Merilee slaps him quite hard on the backside of the head.

Arya, embarrassed, both at the comment and her overreaction to the pain, walks away, afraid she'll either stab one or all of them, or start crying. Damn emotions.

Of course, not five minutes later, she hears footsteps approaching.

"Damnit, Gendry. Don't follow me every time I walk away. That's kind of the point."

"Okay. Can you explain to me exactly what I did?" Always so calm and reasonable.

"No. But I will tell you this is one of those times where you should really keep your distance if you don't want to come to any bodily harm."

"I'll risk it."

"Oh, right, you think I'm just some weak little girl. Incapable and helpless." She could almost agree, that showing earlier was pathetic.

"You're not helpless. You're scaring the shit outta me right now." He says honestly. She rolls her eyes but says nothing more.

"I'm sorry?" He guesses.

"You don't think we're equals." She says, slightly less angry.

"No, we're not." And she's furious again.

"You're way better." She blinks slowly at that. "You're smarter, lovelier. And in many ways your much much stronger. But I'm bigger than you, Arya. If you get hurt... I can't have that. I couldn't live with myself." She blows out a big puff of air, completely at a loss.

"Just stop." She says with an angry undercurrent.

"What is this really about?" He rubs the back of his neck confused.

"I just told you." She deadpans.

"Is this about what Rik said? The bleeding?" She's actually surprised he's saying so many wrong things. It's really not like him. Although she does entertain the notion that she's being a bit extra sensitive.

"Okay, I'm just going to come out and tell you this, because it's clear you just don't know any better. Like a child. That particular subject is not something you should ever ask about, nor should you pick a fight with me in this moment. Unless there are swords involved. Clear?"

"Wait. He was right? Are you okay?" He has so much concern in his dark blue eyes, that she feels a bit sorry for him.

"Yes. It's not really a big deal though." And it isn't. Maybe she has been letting it get to her. No, his laughter directed at her and overreaction to a little bruising was extremely condescending and insulting. And her own disappointment, how could she have let herself get so sloppy?

"It is a big deal. If you're bleeding it could be serious." And now she's concerned, how does he not know these things, how has he survived this long in the world without her?

"No, it's normal. All women get it every month." At his blank look, she elaborates. "It's how we have babies."

"You're pregnant?" At the mix of excitement and terror on his face, a hollowness settles in where the cramps were before.

"No. It means I'm not pregnant." His countenance turns to pity.

"Oh, is that what's getting to you?" Before she can tell him to fuck off, he puts his arms around her and holds her close. "I'm not worried. I don't believe her. And anyway we haven't been married for long. We still have time." She wants to be angry at his easy dismissal, but she does feel a bit better despite herself. She wants to believe him, she really really does. "Unless you're worried I won't live up to my end of the bargain. That I'll disappoint my uncle." Aww fuck.

"No. Well, yes. But that's nothing to do with you. Stannis is just such a joyless, judgmental, pretentious prick. Who can predict how he'll react?"

"We'll make him. I told you that. I promised, didn't I? Don't you have faith in me?" She's now beginning to suspect he's an evil genius. Somehow he's completely turned the fight around so now he's the wronged party. Damnit.

"Of course I do." He kisses her forehead lovingly.

But just in case, she means to train extra hard once they reach Storm's End. It won't do to freeze up over every little hurt and bruise. Married life wouldn't make her weak.


 

A/N: Okay, so I just wanted to write this scene as a departure from the main plot. Oh Gendry, you never stop being adorable. I find his cluelessness cute; I just can't seem to write him any other way. And did he manipulate her? Who knows? Arya's not always level headed, we all know she throws a lot of tantrums. She really needs to get past that. Also, for the story later, I can't have Arya be too good with a blade. She has a background with Syrio, but never got the chance to be great. She will rise above though, of course.

Up Next- Gendry meets his cousin, learns a bit more about Arya's past, takes on responsibilities at Storm's End, and gets into some trouble. Review please!

 

Chapter Text

Storm's End

Gendry

He was nervous. Storm's End was looming in the distance, beautiful and mysterious, and he felt- unworthy.

Arya notices his hesitation and grabs his hand, weaving her fingers through his. He breathes out through his nose. If she thought he was worthy, then who was he to argue?

In fact, when he looked over at her he saw her swallow gruffly.

"What is it?" He asks.

"I just. I just wish I had something proper to wear." She admits, looking over her pants and tunic. At this he actually chuckles.

"You never cared before." He points out.

"But it's your family, your home. I'd rather make a good impression this time." She's biting her lip. He kisses her fingers from between his own, she smiles a bit at him, and he does feel better instantly.

"They'll be impressed alright." He remarks. To which she actually sticks her tongue out at him. The men giggle behind them.

They ride up, and a guard stops them. "Who goes there?" The guard enquires.

She squeezes his hand once in reassurance. "Lord and Lady Baratheon, Heir to Storm's End." The man looks skeptical, but takes a closer look at Gendry's thick head of black hair and sparkling blue eyes, then rushes to open the gate.

They ride in, and Gendry is relieved at how easy that was. It had taken a lot for him to call himself Lord Baratheon, but the man hadn't even questioned it. Arya didn't look at all surprised; perhaps he really did belong here.

It's beautiful, the waves crashing along the shore, dark towers blocking the sun; it represents power. Upon their entrance, they're greeted by an older steward with greying hair, a serving woman who was twice the size around as Hot Pie, and a stiff guard, with hair as black as his own. They all took turns welcoming them, giving him the run-down of the castle, complaining about how little notice they'd had, and asking if he needed anything. He just nodded to make it look like he understood, but he was completely overwhelmed. Behind a corner he saw a petite young woman stick her head out, before disappearing back out of view. The guard, Daryn, offered to show Hot Pie, Lommy, and the others to their quarters. The steward, Maester Elwin, had a lot of 'imperative questions' and Arya, noticing his distress, volunteered to go with him and answer what she could. She kissed him goodbye, and the look he gave her of abandonment made her pause, but she just scooted him along in encouragement and followed the older gentleman.

The round and cheerful serving woman was delighted to have a new young master, or so she said, and gushed about the food that would be prepared, asked how he wanted his rooms set up, and expressed a desire to see babies running around the castle. He was actually quite glad Arya had left before that, as he knew such talk would only upset her. He'd told her it didn't matter to him, and that was true. He was happy just to have her. Babies could come later. But of course, there was also his uncle and his demands to contend with. Just the thought of his uncle's interference made him clench his fist in anger. It didn't help that Arya hadn't let him touch her since the morning of their departure from the Brotherhood. Her moon's blood she'd said. He believed her, but he didn't really understand what it actually meant. How could a woman bleed and not need healing? And what did any of it have to do with sex? If he cut himself, he didn't think it would stop him from wanting his wife. He'd gone much longer without before, but that was before Arya. He never did understand women, so he would just let her tell him when it was alright again. But Gods he was tense.

Merilee surprisingly offered to help the serving woman, Marta, her name was, to get their things sorted and their rooms prepared, and she too left him. He was glad to be rid of them, but now he had no idea what to do with himself or where he was meant to go. The girl popped out from behind the corner again, and this time he got a good look at her. She was a short little thing with light brown hair; she was covered head to toe in fine black cloth. She was young too he thought, 12 or 13, and one side of her face was marked with grey. For an instant he thought it some sort of stain or leftover dirt, but the closer he got he recognized it as grey scale; and he concluded that this was his cousin Shireen.

"Hullo." He greeted. She looked startled, but didn't disappear again. "Are you, Shireen?" She nods, careful to keep her grey flesh towards the shadows.

"Are you my cousin?" She asks. He smiles at that. It feels weird, but pleasant to be called such.

"Aye." He answers, all the while approaching her slowly. She's obviously quite timid, and he doesn't want to scare her off.

"My Lord." She says and curtsies to perfection.

"None o' that. It's Gendry, please."

"Gendry, then." And he smiles widely at her.

"Can I call you Shireen, then? Or cousin? Or…"

"Shireen is fine." She answers, smiling shyly. They're both silent for a bit, unsure what else to say. So he speaks next.

"Do you know where I'm supposed to go, Shireen? I have no idea where anything is."

"Oh, certainly. Do you want to get to the main hall or your rooms?" She asks.

"Uh… Maybe start with the kitchens and go from there?" He suggests helpfully. "I would be much obliged to have a guide." She nods excitedly and motions him to follow, waiting patiently. As he gets close to her he sees how short she is, reaching only a little above his elbow. She's fast though, her little legs moving furiously, his longer legs have no trouble keeping up, only requiring one step for each of her two, two and a half.

"The kitchens." She introduces. "Lunch has already passed, but of course they'll give you anything you want. My favorite is the lamb stew. They make it really nice with basil in it."

"I love lamb stew, all stew really. Hot Pie uses rosemary in his, but basil sounds good."

"Hot Pie?" She questions. He chuckles.

"He's my friend, and a great cook. I'm sure he'll want to mess around in here a bit."

"But… is his name really Hot Pie?" She looks truly perplexed.

"I dunno, no one's ever asked. You could though, I bet he'd tell you if you asked." She gets him some roast turkey leg and sits with him while he tries it. He declares it delicious between a mouthful of meat, and she giggles behind her hand.

Next she takes him to the library, which she declares to be her favorite place in the whole castle. She talks excitedly, arms flailing animatedly pointing to the different sections. "Here are the sciences; medicines, herbs, stars, maths, prophecies, and the like." She points to the right. "All the great poets and romances, some are even in High Valyrian." She says proudly. "Oh, and of course, the histories, we've a whole section on the Targaryans and their dragons." He can tell this is her favorite.

"Arya will like those, I'm sure. She's always talking about Nymeria and all."

"Arya, your wife, you mean."

"Yeah, you'll like her for sure."

"She's pretty. I like her pants." She smiles, then looks down as if she's said something wrong.

"Me too." He says.

"What do you like to read?" She asks.

"Not much to be honest. I can't read too well. Ser Davos was teaching me, but…" At the mention of The Onion Night her face truly lights up.

"Ser Davos? How is he?"

"Alright, last I saw him. He'll prolly come back soon, he and Sta… your father are set to visit soon." She completely ignores the part about Stannis.

"I taught Ser Davos to read. I can certainly help you too."

"I don't want to bother you."

"Oh, it's no bother. Writing too. I have excellent penmanship." She proclaims proudly. Her blue eyes are fully alight now, and he can see the resemblance. He decides he rather likes having a cousin. She takes his hand and pulls him along to the yard, the stables, the grand hall, and finally his room.

"Thank you, Shireen. I would have been truly lost without you. You're the best." He says, meaning it. He kisses her on her grey scale cheek. She looks shocked, but quickly hides it.

"Will I see you for dinner?" She asks through her lashes.

"O' course." She scampers off and he feels completely at ease. Storm's End was in fact huge, but with a little cousin to show him around, and a wife to help deal with his lordly tasks, he wasn't so worried.

Upon entering his chambers he finds it is already occupied. A cute little bottom is visible from the closet, Arya sorting something out of sight, ass wiggling invitingly to him. He grins; Arya had found something to wear and had made it back before him.  He can't seem to help himself, and reaches out to startle his wife, giving Arya a playful tickle. He hears a startled yelp and giggle in response and immediately retracts his hands, recognizing that it is not in fact his wife.

The petite woman turns around, and he can now plainly see it is not Arya, though she has a similar shape. The woman in question, clearly a servant, has a rounder face, lighter hair, and darker eyes.

"I'm sorry." He says stupidly. "I thought you were my wife."

She curtsies, her eyes looking down demurely, and huskily says. "No apologies necessary, Milord." Bad, this is very bad. "I'm Kahlen, Milord."

"Still, uh. I apologize. I'm fine, you can, uh, go now, Kahlen." He dismisses her.

"Of course, Milord." And she curtsies again. Why do women always have to do that? On her way out she purposefully brushes up against him, making sure her breasts make contact with his arm. Gendry is usually pretty oblivious, but even he knows what that means. He says nothing though, too embarrassed to speak.

Before leaving she turns to him once more. "Oh, Milord, one more thing." And she pulls a letter enticingly from her bodice, drawing very close attention to her cleavage. "This came a little over a week ago. I thought you should have it." She says. He takes it from her hand, though she doesn't let it go easily.

"Thank you." He says. Already ignoring her to inspect the letter. After a while he hears the door close and breathes out a sigh of relief. For fucksakes.

The letter isn't actually for him; it's addressed to Arya. And it's already been opened. Makes sense, if it got here before their arrival. He places it carefully on the bed, and goes over to the wardrobe to find a new shirt. Inside are dozens of shirts, over shirts, pants, belts, and the like. Many are emblazoned with the Baratheon stag and for a moment he gets the sense that he shouldn't be touching them. But then he remembers these are his chambers, it's his castle, and the stag is his sigil. These clothes are meant for him. On the bottom are a number of pairs of boots, fine leather, in various colors. There is a chest, which houses under things and a few pieces of stag themed jewelry, large gold chains and pins. There is no women's clothing; the late Selyse Baratheon must have stayed in different rooms. He'll have to have some of her things brought in for Arya. Not that serving girl though. He finds a plain shirt and changes into it, the fit and feel exquisite.

He waits for Arya for some time, but gets bored, and then anxious. It feels strange to be there alone, doing nothing. The letter is staring at him, splayed open. He picks it up and then puts it down. He reasons that it could be important, from Danaerys or her brother Jon, or even Stannis. He opens it in the end.

'My Dearest Arya'

What, who is Arya dearest to besides him?

'I am safely in Dorne, they have taken me in adm…' He's not sure about that word.

'When I heard you had married that bastard' He knows that word.

'I nearly flew back to you. My horr…' What? Horror? Horrible? Something bad.

'Aunt forced you into it, I know. And I don't blame you. I think about you daily. The sound of your laugh,' Log? Oh, laff. Why was it spelled like that?

'the curve of your breast, the taste of your sweet lips.' What?!

'You are welcome here for as long as I live. Today, tomorrow, or ten years from now.' Who the fuck is this?

'Come to me my love.' Love?

'Yours faithfully, Aegon Targaryan, Third of His Name, True Ruler of Westeros'

Aegon… That little blonde-headed, purple-eyed little shit. How dare he? He had no right to talk about his wife's breasts, or her kisses, or even her laughter. What did he know about it? Writing her letters, asking her to run off with him… Were they writing back and forth? Was Arya anticipating this letter? Was she waiting for just such an offer, waiting to escape him?

No. No. That was crazy. She wouldn't do that. But he'd talked about her kisses. Only he should know how sweet her lips tasted. Damn!


 

He found her in The Rookery, studiously scratching on parchment. Writing correspondence perhaps?

"Arya?" She looks up at him and smiles. He forgets himself for a minute.

"Gendry. I'm just finishing up this letter, I'll be right with you." And she goes back to her task. A letter to whom?

He walks over and drops the open letter on the desk in front of her, blocking her scribbles. She takes it tentatively.

"Were you writing to him?" He asks before she even gets the chance to look at it. She looks at him instead.

"What is this?" She asks him instead, a crease between her brows. And despite himself he finds it adorable. No, focus!

"You tell me." Her lips are puckered, but she opens the letter to read its contents. Her eyebrows shoot up halfway through, but she reads all of it. "Gendry, I…"

"How long have you been writing him? Were you planning to run away with him, or…"

"Gendry Baratheon! Think very carefully about the next words to come out of your mouth." She warns.

"How does he know about your breasts?" She rolls her eyes.

"I told you about him, Gendry. I never lied. You have more of a 'past' than I do."

"That's different. This Aegon thinks he knows things. He knows too much."

"What exactly are you suggesting?" She crosses her arms in front of her chest, which only makes him angrier.

"How long have you been writing to him?"

"I haven't been. This is the first letter I've seen."

"But he sent it here, Arya. He wants you to run off with him."

"I already knew he was in Dorne. If I wanted him, I would be there now." She responds.

"It's Winterfell you want, not me." She clenches her jaw and shakes her head.

"How dare you." She says calm and controlled, which should really scare him more than anything so far.

"I just want the truth." He demands. She picks up the letter she was writing and slaps it hard against his chest.

"Here, read my clandestine love letter. And when you're done, please be sure to send it out for me." And she storms out, clearly furious.

After a few moments of barely constrained anger, he realizes what he's done. Whatever the circumstance, he shouldn't have let her leave angry. He should have told her she was beautiful, promised her anything, and begged her to stay.

He goes to his late aunt's chambers and knocks several times. He tells her it's time for dinner and Arya shouts through the door that he should 'Go to Hell!' But at least he knows she hasn't left, so he goes down to dinner to fortify himself.

Shireen is all excited to see him, but he can only muster a small smile. They all look at him warily, but noticing Arya's absence, decide to ignore him. Merilee is also notably absent. Of course. It's only Shireen that asks him what's wrong.

"It's… it's. Don't worry, it's none of your concern."

"I want to help. I am a woman, you know." He cracks a smile at that, and before he can change his mind, he makes up an excuse and leads her out to the empty hall. He shows her Aegon's letter. She cocks an eyebrow while reading, much the same way Arya had. He waits for her to finish this time.

"Well?"

"He sounds like a lovesick fool." She states firmly.

"Yes, but. Should I be worried?" He asks nervously. He can't believe he's asking the advice a little girl. Although, she can read better than he can.

"Well, when did this arrive?"

"Umm, over a week ago."

"And she's been with you all this time?" He nods. "Have you seen her write anything?"

"No, but…"

"Has she had any access to ravens?"

"No, he admits."

"This Aegon obviously sent this a while ago, it sounds like he hasn't spoken to her since they parted. And while he is a bit overly familiar with her, it doesn't sound too detailed. I've heard more crass poems written about nymphs and sirens than this." Oh shit. "Have you shown this to her?"

"Yes." She raises her eyebrows. "And I accused her of…" She covers her face with her hands in disbelief.

"And…"

"She stormed out, but not before giving me this." And he shows her the other letter, the one he hadn't been able to bring himself to read yet. She takes it carefully. She reads it and puts a hand to her heart.

"Aww." She remarks.

"What?" He asks, even more anxious.

"Did you read this?" He shakes his head no. She rolls her eyes.

"Don't you think you should?" She asks as if speaking to a child.

"Read it to me." She tsks, but does as he requests.

"Dear Jon," She starts but he interrupts. Oh...

"That's her brother on The Wall." He interjects, but she waves him off.

"I haven't heard from you in so long, I fear the worst. I've heard all sorts of stories about the creatures on The Wall. All I ask is a letter, a sentence, a word. Just let me know you're alive. We're the last, Jon. I'm at Storm's End now, but soon I hope to be on my way home. I swear to you I'll rebuild Winterfell to its original glory and make Father proud."

That's so like her, always concerned with her family's honor.

"I've found his bones. And my mother's too. I know you two didn't get along, but if you'd seen what I'd seen; you'd want her put to rest too. I thought I heard Bran; he called to me. Perhaps I'm going mad, but it pleases me to think of him in the bosom of The Old Gods."

So superstitious, his wife.

"Also, I'm married."

Fantastic, he was an afterthought.

"I know, I swore I never would. Danaerys forced it upon me, it was the only way to strengthen my position in The North."

Was this meant to make him feel better?

"But it's not so bad. He's very kind and he treats me well, so don't worry. His name is Gendry. He's a smith, and a Baratheon. I want you to meet him. I'm sure when you do, you'll love him like I do. One day I hope you will come visit us, you will be very welcome, and finally all will be set to rights. I miss you, brother. Send me word that you're alive and well, I beg you. Love, Arya." Shireen finishes, appropriately awed.

She loved him, or sort of. She said she did.

"Fuck." He simply says.

"Basically." She agrees.

"What do I do now?" He asks, at a loss.

"Get down on your knees and beg her forgiveness." A voice from behind him says.

He looks over to see none other than Arya, looking at him expectantly.

"Arya…" He starts. She's wearing a simple charcoal dress, modest, but lovely on her.

She notices Shireen. "Hello." She greets.

"Uh, hi." Shireen says back nervously.

"Nice to meet you, Shireen, is it?"

"Yes, nice to meet you, My Lady."

"It's Arya, if you don't mind."

"Nice to meet you, Arya."

"Shireen, do you think I might have a moment with my husband?"

"Of course." And she smirks, a tad amused at the predicament, before returning to the dining room. Traitor.

"I'm an idiot." He finishes. She rolls her eyes.

"I know." The way she says it suggests she is expecting more.

"I never should have talked to you like that, or assumed anything untoward. I just love you so much and I got so jealous, I… I can't do this, any of this without you and I…"

"Alright, alright, calm down." And she puts her hand on his arm, which he takes as a good sign. "The things you said were hurtful." She says.

"Did I mention the part where I love you and I'm an idiot?" He places his hand on hers.

"I should have told you more about Aegon. But the truth is, I'm a bit ashamed about my behavior concerning him." He swallows.

"What do you mean?" He almost doesn't want to know the answer.

"Do you know how I met Daenerys?" He shakes his head no. "I was waiting for something, but I had no idea what. That is until I heard about The Dragon Queen, Breaker of Chains, The Unburnt. Well of course I had to see for myself."

"Of course." He agrees.

"Now that was the hard part. She was very well guarded; no strangers were allowed an audience. And I couldn't just announce myself, I was in hiding. However, I heard that her nephew Aegon, always at her side, was much less cautious. And he had quite the fondness for a certain type of girl." Gendry is getting uncomfortable with where he thinks the story is going, but he doesn't interrupt. "So, I blended in as serving girl and focused my attention on the young dragon. It was rather easy actually; I became something of an amusement to him. It wasn't long before he introduced me to his aunt, and that was that."

"You amused him?" He asks, trying for casual.

"Flirting, touches, jokes, and kisses. It didn't take much. I'm not proud of it. I used him. Obviously I hurt him. I regret that, I regret that very much."

"And he wanted to marry you?"

"Yes, and I would have. Daenerys seemed to press for it. But then... well... and that was that." He wishes she would stop saying 'that was that'. It made it sound like there was much more to the story that she was leaving out.

"And you ended up stuck with me. At least it sounds like you're not too miserable with me." She sighs dramatically and plucks Jon's letter from his hand.

"Alright, I'll tell you something. But you have to promise not to make a big deal about it."

"Arya, there's no way I can promise that." She is silent, debating whether or not to proceed.

"At the feast, we were seated next to each other. Do you remember?" Of course he remembers. He remembers every moment with her. But he simply nods.

"Well, I may have mentioned something, to Daenerys, I mean." He is truly shocked at this.

"What?"

"I saw you in the Hall, looking so out of place and nervous. You were a big mess, to be honest." Great, she'd seen that. "And I saw you defend your uncle, even though it was clearly a lost cause." Yes, all that had happened. But he's not sure what she's getting at.

"For fucksakes, I thought you were cute, alright. And I told her so." He's pretty sure his mouth is hanging open.

"Really?"

"Yes. Of course. And at dinner, the whole thing with helping Ser Davos with his meat. And you were having so much trouble with that salad. Adorable." There's something he's missing, he's sure of it.

"But, but… when she announced our betrothal, you were furious. You practically threw a tantrum."

"I did not. I do not throw tantrums." Riiiggghht. She pinches the bridge of her nose to calm down. "Look, I just… I wasn't expecting it so soon, or in front of everyone like that. But, in my way, it was my idea, I agreed."

"You chose me." He says in awe.

"I guess I did." She says, not looking at him, a bit embarrassed. And then he picks her up and spins her. "See, I knew you'd make a big deal out of it." She teases.

"You chose me." He says again, bringing her in close and pressing their foreheads together.

"I did." She agrees, smiling. "Just stop being such an idiot, yeah?" He agrees, planting kiss after kiss on her lips. He wants to do more, but he knows she's still injured, or 'bleeding' so he pulls away. "Hungry?" He asks instead.

"Ravenous." She answers. And hand-in-hand they enter the dining hall, everyone already digging into the curried salmon chowder; they seat themselves at the head of the table where they belong.


 

A/N: Next Chapter- Gendry must deal with Lordly matters, sexy times, and one big mistake. Review please, maybe it will convince me to post the next chapter before I leave on my next vacation… No pressure. Just kidding, mucho pressure! Persuade me to get cracking!

 

Chapter Text

A/N: Thanks for the Kudos guys. I always love feedback!

 

The Hazards and Rewards of Being a Lord

 

Gendry

 

Everyone had already dug in by the time he and Arya sat down to eat. He didn’t mind of course, but the plump woman, Marta, was scandalized. She was also confused at his refusal of any wine or spirits. Arya didn’t have it in her to refuse where drinks were concerned. Shireen is given none, so Gendry accepts a bit of ale and sneakily passes it to her. She looks shocked and thrilled both at the unexpected trick, but her face immediately scrunches up in disgust at the first taste. He laughs out loud at that, and everyone turns to look at him. Apparently, he’d inherited his father’s booming laugh. Arya puts her hand on his thigh and smiles at him, then goes back to her chowder. He almost wishes she hadn’t done that, it makes the rest of the dinner a blur, and he barely tastes the sour plum ice cream as he wolfs it down.

 

Shireen cautiously tries another sip, to the same results.

 

“My brothers always used to sneak me a sip of their beer.” Arya comments. “I thought we were being so secretive, but my father knew the whole time.”

 

“Father would never let me try alcohol.” Shireen responds.

 

“Why am I not surprised?” Arya murmurs around her glass.

 

“Well, you shouldn’t have it, I just wanted you to taste it.” Gendry explains.

 

“I don’t like the taste anyway.” She says.

 

You don’t drink it for the taste, to be honest. Yoren had said once.

 

But just then, there’s an, “Oye!” It’s Lommy, of all people. “I propose a toast.” And everyone raises their glass. “To Lord and Lady Baratheon, may they live long and well.” Everyone agrees and glasses clink, followed by hearty chugging. Marta comes around and refills their drinks, but stops at Arya.

 

“That dress looks lovely on you, Milady.” She flatters.

 

“Oh, it’s one of the late Lady Baratheon’s.” Arya says modestly.

 

“Still, it suits you Milady.” And he has to agree.

 

“Thank you, uh, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.” Arya inquires.

 

“Marta.” He whispers loudly. To which Marta looks surprised and pleased to be remembered, hurrying to give him another serving of ice cream.

 

Shireen is staring at her dessert, and had been since the mention of her mother.

 

“Alright, then?” He asks. She smiles and nods, but he can tell she doesn’t mean it.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think.” Arya apologizes. Wait what, what was he missing? “It was your mother’s. I should have asked you first.” Oh. Arya looks upset as well.

 

“No, of course. You’re Lady Baratheon now.” Shireen insists.

 

“Yes, but so are you. I’m sure she would have wanted you to have her things.” In actuality, Selyse Baratheon had died a few years ago, meaning her things had remained untouched for quite some time.

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“But there’s jewelry, not much, but… after dinner let’s take a look together. In fact, there was a blue dress that would look lovely with your eyes.” Shireen blushes bright red, unused to compliments; he’ll have to make a point of fixing that. Arya looks over at him with a smile, and he feels his heart swell. Family, finally.

 

He’s still eating the rest of the ice cream, when Arya, Shireen, and Merilee get up from the table. He starts to get up as well but Arya puts a gentle hand on his shoulder.

 

“It’s kind of a girl’s thing.”

 

“You’re not still mad are you? Are you coming to the room tonight?” The prospect of sleeping alone on his first night here does not sit well with him.

 

“No, of course not. I’ll meet you afterwards. But I have a feeling this might take a bit.”

 

“Uh, okay.” She kisses him on the cheek, her hand lingering on his arm, and the women set off.

 

Marta cleans up his plate and asks if there’s anything, anything at all, she can do for him. His first impulse is to say, nothing, but then he decides a bath might be just the thing. She assures him it will be done right away. He talks with his men for a bit, and they all seem to be settling in fine. He gives Hot Pie permission to work in the kitchens, but warns him to work with the staff and not just take over completely. Their stay here is only temporary after all. He makes a point to thank Lommy especially for the toast before retiring to his bath.  The first real one in quite some time.


 

The bath is ready by the time he gets back; it’s hot with a thick layer of bubbles on the top. There’s a fresh scent emanating from the water, but he doesn’t know what it is. He’s not sure if he likes it, kind of delicate for his tastes, but the idea of complaining seems ridiculous.

 

Beside the bath, there’s a razor and lotion so he can shave his few days worth of stubble. There are even a nice robe and some slippers set out for him, Marta had clearly thought of everything. He gets in and it is pure bliss, he lets out a sigh of contentment at the feel of it. He scrubs himself clean until his skin is pink and fresh. He shaves as well, used to the action without the aid of a mirror, using only touch. And the longer he takes in the scent of the water, the more he actually starts to like it. He lies back in the ample tub, head resting comfortably on the lip, eyes closed in relaxation. The sound of steam and bubbles popping fills his ears, lulling him into a state of half sleep.

 

Actually, he’s not sure if he’s asleep, and time has no meaning. It seems things cannot get any better, until a soft delicate hand caresses his stomach, the water is disturbed, and the hand keeps going lower. For a moment he worries it might be one of his nightmares, but there’s no pain, no sense of foreboding, and the hand keeps going lower right where he wants it. It’s Arya, or his dream version of Arya. And it’s been so long, or a few days; but she’s never touched him like this. He moans aloud as another hand starts stroking his chest. He opens his eyes, a dopey look on his face, to see Kahlen smiling seductively at him.

 

“What the fuck?” He exclaims. She hasn’t stopped her movements in the tub. He has to physically grab her wrist and jerk it off of him. “What the fuck are you doing?” He asks.

 

“Is something not to your liking Milord?”

 

“You can’t just… for fucksakes… I’m married.”

 

“And it’s a shame the way she neglects you so.” She smirks, brown eyes laughing.

 

“She’s my wife!” He says again.

 

“I won’t tell her, Milord.” She’s completely unashamed, her other hand sliding lower down the same path, and he has to grab that one too, twisting them away from him. The water splashes violently with the effort. For the first time she doesn’t look amused.

 

“No, you won’t tell her. And you won’t come in here again. Do you understand me?” She tries to pull her arms free and he lets her.

 

“But it’s my job, Milord. I… I need this position, I…” Her lip starts trembling.

 

“Just get out.” He says not looking her in the eyes.

 

“Milord, please…”

 

“Get the fuck out!” And she hurries out, her lip miraculously still. He scrubs his face roughly, trying to make sense of what just happened. But he couldn’t.

 

He feels stupid, for not realizing right off. And he feels dirty, so much so that he scrubs himself all over again. And he feels guilty, still hard beneath the water. What would he tell Arya? Should he say anything at all? Would she understand? Would she blame him? He continues to feel guilty even after he finishes himself off, relieving the ache, thinking of delicate hands beneath the water.

 

He gets out and dries off, foregoing the robe and dressing in a shirt and pants. He gets beneath the covers, trying to clear his mind, trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep.


 

Arya comes in a while later, all smiles. “I found it. It took me a while.”

 

He wants to ask her questions, greet her properly, but he can’t seem to make his mouth work.

 

She has a few dresses slung over her elbow, and she proceeds to put them away, chatting all the while. “We found some great things for Shireen. She’s so sweet. Selyse though…”

 

He watches her out of the corner of his eye.

 

“I’ll tell you, she sounded like the sort who should not have children. Tsk.” And she gets undressed down to only her small clothes. “And Stannis, well, you know him.” She looks at him expectantly, and he thinks he nods. She puts on one of his shirts and crawls in beside him. “Do you think she likes it here? Shireen, I mean.” At her direct look his voice comes back.

 

“It’s her home.” He answers. She nods, but it wasn’t the answer she wanted. “Why?”

 

“I don’t know. I guess I just thought, she might like to come with us, to Winterfell. Just thinking.” Once she realizes he won’t be much of a conversationalist, she changes the topic, a concerned set to her jaw.

 

“Tense?” She asks.

 

“What?” He asks startled.

 

“About tomorrow? The official introductions and the like?” Oh. Oh shit, he had completely forgotten about that.

 

“Yeah.” He answers.

 

“Well don’t be. You’ll do great.”

 

“I’m no Lord, Arya.”

 

“No, you’re better.”

 

He tries to smile.

 

“Night.” She says. “Don’t worry.” And she blows out the candle. In the dark, he lets himself look at her. She’s lovely, of course, and she starts rubbing her stomach, a rhythmic pattern.

 

“You alright?” He asks. She’s startled.

 

“Yeah. It just hurts a bit.”

 

“The bleeding?” He’s concerned now.

 

“It’s normal. It’ll stop soon.” She assures him. He puts his hand where hers is and rubs in circles, like he saw her doing.

 

“That feel okay?”

 

“Mmm, yes. That feels better. Thank you.” She rests her head on his shoulder and it’s not long before she falls asleep. Not much longer, he does too.

 


 

In the morning, Arya’s gone. He starts to wonder if all of last night was a dream. Maybe he’d accidentally drunk something without realizing. Or too much of the ice cream? Yeah, he’d obviously imagined the whole thing.

 

Arya enters followed by Marta, a tray laden with food; oatcakes with honey, fresh fruits and strong tea.

 

Marta looks like she wants to chat a while, but Arya nips that in the bud, thankfully.

 

“Thank you Marta.” Arya says.

 

“Yes thank you.” He parrots.

 

She leaves, and Gendry gets up slowly, yawning and stiff.

 

“I thought you might prefer a quiet breakfast.”

 

“Yes, and as always, you were right.” She smirks at that.

 

“Well, sit down and eat.” He does, slowly.

 

“Mmm. There’s cinnamon in this.” He says through a mouthful. She digs through the closet and pulls out a crisp shirt and pants, a pair of boots, and a thick gold chain.

 

“Well, what do you think?” She asks him, holding up the items.

 

“Uhhh. Nice?”

 

“They’re Baratheon colors. You want to be imposing, but not intimidating. I think this strikes the right balance.” He stops chewing as he realizes the implication.

 

“Maybe we should put it off.” He says, swallowing awkwardly. She sighs dramatically.

 

“We talked about this last night. You’re going to do great. You’re their Lord now.” And she’s so sincere, he loses his appetite. She puts the clothes down on the bed and steps up next to him.

 

“But why would they listen to me? I’m no different than them.”

 

“Exactly, you know them, you understand them, and you care about them. I saw you with those kids at The Inn. They loved you. And The Brotherhood respects you.”

 

“That’s different. I was just Gendry then. Now I’m playing at being a Baratheon. They’ll see that, they’ll see through me.”

 

“Or… they’ll see a man, trying, not perfect, but trying. And you won’t be alone, I’ll be right beside you.” That does make him feel better, a little.

 

“Can’t you do all the talking?” He asks. She comes around to face him, kneeling low so she can look him in the eye where he’s seated.

 

“Just tell them the truth.” She says, lips against the curve of his ear. Immediately he feels a tingle.

 

“What truth?” Her hand goes to his jaw, and looks him right in the eye.

 

“That you’re a good man.” She strokes the newly shaved skin. “That you have nothing to be ashamed of.” He wants to tell her he doesn’t deserve this, any of it. “That you deserve what you want.” He can’t say the words. “I have faith in you Gendry.” And she kisses him sweetly on the lips. “And they will too, just let them see what I see.” What was he trying to say? What was he even thinking about?

 

She has a big smile on her face, kisses him once more on the lips, and tells him to hurry up and get ready. What’s he meant to get ready for?

 

 

He looks good, he thinks. Not like himself. He decided against the gold chain though, it felt like too much. Arya looks even better though, she’s wearing Baratheon black, but it’s fitted to perfection, low cut, the bottom reaching the ground. Her hair, clearly done by Merilee, is in two intricate braids around her head, reminiscent of antlers. A smoky grey around her eyes, and red on her lips. To him, she is absolutely stunning, he thinks when he gets the chance he’d like to make her something in the forge, steel not gold, with intricate engravings to adorn her neck. Even a crown wouldn’t look out of place, though she’d probably be annoyed at such a sentiment.

 

As they enter the great hall, Maester Elwin, announces their presence. ‘Lord and Lady Baratheon’.

 

It had felt weird to say it before, but even stranger to hear it. He wants to look behind him, but resists the urge. The room is filled with people; some dressed in fine clothes, others in simple rags. They’re all here to meet the new Lord of Storm’s End; to greet him, to pay tribute, to ask favors, or request rulings on minor disputes. He’s led to an intricate chair, not a throne really, but it might as well be for its position in the room. Arya goes to sit beside him but Elwin stops her.

 

“Uh, My Lady. Traditionally it is only The Lord of Storm’s End who sits for these gatherings. The presence of a lady might be, taken amiss.” Arya looks pissed, but not nearly as angry as he feels.

 

“The Lady is my wife, and her place is by my side. I don’t care who takes it ‘amiss’, they can fuck off for all I care.” He tells him sternly. Elwin looks put out and very uncomfortable, but he bows and retreats off to the side. Arya squeezes his arm and gives him a small smile. After they’re both seated, it’s time for the introductions to begin.

 

First, are the lesser lords from the surrounding provinces; they present themselves and pay tribute to Storm’s End. Their wealth is tied up with the Baratheons, they offer support to The Stags, but also rely on the protection of The House.

 

A young lord approaches, his clothes are clean and of good quality, but not overly remarkable. The man is much the same, brown hair, brown eyes, and of medium height. He bows low, lower than the others before him and does not rise. Arya elbows him lightly, and then Gendry realizes he’s meant to speak.

 

“Uh, rise My Lord.” He does, if a little slowly.

 

“Thank you, My Lord Baratheon.” He says.

 

“And you are?” Arya prompts.

 

“Lord Graham, of House Rosby.”

 

“Welcome.” Gendry says.

 

“Thank you, My Lord. There is a bit of an… issue.” He starts.

 

“Go on.”

 

“We’ve had a great crop this year, and we’re anxious to trade with the Storm Lands. But, we had to take out a loan from the last season. We can fill our order and then some, but if we pay that back and your twenty percent tax, we’ll have nothing for ourselves. Perhaps a slight delay or, we could arrange an installment plan…” The man looks very nervous, and pitiful.

 

“Well, for this time only, I’m sure we could waive the tax…” Arya squeezes his thigh tightly, almost painfully, interrupting him. He shuts his mouth immediately.

 

“What my Lord Husband means to say, is that we will accept a ten percent tax, the rest to be paid at the next harvest with interest. Are these terms acceptable to you?”

 

“Yes, yes My Lady. Thank you.” The man looks thrilled. He bows repeatedly as he backs away.

 

“Sorry.” He whispers to her.

 

“No harm done.” She whispers back.

 

The Lord of Evenfall approaches, a pretty man with well-combed reddish hair and bright green eyes, his bow is shallow and quick.

 

“My Lord, My Lady.” He smiles charmingly at Arya, completely ignoring Gendry. He’s followed by another man, large and bearded, no less clean, but dressed plainly. “I am Lord Varon Evenfall,” Varon, seriously? “It is truly a pleasure to see you well My Lady. It gladdens my heart to see a surviving Stark. My family has always respected and supported the Starks of Winterfell.” To this, Arya’s eyes narrow.

 

“Evenfall supports The Starks? That’s news to me. I wasn’t aware of your support against the Lannisters.” He looks taken aback for a moment, but he quickly covers it.

 

“Regrettable and shameful behavior.” He agrees, which does seem to placate her somewhat. “Evanfall hopes to enjoy a profitable and amiable business relationship with your household from this point on.”

 

“And is there a reason you have yet to address my Lord Husband?” She counters. At this he finally does look over at Gendry.

 

“I apologize, My Lord.” He spits out the words. “I meant no offense.”

 

“Didn’t you?” She asks.

 

“Of course not. I have nothing but respect for a bastard” Arya clenches her fingers around the armrest at the word, but he motions her to stay still. The word bastard has never bothered him as much as it does her. “who can climb his way from nothing to the lord of a great house.” The man simpers, and now Gendry is offended.

 

“Nothing? You would call a man with a trade, who works with his hands, earning the sweat on his back day in-day out, to create something useful; nothing? I would be very interested to hear what you consider something.” He all but growls. His anger surprising even him.

 

Finally realizing the seriousness of the situation, Lord Varon of Evenfall bows low as can be. “I apologize My Lord Baratheon. I deeply regret my words and my manner. Please, forgive me.” And he’s so pathetic in that instant, that Gendry lets his anger go.

 

“What is your business here, Lord Varon?” He asks instead.

 

He gets up, rather gracelessly. “My family has always done fair business, we have always paid on time and delivered fresh, quality products.” Gendry remembers suddenly that Ser Davos had taught him a bit about the surrounding provinces and their goods, Evanfall also traded in produce. Gendry nods at the lord, and he continues. “This man…” and he gestures to the bearded man waiting silently.

 

“And you are Ser?” Gendry asks instead.

 

“I’m no Ser, Milord. My name is Jon Greene, just a farmer.”

 

“This man owes me money, he’s only paid half. I want what is rightfully mine.” Lord Varon interrupts.

 

“And we will pay, but not ‘til the harvest. We can’t pay what we don’t got. The war was hard on all o’ us.” Jon Greene answers, bearded jaw twitching.

 

“My Lord, I humbly petition that…”

 

“I don’t think you know what humble means. But you’ll have your money. Storm’s End will pay the rest.” Varon untenses at that. “And Greene, you will from now on deliver your goods directly to us, and we will pay you directly, whatever it is we pay Evanfall now. Lord Varon, it seems you will have to look to other provinces to sell your goods, because after today you will not be welcome in the Storm Lands.” The entire hall gasps, Jon Greene looks shocked, and Lord Varon is furious.

 

“Yes, My Lord.” Is all the well-groomed prick can say. Arya’s face is unreadable.

 

There are a few more petitioners, asking for one favor or another. When Marta comes in, panting, and announces that there is some important business that Lady Baratheon must attend to. Arya gets up immediately, but Gendry puts a hand on her arm to stop her.

 

“Arya,” He whispers through clenched teeth. “You can’t leave me here.” She just smiles and leans into his hear so no one else can hear.

 

“You’re doing great. You can handle this.” And she leans in even closer, lowering her voice even more. “When you told off that pompous asshole, I’ve never been so proud. In fact, it made me moist between my thighs. Come find me when you’re done.” And she kisses him on the cheek and exits with Marta. Gendry is motionless for a moment, completely unresponsive. It takes Elwin clearing his throat rather loudly to get his attention, and he reluctantly takes his place once again.


 

A few ask about the capital, others request his permission to start a new business, and a couple ask for positions at Storm’s end as servants, squires, stable boys and the like. He gives them answers, tries to appease everybody, and answers questions as best he can. But all the while, he’s impatient, preoccupied with thoughts of his wife and her confession. So when the last petitioner has thanked him profusely sometime well after midday, he runs out of the room without waiting for Elwin to announce his exit officially.

 

Arya isn’t in his room or Selyse’s. She isn’t in the kitchens or the dining hall. And though he is hungry, he doesn’t stop to eat. In the corridor he runs into Marta, thankfully, and asks her about his wife’s whereabouts all out of breath. She’s a bit startled at his rush, but tells him she took some lunch to the shore, a secluded spot off the Northern exit, he kisses her gratefully on the cheek and follows her directions. He hears bubbly laughter behind him as he goes.

 

The spot really is secluded, he has to climb down a rather steep Cliffside; it’s not difficult though, the path is clear, but the rocks block the view from the tower. He knows it’s the right way though because he finds her lush black dress draped off to the side and has to force himself to slow down so he doesn’t fall and break something. The spot is truly beautiful, a small patch of beige sand, crystal waves crashing on the shore; all surrounded by the rocks that make it private, truly the end of a storm.

 

It’s this moment that he’s most proud of his home, proud of himself to have something this beautiful belong to him. For a moment he’s reminded of Flea Bottom, the bay behind The Red Keep. If you were poor, and you wanted to get clean, you’d strip and swim; the only thing you could afford. Many brought their laundry, fruits and vegetables too, and often screaming babies. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t that clean. But those were some of his best memories; swimming with his mum, and later playing chicken with some of the other apprentices.

 

He found her then, in just her shift, asleep on the sand. Her hair was loose, her feet were bare, and she’d wiped her face clean. How was it possible she could be just as striking done-up like a queen than as a clean-faced girl? Beside her she had a basket filled with cheeses and cured meats and some sort of fried balls. She’d left most of it and he tucked in with great abandon; he was starving after all. The selfish side of him wanted to wake her, to make her repeat what she’d said to him in the great hall, to ask her about the ‘important business’, or to get her to take off her shift so he could simply look at her. But instead he leaves her be, lets her rest; he’s waited a long time, he can wait longer. Besides, she’s not far from the shore; the waves hitting her feet will wake her eventually.

 

He pulls off his under things and runs for the water. It’s cold, very cold, but he doesn’t care. So refreshing, he feels like a kid again. He dives in and swims around, at the bottom he feels the smooth pebbles, and picks up a handful. He tries to skid a few across the surface, but of course that only works with still water. Still, it’s fun. He swims out and lets the current take him back in. He splashes around, gulps some water and shoots it out of his mouth like a fountain; to which he hears tinkling laughter.

 

Arya is awake, sitting up, and watching him; a very amused look on her face. He walks closer to the shore, but doesn’t get out.

 

“Having fun?” She asks, a wide smile on her face.

 

“Aye. You should come in. The water’s nice.”

 

“I’m good. I’ll just watch you.” Her smile turns a bit wicked, then serious. “How were the rest of the…?” A large wave makes it hard to hear, but he can guess what she’s saying.

 

“Fine. Oh, what was the important business?” He yells over the breaking of the swell.

 

“Nothing.” He gives her a look. “Really, nothing. I promise, I’d tell you if it was important.” She doesn’t look upset, so he drops it.

 

“Come on, come in with me. Please.” He pouts in what he thinks is an adorable way to which she looks down, breaking his gaze.

 

“I can’t swim.” She admits. He’s shocked.

 

“But, you’ve been across The Narrow Sea.” She rolls her eyes.

 

“Well, I didn’t swim there.” She points out.

 

“Is anybody listening?” He calls out. She looks around confused. “Someone has to be here for the day when I, Gendry the Smith, can do something Lady Arya can’t do.” And at the way she crosses her arms in front of her chest, he smirks.

 

“Very funny. All the water’s frozen up North, you know.”

 

“Come on, I’ll teach you. It’ll be fine.”

 

“I’m fine here.”

 

“You’re afraid then.” Her nostrils do that thing where they flare out; he’s fully expecting the steam to come out of her ears soon. “I didn’t think you were afraid of anything.” Her eyes flash dangerously.

 

She stands up abruptly, taking off her shift in one swift motion; stomping through the sand with purpose. Huh, he’d finally figured out how to get Arya to do something he wanted for once.

 

She steps in, not tentatively; she does nothing halfway. When she’s in up to her knees, she curses, “You fucking ass, it’s freezing.” Before she can run back out, he grabs her and pulls her out farther, to which she screams playfully. She almost falls over, but he keeps her up.

 

“I’ve got you.”

 

“Just don’t let me drown, or I’ll come back and haunt you and the new Lady Baratheon.” She jokes.

 

“I won’t.” He assures her, though what he’s promising not to do he’s not sure.

 

The waves crash, spraying them both in salt water, she screams again, but he can tell she’s enjoying herself. They splash each other, laughing, and it’s a perfect afternoon. She kisses him first, and he pulls her in closer, and it’s not long before he feels himself get carried away; it occurs to him that if they don’t stop now, it will be very uncomfortable for him very soon.

 

“Wait, is this alright, I thought…”

 

“Yes, it’s fine. It finished this morning, so we can… whenever you want, in fact…” He doesn’t let her finish as he picks her up and carries her back to the beach, laying her carefully on the sand. She’s started the giggling thing again, and he couldn’t be more pleased. He kisses everywhere he can reach.

 

“I’m all salty and sandy.” She protests.

 

“You think I mind?” His voice goes up in the end in disbelief, before going back to his original task.

 

“Well stop teasing me then, it’s been far too long.” She orders. He quirks a brow at that.

 

“I’m the Lord of Storm’s End, I can do as I like on my own land.” He keeps kissing her, slowly reaching her center. The sounds she makes are wild and needy, her fingers clasp roughly onto his scalp. She seemed to like this quite a bit. He’d learned quite a few things about his wife today.

 

She calls out his name, and he is entirely too pleased with himself. He goes to make some sort of snarky comment, “So…” But she slaps her hand over his mouth, eyes still closed, body slowly coming down until she stops shuddering. She tries to say something, but only a sigh escapes. He finds he’s content to just take her in, even with his own ache still unscratched.

 

And when she flips them over and inflicts the same slow torture on him, kissing him where he never thought she would, he thinks; it’s not so bad to be a lord.

 

 

A/N: Okay, so that was fun. First, I want to say that I absolutely think what happened with Kahlen was a violation. When I first thought of it, I intended it to be more humorous, but the scene ended up being a bit serious. I think Gendry’s a bit traumatized, but lucky for him and us he bounces back quickly.

 

I also enjoyed the politicking, it was fun to see Gendry find his way and tell people off. And of course, Arya’s unwavering support really rings true here.

 

The beach scene was tricky for me, you know it doesn’t come naturally for me, but hopefully you still enjoyed it.


 

Next Up- Politics. Then, Stannis’ visit, among other things, Arya’s POV. Review please!

Chapter Text

Painful Politics

Arya

Breakfast was sweet eggy toast with ham, Arya didn't care much for all that meat in the morning, so she waved off the pork. Actually, she would have liked something fresher, like fruit or a vegetable omelet; but when she's asked, Hot Pie just threw up his hands in frustration. But she'd learned long ago that just having food on the table was a blessing. As long as there was enough to eat, it was bad form to complain.

"Marta. Could I get more of that bread stuff, a lot more, please, and thank you." It really was good. Gendry was still asleep when she left that morning, he loved his sleep; but she was hungry. She had also remembered to be angry again this morning.

They'd been at Storm's End near a month, and Gendry was more at ease with his new title, and Storm's End in general. He was just getting comfortable here, truly getting to know the place and the people. He wore the clothes well, and stood proud, and he used his 'Lord's Word' more and more often. And she was proud of him, but he could be a right ass sometimes too. After the small bruising she'd incurred on the road, he had forbidden anyone from training with her. She was forbidden from fighting in the training yard. No amount of trickery or sneaking got past the guards. It was ridiculous, and she was annoyed. And of course, he was The Lord here so his word was above hers.

There was a lot she might let go, but this slight, to her pride; was not acceptable. She usually forgot to be mad at him nights, but she always remembered sometime the next day.

She added some honey to the toast, and some slivered almonds. She drank it down with a disgusting herbal tea Merilee had given her; meant to help women conceive. So far, it was bullshit. But she dutifully finished the cup. Of course he didn't have to swallow down sludge every morning.

But, in Winterfell it would be different, those were her people; and they would hear a Northerner, a Stark first.

She grinned around her bread, she would have her way in the end, but until then, she'd let him have this; he was terribly prideful, and she didn't want to undermine him in public. He was just learning, getting his bearings.

He was building something here, and then eventually she would have to rip it all away from him; Winterfell was always meant to be home. She knew it would be hard on him when they had to leave, and almost felt guilty for it. But it couldn't be helped.

On her way back to her rooms, she finds Gendry training with practice swords in the yard at late afternoon. The sword master of Storm's End wanted to see Gendry's abilities, and had been pushing him extra hard.

She stopped to watch of course, she never passed up a chance to watch him do anything without his tunic. But of course she was banned from training. Merilee counseled a little seduction would make any man fold to her whims, but not Gendry. Somehow, she was always the first to surrender, the first to crack, and he thought it was hilarious. No matter how many ways she'd begged, whined, or seduced; he still wouldn't budge. How he was able to stay strong under the pressure of her onslaught she couldn't know, he was usually so pliable. This either meant he was stronger than her or more stubborn, neither concept something she wanted to admit to herself.

Her rational side said they were bound to disagree and fight, but her other rational side said- of course she was right though. He had no right, and no real good reason to forbid her from this. But he was even more stubborn than her. Quite unbelievable actually. He seemed to like making her angry, and then they would fall into bed and it would all seem less important. She knew he only meant to protect her, even if it was misguided. And he often went about things the wrong way. But in Winterfell, the Master at Arms would do as she said. And Gendry would have to learn to live with it.

Another round began, and she watched with interest. Gendry against Rik, a bit taller than Gendry, though smaller around the shoulders; he had blonde and gray stubble along his jaw but no hair on his head, gleaming and smooth. And Gendry really was good; not graceful like the Braavos, but strong and efficient, never backing down. He took blow after blow, but nothing hobbled him. There were some nasty ones, she cringed at an elbow strike to his shoulder and a pommel hit to his back. He had a look of complete concentration on his face, and she could see that nothing else existed for him in that moment. Gendry in turn hammered Rik in the gut, Rik dodged the second attack to his head, so Gendry tackled him; the blow knocking the air out of the gristled man. Gendry won the bout, strength and force overcoming all.

He's all grins as he helps his opponent up, sweaty and panting.

His gaze finds her with a smile, she looks away, and marches off.

She reaches her quarters at record speed. But no sooner does she enter, than Gendry is right behind her.

"Bathe first. I'm busy." She tells him, though there's no real anger there.

"Arya, I explained to you…"

"Yes, I get it. But I'm still annoyed. I can't do anything about it just now, but I'm still sure I'm right. I can't help it, and I suppose you can't either." She concedes.

"No, you can't. I'll always be worried, I'll always protect you." She rolls her eyes. He rubs his shoulder, clearly in pain. She weakens.

"Sit." She orders. He looks at her strangely with his blue eyes but does so, perching himself on the edge of the bed. She crawls up on the mattress behind him, balanced on her knees, and rubs his shoulders. He's tense, surprised at the contact, but quickly relaxes.

"It's good to know, no matter what, you'll look after me." She's a bit gentler around the bruises.

"That's what I promised." She says grudgingly.

"Come on, don't be like that." She focuses on the other shoulder, getting out a particularly tough knot.

"Like what? Myself?"

"Are you bleeding again?"

"Massage your own bruises." She stops kneading. He covers her hand with his own.

"I'm not supposed to say that, right?"

"Obviously. And no, not yet. But soon, probably. Thanks for bringing it up."

He pulls her hand to make her move in front of him, pulling her down so their eyes are level. "What about I love you, can I say that?"

And he's so sincere, she has to bite her lip to keep from answering in kind, stay strong. He notices though and instead of making her feel less for it, he kisses her. She really can't pull away. Pulling her down to his lap, he weaves his fingers in her hair and wraps his arms around her waist. She can't remember why she's mad again.

"Wait what time is it?" He asks pulling away, looking flushed.

"What?" What?

"What time is it?" He pulls back farther, he's serious.

"Midday, I'm sure they can hold off on lunch." She tries to pull him back down.

"No, I have to go." And he picks her up gently and places her beside him on the bed.

"Go, go where?" He gets up and smoothes out his black hair, the locks a bit too long.

"You're not going back for more? You'll be a walking bruise tomorrow." He smiles and tugs his ear.

"Concerned, then?" She flaps her arms around in frustration.

"Of course, you telegraph every move, I could easily beat you. You rely on strength far too much, you're slow..." He should have been offended, but he only smiled wider. One of his major flaws, never properly offended.

"I still won though."

"Yes, you did." She admits.

"Let's talk later, yeah?" He's already at the door.

"I have stuff to do." She says turning away, feeling her hair as well. Which she's reasonably convinced must look like a dead cat.

"Dinner then." He's grinning at her, damn him again.

"Maybe. You can sleep in your own rooms tonight by the way." His smile fades at that, he sighs, and walks out the door in a hurry. He even leaves his damn sword- foolish.

She goes to check herself in the mirror, yes, a hair disaster, and goes about the process of making herself presentable. She wasn't lying; she did have stuff to do.

Just then, there's a knock at the door.

"My Lady. I'm sorry to bother you," It's the steward, Elwin his name was.

"Maester Elwin." He hadn't approached her or made eye contact since The Petitionning, and his dismissal of her. But now he seemed to be making an effort, so she would try to be courteous.

"Yes, come in." She acknowledges, still brushing her hair.

"I wonder if I might have a word, My Lady." He shuts the door behind him.

"What, specifically is this pertaining to, may I ask?" She asks, looking right at him.

"Well, it is a financial matter. I thought Your Ladyship might be… better suited to this particular matter." Better than Gendry he means. His bushy eyebrows are very distracting, like dark caterpillars. Or a long centipede.

"Be plain Elwin, no need for riddles." She puts down the brush.

"Well, at The Petitioning, Lord Baratheon was very generous, and now there are a few, discrepancies."

"That half debt he paid, the discount for Rosby..." She gets up to stand before him.

"Among other things. He was rather kind to many of those present, and, alas, Storm's End is not as profitable as it once was. Much of our income came from trading with Evanfall and then, well…"

"I see." And she does see. "How bad is it?"

"Well, that's not for me to say. Traditionally The Lord would make such final decisions, but I thought, perhaps, you might have a better appreciation of the matter at hand." He says gently.

"Alright." She sighs, knowing this will require math. But, thinking of the alternative, knows it must be done. "I'd like to look at these books. Have them brought to my room."

"Yes, My Lady." And he looks relieved, letting out a gust of air in one whoosh.

"Oh, and Maester Elwin. Don't mention this to anyone just yet." He only bows, his grey hair flopping with the motion. She knew he wouldn't; there was no need for the request.

Elwin spreads out all of the records for the last few years on the dresser, and her bed. It's quite a lot, two large tomes full. But it needs to be done, so she resigns herself to her fate. Luckily, Elwin is quite well versed on the matter, and is able to point out the important figures, dates, and patterns over the course of a few hours.

Yes, Storm's End is only barely sustaining itself. Nothing dire, but it had been neglected for quite some time and was not in the best of shape. She could see that Gendry's generosity had put a lot of strain on their resources, and could badly affect the entire province in the long run. The other spendings they could recover from, but the way they'd handled Evanfall could be messy. There was a reason there was no fruit or vegetables to be had; there were none. And there may not be more in the future. Even with bread and meat; she knew what a lack of produce could do, the afflictions it could cause. At mid afternoon, no solutions were forthcoming, and the numbers were starting to blur into patterns, spirals and curves; and she knew she needed a break.

"Maester this isn't telling us anything. Do you have the notes from the last meeting and the roster for the upcoming gathering?"

"Yes, My Lady. I'll go fetch them."

"Oh, and my tea, please. Hot Pie will understand."

She feels overwhelmed, and scolds herself for letting it get to her. Winterfell is much bigger than Storm's End, and the provinces and people that lye within her lands, The North itself, will require much more cunning and patience than this corner of the world. The Storm Lands are more densely populated, but the square footage of the North more than makes up for it. And there was The Watch and The Iron and Bear Islands to contend with as well. This should be nothing; it would have to be practice. She would solve this, she had to; without involving Gendry and ruining his confidence. If he found out he'd put Storm's End in trouble, he would not take it well. And though she's not pleased with him at the moment, she doesn't want to hurt him.

There's a knock at the door, and a serving girl enters. She had never seen the girl before, but she's pretty and young. She has light brown hair and a lovely face, but Arya can't remember having seen her before.

"Pardon me, Milady. I brought your tea." She smiles and sets it on a free table. "Now do you want sugar or…"

"Who are you, I don't believe we've met?" Arya interrupts.

"I'm Kahlen, Milady." She does a little curtsy.

"Uh, sugar, please, Kahlen. Thank you." The tea is refreshing, the girl had added something to make it taste better; the sugar helps too. And for a moment, the rich taste of the caffeine soothes her.

"I brought little cookies too." She mentions.

"Uh, yes, later, thank you." She had missed lunch. Perhaps she could apologize to that prick Lord Varon in Gendry's stead. Ugh.

"What are you working on, My Lady? Can I help?"

"Uh, no, I'm alright." She eyes her over her tea. She dismisses her. "Thank you, Kahlen." She doesn't take the hint.

"I could help in other ways. I served Lady Selyse Baratheon, I could serve you too." She offers, light brown eyes twinkling. She begins sorting the books by alphabetical order, then shuffling the papers into neat stacks. She's very close, standing against her so their sides touch. Every step the jittery girl takes manages to brush up against her.

"I have a lady's maid, thank you." And now she's starting to have a headache. Leave, she silently urges. Gods, she did not want to eat crow; that annoying little man deserved what he got.

"I have many uses, Lady. You'd be surprised what I can accomplish. I am persistent." She holds out some cookies; peanut she smells. What she wouldn't give for lemon tarts. The girl was annoying her before, but as she took her in, eager, too eager, clever eyes; she saw something there beneath the surface.

"I can see that. Where are you from? How long have you worked here?" Arya questions her, taking a cookie. 

"Oh, many years My Lady. I served Lady Selyse, and I've been serving Shireen; but she needs me less now that she's busy tutoring His Lordship."

"What?"

"The reading lessons My Lady, it takes up much of her time." She smiles sweetly. Lessons. So that's where he ran off to. He hadn't told her. He was too embarassed. But why? Why should he be ashamed of trying to better himself? Didn't he know she was proud of him? Clearly not. She would help him, she would.

"Of course." She covers.

"Should you need anything, My Lady. Please, just ask."

Arya takes another cookie. "I will, thank you. Perhaps soon, but it would have to stay between us. Do you understand?"

"Yes, My Lady. Thank you, My Lady."

"That's all for now." She curtsies once again, and exits.

She is obviously quite concerned with her position here, shrewd then. Or perhaps everyone already knew the situation. Damn.

Elwin returns with the requested documents, and she studies them the best she can. The cookies are delicious, especially dipped into the tea.

By the time it's dark enough to light candles, she has resigned herself to her fate.


 

Dinner was tense, though she and Gendry were seated beside each other, it felt a world apart. Arya was too busy contemplating her strategy, and Gendry was trying too hard to catch her eye. She was no longer angry, but she wasn't sure which topics were safe to discuss.

It was lamb stew this eve, high on spice but low on vegetables; Shireen's favorite, and she was in good enough spirits for the lot of them. Arya would have to shift the tension.

"Shireen, what are you doing tomorrow? Do you have any plans?" Arya brings up casually.

"The same as always." Shireen continues to slurp her soup happily.

"Maybe we could take a little trip, you and I."

"What, where?" She looks startled. The girl is good.

"Just, to the village. Perhaps we could stay the night, wouldn't that be fun?"

And she looks terrified. "Out?" Maybe it wasn't completely an act.

"Yes, it'll be fantastic." When she'd approached Shireen last night, the girl was only too happy to help. In fact, most of it was her idea; the trip would be a perfect cover. She was actually quite diabolical. "It's not a request." She adds.

"What's this then?" Gendry interrupts.

"We're going for a girl's weekend in the village." She explains, not looking at him.

"What, why?"

"I just thought it would be nice, it might give Shireen a chance to explore, meet new people. Don't you think that would be a nice idea?" She asks Gendry innocently, knowing she's pressing his buttons. He was very protective of Shireen, always worrying about what would become of her.

"Yeah, that is a good idea." He agrees readily. "We'll all go."

"Actually, we're just going to buy dresses and hair things. You'd hate it." She adds quickly.

"I would…" He admits.

"And you have things to do here. A lot of swords need mending." Lommy jumps in, right on cue. This was true; he still had all the swords from the decorative suits of armor lining the hall waiting to be mended. They were all terribly old and needing fixing, something on Gendry's lists of chores for weeks. Of course, Gendry looks pleased at the idea of any excuse to work in the forge. She had spent quite a bit of time watching him work, trying to help but mostly getting in the way.

"And what if there's some sort of emergency?" She adds to seal the deal. He nods at that logic. He may be better at some things she grudgingly admits, but she's smarter. She always will be.

"There must always be a Baratheon in Storm's End. That's what Father always says." Shireen pipes in. Bless the girl.

"I guess, but…" She had anticipated this too; enlisting the help of the one knight she could count on to look after Gendry above all else. It was no accident involving Shireen and Lommy in the plan. They were the three that loved him most. The three willing to lie to his face to protect him.

"Lommy will join us."

"Really?" Gendry looks suspicious.

"Perfect, we'll leave on the morrow. We'll be back the next day. Let's get packed, Merilee." She gets up.

"Alright then." Gendry agrees, and when he tries to kiss her goodbye she turns her cheek. His honest face makes it too difficult to lie to him while looking him in the eye.

And so they set out early in the morning, ham and cheese on rye bread; dull and unsatisfying, but it would have to do.

Merilee looked excited for the adventure, having been let in on everything late last night. Shireen looked nervous, and Arya felt guilty for a moment. But it had to be done, and the girl couldn't stay shut away forever. Lommy, surprisingly, was late.

He did come eventually, but Arya was in no mood, so without bothering to scold him, they headed out.

As they passed the border of Storm's End Lands, Shireen starts hyperventilating. She tries to calm it, to keep it hidden, but they all notice.

"It'll be alright, My Lady. I won't let nothing happen to ya. I promised Gendry. Don't you worry." Lommy encourages, and the girl seems to calm a little.

"Truly, it won't be dangerous." Merilee comforts. Arya thinks changing the subject might be better than drawing more attention to her panic attack.

"Why were you late this morning, Lommy?" She asks instead.

"I… none of your business." Ohhh, interesting.

"It doesn't have anything to do with Brent, now would it?" Merilee smiles wickedly. Oh, truly interesting.

"Brent?" Shireen asks, eyebrow raised and lips pursed, forgetting to be frightened at all this.

"Nothing." He says, turning red and hunching his shoulders.

"Does he feel the same?" Arya inquires.

"Let's drop this." He says.

"Of course, sorry. No more." Arya starts. "But, if it was about Brent…I would be very happy for you." Lommy smiles at that. The mood is much lighter.

When they reach the town line, it's time to part. "Look, Shireen, you and Lommy will stay in town, I'll go with Merilee."

"No, I… I want to come too." Shireen states, no longer trembling, strangely solid.

"This won't be a fun trip, and I'm not looking forward to it to be honest."

"I don't care. It must be done, and if it will help Gendry." Decided then. They continue on, together.

"Are you going to beg?" Lommy asks, one eyebrow raised.

"I hope it doesn't come to that." She answers honestly.

As the day wears on, Shireen begins to relax more and more, enjoying the sun on her face and the speed of her horse. It's truly a delight to see her opening up and stop holding herself in check. And she really seems to be taking to the pants Arya had made for her.

At the ferry to cross it to the Hall, Arya pulls a dress on over her pants. A man like Lord Varon has a taste for the traditional, and she thinks her argument will go a lot farther if she's dressed like a proper lady, though the idea galls her.

The Island of Evanfall Hall really is beautiful, lovely trees; though she can sense no Gods among them. It might be mistaken for a tiny paradise, if it didn't house an asshole of epic proportions.

They were greeted kindly enough and shown into the small but lavish hall, where Lord Varon sat, looking polished as ever, propped up on a chair placed in the center of the room; entire court in attendance. It's not quite a throne, but that's clearly the intent.

"My Lady Baratheon, what a pleasure to see you again. Truly, your beauty brings light to this dreary hall." His green eyes sparkle in amusement, and she has to physically stop herself from rolling her eyes.

"Lord Varon, it truly is a pleasure. You're looking well." How much useless talk would she have to fake her way through? "Actually, I hoped to discuss an important matter with you."

"I'm surprised Lord Baratheon isn't with you." He adjusts his position, shifting his weight to the other side of his seat.

"He has other business. I wished to speak with you, in point of fact. As you mentioned, Evanfall and Storm's End have had a long, prosperous business relationship for generations, it would be a shame to see that go to the wayside. Perhaps we could…"

"You want to reinstate the agreement between our two households?" He asks rhetorically, a pleased smirk on his face.

"Exactly, I'm glad we see things the same way."

"I would love to, but unfortunately, we've already made arrangements with a few other outlying districts and cannot renew the contract." Unbelievable.

"What? How could you have possibly resold all that produce in one month's time? That's not possible." Arya is affronted.

"It is what it is." He shrugs.

"Isn't there some kind of compromise we can come to, some sort of understanding…?"

"Funny, that's exactly what I was thinking." He says, smiling wider.

"And what exactly were you thinking?" She asks.

"I think you know. One time only. And of course, my court offers complete discretion, no one need know." The other attendants in the hall cover their giggles with their hands.

"What exactly are you referring to? Be plain." She clarifies, though she can guess already. Lommy comes to stand beside her.

"I apologize, My Lady. I assumed we were on the same page. Your presence here, your pleading. I was referring to you spending the night, with me, once. And then the business arrangement can continue on as normal." He's lounging comfortably in his chair, playing with his fingers. "It's quite a good deal."

"How dare you ask that of me? What kind of man would ask that?" Her fists are clenched and Lommy takes an intimidating pose.

"Why shouldn't I? You're a very attractive woman. I think it's a shame for a highborn from a noble house to be wasted on some bastard. It's too bad really. I know it's not your fault; you're only playing the hand you're dealt. You got stuck with him. And now his poor decisions and inexperience might mean you'll all starve. I'm giving you a chance to remedy that. What say you?" He's so pleased with himself, and he doesn't even flinch as Lommy unsheathes his sword.

Arya is silent a long while, processing, considering. Merilee and Shireen are flabbergasted; she can feel their eyes upon her. And the court members are burning holes into her flesh with their stares.

"I say…" She returns each and every gaze in turn, before staring down Lord Varon.

"You can go fuck yourself. You seem the only one interested." She settles on. His grin drops. A few in his court smile widely in response, before clamping hands over their lips.

"Come, let's go." And she swiftly turns and walks out, her group following close behind.

"If you ever change your mind, My Lady." She hears over her back, to some nervous laughter in the background.

"When the North melts you shiny pig." She calls over her shoulder and continues to storm out. Guffaws and chortles following her out.


 

On the ferry back, she's still quiet. Replaying the scene over and over in her head, wondering what she could have done differently, if there was another way to handle the situation. The comment about the people of Storm's End starving was not an idle threat.

"You did the right thing, My Lady." Merilee says. "What he asked was completely disrespectful, beneath you. Honor would never allow it." True.

"And Gendry would never want that. He would have killed that stuffy little lord for even suggesting it." True enough. "You did right."

"Imagine him saying… I mean it's a sacred act between husband and wife. To ask you for… it's degrading and disgusting. Trying to turn the act of making children into… that. Unforgivable." They all turn to look at Shireen at that, who looks down in embarrassment at an unknown faux pas.

By the time they return to their horses, the sky is beginning to darken.

"Long ride back." Merilee comments.

"We're not heading back, we need to find an Inn or something."

"An Inn?" Shireen asks, excited at the prospect. Arya slows her horse to ride beside the girl; she wants to have a talk.

"Shireen, do you know why I said no to Lord Varon?"

"Yes, because of what Merilee and Lommy said." She answers.

"Well, yes. Pride, one of my major flaws. And true also, I would never do that to Gendry. But that's not why. I said no, because I didn't want to."

"Of course you didn't. No one wants… I mean, as a woman…" She's blushing too furiously to continue.

"You think so? Who told you so?"

"My mother."

"Mine too. She meant to scare me, or discourage me from being too free. I suppose." She looks very interested, so she continues.

"But it's not awful, I quite like it in fact."

"Really?"

"Yes, really. He knows it too, damn him." She says the last bit under her breath. "You'll see one day, when you marry. It's not bad."

"I'll never marry." She says resolutely, reminding Arya of herself when she was young.

"That's what I said too." She jokes.

"No, I mean I really won't. Before, my father would have arranged a match for me, but now that Storm's End has gone to Gendry, no one will want me." She's so sure, and so sad.

"That's not true, Shireen."

"It is. With this face…" She covers her greyscale with her palm and looks away.

"You never know what will happen, who you'll meet. The world is changing. And if you don't wish to marry, you don't have to. You'll always be welcome at Winterfell with us." She smiles radiantly at that, and Arya wishes she'd said something of the kind to her sooner.

They pass through the first village they come across, a small farming village called Haystack, where there are no Inns, taverns, or even brothels to be found. Haystack though, why does that sound so familiar? And then it comes to her, the farmer, Jon Greene. Perhaps they could beg a night off him; she'd resort to guilt if it came to that.

She asked around and found his farm not far off, rather large, stretching acres and acres. The moon glinting off the fields were quite beautiful.

When they knock upon the door, Arya is dressed once more as a lady, the farmer shows true surprise through his thick beard. His wife answers as well, and the door is set wide open letting the light spill out. It looks warm and inviting in there.

"My Lady." The man greets. His wife gasps loudly and backs up a step. Arya puts on her friendliest smile.

"Good evening, Mr. Greene, Mrs. Greene."

"My Lady." His wife says, light blonde hair fastened back.

"What can I do for you?" Jon Greene asks. To the point, so much simpler.

"Sorry to impose, and so late; but we're in need of a place to stay this night."

"Uh, of course, come in, come in." The woman shifts at that and becomes a welcoming hostess.

Dinner is very pleasant, the two Greene girls fascinated with Arya but more especially Shireen. But it was in a friendly way, and they chatted and giggled between the three of them. It was heartening to see. And the dinner was very nice too if modest, roasted onion and goat cheese; the onion Greene's own crop. Perfect, she thought, they'd lived off onions in Storm's End before, and would again if they had to.

They have no extra rooms, but Shireen is welcome to stay with the children. They also offer Arya their bed, but she declines of course and beds with the children instead. It reminds her a bit of the coldest nights in Winterfell, cuddling up with her siblings. Lommy and Merilee will sleep in the barn.

Greene's crop is ready for harvest, but they only have so many hands. Lommy volunteers, and Arya does too. Merilee and Shireen offer after the fact, they're put to work sorting, cleaning, and preparing. They try to have Arya help out in the kitchen, but she sneaks out to the fields, plucking in the hot sun with the rest of them. If Lommy is surprised to find her working beside him, he doesn't show it.

It had looked quite easy at the first, but you couldn't let your mind wander completely. The roots were delicate and took some finesse; and it was murder on the back. Her pants were filthy, but she had plucked bucketsful of the sweet root vegetable; and it felt good to dig her fingers in the Earth and to sweat. Around midday Shireen brings around water to all the workers, she gets many thank you's and smiles; and it's as if the girl's truly forgotten about her face. No one else seems to care either.

It becomes apparent that a group has formed, and is watching her work. After blowing a particularly annoying strand out of her face, she addresses them.

"Hello." She smiles, but receives no response from them; too shy to reply.

"Greene." She calls out. They'd at least grown familiar and comfortable after working alongside each other for hours on end. "What's all this?" He shrugs.

"Not used to seein' a fine lady work the fields, I'd expect." He says, chuckling.

"Nobles get their hands dirty too sometimes." She jokes loudly so they can hear.

She gets a few smiles at that.

"I've even been known to gut rabbits if it's called for." She continues, garnering a few laughs as well.

"I don't doubt it." Greene says.

"And she's the best I e'er seen on a horse." Lommy adds, to which she smiles brightly at him.

"Did you really tell Lord Varon to…?" One asks, he's short and barrel chested, with a kind face.

"She told him to go fuck himself." Lommy says.

There's some hearty laughter at that.

"I hate that asshole. Always looking down on us. Ne'er gives us a fair shake." He approves.

"This is Tom, he has a potato field up the road." Tom does a little bow thing, but it's funny more than anything. A few others introduce themselves and their crops as well, and they all seem to dislike Lord Varon as much as she does.

"Maybe you could do a deal with them, like you done with us." Green suggests. She hears agreements from the others.

"Well, we would love to. We don't have much just now, but perhaps by the next harvest…" She starts.

"Will this do?" Shireen holds out jewelry, the pieces they'd picked out from her mother's room.

"Shireen, what did you…?"

"It's my home too you know, Storm's End. My people. I have to help, if I can. They're just things." And she's so sincere that Arya can't help but agree.

"Those'll do." Tom says, to other nods that follow.

It's settled then, somehow. They would keep Storm's End fed. Shireen had broken out of her shell; her and Lommy were better on better terms; and she had gotten to tell off that shit Lord Varon. All in all a grand trip; but she was eager to return home, to her life, to her husband.


 

A/N: Well, that ended up being a long one. I'm kind of surprised. I quite liked the idea of Arya problem-solving, bonding with Shireen and Lommy, and remembering what she's capable of. Things are not perfect with Gendry; she truly does hate being told what to do. But she can't seem to keep her hands off him either. A slippery slope. Plus, what's going on with Kahlen? Next Chapter- Stannis comes back and super drama. Review please.

 

Chapter Text

Stannis' Return

Arya

They end up staying that night, too tired to ride back. The next morning they get a very late start, having overslept considerably. They're all sore, but satisfied, with a few basketfuls of different fruits and vegetables to bring back until the harvest is truly over.

Arya is in good spirits, quite proud of herself, and her little team.

"What exactly will we tell Gendry when we return?" Shireen asks. She was considering that herself. The bare bones plan she'd had, had been completely upended. They had stayed an extra night, there were no new dresses, and they all looked as if they'd been through the wringer.

"I'm not sure yet." She answers honestly, biting her lip.

"You've sure gone to a lot of trouble to keep his manly honor in tact." Merilee comments.

"It's not just about Gendry. I'll need to do things like this for Winterfell all the time. I won't just live there, I'll have to hold it, govern it. Storm's End is just a practice-run for me." She insists, though it sounds hollow, even to her.

Her mind goes back to plausible lies she could tell to spare his feelings- coming up empty. No matter what else, she would spare him pain if need be.

They arrive back at the castle at the setting of the sun- horses, guards, soldiers, and knights swarming around. It's a frenzy, and it can mean only one thing. Stannis had finally arrived. And she'd missed it. Of course.

Maester Elwin was waiting for them, and looked at her expectantly. She sent Shireen in ahead, with the intent to stall as long as possible. She sends Merilee ahead to her own room to start a bath.

To Lommy she gave the vegetables, to be added to the evening's supper.

She approached Elwin.

"My Lady, we are so glad you have returned. Is everything, well with Evenfall?" He's twiddling his fingers nervously.

"Aye, Maester, not to worry. Everything is fixed." His bony shoulders untense with a big sigh. "How long has Lord Stannis been here?"

"He arrived last night, but Lord Gendry has managed to convince his uncle to hold off on anything formal until your return." An entire day, that was no good.

"Good, the Lady Shireen will stall as I go make myself more presentable."

"Uh, My Lady. There is another matter. A letter arrived not long ago; I thought you might be particularly interested as you've been so attentive to all correspondence. It's from The Wall." A letter, from The Wall? It's unopened, and she doesn't recognize the script.

"Thank you, Maester." He bows and leaves.

In a trance she makes it to her room. The Wall, Jon?

There, the maid Kahlen is waiting (odd), a lukewarm bath ready; she soaks, submerging her head beneath the bubbles, perhaps a bit longer than necessary. A few ruby red drops confirm what she'd suspected earlier. Apart from the aches and pains of working and riding, those were cramps she'd been battling. She opens up the letter.

To The Great Houses of Westeros,

Not to her then. But how many of these letters were there? All the houses?

We seek your aid. The dead walk beyond The Wall and seek to destroy all life. Once The Wall is breached, they will wreak havoc upon the land indiscriminately; rich and poor alike it will make no difference.

By The Gods.

They cannot be killed with regular steel, even beheading does not stop them. Fire is the only way, but we are vastly outnumbered. Many of our brothers have already fallen.

Jon…

We've taken on Wildlings to help defend the barrier. We plead for men, supplies, whatever you can spare. Do not ignore this warning; once we fall the realm is next.

In the name of The Lord Commander of The Night's Watch

The letter drops from her fingers into the water, and she's quick to pick it up, clutching the soggy paper tight between her fingers. Too many thoughts, she can't focus. She puts the paper aside.

She rinses her hair, scrubbing hard.

The dead walk the Earth. She'd never truly believed Old Nan's stories, but she'd never believed in dragons either. And she'd seen things now, her mother's corpse, walking around with her skin hanging off her bones. It was possible, more than possible.

She cleans her skin too, until it almost hurts and her fingertips are pruned.

To beg for aid, to take on Wildlings; things were truly dire.

She gets out and the girl perfumes her, helping her into a fine grey dress.

And she'd sent her letter to Jon more than a month ago; surely he would have received it before this was sent. If Jon had seen it, if he were alive, he would have responded, he would have included something for her eyes. Was he one of the fallen?

The girl tightens the back, buttoning her way up.

No clue, no signal to let her know he wasn't dead- things were too crazy, or perhaps her favorite brother, her last blood tie was truly gone. Jon was a great fighter, and no doubt learned much on The Wall, but an enemy who could not be killed with steel? And there was not an abundance of fire to be found amongst the ice. This letter was one of many which were sent to all the Great Houses; things must be truly desperate.

The maid gets started toweling off her hair, her simple servant's dress getting little drops of water on it.

"Just a braid then? Or the fishtail, My Lady, or…"

She's startled from her thoughts; she hadn't processed the girl's presence. But she never could have managed to dress herself with all the thoughts swirling around in her head. So she should be grateful for the assistance, but she wasn't. Where was Merilee? This maid is always so intent. Too intent.

"Uh, yes, thank you. Whatever you think."

She sits at the vanity, and the girl begins brushing her hair in earnest; pulling tightly on various strands. She can feel the brush strokes, a soothing rhythm. She can feel fingers stroking her scalp and along down her neck. She's calmed despite herself. The hands move lower, massaging her shoulders. Comforting, gentle. But all too soon, she goes back to her thoughts.

Now Stannis was here with his men, her men, she would need them; not just to rebuild, but also to fight. Did he already know about the siege up North, would he care? Her heart was telling her that her brother might be dead, but she had to make sure for herself. And, oh yeah, save The Realm from unnatural creatures.

"My Lady, I wanted to speak with you about something." The brushing becomes forceful.

"Umm, can it wait, Kahlen? I have a lot on my mind." And the girl pulls a little too hard on a braid.

"I really must insist, My Lady." She meets Kahlen's petulant gaze in the mirror. Suddenly, Arya is ill at ease. The fingers which only moments ago were gently massaging her scalp, were now digging painfully into her skull.

"We'll discuss it later. I can finish here." Arya pries the girl's fingers off her head, suddenly not comfortable with the position of power over her.

"When?" No, the girl's gaze is furious. How dare she add one more thing, her plate was already overflowing. And with that indignant look about her no less.

"I don't know. You're distracting me. Now please leave." Perhaps she's overreacting, but the girl is truly trying her patience. She looks about to protest further, and Arya tightens her hold on the brush. But just as quickly, the maid's face morphs into a smile.

"Of course, My Lady. Later then, of course." She curtsies, and leaves.

Strange, unsettling, and not important enough to ponder. She stands up and inspects the half-done braid in the mirror. Arya deftly finishes the braid as best she can, satisfied with the result despite it all. A tiny bit of shadow rubbed around her lashes, a smudge of pink on her cheeks and lips. Silly, but Lord Stannis would appreciate such pomp.

She enters the dining room with her head held high, determined to play her part, determined to have those men Stannis had promised. She would give Stannis no excuse to deny his promise, no fault to find with Gendry or her. Lack of an heir not withstanding. She looked beautiful and poised, and she knew it.

They are already seated, but they all rise upon her entrance. Gendry smiles warmly at her, clearly relieved to see her, and she smiles back in encouragement. Hi, she mouths to him, and he mouths hi back. Realizing how much she'd missed him the last few days, weeks really. He's also dressed well; hair cut and face shaven, clothes ironed. Ser Davos is here as well, and thankfully The Red Woman is absent, it's a good omen as far as she can tell. Stannis is dressed as always, no frills. She was glad for a dress instead of her usual trousers, she had learned that a gown could be armor in its own way, in certain circumstances. She sees this reflected in the surprised look on Stannis' face. But he recovers quickly. She revels in the small victory.

"So, you've finally decided to grace us with your presence." He quips as they all take their seats. She and Gendry are displaced down a space to make room for the true lord of Storm's End, but of course it makes no difference to them.

"I could say the same of you. We've been waiting a month already, My Lord." Gendry seeks out her hand beneath the table and she takes it, once again they're on the same side, the same team.

"Well, I have been putting King's Landing in order, at Her Majesty's request. But I'm here now, I trust that's given you both enough time to have things in order here." She catches his true intent- he expects a perfect heir to reflect well on himself.

"We've been busy too, My Lord. The Storm Lands have their fair share of responsibilities as well." Gendry answers, trying very hard to annunciate every syllable. His palm is a bit sweaty, but other than that he doesn't flinch or blink.

"Oh yes? What sort of responsibilities?" The first course is a fresh salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, and beet with lemon vinaigrette. Bless Hot Pie; he definitely came through in a pinch. Stannis spears a beat and eats it.

"There were structures that needed mending, small folk with disputes, staff to…" Gendry starts, clearly having rehearsed the answer.

"Yes, yes, good good. And what of the holdings, the finances?" Stannis talks while eating, and the beet he's chewing gives the impression of blood on his lips. Gendry clearly has no answer for this and pales. He has barely even touched his salad, not that he's a great lover of vegetables.

"Gendry's been doing splendidly, Father. He's opened up new markets. And we're saving money." Shireen declares proudly, smiling brightly at her father. If anything, Stannis seems surprised that Shireen would speak out at dinner, but not displeased. "He saw an opportunity for Storm's End, and he took it." She finishes.

Stannis snaps his fingers, and the newly inked ledger is brought before him.

She feels Gendry press his thigh against hers in nervousness, and she rubs that spot by his thumb that relaxes him. His shoulders lower a centimeter.

Stannis reads, and looks over at Gendry skeptically, but nods in acceptance.

"Very good." He admits, barely getting the words out. She thinks it must be painful for him; good. Arya smiles over at Gendry, as high praise as the stern Baratheon will ever bestow. He passes the ledger to Ser Davos to peruse as well. She's a little disappointed that Shireen won't receive any of the credit, but she'll make sure the girl gets her due somehow.

"Any other hoops to jump through, real or imagined?" She questions over a sip of sweet wine. But only a bit, she's learned her lesson.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean." He says without looking up.

"Admit it, Gendry's done everything you've asked of him and more. You can't possibly have any complaints, any reason to retain your men."

"He's proved, adequate, to be sure. That's down to you I suppose. What's more he's seemed to mellow you out as well. Only..." He trails off.

"Get to the point, Stannis." She says testily, setting the goblet down.

"Very well. Have you conceived yet?" He addresses the question to Arya, and she stiffens. This time it's Gendry who grips her fingers in comfort.

"The contract is not reliant upon…" She starts.

"I know, I'm perfectly aware of the agreement. I'm only asking as a loving uncle would."

"We haven't been married long." Gendry answers for her. "There's still time."

"Well what have you been doing all this time? Nearly two months. You do know what to do, don't you Gendry?" Oh yes, a loving uncle alright. "And you, so many siblings, I thought you were supposed to be a fertile little thing. Pity." Stannis remarks over his lamb and rosemary potatoes.

"Enough! That's my wife, you're talking about. You won't speak to her that way. Or at all in my presence." Gendry's voice is raised, deadly serious. It's not a question, but a command.

"Apologies." He acquiesces. And Gendry does start eating in earnest, having asserted himself enough to feel comfortable at last. Arya allows herself a true smile; he's found his place. No, Stannis will have nothing to complain about now. A true lord, the best kind. She lets herself enjoy the potatoes.

The dinner goes on in peace, with more questions about the changes made in his absence and some inquiries as to the state of the capital, Daenerys, and Tyrion. Arya really lets herself breathe, everything truly going swimmingly.

The serving girl comes in to serve dessert, a cheesy torte with raspberry sauce. It's the girl, the pretty one, Kahlen. She looks a bit nervous, fingering the hem of her light blue dress. She was acting so strangely earlier. But as she placed the creamy dish in front of Stannis, she freezes. Looking in Arya's direction, moistening her bow shaped lips. But it's not Arya she's staring at, but Gendry.

"Yes, what is it girl?" Stannis asks impatiently, not enjoying the sensation of her hovering.

"Pardon, My Lord, I…" And then she does the strangest thing, she drops to her knees and prostrates herself. "Forgive me, My Lord. I beg you for your mercy." What is she on about? Gendry has let go of her hand and is now clenching the tablecloth. His eyes intent on the scene. What does he know of it?

"What is this?" Stannis asks confused. "Get up, girl." She gets up from the floor, but stays on her knees. She looks at Stannis with pitiful wet brown eyes, near tears but not quite.

"Forgive me, My Lord. I'm so embarrassed. And to do it this way… I didn't know what else to do, I…" Arya notices Gendry is half out of his seat.

"Yes, yes. Be plain. I haven't the time, for…"

"I'm pregnant, My Lord." Was this some kind of joke? It certainly seemed like The Gods were having a laugh. But why is she doing this now? It certainly wasn't too much of an emergency, she wasn't even showing yet.

"And what's that to do with us?" Stannis, compassionate as always. But she has to agree. The girl had terrible timing.

"It's His Lordship's." She says, looking right at Gendry. And Arya feels all the breath leave her lungs.

"No!" Gendry shouts beside her, chest heaving. He's at his full height, incensed.

"Silence, Boy!" Stannis scolds. Not Gendry, boy. And Gendry freezes. "Go on, girl." She has a few tears leaking down her cheeks now, but she goes on. This is what she'd been trying to say earlier. Arya rather wishes she'd let her speak in private.

"It started when he first arrived, just a time here and there. Of course I didn't say no. Then when things became more distant between them, ugly fights and the like; he'd call me to his bed more and more." The fight, the distance. No wonder it had been so easy for him; no hardship, no bother at all.

"That's not true." Gendry denies. Training, classes with Shireen, and extra practice on his own. Extra practice?

"Do you have any proof?" Ser Davos questions the girl.

"Only that I love him. And when the child is born, it will look just like its father. When it comes, you'll see." She wipes at her nose. "I never thought he loved me, not truly; but perhaps the babe…" She clutches her belly, and the tears come faster now, sniffling too. Arya can feel eyes on her, but can't seem to look away from the girl, Kahlen. Was she prettier than Arya? Did he prefer her?

Stannis throws down his napkin on the table, furious. Though he lacked social niceties, Stannis was always adamant about the 'honorable thing'. He constantly spoke of his brothers' indiscretions with disgust.

"Well, I see the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Stannis remarks. "But you could at least have had the sense to wait for a legitimate heir first. Damn you, boy." Stannis curses, pulling on the tablecloth in anger, displacing a few forks, and sending the ledger to the floor. He waves the girl away and shoves away his dessert.

"I'm not pleased." He says with finality. They'd officially failed the test; that much was clear.

And just like that, she feels her whole world slipping away. It was all gone now. She swallows and tastes bile.

She's aware of a churning in her stomach, and she has a vision of retching all over the tablecloth, but holds herself together. No, she won't let all of it slip away. Her marriage was one thing, but her army? Not a chance.

"We were…" There are words coming from her mouth, and she's not sure from where. Gendry snaps his gaze away from his disapproving uncle to stare at her. "We took your request for heirs to heart, Uncle. A backup. Just in case." She swallows, and the bitter acid taste is gone. "There's a good chance I'm barren, so, we thought it best to make other arrangements." Whose words are coming out of her mouth? Gendry croaks in astonishment.

"But a bastard child…" Stannis seems unconvinced, eyes cockeyed.

"Arya…" Gendry tries to get her attention once again, his voice breaking on her name; but if he interrupts her she'll never get through it.

"We'll legitimize him or her. You'll have a Baratheon heir. I swear it. On my honor." Her spine is rigid, conveying the confidence she in no way feels.

"Are you sure about this?" Stannis questions. He squints at her in pity. It only makes her stomach twist harder.

"No." Gendry says at the same time as she speaks over him.

"That depends, will you fulfill your part of the bargain?" She challenges. He looks between her, Gendry, and the girl. Then eyes Ser Davos beside him who nods.

"Yes, I'll keep my end." Is she meant to be relieved? What she'd just agreed to, what she'd just promised. She would have to live with it forever, one way or another.

"Do you swear it?" She has to make sure.

"I swear it, on my name." It was done then.

"Good, that's settled." She pushes out her chair gracefully and stands. "Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll retire." Gendry forcefully grabs her arm to stop her from leaving, but still she can't look at him. It's taking everything in her to keep herself together. She concentrates on the crease between the walls, the part where the pieces fit together; not his warm fingers curled around the flesh near her elbow.

"Arya, wait, it's not what you think." He tries to explain, loud enough so only she can hear.

"We leave on the morrow." She raises her chin high, keeping her voice from shaking.

"So soon? What's the rush? Winterfell will still be there in a few more weeks." Shireen pleads, looking as shattered as she feels.

"We've been sitting still for a month. Hardly a rush." She turns her attention back to Stannis. "And we're not going to Winterfell. We're headed to The Wall." She answers.

"The Wall…" Stannis freezes, his eyes unblinking.

"Yes, that's right. They're my men now, and I can do what I want with them. I say we continue on to The Wall. Would you go back on your deal?" She challenges, single eyebrow raised. A tiny part hoping he will refuse, and let her back-out of this miserable situation she'd let herself be trapped into.

"The Wall, it is. We leave tomorrow. As you say." He agrees. She hears nothing, only sees his lips moving and his head nodding. It's enough for her. Arya rips her hand free from Gendry, and quickly but smoothly exits the room. She's exceedingly proud of herself for not letting herself cry in front of them.


 

Bonus Chapter

Jon

When he wakes, everything is blurry and the room is spinning. He tries to sit upright, but can't quite manage. It's his own quarters, this he recognizes.

"No, no, no. Don't do that." It's Sam, he can tell that much. "Just lay back there." He instructs, making him more comfortable on the bed.

"Sam, what happened?" His smiling bearded face comes into view.

"You're alive is what. That woman did it, for sure. Well, actually, I'm not sure what she did. But you're alive." He feels a deep pain in his gut; he tentatively slides his fingers beneath his shirt to feel puncture wounds. Oh yes, the repeated stabbing by his own men. Fuck. He should be dead.

"What woman?"

"She serves the Red God, red and voluptuous. Ring any bells?"

Oh yes. There was no forgetting her. The power. Brown almost black eyes. Creamy skin and lovely breasts. He remembered well enough. She'd done something to him. It seemed he had her to thank for his life, but he still didn't trust her. He liked looking at her sure enough, though the red hair still physically pained him.

"How did I get here?"

"You got up and walked, then fell unconscious again." Oh yes, he remembered that too.

"What of the men?"

"We rounded them up. The ones loyal to you are watching them close. They ripped a few of them apart. And those on the fence, they saw you rise from the dead and not as a White Walker; they're too afraid to try anything against you." Everything was a mess with them. He would have to execute at least a few, if not all involved. But it would have to be done. If he couldn't trust his own men, what good were they?

"And what of her?"

"Well, I dunno where she is. Probably staring into the fires again, talking to her god." Sam was still quite dubious about her religion, and he had to agree.

"I should do something, about the men. Help me up." But he pushes him back down instead.

"No, you aren't, you're going to rest a bit more first."

"But Sam..."

"No buts. Besides, I have more news." He says excitedly.

"More news?" He rubs his brows in frustration. What now?

"You've had a letter. And I read it. Sorry. I thought it might be important and…" He's babbling.

"I named you my Second, Sam. Of course you're meant to read important letters."

"No, but... It wasn't to The Lord Commander, it was addressed to plain Jon Snow." He pulls himself up higher at that.

"From who?"

Sam smiles then.

"Your Sister." It can't be.

"Are you sure?" He doesn't want to get his hopes up.

"Pretty sure, it sounds like her and all. I mean the way you described her. And the script is girly. Also, she signed it Arya."

"And she's alright? She's…"

"Oh, yeah. She's…" Sam stops and holds out the letter. "Well, you should read it." He grabs at it, but the neat sentences blur together a bit.

"Sam, could you…" He takes the letter back gingerly.

Sam reads slow, giving him the chance to take it in. He appreciates that.

"Dear Jon. I haven't heard from you in so long, I fear the worst."

"Wait, how long ago was this?" He interrupts.

"It got here a couple of weeks ago." Damn ravens.

"Fuck." He continues.

"I've heard all sorts of stories about the creatures on The Wall. All I ask is a letter, a sentence, a word. Just let me know you're alive." He clenches his fist. Is he, is he truly?

"We're the last, Jon." By the Gods, was that true? Father, Robb, Bran and Rickon. Sansa was missing. Catelyn Stark was dead too. He wondered about his little sister, his favorite, often, never sure if she was alive. She was though, clearly, and he was. The last, like she said.

"I'm at Storm's End now, but soon I hope to be on my way home. I swear to you I'll rebuild Winterfell to its original glory and make Father proud." Hah, he could still imagine her as a child, the last time he'd seen her, hair a mess, wanting to do everything the boys could do but turned away and discouraged in response. And now she would be taking over Winterfell in Father's stead. Incredible. But he had faith in her. So determined, he doubted there was anything she couldn't accomplish.

"I've found his bones. And my mother's too. I know you two didn't get along, but if you'd seen what I'd seen; you'd want her put to rest too." What had she seen? He tried to imagine. After his own horrors. Would she believe the things he'd been witness to? Six years since he'd seen her last, six long years.

"I thought I heard Bran; he called to me. Perhaps I'm going mad, but it pleases me to think of him in the bosom of The Old Gods." So she'd heard him too. It was real, he wasn't going mad.

"Also, I'm married."

"What?!" He startles Sam so badly, he stops reading. "What?" He asks again.

"She's married." Sam says simply, clearly amused.

"To who? What? When?"

"Do you want me to keep reading?" Sam teases.

"Yes, yes. Sorry."

"I know, I swore I never would. Daenerys forced it upon me, it was the only way to strengthen my position in The North."

"I knew it! I knew she would never marry of her own free will. That Dragon woman must have forced her. How dare she? Arya never wanted to marry. And to who?" He just keeps reading. Sam continues instead of outright answering.

"But it's not so bad. His name is Gendry. He's very kind and he treats me well, so don't worry. He's a smith, and a Baratheon. I want you to meet him." A Baratheon? He'd never heard of a Gendry Baratheon, and he'd had to study the family histories like all his legitimate siblings. And a smith? Who ever heard of a lord with a trade? The Red Woman knew, she must have, she served Stannis after all, or claimed to, and yet she hadn't said anything.

"I'm sure when you do, you'll love him like I do." Sam looks up from the paper. "See that. She loves him. It's alright."

"Unless someone's making her write that." Although, in truth he's having trouble imagining anyone making Arya do anything. Sam goes on.

"One day I hope you will come visit us, you will be very welcome, and finally all will be set to rights. I miss you, brother. Send me word that you're alive and well, I beg you. Love, Arya."

"Fetch me paper and ink, Sam. Please." But Sam doesn't move. "Sam."

"I can fetch you the paper and ink. But we've no more ravens. You ordered me to send out a call for help to all of Westeros. We sent out every last one. There's no way to send it, Jon, I'm sorry." Jon punches the pillow.

"But she's alive."

"She is. And happy." Well, that remained to be seen.

Married, to some Baratheon. He hadn't even been there. Though, he supposed that had never been a possibility. He didn't get to meet him, to deem him good enough for his fiery little sister. He hadn't even gotten to threaten him, like he should have done. He still pictured her as the little girl who used to steal sips of his ale, who would make faces at the Septa, or run down the hall in his pants and tunics. But she wasn't like that at all anymore was she? After all this time, she was married and who knew what else. He and Arya wouldn't even know each other. She might not even recognize him; scruffy and bearded, gaunt and pale.

But if she was going home to Winterfell, he would get there too. But first he had to fulfill his vow. Protect The Wall, Protect The Realm, Protect the people of it. He had a home and precious family left. And he would see both again, he vowed.

"Alright Sam, help me up now." And this time, there was no argument.

 

 

Chapter Text

Fallout

Gendry

The room is silent, and Gendry hesitates only a moment before following Arya out. She's walking purposefully down the hall, fists clenched, her grey dress swishing loudly.

"Arya." He calls out. She slows down, but keeps walking. He easily catches up with her. "Arya." He grabs her arm to get her to face him. Her eyes are moist, and the sensation unmans him.

"Not here." She grabs his arm and pulls him along, he follows readily of course, breathing a bit heavy with the adrenaline of it.

"Please just listen, let's talk about this…"

She shakes her head, looking up and down the hall for eavesdroppers.

"Arya please, you have to believe me. I didn't do this. I would never..." He pleads. She stops looking around and focuses on him.

"I do believe you, Gendry."

"What?" His whole chest collapses in relief. He's not sure he heard her correctly.

"Or, I don't believe her." She lightly slaps him on the chest. "You wouldn't have a bastard, you're so sensitive about those things. I'd also like to think you wouldn't humiliate me this way in public." She grinds her jaw.

He laughs then, the intense relief doing nothing to slow his pulse.

"I thought. Oh God, I thought…"

"Sorry. I just had to get out of there before I lost my composure. I could have strangled her. That or vomited on the dessert."

"Thank the Gods." He kisses her palm and pulls it to his chest.

"I know she's lying. But the best lies usually have some truth mixed in. I'm still figuring out which is which." She arches her eyebrows at him. "Swear to me you never touched her, and I'll believe you."

He swallows, his first reaction. She sees it and her eyes narrow.

"No. I…"

"You hesitated." He swallows again.

"No, I didn't I…" She frees her hand.

"You did it again. You're hiding something."

"No. I, yes. But it's not what you're thinking." He combs his fingers through his black hair.

"You don't want to know what I'm thinking." The line of her jaw is tense.

"Just, let me explain."

"Please, by all means."

"She tried to… there was a thing… but nothing happened. Truly. I thought I could handle it myself. Obviously, I was wrong. But I didn't think she would dare…" He trails off, but she's studying him.

"What thing?"

"It's…"

"Tell me 'the thing', now, Gendry. You won't get another chance." She crosses her arms in a show of strength. But her eyes are watering.

"Well, it's. When we first got here. I came back to the room. I saw, what I thought was you leaning over. I thought I was grabbing your ass, but…" The look she gives him is blank.

"And then?" Emotionless.

"Nothing. I mean she rubbed all up against me like, and I sent her away." He scratches the back of his neck. "I really thought it was you." She blinks slowly.

"Nothing else?" She looks doubtful.

"Well, she…"

"For fucksakes, Gendry. Just say it, the more you stall the worse it seems." He might as well, it couldn't possibly make the situation worse.

"Well, I was takin' a bath one night, I only closed my eyes for a second. And… then there was a hand on my cock." Her jaw drops open. "Seriously, I thought it was a dream, or… She was… But I stopped her. I did. I swear it." She starts laughing slowly.

"Arya." The laugh gets louder and stronger.

"You're scaring the hell outta me." She has to clutch her stomach she's laughing so hard, and tears fall from her eyes. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but it's true, I…"

"Oh, it's funnier if it's true." Her laughter is easing.

"You're not mad?" His stomach settles a bit.

"A bit, maybe." She calms down further. "You should have told me so I could have handled this sooner; rather than having to think on my feet. What happened to trusting each other?" All traces of laughter gone.

"I tried to take care of it. I did. I thought you wouldn't even have to know about it. But then she started acting crazier, and, she said there would be consequences. I didn't even know what she was talking about." She nods in understanding. Then something occurs to him.

"When Stannis arrived, I sent someone down to the village to look for you, they couldn't find you. Nobody had seen you." Her gaze flits away for a second. "I needed you. But you weren't there. Where were you Arya?"

"It was just business. We have a much more serious problem on our hands here at the moment."

"Business?" He persists.

"It's not important, it's been settled. We need to focus."

"Settled, that's what Shireen said too. She told me all about your little adventure." A bluff.

"What? She did? Traitor." She says the last beneath her breath.

"But I'd rather hear it from you."

"We were only trying to help. I knew you'd only take it personally."

"How could I not?"

"Gendry." She grabs his shoulders in her hands. "You were doing so well with your responsibilities. Your clothes." She straightens his collar. "The way you hold yourself, the way you speak." She's ticking the three items off on her fingers. "I was proud of you, I am proud of you." She pecks him on the lips. "I just didn't want to let one little mistake discourage you. It wasn't even your fault really."

"What mistake?" At his blank expression she squints at him.

"Shireen didn't tell you any of this, did she?"

"Not a thing. We didn't even get to properly greet each other before dinner." At first she seems angry. Then she holds up four fingers with a smile. "And you're all devious now; you just tricked me. Well done. That's four things."

"Arya…" He warns.

"It's cute."

"How am I supposed to learn from my mistakes if you hide them from me?"

"Fine. You're right." She sighs. "Remember Evanfall?"

"Evanfall? Never been. Oh… You mean that ass Lord Varon?"

"The very same. Remember how you told him he was banned from doing business with The Storm Land's? Well, it turns out, we need him. Or needed him. Or so it seemed."

"What happened?"

"It's okay, I fixed it."

"How, what did you do?"

"Nothing. I went to officially apologize with the hopes of restoring trade relations, that's all." He's learned enough about politics to read between the lines by now.

"In other words, to beg."

"It never came to that. I couldn't quite stomach it." She sneers.

"You shouldn't have had to. If anyone, it should have been me. My mess, mine to clean up."

"It wouldn't have helped. Turns out he's even more of an ass on his own land."

"I can imagine. Pompous prick."

"And luckily, it all worked out with the farmers. So…"

"So that's why Stannis was so pleased with the finances." That makes much more sense. She knew Stannis would have found fault with him, and she'd covered it up.

"And don't forget dinner. He really enjoyed that salad." She boasts with a chuckle.

"And you got Shireen involved in this?"

"She wanted to help. She loves you, you know. Shireen is actually very capable. You would have been proud of her. She's really coming out of her shell." Family. Who now suspected he was scum.

"Thank you. For doing that."

"Of course. I'm your wife. I'll always have your back, and I'll clean up your messes too. Somehow." She starts biting her nails.

"You're too clever wife." He taps her forehead lightly. "You'll figure it out." He taunts with a compliment. A corner of her mouth lifts at that.

"I don't know. She's very good, more clever than I am by half." He strokes the braided edge of her hair. "She backed me into a corner, I'm rather impressed actually." She admits.

"What do we do?"

"What we are doing. Stay firm. She's particularly determined. She was trying to play me as well. I don't know what her intent was." He strokes the shell of her ear. "Or how long she's been planning this. Or if it was just a sudden whim. It was risky to be sure. She must have been desperate." She seems to be asking him for his opinion.

"I dunno. Maybe she's just fucking mental."

"Mmm. Or in love with you. Or both." She reasons.

"In love with me? Are you joking?" She shrugs.

"Obsessed, perhaps. Well, we're stuck with her now, either way, she's made sure of that."

"No, we're not." He kisses her on the temple. "Nothing's final. I'll tell Stannis the truth. Make him see. And he'll believe me, us, or not. I don't really care anymore." She makes some space between them at that.

"No, you can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Haven't you been listening? It's too late now."

"You can't be serious."

"It's already done. She's done all the damage she can. We have to have a united front. If we go back on our position, it will only make things worse." He takes a step back to look at her fully.

"Our position? How can it be our position if you didn't ask me? And telling the truth would be worse for who?"

"Both of us. Our families, our names. Just leave it."

"I can't believe you're suggesting this."

"I'm trying to…"

"Fix it, yeah, you said. For our reputation? Or, this is about the arrangement with Stannis, isn't it? So long as you get the men my uncle promised. You don't really care either way, do you?" She curls her lip in distaste.

"I don't care? That's what you think? Do you have any idea how embarrassing this is for me? How painful? I'm trying to make the best out of a bad situation, your bad situation, and you're trying to make me feel guilty for it."

"Is it mine? All that stuff you came up with in there. You were awful quick. How do I know you didn't arrange this whole thing yourself as a backup?" She gasps. "So sure I would be a failure in front of my uncle? If he deems me unworthy, then I won't be good for anything will I? Bad gamble that."

She's outraged. "You think I would ever, in my worst imaginings, ask for this?" She doesn't wait for a response. "Trick you? I was a little busy making sure we didn't all starve to death. Besides, if I had orchestrated something, I would have been a hell of a lot more discreet about it. No, a crazy dangerous slut, getting up before my friends, your family, the servants, and guards and claiming to be carrying your child. You think I want that? By morning the whole of the Seven Kingdoms will know. This is truly my nightmare."

"Don't you think you're exaggerating just a…"

She pokes him in the chest with her finger.

"And even if you didn't actually fuck her."

"I didn't…" He starts to defend himself.

"She had her hands all over you. It's disgusting."

"I didn't want her to, she just..."

"If you think, for one second I would ever throw serving girls at you, and tell you to have at it, then you are seriously…" He kisses her, and it shuts her up. She doesn't seem to have anymore to say by the time he lets her up for air. Once he can speak, he reassures her.

"For fucksakes, Arya. How could I have possibly? You drive me too crazy to even have the energy for much else. You laugh at me, yell at me, undermine me, and fuck me blind. It's adorable, but it's exhausting. How could I even manage anything with another woman? Let alone another crazy one.".

"Not funny." He sobers, seeing her doubts.

"I don't want anyone else. Have I ever given you any reason to doubt that?" He wipes at all the black ringing her eyes. He likes the possibility that she's jealous, damn him.

"No."

"So don't even question that."

"Everyone else will. And loudly. All they see is a marriage of convenience. They'll assume the worst." He groans.

"Who cares what they think?"

"I do. I don't want them thinking I'm just another idiotic wife played for a fool. Or that you're just another bastard begetting bastards. We can't afford that right now. We have to keep the upper hand."

"Them? Who are them?"

"Them, people, Gendry. They talk."

"So let them. What else is new? As far as my uncle is concerned I am my father. He's just been waiting for proof. Why should I give it to them? How is that right, Arya? How does that solve anything?"

"It's the hand we've been dealt. Whether the child is yours or not, everyone will believe it anyway. You're worried about being like your father? How about a father who won't even recognize his own flesh and blood? Is that the kind of lord, the kind of man, you want people to see?" It's a punch in the stomach.

"It's a lie. I won't put my name to a lie. You can't ask that of me." She shouldn't.

"Would you have me beg? Would that make it easier?" Her questions are reaching a hysterical pitch. "Shall I get on my hands and knees to beg my husband to claim another woman's child? Perhaps the only child either of us will ever have." Back to this again.

"Gah! Arya. Listen to me. You. Don't. Know. That. You're basing everything off some witch's prophecy. You don't even follow Rh'llor."

"He seems real enough. There are Gods beyond counting. It's possible I don't know all of them."

"And the prophecy could mean a lot of things anyway, Arya. You're just jumping to conclusions. Expecting the worst. Like always." She looks annoyed at that.

"It's true. I feel it. It's been months, Gendry."

"Yeah, it's only been a few months. And if could be a few months more. If it's a few months more than that we'll go to a maester or a physic. Someone who knows about these things. Alright?"

"If you like." But she's placating him.

"See, I'm not so stupid, am I? I have a good idea every now and again."

"You're not stupid. But you fail to take consequences seriously. We should always be prepared. Just in case."

"In case of what? It can't get any worse than this."

"It can always get worse, stop being so naïve."

"Stop talking down to me like I'm a child. You think I'll just do whatever you want. Not this time, Arya. A man must do what he thinks is right. And I won't do this. I can't. So stop asking."

"We'll lose our power, our respect, the soldiers... Is that what you want?"

"Families, names, the deal, the men, The North, The Wall." His voice gets higher in mocking as the list goes on. "That's all you ever talk about. On and on and on. Don't you care about anything else? Any other hobbies, interests? It's not me you give a shit about, or our marriage, clearly."

"I've never made a secret about my priorities. You knew that when we married. Don't pretend I wasn't always straightforward about that."

"Oh no. I wouldn't dream of it."

"Look, if we don't act fast and smart, we'll lose. It's as simple as that." He laughs, but it's humorless.

"Lose what? The war is over. What are you even on about? I swear sometimes I don't even…"

"Because Winter is..."

"Coming. Yeah yeah yeah. So you say." He rolls his eyes. "But winter's come and gone already."

"You don't understand. The Wall…"

"Will always be there."

"Southerners." She scoffs. He ignores it.

"In there, the first thing that went through your mind was damage control. Fixing this. Holding your head high. Whether it's true or not. What kind of person reacts like that, Arya?"

"A Stark." Her words are so controlled.

"And a Baratheon. Or does that mean nothing to you?"

"Not nothing. I have responsibilities…"

"They're dead, Arya. All of them, all of it. Gone. And nothing will bring them back." And she slaps him then, hard across the jaw. She's shocked at her actions for a moment, but she recovers quickly.

"Don't you ever speak about them. They are my family, my blood. Even now, even in death. You can never hope to understand what that means. The sacrifices required."

"Don't I? And what am I, Arya? You're my family. No matter what I do for you, no matter how much I love you; you can't seem to let them go."

"Never."

"Why can't you just let yourself be happy? With me."

"I don't know." She's looking away again.

"Is there anything I can say to you at this point to make you see reason?"

"Say you're on my side. That you'll do this. I know better about these things, Gendry. I've had more practice."

"No."

"A compromise then."

"I don't think you know how to compromise." He says bitterly.

"I do. Say yes, and I'll do whatever you want. Anything." She promises.

"Anything?" She'll have her way. He can recognize that much.

"I said so, didn't I?" Anger again. "What do you want?" He needs some leverage.

"I don't know yet." She rolls her eyes. "But, I will ask something of you. And when I do, you must agree." Her eyebrows scrunch in confusion. "No matter what it is, you can't refuse."

She's weighing out his request in front of him.

"You said anything." He reminds her. She doesn't want to; what's more, she doesn't think she should have to. But she wants it over, decided, most of all. If nothing else, he knows his wife.

"Alright, I agree."

"Swear. On your honor as a Stark. It's the only oath I'd believe anyway."

"I swear, on my honor as a Stark." And she's dead serious.

"Settled, then." Nothing's settled. They've agreed, but neither are pleased with the terms.

"I guess so." And they both just stand there uncomfortably.

"I'll see you tomorrow, then." He says, breaking the silence. He leaves first. And for the first time, he doesn't feel like sleeping beside his wife.


 

He was well and truly drunk. It seemed like the only sane course of action. When his friends found him in the kitchen later, he was already quite intoxicated.

They tried to cheer him, take his mind off of it; nothing worked. He was in a shit mood, the likes of which none of them had ever seen. He tried to pick a fight with Rik over something or other. He tried to get him to hit him; saying every nasty thing he could think of. He wouldn't bite. None of them took the bait. They all just continued to pity him, but his shouts for them to fuck off and leave him be eventually met with the desired results. They left him to his own devices; to drink in peace and feel sorry for himself.

He had made it through most of a bottle of fine Pentos whiskey, when Ser Davos walked in looking for him.

"Gendry, lad." He calls out, seeing him crouched in a corner.

"Better leave me be, Davos. I'm not much to be around tonight. Ask anyone." Another swig, it burns, but it seems appropriate.

"I can see that for myself. Here, give me that." And he tries to take the bottle from Gendry, but the smith only clutches it tighter and growls. Unperturbed, Davos sits down beside him.

"Rough night?" Gendry lets out a humorless laugh.

"Ya think?" He looks down and sees a paper clutched in Ser Davos' hand. "Is that the bloody contract?"

"Aye." Gendry looks away. "So…"

"It's a lie. A filthy lie."

"Alright Lad, calm down. I had to ask. But I believe you."

"Stannis doesn't."

"He, no. He tends to think the worst in people."

"I thought it was just me."

"Oh no. Everyone. Including himself."

"Well with his fucking conditions, holding us hostage with his demands. I don't much care what he thinks of me anymore."

"Good to hear."

"I thought I was doing good though. I really thought that."

"You were, Lad. You are. Truly. I looked over the ledgers; you did a fine job with those farmers, Gendry. A fine job. Cutting out the middleman so to speak. I never knew you had a mind for business." Davos praises.

"That was Arya. And Shireen. I didn't do anythin'." He whines.

"I see."

"But things were good with Arya. That's what I meant."

"Oh."

"I mean mostly we'd fight. But then we'd fuck and it was… But she doesn't love me the way I love her."

"I think she does, in her way." Davos says. Gendry chuckles at that. Her way seemed to be lacking something. "No one knows what goes on in a woman's mind."

"Ain't that the truth." He takes another swig. "Have you talked to her?" He questions.

"Aye, I saw her. I went by her room first." Davos scratches his eyebrow with his finger nubs but won't look at him.

"And?"

"And what?"

"And how was she? How did she look?" He prompts.

"Truth?"

"Yes."

"Like she'd been crying."

"You're not just saying that?"

"Nah, I wouldn't lie about something like that. She wouldn't want you knowing it besides."

"Good." And he takes another drink. "Why should I be the only miserable one? This was her stupid plan. Never asks my advice about anything. Stark honor, my ass. Thinks I'm useless. But she's too damn stubborn. And now we'll both suffer." He's mumbling, it only makes sense to his own ears.

"Well I'm glad you have perspective on the whole thing." Davos says sarcastically.

"Really, is there another way to see it? 'Cause I thought my whole marriage, my whole life, just went up into flames over the course of a single night."

"Nothing's settled yet, Gendry. This can still play out a number of different ways."

"You mean besides Arya not trusting me? You mean besides having no say? And the whole world thinking- not only that I'm a bastard, but now a real piece of shit who fucks around on his new wife. Just like my dear ol' drunk Da." Davos stands up and hovers over him.

"You can get drunk tonight, you're allowed that. But tomorrow you have to find a way to set things right."

"Right? Right! There's no right anymore, there's no nothing." He sputters.

"It looks like that now, but…" Gendry's belligerent mood is back. He stands up in challenge.

"It's not how it looks, it's how it is." He gestures with such force that he nearly stumbles. "This," he holds up the now nearly empty bottle. "This is it. All that's left. It can't ever be right again, 'cause it's gone. It was all a front anyway." He looks at Davos again, expecting pity. But the man has none. Davos rips the bottle from his fingers before he even registers it. He shakes the bottle, so the backwash sloshes around inside.

"Nothing, eh?" He shakes it again, then throws the bottle to the floor. Gendry is shocked, staring slack-jawed at the shards of wet glass by his feet. "Now it's nothing, Gendry. Sign it or don't. But make no mistake, things can always get worse. And they surely will if you're in a hurry to make it so." He hands Gendry the contract, patting him awkwardly on the back. "Try to get some rest, Gendry. We'll leave at first light, no doubt."

But he doesn't sleep, he can't. At a little past three in the morning, and a few more minutes to regain his bearings, he sets out.

He doesn't knock, all out of pleasantries and politeness. She definitely looks surprised to see him there, clad only in a long shift; but she quickly covers her shock with a smile and a curtsy.

"My Lord, what a pleasant surprise." Kahlen mocks, looking for all the world glad to see him. Like she hadn't just stabbed him in the spine hours earlier.

"Don't play games." He demands, shutting the door of her modest quarters behind him.

"Never." She swears.

"Then what was that at dinner? You seemed hell-bent on making a scene. On upsetting my wife."

"None of you were taking me seriously. I had to make an impact."

"An impact? You're bloody insane! You lied, in front of everyone. You started a horrible rumor that no matter what, will follow me wherever I go. And all for what?"

"But I didn't lie, My Lord."

"Are you even pregnant?"

"Of course. I'm carrying your child. Want to feel?" She reaches out to grab his hand.

"Stop fucking around. It's just us here."

"Fucking?" She smirks.

"Don't you ever stop?"

She shakes her head.

"And when the child is born? What then?"

"It will look like you, My Lord. The spitting image. I swear it."

"Enough! Enough. See this?" He waves the paper in front of her. "This says your child is claimed. You got what you wanted. You pushed my wife past her breaking point." She takes the paper from his hand, brushing her fingertips along the words; but not reading them.

"What does it say?"

"That the child will be a Baratheon. Raised in Winterfell. Mine and Arya's. You get nothing." She nods, evidently appeased.

"Fair enough."

"Fair? Nothing about this is fair. Are you even listening? You'll get nothing. I will make sure of it."

"That's fine. As long as the child's taken care of."

"It's about your child then is it? A loving mother. Is that supposed to make all this alright?"

"I don't care, really. I'll not have my child named a Storm. Penniless, looked down on. It's hard without a father, you'd know."

"Then tell me who the father is and I can force him to take responsibility. I can do that you know?"

"And if I don't want him?"

"Did he… did he force himself on you?"

"You would think that." She laughs, her brown eyes alight. "No, he didn't force me. I wanted to. And I didn't think he'd marry me, or anything like that. I thought it'd be fun. Something to while away the dull hours. And it was. Days seemed newer, brighter; hours passed faster. Only there was a consequence. There's always a consequence. One I'll have to pay for for the rest of my life."

"Give me his name, I'll make sure he pays."

"And I told you, as I'll tell all others. It's your child, My Lord."

"So you pass it off to me, my family. You're making me pay for your mistakes. Doesn't that bother you at all?"

"Not really." He looks away in disgust. "Would it be so bad, to have an heir of your own? I know The Lady is barren."

"She's not, she just said that to save face."

"She doesn't think so. She takes it very seriously. All those herbs and teas and creams. Choking down those vile elixirs. Applying stinky decoctions. Hasn't helped yet." He hadn't known that.

"Don't talk about my wife."

"I wouldn't dream of it. I underestimated her to be sure, I admit it. But it turned out much better than I imagined."

"Why me?"

"The gold helped, the powerful name, and strong title. But no. No, I chose you because you're a good man, an honest man. You'll do right by the child. I see that."

"Or I'll come to resent it. Knowing what you did to me, how you tricked me. Us."

"You won't. You haven't such resentments within you. A bit, simple really. It's sweet." He thinks he's never hated anyone as much as in this moment.

"Don't misunderstand, My Lord. I also wanted you. It would have been so much easier that way." And she strokes his arm in invitation. "Good, honest, handsome."

"You have no shame." She smirks.

"It's done, isn't it? Why not? Might as well enjoy yourself. Your wife's practically given us permission." That was true. She didn't seem to care much, the damage was done, she'd said. Would Arya even blame him?

"You ruined my life." He tells her.

"Sorry." She mock puts. "Does that help? Or maybe, something else I can do to make it up to you?" And she slants her lips upon his, sweet and warm. She presses up against him; he can feel every curve through the thin fabric of her shift. It would be bitter, he knows. She's willing regardless. She seemed to want him for himself, and not his hard-won title. Whatever she wanted him for. And it was more than he could say for his strategist wife. If he squints hard enough, his hands on her ass, he can pretend.

Chapter Text

To The Wall

Gendry

As soon as it starts, he breaks away from the kiss. Bile flavor burning in his mouth.

"I feel nothing for you, not even hate." He whispers, sour breath against her face. Kahlen registers surprise on her round face, almond eyes wide. He shoves her away and stumbles out into the hall.

Maybe Arya wouldn't have cared, maybe she would want a true Baratheon heir. But he couldn't do it, he couldn't be with a woman like that. Through the drunken blur, he might be able to pretend Kahlen was Arya (they resembled each other a bit in stature), find solace for the night; but in point of fact, the devious bitch reminded him more of Melisandre and left him disgusted more than anything.

Instead of getting a few hours of sleep, he'd opted to stay awake, knowing these would be his last few hours at Storm's End. This was the happiest he had ever been, for a short time anyway, before it had come unraveled so easily.

He spent the time by the shore, in the secluded spot where he and Arya had once swam and later made love in the sand. He stayed to watch the sunrise and say goodbye, possibly forever, not just to his home, but also to this life.

The one upside to his lack of sleep, he was up before everyone else. However, his head was still pounding, muscles weary, and throat dry. Rather than go back inside and risk running into his wife, he slips into the soldiers' tents for some water. They don't notice him at first, so he was able to quench his thirst and splash some cold water on himself, which went a long way towards making him feel human again.

"My Lord." He hears from behind him. On instinct he turns around, expecting his uncle, but it's him they're addressing. Oh, they meant him.

Upon finally recognizing him, the rest straighten their spines and stand at attention. They all call him 'My Lord' without a hint of irony or resentment. He recognized some from his time among them, not friends exactly, but good men. Those he knew, he asked after; catching up a bit on all the details of their lives since last they'd spoken. Except for a twist of fate, he would be one of them now; he felt no different than any one of them. No one was treating him any differently, as though they hadn't heard about the scandal of last night. Was it possible?

"Men! Attention!" He hears outside, it's Stannis calling them all to order.

They file out, lining up in formation, prepared for the continuation of the journey. Gendry could say one thing about his uncle, he kept his men disciplined and in excellent fighting formation.

Behind the tent flap, he watched Arya come out, dressed in her black leather pants and fitted tunic. She was back to her true self, no more dresses or elaborate hairstyles, just herself. She marched through the field looking like a lady, albeit a very different sort of lady. He'd always been in awe, and he was no less drawn to her now. Watching her as if he didn't know her, from an objective standpoint, it was like seeing her anew. Arya did have a presence about her, one that made you take notice.

From what he can see through the gaps between the men, he watches her hug Shireen goodbye; both of them whispering to each other. He didn't begrudge them that, their closeness.

Next he watches Elwin bow to his wife, she gives a little joke curtsy in response. He can see mutual respect.

Off to the side, Stannis is saying goodbye to Shireen, a stiff hug, and an awkward pat on the back. However, he detects a warm look on the old goat's face, or as warm as he's capable of. His uncle does love Shireen, in his way, but how could he not?

The goodbye from Ser Davos is much more emotional, with tearful smiles between him and the girl. Davos was always the better man, the better father. He stood in for Stannis where need be; and Gendry was thankful for it.

Gendry decides he's put off his own goodbyes long enough.

He's stopped by a sobbing voice, startled out of his thoughts. It's Marta, looking miserable at his departure.

"I'll miss you, Milord. You were such a good lord." He can't help but smile at her sentiment, the pudgy woman a comforting presence. He will miss her too.

"Thank you, Marta. And please, it's Gendry." She lets out an extra loud cry, and hugs him; a good grip on her. He makes her promise to keep Kahlen from Shireen and she swears she will, before going back in.

His own goodbye from Shireen is upsetting; he would miss the little thing more than he ought. Tiny, but fierce, a bit like Arya if truth be told. She even dressed in pants now.

"When we're done at The Wall, we'll get back to Winterfell. You'll have to come see us."

"I want to, but... Gendry, I meant what I said. There must always be a Baratheon at Storm's End. I can't leave." Her words are disappointing.

"I understand. But Shireen, I will miss you. You're family, my only family."

"And we always will be. No amount of distance will change that. And we can always write. I expect you to write, I know you can now." She scolds him teasingly.

"I will, I promise. Just promise you will take care of yourself, so I don't worry."

"I promise. And you promise the same. I love Arya, I think her family as well. But you're blood. And this whole thing with Kahlen..."

"It's a lie Shireen, I swear it. I would never." He starts to defend himself.

"Oh I know. She's a devious schemer, sure enough. I've known her for years, don't forget." Of course. It was still weird to discuss this with his twelve year old cousin, but as usual, she possessed a unique perspective.

"Arya knows too, or at least she says she does. I'm not even sure she cares either way." He admits, voicing one of his biggest fears.

"She does know, but she's insistent. She thinks it's somehow less shameful if she pretends it was her idea all along. I understand the strategy, but I don't agree with it. By conceding she lets Kahlen win and tarnishes both of your reputations. It doesn't make sense, it doesn't sound like her." She's thoughtful, his cousin. And right.

"There's more. Melisandre told her she couldn't have children. I know she's worried about that too in the back of her mind." He confides, wanting her opinion on that more than anything.

"Oh yes. That does make sense. Melisandre can be quite manipulative. She convinced my mother to let her own brother be burned at the stake. I thought Arya was smarter than that though."

"She's just proud is all." He defends automatically, though actually he agrees with everything she's said. Shireen chuckles in response.

"Funny, that's what she said about you." Was he? Supposedly so, but not half so much as his strong-willed wife.

"And yet she's asked me to put my name to this, to claim the child, to lie to the world and let them believe I'm just like my father. How could she ask this of me? I can't quite wrap my mind around it."

"Then don't."

"What? But, the contract, the promise..."

"I know you love her, and she you; but she's not thinking clearly. You know it's wrong in your heart. Whatever you decide, you'll have to deal with the consequences for the rest of your life. Can you live with this?" He doesn't have an answer. "Just think about it. Nothing's yet been done that cannot be undone. And I'll do what I can from here."

"No, I don't want you to put yourself in any danger."

"I won't, but I'll get to the truth of it, some proof, something to clear your name. Gendry, I promise." She seems so much older in that instant, her promise so sincere. He believes her.

"Thank you, Shireen. I love you." They embrace for quite some time, one of the hardest goodbyes he's yet had to survive through. Insightful Shireen, who sees things he doesn't want to. She whispers that she loves him too, and his chest squeezes; he had no idea how much he'd needed to hear those words back.

Despite himself, his gaze is drawn back to Arya. She was watching them, but wasn't embarrassed for it, sad maybe; she holds his gaze. Neither knows what to say, and neither makes a move towards the other.


 

And just like that, it's time to head off. Naturally, they divide into groups. Arya and Merilee. Stannis and Ser Davos. And Gendry and his men; Lommy, Hot Pie, Brent, Rik, and Begby. The rows and rows of men trailing behind.

"You don't look too good, Gendry. I don't think drinking agrees with you." Brent jokes.

"Yeah, you sure you're alive? You don't quite look like a person." Rik teases. He can't be mad though, he deserves much worse for his bratty behavior the night before.

"Yeah yeah, have a good laugh. Believe me, I'm feeling it now." He answers.

"No one's laughing, Gendry. You've been through the wringer, everyone knows that." Rik says.

"She's ruined everything. You should have let me kill her." Lommy says. He's talking about Kahlen, presumably.

"So loyal, Lommy. You'd never keep anything from me. Never lie." Gendry says sarcastically. He's still thinking over Shireen's advice, and feels less than charitable with any form of deceit.

"I was helping you. Arya needed me, so…"

"She needed you?" He repeats skeptically.

"Aye."

"Since when? I remember a time when you hated her."

"I did, but, she grew on me." He could believe that well enough.

"You lied to my face."

"We meant well, Gendry. You know that." Gendry sighs.

"I do. It doesn't make it alright."

"Are you angry about the lying or the trying to help you part?" He clarifies.

"Both! I'm not helpless. And I don't need you plotting behind my back. Working together to keep me in the dark."

"That's not how it was. It wasn't just you we were helping, but Storm's End, the people."

"Right, the greater good. Why would you need me at all for that? They're only my people. I'd only get in the way, right?"

"No. It was just easier, that's all. It seemed, quicker. She just wanted to fix it before you even need know of it."

"Yeah well, I know now. And it feels like shit to be lied to. She didn't even consider me in all this." Though, to be fair, he's thinking about more than just Evanfall.

"She always puts duty first, over everything. It's her way." The others signal Lommy to stop talking.

"You think?" Gendry asks sarcastically.

"Okay, how about this. The duty, the sense of sacrifice- it's who she is. Who she's always been, and who she always will be. It seems to me like you knew that already. Why would you hold that against her?" He doesn't have an answer to that. That's who Arya is, who she's always been. He'd known that from the first. And loved her for it. But it was different when she put everyone else before him.

"Shut up."

"As you say, My Lord." Lommy taunts. He's never actually seen Lommy angry with him; it's surprisingly uncomfortable. He was used to the man's unwavering support.

"Maybe you're right. But so am I. If I've learned anything from all this, it's that hiding truths destroys everything. If you don't know everything, you can't fix it."

"True enough." Lommy concedes.

"The truth only from now on." Gendry declares, a new peace between them.

"Do you mean that?"

"Of course. I just said so, didn't I?"

"Yeah but, even if you don't want to hear it?"

"Especially then."

"Okay, then there's something I've wanted to tell you. For a while now, but I didn't know how." He looks nervous.

"Fuck me. What now?"

"Forget it." Lommy loses his nerve.

"No, no. Just say it. Better to hear it now." Gendry does mean it, but he prepares himself for an imagined blow.

"I… I don't want a wife, a woman I mean. I have different interests. I'm like your uncle Renly, I…" Gendry lets out a big rush of air, relieved. That's all?

"Yeah, I know Lommy." The look on his face is priceless, utter shock.

"You do? Why didn't you say anything?" Hot Pie just shrugs. He notices Brent is particularly intent.

"I didn't know it was a secret. I thought if you wanted to talk about it, you would."

"And you don't… mind? You don't… care?" He's looking down.

"Why would I? You're my friend, man. Who you fancy is none of my concern."

Lommy chuckles. He seems different, he looks as young as he actually is for once. His admission a weight off his soul.

"Anything else?" Gendry asks, in a bit better spirits despite himself. It's Hot Pie who answers.

"I… one time, at The Inn, we ran out of pigeon. I just used rat and nobody knew the difference. I'm sorry, I…" Hot Pie says.

They all start laughing, feeling their guts ache and water leak from their eyes; much of the pressure off.


 

The pace is very very slow; so many men, and so many supplies. But he's not in a rush exactly. Some paths are destined it seems. He'd set out for The Night's Watch some time ago, and he'd gone off course; far off course. But fate was bringing him back.

When they set up for the night, there are better tents for the nobles; himself included. Well, he's meant to share with Arya, but he preferred to sleep beneath the stars with the men; less complicated that way, and they actually welcome his presence. His mind still too full of thoughts.

And yet, late at night, when it's full-dark, he feels a soft body slide beside him. He's foggy with sleep, and he thinks it's another nightmare of Melisandre. Though there's no blood, no fear. In the morning he's alone, not sure what he remembers. After a few more nights, he comes to see the truth. It's Arya, cuddling up beside him. The smart thing, the strong thing would have been to send her away. But bleary eyed, exhausted from riding, he only wraps his arms around her as he'd done so many times before. And he does sleep better than he would otherwise. Their combined body heat chasing away the bitter cold.

They do this same dance night after night. He expects it, looks forward to it; but he never initiates it. It has to be her. She says nothing though, and he can't find it in him to bring it up himself. They both just pretend.

It's after some time on the road, close to The Wall, that Stannis requests Gendry join him for supper in his tent.

"Gendry, Boy, I feel you've been avoiding me." There's a nice set up, rabbit, carrots, wine which he won't touch, and some kind of honeyed fruit.

"I've been traveling with you this whole time, and only now have you invited me in for a chat. Whose avoiding who?"

"I noticed some tension between you and…" He cuts him off.

"Don't! I don't want your opinion on Me and Arya. You've done enough damage."

"Me? I didn't fuck that serving girl." He cuts into his meat.

"Neither did I." This statement surprises his uncle.

"Excuse me?"

"You just took her word for it. She made a scene, and you didn't even question it. So sure I'm my father." Gendry angrily spears a carrot.

"But you agreed."

"Arya forced my hand, so desperate for those men. Her duty, The North, The Wall, that's all that matters to her. All that ever mattered." Stannis is silent only for a moment.

"That sounds like her." Gendry snorts in agreement. "You should have told me so."

"As if you'd believe me."

"I might have. But as it happens, I was already headed to The Wall."

"What?!" Gendry drops his own knife and fork with a loud clink on the plate.

"Melisandre had a vision. She left for The Wall weeks ago. I always meant to meet up with her."

"Seriously?" He's furious, he's even contemplating bashing his uncle's face into the corner of the table.

"Yes. The urgent plea for help from The Lord Commander sealed the deal." A letter from The Watch. Of course, Arya must have seen it or known somehow. That explained her insistence, her desperation. "I don't know if I believe in Others or what have you; but I can't afford to turn a blind eye. I meant to be King, I'm still not sure I shouldn't be; but that means I have a responsibility to The Realm. That includes threats from North of The Wall." Gendry wants to laugh and cry both. Stannis always meant to head to The Wall. All these sacrifices were for nothing. He's irrationally angry more than anything.

"For The Realm, or Melisandre?" He gets in a dig.

"Watch it, Boy."

"I will not. I owe you nothing."

"Not even respect?"

"For making me miserable? For interfering in my marriage? No, Uncle; I don't respect you much."

"I gave you your name, your title, and your wife. That deserves a thank you at least."

"You gave me nothing. Daenerys backed you into a corner. Don't pretend you had any say." Stannis regards him with interest.

"You've some bite in you. When did that happen?"

"Maybe around the time your meddling put just enough pressure on my marriage to collapse it. I no longer care what you think of me, and you can go to hell for all I care." Gendry gets up to leave.

"Wait, please." And it's a request, not an order, so he does. "That was never my intent." Stannis confesses.

"Doesn't matter much after the fact, now does it?"

"Listen, Boy. I'm trying to apologize." The shock of that statement doesn't lessen his anger.

"You can start by not calling me Boy."

"See, that's what I wanted, Gendry. I needed you to be a Baratheon, a real one; not a sniveling coward." Gendry bangs his fist on the table, causing the whole thing to shake.

"You're insulting me now? Not much of an apology."

"You were a boy, Gendry. You know it's true. Wouldn't look anyone in the eye, ready to follow orders a little too easily. You believed you were nothing more than a bastard, and so you were. It's not to do with clothes or courtesy, it's how you hold yourself, what you stand for. But you're a man now, I can see that. I guess I have the wolf to thank for that, she came through. A Baratheon heir, it's all I wanted. And I have it before me." Gendry feels choked up.

"Then why did you make me go through all of this? Why did you keep testing me, inspecting me?"

"I was waiting for you to tell me to go fuck myself. And you have. Wall or no, child or no; I would have given you what was promised. You've more than proven yourself to me. Ours is the Fury." Acceptance, respect. He'd wanted it so badly for so long. But it didn't mean as much as he thought it would. So much trouble, so much pain. And now his life was in a shambles.

"Like I said, I won't thank you for it." Stannis smiles.

"No, I wouldn't expect so. But I do want to offer you something. You say the girl is lying, I'll believe you. I'll void the contract." He nearly chokes on his rabbit. All of it undone. His reputation, well, that could never be completely clean. But, he could be free of Kahlen, her child, and the murkiness it had caused in his marriage.

"Just like that?"

"It's easy enough, I went to great pains to keep the information limited to those in attendance. The contract is nothing more than a piece of paper, it can be ripped up just as easily. Say the word, and it will be done."

"Yes, I... Thank you."

"Settled then."

"Just don't mention this to Arya, any of it." He requests. Stannis nods with a small smile, understanding the situation all too well.

Gendry finishes his meal companionably, on better terms with his uncle finally. But still, upon leaving, he can't shake his unease, the tension vibrating beneath his skin. The whole thing might be funny if it wasn't so tragic. Arya would most likely set Stannis on fire in retaliation for his mind games. It put things into perspective though. They had scraped for acceptance; when all that was required was a well-timed 'fuck you.' People were strange. Stannis, cold and unfeeling had wanted to be put in his place. Shireen had wanted to be valued. Ser Davos wanted to help others. Kahlen wanted to destroy lives. Lommy had wanted to be accepted for himself. Arya only wanted to avenge her family and go home. And as for Gendry, he wasn't sure what he wanted anymore.


 

At the far outskirts of the camp, he saw his wife. She was too far out, far past the perimeter of the guards, and his first instinct was to scold her for being reckless. But they were past such things now. She was seated at the fork between the roads. One direction went straight to The Wall, the other to Winterfell. She sat there, looking so forlorn and lost that all the distance he felt from her shrunk to nothing. He wanted only to be close to her.

He could see her struggle. She was still so young, trying to do what she thought right above all else. But yet, never sure, always second-guessing. In that moment, despite everything, he could only admire her for trying so hard, for pretending so intensely.

He sits down beside her, and he receives a radiant smile in response.

"Hi." She says.

"Hi." He says back. And then they sit in silence, her hand creeping over to his, their fingers just barely touching.

"It's weird." She says.

"What is?"

"So close to Winterfell. So close to home. It smells different. Do you smell that?"

"I, I'm not sure." He says honestly.

"It smells, cold. Clean." Yes, it's cold sure enough. "And I can hear the wolves. They're calling me home. So close, and yet so far." He interweaves his fingers with hers.

"You'll get there. I swear it."

"I will. I know I will. It's been six years. What's a few more weeks, months, years even?"

"It won't come to that." He says.

"Is that a promise?"

"No. I don't make promises I can't keep." She smiles wide at him.

"I'm glad to hear it." She is so beautiful, dark hair braided to the side, grey eyes sparkling beneath the moon. She looks the same as when they first met. "Come with me tonight. To the tent." She requests.

"Okay." He agrees readily. She seems relieved, as if she wasn't sure what his answer would be. There was never a chance he would say no.

It's bare bones, a bed, a trunk, and a little table with a lantern atop it; not that he expected anything else from her. She would have waved away any extra comforts, not when the men had none. It did afford them some privacy though.

"Are you hungry, or do you want anything to drink?" She seems shy with him, and it reminds him of their time at The Peach. It only makes him feel tender towards her, hyper aware of everything.

"No, thank you. I just ate with Stannis."

"Stannis? And what did he have to say?" He thinks about telling her, but it would only complicate things further. Their deal must remain in tact, at least as far ash she was concerned.

"The usual, what it means to be a man or a Baratheon. You can guess." He says instead.

"Why that… ugh! I should go over there right now and tell him to mind his own fucking business." She's furious on his behalf, his she-wolf.

"I already did."

"Did you?" And she calms down. "Good. I'm glad." She seems genuinely proud of him.

"I'm ready to make my request." He says abruptly, surprising himself. Now or never.

"Oh?" She raises an eyebrow. "Alright then." She bites her lip. "But you needn't use up your request for that." And she starts untying her tunic, a timid smile on her face. He places his hand atop hers, stopping her.

"I appreciate that. I do. But. That's not my request."

"Oh." She seems embarrassed. That was never what he wanted.

"I want you, I always want you." He kisses her clasped hand. "But after I say what I came to say, you may not be so willing." She's suspicious at this, but silent. Ready to let him speak. He thinks their dynamic is already quite different from what it once was.

"Alright, I'm listening." She encourages.

"You're not coming to The Wall. You're going home to Winterfell."

"What?!" Okay, that was more like Arya. He expected this.

"You heard me. That's my request."

Instead of answering, she shoves him in the chest.

"How dare you ask this of me." Another shove, this one hurts.

"You swore. Would you go back on that?"

"You know I won't."

"Good, then it's done." And he turns to walk out. She shoves him again from the back, so hard he nearly falls over. He wasn't surprised before, but the vehemence of her assault surprises him now.

"Don't, don't do this." She pleads.

"The dead walk beyond The Wall, it's dangerous. I'm trying to protect you." He explains patiently.

"Fucking hell you are. This is the one thing, the one thing you cannot do. It's cruel and you know it."

"I don't mean to be. But if this is what it takes…"

"Nothing less would keep me from The Wall."

"But your people need you."

"The men of The Watch are my people too, my responsibility."

"And mine, I promised too. And I'll look for him, Arya, I promise. But you won't be there. To keep you protected, I'll risk you hating me."

"Risk it? You've just ensured it."

"It's done. Come the morning, we'll carry on to The Wall, and you'll head towards Winterfell. I know you're upset, but it could be a blessing too. Winterfell is your home, where you belong." He reasons.

"That's not for you to decide."

"Apparently it is. I just did. And you have to agree, as per our agreement." She pushes him again. Hard.

"I do, but I don't have to like it." Again, he hits the canvas of the tent this time.

"You don't. Hate me if you want, by all means." She slaps him.

"Maybe I do hate you." Another shove, but not as hard.

"Fair enough." She hits him again.

"It's not fair. None of this is fair." She rages.

"I know and…" She hits him again, and before he can come up with a good response she's holding his ears and kissing him.

"Arya…" It's a question more than anything, one met with more touches, more caresses. But they're not gentle, not soft.

It's like a fight, violent, rough. It's like nothing that has ever been between them before. It's needy; full of clawing and scratching. She goes out of her way to mark him. He responds in kind to claim her as his own. It's not loving or gentle, but intense; a new level of intimacy between them. She's angry, he can feel it; the way their bodies crash together and bruise each other.

As usual, he has no illusions that he's in charge; she takes what she needs; equal parts fury and desire. They both find release, so long without, so much time alone, so much pent up tension.

But like their first time, afterwards, she turns away from him, back to him, silent and guarded.

"Arya…" But she's silent, unresponsive. It galls him to the quick. "I stand by my decision. My request. Hate me if you will." He gets up, getting dressed. Still, she says nothing, looking for all the world asleep, though he knows she isn't.

"If you want, I'll go back to Storm's End when it's done. I have people there, people that want me. We can lead separate lives. I'll do whatever you wish. Like always." At her continued silence, he exits into the dark of the night, not able to stand the emptiness of the tent.

At the breaking of the dawn, everyone is ready. He's ready too, he supposes, finally. But as he's about to mount his horse, he becomes aware of the men staring at something behind his back; a lone figure weaving their way through the lines of soldiers.

He looks over to see Arya, clad only in a sheet, half loose braid swinging around her shoulders, striding confidently through the rows of soldiers. He expects her to beg him to let her come, a request for which he might just be powerless to deny with the bright oranges and reds of the sky reflecting off her creamy skin.

But instead, she kisses him; no holds barred, unmindful of their audience. Hundreds of soldiers watching them. She kisses him fully, a current of energy passing between them; her sheet slipping off. He wraps it around her bare shoulders, keeping her decent.

"Just in case." She says out of breath.

"Just in case." He agrees equally struggling for air.

They need to leave soon, he knows this. But he's reluctant to leave his wife, the only one who truly knows him. A wife he may never see again. She looks at him, only at him.

"Come back to me." She requests. "Home, to Winterfell, to me." Only in his wildest dreams did he think she would ask this, show her vulnerability. "Please." She begs. As far as he knows, the only time she ever has. She puts her hand in his; there's something rough and scratchy between their palms.

"I will." He promises; too overcome with love for her to say more, to question. She walks back to the tent; sheet wrapped tight, not looking back. Once she's gone, and he's on his horse, he opens his palm to reveal her gift. It's a chunk of hair, bound with leather twine; a token of her favor. He didn't know how to feel. A token such as this, girly, but at the same time, extreme.

"You two seem alright to me." Stannis remarks, making him aware that their very private moment was anything but. Davos gives him a smile and a nod. The men are grinning at him. But none can understand the depths of what the gesture truly meant.

For Arya, this was a serious totem, a true token of her devotion. She wanted him to live, and he would, for her. She couldn't say she loved him, but she could ask him to return, and to return safely. This was the closest confession of love anyone could ever pry from her; and he knew it. This was her way of saying that she wanted him with her, no matter what.

Things might not be perfect between them, but he'd offered to give her more space; and she'd asked him to come home. If nothing else, she meant to try again with him. And he would give her that, happily. There would be no expectations, no past. When he came home, which he fully intended to do, they would start again. Now to survive The Wall and whatever it was The Watch was afraid of. It was in the way of him and Arya, so he'd just have to fight through it. No other possibility crossing his mind.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Hitting The Wall

Jon

He was back to feeling like himself, or at least pretending to be. He even looked more alive, like a person, but he didn't feel it. He stroked Ghost's fur, glad for the comfort of his presence. He was quiet, too quiet; it let him think clearly. Yet offered no solutions, making him more anxious than anything else. Waiting for a strike, the end, or a miracle.

All he could do now was hold The Wall, for as long as he could.

But he knew to check on the different posts, keep up training, and strengthen structural weaknesses. These were the things he could do.

A knock at the door. Good, something to keep his mind going.

"Yes."

Sam enters out of breath.

"There are hundreds of men outside The Wall, they say they're here to fight alongside us, against The Others."

"Men from where?" Though he half knows the answer already.

"Baratheon troops, led by Lord Stannis Baratheon." He lets out the air in his chest with a big whoosh. Ghost cocks his head in interest.

"Baratheon." He repeats, his mind immediately recognizing his new connection to the stags. Was it possible?

"Well they're in the mess hall, they had a long journey, but they brought some supplies. And more men, Jon, that's more men, more weapons. It's a good thing." His neck waddled a bit in excitement.

"Indeed. I'll be down shortly. You go on." He felt strange, the chance she could be down there, but hoping too that she wouldn't be. It was dangerous here; he wanted her alive, but to see her again…

And all of it was so strange. It was as Melisandre promised. She hadn't been specific on the time frame, but she had sworn help would come from two different fronts. And here it was.

He checks himself in the mirror; he looks like he's supposed to- The Lord Commander. Pale, tired eyes, but still alive, mostly. With Ghost silently at his side, he heads down.

At the doorway to the hall, Ghost perks up, sniffing excitedly, but in no general direction. What was he smelling? Ghost sniffs a few more times before settling back down, losing interest or the scent itself. Perhaps she was here. But could her scent have changed that much?

He stops to look for the new faces, and one familiar one.

Many men, and women too, The Wildlings a strange but welcome sight in their midst. He really felt they weren't so different; he'd spent too much time among them to think of them with something less than respect.

Some have faces painted green or purple or blue; some shoeless with feet hard as boiled leather; more with armor made of discs, the likes of which don't exist South of The Wall. Wildlings and Crows alike, sitting, eating, and drinking, glad for the influx of ale, no doubt. In good spirits, heartened by the extra men too.

His own men, some he could no longer trust, but some proved more loyal than he thought other men capable of. He loved his Crow brothers, and missed the ones long gone. And he missed Ygritte, no matter how he tried not to. Ghost runs over to Sam for some scraps, just as well, the surprise of a direwolf might serve him well later. The new men are startled, but upon Ghost's good behavior, they calm down slowly.

Jon finds them, mostly clumped together, but some need to scatter amongst the others. The Baratheon stag against a flaming heart. An older man, stern, tall; he can see right away is Stannis. And beside him, bright red hair and pale white skin. Melisandre had found him quickly enough; she'd foreseen it after all. On his other side, is an older man with a kind face and a round sigil upon his breast. Across is a tall man, broad, dressed well, black hair; but he can't see his face. He searches the others, soldier after soldier, but she's not there. Arya would be among them at this table, a lady among lords.

His approach to the table garners all their attention. Stannis stands to greet him.

"Welcome, Lord Stannis." Jon greets.

"Lord Commander. We have come to offer aid." He responds. The Red Woman only smiles knowingly at him, as if to say- 'See? I told you they would come.'

"Thank you, My Lord. You are most gracious, The Realm thanks you." And they clasp arms, a mutual sign of respect. Jon sits across from him. He is between Lord Stannis and the man whom he comes to suspect is Ser Davos, The Onion knight. The tall figure was intent on his stew.

"The Realm? Come now, no need to be so opaque. We all got your message. You said there was 'dire' need. Well, what is it? And don't try to sell me on grumpkins and giants."

"The dead walk." He says simply. The large man looks at him at this. He has blue blue eyes, and he's young, maybe younger than himself, but huge. That's all he notes about him at first.

"It is true My King. I have seen these things. The threat is real; this is where we are needed. This is where the true battle for The Realm will come to pass." Melisandre says, her red hair tied back from her face, dark amber eyes intent and bottomless.

"And will we be victorious?" Stannis asks her, his hand on her thigh beneath the table. Jon can only see it from his position, though he's unsurprised. The man doesn't move his touch though, listening closely for her response.

"That I cannot see. Only that it is for us to determine." She answers. Her and her bloody riddles.

"Do you have a plan?" Stannis addresses Jon once more. "A point of action?" Jon has to clench the table's edge to keep from rolling his eyes.

"We've learned much, but we've also been divided. We were fighting two wars up until recently."

"Yes, I see the caliber of recruits has gone downhill since my day." Stannis says, motioning to the various Wildling members.

"I assure you, My Lord, they fight as we do. It's their land being overtaken, they want safety same as us." Jon boasts, proud of The Wildlings. Their spirit, the exemplification of The North. They had the same pride for their lands, and fight within them.

"Oh, I'm sure they serve their purpose. Times are changing, so too must all men." The others around him look at him surprised, not used to hearing such things from a usually reserved Stannis. "I myself have had to make 'adjustments' but it's for the best." He drinks a sip of his ale. "Each generation must differ from the last. Survival." He looks pointedly across the table.

"Yes, I've come to see that is so." Huh, he hadn't expected to have Stannis understand him; leadership had difficult choices to be sure. Could it be they had some common ground? Melisandre smiled knowingly at him, and it made him feel guilty of something, but he couldn't pinpoint what. His gaze dropped to her low cut dress, everything about her was meant to distract, meant to impress. In his experience, a flashy show usually hid something dark. He doubted Stannis would agree with him on that too.

"I want to see these things for myself, understand what we're dealing with. Then we can sort this mess and return to the realm of men." Stannis remarks. It was hard not to take offense, after he'd survived so much death, and to have them not take him seriously; made it harder than usual to keep his composure. But he managed.

"If only it were that simple. I can assure you the threat is quite real. Our need urgent. Would you like to see for yourselves?" He offers, eager to make them eat their words.

"See what exactly?" Now they're curious.

"Come with me." He gestures. Stannis, and a few of his men come along.

It's already dark, but they journey into the bowels of The Wall, where night takes on a whole new meaning. Their way is lit by torches, down and down they go, narrower and narrower. Finally they come to a cell, lined with fire. The torches placed so closely they seem to create an endless ring of flame. At the center is a creature, chained with humongous rings to the floor. It's a man, flesh white as snow, eyes an icy blue, a layer of frost. It's dead, but yet it moves. If it was human once, it's impossible to tell that now.

"This is a Wight. There are thousands and thousands North of The Wall. And worse besides." He explains.

At that, Jon gives a nod, and many of the torches are extinguished. The room is darker, but the creature's eyes seem to glow brighter in answer. He then uses his sword to break open the chains. The thing rushes, and quick as that, the Wight's head is lopped off. The head bounces once, twice; the body keeps walking.

"Beheading won't stop it." He instructs, breath even. He slashes at the Wight, chopping off limbs neatly.

"Steel does nothing." The dismembered parts still creep towards him. Finally, he puts his sword away and picks up a torch from the wall. He sets the head on fire, putting an end to it.

"Flame does the trick. But you have to burn it, all of it." His heart is not even beating fast from the exertion. The others are in shock, bodies frozen in place, eyes wide as dinner plates.

"But that was Valyrian steel. Valyrian steel and it did nothing." The near giant comments.

"No steel, no metal can harm them. Except…" He takes out a dagger, black as obsidian in the firelight. He stabs a hand, the last moving part, crawling forward, and the hand crumbles to dust.

"Dragon glass." The blue-eyed man whispers in awe.

"Aye, but we haven't much. Maybe a dozen little blades and arrowheads. Not enough, not nearly."

"It'll have to be fire then." Stannis says, changing the tone.

"Yes. But as you can imagine, fire and cold don't mix well, it takes many men to keep the fires going. We have much still to work out."

"So what, we'll have to wait out the winter then?" The Onion Knight suggests.

"They're trying to overtake The Wall. Now. No matter how many we kill, some of us die. We're always prepared, always watching. But we can't know. Even with The Wildlings, and you, there's still so many of them. For each one of us who falls, another of them rises. We burn our dead, when we can, remember that." Only the flaming head casting shadows on the wall dared crackle.

They all filed out in a hurry, needing to process the new information, and get out of the room with the pile of pieces of the unholy creature.

Uncharacteristically, Jon claps Stannis on the shoulder as he makes to leave. They share a look of respect among them, and Jon hopes another leader might help take off some of the burden, help him strategize. It also means Melisandre had her value, though how much he could trust her was another matter.

Upon seeing the tall black-haired one, the one with the same blue eyes as Stannis. He stops him by blocking his path.

"You've a keen eye for weapons." He's surprised at the attention.

"It was my trade." He answers simply.

"You're a smith then?" He asks, though he already knows the answer. It is him, he's sure.

"I was, yeah." The Onion Knight lingers in the doorway, clearly waiting. But sensing the seriousness of the situation, he exits with a shrug of his shoulders. They were alone.

"Your name?" He asks, though he remembers well enough.

"Gendry, My Lord." Yes, it was him.

He hands the smith the dragon glass dagger. Gendry takes it with utmost respect and awe. Inspecting it every which way.

"I was just an apprentice." He never takes his eyes from the blade. "I only barely learned how to reforge Valyrian steel, and even then I had help. I can barely remember the sealing spells. I've never even seen dragon glass before. How it's made…" He's truly excited, smiling even at the possibilities.

"We don't know. We found these hidden, but there's not enough. And we can't make more." Gendry scrunches his eyebrows at that, concerned, or saddened by the loss of an art. He can see deep respect for the dagger, for the blade, for the artistry that went into making it.

The man clearly loved his trade, and it was an honorable one he had to admit. But still, what kind of Lord had a trade? He continues.

"Our smith died in the battle against The Wildlings. We could use a good smith."

"I can repair regular weapons, fix armor and the like. But dragon glass…I wouldn't know where to start." He fingers the point lovingly. Jon's about to argue, but Gendry speaks as if to himself. "I mean, I'd have to take it apart just to get an idea how it was forged. Work with different temperatures, different angles… Even then…" Jon interrupts.

"Perfect. We've only the one to spare, though, we need all the others." This snaps him back.

"You're not listening, I said I don't know what I'm doing. And I can't guarantee…"

"I heard you, and I'm saying it's worth trying. Perhaps there's a reason you're here." Or so The Red Woman promised.

"Aye, Lord Commander. I will try."

"I'm sure you will. Come have a drink with me." He offers, well, more like suggests. Gendry looks like he wants to protest, but he agrees to come; not able to deny the Lord Commander.

He seats himself across from Gendry, the two alone in his office. The man looks like he hardly knows how he got here. Lords, those used to being important could walk into any room and make themselves look comfortable; like they owned the place, like they were meant to be there. Others, the less wealthy and entitled folk, usually tried to blend in, always feeling unwanted. He remembered well enough, and he noticed the same in him. Lord Gendry Baratheon was born no Lord. Curious.

He pours them both some hard grain alcohol, brewed in a tub by one of the crows, it was harsh and potent. Gendry makes a face but accepts the drink gracefully.

So this was him, his sister's husband. He was just so large; he was a Baratheon though, to be sure. When he'd heard Stannis was here, he hadn't even considered the presence of this Gendry the smith. He'd thought only of Arya. Even now, he wanted to press him for answers, stories, and details. But more than that, he wanted to know what sort of man he was, his good brother. He knew from experience, the best way to take the measure of a man was to get him talking, get him to drink; and make it seem like the answers weren't important.

"Baratheon?" He tried for casual. "I didn't know Stannis had a son."

"He's my uncle. Robert Baratheon was my father." Gendry answers. He loses some of his nerves now, either at the drink or in correcting him.

"The King?" He asks, though he can see it already. The frame, the blue blue eyes, dark hair. He'd only seen the fat drunkard once, but he could see the resemblance sure enough. He also saw what it turned Cersei into.

"The very same." He rubs his hands together to ward off the cold. "I never met 'im though. Apparently, I'm the last of his bastards. I was meant to die with the rest of them." He takes another sip before cautiously putting the tankard down. A bastard? That did make sense, the way he hadn't wanted to meet his eyes at first. What would Catelyn Stark have to say about her daughter's less than ideal marriage?

"I thought you were a Baratheon." He says instead.

"Lord Stannis legitimized me." That made more sense, a claimed bastard. It wasn't easy to earn a name. He knew that firsthand. He wondered now how he'd earned it.

"Where are you from then, Gendry?" He takes a sip of his own drink.

"Flea Bottom."

"I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with that area."

"King's Landing. Street of Steel." He answers.

"The King's bastard from the capital. You're far from home."

"It's not my home any longer. I only been back but the once. But I'm to be a Northerner now, so." He says wistfully, raising his cup in a one-sided toast.

"Still, a long way to follow your uncle. And to The Wall besides." He pauses drinking at that.

"I'm not here for him. My wife's from here. It's why I came." He tells him simply.

"Oh, you're married?" Jon feigns surprise.

"Aye."

"A Northerner? Perhaps I know her."

"I'm sure you do. Arya Stark." To hear her name, said in such a way. Personal, possessive. It makes him swallow hard.

"Of course. The Starks have always been friends to The Watch." He covers.

"Bloody right!" He's more animated now. "She's always going on about the noble brothers on The Wall. It's her you should thank for the men and supplies, she fought Stannis tooth and nail." That sounds like her.

"How long have you been married?"

"A few months."

"Don't you know?" He asks, a bit sharper than he intended. Gendry smiles a bit at that.

"Three months, a bit longer."

"Three months. A bit soon to be parted from your new wife, don't you think?" He grumbles into his cup, but doesn't meet Jon's eyes. "Perhaps you're anxious for the time apart." He goads. Gendry looks up at him at that, affronted.

"Not my choice. You said it was an emergency. So here we are." True enough.

"Eventually." He remarks coldly. "We've been fighting this war a long time."

"So have we, our own war. Anyway, we came."

"With how many men?" And without my sister.

"500, maybe more."

"And your wife who championed so hard for our cause? Did she not wish to make the journey herself?"

"It's not safe. I wouldn't bring her here." He curls his lip distastefully at the suggestion. "Though she wasn't happy about it."

"What's she like then, your wife?" He can't help asking.

"Arya?" Gendry has a fond smile on his face. "Well." And he looks over at the door. "I keep looking over expecting to see her here, especially in the hall. She's more a Wildling than a Lady." He chuckles. Jon does too, it's true enough.

"How so?" He prompts.

"Well, she wears pants and all. And we're always fighting." Still running around in breeches, still starting fights.

"What do you fight about?" This gives the Baratheon pause. What had he done? He feels his fist clench around his sword hilt.

"Her not coming, for one." His fingers untense.

"She's angry then?"

"She is." He looks to Jon then. "She wanted to come. I wouldn't let her of course. Too bloody dangerous." He's relieved, glad she is safe. But to come so close to seeing her once again; it drove a sour twist into his gut.

"Good. It's far too dangerous." He agrees.

"I do my best to take care of her. When she let's me that is. She doesn't need me much." The look is so sincere, directed right at him. "She misses her family though. She misses you."

Jon pauses at that.

"How long have you known who I was?"

"You've got the same eyes." No use pretending. "Jon Snow."

"Lord Commander." He corrects automatically. Gendry nods in understanding.

"Ask whatever you like. It's your right." Gendry offers, still a bit affected by the alcohol.

"I guess, I just want to know she's happy." There's more, but; it's most important.

"Some of the time, yeah." An honest answer, not the one he wanted. He decides to be honest in kind.

"I just, I can't picture her married. She swore she never would." Gendry scratches his neck.

"I believe that, sure enough. She didn't want to marry me, she didn't want to marry anyone; but she wanted her lands back. A compromise, ya see."

"So it was forced?" He knew it. Gendry looks offended though.

"Arranged. But I don't think she minds so much now." A small smile.

"What makes you say so?"

"Well, she put up a fight at first, and threatened Stannis. I thought she'd refuse outright, but she'd already promised The Dragon Queen, so. She doesn't break promises." No, a Stark wouldn't he thinks with a sick sense of satisfaction.

"She threatened Stannis?" He realizes that one part belatedly.

"Well he wanted The North for himself. And she thought she'd be forced to wed him. I was the better option, apparently. Bastard or no." Another bastard.

"A royal bastard. A legitimized one."

"Not at the time. Stannis only legitimized me with Arya and The North as part of the deal. At The Queen's behest." Oh, so his sister bought him his rank.

"So she's a means to an end for you?" Jon clarifies, irritated.

"Excuse me?" He shoves his cup away, insulted.

"You wanted the land and titles then." His blue eyes flash dangerously as he rises.

"I wanted a name. Even that didn't seem to matter too much after a time." He leans menacingly over Jon. "I don't give a shit about being a lord, truth be told, I'm not much good at it. Storm's End is nice, but…" He relaxes into a less threatening posture. "What I wanted, was her."

"You love her then." It's not a question. Gendry senses the understanding and sits back down, finishing off his drink.

"More than I've ever loved anything." Jon believed him; the hand on the hilt of his sword drops off completely. However Arya felt about this man, he seemed devoted to her. It would have to be enough.

"And how does she look? I can only picture her as I last saw her, twelve years old, hair a mess, filthy in a pair of Bran's pants." The corner Jon's mouth turns up at the memory.

"She still wears them, but she wears dresses when she has to too. She's beautiful, you can't help but look at her." More than devoted, or so it seemed. Still, he didn't have to like it.

"Was there at least a proper wedding?"

"O' course, The Dragon Queen saw to that. Loads of people and good food. Tyrion Lannister walked her down the aisle."

"A Lannister? Did they mean to insult us?" He shakes his head.

"Tyrion's her friend. She was glad for him to be there." He had liked the dwarf, reluctantly. "I was so nervous, sure they would realize it was a mistake, that I wasn't worthy. Thought they'd slit my throat or cut something off for daring. But, they didn't." He chuckles. "And Arya was drunk as hell."

"Drunk?" He'd never seen her drunk before. Only ever allowed small sips from each of their cups.

"Oh yes, I'm a bit surprised she made it through the vows to be honest." His eyes glaze over a bit in remembrance. "She was beautiful though. They put all that silver crap on her eyes and in her hair, it was in all these braids. She had this white dress, all layers of silk." A proper girly dress? She must have hated that. "She nearly fell over a few times actually. I had to help keep her upright. Tried to get her to drink water from my cup, but, well, she's stubborn." He's saying the right things, too right.

"She is that. Always was." He agrees. Too stubborn to marry anyone she was told to. It didn't sound right, it didn't make sense.

Ghost scratches open the door and heads for Gendry, sniffing at the large man. Gendry's first reaction is to pull away from the wolf, but as the wolf calmly smells him, he gathers the courage to stroke his furry head.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jon sees that Ghost is particularly interested in something Gendry is fingering in his enclosed fist. Quick as lightening, he grabs the larger man's wrist and brings it down onto the table heavily enough to make the cups bounce. Gendry is startled, and tries to pull back. But despite the man's superior strength, Jon has the greater skill and speed. He twists his arm in such a way that it's impossible to break free. His palm is clenched tight, and he won't open it. It's simple enough to press on the nerve point between the bones of his wrist and make him let go. Inside is a lock of dark hair, no question whose it is. Ghost smelled Arya's scent alright, it was all over him.

Jon lets him go, and Gendry looks more than insulted. He clasps the keepsake tighter, then returns it to his pocket. Jon thinks to ask more questions, or even apologize, but he can't quite bring himself to. He gives him clear orders to report to the forge at sunrise. Gendry respectfully takes the order but is closed off once more. He leaves, but not before giving Ghost a final scratch behind the ear.

His sister had marked him for protection, she cared for him; and she had said in her letter she wanted them to get along. That might be more difficult now. And time would tell if he was truly worthy of his sister. A good smith really wouldn't hurt though.

 

Chapter Text

Almost Home

Arya

She had meant to sleep in, but couldn't quite manage. Well, she hadn't been sleeping well for some time. It started the first night on the road. The last night at Storm's End, she hadn't slept at all. She spent the whole night staying busy, packing, and setting things right upon their departure. And actually, she hadn't had any dreams in a long while; she never seemed to have them with Gendry lying beside her. But alone in her spacious tent, a day's ride into their journey to The Wall, she dreamt once more.

In the dream, she was still in Storm's End. She felt a drive to find Gendry, she wandered all around the grounds- to the beach, the kitchens, the hall, and even the library. But eventually she found him, in his bed, but he wasn't alone. In the dream, he was with Kahlen, intimate, naked limbs wrapped tight around each other.

Arya couldn't move or speak, she could only stand there and watch, hear the breathy moans they were making, and smell the salty scent of sweat in the air. Kahlen was clearly pregnant, a round stomach and larger breasts.

She heard Gendry whisper- 'It's so easy with you. This is all I ever wanted.' His voice, so sincere, so full of love; blue blue eyes clear and shining.

It wakes her with a gasp. Her heart pounding erratically, she knows she will be unable to sleep further. She exits her tent and follows her feet.

Against her own will, her body seeks him out, sleeping amongst the men, peaceful beneath the moon. Without disturbing him she crawls in beside him, and instantly she relaxes. There are no more dreams that night, and she's able to rise before the daybreak without anyone seeing her.

The next day of travel she thinks only of her dream, unable to make small talk with Merilee. It wasn't difficult to figure out its significance. Pride and a rush to get home had forced her to speak too quickly, to speak for both of them. Her actions had created a rift between her and Gendry. And he had every right to be angry. As always, she was trying to play the long game, to prepare for the worst possible outcome. But somehow managed to create that herself through her own actions. But she already regretted her decision, and it was far too late, it couldn't be undone. She would let him be, give him the chance to cool off, to get over it. And she would take her punishment, whatever nightmare was in store for her that night, she would bear alone. That was her plan anyway.


Her dream that night was different. She dreamt she was in The Godswood outside of Winterfell. It was empty, peaceful the way she remembered it best. She felt rustling in the trees, welcoming her home. A crow 'cawing' in the background, its harsh call echoing through the woods. The longer she listens, the more the discordant screeches almost resemble words, or a word. 'Arya' she thinks she hears, a familiar voice speaking to her. 'Arya'

But, beneath the 'caws', she started hearing a new noise permeating the air. 'thwack' 'thwack' 'thwack'. She went deeper in the wood, the farther she went she could make out the sound, 'thwack' that of wood being chopped. She was close, and then with a groan a massive tree fell to the ground, viciously hacked down.

'Hey' she yells, but the axing begins anew. She runs faster, 'thwack' and more trees keep dropping, she has to tuck and roll out of the way. Finally she comes upon a small figure, furiously chopping into a heart tree, blood leaking from each blow, 'thwack' savage in its ferocity for one so small. It's back is to her, and it's wearing a black cloak- a child of the forest she guesses.

'Hey' she yells once more and the thing turns around, it's a little girl, her to be exact, hair in twin braids, Bran's old clothes beneath the cape. Her before she ever left Winterfell, her before anything bad ever happened. Only her eyes are different, larger, rounder, so grey there's no white surrounding the pupils. 'You destroy everything.' The girl says, disdain evident in her little voice.

With a start she wakes up, splashing water on her face, trying to calm down. But helpless to stop herself, once more crawls in beside Gendry, an audible sigh escaping her lips at the contact.

The ride that day was long and slow, not even good-natured conversation with Merilee, or a rather informative lunch with Davos, could dispel her unease. They were taking a detour to The Wall, to protect The Realm of all men; but what would it mean for her home? The more time she wasted, what more might be destroyed, what else cut down? And what would she find in the home of her fathers? Scattered stones? Ashes? Broken Northmen? Poverty, hunger, desperation, or a lack of trust?

She couldn't possibly guess what her own people thought of her. They'd had no correspondence from The North in years. And it bit her to the quick. She cared for them, she would gladly bleed for them; but through their eyes, she had abandoned them. What would it take to regain their trust? What did she have left to offer? Only herself, which was seriously lacking.

The next night she dreams again, this time she makes it into the gates of Winterfell, but within, it's completely empty. The dark grey walls, strong, but bare. She wanders from room to room, looking for signs of life, calling out. Not even rats, or foxes, or wolves dwell within. At the dining room table, the site of many a rowdy feast and gathering; she sits in her father's chair. But as she does, the seat falls through, the solid wood dissolving beneath her. She grasps the table for support, but it disintegrates as well, into ashes.

The ashes smell old, stale and leave black marks on her fingers. The walls start to crumble, sheets of cinders crashing down on top of her. Every breath brings particles of dust into her nose and mouth, she feels herself choking on it; on death, on the past. She can't breathe, and it's terrifying.

She wakes up feeling suffocated. She gratefully takes in huge gulps of crisp air, getting her bearings. Again she seeks out Gendry, and again she extricates herself before dawn.

She decides to walk the next day, needing to feel the earth beneath her feet, needing the steady rhythm of her footprints. She's at the back of the party, and a few of the soldiers walk near her, on Gendry's orders no doubt, sent to guard her. She would have complained and refused it once, but she found she preferred their presence just then.

It was better than being... alone. In the dream she was just so… abandoned. Desolate. Her truest fear. She was the last Stark now, she was almost sure of that. Gendry might as well have been miles away. And how many of these men would survive The Wall, the evil from the other side of it? They would die because of her, because of her brashness; more burdens weighing down on her. If there is nothing left to save, preserve, and rebuild… then what would be the point anyway? No answers of course, she's speaking only to herself; though she does receive some weird looks from her guards. One foot in front of the other is what matters.

The next dream is frightening in a different way, layers and layers of snow, coloring everything the eye could see. At the icy gates of Winterfell, there is barking, and a low warning growl. Trudging through knee-deep snow she continues on, dressed in simple leathers, ill equipped for the cold. The growling turns more menacing, keeping her from entering, and at once a direwolf materializes out of the snow. For a second she imagines its Ghost, the way it blends in so easily with the snow; and she lets herself hope that Jon is nearby. But the closer she gets, she sees the dark grey fur of Nymeria, her long-lost friend, the piece of her she'd chased off so long ago.

With delight she picks up her pace, but Nymeria's barks and yips grow louder and more intent. It's as if she doesn't remember her old master, her sister, her pack mate. As if Arya is a stranger. Arya puts her palms out to show she means no harm, to give the direwolf the chance to recognize her as she slows her own gait. But the wolf still doesn't know her, a blow to her heart, pain she hadn't imagined. The wolf's eyes are wrong, filmy and unreal, nothing like she remembered. The look of hate, of rage in Nymeria's eyes makes Arya stop in her tracks, heart breaking, mourning what was lost and could never again be found.

In an instant, she's knocked to the ground, the wolf's full weight shoving her down into the snow, so hard it knocks the breath out of her lungs; she's frozen, still. With a growl the wolf rips into her throat, a quick rip and her entire neck is missing. There's no real pain, only shock, and an inability to move. The wolf leisurely feasts on its meal, licking its bloody lips, savoring the flavor, looking Arya dead in the eyes as she slowly chews the raw flesh.

When she awakes, she feels at her throat, to make sure it wasn't real. That she was alive. It's whole, the soft tissue intact. Her entire body is covered in sweat, and her skin tingles when she touches it; pulse beating rapidly beneath the surface. This was, by far, the most disturbing nightmare she'd ever had.

Maybe she wasn't wanted back after all, maybe she wasn't wanted anywhere. A true stranger; she still hadn't let Gendry know her, not all of her, she didn't even know herself anymore. She made a point not to sleep after that, the mind-numbing exhaustion far preferable than her brain's dark imaginings.

Then, a few days later, Gendry forbade her from continuing on to The Wall (through trickery), sentenced her back to Winterfell alone; and the horrifying dreams started to seem all-too real. She said nothing of her real fears, afraid to make it real. A dream is just a dream if not said out loud, she reasoned.

With a heavy heart and a knotted stomach, she continued on the road to Winterfell, without her husband or the 500 men she'd meant to bring. They were headed towards The Wall, protecting The Realm, without her. She had a tiny entourage, but she would trust each with her life.

Lommy was furious to be left behind too, but Gendry had insisted he look after her, so he couldn't argue. Hot Pie was relieved to stay and excited to get back in the kitchen. Brent, Rik, and Begby were unreadable in that regard. Of course Merilee was always meant to deliver the bones to Winterfell anyway, and Arya was incredibly thankful for the girl's presence.

And still, as the Winterfell borders came into view, she felt the pull. It was warmer than last she remembered. Perhaps the claim that winter was truly over was the truth. It was warmer up here, the snows melting. These were good omens, she knew.

But all the same, she imagined the vicious warning growl of Nymeria pushing her backwards, blocking her from entering, naming her stranger and ripping her throat out for the offense. She remembers the remnants of her past crumbling to dust, clogging her throat. She remembers the sacred trees, which connect men to The Old Gods, being chopped down to nothing.

Equal parts push and pull. The others look hesitant as well, their steps unsure. Even her horse sensed it; fighting against their chosen path. She urged the creature on, urged herself on. At the far outskirts she heard crunching beneath the horse's hooves, a strange sound unlike dried leaves. She dismounted, keeping a firm hand on the reins to keep the beast still; crouching low to inspect the source. Bones, delicate bird bones, ravens in various states of decay. And there was a smell, a pungent stink she would recognize anywhere- Death. The waking world was starting to resemble her nightmares. What had she come home to?

 

Chapter Text

 

Last Chapter: Arya

 

Previously:

 

As the Winterfell borders come into view, she feels the pull. It’s warmer than last she remembers. Perhaps the claim that winter was almost over was the truth. The snows are melting.

 

These are good omens, she tells herself.

 

But all the same, she imagines the vicious warning growl of dream Nymeria pushing her backwards, blocking her from entering, naming her stranger and ripping her throat out for the offense. She remembers the remnants of her past crumbling to dust, clogging her throat. She remembers the sacred trees, which connect men to The Old Gods, being chopped down to nothing. Dreams, or prophecies?

 

Parts push and pull. Her companions look hesitant as well, their steps unsure. Even her horse senses it; fighting against their chosen path. She urges the creature on, urges herself on. It goes, but its neigh of discontent echoes in her ears. At the far outskirts she hears crunching beneath the horse’s hooves, a strange sound unlike dried leaves. She dismounts, keeping a firm hand on the reins to keep the beast still; crouching low to inspect the source. Bones, delicate bird bones, ravens in various states of decay, feathers splayed on the ground like black strands of hair. And there’s a smell, a pungent stink she would recognize anywhere- Death. The waking world was starting to resemble her nightmares. What had she come home to?

 

And Now:

 

Beneath the Skin

 

Arya

 

Why were so many raven carcasses scattered around the border? Were the people so hungry? It was bad luck to eat crow, everyone knew that. It meant to admit weakness. And the people of the North were superstitious if they were anything.

 

The approach of horses breaks into her thoughts. There’s at least a dozen coming from the direction of home. Tentatively she looks up- soldiers, sellswords. They wear fur-lined coats, fine boots, and ride well-bred horses. They’re huge, rough, Northmen. There’s one riding in front, at ease on a horse, a beautiful deep black, a blaze of white on its nose, a leather jerkin even finer than the others, and his eyes… He was of the North, and he exuded power. She might have been relieved, her own people, a strong force protecting Winterfell; but it was all dread. The dreams weren’t merely about her own guilt, they were warnings. She’s sure of it now. But it’s too late.

 

The large men quickly surround them, outnumbering them four to one, amused and smug. Lommy guides his horse in position in between Arya and the men; a physical barrier, she reaches for a blade, slowly. But the leader doesn’t come for her, he goes straight towards Merilee. Arya is too shocked to speak or move.

 

“My Lady, welcome home to Winterfell.” He shouts, an exaggerated twirl of his wrist meant to mock her. The others laugh; enjoying themselves, used to cold, uninterested in courtesies. One smiles wide in between chortles and she gets a glimpse of brownish teeth.

 

The leader, whoever her was, has a genuinely pleased grin on his face. He’s not as large as the others, but they all seem to give him a wide berth. He raises an arm, and they fall silent, all expectantly waiting for a reply from whom they believe is Arya Stark. She swallows, gathering her wits and getting her tongue unstuck. It wasn’t terribly common for a Lady to wear pants; she was already imagining the look on his face when she corrected him, when she was interrupted.

 

“We thank you for the hospitality. But truly, the entourage wasn’t necessary.” Merilee addresses them, careful to keep her posture upright and her chin jutted forward.

 

Oh no.

 

What had she done?

 

This leader flashes Merilee what is meant to be a charming smile.

 

Arya does have to admit that the ex prostitute, wearing an actual dress, holding herself like a Queen, looks more the Lady of Winterfell than she does. Arya was dressed in pants, preferring never to wear skirts while travelling. And after so many nights filled with horrors, she’d had little sleep, making her look weathered. Merilee still managed to look fresh as a daisy; thanks in large part to her use of Arya’s tent during their travels.

 

The others stare at Merilee as if she’s grown a second head, but do not refute her claim. Why didn’t they? Why wasn’t she? Did they think her a coward? Was she?

 

Gods damn.

 

“Oh, but I insist. I wanted to welcome you home in style, My Lady.” He continues to grin, holding out his palm for Merilee to place her hand in. She does, reluctantly, and he succinctly kisses her knuckles. As she pulls her hand back, he laughs; causing the others to parrot his excitement.

 

One word. Well three words. The truth could be out there, she could face this man as her full self. Demand answers and respect, his expulsion from the castle, and a renunciation of his position. And when in the history of time had that ever worked?

 

She burns a hole in the back of Merilee’s neck, willing her to look down and meet her gaze. But she doesn’t even turn her neck from the cruel-eyed thief.

 

It’s a merciless lot, these men. She had no plan as of yet, she didn’t even have all the facts. She would lay low for now, let this ridiculousness continue, until she got a measure of this man and his dangers.

 

“Who are your companions?” He asks, pale eyes taking in the group, even landing on her as well.

 

“My personal guards. And my maidservant.” At the last word, Arya digs her fingers a bit too rough into the horse’s flank. She was no one’s maidservant. And for a Stark of Winterfell to return after a years’ long absence with only three guards, a cook, and a servant… ludicrous. The horse flinches away at the pressure, she eases up, soothing the spot instead. But the horse, all their horses are confiscated, forcing all the ‘hostages’ (because it’s clear that’s what they were) on foot. Their swords are taken as well, and the soldier who wrestles the blade from her fingers snorts at her reluctance.

 

It’s as she remembers, more or less. Icy fields, clear sky so blue it’s almost grey. The walls still stand tall, not the ruins she expected to see. Though some stones were burnt and melted together; large gaps here and there; the structures didn’t look as stable and everlasting as they once did.

 

That could have more to do with the span of seven years, her own increase in height, and the even clearer memories of the free cities. But no, it was more than that. It felt different, smelled different.

 

It’s from fifty feet away that she discovers the source of the stench lingering through the air. Propped up on posts by the wall are men, stretched wide, and missing their skins. Maybe a half dozen of them, frozen in torture.

 

She’d seen grotesque before. Her mother’s corpse, skin tinted grey, hanging from the bone, bloated and misshaped. But this was altogether different. The skin was removed while they were alive; eyes wide open in terror and misery. There were drops of blood scattered around the victims’ feet in rings, but most had dried onto the muscle; a rusty brown crusted on the surface. Hot Pie and Merilee lean over and dry heave for a full minute. Arya herself tastes her breakfast come back up. She and Lommy eyeball each other, both anxious and sickened. But the moment of understanding between her gives her a burst of strength, and she swallows it back before any outward sign is visible on her face.

 

He’s watching ‘Arya’s’ reactions, eyes flashing, clearly delighted at her visceral response. She can guess well enough who he is now. What ‘noble’ house he hails from.

 

They had betrayed her brother, massacred him. And her mother. With the Freys, they’d turned her mother into that.

 

“We thought a bit of redecorating. Clear out the dungeons. Traitors, disloyal, the lot.” The ones who’d opposed him, fought bravely. And now they were fileted open, disrespected, horrifying. They would find no peace while their corpses tainted her walls. And neither would she.

 

She feels naked without a weapon, her name. Brent and Hot Pie walk behind Merilee, Rik and Begby on either side of her to keep up appearances. But Lommy walks beside her, fists clenched in anticipation, a poor substitute for a sword. Her heart is beating fast, so much faster than it ever should. But at the same time, everything is crystal clear. She can take in every detail. Each man. Scraggly. Filthy, dressed in leathers and steel, well armed themselves; smelling of days old sweat. They moved together well, keeping up their formation, too tight to squeeze through without being trampled or skewered.

  

“It’s not to my taste.” Merilee says simply, lips tight but chin still quivering. The sight had not affected her well. It wouldn’t affect any normal person well. Clearly, the Boltons were not normal. As if to make the point, the man with the mad eyes, elfin ears, and sharp features laughs in dismissal at her response. He’s certainly full of himself. And why shouldn’t he be, he’d taken Winterfell, the great bastion of the North. And he may be the only person who knew the fate of her brothers, or that traitor Theon. She would have it out of him.

 

“But surely you’re not surprised. It’s what my family has always done, a tradition, a signature if you will.” Removing people’s skin was a tradition to them? Why not just piss on the walls and be done with it? At Merilee’s lack of response, he continues. “My enemies know which house rules in the North. A quite effective method, wouldn’t you agree?”

 

Merilee nods in agreement. Arya’s first reaction was to spit on him.

 

All of Bolton’s men dismount, but keep each of the party in clear sight. They’re funneled forward through the narrowing gate.

 

The doors are shouldered open before them, the strength of these thugs not lost on her. Merilee walks with her mouth hanging open, looking all around as if it was all-new to her. Well it was, but she was meant to affect unfamiliarity.

 

This was her home. Arya had to keep telling herself that.

 

It’s much changed; all of the softness is gone. It doesn’t feel right. But then she never planned to return home in this manner.

 

She meant to have men, many many men. They might have held their ground outside the gate, tried to reason with them, all while planning their gruesome deaths. But she had no men. She also meant to change before her arrival, to look more the part; only she’d never gotten the chance to do that either. And of course, she was married now, meant to have her large, intimidating husband who loved her by her side.

 

Servants ran out to take their goods; loaded up with quivers, leathers, mail; and their own meager supplies she noticed with some relief. The bones were once more within Winterfell, where they belonged, though yet above ground. The servants themselves looked gaunt, empty. All women, she noticed, in dark shapeless layers designed to keep them warm. Beautiful though, each one, in her own way; but less so now from a hard winter and despair. They flinched whenever the rough men made a move. These women were terrorized, as trapped as they all were now. But they’re efficient; they do as they’re bid, as they’re trained.

 

They’re lead to the dining room, and Arya feels a sour sting in her stomach; to be back in this great hall; so many good memories here. It looks surprisingly the exact same. Nothing has changed. She can see it all. Throwing food, sipping ale, hearing stories, watching her parents kiss and hold hands beneath the table after a few drinks. A blink and its gone. It’s his now, he’d taken it for himself. Treasured ghosts were replaced with hideous monsters.

 

She would take it back, or join those very same ghosts, she swore.

 

The thief sits at the head of the table, of course, with Merilee beside him. Another one of his men, a particularly hairy one is set on the ‘Lady’s’ other side. Arya is next to him, and she can smell him quite clearly, another Bolton on her other side, and so on and so forth. They were utterly cut off from one another. But it was shaped like an elongated oval, so she could see everyone well enough. Hot Pie was terrified. Brent, Rik, and Begby were keeping a tight hold on their rage. Lommy was watching her like a hawk, though he has the sense to look away after a few warning glares on her part. Merilee’s face is expressionless, but her fingers tap out a nervous rhythm on the tabletop. They are given no knives, nor even forks, only spoons. He’d clearly thought of everything.

 

Actually, it was very strange to have the servants dine with them at the table at all. Servants were fed in the kitchen, and only after their masters. He needed the helplessness of the situation to set in, for the Lady to be surrounded by her people and yet all alone. This Bolton was clever, very very clever.

 

“I must admit. I was very much looking forward to meeting you.” He says, readjusting his position to get more comfortable in his seat of honor. What was his name? She wasn’t sure. But if he was a Bolton, a neighbor, she should know. She’d always known her neighbor’s houses best. But names were not her strong suit. Roose? Yes, he betrayed her mother, her brother had trusted him. No, but he would be older, Stannis’ age at least. This arrogant prick was Robb’s age, or how old he would be.

 

“Oh? You haven’t even introduced yourself yet, I wouldn’t call it a very good start.” Arya squeezes her eyes shut with a pang. Any Stark would recognize the flayed man symbolism on sight. He sits up straighter at that, clearly offended at her ignorance.

 

“My father always said the Starks thought themselves better than us. He was right. Always looked down on us. But things are different now. The Boltons are a mighty house, and now that you’re here; everyone will finally see that. My father will be proud as well.” Roose’s son? He had a son?

 

“Lord Bolton. Of course.” Merilee covers quickly. He outright flinches at that. A couple of his men flick their gaze in his direction, then quickly turn away before he notices. Of course. The Bastard. The one who actually lived up to his name and deserved the moniker. Ramsay he was called.

 

He sighs, before putting his mask in place, then speaks again, changing the topic.

 

“I was looking forward to meeting you. Do you know why?” He’s speaking slower now, like he believes her simple.

 

“I didn’t even know we would be having this pleasure.” Merilee covers once again. To her credit, she doesn’t appear nearly as flustered as she must actually be.

 

“I did. You see I always have people watching the crossroads, every road that leads into my lands.” His lands? “One man reported seeing you amongst the men, clad only in a sheet.” A few hoot, and Ramsay continues to smirk.

 

Merilee swallows. She can hear it. But he isn’t looking for a response. At least not a verbal one.

 

“Apparently you two were quite, affectionate.” He emphasizes the last word, as if she could ever misinterpret his meaning. “I’m surprised he’s not here now. I’d find it hard to tear myself away after such a goodbye.” More laughter in response. She hates that he knows this. She wasn’t ashamed for the display, less so now that nothing was assured. Of course she couldn’t care a wit what the soldiers thought of her, that they’d seen. But to have it used against her, even subtly and indirectly like this; she felt sick to her stomach. Merilee laughs, breaking out her most charming self.

 

“No shame at all. He’s fighting to protect these lands. There’s a need for men at the Wall, or hadn’t you heard?” Merilee responds. He raises his eyebrows, but answers.

 

“Of course. We sent men too at first. Winterfell’s duty and all that.” He rolls his eyes though. “Dead probably, and yet they keep asking for more. After our numbers dwindled down, I had to make the conscious decision to cut off The Watch. Clearly a lost cause. We make do for ourselves now. Few though we are.” Merilee doesn’t even flinch. But Arya has to grip the table edge for support. Perhaps it was a lost cause. There was a very real probability that her people, her husband, would not be coming back. Ramsay was succeeding in his goal, she was definitely unsettled.

 

They’re each given wine, but Arya knows better than to drink it. Certainly, the Boltons had no compunctions against defiling Guest Right. Subtly taking their cue from her, her little group refrains from drinking as well.

 

“And now the Lady of Winterfell has returned to us. A good omen indeed.” His men beat on the table in agreement.

 

“Also a tad bit unbelievable.” A hush falls over them. Dear Gods.

 

“After all this time. Why now?” He grips Merilee’s hand tightly in his grasp, a true predator. She tries fruitlessly to get away, panic evident in her pretty hazel eyes.

 

“Better late than never.” Her answer is evasive, vague.

 

“Swear it.” His grip squeezes ever harder, turning her fingers near white.

 

Time to speak up, Arya. Her heart tells her.

 

“I swear. I am Arya Stark.” Merilee says first. And Arya knows, to speak now, will mean her friend’s death. A gruesome one to be sure.

 

 He releases her hand abruptly, and she immediately starts rubbing the knuckles to get feeling back.

 

“You’ve sworn. But you see. I have a problem with trusting people.” He scrunches up his nose. “Everyone always lies to me, and I can never be sure what to believe.”

 

“I am who I say I am. My people will vouch for me. I have no other proof to give, I…”

 

“Now now. None of that. Words mean little to me.” Arya can see the vein in her neck beat wildly, erratically. She will lie until the end, however far away that may be. “A man may say he’s killed a wolf. But it hardly counts unless he’s shown me the carcass. And me personally, I like to do my own hunting. Tracking too. Do you see what I mean?”

 

“Not really.” And then as an after thought. “My Lord.” She pushes a strand of hair behind an ear. He just shakes his head in dismissal and gets comfortable once more, as if getting ready for a show.

 

He whistles, long and deep. Again and again, until barking cancels out his call. A half dozen hounds run through the door. They whiz past the serving girls, who neatly step to avoid them. The hall rings out with their barking, making her own heart beat fast. They cluster around Ramsay, making it clear who the head of the pack was. He feeds them scraps from his plate, scratching behind their ears lovingly. Well, if he can love anything.

 

Right on their heels is a filthy creature; rags soiled and ripped, hems uneven, tattered as if by teeth. Oily, grimy hair hangs in stringy clumps, covering its face. She can tell it was a human once, but the way it moves and runs, on all fours, like one of the dogs. Its own guttural form of a bark coming from its throat. She’s not so sure.

 

“Reek. Reek.” Ramsay calls, patting his knee. It scurries over, eager to obey. Dear Gods. What was that thing? “Sit. Good boy.” He taunts. It follows the command, sitting upright, looking up for the next instruction.

 

Arya feels the air leave her lungs when she sees his face, his eyes especially. Theon Greyjoy. Robb’s best friend. Someone she’d thought a brother once. The traitor. He was alive. Or sort of.

 

“Reek. I need you to do something for me.” He absent-mindedly strokes another dog’s ears. “This woman claims to be Arya Stark. Your old friend. Isn’t that exciting?” Ramsay remarks rhetorically. She sees fear pass over Theon’s brows. Terror. “Don’t you recognize her?” Ramsay pulls Merilee’s chair out, making sure her entire form is visible even from Theon’s angle. Merilee has to hold on to the sides of her chair to keep grounded.

 

He studies Merilee carefully from his spot on the floor. He goes up closer to her, and begins to sniff her ankles, then up her calf. Merilee crouches as far back in her chair as possible, attempting to evade his shaggy head unsuccessfully.

 

“Well?” Ramsay prompts, getting impatient. Theon’s concentration breaks, and his gaze pops up, clearly unused to meeting anyone’s eyes in a long time. He purposely avoids Ramsay’s loaded stare, and his gaze flicks around the table before landing on her.

 

It’s me. She wants to say. That’s right. Keep looking me in the eye. You know me. And I know you. I know what you did.

 

But she doesn’t speak, keeping quiet as she must. She tries to convey her disgust in her look though. Let him know he was hated. His gaze drops once more.

 

“What say you, Reek?” Reek? “I’m growing impatient.”

 

“I can’t be sure.” He can still speak at least. But it sounds unnatural, almost as if he resents his own tongue.

 

“Well bloody well make sure. Go on.” Theon, or Reek, doesn’t look at her again. She tries her best to keep her face turned away, though it would make no difference. “Go. On.” Ramsay takes Merilee’s chin in his hand, and turns her face to keep her still.

 

“It’s her My Lord. I’d know her anywhere.” She wouldn’t be surprised if he pissed himself right there on the floor. Ramsay nods, seemingly satisfied. With a single command, he dismisses his rambunctious hounds, and Reek in turn.

 

“So it is you, then.” He remarks. “Arya Stark at last.” He slaps the table, clearly pleased.

 

“And who exactly have you brought with you?” He motions to the men scattered around the table, her men, dismissively.

 

“My personal guards.” She answers. Trying to regain her composure.

 

He eyes each carefully, but keeps his gaze on Hot Pie. The cruel soldier beside her heavy friend knocks the mug into his fleshy lap. Hot Pie hops up in response to the cold liquid soaking through his trousers and onto his groin. During the spectacle, she uses the opportunity to slide the spoon into her lap. A spoon was next to useless, but still, she would waste nothing.

 

Another of the oversized brutes comes up behind him, sword drawn directly beside his pudgy neck. At the feel of the cold steel upon his neck, Hot Pie sits back down. She slides the spoon slowly up the long sleeve of her tunic.

 

“That’s Hot Pie. He’s my cook. Best in the Seven Kingdoms.” Merilee boasts just as a servant sets the first course down before her. It looks like a soup of beef and cream.

She and Merilee don’t eat, but the boys wolf it down. Hot Pie makes a face of disappointment, but isn’t deterred, reaching the bottom of the bowl before the others.

 

“Well, if he’s passable in the kitchens. Maybe we won’t have to eat him.” Ramsay jokes, eyes flashing. His men laugh heartily at what she hopes is a jest. Hot Pie pales.

 

A large fist pins her wrist down in a whoosh, making the bowl clink from the force of it. There’ll be a bruise she knows as the guard beside her digs around in her sleeve. Apparently, the hairy one hadn't taken his eyes off her. That or she wasn’t as quick as she thought.

 

“Ah ah ah.” He teases, finding her spoon, then shoving it down his pants. “You can have it, but you’ll have to work for it that is.” His indecent leer shows through his clotted beard. Revolting. She should be thankful though he hadn’t made a scene, called attention to her.

 

But Ramsay had noticed, his keen silvery eyes land on her once more, and become fixed. She doesn’t look away fast enough, and she literally feels a chill ebb throughout her ribs.

 

A blonde servant woman clears away her near full bowl and places boiled chicken and potatoes in its place. Bland, but it smells good anyway. Still, she can’t eat. Especially not with him staring at her, sizing her up. “And her?” He asks. She flinches at the attention, and her elbow accidently goes into the potatoes; she can feel the hot mush on her skin, but manages to keep her movements fluid, discretely wiping it off on her lap. The perverted hairy beast beside her licks his lips in her direction.

 

“My maid servant. She is mine.” Merilee proclaims. “The girl is under my protection.” Her voice is clear, leaving no room for argument. It’s only now that Arya thinks she’s beginning to pass for a stuck-up highborn. She’s almost proud. Ramsay sits up straighter in response and begins sawing into the tough chicken.

 

“Her name?” He asks through a meaty mouthful, strings of fatty chicken poking through his teeth and sticking to his cheek before he wipes it away with a cloth. A Stark insignia embroidered on its corner. She recognizes it as something her mother once sewed. He addresses the question to Merilee, but never takes his eyes off who he believes to be only a lowly servant.

 

“Cat.” Arya answers him. She shouldn’t have, it wasn’t her ‘place’ to address a Lord. But she couldn’t stand to be spoken of like the horse she’d ridden in on. Besides, playing the part of a servant or no, Arya Stark was already over playing the meek little mouse. She never did learn.

 

“Well, Cat. You look more a Northerner than the Lady. Where did she acquire you?” He’s onto the potatoes now, eating quickly. Too mushy, she thinks idly.

 

“My husband bought her for me. As a companion.” Merilee answers for her. Bought? Would the indignity ever end? But she says nothing.

 

No more outbursts, Arya.

 

A thick bread is brought for dessert, it’s too hard, but it comes with a sweet smelling butter; and she is seriously tempted. Ramsay rips off a chunk and holds it out to Merilee. She waves it off, but he presses it into her hand roughly. She takes it then. Chewing slowly.

 

“Bought her from where?” His stare demands an answer from her; she wasn’t imagining it, he is addressing her. Strange. Merilee is still masticating, and can’t speak yet.

 

“White Harbor, Milord.” She says, careful to avoid eye contact, and keep her speech simple. She thinks about how Marta spoke.

 

“And you’re loyal to the Lady?” He asks. Merilee swallows quickly.

 

“She’s very loyal. I trust her explicitly, I...”

 

“I was asking her.” He barks at Merilee, who nearly jumps out of her skin at the reprimand. He turns back to Arya. “Well. Are you loyal, or are you a slave?” She must word her answer carefully. It was apparent that Ramsay would be able to sniff out a lie. Anyone that adept at detecting weaknesses, could pin point lies just as easily.

 

“I serve the Lady, faithfully.” There, that was completely true sort of. The one with her spoon in his pants snorts in amusement. She could care less what that ogre thinks.

 

Ramsay goes back to tearing his bread, and dipping the strips into the sweet butter. “Then you will continue to do so. And me as well.” She nearly gags at the implication. Though she was under Merilee’s protection, she was sure that didn’t extend too far where Ramsay or his beasts were concerned. He was seemingly done questioning her, only silence follows. The only sound bread being chewed, a kind of violent display meant to intimidate.

 

In fact every move was a power play, designed to disturb and control. The way he ate unapologetically, the casual way he sat, the way he stared down each of them in-turn. And while she couldn’t speak to the state of mind of each of her companions, she somehow felt he was scrutinizing her more closely than the rest.

 

Impossible, she told herself, or at least, unlikely. The only female companion she may be, but still a common serving girl beside the ‘Lady of Winterfell’. Without her blood and title, Arya is sure no man would ever look at her twice beside the buxom ex-whore. Sweet hazel eyes, luscious curls, a flattering demeanor. Arya herself has always lacked these things, and she’d never minded. Feminine wiles were always a last resort as far as she was concerned, when one had no other options. And she learned rather quickly that looks had very little to do with that. She stays quiet, thinking as the plates are cleared.

 

The hairy one next to her left grease and crumbs all over the table cloth, with chicken in his beard. More girls clear the table, none willing to look her in the eyes, so quick and quiet she barely notices them. As the table is emptied, Ramsay speaks once more.

 

“You brought four guards, one cook, and another serving girl; all of them useless. I’m not complaining, mind you. I appreciate you making this all easier on me. But still. It’s winter, My Lady, or hadn’t you heard?” He mimics her words from earlier, mocking her. “We don’t need any extra mouths to feed. The cook may yet have his use. And we can always use more girls. But scrawny soldiers who can barely use a sword? That’s three too many. Pick one.” He demands.

 

“What? I… What for?” Merilee stutters, but grabs a hold of herself. Arya already senses what’s coming, but prays fervently that she’s wrong. She eyes Brent, Rik, Begby, and Lommy. They get the gist too, nervously peering at each other, each beseeching her with their eyes. Her eyes lock on Lommy.

 

“I’ll let you keep one man.” Merilee still doesn’t speak. Arya can actually hear her own heart pulsing wildly. No! Her entire being rebels against the idea. She couldn’t spare a single man, not one of her people. And yet her heart immediately told her which man here she could not live without.

 

There was Brent, who looked so much like her brother Jon. Well, not really. But he was smaller than the others, and he had a bit of curl in his hair, like Jon. Lommy cared for him. Guilt swims up her throat. Rik, large and good-natured; that big baldhead a good luck charm. He used to spar with Gendry daily. They were friends. And Begby, she didn’t know him well, accent a bit too thick to decipher every word, but he was funny, and always quick to laugh.

 

“Please, I…” Merilee begs. She would beg too, if it would make any difference. No, begging only made things worse in her experience.

 

“Choose, or I will.” He doesn’t raise his voice, but the ice is unmistakable. Her soldiers, men loyal to her, willing to risk their lives, would die here. For nothing. And it was her fault. She meets each of their gazes once more, miserable and apologetic. She can’t take on four dozen men, men with swords, plus the men at the gates, with arrows and good aim. She’d lose them all that way. She’d lose Winterfell all over again. She’d lose her life. She’d just lose. But she was already losing anyway.

 

After one last staring contest with Lommy, who shakes his head no. A new pang of guilt kicks her in the same place her moon cramps usually hit. He won’t want to be spared. The guilt will eat away at him too. But it can’t be helped. She can’t manage without him, and neither could Gendry.

 

Once more she meets each of their gazes, giving them a small smile of apology each. They nod in understanding, Rik shaking, Begby twitching, and Brent near to tears. Decided, she looks to Merilee, then back to Lommy, then back again. He may never forgive her, and she doubts she will ever forgive herself.

 

Merilee nods so slightly she almost doesn’t see it. The entire exchange seems an eternity to Arya, but in actuality is only a matter of seconds. Ramsay is watching ‘the Lady’ intently, not in the least impatient. The eager grin on his face belying his enjoyment. Sick fuck!

 

“I…” Merilee’s voice comes out uncertain, she swallows and clears her throat to make her words come unstuck. “I choose Lommy as my champion.” She says, motioning to her long blonde haired friend. A few of the rough men grab him and pull him out away from the others. He fights back, struggling to remain amongst the others, unwilling to be spared while his friends, his lover, are put to death before his eyes. Brent follows his lead, and the others struggle as well.

 

“No, My Lady. No, please.” Her men don’t do too badly, all things considered. But they are overpowered quickly; their arms twisted round their own shoulders, incapacitated and dominated. She’s embarrassed for them, though not of them. To fight at all against such odds makes her proud. Lommy fights on, digging his heels into the floor. He elbows the hairy man below the rib cage, another he manages to shatter his nose with only the back of his skull. But another man knocks him in the gut so hard with his pommel that Lommy keels over and wheezes.

 

Ramsay’s smile is so wide; she’s surprised he isn’t clapping his hands together in glee.

 

“This is your favorite, My Lady?” He asks Merilee. Ramsay nods to his soldiers, and they hold her condemned men tighter still. Lommy has silent tears running down his chubby cheeks. Merilee has her own arms wrapped around herself, holding onto whatever comfort she can.

 

Don’t blame yourself, she wants to say. It’s my choice, my sin, my burden to carry. The Gods will judge me when all is said and done.

 

Ramsay walks closer to Lommy, and runs his fingers through his pretty blonde locks. What is he doing?

 

“He’s the best of the lot, though that’s not saying much.” Lommy glowers up at him from his place on the floor, still kneeling from the blow to his stomach. Ramsay turns his back on him, walking towards the others. Arya says a silent prayer to look after their souls, to reward them for their sacrifice, to understand her choice; and holds her breath.

 

Ramsay takes a small dagger from a sheath, handling it intimately. Quicker than the blink of an eye, he spins around, throwing the blade with deadly accuracy, right into Lommy’s skull, right through his left eye socket.

 

A shocked Lommy seizes up, then collapses to the floor, dead instantly, free strands of light hair soaking up blood, and the puddle inching ever closer to her feet.

 

Merilee screams so loud it echoes through the halls and Ramsay’s firm grip keeps her back. Brent’s knees give out, and his body sags toward the ground; only kept upright by the burly man painfully clenching his shoulders. They all struggle, but are kept well in hand. Ramsay’s men are well-trained, strong, and seem to share the Bolton’s predilection for cruelty. They chuckle and roll their eyes at each other. This was a joke to them, an amusement. But Lommy wasn’t a joke, he never was. She’d chosen him to live; there hadn’t even been a question, a doubt. Merilee was her best friend, her most loyal friend. But Lommy…

 

No one moves to hold her back as she drops down beside the fresh corpse. Clearly, she is not a threat to them. He’s still now, thankfully the death was quick. She crawls forward a bit so she’s close enough to feel his flesh, there’s a squelching sound as her knees slide through the thick layer of blood, congealing already. He’s still warm, and there’s even a faint beat. But it dwindles to nothing as the blood keeps pumping out of the wound and onto the floor.

 

He was handsome. Or, cute. Such nice hair, gentle features. His remaining eye is such a nice shade of blue; not like Gendry’s but… She takes his hand and turns it palm up. Tinged a faint green. No. This was wrong. Wrong. He…

 

He was a good man. She wants to say. Loyal. She wants to add. It’s not that she’s afraid of the consequences; she simply can’t make it past the lump in her throat. This was the worst thing she’d ever done, ever been responsible for. She could never hope to make up for this.

 

“You see, My Lady. You have no choices here, no power. The sooner you understand that, the easier it will be on you.” Ramsay taunts. “And your people.”

 

The hairy guard pulls her up roughly, and pushes her forward, hands straying to her hips and ass. She walks faster. Rage, guilt, shame, and fear filling her up. She takes the ‘warning’ seriously, though it was directed towards the false Lady of Winterfell not her. The shattered Merilee is escorted by three burly men, Hot Pie dragged off towards the kitchens, and her ‘guards’ were encouraged at sword point in the direction of the dungeons. She is swallowed up by the serving women, completely isolated from her friends, disheartened. After all the planning, all the dreaming and hoping, to be put down so low. To lose so much already. No one else would die for her, would suffer. No one else, this she swore.

Chapter Text

It Gets Worse

 

Arya

 

All women. Every man, one of Ramsay’s, was a soldier or guard. The cooks, servants, washers, stable hands, and everyone else; all women. Their men folk were displayed outside, skinless or at The Wall. This was what was left. They were seen as no threat to Ramsay. Dark circles around their eyes, an unnatural hue to their skin, hair hanging limp.

 

They’re all dressed the same, layers of old rags, clean but well-worn. Each has matching expressions, cold stiff jaws, pinched mouths, and furrowed brows.

 

They’d clearly grown used to this, these women. So efficient in their movements, no wasted efforts, they get to work. And they do, sweat and elbow grease are in the air as they soak, scrub, polish, sort, and stack.

 

They clean in a frenzy, pulling up the stained tablecloth, sweeping up the scraps. They hover atop the floor, pouring soapy water over the deep puddle of blood, others sopping it up with thick towels. Arya grabs a brush and sinks down to her knees, the material soaking up the soap and blood.

 

His blood.

 

She sets to scrubbing. The mindless task, the ache in her muscles; it stops her from thinking. Scrub. Scrub. Scrub. Back and forth. A girl puts her hands atop hers, stopping her movements. She’s pretty, light Northern eyes and solid features; old enough to be Arya’s mother. She moves their conjoined hands in circles, scrubbing outward, dispersing the blood more evenly. When the woman’s hands disappear, Arya keeps up the pattern without her prompting. They clean the spot thoroughly, all of them, no trace of the murder less than an hour before. As if it never happened. Most likely a common occurrence around here. But her trousers are stained red and heavy, and as she looks at the fresh spot of ground, she keeps seeing his bloodied hair. Not his eye, not the dagger; but his bloodied ash blonde hair.

 

What had they done with his body? She wouldn’t be able to bear seeing his corpse hanging from the walls. She wouldn’t be able to bear any of it.

 

Another woman, nearly twice her own height, with slim hips helps pull Arya up from the floor, and guides her forward, to retire in the near moonless night.

 

Their silent steps belie their ability to remain unnoticed; they’ve learned to survive here, as she must. For all intents and purposes, she was one of them. But no, she rebelled against the thought. She was no slave, no servant, and would not be a prisoner for long.

 

With keen eyes, Arya could see that much of her home had been cordoned off, blocked. The damaged parts merely closed off from view, left in varying states of disrepair, the residents of the castle relegated to the central structure, which was always well-guarded and well-patrolled. A large part of her raged at the indignity, her castle left to rot, great towers locked away and useless. But strategically, it made sense; even she could see that. Ramsay made sure no resources were wasted, no strangers left unattended. Smart. Her intense hate and discomfort was briefly disrupted by a kind of respect. He knew how to utilize his strengths and camouflage his weakness. He had a good mind for strategy, and no pesky conscience to get in the way.

 

She’d never been in the servant’s quarters before, an entire corridor of cozy rooms, below ground, meant to house a few girls each. The rooms weren’t as nice as the Starks’ sleeping arrangements of course, but they were sufficient. There were a few large rooms down below, filled with a few cots each. The women around her, the ones with whom she’d scrubbed up her friend’s blood, took the space farthest down the hallway. She stayed by these familiar women for lack of any better idea. She wondered briefly how Merilee was faring. If she liked pretending to be her.

 

It would be a stretch to call the pads laid out on the floor cots. They were blankets if they were anything, set up a hands width apart from each other, six in all. The last already occupied by a squat figure. But the light is so poor she can barely make it out. There was a basin set up on a table in the corner by the door, a few fresh cloths stacked up beside it. Each woman took her turn washing beneath her arms, between her breasts, and the back of her neck. Some munched on bits of bread hidden in their skirts. While others plopped down unceremoniously on their beds. Their shoulders eased and the scarves wrapped around their heads came off.

 

The one who’d helped her in the kitchens took off her scarf to show a tightly coiled black braid beneath, it was really intricately done. Rather than bathing straight off, she walked all the way to the occupied cot where the shadowed figure huddled and coughed. The woman emptied her pockets, and placed her hand in the figure’s. Another cough, but a wrinkly hand grasped the hand tight, then came away with a bit of meat. Arya stares through the dim light, trying to make out the vaguely familiar woman. Arya comes to stand before her, hovering above her hunched figure. Old Nan does not look up, she barely blinks as she gums on the chewy meat. Blind.

 

“Whose there?” She asks groggily. Still she doesn’t shift her bottomless stare, but she tilts her chin in Arya’s direction. With a deep swallow, fully aware of the mindful watch of the others, Arya gently folds to her knees, seating herself directly in front of the old woman; the woman who’d helped raise her and her siblings, who’d taught her of free-spirited wildling women, and helped make up excuses for her so she could get out of embroidery lessons. Still alive, she hadn’t imagined that.

 

“Who are you?” She croaks again, putting up her weathered hand to hover before Arya’s face.

 

“I…” She begins, but that lump is ever-present. This woman was a piece of home, of her past. She lived still, not all her history destroyed. But she looked so frail, so without hope; cowering in a musty room in near-darkness, relying on scraps from the others. What did she know about life up in the main hall, about the ‘lord’ who ruled, about the state of the people? Did she believe Arya dead? Did she even remember her after so long? She ached to present herself, to be held by the old woman as she used to, to gain comfort from the woman’s wisdom. But she can’t speak. The girls will hear, will know. And so far, Arya trusts no one. With a heavy sigh, Arya makes to stand up, pushing off her knees; but quick as lightening a papery hand grabs her wrist. It’s a tight grip, tighter than she would have thought the crone possible.

 

There’s no spark in those eyes, and yet she’s almost sure the woman is looking through her. Startled, and not wanting to give herself away to these women, she eases her hand free and sits down on the only unclaimed cot. To have her close, to see her face, to feel her familiar hand on her own; it’s all too much.

 

Slowly, a hand comes up to brush against her temple. Arya flinches at first, so unexpected is the contact, and the fingertips freeze. Arya settles once more, and the old woman’s hand continues its exploration, over her brows, down her nose, across her cheekbones and closed eyelids, and along her jaw. Arya holds her breath, afraid to move and break the spell.

 

With a gasp, a few tears escape down wrinkled cheeks, and a strangled cry comes from her knobby throat. The searching palm comes to rest on her shoulder, a shaky smile upon her withered face. Then a tentative chuckle. Her lips move ever so slightly, and Arya leans even closer to try to make out her words in the poorly lit space. She can’t, too soft.

 

Did she know her? After all these years. Would Old Nan know her face still? Arya becomes aware that six pairs of eyes are upon her, taking her in. The woman releases her and sits back.

 

They’ll suspect. She thinks. They’ll give me up to Ramsay. She fears. It couldn’t really get worse.

 

“She’s old. Don’t mind her.” Arya nods, shaken from her thoughts.

 

At Arya’s disconcerted look she says. “It’ll get easier. You’ll get used to it.” The tall one with amber eyes assures her.

 

“Get used to it?” The black-haired beauty chuckles completely devoid of humor. “She thought she came to serve some fine lady, and now she’s worse off than ever. Wishes she’d never come here. Am I right girl?” Arya doesn’t answer. But in truth, the thought had crossed her mind more than once. She’d liked Storm’s End.

 

“Too late now.” She remarks without humor. “And it’s Cat.” She comes back to herself a bit amid the banter.

 

“She will get used to it. Just don’t go making trouble. Stay quiet and out of sight. They’ll get bored and leave you be.” Amber eyes says.

 

“They’re allowed to…” She can’t finish the question, not really wanting the answer.

 

“They’ll get bored alright.” Another rounder girl says instead of a direct response. “Eventually.” She splashes cold water down her back.

 

“They won’t touch her. She’s protected by Lady Stark. You saw, she claimed her.” A little light haired one pipes in.

 

“You think that’ll do any good? Lord Bolton got himself a new toy to play with.” Braid comments.

 

“Will he hurt her?” Arya asks, fearful.

 

“She’s the Lady of Winterfell. He can’t. Can he?” Amber protests.

 

“He can do as he likes. He always does.”

 

“What will he do to her?” Arya asks, suddenly worrying for someone besides herself.

 

“Break her, like Reek, one of his dogs. It’s what he does for fun.”

 

“How?” Her heart is racing.

 

“I wouldn’t worry so much about your Lady if I were you. Worry about yourself. You’re not too good at keeping your head down, they won’t get bored with you in a hurry.” She warns ominously. She means to scare her.

 

“And your name?” Arya demands.

 

“Vela.” The one with black hair and the critical mind.

 

“Jana.” The tall one says. She seems strong, solid.

 

“Taryn.” The little one introduces. She seemed to support her well enough.

 

“Bennis.” The last said, though she hadn’t spoken before. She’d barely noticed her in fact. “And the old woman.” She adds pointing to her cot.

 

She’d always thought her old before, white white hair, filmy eyes, and creased skin. And now- her hair was thinned, whole patches smooth of hair, wisps growing in small clumps, filmed eyes so milky she couldn’t detect the color any longer, and skin so paper-thin she could see through the surface to veins and bones underneath. Still alive. Looking as tortured as she felt.

 

As if on cue, a throat clears loudly enough to fill the entire room, and a weathered voice speaks. Would she tell the others?

 

“They call me Old Nan.” She says, as if introducing herself.

 

“Yes, she’s been around since the beginning. She served the Starks before.” Vela adds.

 

She had served them, she must feel abandoned.

 

“That’s right. I’ve been alive three times as long as some of you, and seen thrice as much. The Starks have always served the North, and they will again. The return of the Lady will see to that.” Old Nan pronounces proudly. She still had hope, misplaced though it was. Old Nan, always so good with stories and bold words.

 

“You weren’t there, Nan.” Vela says, addressing the old woman not her. “She was tripping all over herself to please Lord Bolton. I thought she would kiss his feet. She’s not our savior.” Apparently, she and this Vela woman thought alike.

 

“Perhaps she has a plan.” Jana suggests simply.

 

“O’ course she does. Keep her fancy skin on her pretty little body and to hell with the rest of us. You saw what happened to her ‘champion’. Can’t blame her, but it don’t inspire much faith.” The woman didn’t like her much. But Arya is more than impressed with her. Vela was nowhere near destroyed, though she kept that fact well-hidden while upstairs.

 

“I would not rule out the Stark girl.” Old Nan warns, a hopeful smile rejuvenating her features for a moment. This shuts everybody up and effectively ends the conversation

 

Soon the candles are blown out, and Arya is the last to lay down.

 

She squeezes her eyes shut, trying to block everything out. The tangible misery of these women, the smell of turnip that was uniquely Old Nan, the image of Lommy’s bloodied tresses on the ground, Brent’s disbelieving face, Merilee’s terrified eyes, the skinless men hanging from the gates, and the burned towers standing proud against the white ground. They all flash through her mind, circling round and round, bleeding into each other like the soapy blood of the friend she’d scrubbed up earlier.

 

She shivers at the image, feeling cold, really cold for the first time since entering Winterfell’s heated walls. No matter how she tosses and turns, rubs her feet together and her palms up her sides she can’t warm up. And she can’t figure out why.

 

Until it hits her. It was Gendry who’d wrapped her up in his arms, kept her warm with his never ending body heat. The way he always made her feel safe, and loved. Even when they fought at Storm’s End she still shared his bed. Even out on the road, she’d snuck in beside him. She’d barely even thought of him in all this, barely able to see past herself. She felt her eyes water, and a few tears fall. But she was silent, as she’d practiced, and she managed a few hours sleep in the last.

 


 

The others are already up, in various states of readiness. She notices some clothes beside her bed, they’re plain and drab, but clean of blood, so she puts them on- back in skirts again, dark drab colors. The black-haired woman, Vela, is rebraiding her hair rapidly, strands slipping through her fingers like thread through a loom, graceful. The woman smiles at her, but doesn’t stop her braiding. The tall one who’d lifted her easily, Jana, passes her breakfast, more crusty bread. She takes it.

 

“Thank you.” She says. They all jump, startled, the quiet of the morning disrupted. She recovers quickly, amber eyes fluttering.

 

“Welcome.” She responds, the courtesy uncomfortable on her tongue. And Arya nods back.

 

“Sleep well Cat?” Jana asks, her voice deep and husky. Arya is confused at first; until she remembers that was the name she’d given Ramsay.

 

“I, yes, thank you.” She felt especially nervous around these women, she wanted them to like her, to trust her. Actually, she needed them to respect her, which might prove difficult as they all thought her weak and self-centered. The more time she spent hiding, the more she agreed with them.

 

A filthy, creature scurries past the doorway, large and clumsy. He trots past, but once he’s too far he turns around and comes back. His unwelcome presence in these female quarters is startling and uncomfortable. They clump together, but don’t look frightened, only surprised.

 

“Reek.” Bennis near hisses, cringing. He’s not well-liked, clearly.

 

“Shoo. Shoo.” Jana instructs, waving her arms. Do they know what he is? Some sort of dog. Worse. He doesn’t obey, only sits, staring in. Staring at her. The most pitiful expression on his face. What did he want?

 

She crosses her arms in front of her chest and furrows her brows so hard she’s glaring right through him. Was she supposed to be grateful for before? His lying? Why had he? Who cares?

 

Fuck you, Theon. You murderer. Trash.

 

He whines a little in the back of his throat, a miserable keening. It sounded about how she felt.

 

Vela finally throws an unlit candle at him, and he runs off, one last pitiful look, yelping a bit. It’s pathetic.

 

“Ugh. He gives me the creeps.” Jana comments, shaking her head as if to clear it.

 

“Why is he like that?” Arya asks. She hates that she’s even curious.

 

“Some say he was a Lord once. Then he betrayed the Starks.” Taryn answers.

 

“Cut his balls and dick off they say.” Jana adds. She felt no sympathy for him. She didn’t.

 

“Sounds like His Lordship. And now he’s good and broke, a broken pathetic creature. I don’t like him being around.” Vela says finally, rubbing her own arms in comfort.

 

“He shouldn’t be allowed down here.” Bennis agrees.

 

“He sniffs around the kitchens, and some of the old corridors. Lord Bolton doesn’t seem to care. I even saw him piss in the gardens once. I didn’t see it. But I did see him squatting, like a girl.” Taryn laughs, conspiratorially. No, no sympathy. “Never seen him down ‘ere before though.”

 

It could be her imagination, but they all look at her accusingly. Arya leaves first in a hurry; anxious to get out of the conversation. He wasn’t a man, not really. He seemed more mangy dog now, than anything. But he’d lied for her; he’d come sniffing around, for her. What was she meant to do with this?

 


 

They’re sent to the kitchen, where she sees Hot Pie rushing to do everything at once, directing the other cooks as best he can, but mostly doing it himself. He’s scrambling egg whites, spreading flour on the counters, stirring large pots, and chopping onions. He’s quick and efficient for someone his size.

 

When he looks up at her, he drops the knife in a loud clatter to the floor. The ever-present guards look over at them in annoyance. She can see Hot Pie’s eyes are purple red, puffy and tender. He’d shed buckets of tears, and it wasn’t to do with the onions. She looks away first, ashamed to see the accusation in his chocolate eyes. She goes to stir a large rich smelling pot, too intent on the repetitive movement.

 

Hot Pie continues to give out instruction, deceptively capable in managing a kitchen. He demands this and that, some things held in storage. She feels him brush up beside her, dropping carrots and caramelized onions into the pot, a little backsplash landing on her skirts. His hand covers her wrist and squeezes, an attempt to get her to look up at him. When she does, there’s only warmth reflected back at her, and she feels her chest hitch at the forgiveness. She feels her eyes water. She passes him the wooden spoon and announces that she’ll go fetch the potatoes he’d requested earlier, discretely blinking back the wetness. She leaves in such a rush that she forgets she’s not meant to know where the storerooms are.

 

Walking quickly, she keeps her head down, not looking anyone in the eye. No one will question her, they’ll see the basket in her hands and the submissive slope to her shoulders, and ignore her. At least that’s what she keeps chanting in her head. She needed to compose herself. Letting herself feel the grief in public wouldn’t do. Not with them watching, judging, questioning.

 

She makes her way down to the cellar, a place she’d used to hide as a child. She had liked the musty smells and the stores of food. It made her feel safe, secure, the bounty of food stocked up for the winter. And the quiet put her mind at ease.

 

The stores were half what they once were; they were in the grip of winter to be sure, but hers had just began anew. Still, she felt the same old solace amongst the quiet of the room, the solitude. She needed to regroup, to think. And she’d get right to that, as soon as the waves of guilt and loss pass. She finds the potatoes by the corn, half a dozen large sacks. The first sack is completely sodden through, mushy and rotted. She sticks her fingers into the sack, squeezing, feeling the muck between her fingers, foul and wrong. She takes great comfort in hurling the rotten spuds to the floors, and the satisfying splat of the vegetable against the earth. Fitting. A rot had settled into her land, and she’d have to uproot it. She throws more against the earth. One after another, it feels so good. Heaving with the effort until the bag is empty. Breathing heavily, she wipes her hands on her skirts and sniffles deeply. It had worked. Whatever that was. She already has another plan. But first, she goes about searching for more potatoes.

 

Another few sacks have buds sprouting, but are otherwise firm so she packs them in the basket.

 

Heavy boots clomp down the stairs, a bounce in each step. She freezes, one hand still holding a potato between her fingers. At the sound of an ominous male chuckle, she drops the spud and stands up straight, keeping her back to the wall and her eyes on the intruder.

 

It’s not terribly bright down there, only a few glassed-in torches along the walls; streams of sunlight filtering in through gaps in the stones. But she can make out the hulking figure of that hairy guard, the one who’d been sat beside her. The one who’d leered at her, and propositioned her.

 

“Snuck away already girl? Don’t waste any time, do you?”

 

“I’m gathering potatoes for the kitchen.” She says quickly, gesturing to the half full basket.

 

“I can see that.” He smirks, gesturing to the mash near his feet.

 

“An accident.” She swallows. “Rotten.” Though it’s clear it was no accident. “I’ll clean it up later.” She says, picking up the basket. “Now if you’ll excuse me, they’ll be needing these.” She makes to walk around him, giving him as a wide a berth as the room will allow. But he’s surprisingly fast for his size. And he blocks her. She takes a step back, but he reaches out and grabs her forearms, keeping her locked in place. Her stomach starts to churn, and the cool calm of the storeroom is gone; filled with danger and malintent.

 

“Nobody cares about potatoes. I know what you want.” He leers through his grisly beard, and releases one of her wrists to shove his own large hand down his pants. Arya struggles anew to escape, her heart picking up speed, which only makes him laugh harder. She can feel the grip of his fingers, searching for the weak side; she pulls her arm free, pulling towards the direction of his thumb; releasing with a satisfying pop.

 

He’s surprised for an instant, but his other hand emerges from his trousers in the next instant, and she’s momentarily stunned.

 

The spoon from dinner. Had he kept it down by his balls all night? She wouldn’t be surprised. She should have thought to take a knife from the kitchens. But they were watching. Always. Except down here. Fuck.

 

He delights in her astonishment, the grin wide enough to display his rotting teeth.

 

“Let me pass.” She commands, using the authoritative voice she’d been cultivating.

 

He goes to grab her again, but she dodges, tossing potatoes up into the air, a few smacking him on the head with dull thuds. He looks less amused after that. He actually manages to trip on one and fall, comical under normal circumstances; she uses it as the chance to run by him. Quick as lightening he grabs at her ankles, pulling roughly to the side, making her land painfully on her hip. The pain spiderwebs out from the point of impact, placing her whole left side in intense pain. She’s frozen from the shock, and he easily crawls atop her.

 

Pleased with himself, he no longer seems angry, laugh lines deepening around almost black eyes. His gigantic fingers feel along her throat, caressing the jaw in what is supposed to be a gentle caress, but is heavy along her pulse. She can feel it beating fast, erratic, and she’s oh so frightened. Any extra pressure, a squeeze here, a pinch there; and he could break her.

 

Not this, not him, not like this. She pleads to the Gods. Though they most certainly haven’t been listening. They’re clearly not listening now.

 

A frantic kick, and a potato goes rolling uselessly across the floor, and then a ping.

 

He forcibly turns her head the other way to better access her ear, and she can see the ping was something shiny, metal. The spoon. Not a knife, but…

 

“Soft. New meat.” He says, nuzzling his rough beard along the sensitive skin. She wriggles her hips to gain purchase and some space between their lower bodies. In response he presses down harder with his broad pelvis, his hips trapping her.

 

His breath is so foul she can practically taste it, moist lips replace one hand, sucking on her collarbone. The other goes to her right shoulder; digging into the socket so painfully she thinks it might pop out. But still, she stretches with her left, reaching for the spoon.

 

Ugh, his wet tongue sliding along her neck. There, she has it. With a firm grasp, she jerks the spoon towards his eye, but he starts kissing down the column of her throat so she misses and gets his cheek, frantically scraping wherever she can reach. It doesn’t even break the flesh, his skin so rough, but he grunts in annoyance. In retaliation he bangs her skull back against the floor, making the world spin around her. Her grip on the spoon loosens as well. She manages to regrip it, but on the wrong end, stem facing out. As his hand glides up her leg, she’s more careful this time, and goes for what she can reach; up into his armpit with a vicious jab.

 

He screams loud at that, very loud, and then she twists. He outright howls then. A shove through and she rolls out from beneath him, scrambling up the storeroom steps and right into the arms of three more soldiers. Her breaths are shallow and quick as she tries to calm down, they grab her securely, no chance of slipping past.

 

Immediately after her attacker stumbles up behind her, clutching the bloody spoon wedged up into his arm. He knew enough not to pull it out, she wouldn’t have guessed that.

 

Her three captors look up at their injured man, and laugh raucously. The entire situation both obvious and hilarious to them. One taunts him.

 

“Looks like the new girl didn’t much like the taste of you.” He starts gasping he’s laughing so hard at his own joke.

 

Before she can get her bearings, they’re hustled along, down the hall and into the presence of Himself. The Wannabe Lord Bolton, sitting once more at the head of the table. He seems surprised by the disturbance, but not displeased. Merilee is beside him, looking frazzled but unharmed. A quick exchange of eye contact and Merilee offers her a small smile, indicating she’s alright for the most part.

 

Ramsay motions them forward with a beckoning of his fingers. She notices detachedly that breakfast was still prepared and served without her. Had her time in the kitchens been less than an hour ago?

 

At the summons, she is dragged roughly before the Lord and pushed onto her knees. She stares straight at him, but one of the men pushes her head down, straining her neck. A purposeful throat clearing, and the pressure on her skull is gone, she can look up once more, and right into his intense gaze.

 

“What happened here?” Though the question is meant for his men, he doesn’t look away from her. She’s aware of her flushed chest, sticky with his spit, her hair in disarray.

 

“I want her.” The beast near whines, rubbing his shoulder protectively. “I should at least get that.”

 

“I’m sure you do.” He inspects the wound and sees the rounded spoon poking out between the joints and chuckles. “And how did she manage this?” The others laugh in answer.

 

“Well, she…” He tries to explain, but doesn’t trust his own side of the story in the face of his friend’s scorn.

 

“Never mind. I can see well enough.” He gestures towards her. “She bested you.”

 

“No, I mean she… Well I was just about to…”

 

“And since when have I ever ruled in favor of the weak?” He taunts which shuts him up right quick. “She clearly won, and you clearly lost. Now why would I ever reward the loser? Hmmm?” There’s no answer, but the other men stand up straighter.

 

“But what truly troubles me, is why you weren’t on duty near the back gate.” Without warning he pulls out the spoon, causing the beast to yelp in protest. Ramsay examines the bloody silver closely, before eyeing the man with disapproval. “Am I mistaken?” No sound comes out, and he looks truly afraid now.

 

“Speak up.” He demands. But the beast can’t speak. She almost feels sorry for him. Almost. Ramsay rolls his eyes.

 

She sees the serving women set down more dishes, working efficiently. Vela is among them, and as she looks up at her as she passes. She realizes then they’d all heard everything as they worked, missing nothing. Just what she needed- more attention. But as the woman passes close to her, Vela brushes her fingers across her arm in solidarity. It was something.

 

He didn’t seem to blame her at all for the altercation, seeming more amused than anything. Strange. Quick movement out of the corner of her eye draws her attention back.

 

Ramsay forces the spoon back in the open wound, rounded side in, making him scream out like an animal. His voice came back.

 

“Let that serve as a reminder. Do as you’re ordered. Any deviation will result in a painful punishment.” His message was clearly meant for all the guards. But the last he addresses back to the bleeding man. “Next time, we’ll move onto a fork. Actually I have a lot of great ideas for the fork.” Ramsay says, to the encouragement of the crowd. The huge beast of a man nods vigorously, trying to stem the flow of blood down his side. “Now get on to the Maester.” And just like that his attention is back on her. “And you. Don’t you have work to do?” He asks rhetorically. She nods once, and follows Vela but Ramsay’s guard stops her. “No, I think I won’t let you near kitchen and the knives. I know better now.” He jokes.

 


 

She’s herded down many steps by two guards down to the laundry room. Vela and the rest worked in the kitchens, but this group worked in the laundry. Bennis was among them. No wonder she hadn’t seen her in the kitchens. She was glad for a somewhat familiar if not striking face, the thicker brows and slightly crooked nose; not entirely unbecoming.

 

Her breath finally evens out as she makes it down to the strong-smelling vats. Did all of that just happen?

 

“You really stabbed him?” Bennis asks in awe. News travelled fast amongst the castle, especially the servants.

 

“Yes.” She says, making a big show of soaking a shirt. The water is hot, her fingers turn pink immediately.

 

“Damn impressive. How’d you manage it?” An older woman, mid-forties asks, though not unkindly. Arya only shrugs. “Lord Bolton wasn’t even pissed. Why not?”

 

“New blood.” Another woman answers simply. She nods in response.

 

“She’s the talk of the castle. More so than that empty-headed doll you serve.” Bennis adds. Her hackles rise at that.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She’s offended despite herself. Not just her name, but Merilee too.

 

“It means, she thinks she can play nice and stay on Ramsay’s good side and still live like a lady. Well, she’ll learn soon enough there’s no nice side to him.” She wasn’t doing that.  Merilee has always been loyal. Wasn’t she?

 

“Enough. We’ve got sheets to wash and curtains to dye. Stop gabbing. Get moving.” An even older woman, near 60 instructs, looking put-upon and annoyed. She seemed to be in charge down here. She notices the guards looking her way once more.

 

Fine. She clumsily sets about throwing random bits from various piles into the tub, sinking beneath the surface.

 

Bennis comes up beside her and shows her how to properly sort the clothes so the colors don’t bleed together, and the best way to stand so she doesn’t strain her back.

 

“You did good.” She says simply. Compliments don’t come easily to the taciturn woman. It’s a peace offering as well.

 

“I just did what anyone would.” She raises her eyebrows at that but keeps working.

 

“Still, seeing Grys with a spoon coming out of his shoulder, that’s an image I won’t soon forget.” Arya looks over at her working alongside her, a small grin on the woman’s face. Arya lets a small smile escape, but no more, then back to stirring the laundry. The smell was strong, but not unpleasant. She welcomed it. “Neither will he. He won’t let this go.” She warns. He. Grys. What kind of a name was that?

 

“I’m not worried about him.” She says, trying to make herself believe it as well. In point of fact, she did fear him. She’d beaten him, and humiliated him, of course he would blame her. And still, she had bigger fish to fry. A loyal friend was murdered, another being tortured for all she knew, and her home defiled; no, she couldn’t lose sight of the true enemy even if she wanted to. “How long have you served the Lord?” She nearly chokes on the word Lord, but forces it out.

 

“Over a year.” She says, the corners of her mouth turned down. “They demanded women. Some went out of fear, fear of starvation or freezing to death, fear for their families. Some of us were just taken.”

 

“And didn’t anyone stand up to him, didn’t anyone fight?” She hisses, careful not to speak too loudly and be overheard. Though a quick glance assures her their attention has been drawn elsewhere. The motherly woman speaks again.

 

“Our fathers and brothers and husbands had gone down South to fight for King Robb, others went up to The Wall, and yet more died here. We all tried. But there’s no way out, the walls too well guarded. Hells, he killed all those who so much as called him a bastard. Well, you saw them on the way in, I expect.” She had, and the imagery would haunt her for as long as she lived. “Takes that real personal. Meant as a deterrent. Damn but if he doesn’t think o’ everythin’.”

 

“What about letters?”

 

Bennis freezes up, then looks over her shoulder to ensure they weren’t being overheard.

 

“What good would a letter do anyhow? Can you read?”

 

“And write.” Arya answers testily.

 

“You can’t get anything out past the borders. He’s made sure of it. Many have tried.”

 

“But if I could get a letter out, for my Mistress...”

 

“Who would you even send it to? Who would even care?”

 

“The Stark name means something still. There are those still loyal.” She protests.

 

“It don’t mean they’ll help. Our last best hope was your Mistress, and she won’t last long.” She laughs without humor. “Face it. We’re all screwed and now so are you.” Arya puts her hand on the other woman’s wrist, stilling her continuous churning of the vat.

 

“Just get me paper and ink, and access to the ravens, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

 

“Aye, a raven she says. And paper and ink. That’s all she says. He’ll find out, and punish you. You want that?”

 

“Well then it’ll be my punishment, it won’t fall back onto you. I promise. Please Bennis.”

 

“I can’t help. Nothing I can do.” Arya sighs deeply, feeling the weight on her shoulders.

 

“I can get you quill, ink and parchment.” The middle-aged woman cuts in.

 

“Yes, thank you. Please.” Arya thanks her.

 

“But ravens. This I cannot do.”

 

“Fine. I’ll take care of that. Thank you.” The woman nods and gets back to work.

 

Ravens. Keys. A quarter hour unwatched and unbothered.

 

Reek. Theon, she means. More beast than man. He roamed the castle, most averting their gaze in discomfort at his mangled form running round the castle. His being was like the manifestation of everything the people here feared becoming. Well, it seemed she would need to stop avoiding that Greyjoy traitor after all.

 


 

 

It had taken her a long time to decide whom to ask, no beg, for aid. As Bennis pointed out, she had nothing left to barter; it would be only charity now. Charity or a sense of obligation. No guarantees. Then, it took even longer to write the letter. It was so painful to express her regret, her horrid position, her own culpability, and her very real need. She hated to admit her weakness, but she had to impress how serious the situation truly was in order to garner support. Late into the night, by the light of the sconces filtering through the doorway, she wrote. Scratching out words to be replaced with others, rearranging lines; a messy endeavor by its end. But she’d done it. Now she’d need to secure the last piece.

 

At the kennels, there were guards posted as well. Ramsay certainly was thorough. She showed them the meat she’d had Vela pilfer from the kitchens, and explained Ramsay’s order to feed the hounds. Immediately he lets her pass, and enjoys the buttery rolls Hot Pie had saved for her.

 

The hounds bark furiously upon smelling her enter, the racket causing her heart to pound harder. They’re all clumped together at the bars of their cage, sniffing and salivating. She makes out light green eyes peering out from a filthy face. She throws the filched meat, piece by piece into the cage, causing the dogs to fight each other for the morsels, and quiet down. She approaches the cage, face to face with Theon, or Reek now. He’s still on all fours like the other dogs, his rags dark like their furry coats, covered in their scent; but the intelligent gleam in his eye sets him apart as human. She crouches down to better look him in the eyes.

 

“Theon.” She greets. He cringes away, not able to meet her gaze.

 

“Theon Greyjoy. I know you know me. I saw you this morning, sneaking about, watching me.” She prompts. “Theon.”

 

“Reek.” He growls low, still looking away.

 

“Theon.” She hisses back, fury remembered. “You don’t deserve to take another name. Theon the traitor. Who you are and who you always will be.”

 

“No more Greyjoy. All dead. All dead.” He starts mumbling, caught in a loop. “All dead. No more. No more.” He repeats over and over.

 

“No. Not dead yet. Worse. My brothers are dead. Do you remember them? You betrayed Robb. You killed Bran and Rickon.” He says nothing, almost as if he hasn’t even heard her. “They were as your brothers and now they’re all dead. Surely the shame is worse than the fear you selfish piece of…”

 

The dogs finish up, leaving only a few bones. A few start chewing the bones, contented and relaxed, the crunching louder than her own heated words, cancelling out the last. Theon picks one bone up and begins to gnaw on it, extracting the marrow. It’s both disgusting and pathetic, and she feels her empty stomach churn.

 

“Not them. Not them.” He says in between his indecent suckling. She’s fed up with this tug of war.

 

“You still eat, and shit, and stink. And lie. You lied before. Why?” He keeps on chewing, intent to ignore her. He breaks open the edge with his teeth, making a large crack sound throughout the cage. “Why did you come downstairs? Were you looking for me? Maybe you still feel some shame, some sense of regret.” He sucks up the brown liquid greedily with his tongue.

 

“Godsdamnit Theon! Help me.” He coughs a bit, the bone going down the wrong pipe. It only stops him for a moment though. “Help me or by the Gods I will kill you myself, painfully. I will desecrate your bones and your spirit will never know peace.” She promises.

 

Frustrated and nervous, she checks the door every few seconds for the guard to reemerge. He stops chewing and sucking at her threat, looking right at her. She’d never thought eyes could look like that before, but here it was. She had to remind herself this was Theon. In truth, he seemed about as alive as her mother’s reanimated corpse did.

 

“Kill me?” He asks in disbelief.

 

“Oh yes. Gladly. And it will be painful. If you don’t help me I’ll…”

 

“Oh please. Please kill me. Kill me. Kill me.” He starts another loop. “Kill me please, My Lady. Please.” He presses his face against the cage, wrapping his soiled fingers around the bars. “Please.”

 

“You want to die.” She says slowly, knowing the words are true.

 

That’s what he wanted. She shouldn’t be surprised. He was a truly miserable creature. Though how much was down to Ramsay and how much his own guilt, she couldn’t guess. And she didn’t much care.

 

“Please.” He begs again.

 

“Alright. If that’s what you want. I will see it done.” His wet green eyes get so hopeful at that, and his tongue hangs out the side of his mouth naturally. Ugh, what a creature. “Help me, do as I ask, and it will be done. But not before. On my honor.” She swears. He swallows nervously, but nods his acquiescence.

 

“Ravens. That’s all I need from you.”

 

“No, no. No, no, no. He watches, he knows.” He’s terrified, starting to back up from the bars. But she latches onto his fingers, keeping him still. A few of the hounds look on in interest.

 

“No one’s watching. They won’t think twice of your comings and goings. No one believes you a threat, no one even believes you a man.” He looks down at this. She needs him to comply, not by shaming him, but by reminding him who he once was. “You can be Theon again. Not as you once were perhaps. You can’t make up for what you’ve done. You won’t get a second chance. But you can die with honor. Is that not worth your fear?”

 

“No honor. No honor.” He’s starting another loop. She needs to stop him before he gets to distracted to complete his task.

 

“Theon!” She barks, startling the dogs.

 

“I will do as you ask. But then, you mmmm-must kill me as a reward.” He stutters out.

 

“I will. I swear, on my honor as a Stark.” It’s a promise she will have no trouble keeping.

 

“Then I swear. On the death of Theon Greyjoy.” He backs up farther into the cage, becoming near indistinguishable amid the writhing fur. She takes that as her cue to leave.

 

Now she would prepare while waiting for help to arrive, and hold everything together as best she can. These women were beginning to trust her, she'd need their trust and their help for what was to come. If and when helped arrived, Winterfell would be ready.

Chapter Text

Upon The Wall

 

Gendry

 

The continuous clink of hammer on steel is meant to be soothing, but it isn’t. Too much pressure, not enough results. Story of his life.

 

He’s more frustrated than ever. He’d as good as promised Jon he could make dragon glass, and all his efforts were for shit. He’d tried every variation he could think of: the hottest fire he’d ever burned, it singed off the hair on his arms but the blade simply melted. He tried a low flame, but the glass wouldn’t form properly. He tried different compounds of metals, different durations of heating and cooling, hammering the metal from different angles with different intensities. Weeks with nothing to show for his troubles made him feel a failure, and he couldn’t bear to let down the stern Lord Commander, who still hadn’t quite warmed up to him.

 

In coming here, he’d made a silent promise to take care of things in Arya’s stead. And here he was, contributing barely anything, wondering what he was even doing here. After going too long without sleep, reality was beginning to blur; he wasn’t sure how long he’d been here exactly. Weeks, months, years- he wasn’t entirely certain he hadn’t made come to The Wall with Yoren and the recruits long ago. Stannis, Melisandre, marriage to Arya, and the time in Storm’s End felt more like a dream than the bitter cold he was currently relegated to. Arya hadn’t even written, and it ate at him, though he tried to reason it away.

 

Moreover, her token she’d given him on their parting was gone; he suspected Ghost had gotten a hold of it, but he couldn’t really be sure. He just woke up one dawn to find it missing. Luckily, while looking through his packs frantically, he found her silver hairpiece from the wedding. Focusing on the small trinket hard enough meant he could summon up her image and scent well enough to reassure himself. Yes, his dream life was real, and he would get back to it. If he pounded hard enough or smart enough, he could get home quicker, they all could.

 

When he wasn’t forging mercilessly or shivering in his cot attempting sleep, his presence was required in the training yard. With the strange and unnerving lull in the fighting, everyone was required to train.

 

The required time in the practice yard was not just to improve individual skills and stamina, but also to learn to fight as a unit, to watch each other’s backs. He hadn’t much wanted to participate, preferring to sulk and work fruitlessly in the forge. But Jon would not have it. No exceptions he barked.

 

He’d thought he was a good swordsman before, winning the sparring matches in Storm’s End, and before that barely receiving a scratch in the battles he’d fought in his uncle’s name. But actually, his wife had been right- his skills were mediocre at best. He’d believed she was just being snippy, but actually her comments were spot-on. Jon’s critiques sounded a lot like hers, but far less pointed; he actually gave him some instruction and he was improving, little by little. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he actually thought there might be the beginnings of respect forming, finally.

 

Short of dying heroically up here, he was willing to do anything to get on the man’s good side. He was a little in awe of him. Gendry would be impressed with any man who could fight and lead like that, kin or not. And the man had a confidence, real or faked, that people were just drawn to.

 

Must be a Stark trait, he thought.

 

But it wasn’t until they put a war hammer in his hands that his full force came out. Highly trained men, near-born with castle-forged steel in their hands were struck down with one or two blows. The other men began to look at him differently, seeing not just the middling soldier they’d come to know, but also an intimidating presence, one which deserved respect. Not just because of his unearned status as Lord, or the marriage beyond his station; but because he had real power.

 

They even forced him to practice with some of the Wildling women, women unmatched with spears, arrows, daggers and the like. He hadn’t wanted to, worrying he’d hurt them, thinking it a bit foolish. Each would scoff and narrow their eyes in anger at his hesitance. After a few bouts, he had to admit- they were excellent, forces to be reckoned with. It made him realize he had been short-sighted where Arya was concerned. Once again, she was right and he was wrong. He sincerely hoped no one was keeping a tally, he was pretty sure he wasn’t winning. Not that he minded so much just now.

 

She had wanted this so badly, just to be given the chance to fight, to be seen as a warrior; and he’d forbidden her like a child. He promised himself he would apologize upon his return, and she could practice to her heart’s content. Most likely, she already was back in Winterfell. Picturing her terrorizing Lommy brought a hard-earned smile to his face. In fact, he could imagine fighting her himself, she in trousers, that adorable sneer on her face. Though he would go easy of course; the two of them ending up panting and pressed up close; clutching at each other; neither winning nor losing. Yes, things would be different once he returned victorious to Winterfell. At least that’s what he kept telling himself.

 

With renewed vigor, and to keep from going insane, he switched to basic repairs of the men’s armor and shoddy steel swords. They seemed grateful enough for his efforts, pleased with his work; and he thought perhaps he really was doing some good here. His hammer arm, whether used for smithing or fighting; was all he could offer. Well, it would just have to be enough.

 

As usual, he let his mind wander while he worked- he imagined sneaking away in the middle of the night to Winterfell and surprising her. In his imaginings, home looked like Storm’s End since he’d never been to Arya’s home, but the details could be filled in later. It always started the same. He’d come home, haggard and cold and tired; trudging through the gates. And there she’d be, dressed in that green dress she’d had before it was ruined. In his fantasy, she still had it, ripped up the sides, clinging to her just right. He’d smile, expecting to be welcomed with open arms, and she…

 

She’d probably scream at him in front of everyone and call him a craven for abandoning the men. He chuckles aloud at the image, the sound echoing throughout the forge; her cute little nose scrunched in annoyance. No. He wanted a hero’s welcome. He wouldn’t run away from his responsibilities, and if he lived through it, well then, that would be a different homecoming all together. The White Walkers were another matter entirely.

 

“Such a hard worker. Glad to see some things haven’t changed.” A voice purrs, and he stops working instantly. He hadn’t heard her, hadn’t even smelled her. But now that he was paying attention, that spicy scent of ginger and cumin over a crackling flame floods his senses.

 

“Then you can see I’m busy. Go preach to my uncle.” He bites out, eyes still focused on the unfinished sword he’d been working on.

 

“Not when it’s you I need to speak with.” She places a delicate hand on his shoulder and he shakes it off. He turns around to face her though. Red hair, braided back, crimson silk dress, thin, and somehow immaculate despite the harsh conditions. Eyes so dark, they’re nearly black. He knows better than to stare into them, so he looks to her throat instead; creamy skin cold and uninviting now.

 

“And I told you I’m not interested. I won’t listen.” He counters.

 

She sighs, disappointed in his response, or lack thereof. She circles the room, fingering various tools and blades. Looking as if she owns all of it, everything belonging to her. His fingers twitch with the need to pry her touch off his things, then choke the life out of her.

 

“I’m trying to warn you, Gendry.” She touches her throat lightly, almost as if she can feel his intentions on her skin. “You’d do well to hear me. If you don’t, you’ll soon wish you had.” She looks almost sincere, eyes wide. Liar, he reminds himself.

 

“If that means being around you any longer than necessary, then no. Not worth it. Fuck you, and your warnings, and your prophecies. Save it for someone who’s interested.” She shakes her head, as if speaking to a child.

 

“If only ignorance made threats disappear, fools would rule all. But it doesn’t work that way. I have no control over what I see, nor of whom. I can’t even wholly understand what I see most of the time. But it is real.” She insists.

 

“You’re only trying to stir up trouble, make others miserable. You feed off it, like a leech.” He chuckles but it’s angry. “Leech. That’s what you are. You can leave me and mine well enough alone.”

 

“Your wife, you mean. Yes, that was news I took no joy in delivering.” He feels a stab in his chest at her surety; she believes whole-heartedly in the prophecy.

 

“And yet you went out of your way to whisper your bullshit warning into her ear, on the eve of our wedding mind you. And now she can’t forget it. If it’s me you meant to torture, leave her out of it.” He shouts.

 

“I have no ill will toward you, what happened between us wasn’t personal.” It felt rather personal to him. “And as for Arya, as a matter of fact, I quite like the young wolf. Why wouldn’t I? She has a place in the rebuilding of this world, that much I know without the benefit of my visions. And she has a healthy respect for sacrifice, very rare. Besides, we sisters of this men-driven hell scape need to look out for each other, I always say.” What? Hell scapes? Bloody hell. “I was trying to warn her, both of you. And I have yet more to say, if you would but heed me.” A threat perhaps? He swallows thickly as he considers his response.

 

“Fuck. Off.” He makes himself as clear as possible, making the effort to meet her eyes. She only sighs.

 

“As you wish. You will make your own decisions, as all men do. Good luck, to both of you, I mean that.” She opens her mouth to say more, and then closes it.

 

And she’s off, off to stare in the flames, sacrifice an innocent, or bleed some poor boy dry. He doesn’t care. But he ruins the next blade seeing her milky skin in his mind’s eye, imagining cracking her pale clavicles with his great hammer, trying a little too hard to ignore her words.

 

 

It’s when he’s cooling the thousandth sword, the spit sound of the heated metal hitting the water that he hears the alarm sound. White Walkers, lines of the dead down below, ominous; staggered before The Wall. They were just standing there, still, haunting in their intensity. What they wanted, what drove them, what they feared was much talked about among the men; but trying to understand these creatures was like trying to trying to understand the ways of the Red God. After the last attack, there were significant losses on both sides. But every man or woman that fell, rose again on the other side, recouping the enemy’s numbers instantly. The surviving men had retreated back behind The Wall. It seemed The Others had begun a new tactic, a new means of intimidation. Waiting. Watching. Unnerving.

 

Jon has trained them well, each stands in his own place, each with a sense of purpose. All hold still awaiting his command, muscles clenched in wait. Tense, afraid.

 

Whoosh, whoosh. Whoosh whoosh. All heads turn from the fearful sight of the undead to snap up to the sky. Nothing, but then the sound of deep screeches, and flame igniting. There’s a beating, a flapping. He looks up into the white sky, and there he sees them crisp against the foggy air. Flying marvels.

 

They seem bigger than before, but that was months ago; had it only been months? It felt more like years. Circling overhead, playing with each other, tiny spurts of flame dispersed by the cold atmosphere. The dragons were here, flying in close formation, one lone rider sitting astride the largest dragon, the black one.

 

Many of the Crows and Wildlings were watching the flying spectacles with awe, unmindful of training or watch duty. The Lord Commander is among them, a light in his eyes for perhaps the first time since Gendry’s met him. Dragons will do that.

 

The dragons fly overhead, swooping in impressive loops and circles. Up up up. Like most, Gendry’s eyes follow their every graceful move. He hears orders given in a language he doesn’t understand; but the dragons do. They fly beside each other, spread just far enough apart to stretch their wings fully. At another of the Queen’s commands, they freeze in mid-air, waiting, poised to attack the enemy below.

 

The dragons lower themselves slowly, controlled, hovering right above The Others. For their part, the unholy creatures stare up in fascination. And then three heavy streams of flame, waves of fire, are let loose upon their dead faces at once; reflected in white blue eyes. When the first few rows burn, all within the space of an instant, the ones behind fall back; a calculated retreat.

 

And just like that, a few dozen undead charred to nothing; hundreds of Others are still unharmed, fleeing, but the sight causes everyone to let out a breath of relief. A win, a small one, but a win.

 

They had little Valyrian steel, one less dragon glass dagger, and not near enough men or women. But now. These dragons would make a difference, they could win, and he could go home all the sooner.

 

The black dragon descends gently to hover just above the training yard, where even more men are gathered, allowing the delicate figure to lightly hit the ground. The Queen is dressed in her savage leathers, looking regal as well as fierce. All the men (and some of the women) eye her appreciatively, some even bow accordingly; pale blonde hair braided in endless knots around her head, Targaryan eyes, slim waist, and tan skin. The Lord Commander himself seems to be having a tough time focusing on both her and the dragons.

 

It’s Stannis who speaks first and breaks up some of the tension.

 

“My Queen. It is a great pleasure to see you once again. You do have an excellent sense of timing.” And he does look pleased to see her. He’d even gone so far as to thank her for saving their arses. Well, as much as he was capable anyway. His uncle had changed in many ways, and he felt warmer towards him.

 

“And you, Lord Stannis.” Her returning smile seems genuine as well. Well that was one small comfort; the occupant of the Iron Throne was well and truly decided at long last, even half a world away.

Stannis seems to remember himself, and subtly directs her over to Jon. After a quick caress of her dragons, her babies, and a few loving instructions, she follows after the true Lord Baratheon.

 

“This is The Lord Commander.” Stannis introduces a Jon whose face has taken on a shy pink tinge.

 

“Your Grace.” He responds politely, bowing enough so he doesn’t have to look her in the eyes. He seems much much younger then, even grasping his long sword.

 

“Lord Commander. I see now what you’ve been dealing with here. I apologize for not coming sooner.” Gendry makes his way over as well, wanting to greet The Queen properly. She was their savior after all.

 

“Not at all. Your presence here will make all the difference. We are truly grateful.” The both of them are staring so hard into each other’s eyes it’s a bit sickening.

 

“Ah. Gendry, there you are.” Stannis greets as he notices his presence. Things were certainly much friendlier between them as well, though they’d barely spoken since reaching The Wall, and Stannis’ reunion with the witch. Who was thankfully absent. Gendry much preferred Ser Davos by Stannis’ side.

 

“Uncle. Lord Commander.” And he faces Daenerys directly. “Your Grace.” And he bows as low as his hulking frame will allow, remembering his courtesies.

 

“Ah, Lord Gendry. How wonderful to see you again. I thought I might. How have you been?” She does seem genuinely pleased to see him, one side of her mouth curving upwards.

 

“Quite well, Your Grace. Thank you.” He responds carefully. She looks about to say more, but Stannis interrupts.

 

“You must be exhausted, flying all the way here- alone. Surely you’ve bought us some time with your efforts. Time enough for a celebratory drink or two anyway.” Stannis suggests. “Let’s eat, rest, and catch up.”

 

All agree, and once more Gendry finds himself in the Lord Commander’s quarters sharing drinks, and remembering the world south of The Wall. Everyone seems more at ease, Crows and Wildlings alike, confident the tides had turned in their favor; he wanted to believe so as well.

 

He’s struck once more how different things have turned out than how they were meant to. He wasn’t sure what he believed in, by default it had just sort of become R’hlorr. He didn’t doubt his power, nor did his uncle, and Melisandre was a force to be beheld. Thoros believed, and of course Lady Stoneheart was proof enough. He grew up in the ways of the Seven, but never thought on it much. His marriage, the binding itself, that was before The Seven as well. But Arya clung to the ways of the Old Gods, and he had to admit, he’d heard something in the trees once she’d brought his attention to it. But he certainly wouldn’t call himself a religious man. Though something was guiding him around, that was for sure; they were either on his side or setting him up for a big joke. To go from eating bowls of brown in the heart of Flea Bottom to dining in the Lord Commander’s quarters with The Queen herself. He’d have to wait and see, tomorrow he could very well be back to brown.

 

Either way, he was meant to be here at The Wall, that much is clear. Only difference was he wasn’t just a bastard recruit, but a legitimate guest of honor; comfortable in the main quarters, supping with the Queen of all Westeros herself. It still didn’t feel right, and he supposed it never would; except of course with his highborn wife by his side.

 

No, stop thinking about her. He commands himself and tunes back into the conversation.

 

“We thank you again, My Queen. Truly, your dragons will prove invaluable against the White Walkers. Thank you.” Jon raises his glass in a toast, looking softer than he’d ever seen him. Everyone hurries to follow suit, but Gendry has the distinct impression the celebrating is a bit premature.

 

“There is no need for thanks, this is part of my kingdom as well. As long as I have the means to save lives, I will do so.” She smiles around her cup, sipping daintily, clearly pleased by the recognition. “Besides, I’ve been meaning to visit the Great North for some time now. I’ve friends here.”

 

“And how are you finding it? Hospitable, I hope.” Sam asks. And Gendry realizes for the first time that Sam must be highborn as well, education aside, he spoke with easy words; he loved to talk. But then again, so did Hot Pie.

 

“Cold.” She answers laughing. “But quite pretty, actually. Flying over I saw quite a lot of the country, very spread out, open. Too much space, really. But I’ve lived within a sea of grass. Marched through deserts and lived off dried horseflesh. So, it rather depends. I must confess, I do prefer a few more landmarks, more signs of civilization if I’m honest.” She looks to him. “Let’s ask Lord Gendry. You’re from the South; it’s as night and day am I right? How are you finding it up here?” Of course, he’d never come up with anything so clever as her answer.

 

“It’s alright.” He says, careful not to offend anyone. “But I hear Winterfell is truly beautiful, and that the walls are actually warm there. Now you’re here, I expect I might actually get the chance to see it.” He raises the glass in another toast, and everyone follows suit. At least he’d picked up a few lordly manners.

 

“You’re quite right. This isn’t the North. This place is something else entirely. It doesn’t even feel like Westeros. You’ll have to make it down to Winterfell.” Jon remarks addressing the Queen.

 

“I intend to. I’m meant to visit an old friend there. Actually… I’d hoped to find your fierce lady wife here among you. I suppose I must wait. She is there isn’t she? She is well?” She asks. He sighs, having just stopped thinking about her for a whole minute.

 

“Yes, Your Grace. She’s in Winterfell. Preparing and getting settled.” He answers.

 

“By herself?” She answers her own question, rolling her lovely violet eyes. “Of course. Sounds like her. She always was reckless. For all her cleverness, sometimes I swear...” She chuckles, smiling warmly in Gendry’s direction. “Well you know she can be… difficult. Wolf blood I suppose.” He smiles in agreement. Arya was smart, too smart; but so far it had only ever bitten her, and him in the arse. Still, he wouldn’t trade it for anything.

 

A few have to bite their lip to keep from laughing, the Queen looks around, obviously not aware of the joke.

 

“Your Grace, The Lord Commander is Arya’s brother.” Gendry tells her, trying hard not to smile.

 

The Queen looks at Jon anew, and then turns her full smile on him.

 

“Of course. You know, you have the same look about you now that I think of it. Arya spoke of you often. I’m very glad to see you alive.” She’s very sincere. Clearly pleased on her friend’s behalf. The admission feels intimate, like he and the others shouldn’t be witnessing it.

 

“Thank you.” Jon’s response is simple, but he’s clearly touched by her genuine concern.

 

“And I meant no offense. I truly admire her wild blood and her recklessness.” She nods at Gendry as well.

 

“Hmm.” Gendry agrees good-naturedly.

 

“That sounds like her. I’m glad to hear she hasn’t changed too much.” Jon jokes back; the most upbeat Gendry’s ever seen him. “Always getting into trouble. She always took her punishment though, to all of our endless amusement.” For all his efforts to impress the stern young man, he’d barely made any headway; the Queen had just arrived and already coaxed a smile from him. Whether it was the charming Queen or her fire-breathing dragon that lightened his mood, he couldn’t be sure; but he was glad of it. Every man and woman on the Wall seemed to take their cues from the Lord Commander. The air was much lighter now with her here.

 

“Anyway, you can’t help but love her for it.” She adds.

 

“Aye.” Both men say at once, chuckling at the sentiment.

 

It’s a nice moment, enjoying spirits and hearty stew, all in pleasant moods. The arrival of the Queen and her dragons was a very good omen indeed, she’d turned the tides of the battle, and helped ease the tension between he and his new ‘brother’. He can see the winged saviors are enjoying meat in the courtyard, quite comfortable and relaxed, to the men’s amazement. A fine moment indeed.

 

“I am very disappointed Lady Arya is not here.” The Queen repeats. He’s pulled back into the conversation once more. “I hoped to catch up a bit, hear how things were going.” She takes a hesitant draft of her drink, savoring the warmth it brings, smirking devilishly. She meant gossip, and she meant him.

 

“She’s safer in Winterfell.” Jon says, a little flushed from his drink. Good, they were of the same mind when it came to Arya’s safety; he’d thought her brother believed him an idiot. He might well be, but he knew enough to keep his wife, his world, out of harm’s way.

 

“Still.” She continues, freer in her speech. “She has a way of making things more interesting. Though things don’t seem too boring around here, more dangerous than anything. Gods, she must be beside herself to know you yet live.” The Queen remarks in pleasant conversation. Both Gendry and Sam stare at him pointedly. Jon looks down into his cup as he responds.

 

“Well, she doesn’t, quite…” He trails off. It was amusing, to see the self-assured Commander tongue-tied. Sam defends him as ever.

 

“There are no more ravens in Castle Black. No news leaves The Wall. It’s the end of the world, unfortunately there’s no way to communicate with the outside.” The plump man says in his usual friendly tone before something occurs to him. “You didn’t bring any ravens did you?” He asks pleasantly.

 

Daenerys shakes her head. Of course not. Too much to hope for.

 

“Has she not written herself?” She questions.

 

“No.” Gendry answers sullenly, swallowing the lump in his throat. He didn’t like to think on why she hadn’t written him. The idea of her not thinking on him in his absence too depressing. After a while, he realizes there’s a forced silence after his answer. Jon seems sullen at the thought as well.

 

A messenger, a delicate young boy named Satin, enters with a sealed letter and makes his way to the center of the room. Everyone perks up at the perfectly timed letter, and the prospect of fresh news. Gendry asks The Red God, the Seven, and the Old Gods just in case; that the letter is from Arya and she’s alright.

 

“Thank you.” Jon says, making to take the letter. But the boy holds onto it, squinting in apology.

 

“Uh, Milord Commander, sorry, but it’s marked Baratheon.” He specifies. Jon sits back disappointed, eyeing him resentfully. Or maybe he’s imagining it. Gendry feels hope well up in his chest, perhaps someone had listened to his request. But which God was it? Stannis’ chest puffs out as he reaches for the letter. “Lord Gendry Baratheon.” The boy says at last. Stannis sits back disappointedly. With the letter in his hand, it feels like his nameday, the parchment almost warm beneath his fingertips. Very aware of the eyes watching his every move, he nervously rips into the envelope.

 

Slowly he takes in every word, very slowly as he’s still new to the whole reading thing. The others staring on, impatient for news.

 

“It’s from my cousin, Shireen.” He tells them as he continues to read, eyes never leaving the paper. He’s glad to hear from her, very glad; and her news is good as well. But he’d hoped for word from his wife, detailing how she was settling in, how much she missed him, maybe something to do with making love or the like.

 

“Is she alright? What does she say?” Stannis is concerned, actually acting like a person, a father. Well, it was hard not to like the girl, blood relation or not.

 

“Everything’s fine, just checking in.” He says with a disappointed sigh.

 

“Oh. What does she say, Lad?” Davos asks, as fond of the girl as he.

 

“Read it aloud.” Jon prompts. He hesitates, not just out of a sense of privacy; but also not eager to embarrass himself with his piss-poor reading. Luckily, the Queen spares him.

 

“Leave him be. It’s private.” She insists, using her most regal tone.

 

“Come now, what news?” Stannis insists, looking put-upon, plucking the letter from out of his fingers before he can stop it. Damn. The older man reads through it more quickly, more than once, and raises an eyebrow up past his thinning hairline. He hands the letter back. “Well it seems matters have worked themselves out with that girl, I needn’t have intervened at all.” Stannis dismisses, clearly a bit upset he wasn’t mentioned. Really, what did he expect? He was hardly the ideal father.

 

“What girl?” Sam asks, clearly anxious to gossip.

 

“That girl, the pregnant one. I went to a lot of trouble to keep things quiet. But it seems I needn’t have bothered; the father has been identified. Some guard or other. It looks like you’re off the hook. Funny how these things work out.”

 

“Pregnant?” Jon’s cold grey glare lands on him, and he feels a kind of terror as the man takes his turn to read the letter. As Lord Commander he’s entitled to read all correspondence. Daenerys looks concerned on his behalf, fretting her lower lip between her teeth.

 

“Jon…” He starts, and he doesn't get a chance to finish, because the smaller man punches him in the jaw, so hard he thinks he hears a crack. A smaller man might have been knocked to the floor, but he clutches the table for support. He sets himself right and glares right back at his ‘Good Brother’. And damn, but the man was starting to warm up to him.

Chapter Text

Upon the Wall Continued

 

Gendry

 

“Stop.” The Queen commands, but it falls on deaf ears.

 

“Pregnant? The servant girl? So much for loving my sister more than anything. Full of shit.” Jon growls, and Ghost gets up on his haunches, fur raised.

 

“It’s a misunderstanding.” He insists moving his jaw experimentally.

 

“A bastard? Hard to misunderstand that. How dare you shame her like that.” The sword is near his throat before Gendry can even think to lift his own.

 

“He didn’t. Weren’t you listening? False words, that’s all.” Ser Davos defends him.

 

“I knew there was something. I knew it.” Jon exclaims, upper lip curled over his teeth in a snarl. Ghost mimicking his master near Gendry’s ankles.

 

“Stop! You don’t know anything for sure. It’s just talk. People always talk. You know nothing.” Daenerys shouts, and his sword arm waivers a bit at her plea.

 

“I should kill you.” He didn’t know how siblings and good brothers were meant to behave towards each other, but this wasn’t how he pictured it. He unsticks his tongue from his throat and speaks.

 

“It is a lie, I didn’t touch that girl. And if you had any sense you would see that.” He defends himself.

 

“She said you meant to name the child your heir.” So that’s what set him off. All bastards were sensitive it seemed, no matter if you grew up in a castle or the gutters. Maybe more so from living so close to that which they’ll never quite have. He could understand that well enough; it was Arya who hadn’t understood what it would mean to him.

 

“No. I mean yes. But I was never going to. I mean I signed something. But I wasn’t going to...”

 

“Why would you ever claim a child that wasn’t yours? If there wasn’t some possibility?” Jon asks instead. The fury evident on his face, brows near murderous. Good question.

 

“Because Arya asked me to.” He tells him truthfully, cringing at how ridiculous it sounds. Jon laughs, but nothing about this is funny.

 

“And why would she ever do that?”

 

“Because that Red Witch tricked her.” He explains. The blade eases a bit.

 

“Tricked her? What are you on about, Boy? Speak plainly.” Stannis demands, understanding well enough whom he was referring to. Gendry looks to him, speaking to him.

 

“She told Arya some prophecy.” Gendry bites out.

 

“What did she foresee?” Stannis demands. At first he says nothing, not wanting to answer further. But the blade against his throat presses down harder, apparently the Lord Commander wanted to know as well. For fucksakes.

 

“She won’t bare any stags, or some such bullshit.” Actually speaking the words aloud was even more painful than he’d thought. Stannis looks troubled at this, and he wonders if it’s genuine sadness or just disappointment. “And now Arya thinks she’s barren. She can’t forget it, no matter how much I tell her I don’t care, that it’s bullshit, I...”

 

Jon swallows thickly, “What does that have to do with…?” And Gendry continues.

 

“She wanted the men my uncle promised, she wanted to bring them here, for you and for The Realm. No matter the cost. For a Lord of The Storm Lands, the cost was always an heir.” He tells Jon, careful not to make eye contact with his uncle, knowing it might really set him off. Sometime between the punch to his face and the forced confession he had become angry, and it was spreading. Daenerys looks sad but stern. She’d agreed as well after all.

 

Jon shakes his head in distaste, curls bouncing. “Even if I thought Arya might…  You would accept another child? One that wasn’t yours? I find that hard to believe.”

 

“Why do you think Arya isn’t here? Not of her own choosing. I had to trick her into it. She convinced herself it would just be best to go along with the lie, spin it to our advantage somehow. I couldn’t make her see sense, I tried. But she’s so bloody stubborn.” He pffts at the irony. “I gave in, o’course. But in exchange, I made her swear not to come here, to get home safe to Winterfell and wait for me while I dealt with this in her place. She wasn’t pleased with that either.” Daenerys lets loose a laugh before covering her mouth. Everyone looks over at her.

 

“No. I imagine not.” She looks amused.

 

Jon lowers his sword, apparently convinced. Finally!

 

“I don’t know if I believe you.” He admits, right eye twitching.

 

“I can vouch for him. He’s a good lad.” Ser Davos defends.

 

“It did seem unlike him. I never even saw him with girls. I worried for a while that he suffered my brother’s same affliction, but, well… You should see them together. It’s nauseating. I thought I’d have to pull her off him at the crossroads. She didn’t look too betrayed or murderous.” Stannis adds. Thanks.

 

“You can’t put any stock in gossip. Everyone knows that.” The Queen scolds, looking matter-of-fact, arms crossed.

 

The Lord Commander puts away his blade, but doesn’t look a bit repentant. Gendry’s arm snaps back and punches him right in the jaw, all his might and frustration balled up into his fist; a gigantic crack which lands the smaller man on his ass painfully. And it feels good, really good. Who was he to judge him? He had enough to deal with without ridiculous rumors and an overly jealous brother. Fuck that.

 

Jon tries to lift off his elbows but can’t quite. He blinks his eyes a few times and fingers his jaw lightly, testing. Yeah, that was worth it. Jon looks up at him from the floor. Sam comes over with a hand extended, but Jon shakes it off.

 

“Fuck.” He says, shaking his head as if to clear it. Still too dazed to rise.

 

“One wrong word and you’ll get another.” He promises.

 

Jon growls low in his throat.

 

“Always studying me, finding me wanting. Who else would you have had for your sister? Have someone else specific in mind? Perhaps you wanted her for yourself?” He taunts, not even sure where the words are coming from.

 

The silver eyes seem to melt as if burning, and he recognizes the rage behind them. Yeah, there would be no peace between them now, and Gendry couldn’t seem to care anymore.

 

“She’s my sister, my only blood. You didn’t even ask me if you could have her!” He stands up once more from his chair, seemingly steady. “She’s my sister, mine to protect, and you just…”

 

“Protect? How did you mean to protect her all the way from The Wall? She’s been looking after herself for years, doing God knows what. And somehow she made it back intact. Wary and closed-off, but intact. And now, she has me. Do you begrudge her that much?”

 

“I had a duty… have a duty. I still do. You’ve seen that for yourself. Should I have abandoned my post, the men, the realm? Is that what you would have done?”

 

“I would never abandon my family in the first place.” Gendry barks back.

 

“You’re not good enough for her, simple as that. She may well be the last Stark, and now she’s not even that.” He’s angry still, but sad too. The two emotions seemed to usually go together with both Starks.

 

“She’s not a little girl, she’s my wife. And yes a Stark too. Wedding vows can’t change that.” It’s what she’d been trying to tell him before; the wolf was too deep in her blood. Somehow since then, he’d gotten used to the fact. Jon lets out a long-suffering sigh, echoing through the room.

 

Jon then sits back down, and carefully pours another drink. He pours Gendry one as well. “Sit down alright.”

 

Gendry does so, but never takes his eyes from him, still wary.

 

“You’re right. It’s nothing to do with you. Actually, you’re not so bad. You’re honest at least, a bit simple maybe. But a good smith, a great one maybe. It’s just; it should have been me to look out for her. You’re right, I chose The Wall over my family. There’s not a day goes by I don’t wonder if it was the right choice, which betrayal was worse. I guess I’ll never know.” He feels the stirring of compassion lessen his rage, his vision clearing.

 

“Honestly, you both talk like she’s some helpless female. Arya took care of herself for years, in Braavos no less. We women are strong and capable. Best you remember that.” Daenerys defends, looking irritated with the both of them.

 

“Braavos? What was she doing there?” Jon asks her, attention diverted from his good brother once more.

 

“Honestly? I don’t know. When Aegon introduced us, it was as if she’d come from nowhere. Though apparently she’d been there for quite some time. Hiding well. Tyrion barely even recognized her.”

 

“Aegon?” Jon asks. The Queen opens and closes her mouth a few times, immediately regretting her words. She gives Gendry an apologetic look.

 

“My nephew, Aegon, the only true born child of Raegar and Elia. They were… friends.” She squirms a bit, obvious uncomfortable with her falsehood. He decides he’d rather get it all out in the open.

 

“He and Arya were to be married.” He says, staring Jon down. Jon raises his eyebrows up to his curly hairline, having not expected that tidbit.

 

“Yes, they… were betrothed.” Daenerys says, looking at him a little too hard, trying to discern just how much he knew. He knew about the letter, that was for sure.

 

“What happened?” Jon asks, suddenly far more interested in ancient history than the current crisis. The others all lean forward, eager to hear more.

 

“It was rather complicated you see. It couldn’t work for… political reasons.” Huh. Not Arya’s exact words, but no less evasive. He’d stupidly hoped to gain a bit more insight himself.

 

“But were they in love?” Jon asks. And Gendry feels something clench in his gut. She had cared about him, she’d hinted at it when he’d asked. But love? All attention snaps to him.

 

“I don’t… I honestly don’t know that either. The arrangement was political, mostly, a means to an end. Stark and Targaryan, North and South, fire and ice, and all that. If it were possible, I would have married her instead.” She lets loose a tinkling laugh to more raised eyebrows. “I mean she was… is an invaluable ally to me. I never could have taken King’s Landing without her aid. And for her part, she was to receive half my army to rebuild Winterfell and revive the North; payment for her services if you will.”

 

“Half your army?!? That’s thousands.” Gendry shouts, thinking of the paltry amount of men he brought to the table.

 

“Yes. It was meant as a thank you and a wedding present all in one.” She sighs.

 

“Isn’t that a bit, excessive? Unwise I might say. The North was barely kept to heel before the war, now it should be all out wild. No order, no structure. And they’re strong, and fear little. With that many men you could…” Stannis comments. The Queen nods slowly, agreeing with his statement.

 

“Northerners have honor, we keep our word. Arya would never break a promise.” Jon insists.

 

“I know that.” The Queen responds warmly.

 

“Words mean little when true power is within your grasp. It’s when it’s gone that words, treaties, and compromises matter.” Stannis adds, his military acumen showing. Looking smug, entirely too proud of himself. “Our three families are bound now. By marriage and in writing, there’s no need to worry about such things now. ”

 

“So you chose the Baratheons over your own kin based on paranoid counsel? ” Jon ignores Stannis and goes back to interrogating the Queen.

 

“I did not go back on my word! Aegon did! He went behind my back and tried to take what was mine. He wanted my crown and my throne. Everything I’ve worked for, just because he’s a man and I’m a woman. He thinks it’s his. That he deserves it all thanks to the extra appendage between his legs. Well I’ll be godsdamned before I let a dragon brat, or anyone else take what’s mine. ”

 

“So you banished ‘im?” Gendry asks. Wishing she’d just killed him right off.

 

“Well, I meant to kill him. But Arya begged for his life, so I softened my judgment.”

 

Begged? It was hard to imagine that of Arya.

 

“A poor choice if you ask me. He’s still dangerous while he yet lives, even my reckless brother knew that. And a spurned woman can be even more dangerous.” Stannis points out.

 

“If he strikes at me again, I will not be so lenient a second time. And as for Arya…”

 

“Arya doesn’t want the throne, I swear it. She would never… We’re loyal, we…” Gendry says, bewildered at the thought.

 

 “Calm down, I know, I know. Arya has no desire to be Queen, of that I’m well aware.” The Queen laughs.

 

“Not now.” Stannis quips, intending it as a slight.

 

“Not ever. I know because it was her that came to me and told me of Aegon’s intentions.” They all gasp at this new information. “If I could properly reward her I would, but unfortunately, with the wedding called off, I had to withdraw my promise of men. It was unfair, poorly done. I know it, and I regret it. But it was necessary.” She says, looking guilty. “And she seemed to understand. Or at the very least, she prefers me on the throne over anyone else.”

 

“She betrayed him.” Gendry mutters, more to himself than anyone else.

 

“She remained loyal to her queen.” Jon corrects. “And for that she was punished.”

 

“What would you have me do? The men I would have gifted her, were the very same who meant to follow Aegon. And make no mistake- Arya has no desire to sit the throne, but there are many who would sit her there in my stead. I could not reasonably divide my forces to strengthen hers. She is one of my dearest, most trusted friends; but that is how many enemies start out.” Her violet eyes flash with intensity.

 

“And yet, an enemy may become a friend.” Stannis points out.

 

“Yes. I have always preferred mercy to a heavy hand when possible, but don’t make the mistake of believing me foolish. I punished him well enough.”

 

“Punished? Dorne is beautiful, the food delicious, and the women beautiful.” Jon says.

 

“She means… she took Arya away. Right?” He asks her, having already figured it out.

 

“I… yes.” She swallows.

 

“He loved her. He still does. He sent her a letter, to Storm’s End.” Fucking prick tried to woo his wife. He had no shame.

 

“He did what?!?” The Queen shrieks. Her squawk even more unhinged than he felt. She hadn’t known that, clearly. “He did what?” She asks more calmly, but maintains eye contact with him.

 

“He asked her to run off to be with him. Still wants her, even after all that.”

 

“That fucking, bloody, craven, stupid, little…” She hisses through her teeth. They’re all a bit stunned to hear the controlled queen curse and fume. She notices and calms herself once more. “Funny how Arya never mentioned that to me.”

 

“Doesn’t seem important.” Jon remarks.

 

“Part of the agreement was they were to have no contact with each other. He broke his word. Did she write back?” She asks him.

 

“No.” He says, suddenly not so sure. She relaxes slightly.

 

“Good. He got to keep his life on the understanding that he would never return to Westeros, and that he would have no further contact with her. He broke his vow.”

 

“Why did he? He had everything.” Davos asks.

 

“I wonder that every day. What I could have done to cause my own blood to betray me. Or if someone else put him up to it. But that’s the past now.”

 

“But you don’t think Arya was involved…” Gendry makes sure.

 

“No. No she proved that much time and again. Arya has never had any designs on my throne. But, he somehow got it into his head he had to impress her. And certainly, she improved his reputation just by proxy. Only a real dragon could tame the last she wolf.” She rolls her eyes.

 

“Tame her?” Gendry and Jon ask simultaneously. Was everybody blind, deaf, and dumb?

 

“I think the idea of a union between Targaryan and Stark was a potent one, a safer bet than an unmarried Queen who has no inclinations to remarry.”

 

“Times are changing.” Stannis says.

 

“And. Some of the men found her… more relatable than I.” She bites the inside of her cheek. “She joked and drank with the men. Apparently, she picked up some colorful language along the port. Also,” she shakes her head and laughs. “She used to practice this sort of dance in the training yard, it involved a little blade or some such.” Jon perks up once more, a fond smile on his face. “They thought it was adorable, mind you.” She smirks. “And she dressed in the Braavosi style, which was very popular among the men. Form-fitting material that got see-through when she’d sweat. She didn’t seem to care of course. If she’d set her mind to it, and actively supported Aegon, I’m not sure which way the rebellion would have gone.” She taps her fingers along the table.

 

“And how did you settle upon Gendry?” Jon asks, obviously trying to soften his wording. At his answering look Jon just shrugs, not sorry for being crass.

 

“As Lord Commander I’m sure you have had to make some difficult decisions, even compromising friendships for the greater good. Am I correct?” He nods only slightly. “Arya Stark needed to wed to strengthen her claim, whether she liked the idea or not, she knew it was a necessity. The previous arrangement did not succeed, I made the best choice I could under the circumstances.” Why was it when others defended him, it always came out as offensive?

 

“Gendry’s of fine stock if I do say so myself.” Stannis interjects. “The Baratheon line is well-regarded, or it was. He’s a fine choice. No worse than any other.” Stannis’ support seemed more self-centered than kind, and a perfect example of his preceding thought.

 

“I regret the haste and all the political spectacle, but it had to be done.” Jon nods more deeply, agreeing despite himself. “And I did not force her. She agreed to a match of my choosing, should she find him agreeable. And of course Gendry agreed as well.” They all look to him, trying to puzzle out his reaction.

 

“I think it’s worked out quite well if I do say so myself.” Gendry says aloud, meaning it absolutely.

 

Ser Davos clinks his cup with his.

 

“Yes, she was intended for Aegon, but it didn’t end up that way. In the end, Gendry was the better choice. Clearly, he understands her much better than my fool nephew ever did.” She continues.

 

“How do you mean?” He asks, already worrying he might not like the answer.

 

“Well, Arya chose him.” She says. Gendry feels his own mood lighten at her statement. Oh yeah, that’s right. Jon looks him over, then merely shrugs, accepting the statement just barely. All right, he and his good brother were clearly not best mates just yet.

 

“She did. Well, sort of. She…” And she breaks off laughing as she remembers back. “Oh Arya.” And she shakes her head in remembrance. But she had been about to say something else.

 

“What?” He asks, hooked on her every word, a hint of a smile breaking free. A giggle like that, this story should be good.

 

“I don’t know if I should… I mean, I would be betraying a confidence.” But she’s smiling, clearly enjoying the harmless gossip. “It wouldn’t be right.”

 

“She said I was cute.” He says, pleased with the knowledge, sitting back with renewed confidence.

 

“Well, no, I said you were cute.” Gendry raises his eyebrows at that. The Queen blushes prettily, but continues anyway. “And she agreed. No no. That’s not it. What did she say exactly? Oh yes, she said , ‘I suppose. Taller anyway.’”

 

Her impression isn’t very good, but he can imagine her saying it well enough.

 

And then her words sink in.

 

“Taller!??” He all but shouts, interrupting her. They all look at him again a bit startled at his outburst.

 

“Yes… I believe so.” She says cautiously, now concerned what she might have said to rile him up.

 

“Taller than what? Who?” He asks more calmly.

 

“I assumed…” She’s grasping for the right words.

 

“He’s of a height with my brother Robert. He has a few inches on Renly and myself, don’t you think.” Stannis explains. Davos nods reluctantly. The others are still scrutinizing him.

 

“Just… taller.” She pauses. “She also said, ‘he’s grown. How is that even possible?’” Daenerys finishes.

 

“What?!” He shouts again. “Grown? Since when? What? I don’t…”

 

“Since you last met, I thought. I must have misunderstood.” She adds, looking very uncomfortable.

 

“We never met before that night. Never.” They all just stare at him in disbelief. “Come on! I would know when I met my own wife! That’s not…”

 

“Of course, my mistake.” The Queen placates him, and a new forced conversation starts up around him. He’s already too deep in thought to follow it.

 

Was it possible? Could they have met before? No. He would know. He would know her anywhere. And if she remembered him, she bloody well should have said something. After all her talk about honesty and trusting each other, and getting to know her was like pulling teeth. He still wasn’t sure it was possible, though there was very little that wasn’t these days. He would know, wouldn’t he?

 

Not necessarily. He was just starting to see how truly dense he really was.

 

Well, he had the rest of their lives to get to know her. And her him. Life with her would never be boring. And he was looking forward to every second of it. 

Chapter Text

Previously On:

It had taken her a long time for Arya to decide whom to ask, no beg, for aid. In the end, there were only two she could bring herself to ask. Gendry would come of course, if he even got the letter. No news had been sent out from The Wall in some time, so she couldn't be sure. They may very well be in worse condition than she herself was. But she asked anyway, expressing fully for the first time how much she needed him- for everything. It wasn't as hard as she thought it would be, the sentiment came naturally.

And of course, she had to have a contingency. It had been particularly painful to write the second plea. The depths she had sunk to. It would be down to luck, charity, or a sheer sense of obligation. No guarantees. It was excruciating to admit her horrid position, her own culpability, and her very real need. Her own pride a small price to pay to make up for her mistakes. Late into the night, by the light of the sconces filtering through the doorway, she wrote. Scratching out words to be replaced with others, rearranging lines; a messy endeavor by its end. But she'd done it. Now she'd need to secure the last piece.

"Ravens. That's all I need of you."

"No, no. No, no, no. He watches, he knows." He's terrified, starting to back up from the bars. But she latches onto his fingers, keeping him still. A few of the hounds look on in interest.

"No one's watching. They won't think twice of your comings and goings. No one will notice a raven or two missing. No one believes you a threat, no one even believes you a man." He looks down at this. She needs him to comply, not by shaming him, but by reminding him who he once was. "You can be Theon again. Not as you once were perhaps. You can't make up for what you've done. You won't get a second chance. But you can die with honor. Is that not worth your fear?"

"No honor. No honor." He's starting another loop. She needs to stop him before he gets to distracted to complete his task.

"Theon!" She barks, startling the dogs.

"I will do as you ask. But then, you mmmm-must kill me as a reward." He stutters out.

"I will. I swear, on my honor as a Stark." It's a promise she will have no trouble keeping.

"Then I swear. On the death of Theon Greyjoy." He backs up farther into the cage, becoming near indistinguishable amid the writhing fur. She takes that as her cue to leave. Unsettled and more determined all at once.

The anticipation would be torture. But she wasn't about to sit around and wait for someone to come save her. She'd build her alliances within the castle, and set everything into place. When help came, if help came, those loyal would be ready. And when justice was finally served; Ramsay would know exactly who bested him.


On Our Own Now

Arya

"Up up up up!" One of the women shouts, waking up the others. Arya shoots up abruptly, always a light sleeper, mindful of the commotion. It's not only these quarters; every servant in the place is rising early, despite the ungodly hour.

"What is it? What's going on?" She asks groggily to no one in particular.

"We're being summoned to the main hall. Some commotion." Jana explains. Arya hastily puts on her shoes, ready in a moment's time; already dressed. It's still dark outside, not quite dawn. The women surge forward guided by the flickering sconces. For Arya's part, she can make her way in pitch darkness; so familiar are the halls and corridors. She feels nervous, and maybe excited. Could this be it? Had aid finally come?

A late winter snow was coming, the last few before Spring began. She'd had to rush the letters to send them out before the snows got too heavy. She hadn't even been sure Theon had managed in time. The final snows meant change, rebirth, and good things. She couldn't help but be excited. She'd waited long enough, she wanted it now.

But as her father once told her, at least half a dozen people died out in these snows every winter; though not the coldest month by far. People always forgot there had to be more doom and gloom before anything good could hope to grow.

The main hall was full, a half circle six deep had formed around the far corner, the main attraction not yet visible to her keen grey eyes. Arya looked to the other women to determine what was going on, but they were little help. Each of them just as clueless. She'd built up her network of women well, though told none her identity. She trusted them, without question. And she thought maybe the cleverest few wondered at the possibility. But it didn't matter, or shouldn't. In truth, she was afraid of their disappointment.

Old Nan supported her, and she had clearly placed herself on the side of 'Lady Stark'. But beyond that, she'd stabbed that guard, then received no reprisal from Ramsay. A miracle in itself. They were her people, and she saw their loyalty towards Merilee. She was proud of them, but she didn't deserve it. She felt a coward for hiding, for not announcing herself. But when she'd confessed as much to Old Nan in secret, the old woman told her not to waste sacrifice, to use whatever advantage she had, no matter how it was acquired. And so it was, she had to put away guilt, doubt, and shame to move forward with her plan, setting pieces into place.

They went out of their way to be kind and respectful to Merilee, their 'Lady'. They put themselves in danger passing messages, as Arya was not allowed direct contact with her 'Mistress'. Nothing was said of serious import, just little things to make sure her friend was alright. From what she understood, 'Arya' appeared unharmed, but pitiful. The consensus among the women was that Lady Arya deserved their pity, which made her feel all kinds of wretched. Pity? Yes, Merilee was loyal, too loyal. She didn't deserve whatever was happening, or what more might happen. But Arya herself would not be pitied. Perhaps that's why she hadn't told them her name. She was ashamed of her missteps. Gendry would have chided her on her excessive pride; he seemed to be good at reigning her in and she missed that.

Back in the Hall, the grizzly guards were scattered throughout; some by the doors, and some with their backs pressed up against the last row, a buffer. They were everywhere, well-positioned. They heard well enough, and reported back to Ramsay quickly too. She had to always be careful whose ears caught her words. Everyone was curious, craning their necks for better views. It was clear, however, no one was here based solely on curiosity; none could leave until Lord Ramsay allowed it.

He wanted an audience; it must be for something awful. Or wonderful. Her heart skipped happily. Perhaps help had finally come. Though how could they have gotten here so fast? She steels her stomach as she pushes her way to the second row. The others give way easily, her most trusted girls making room for her, greeting her respectfully. From her position she can see all while remaining just out of Ramsay's eye line.

There he stood, dressed finely in fresh grey; Robb's clothes she recognizes with disgust. Bracing her stomach hadn't been enough for such a sickening sight. He had no right. She clenches her fist to keep from reacting. Jana feels the tension beside her, and bumps her shoulder as if to remind her where she is. She manages a small forced nod in response, but remains stiff. From her vantage point she has a clear view of his face, smug as usual, but less controlled. Vela shivers on her other side, having noticed the same thing. Less controlled, less cautious. That could be either extremely fortuitous or dangerous beyond measure.

He raises his arms, signaling an end to the whispers, demanding quiet without having to bellow. Damn him. Evil he may be, but he was charismatic. The women feared him, to be sure. But it was something else that bound his men. And while it made her sick, she also envied it. It was a move she'd seen The Queen make enough times. One she'd never gotten the chance to practice at Storm's End.

"People of Winterfell. Thank you for joining me at this late hour." Bennis tsks beside her, echoing her early thoughts on their forced attendance. "We have a traitor in our midst." He announces dramatically. Everyone gasps, some of the guards' jaws drop. Arya curses beneath her breath. This was most definitely not going to be an answer to her prayers.

"Honor me. Obey me. And respect me. Simple. Wouldn't you agree?" He asks, then pauses, making each word more dramatic. "Rules exist to keep us safe." There's silence, and his eyebrows rise in annoyance. "To keep all of us safe." His jaw flexes, he's grinding his teeth. Another loaded gesture, this one a wrist flick towards his guards.

Two guards march through the corridor amidst the heavy silence. She can't see anything, not even on tiptoes, but the others murmur. They were moving so slowly, as if lugging around extra weight. When she gets a good look, she sees what's been slowing them down. A body is being dragged behind them. For an instant, her heart catches, imagining Merilee being dragged through. But the filthy male feet scraping across the floor disabuse her of that notion.

"By accepting my protection, you agreed to follow my edicts." Looking at the faces of the terrified women she wonders if there is any truth to that. The harsh winter might drive a normally pragmatic woman to humble herself, to trust a man like him in the absence of a better choice. But she was willing to bet, whatever the 'covenant,' they hadn't fully understood what they were agreeing to. She knew first hand from talking to the women, it was solely fear that garnered their obedience, not gratitude, not love. They all expressed wanting to be free of his 'protection'.

"The North has remained because we refused to mire ourselves in everyone else's business. We have effectively cut ourselves off from the rest of the diseased lands, to fortify our own. And our own way of life must remain just that- our own. I put the ban on communication for everyone's safety; to keep others from coveting our prosperity, our strength." True, mostly. No one knew what was happening here, no one had a clue. How foolish she'd been to just assume… "But one of you broke that trust." He finishes with a dour look. The women all eye each other, trying to determine whom the spy could be.

The guards put down their heavy burden, and position the body so that every can get a good look. There was Theon, neck twisted at an unholy angle. He was just as filthy as in life, but there was a scent of shit emanating from his trousers, which overpowered the odor of dog that usually followed him.

Her stomach dropped once more. They'd caught him, but how? He was nearly invisible around here, an undesirable pest that most overlooked. But his death, a broken neck. That was most certainly not Ramsay's style. If he'd meant to kill Theon, he would have done it publicly, and it would have been a hell of a lot bloodier. How much did Ramsay know exactly? Had Theon actually done as he'd promised? Had it been in time before the snows hit? Would the fucking birds even find their way? She'd prayed, she'd prayed so hard. Would her pleas fall on deaf, unsympathetic ears?

"Reek here turned on me. Pathetic, loyal Reek. He took a raven from the rookery and loosed it with a message. The birds was shot down in time of course, just before it flew out of range. Thank the Gods." Cruel Gods.

"The guilt and shame of his weakness drove him to take his own life. He jumped to his death from the high tower. Of course, it's clear he was put up to it. He hasn't the mental capacity to plan such a feat, a simpleton. Someone else is responsible, and must be held accountable for her actions." He knew. He knew. He must.

Theon was dead. She felt nothing when it came to him. Not pity, sorrow, or glee. He'd wanted to die; Arya easily believed he'd taken his own life. He hadn't trusted her to fulfill her end, too frightened of his master. Dead was dead, she could do nothing about it now. But he'd done his job, she wouldn't begrudge him rest.

Another nod of his chin, and two more guards enter dragging anther body slung between them. Only this body is alive, a frightened girl panicking, whimpering, and wrestling to escape their grip. There was Merilee, near shaking in fear, eyes searching wildly for hers in the crowd. But Merilee's gaze is too frantic, too unfocused to find Arya amongst the other women. She's manhandled and jostled forward, made to stand right beside Theon's corpse. A guard grasps her lower back, keeping her upright and preventing her from moving all at once. The churning in her own stomach tastes like guilt not fear, of that much Arya is sure.

"Arya." She flinches before remembering he's not addressing her. "Did you really think that would work? Did you really believe you could trust that?" He asks, kicking Theon's corpse and making a dead arm move.

"I… I…" Merilee had no words, no answer. She didn't know, Arya hadn't even had the opportunity to let her in on the plans. She'd naively believed it would keep the other woman safe, or 'safer' than exposing her would. Arya herself had no answer to give him either, if truth be told. She had trusted Theon, his own sense of shame, or more accurately her own authority. It was such a simple plan, too simple. The blame now was all hers. And the punishment would fall neatly on another's shoulders. How convenient that would be. Only, she would never be able to live with that.

"Do you deny your hand in this?" He asks, suddenly enjoying himself. Merilee's discomfort had cheered him up. The idea of being betrayed bothered him, but he seemed to like setting up traps, watching living creatures squirm. He holds up a piece of paper in his hand, and she immediately recognizes her own parchment. Only one. Only one. He'd said the raven was shot down, one raven, but two were sent out. He only had one. One had made it out. Which one? She hardly knows which to hope for, no matter which way, aid was a long shot. Far off. Merilee eyes the paper out of the corner of her eye, a slight tremor visible in the chatter of her teeth. "It has your signature all over it, literally." He taunts.

"I… I…" She starts again.

"Read it!" He instructs, shoving a letter in her face. She grasps it with shaky fingers. Her eyes comb over the paper, but too quickly. To rely on traitors and outsiders; she's sickened with herself. Merilee's lips tremble, but no sound comes out. She's terrified, truly terrified. But she hasn't cracked, she hasn't given Arya away. She almost hoped she would. It would be a relief. She did not want her personal words read aloud.

She'd never seen her friend like this. Merilee had this confidence about her, like she was always sure of everything. When she'd asked to come with them from The Peach, when she'd given her advice on marriage (mostly in the bedroom), and when she'd pronounced herself Lady of Winterfell in Arya's stead. It was disconcerting to see her so shaken. Merilee's normally bouncy curls hung limp, and hazel eyes were glassy and rimmed with red. She looked pale, all true Northerners looked pale, but it was in place of a natural bronze glow. But the winter, or more likely, The Bastard himself had sucked that glow out of her.

The woman was petrified, totally unaware of what was happening. Is her tongue stuck or can't she read? She'd never bothered to ask. Why hadn't she? This was her friend, loyal to a fault, and she barely knew anything about her. She was about to pay for Arya's choices, and it would all happen right in front of her. She was helpless, weak, frozen.

After Merilee had swallowed for the fourth time, Ramsay snatched the letter back. Though he's speaking to Merilee, he's playing to the crowd. He never misses an opportunity to play.

"You all know the rules. She must be punished. Lady or no." There are angry gasps and murmurs from the crowd. The guards grab hold of Merilee's upper arms, and drag her to a pillar slightly off center; solid and sturdy, and as old as Winterfell itself.

"She who wrote this, who willfully disobeyed me, will feel the same sting upon her flesh as she has inflicted upon her people." Arya sees some of the women clutch each others hands, horrified at the thought of their stuttering lady being degraded before them. It's as they bring out ropes that Arya can stand no more. No more. She pushes forward, despite friendly hands trying to pull her back.

There is no plan, no clever trick up her sleeve. All her careful plotting had hit a snag. No one would suffer in her place. And she would not lose another friend. She would listen to her gut only from now on, that's what always kept her alive, it's what a Stark would do. Her scheming never seemed to go well, she was never a proper court Lady. As Daenerys said, she was 'as a Lord'. She'd follow her own advice to Gendry, in what seemed so long ago now. It had been comfortable between them, honest, genuine. She said goodbye to all of it, and all that she'd hoped to have.

When you make a mistake, take responsibility but don't ever apologize. And fix it, no matter the cost.

"Punish me!" She shouts. The women around her look at her strangely, intensely, but she just pushes past them. She feels Jana's hand on her arm trying to hold her back. The guards don't even look her way; they must not have heard her over the din. She speaks even louder, so none will mistake her. "Punish me!" Everyone is paying attention now. "I wrote the letter. I manipulated Theon. I disobeyed you." The burn of the women's' stares, their judgment helps her put one foot in front of another. If she turns around, she'll have to face her own cowardice and that will not stand. Foolish, perhaps. But weak, never. Each step is thunderous amidst the new silence of the Hall; she makes sure to keep her gaze locked on Ramsay, showing no fear.

He stares at her, long and hard. Men undressing her with their eyes was not a foreign concept; but his wasn't like that. His leer was even more searing, deeper; she shivered despite herself.

"You wrote this? Do you often sign your correspondence in the Lady's own hand?" He asks but doesn't wait for a response. "That's treason. And wherever did you learn such beautiful penmanship? You are full of surprises, Cat, was it?" He taunts.

"I wrote it." She says again, simply, but with conviction. "I signed it with my own hand. And I learned to read and write from my father Lord Eddard Stark. He taught me well." Speaking her father's name aloud gives her strength. "If I'm to be punished, so be it."

"If what you say is true, you'll be taking her place." He says carefully, already expecting a certain answer. His reaction faintly surprises her; her admission was not the big reveal she'd expected it to be. She's almost disappointed and responds in kind.

"It is my place, where I belong. I take the punishment willingly and with humility." She answers. Still there's no hint of surprise, no flicker of shock; but there is a softening of his eyes.

Without breaking her gaze he snaps his fingers behind his head, and the guards push Merilee back into the crowd. She trips on her own feet, but the other women catch her before she hits the floor. She feels the woman's frightened and questioning scrutiny, but doesn't break her stare with Ramsay. His smile spreads slowly, so excited it looks as if he might fill his pants. What had she done now?

She feels huge fingers tighten around her wrists, dragging her to that same pillar. She moves her gaze then, fixated on the ropes; tightly knotted, and of strong rough material. The men are rough. But no fingers slip where they shouldn't, and no one grips hard enough to bruise her. It's respectful, if there is such a way to tie someone up. As the ropes are wound around her wrists she feels the first rising of panic; her muscles twitch and her breaths shorten. She dares not look into the crowd, pretending not to be afraid. Pretending she was sure, that all of this was her choice. She's second-guessing herself already.

Ramsay comes up behind her to inspect the ropes, tightening them and causing her to jump. She wills herself to be still. Bravery wasn't about the absence of fear; it was about acting despite it. Her father had taught her that, and she had lived by that sentiment for all her life. She meant to die by it too. The fear was real.

"You surprise me." He tells her, soft enough so that only they could hear, but still in that higher pitch so unsettling. She doesn't respond, relatively sure he doesn't expect her to. "That is quite rare."

"You don't believe I am who I say?" He rolls his eyes, but not impatiently.

"I know who you are. I've known since the day we met." At the look on her face he chuckles. "Maybe I could believe a dim-witted highborn with the wrong-colored hair and a dull expression. But a servant girl with Stark grey eyes and a tongue sharp as a blade?" He chuckles pleasantly before whispering in her ear. "If you're a lowborn, then I'm not a God."

She swallows, thickly, loud enough for him to hear.

"You lied, purposefully deceived me. I might have been offended if I didn't find it all so entertaining. What will she do next? Will she give herself away?" He chuckles. "I thought you would sacrifice her. I really did. What a lovely surprise. Thank you. So rare these days." He's positively gleeful, hot breaths quick across her nape. She likes that even less than his softened eyes. He pulls the ropes up so her arms are overextended above her head, tying the knot securely around the pillar, her face pressed painfully into the stone.

"You can change your mind you know." He whispers directly into her ear. "Say you were protecting your mistress. Say you've changed your mind and decided to save your own skin. Your own, lovely, pale skin." He strokes her shoulders, and though she tries, there is no room to move away. "No servant girl is worth the lashing you're about to receive."

"I'm ready." She shouts loudly enough for everyone to hear by way of answer.

"I'm not bluffing, I don't allow for special treatment. No matter the circumstances." He warns, seemingly with genuine feeling.

"I never doubted you for a second, Lord Snow." She mocks, remembering how much Jon had hated it. She doesn't wait for a reaction. Instead she fights against the stone, straining her neck painfully to face the other way, skin scratching on the rough surface. She does it to break the intimate bubble he'd tried to form around them. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction on top of everything else. And she wouldn't give herself the chance to lose her nerve. Despite her measured words, she was afraid. Afraid of the pain, the helplessness, and whatever would come next. But one thing was for sure; she would take her punishment the same as everyone else. A failure maybe, but not selfish. Not anymore.

He walks smoothly to the other side of the pillar, making eye contact once more. She thought he might be angry at her refusing his 'mercy' but instead he looks even more amused, if possible. With his sword he cuts into the collar of her servant's rags, careful enough so the steel doesn't even touch her skin. Her breath catches as his hands rip at the material, tearing it all the way down to the small of her back. Were it not for the pillar holding up the front, she's no doubt the cloth would be pooling at her feet. As it was, her back was bare, exposed, and vulnerable.

There are fresh protests now, loud- the women demanding mercy. Merilee begging. She could barely hear them, her own blood pumping so loud and strong she thinks it might burst out of her skin. She swallows. It's easy to talk yourself into a simple lashing, a small price to pay for one's principles, the life of another. But standing there, unable to move, feeling the fear of others on her behalf, hearing her own heart pump too hard- it was driving her half-mad. She kept imagining herself gnawing through the ropes somehow. Or ripping out the pillar and smashing that rat bastard in the face with it. The fantasies were frantic, desperate, and impossible. Heavy boots being planted and the whistle of something being unfurled before hitting the ground break her out of her reverie.

The pleading was louder now, shouting, angry protests. She swallows to make sure the sounds aren't coming from her own throat, and bites her tongue for good measure.

Suddenly there is silence, all hushed.

She holds her breath, waiting an eternity for the burn, for the rip of her skin, for the sheer force of it.

A terrible crack, all Ramsay's might, as the whip strikes- hitting the tiled floor.

Every breath in the room is exhaled in the same instant. It didn't hit her. Her muscles droop as her weight falls completely onto the pillar and bound wrists; her own physical strength giving out. Her own heartbeat keeps pounding, no other sound in the room to cover it.

And then there is a laugh, starting low but deep, before growing louder. It's so unreal, not human. It reminds her of her time on the ship to Bravos, going below to storage to gather more grain and salted meat. They'd bring torches down below that doubled as a means to scare the starving rats from their stores. The rats would make an ungodly screech as they ran, fleeing from their only sustenance; only to gather round again once the humans went back above deck. The other soldiers mimic him, laughing heartily, spurring each other on. Cool hands, not cold, but not warm, settle on her back and make her jump, so unexpected is the contact; bumping her nose and cheek painfully against the stone pillar. He strokes the skin there, softly before whispering intimately into her ear.

"My fierce wolf, did you really think I would damage such a fine pelt? Before even enjoying it first? Really."

She feels him step away from her and address the crowd. She still cannot see.

"Your cries of mercy have stilled my hand. Or perhaps the Lady has softened me. Her raw beauty could move any man to mercy. She has assured me there will be no more such attempts. I expect by the time we are wed, she will know her place well enough." Wed? Wed! Wed!? Oh Gods.

Fatigue washes over her. The tension of waiting for a blow, the fear of her punishment, the strain of holding her body in such a way, and this new disturbing turn. She rubs her sore cheek farther into the pillar to stay alert, ready. But it's no use, she crashes into unconsciousness.


Bonus Chapter

Tyrion

The air smelled delicious. He'd just finished a capon steeped in squash puree. It was delightful, and paired with this charming Dornish wine, gave the room a pleasant, homey feel. Here he was- back in the chambers of the Hand of the King, er Queen. And currently acting in her place while she was at The Wall, earning even more loyal followers no doubt. He had to pat himself on the back frequently, Daenerys was the Queen, the leader, he'd always wanted sitting the throne. He thought such a man impossible. But here she was, setting to order the corners of the whole of the seven kingdoms. Or beginning to.

She was naïve in some things, certainly. She gave too freely at times. And at others, her prejudices would show. Some of his sweet sister's old supporters did not fare well as a result of the regime change. He might have spared at least a few, they might have proven useful after some well-placed threats. She wouldn't hear of it. Oh well. Really it was all nitpicking. The capitol was faring well, the people thankful for a return to order. They were even getting used to his presence, ugly as ever; buying items from the stalls and meddling in their affairs.

They didn't know Daenerys was absent however, that he'd insisted upon. And she'd agreed, thankfully. Headstrong, but clever enough to see sense. Bronn would say he was a little in love with her, and make fun of him endlessly for it. Perhaps he did love her a bit. It wouldn't surprise him, he fell in love so easily it seemed. A pretty girl who was nice to him was already halfway there; Queen or whore, it made no difference. Throw in brains and pluck- well he had his weaknesses surely. He could be professional though; he'd learned his lesson.

A knock just loud enough to be heard, but not so much as to disturb him. He would know the knock anywhere.

"Come in, Pod." He shouts through the door, putting down his drink. He stayed clear-headed for important business these days, mostly.

"My Lord, there's been a raven for you." He says unnecessarily, carrying a dead raven on a tray.

"Bloody Hells, Pod. Have I done something to upset you recently?" He asks the boy, er man now, jokingly. Pod was taller and larger, whiskers on his cheeks and chin. But he'd always felt a certain respect for his squire, the way he carried himself, his carefully chosen words, his calm demeanor; he'd always seemed of an age with himself.

"There was no parchment, claw grasping at nothing. He flew right over the city walls only to collapse outside the castle gates." Many would call such a thing a bad omen, a terrible portent. Of course, for his part, his mind didn't work that way. He was too logical, always thinking a few steps ahead. He did believe this was a sign something was wrong, about to come or already in-motion; but he suspected the absent letter might have given him a better idea as to what.

Pod exhibited no surprise as Tyrion eagerly took the tray from him and set it down. Faithful Pod retrieved his lord's spectacles without having to be asked. Lord Lannister, the last and only to still be called such, placed them on his nose. Next, he took the fork and knife from within the capon platter, and somewhat carefully wiped off the puree coating his substitute 'tools'. Tyrion was a strange man to be sure- he enjoyed intrigues, puzzles, and mysteries. Some Maester could have pieced the secret this bird had carried together; but Pod knew him well enough to bring him the riddle first.

The bird was killed by exhaustion, he surmised. Ravens were fascinating creatures, another mystical animal he'd studied extensively in his youth for fun. They were exceedingly clever, able to mimic entire phrases, even reciting poems. Some claimed the creatures could actually think and speak for themselves, calling out to travelers, having no way of knowing the man's name. This led to the popular theory that ravens housed the souls of the restless. Spirits with unfinished business were trapped in the beasts, trying to communicate. Of course Tyrion never believed such nonsense, but there were some things about them that could not be explained. How did they find their way back? How did they find their way there in the first place for that matter? He knew this was not one of the capitol's birds; it didn't bare the mark on its foot. How had it known where to go? He'd questioned his tutors endlessly when he was a boy, but learned very little about the profession of Raven Keeper. Of course, this only made his curiosity grow. However, when he finally spoke in-depth with a Raven Keeper, he was thoroughly disappointed. The Keepers trained the birds to eat from their hands, to trust them with cleaning and care. They were nursemaids for the ravens, nothing more. So the magic was not in the men.

The best answer he received much later from Varys himself, a cleverer man he never knew. Varys said the birds were empathic creatures. They simply knew where to go by gleaning the information from the sender. The raven did the rest.

Moving aside feathers gently with the knife, he very much believed Varys' theory. This bird had flown hard, without rest, to fulfill its mission. Even when the letter was lost, the little bird kept flying. An inspection of the clawed foot showed a large knick on its leg, crusted over, but it made the foot hang strangely. It was quite a leap, but he deduced that the poor thing had been shot, an important muscle or tendon hit; the message lost. And still the bird kept going. A closer look at the wings, and he saw that the under feathers were harder beneath the prongs of the fork, near solid, the color wrong. He felt them with his bare fingers, and with a start determined what had killed the thing. And where it had most like come from.

"Pod, send for Bronn. Immediately, I have a job for him."

"Yes, My Lord." Pod responds before running off to comply. He didn't like it much to be called My Lord, he always imagined it was a way of mocking him. Pod normally knew better. But having sensed the urgency in Tyrion's tone, had reverted to old ways.

The bird should have died before reaching here, of that he was certain. Exhaustion was the cause, but not only. The underwings were deformed from intense cold and harsh snows. He hadn't even known birds could get frostbite. The poor thing should not even have been able to fly at all. Yet here it was, at his doorstep. It had carried on, perhaps by the strength of will of the sender alone. He believed now that ravens were bound to their messages, and to their writers. Only one place still had storms and snows, it had come a very long way.

The door opens without a knock, and he guesses Bronn has answered his summons. The rugged man, still scruffy looking no matter how much he spent on grooming, enters cockily. He smirks at the little glasses before Tyrion can remove them.

"Ah Bronn, good. I've a matter for you to see to. Get your things ready, you leave at first light." He instructs.

"Well good afternoon to you too, Milord." He says with sarcasm. "How are you doing? I'm very well, thank you for asking…"

"Bronn, I don't have time for this. I believe Lady Arya is in trouble."

"So?" Bronn asks snarkily. The two had never met, though he'd spoken of her often enough. The ex sell sword had a tough time believing a woman could be attractive and clever and kind. And he certainly didn't believe in fawning over them.

"So?" Tyrion scoffs in disbelief. "So she represents the North, a large and powerful realm. She is a trusted ally of The Queen herself. And, what's more, she is my friend." Bronn swallows his next clever retort at that. "I need my best man to handle this, to make sure she is well, as a favor."

"Flattery doesn't work on me anymore, Half Man. I'm not trudging all the way up North to freeze my balls off and face fuck knows what. Fuck that." He complains, though Tyrion recognizes it as progress.

"Need I remind you that you serve me, The Hand?" Bronn roles his eyes, clearly not swayed. Never mind that Bronn was now a Knight thanks to him. And while Tyrion didn't like having to remind him of this fact, sometimes pure friendship was an inadequate motivator where Bronn was concerned. Bronn interrupts.

"I'm seeing a girl now, real grateful, a third daughter. I can't just leave, I…" He's whining slightly, telling Tyrion he will fall in line, but not easily. Tyrion sighs before relenting.

"And she'll still be here when you return. I'll inform her you're on official business for the Hand of the Queen, important business. She'll be impressed if anything. And I will reward you handsomely for your trouble. Reasonable?" The man grunts, and Tyrion takes that as acquiescence. "Excellent. Gather whatever supplies you need, you and Pod will leave at first light."

"Pod?" He responds with distaste.

"Is there a problem?" Tyrion asks with patience that he doesn't feel.

"What exactly do you think I'll find up there? What is it you want me to do, exactly?"

"I only want you to ask after her, deliver a message in person, check that she's alright. I'm sure it's nothing." He's sure something's wrong. For her to send a letter, for the raven to fly itself to death. Arya was not alright.

"Bull shit." Bronn calls his bluff. "And what do you want me to do if it's not 'nothing'?" Tyrion sighs again. "I can't do much with just a glorified squire for company."

"Don't do anything. We can't send more men, not without The Queen's permission, not over a hunch, not without a favor in return." He hates himself for saying so, for even thinking it. But it's the truth. And he has to be pragmatic, always. The Kingdom must come first. "Without The Queen and her dragons, we are in a very precarious position ourselves. Actually, we always are. I'm sending you because I trust your assessment and whatever you advise on the matter. Understood?" He nods his assent. "And Pod will make a fine companion. He's handy in a tough spot, you'll see." He growls once more, but leaves to comply.

He hopes he's overreacting, that all is well. He would be thrilled to receive word the little wolf was happy with her ox of a husband, perhaps expecting a child. But his intuition knows better. And he's never once gone wrong by following his own instincts.

Take care Arya, hold strong. He prays to no one in particular.

Chapter Text

Uncomfortable Quarters

 

Arya

 

When she awakens, every muscle is on fire. She can smell rich earth and taste the cold of the pillar. It’s not comfortable, but it is grounding. Her wrists are still tied tight, and she’s been hanging limp for who knows how long. She’d gone unconscious when the whip had failed to strike; all the energy spent holding herself up had drained. She has only a faint awareness upon waking. And the disorientation is even more frightening than the uselessness of her limbs.

 

She attempts to wriggle, and a new explosion of pins and needles erupts in her joints. She can’t move, she can’t even turn her neck the other way; so stiff. She stops moving, as each twitch causes a rush of blood to pound through her ears. She tries again, wriggling; it’s still painful but she’s able to stretch farther. She grunts and gasps with the effort, but finally she can move her chin to see a portion of the floor. Empty, only various etched footprints shining off the tile. The rough sliding of her ropes on stone echoes more loudly than it should.

 

She stops at the sound of heavy steps, two sets of clunky boots.

 

More rough hands, accompanied by the odor of old sweat, untie her wrists. Even knowing the release was coming; she still can’t keep her feet. But the two men keep her from slipping in a heap to the floor. One finishes uncoiling her wrists for her, and another holds her dress in place. She still can’t feel her hands, the flesh bone-white from lack of blood. The men stand her up, but she can’t put any weight onto her legs, the hundreds of thousands of needles pricking her muscles keep her helpless and unstable. They’re not quite gentle, but they are careful as they drag her along; shifting her dress so she’s sufficiently covered. She recognizes them as the more subdued of Ramsay’s guards, less boisterous or lascivious than the others. They seemed to follow orders well, whatever those orders may be.

 

They walk right past the stairs leading to the servants’ quarters, ending her hopes of being placed with Merilee and the others. They continue through plush hallway, the halls she traversed as a child; running amok and causing mischief. This was familiar, this made her heart squeeze.

 

The corridors were decorated with portraits of great Starks who once held Winterfell, features she had memorized long ago. Her father’s own likeness stood proudly towards the end, Robb’s face was missing, and half an empty hall still remained- bare until filled with future generations of Starks. Ones that might never come into existence. When they finally reach their destination, Arya can hardly believe her eyes. It’s her parents’ old room, the master suite; where she and Gendry were meant to sleep. Her eyes are moist. It looks the same; she half expects to see her mother and father step in.

 

They plop her down on the bed less gently than they’d intended, her position untoward, but again she doesn’t feel the impact. She wants to sit upright, but she’ll be damned if she asks them for assistance. She inches herself up along the mattress, the pain forcing her to take many breaks; but she manages to maneuver herself into a better position. The small motions set her thighs on fire worst of all. But through her movements she notices her fingers itch, which means she’s getting some feeling back. No sooner has she settled herself, than her wrists are shackled to the sturdy headboard; this time with unforgiving steel. She’s too shocked to make a noise, and nauseous with all the possible indignities she might endure while manacled to the bed. The men traipse out, and stand guard on the other side of the doorway, door left ajar. A moment of privacy, perhaps only a moment. She would take advantage of it.

 

Her heart beats too fast as she wills herself to stay calm. To assess and plan. She’s still bound, but with considerably more space, a better position. She couldn’t move much, but she could manage tiny shifts here and there.

 

With the backs of her numb fingers, she can make out the thick chains and crude lock. She fingers the keyhole, but she did never learned how to pick a lock. Gendry understood about locks and chains; but of course he wasn’t here, wasn’t even close.

 

Not now. She scolds herself.

 

She moved her exploration to the sturdy edge of the headboard to which she was stuck. The ornate pattern carved into the precious wood, depicting ancient trees and giant direwolves gives her strength.

 

1… 2… 3… She counts, and then pulls. Her shoulder sockets burn, and the bed barely rattles. Another break, to breathe. 1… 2… 3… she gathers her might, bracing herself for more pain, then tugs again. She curses as her hip slides off the sheets, her feet slapping the floor; her shoulder extended in an unnatural position. Another 1… 2… 3… just to maneuver her knees, and boost herself back onto the bed. She’s panting and shaking with pain and exertion. She’ll need more than the count of three to build her strength back up to try again.

 

Before she gets a chance, a noise out in the hall steals her attention. She straightens her shoulders on instinct, despite the pain, alert and tense. Her eyes stay affixed to the doorway.

 

“No one is to disturb me, not for any reason.” A voice instructs with authority.

 

Ramsay.

 

Oh Gods, What now? She asks beneath her breath. So soon. She’d never even had a chance to get free. Another game.

 

He’s still dressed in her own brother’s finery, strutting confidently into the room as if he owned it. In his mind, he did. She felt his eyes burning into her, never letting up. He slams the door behind him, trapping her inside, and adding a new terrifying level of intimacy and privacy. His icy blue eyes bulge in excitement.

 

She told herself over and over again not to show her fear, her weakness. She would imagine herself in control, drawing strength from the wood and stone of her ancestral home. Disregarding the discomfort, she lifts her chin and puffs out her chest; exuding confidence she didn’t feel, twisting unnaturally. He doesn’t need to know she’s still getting feeling back.

 

He begins unfastening his collar, keeping eye contact the entire time. He unbuttons slowly, and then throws the fine cloth on a chair in the corner. He’s so precise, slow, shedding each piece like an extra skin; carving the fur off newly slain game. For some reason, she hadn’t let herself consider this. Why hadn't she?

 

She was very aware of her own dress, flimsy and hanging dangerously off her shoulders. She was afraid, she admitted, as she caved in on herself. Hunching her body protectively over her bound wrists, curling her knees up into her body. This wasn’t fair, none of it. Tremors make their way along her body, and she curses herself for showing her weakness. She’d faced worse than this, surely. She’d known true hunger, the kind that made her gnaw at her own fingers. She’d had men grab at her, even try to pull her into alleys. But here, now, she was bound, stiff, tired, and already afraid.

 

He grabs a fresh undershirt from a nightstand and slides it over his head, covered and casual. What? She breathes out, but isn’t foolish enough to believe herself safer. He walks to the other side of the bed, but still makes no move to touch her. She’s equal parts confused and relieved, but not naïve enough to let down her guard.

He's mocking her contorted position, her obvious fear. With others watching she could sit upright, look him in the eye, hide her fear. It’s what she’d been taught once- not to let fear rule her. But alone, locked away, bound, in a once familiar room, fear felt like a tangible thing, heavy and cold. To ignore it would be to ignore her own heart’s beating.

 

He chuckles.

 

How dare he laugh. How dare he? He had all the power, he held all the cards. He knew it, so did she. It seemed particularly crass to rub in her powerlessness. Cruelty was one thing, but outright disrespect was another. Good, her indignity would give her fire.

 

He sits on the other side of the spacious bed, completely at ease. He reminded her of an expert Cyvasse player, all pieces put into play, waiting for the game to be won for him. She doesn’t let herself flinch; but remains coiled and just out of reach.

 

“I’m exhausted.” He remarks. “You’re all rested I expect. Hours and hours of it.” She can hear the taunt in his voice, but she doesn't rise to the bait.

 

“I’m only joking.” He says, stretching out more fully. His foot nearly brushes her ankle and she wants to scream. “And I’ll not touch you. If I’d wanted to ravish you, I already would have. But that would bring me no pleasure. I can wait.” He’s smiling as his eyes close, all the candles still lit. And then he’s still, silent. Nothing.

 

She just watches him. Waiting. Unblinking. From what she knew of him, he was patient, that was true. He laid traps and sprung them at opportune moments. He could keep secrets and play games. He would kill, torture, and then happily display the carcass. But then he’d also been known to show mercy, at least where she was concerned. He might wait, but not forever. He was still a man. And he could find lots of ways to humiliate and torment her without even touching her. He had gone to great pains to make her as unsettled and on edge as possible; and then he’d just rolled over and gone to sleep. Or had he? Still she stares, willing him to stop breathing or for blood to pour out of his ears. Perhaps he would clutch at his chest as his heart explodes, panic written across his face. The image of that almost brings a smile to her face. His eyes pop open as if in response to her wish.

 

“Can’t sleep?” He encourages, lips quirked. She’s startled, but she recovers.

 

“If you touch me, I will kill you. Tomorrow, the next day, the day after that… it doesn’t matter. Some way, some how. That I promise.” She tells him. Her voice is a bit hoarse, but she sounds like herself at least. She rattles her bindings violently. Perhaps threatening him is not the wisest course of action, but she can’t keep it in. He lets out a full-throated laugh in response.

 

“You never disappoint.” He’s turned on his side to face her more fully. “But be careful, My Lady. That’s no way to talk to your future Husband.” That sick churning again, though there’s nothing in her gut to scrape.

 

“I’m already married.” She growls, eyes narrowed in intensity. He rolls his in response.

 

“I know. I’ve read your letter. Thoroughly. More than once. Very compelling, well-written. It touched my heart.” The thought of him reading words she’d meant for Gendry had her clenching her fists. “He’s dead of course.” At her stricken look he continues.

 

“We’ve sent so many to The Wall, and still they want more. He’s dead alright. They all are. That’s why we must focus on life here. It’s up to us to keep our people alive, our borders safe, and our traditions strong.” We. Us. Our people. Was he mad? She responds without caution.

 

“Our borders?! These are my lands! Not yours. You put my people in the dungeon, tormented my friend, cut off The Watch, treat these women like chattel…” She swallows. “You’ve chained and humiliated me. There will no be no shared life between us. I know I’m bound, but don’t believe me tamed like your pet Reek.” She spits.

 

“Reek? No, you’re nothing like him.” He rolls his eyes. “Even when he was Theon he was a disgrace. Traitor. Coward. He thought the respect of the people was owed him, called himself a prince.” He tsks. “He never earned his name, irrelevant though it was. Iron Islanders. So much pride. I took that away from him, among other things.” A wicked smile. “He couldn’t understand fighting for a name, sacrificing. He never had to claw and grasp like I have. You have to earn your place in this world.”

 

“And you’ve earned all this?” She shakes her head, the muscles in her neck still tight. “You stole this, all this, from me.”

 

“So?” At her affronted look he continues. “We all take. The strong from the weak. The clever from the very stupid. It keeps the world from falling into chaos.”

 

“And that gives you the right to terrorize the women here? Kill unarmed prisoners? Decorate the walls with rotting corpses? What has that to do with order or prosperity? That’s cruelty for the sake of it.”

 

“Everything I do has purpose.” He explains calmly. “Fear is respect. The women are afraid, they stay in line. They keep my men happy. My men remain loyal.” He pauses for effect. “Our enemies see those desiccating bodies, and they keep their distance. Their fear keeps us safe.”

 

“Or,” She challenges. “You enjoy displaying your kills like a child, eager to show he can use the privy all by himself.” She mocks. “Someone who truly deserved his name wouldn’t feel the need to paint his deeds all over the walls. You try too hard to prove yourself Bastard, it’s plain to see.”

 

She never used the word, never said it on principle. It was because she thought the entire concept ridiculously unfair; as if anyone could or would choose such an existence. She knew how sensitive Jon and Gendry had been about it, and always tread carefully when talk of their parentage came up. But in this instance, it very much applied. Anything to unsettle him, to bite back.

 

He growls. And springs up, pinning her tense shoulders onto the mattress and stealing her breath with the shock. Instant regret.

 

“Sorry.” She breathes out without meaning to. Ashamed. He eases off.

 

“You’ve some bite in you, I forgot that.” He brushes her cheek with his knuckles and she shudders. “I think you properly fear me now. So, we can speak frankly.” She’s still breathing shallowly, not yet calm, having just come too close. Her mother was right; sometimes it was better to keep one’s mouth shut.

 

“I am a bastard, true. Father has yet to bestow his name upon me. But he will. Once he sees what I’ve made of Winterfell, once he sees what I’ve made of you. He’ll be impressed.” He trails off, lost in thought. “I’m not bitter or resentful. Being a Bastard has made me what I am.” His eyes flash.

 

“What is it you think you are? A God right? That is what you said.”

 

“I am immortal, yes.” Gods, he really was insane. “I have built my own legacy. Sturdy and tall, fearsome and everlasting. You abandoned Winterfell, I kept it alive. And because of me, all of this will survive, even if Spring never comes. I will make it so.” His response is so intense, so visceral it makes her gut churn. “I have been good for this place, for these people. Your people. And I can be good for you too.”

 

“Never.” She whispers. He hears and chuckles.

 

“You’ll see soon enough. Now get some rest, we’ve a long day tomorrow.” He makes himself comfortable, lying back on his pillows, palms clasped behind his head.

 

“Why?” She asks.

 

“Well it was meant to be a surprise. But if you’re so keen.” He turns onto his side now, facing her once more, head propped up on his elbow. “The bones you carry, they’re your Father’s.” He waits for her to acknowledge the information. “I’ve arranged to have him buried in the crypt. I thought you might like that.” She tries to say something, but nothing comes out.

 

“Would you like that? Or perhaps I shouldn’t bother.” He flutters his lashes, as if trying to be cute. Knowing what her answer would be and savoring it. Gods, she never thought she could need anything from him, or worse, have to admit it. She could wait; wait to bury him once she’d retaken the castle. Though he very well might burn the bones out of spite. She couldn’t predict how he would react at all.

 

“No, I… Thank you.” She simply says. She can’t look at him.

 

“I can show you respect, Arya. But I expect the same in return. Respect. That’s all.” He pauses, to choose his words or to heighten the effect she can’t tell. “And of course, you must always obey me. You’re the Lady of Winterfell; you’ll have status, of course. I need not model you after Reek. But make no mistake; you very much belong to me. Understood?”

 

She clenches her jaw, grinding the teeth enough to cause pain.

 

“Understood?” He presses, jangling her shackled wrists.

 

She nods, repeating over and over in her head that it’s a lie. She belongs to no one, she won’t be His Lady, and she will make him pay for every indignity he inflicts.

 

He seems satisfied and rolls back over, a chuckle under his breath. He doesn’t snore, but she hears his breathing even out. She can’t sleep, and she won’t. Little by little she stretches her toes, her ankles, shoulders, rib cage, and back. She pulls at the chains again, and one of his eyes pops open to peer at her. She stops, and his eyes close once more, a half smile curving his lips.

 

She stills, stops the fruitless rattling, and retreats into her mind; putting pieces together, and forging a new way. Her shoulder muscles ease, and without meaning to, she falls once more into unconsciousness. She did fight it, but her body could only be that tense for so long before shutting down.

 


 

 

“My Lady.” A whisper wakes her. “My Lady.” It repeats. Her eyes pop open to see Vela looking down on her; long black hair tied back, the scar visible on her chin.

 

“What?” Her voice cracks, too dry to make sense. Vela shakes herself and jumps up to pour water from a clay pitcher nearby, pressing the tipped cup to parched lips. “I’ve come to get you dressed for the burial.” She explains. The woman looks furtively to the side, and it’s then she notices the guards still there, ominous as ever, unmoving. There would be no real privacy then, the sliver of door might as well be an open window. Of course. She’d have to be careful of what she said. They do unchain her however, she’s glad for that.

 

She breathes deep and slow, regaining herself, ready for a fresh change of clothes. “What…?” She tries again, not having received the response she was fishing for.

 

“She’s fine. More worried about you than anything. But she’s not allowed to see you. I was chosen.” Arya nods, glad to know Merilee was suffering no further reprisals for Arya’s own actions. At least there was that. Her own position notwithstanding. She gets up with minimal help, very little soreness left. Another small blessing.

 

“My Lady, I…” Vela tries to talk, not sure what to say exactly. “The others, they can’t believe it. All this time…” The woman trails off.

 

“Can’t believe how low I’ve fallen? How fucked we all are? Well neither can I.” Arya moans bitterly under her breath. But Vela heard anyway, the men too, no doubt.

 

She wrings out a cloth, and goes to scrub Arya’s shoulders. She flinches and steps away. “His Lordship’s orders.” Vela says, eyes downcast. Instead, Arya takes the cloth from her with tingly fingers, and retreats to a back corner. She proceeds to scrub herself: face, then neck and shoulders, then her armpits and her privates. A whore’s bath, she recalled. It was amazing how random memories made themselves useful when least expected.

 

While her back is turned, Vela has gone about setting out a dress, smoothing it out over the covers. She reaches for the simple blue material, soft beneath her fingertips, fish patterns stitched around the hems; only to recoil. Of course. Where did she think it came from? Ramsay’s personal collection? No, this was her mother’s. She used to wear it when Arya was young, but after Rickon she said proclaimed herself too old for it. After that, she went for more neutral colors, simply Northern.

 

She feels dizzy all of a sudden and has to sit on the edge of the bed to focus.

 

Vela comes over and helps her to hang her head between her knees. An old wives’ trick.

 

The guards look on, questioning, but Vela waves them away saying it’s feminine related. Even if she wanted to laugh, it would come out a choke.

 

“My Lady.” She whispers, leaning in close so their eyes lock. Arya can barely hear her over her own heart pulsing. “You misunderstand. No one blames you. This isn’t your fault. None of it.” Arya slowly raises her head, looking Vela in the eye. “And the way you were willing to trade yourself for one of us, live like one of us. You stood up to him and held your head high. You’re not what we thought a Lady would be like.”

 

“I’m not a Lady, not much of one anyway.” She swallows, subconsciously eyeing the guards once more. “Never was actually.”

 

“No. No you’re wrong.” She insists, untying the dress so Arya can reach up into it. “No one’s ever done nothin’ like that for the likes of us. No one.” Arya undoes the clasp of her rough-spun servant’s garb, and once the finer dress is on, she lets the other drop. “I liked you before, right off, we all did. A little odd maybe, but sharp. And now that we know you have the right blood. That you’re willing to sacrifice for us. Well, we’ve some hope now, at least.” They had faith in her. She couldn’t for the life of her figure out why. But she wouldn’t squander their faith, misplaced as it was. She breathes in deep, considering carefully her next steps. Another glance at the uninterested guards.

 

Arya feigns trussing her hair, blocking her face from the guards’ view. Making sure she has Vela’s full attention, she mouths wordlessly, ‘And I have a plan.’ She drops her arm, and the woman’s eyes are lit as she ties the dress shut. Fine but still modest. She thought it would be painful to put on her mother’s clothes, to play dress up as it were; but it made her breathe easier, comforted somehow. Vela clasps her hand tightly for an instant, and then lets go.

 

A few more minutes of making her presentable, and the guards declare it time for the ceremony. What sort of barbaric rituals were in store?

 


 

 

They pass the empty guard’s hall, to the packed field surrounding the crypt. Every guard and every servant is in attendance once more. Ramsay did like to entertain.

 

She walked slowly; still rather stiff, and she imagined she made quite the entrance. She almost couldn’t face them, these women she’d come to respect and feel responsible for. She didn’t want to read their opinions of her in their eyes. But she made herself. They were frightened, the women; it was always there, in everything they did. But now, there was something else. She might have imagined it, but whenever she met someone’s gaze, the woman would stand just a little bit taller, a little bit straighter. 

 

But of course Ramsay interrupted before she could fully ruminate on what all this could mean. His eyes landing on her and flashing. He was pleased with her it seemed, though why exactly she couldn’t be sure. She’d have to make sure not to do whatever it was again.

 

“Ah, there she is.” He greets, addressing the crowd more than her. “Just in time.” As if the guards hadn’t shoved her along. She clenched her fist in anticipation of whatever blasphemous eulogy he’d planned. This stranger, this parasite, who went against everything her father had stood for. He puts his arm around her waist and brings her yet closer.

 

“We are gathered here today, to honor a great man.” Of course he didn’t mention her mother’s bones. “The Starks have ruled and served since the beginning. Lord Eddard Stark” He points to his bones, wrapped neatly in their cloths. “He governed these lands well, with honor and integrity. Today he goes to ground, his rightful place. Balance is once more restored to the North. Finally.” Applause, though for Ramsay or her father she could not say.

 

Ramsay waits for silence, perfectly understanding the crowd- when to engage, when to let them think. Or whatever passed for thinking where the dumbest were concerned. He was a speaker, charismatic in his way, and that was far more dangerous than just some cutthroat sellsword. His men loved, respected, and feared him. Part of that loyalty was bought with the flesh of her women. As far as she could tell, there were few amongst his ranks who might be sympathetic towards her. And likely none who would favor her if it came down to it. Which it most definitely would. The others stand around, not sure what to do. Should they leave? Is there more?

 

“We honor them today. But we must not forget.” And his tone turns deadly and serious. “The Starks, abandoned us. They left us to fend for themselves. They left us hungry, cold, and lost.” No, it wasn’t like that, she wanted to scream. He was wrong. But… He wasn’t lying… Not exactly.

 

“I stepped in when the Starks could not. It is the Boltons who keep the North. You live and eat and stay warm by my grace. And so it shall be for as long as Northerners are true and loyal.” He looks to her. “And now, the Gods have brought Stark and Bolton together, two households, eternally linked. Lady Arya brings the promise of good things, a new beginning. And our union will ensure that our way of life, the way our people have always done things, will live on. The days may get no warmer; the meals may only get leaner. But we live on.” He leans in to kiss her neck and the crowd explodes.

 

There’s all out cheering now, the soldiers loving it. The women clap, as they’re expected to, but it’s half-hearted, many look as uncomfortable as she feels. They're on her side now.

 

“You’re welcome, My Lady.” He whispers into her ear. She pastes her smile back on.

 

She would thank him. She would thank him properly with a blade in his gut and her spit in his eye. Insufferable Fucker. She just keeps smiling.

 

Today I honor my father. Tomorrow I avenge us all.

Chapter Text

And Then the Morning Comes

 

Gendry

 

Back in the forge, working, working. Working, working… Wait, why was he working? Since The Queen’s arrival, or more to the point, her dragons’ arrival; the tides had been turned. They hardly needed him wasting time trying to fix more shit swords, and there was little enough armor to go around anyway. No, he wasn’t meant to be here. And it wasn’t cold, not at all.

 

Wait, why wasn’t it cold? It was always cold at The Wall. Except, he wasn’t at The Wall. No, this was…

 

Wait, where was he?

 

He knew this forge, he missed it in fact. Storm’s End. Well, he didn’t miss the storms exactly, but still… He could smell the salty sea, he could taste it. A dream then, a wonderful dream, but then where was…

 

Before he could finish the thought, Arya walked in, dressed in her dark grey trousers and tunic, hair braided back simply and messily. She looked right at him, scowled, and made to walk right back out.

 

What? She was angry. What sort of dream involved a furious Arya? A slow smile spreads across his face- a realistic one. She’d spent half their time at Storm’s End being cross with him.

 

“Morning.” He greets cheerfully, not at all surprised at her pfft of a response. He remembered, she had been angry about his edict, the one forbidding her from sparring or putting herself in any danger. The entire situation was rather baffling now. He couldn’t remember why he’d been so adamant. He was concerned for her, that was true. But perhaps he’d wanted to assert himself, to be listened to for once. And it was damned adorable when she pouted. It was also hard to take it too seriously when she gladly shared his bed each night.

 

He reaches for her instinctively, pulling her close. He’d done that often enough in his memories. “Morning.” He whispers huskily into her hair. She shivers, but pushes him off.

 

“Is it?” She scowls.

 

“Is there something you needed?” He counters cheerily.

 

“No, I’ll find Donal later.” Donal Noye, the actual armorer, whose forge he constantly took over, without asking.

 

“Noye? What business have you with him?” He asks.

 

“Never you mind, it’s none of your concern.” She tries to push past, but he blocks her.

 

“If it’s a smith you need, I’m right here.” He smirks, enjoying her frustration.

 

“No, I don’t. I can manage it myself, I’m sure.” She blindsides him when, instead of trying for the door again, she walks over to the flame, and starts inspecting his tools. “It can’t be that hard.” She insists, lips pursed in concentration.

 

He supposes he should be insulted. She was assuming that the trade he’d devoted a large chunk of his life to, was something anyone could just walk in and do. But she didn’t really mean it that way he knew. It was more that she believed she was simply the best at everything. To her own detriment.

 

“What exactly can you manage yourself?” He asks, careful to keep the humor out of his voice. She rolls her eyes at him, but relents.

 

“It’s just this lock. I can’t seem to get these off. And they itch like crazy.” She explains, showing him her wrists. He stops cold, confused.

 

“What... Who did this?” Shackles, bound tight against her wrists, scraping the skin raw. He looks up at her, but she doesn’t seem to be in any pain. She’s treating the chains as more of an annoyance than anything. It’s a dream alright, he can tell that clearly enough. Dreams were strange, one thing meaning another. He’d never had a dream like this before.

 

“And you were just going to…” He prompts. She yawns.

 

“Melt it off, obviously.” She rolls her eyes again, and makes to pull her hands back; but he holds her still, rubbing the scratched flesh in sympathy.

 

“You can’t just…” Trailing off, lost for words. She looks up at him anxiously, waiting for an end to the sentence, expecting a simple response. “Where did you get these?” He asks instead, having no idea what this was supposed to mean. He could be awfully dense sometimes, he knew that much.

 

She mouths something, but no matter how he strains he can’t understand. Her words no more than gibberish to him. She gives up explaining, frustrated with him.

 

What a strange dream. Parts seemed as if from a memory, and others were beyond his imagination. He finds this dream version of her very strange. She was her, her temper proved that, but… He shakes himself out of it. If it is a dream, he is aware of it. Perhaps he can shape it to his liking.

 

“Let me help you.” He offers.

 

“No thank you.” She bristles, though she doesn’t move.

 

“I can show you what to do. Just in case.” He offers instead, and she perks up at the prospect. “I’m a good teacher, eh?”

 

“Fine.” She bites out, trying to hide her excitement. He grins though. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? He quite liked the idea of teaching her a few basics around the forge; it had certainly gone well when he’d taught her to swim. He would do just this once he got to Winterfell. “Well?” She says impatiently.

 

“Here.” He leads her a fair distance from the flames, positioning himself behind her. He might work better with some distance, but he’ll take any reason to hold her close. He can easily see over her shoulder to work. He brushes her hair back behind a shoulder, kissing the spot. She shivers again, and he relishes it.

 

He can’t be sure if it’s on purpose or not, but she presses up into him, her back against his chest. “First.” He says, taking two fine pins, and jiggling them into the lock. “You have to take this one here, and press this bit here.” He demonstrates. “And with the other, you wiggle it until you hear little clicks. Now you gotta listen real close. And when it’s done…” He trails off, waiting for the pop, the release, but it never comes. No mater how we twists and pulls, the lock won’t give. “Maybe it’s rusted…”

 

“It’s fine. I’m used to it.” She says, pulling her hands back; rubbing at her wrists.

 

“But…” And as he watches on, the chains melt onto her wrist, steel becoming ink, marking her flesh. He watches, stunned, still not understanding.

 

“What are you working on then?” She blurts out, as if steel hadn’t imprinted itself on her skin. She walks curiously over to the fire. He follows her as she inspects the flames. What was he working on again? It didn’t matter.

 

“Nothing.” He half smiles.

 

“It’s beautiful.” She’s staring into the flames, mesmerized.

 

“Careful.” He warns right into her ear, an arm hooked over her shoulders, ready to pull her backwards if need be.

 

“I know it’s hot.” She answers back. “It’s fire. By definition, it’s hot.” He can’t see it, but he’s sure she’s rolling her eyes once more. He can’t help it; he kisses the top of her head for her cute response.

 

“Yeah, but there’re different degrees of hot. Gold, for instance, when heated too fast will melt into a puddle. Not hot enough and it’ll just distort.” He explains, and she nods beneath his chin. Actually listening. “Steel needs the fires of the Seven Hells.”

 

“Can you make it hotter?” She asks seriously. She’s definitely teasing him now. He can see the corners of her lip twitching.

 

“If you like.” He leans down to adjust the bellows by their feet, making sure to brush her ankle and calf on the way down and up. She gasps as the flames leap higher, but it’s an excited intake of breath.

 

“Ah, so that’s what I keep you around for; to keep me warm.” She teases.

 

“As you say, Milady.” He jokes, and suddenly she’s pressed him up against the door, kissing his throat and jaw. He feels the curve of her waist, holding tight. And he thinks, this makes sense; actually this was how most of their arguments ended. Especially when she slides her warm little hand into his breeches, her nails raking his stomach.

 

The fire ebbs and flows, spits and pops. The normal, soft whispers of the flames are like music to him. Real or not, he never wanted to leave this place. A door opens, a gust of wind blows through the forge. He peers at it out of the corner of his eye to see the fire has gone out. Ugly grey smoke and a smell that made him cough. A choking, cloying smell fills his throat and makes his eyes water. He coughs himself awake. Damn.

 

Jon is hovering above him, door thrown open, a frown on his face. Gendry is more annoyed than anything, still confused, wanting to go back.

 

“Get dressed, then get packed.” He orders, pulling clothes out for him.

 

“What?” He asks blearily. And only then does he notice the Queen hovering in the doorway. Well, this was one way to be awoken from a fantasy. He grumbled as he grabbed for his trousers, slipping them on beneath the covers; too confused to feel self-conscious. Was this part of his dream? How disappointing.

 

“You leave for Winterfell at first light.” Jon says.

 

“What? But…” Gendry starts bewildered.

 

“I can’t leave, not yet. But you will.” Jon talks as if Gendry hasn’t even spoken.

 

“What the fuck are you talking about?” He asks clearly, standing upright.

 

“It’s Melisandre. She’s seen something in the fires.” Jon explains, not looking at him. Gendry heaves a sigh and sits back onto the bed, pulling a shirt on.

 

 

“Oh, you mean her usual bullshit warnings? Excuse the language.” He directs at the Queen. “She tried the same shit on me. And before that she got into Arya’s head.” He swallows. “Don’t believe a word she says. Her warnings are for her own benefit, to cause chaos. You can’t let her get to you.” He rubs a hand across his brow, fully woken now.

 

Jon’s about to answer, but the Queen silences him with a hand gesture.

 

“I understand Gendry, believe me I do.” She says softly, but meaningfully. “I detest magic users. From what I’ve seen, it makes them reckless, heartless. I personally do not trust that Red” she stops herself “Woman. But that doesn’t make magic any less real, or dangerous. Jon is right, if there is any chance, you must heed this warning.” She advises in all seriousness.

 

There was something to her words he knew. His pride had a habit of getting in the way. But intense rage was another thing entirely; he never could see too well when he got angry. And it was difficult to be reasonable when it came to that Red Woman.

 

“It’s what she does. She makes you think she has your best interest at heart, then she uses you shamelessly. Believe me I know.” He responds, combing a hand through his ink black hair. Unbidden, a memory of being tied down, leeches sucking on his chest and his cock, comes to the forefront of his mind.

 

“I know what she did to you. Ser Davos told me when he gave me the same warning.” Jon says simply.

 

“He told you, did he? Did he tell you how she made me believe she wanted me? Did he tell you she meant to bleed me dry?” He wouldn’t let himself be shamed. Not when the Lord Commander, his ‘Good Brother’ was falling under the same spell. And Stannis before him.

 

“Yes. And yes, she did make similar overtures towards me, despite my vows.” Jon answers, careful not to look in the Queen’s direction. “But she also brought me back from the dead. I believe her power well enough.” He remarks sullenly. He didn’t sound terribly pleased about it. The Queen gasps aloud. Gendry’s not sure what to say to that. He didn’t seem undead, not like Lady Stoneheart. But he didn’t have that same spark he should have. He thought it only chilled out of him by the Wall and the Others.

 

It’s Jon’s final words that set his mind. A haunted look in his too familiar grey eyes.

 

“And she didn’t simply warn me. She showed me, Gendry, in the fires. It wasn’t clear, but… It was Arya, I’m sure of it. She was in chains.” Chains? Chains…

 

 

“You don’t understand, she has to be wrong. She has to.” He swallows. “Because if it is true, if Arya is in danger then… then it would be my fault. I sent her home, I left her. If anything’s happened to her…” He trails off, too miserable to finish the thought.

 

“It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have known.” The Queen assures him, pity evident in her voice.

 

“No, it’s not. You wanted her safe, away from here. I would have done the same in your place.” No, it’s not true. She’s fine. She has to be. “Gendry, if there’s even a chance…” Jon regroups. “I would never be able to forgive myself. Could you?”

 

No. He couldn’t.

 

He hurriedly slips on his boots, tunic, and cloak; tapping his pocket for the silver hairpiece he always kept nearby. He says his goodbyes without really thinking, he can’t for the life of him focus on his uncle’s words. The Queen offers him a sad smile, and wishes him well. Jon gives him a strong clap on the shoulder, and a letter for Arya; promising to return once he had settled the Wall and the Watch for good. He even arranged a few of his men to go with him, Northerners the lot of them, he recognizes. Good, he’d want locals along, men who would be loyal to his wife.

 

They set out before first light, the sun rising ever so slowly over the horizon, air frigid. They ride hard, and it’s not far. Wintertown in sight, excited murmuring between the other men makes his own heart beat faster. The whole time, all he can think is.

 

Please let it be wrong. Please let it be a lie. I’ll come back and she’ll scold me for being stupid. She’ll tease me for it, laugh at me. It’s a mistake, that’s all.

 

But he didn’t truly believe it any longer, else he wouldn’t have ridden so hard or prayed so devoutly to Gods he didn’t even follow.

 


 

 

Midday

 

Bronn

 

Fuck but this part of the country was shit. Cold, bare, and no women. He’d be glad to get back down South. With the money he’d claim off Tyrion he’d buy himself a woman or two, maybe three. And he wanted good wine and rich cheeses. Fuck but he’d turned fancy in his old age. Here it was, near noon, and he’d only just woken. There was shit all to do in this place except drink. And he did, well into the wee hours. A wasteland was what it was.

 

The things he did for that little imp. Eh, but he loved the ugly fucker. The rich fuck was wrong about Pod though. Damn but the boy was boring. Hours together on the road, with nothing but each other for company. He had more in common with his horse to be honest. For the first leg of the journey, he tried talking about various whores, but Pod had given him nothing to work with. He found he was talking to himself mostly. Then he tried telling stories of favored drunken brawls and various places he’d pissed around the kingdoms. Nothing.

 

However, Pod had saved Tyrion’s life in the Battle of Blackwater. There were even rumors he’d gotten three whores to hand him his money back, but he doubted it. Not a proper conversationalist, that was for sure. He even sort of looked like a girl, but not a very attractive one. Eh, he was sorry he’d agreed to this mission as soon as it began.

 

And once they arrived, this place was so joyless and dour. Not boring however, not by any stretch. There was clearly some unrest, no one had told these people the war was done. They could never fucking relax, open up. The lands they’d passed had been damned near empty, but it was a full house at the Inn, alright. All the North, converged here, in this spot. It was unsettling was what it was. He couldn’t seem to find any common ground with these people. Whenever he tried to be friendly like, they’d shut their traps and scurry off. They were too frightened, weary of outsiders, or just arseholes… Whatever the reason, he couldn’t get them talking.

 

In the end it had been Pod who’d bridged the distance between them. He shoulda figured. Of course Pod seemed to fit right in, too serious. They got some answers, though it was like yanking teeth. And what they heard was definitely unsettling.

 

They’d only gotten bits and pieces of this Bastard of Bolton, and even less about the wolf. But tonight they’d have a closer look.

 

There’s a commotion out by the road. More arrivals. Not unusual. People were slowly trickling in from all the surrounding districts, come for the grand birthday celebration of the new, ‘rightful ruler’ of the North. They were all just curious, and in the end sheep always sought out masters. But something’s different about this group, and all the patrons go out to have a look.

 

There’s a dozen or so, looking haggard, pale, almost sickly. He gathers these men haven’t come from down South, they’d come from farther North. The Wall. Deserters then? But why now?

 

It’s Pod who recognizes him, observant fucker. He elbows him in the ribs.

 

“That’s Lord Baratheon. Lady Arya’s husband.” He whispers, in that quiet way of his. Ah shit, Tyrion had mentioned him but he’d forgot.

 

“Which one?” He asks, eyes already landing on the tallest one, clenching his fists in impatience. The man was looking everywhere all at once, taking in everything but not really seeing. Lips moving, muttering to himself.

 

“Him.” He points, almost catching the giant’s attention. “You sure?” He asks, but knowing it is already. Shit, this could cock things up.

 

“I remember him plainly. Lord Stannis’s heir.” They did have the same coloring, he supposed. Blue eyes, black hair. Not that Stannis had much hair. The man pays them no mind, heading only towards the gates of Winterfell. Almost as if he’s no care for his own life, completely unmindful of the grizzly guards waiting just on the other side. Or possibly unaware. Great, now they had this idiot to worry about. Come to think of it, Tyrion had mentioned as much. For the love of… He runs out after him.

 

“Oye there. No no no no, you don’t want to be doin’ that Friend.” He warns, all charm, blocking his path, careful not to make a scene. The man growls like he’s a gnat needing squashing; he looks about ready to swing his arm at him. The giant fucker could actually do some damage with that thing. Well, Bronn thought it more resembled a thigh, but nobody asked him. He was all sprung to jump out of the way, but Pod interrupted with his voice of reason.

 

“My Lord, Gendry. Please listen. We were sent to help. Do you remember me?” Pod gets in, making himself heard.

 

“Sent by who?” He asks, eyes threatening in their intensity. Bronn has to fight the urge to put his hand to his sword.

 

“Lord Tyrion.” Pod explains calmly. “He was concerned for Lady Arya’s welfare.” The giant, Gendry his name was, furrows his brow in worry, looking again to the gates.

 

“You can’t just go in there, Mate, eh, Gendry. Be smart.” He reasons with the bloke, or tries too. He looks as if he’s barely listening.

 

“There’s things you must know, My Lord. Please, spare a moment. For your wife’s sake.” Pod insists. And damn but it works. He supposed the boy did have his uses after all. Reluctantly, Gendry follows them into the tavern, looking thoroughly annoyed at the disruption, but determined to hear them out. The place is packed, but one look at Gendry, and his entourage of Crows, and the patrons clear a table. Bronn orders him a drink, just to calm him down, maybe soften the blow, but he’ll have none of it. He doesn’t even touch it. Waste of a drink, in his opinion.

 

“Lord Tyrion sent you?” He asks impatiently. He lets Pod explain it, eyeing the untouched mug. A bit early for him still, but it’s so bloody cold.

 

“Aye, he did. There was a raven.” Pod starts before he’s interrupted.

 

“From Arya?” Gendry leans across the table in rapt attention. Pod looks to him, but Bronn just shrugs.

 

“Well, there wasn’t a letter exactly. Just a raven. A dead raven.” Huh? Tyrion sent him all the way here for a dead bird? “But, Lord Tyrion determined it was sent from within Winterfell, and that the creature flew under some duress.” At both of their confused looks he explains better. “It’s wings were half frostbitten, and its leg was injured, as if an arrow had knocked the letter clear off. He was concerned so, he sent Lord Bronn and myself to look into it.” Lord Bronn? Heh. Tyrion was smart as fuck, that was for sure.

 

“And?” Gendry asks, impatient. He’s squeezing the table’s edge, knuckles turned bone white.

 

“Didn’t you notice the bird bones scattered around the borders? They shoot down ravens here, this Lord Bolton don’t like people talkin' without his say-so. Lucky a bird got out at all.” Bronn adds helpfully.

 

“Bolton?” Gendry repeats. “The Flayed Man. The Dreadfort.” He recites. Someone had been studying up. He himself couldn’t keep track of all the sigils and shit.

 

“They call ‘im the Bastard of Bolton. A real sick fuck, I hear. It wadn’t too long ago there was bodies slung from the walls. All rotted and disgusting. Some say he’s a nasty fuck. Others say he’s the best thing to happen ‘round these parts since the Starks took off. But both sorts agree; he has a rough way of doin’ things.” He summarizes helpfully.

 

“Where is Arya? Why haven’t I heard anything from her? Is she camped nearby, waiting? Is she back in Storm’s End? Tell me.” He’s grasping now, not taking it all in.

 

“We’ve learned Ramsay Bolton means to solidify his claim this evening, a celebration in his honor. Meant to honor his birth, and…” Pod trails off. He hasn’t the heart to tell him. It’ll be up to him then, though he doesn’t relish watching a grown man cry.

 

“His claim to what?” The man’s steaming now, eyes near about to bulge out of his head.

 

“Winterfell. And your wife. Or so they say.” He’s quick and to the point. He believed strongly in putting men out of their misery quick like.

 

“What!?!” He shouts, loud enough for the whole barroom to hear.

 

“We don’t know that.” Pod tries to make him feel better. “He has announced a betrothal, but no one from outside has actually seen her, no one goes in or out at all.” But Gendry’s already up, knocking over chairs, the table, more than a few mugs of ale.

 

“Oye Mate.” He tries to calm him down. Every eye is on them. “You’re no help to her like this.” He reasons, and Gendry stops overturning things enough to glare. But he’s still breathing hard and heavy. He seems more a perturbed animal, unkempt stubble and all, than a man as he stares back.

 

“Until tonight. Just wait until tonight. We can get in, unseen, they’ll never notice a few extra men.” Pod adds, though Gendry’s barely heard him.

 

“You get yourself killed now, you’re no use to her.” He reminds the oaf, not willing to physically hold him back if it came down to it. If he got himself killed… well, Tyrion would be disappointed. But the Baratheon wasn’t his problem, the wolf was.

 

But lo and behold, he listens, the truth of his words reaching the tortured Lord.

 

“I can’t. I… What should I do?” Bronn’s surprised. He can tell it is taking everything in him to remain this calm, to try to act reasonable. Fury clashing with fear.

 

“Like he said.” Bronn answers. Pod takes the cue to repeat the ‘plan’.

 

“Wait, just until tonight. We can get in once they open the gates to all. We’ll get the truth, and we’ll figure out our next move from there.” Pod answers as if to calm a rabid dog.

 

“Tonight.” He growls in agreement, huddling back down into his seat, curling into himself. His face is hard as stone as he forces them to recount what they’d overheard again and again. Looking for clues about his wife, listening intently for less painful answers, but never satisfied. He couldn’t blame him. Bronn decided he would start drinking early, what the Hell.

 

Well, whatever else happened that night, it was sure to be interesting. He did love a grand celebration and a halfway decent feast.

 


 

Night Falling

 

Arya

 

It had been almost a week since the burial, since Ramsay’s ‘new beginning’. That could mean anything. Pfft. Time would tell. One thing she knew, she was exhausted, all the time.

 

He continued to chain her up at night. She still passed the time by imagining all sorts of ways of killing him. But of course, all possible weapons were removed and hidden. She shook each night with the need to scream, to beat her own head against the headboard, to strangle him. If not with her bare hands, then with the bed sheets. But he was stronger than her, and his men were fast, efficient. She just had to remember to play her part, to bide her time for the final act.

 

One thing though. Ramsay had taken her advice and removed the bodies from the walls. Though whether to appease her or because he saw sense in her argument she couldn’t be sure. It was perfect timing, right before his fucking birthday. He had the carcasses burned outside the gates a few days ago. The smell was pungent- decay, fester, flame, dirt, snow. The wind took it, spreading the carrion scent all around. Still, it was a small victory, or the illusion of one.

 

And as a reward for her seeming compliance, she’d been given free rein of the grounds, with ever-present escorts of course. Her conversations were still overheard, her every move watched, with one exception- the men refused to enter the crypt. They were too frightened actually.

 

The sacred bones were buried by Jana, Merilee, and Bennis. Only the women had volunteered. Strange, these men who had no compunction against senseless murder and rape, were afraid of vengeful ghosts. They were unsettled among the bones, among spirits who viewed them as intruders. Perhaps because even they sensed they were not welcome, not entitled to guest rights. No they were vermin, and they needed to be purged. But their superstition worked well enough for her. Her time in the crypts was seen as a mourning daughter visiting her father. And she was. She did mourn him still. She spoke to him often, and pretended he could answer back. She imagined his wise council, his support, his blessing. But more importantly, she was also able to pass messages. In this way she could be a general to her troops, a leader to her people.

 

Things were going well, if slowly, given their terrible odds. Her women were quick, they took to double-speak well, being used to it after years of carefulness. They trusted each other, and knew the grounds as well as she. Even more, they knew about the men, their weaknesses. She liked these women, and worried daily what might happen to them for helping her. But they wanted this. Their rage and resentment matched her own. What’s more, they were all she had. She’d gained and lost much in her lifetime.

 

She’d left service to the House of Black and White early. She’d wanted the power, to be fearless, but hadn’t been willing to give up herself, not entirely. Ironically, Ramsay and all his men would be dead now if she’d chosen differently. Or if Syrio were here. Or Jon, or Dany for that matter. Who, in the back of her mind, she never believed would actually come.

 

She’d even been promised an army once; but she hadn’t liked the strings. A crown was never for her. And in all the time she’d known Aegon, she’d only ever felt a fraction of what she did now for Gendry.

 

Yes, she’d ended up trading her name after all, the thing she’d kept throughout immeasurable loss. And in return she’d gotten a husband; a brand new family, a new start, a bit of hope. Then she lost that too, squandered it.

 

Fact is, she could play the what-if game all she liked, but it wouldn’t change anything.

 

There was only the here and now.

 

Almost time. All her planning, all her pains, all her loss and anger had been leading to this one night. She was nervous of course. One wrong move, one misstep, and it would all come crashing down. But more than that she was relieved, to know it would soon be done, one way or another.

 

In the end it would come down to her and a handful of women to reclaim Winterfell. She was starting to like the sound of that.

Chapter Text

The Nightmare Feast

 

Pod

 

They made Gendry wait until nightfall. It had taken a lot to convince him, to keep him from rushing in mad with desperation. The poor man was not in his right mind. He barely had a handle on his rage or his fists. He’d tried to pick numerous fights with Bronn, who in all fairness, was acting an inconsiderate prat as usual.

 

He felt for the man, truly. He could not imagine what he was going through; the fear of having lost something precious when his back was turned. Pod had nothing, nothing that could be taken away save his life; and he guarded it well enough. He preferred it that way, made life easier.

 

He took pride in his work, cared for his Lordship, and made a point to get done what needed doing. It’s the reason he was here at all. Lord Tyrion had told him to acquire a letter from Lady Arya, a note from her own hand assuring her well-being. And it would be done. Somehow. However, the situation was infinitely more complicated than he’d anticipated. But he would have that letter. Despite Bronn and the rather large Lord Baratheon mucking it up.

 

Lord Gendry had that look in his eyes again, the one that said he was about to charge forward, smashing the faces of every man in his way. It was up to Pod to keep him calm, and it was proving more difficult than putting up with Bronn’s obnoxious comments.

 

“My Lord.” Pod says, eyes set in concern. “Breathe.” He’s annoyed at the suggestion, but uncoils his muscles just the same. Let the man dislike him, so long as it kept him stable. In-check he was dangerous; imposing size and menacing scowl. But he would be useless once he lost control.

 

The Northerners were a strange, quiet lot. Their demeanor suited him; he knew now what Lord Tyrion had meant. They were appropriately somber at least, used to cold and disappointment. They were waiting too. The men who’d come back from the Wall seemed half dead, lost in their own homeland. They were anxious to enter Winterfell’s gates as well. Just as unsettled. They’d been away from home for too long, and things weren’t as they remembered. But how could they be.

 

Of course he noticed the stunning lack of women, even without Bronn’s loud complaints. He saw few children as well. All hoped someone lost to them was still living within Winterfell’s walls. Though none knew exactly how they lived. Were the women prisoners or traitors? He guessed Lord Gendry wondered such things, if his wife was in grave danger, or simply unfaithful. If he believed the murmurings at all.

 

He knew which Bronn believed. For his own part, Pod couldn’t be sure. Lord Tyrion had painted a comical picture of their union; lovely wild highborn girl forced to marry an enamored simpleton. It was clear he loved her, in physical pain beside him, clenching and unclenching his fists. But it didn’t mean she loved him back. And truth be told, the way Lady Arya had been described, fierce teeth and claws; he found it hard to imagine her anyone’s domesticated pet.

 

“The sun’s about set.” Bronn says, tapping his fingers, stringy hair combed back to look more presentable. Once the words are spoken, Gendry’s up and ready to go. He paces back and forth, squeezing the handle of his hammer. Pod insisted he wear common clothes rather than his Baratheon emblazoned cloak. The man changed without argument, unconcerned with his sigil. A husband’s pain and fury were useless in a situation like this. The man would be killed almost instantly if left to his own devices. Lucky he had them, er, him.

 

Tyrion’s depiction of the man was mostly correct- simple, not prone to deep thinking or careful planning. But he seemed to know his shortcomings as well. And he listened, despite the blood rushing through his ears; for now anyway. That was something. He hadn’t let being a Baratheon go to his head either, that was for sure. Even so, his identity was clear all the same. Little could be done to disguise the color of his hair or eyes, his bulking height besides. But there was quite the crowd lining up before the gates, many large and imposing like him. He counted on their anonymity, that no one would bother to look twice. And so far, they hadn’t. Truth was, he didn’t hold himself much like a Lord, and it wasn’t difficult to remember to address him informally.

 

The gates of Winterfell are impressive in their way; massive and sturdy. It had been built long long ago by the Starks, and would stand for centuries more. It was a symbol of the North itself, where the Old Gods were said to reside. He didn’t believe in such nonsense as faith, of all things.

 

Everyone is stopped at a standstill in front of the entrance. Guards, rough and menacing. They wore layers of leather, fur, and chainmail; armed to the teeth. Dirty, haggard, but well-fed; warm, and in good spirits. They collect weapons before guests are allowed to pass. He gives up his sword easily enough. Gendry doesn’t want to part with his hammer. But Bronn bumps him with a leather shoulder, and models his false compliance cheerily. Gendry does it. And why not? He looked as if he could crush this Ramsay Bolton with his bare hands if need be, strangle the life out of him and watch his eyes bulge out. Pod would be a safe distance away.

 

Once past the guards, there is another obstacle; women stand before the doors, barring each guest. They’re pretty, he thinks, but hardly delicate. They’re pinning white flowers onto the collars of each guest, petals so pale they shine bright in the growing dark. They’re smiling widely and welcoming their guests. Some of the men are a bit in awe, not having seen women, attractive women, in some time.

 

One man shoves rudely past, shouting ‘who cares about the fucking flowers? Let us out of the bloody cold.’ One woman, rather tall for a woman in fact, smiles sweetly at him and lets him pass. He doesn’t get a ‘fucking flower’. Any who wish to pass, are allowed entrance, unobstructed, unadorned. A curious custom to be sure. If he lived here another ten years, he’d never understand all these Northern ways.

 

A curly brunette head turns and Gendry’s next step falters. He knows her. Is this Lady Arya? She’s beautiful, a truly lovely shape though the color from her skin is washed out, almost bled out of her.

 

“Evenin’ Love.” Bronn greets, flirting of all things. She grimaces a bit before looking up. When she meets Gendry’s accusing stare she drops her basket. She bends down to pick up the basket, eyes making contact for an instant, before rushing off.

 

Not Lady Arya.

 

The other women quickly cover the space she left behind, making her disappearance less noticeable to the guards. Fluid, immediate, the women function well together, like a small company within a larger army.

 

They follow after her, Gendry’s long strides pounding the ground beneath him.

 

Her path is sparsely decorated; small sconces to light the way, faint fire flickering in the distance from the open hall. Music playing, more guards. A hand grabs hold and drags them even farther into a dark alcove.

 

“My Lord.” She breathes out. She hugs Gendry around the middle, and he pats her on the back; an awkward stiff display.

 

“Good to see a familiar face. I’d started to think I was going mad.” The man can’t bring himself to squeeze her back. She lets go quickly. “What in the Seven Hells is going on here? Where’s Arya?”

 

“What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.” She insists, scolding as if she’s cross with him, eyeing first Bronn and then him astutely.

 

“Where’s Arya?” He asks bluntly. No finesse.

 

“She…” Merilee looks around nervously. Nervous of the guards or of being associated with Gendry, he’s not sure.

 

“You shouldn’t be here.” She says again. Not scolding, but concerned.

 

“Where is she, Merilee? She’s your friend, you would know if anyone does. Is she alright?” He lets panic edge its way into his voice. He still doesn’t know what to believe. She hesitates, pained, and then nods. He lets out a breath at that, but clenches a fist at what she hadn’t said. “And Lommy? Hot Pie? The others, where are they?”

 

“Hot Pie’s near took over the kitchens.” She says, talking around the question, no longer looking him in the eye. “They love his cooking. He’ll be Head Cook ‘fore long.” Details, but she barely says anything.

 

“And Lommy?” He asks, having noted her omission. A new source of concern.

 

“He…” She trails off.

 

“How? What?” Gendry answers back, not understanding her words, not letting them sink in. A new pain sprouting.

 

“I’m sorry. I…” Dead, Pod thinks. Not a good omen.

 

“If that Bastard’s done anything… if he’s touched her…” He threatens, hissing the word Bastard through his teeth. He’d heard the word uttered many times before, with many different connotations. Mostly, Lords said it as a dismissal, a way to categorize their ‘underlings’. It was a general curse as well, Bronn himself used it often enough; but he’d as well use it for a woman, a stubborn horse, or a wobbly table leg. This was hateful; in a way only another Bastard could muster.

 

A couple of men, stinking strongly of sour ale, pass near. One nearly trips, causing both to giggle at their near miss. They look right at them, a prolonged stare before they belch loudly and begin hobbling once again. That was too close for Merilee’s liking.

 

“Damnit. What are you…” She sighs. “You can’t be here. Shit timing, you have.” She purses her lips then, dropping that meek quality she’d had a moment ago. “You need to leave, now. Take your men and wait in the Village.” She warns, more giving orders.

 

“Fuck no. I’m not going anywhere without seeing Arya.” Gendry vows, already getting worked up once more. He plants his feet firmly, he won’t be budged.

 

She sighs as she makes a decision. “Stay then, I can’t stop you. But you will keep out of the way.” She pins a flower onto each of their collars, her hands warm where they brush his throat accidentally. “Don’t drink or eat anything. Don’t take these off. Remember.” She warns. “And don’t ruin this for her. Everything is at stake.” She goes back to her place among the women, back to passing out flowers as though she’d never left.

 

What did her warning mean? The entire situation was even more confusing than he’d anticipated. He hated unknown factors, unforeseeable players, and questionable motivations. In a way, they’re even more blind than before.

 

Bronn repositions his flower to sit more prominently, spreading out the petals. Vain motherfucker.

 

They enter the main hall, boisterous and bright. Drunken men enjoying fine plates and over a dozen women serving drinks freely. Fine Arbor Gold, the particular aroma Lord Tyrion prefers, strong and sweet. Rich, nutty ale, sloshing in goblets. Of course, none of them take anything, Bronn looking absolutely crestfallen that he can’t partake. But then he miraculously produces a flask from a pocket, and so it goes. He tsks in his mind, but when a plate goes by filled with goose and goat cheese tarts, he wishes he’d eaten something more substantial earlier at the Inn.

 

The Feast is an impressive affair; comparable to something Lord Tyrion might throw. Spitting fires, jolly playing, raucous laughter, and impassioned grunting. It was a celebration, grand and cheerful. Most men were already drinking heavily; happy, lax. But the women, pouring generously, were stone-faced, wary. They are not celebrating, not yet. Gendry searches each face, hoping to find Arya among them, though it was a vein hope. She was a Lady, no matter what, status dictated she be treated with respect and honor. But where was she?

 

At the near center stood a man, not so tall, dressed in a fine cloak, a bloody figure spread-eagle stitched upon the breast. A small circle of men surround him, attentive to his every word. So this was him. Lord Bolton, scourge of the North. Puny. Unimpressive. And yet, eye-catching. He had somewhat curly dark hair and light light eyes. An overly wide mouth. A sort of self-important air about him, though he expected as much. So confident, so sure about everything. Not too big, it was not physical strength that earned him his position. He held the men with his gaze, with a gesture, with a word. They were well-trained, like the guards, like the women at the gates. Clever then. Not Gendry’s strong suit. But Pod himself was no slouch; at least that’s what Tyrion had praised him for.

 

“That him?” Bronn asks, nodding in the Bastard’s direction. “He sure can throw a party, eh?” He comments, creased brow raised in jest. Pod gives him a look, as if to call him an idiot. But luckily, Gendry ignores his mocking, uninterested. He can’t be even bring himself to be annoyed by the arse. He goes back to searching faces. Where was Lady Arya? Were they too late? Had she already escaped, was she hiding? Was she dead alongside this Lommy?

 

The Bastard gives a long-suffering sigh, then clears his throat, impatient. It’s loud and domineering, the men around him instantly fall silent and motion for others to do the same. The quiet attention spreads, everyone in attendance anxious for the words of their host. The new self-proclaimed Lord of the North. He waits, in no rush, knowing how to build anticipation.

 

“Welcome, welcome.” He greets, a sort of warm tone. There are cheers from his own men, and he waits for quiet once more. “Thank you for attending my feast. It must have come as some shock, to hear word after all this time.” He waits, and there are a few awkward chuckles. “But this is a celebration, not a summons.” He smiles, though it puts no one at ease. “I am Ramsay Bolton, the new Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North. I have requested your presence here today to celebrate a new beginning. The long winter is finally ending, I have taken my rightful place and…”

 

Another set of doors opens, the entrance to the main grounds, halting the rest of his long-winded speech. All heads turn, including Himself, who is at first annoyed with the interruption, before a pleased smile unfurls across his lips.

 

“Ah, perfect timing.” Ramsay comments, playing the entrance off as intended; pixie face delighted.

 

Pod turns and knows instantly this is her, the Lady Arya.

 

It was her, finally, alive, unharmed. She was terrifying and beautiful. She was described as being pretty, but boyish. That she preferred trousers to skirts. Not so anymore. The dress she wore was red, bright and deep. It was indecent almost, tight and thin, clinging to every curve well past discretion. Her dark hair was only part up, braided away from her face, but most lay about her bare shoulders. Her eyes were black lined, over and over, smudged dark and daring. Sharp scarlet on her lips, and pink etched on her cheeks. From the slack-jawed look on Gendry’s face, he barely recognized the woman as his wife.

 

“Arya.” He whispers aloud, followed by a deep, painful swallow. Make no mistake, this was his world shattering.

 

She looked like she belonged here, she was their Lady. These mongrels, this rough land, the grey walls. This was her element. She walked confidently, sashaying. She was seductive even. She was alive, whole. She didn’t seem particularly caged to him.

 

Gendry was frozen in place, in indecision, and quiet disbelief. Pod put himself in the man’s place. Which would be worse? The thought of another man forcing himself upon his wife? Or the notion that she chose this Bolton over her own husband? Which would Gendry prefer? Pod would withhold his judgment until he heard the truth from her own lips or her own hand. He would have the truth from her.

 

She doesn’t see them; she doesn’t really look at anybody in attendance, only through them. She makes her way to Ramsay’s side. Looking for all the world pleased to see him, honored just to be in his presence. A sour taste coats his tongue. He almost reaches for some ale reflexively.

 

“Ah, here she is. I was beginning to worry.” Ramsay jokes, scratching a pointy ear.

 

“I apologize, I wanted to make myself pleasing in honor of the celebration. Am I not, pleasing?” She purrs, knowing the answer. She’s teasing him, a little smirk. She could be pretending. But if she is, she hasn’t let up once. She puts her hand on his forearm and doesn’t let go.

 

“Very pleasing.” He admits, kissing her hand properly in greeting. Gendry fumes beside him. She was good at this. If she was lying, she was very very good. Too good. If he had eaten the legs of mutton, warm bread, or sweet tarts being passed around it would be churning in his stomach.

 

“My soon-to-be bride, the Last Stark, has arrived. Isn’t she stunning?” He addresses the crowd, to which they receive loud hoots and hollers, drinks sloshing onto the floor enthusiastically. She would cringe, any minute now she would cringe. The Arya he had heard countless stories about hated being displayed like that; she never believed others when they called her beautiful. But her smile does not waiver, she appears flattered by his announcement. Curious.

 

“Eh, not my type, but, she’s alright.” Bronn quips beside him, to which he turns to glare. Gendry’s grinds his jaw in response. The arse shuts his mouth, and Gendry looks back at the ‘happy couple’.

 

“Tonight is about celebrating, so enjoy yourselves. Partake of the wine and the women.” There. He’d seen it. A flinch, a kink in her armor. She did not appreciate that statement. But he doubts anyone else has seen it, so complete is her mask. Clearly, the Bastard did not speak for her. He holds onto this thought. He fervently wanted Lord Tyrion and Gendry’s version of her to remain intact, for their own sakes.

 

And then she speaks.

 

“And I would like to propose a toast. To the most voracious man I’ve ever met. His might a true inspiration to us all. Let us drink to a new dawn, to a better Winterfell.” She projects loud and clear, her voice finding each ear; a regality he admired. There are more shouts and some applause. Everyone tucking into their drinks with abandon. Ramsay is watching her closely, gripping a wine glass tight in his fist, but not drinking. She notices and her smile tightens. She raises her own glass high, and then brings it to her lips.

 

“I thought we weren’t meant to eat or drink.” Pod whispers to Bronn, confused, but receives only a shrug in response. Yes, that was what Merilee had said.

 

She drinks it down, near to choking; the way Tyrion did when particularly ‘thirsty’.

 

A pretty serving girl stops just inches from them, watching on slack-jawed, stunned. Surprised as they are. Stone-faced, Arya speaks. “Get us more drink.” Arya carefully wipes at her lips for invisible smears. The woman doesn’t move, horrified. “Now.” Arya barks, annoyance in her demand.

 

Raucous laughter and a genuine smile from Ramsay, his men copying their master. The servant is frightened as she shakily complies, scurrying off to do her Lady’s bidding. Fresh drinks in hand, they clink glasses in celebration, and sip. Ramsay whispers something in her ear, and she laughs softly and elegantly.

 

“She don’t look too put-out.” Bronn says, echoing his thoughts too closely. “Looks right at home. Maybe she just wanted to invite Lord Tyrion to the wedding.” He jokes, drinking from his flask. Gendry squeezes Bronn’s hand, hard, and he drops his precious flask, clutching the numb fingers defensively. Pod doesn’t see to him, thinking privately that he deserved it for provoking a tortured man. No one cares, every eye on the main attraction.

 

All-too-quickly Ramsay takes her hand and drags her along. She looks surprised, but quickly covers it, following willingly. He pulls her along to the musicians, announcing a change in tone. Nothing so dull, the night was meant for dancing.

 

The ‘betrothed’ couple takes to the center of the Hall, the guests and soldiers alike make room; a wide circle, a proper dance.

The music plays, the beat pounds beautifully. It’s meant for dancing, as he’d requested, but it had a dark undertone. From his short time in the North, he knew that all their music sounded like that. The cold left a melancholy in life here; a splendor as well. The dance begins slow, intently, and it feels intimate.

 

Gendry beside him shakes with the effort of standing still; tensing each time Ramsay pulls her closer. All his energy spent keeping himself in check, holding himself upright. Pod was once again grateful he wasn’t capable of being hurt that deeply; he’d always made sure of it. It made him lonely at times, but not in this moment. It was tragic really. Seeing the abject loss on this man’s face, knowing whatever truth they found would never completely take away the damage done here this night.

 

The tempo of the music changes once again, into something sultry, enticing. Ramsay grabs her and pulls her up against his chest, whispering in her ear. She seems to flash a lighter shade of pale before nodding her ascent. He steps back, her hand in his, and kisses her palm. Then he walks over to his chair, and sits, eyeing her appreciatively.

 

It takes her a moment, to find the beat, to talk herself into it. But she gives in, picking up the rhythm, swaying her hips ever so slightly. And then she gives more and more of herself; dancing, turning, kicking, and spinning. She performed for these mongrels, a kind of perverse spectacle that you couldn’t look away from. Even Bronn seems hypnotized, though he’d made it clear he preferred curvier women.

 

“Ain’t seen moves like that since Lys.” Bronn says, pleasantly surprised. He’d had the sense to whisper it so Gendry couldn’t hear this time. But Gendry was so spellbound; he wouldn’t have noticed an arrow through his ribs just then.

 

The men around them watch, rapt, to what seemed to him a spell she was casting. They drank and ate as they gawked, sometimes missing their mouths completely; bits of pastry and froth smearing on their beards and tunics. The serving women pass by, taking empty glasses and offering new ones. They were quick, ready, and completely undistracted by the gropes and lewd comments. There was an efficiency, such as he’d seen at the gates; an unseen thread making their movements seem as one. He felt his stomach growl absurdly from lack of food. As of now, he had no idea what to report back to Lord Tyrion.

 

Of the many brutes that eye her appreciatively, a few lick their lips lasciviously. Two have the nerve to wolf whistle. And one reckless and stupid soul, reaches out and grabs her. No one reacts as he lifts her off her feet, everyone frozen in shock at his audacity. He was large, as they all were to him. He only used his right arm, the left he kept by his side. That side seemed weaker, his left shoulder kept close to his chest.

 

Her face remains blank as she’s hauled fast from her feet.

 

Gendry starts forward, all caution and sense thrown out the window.

 

Lady Arya kicks out with her foot, aiming squarely for his balls. But he’d anticipated that, and caught her ankle with a mighty flex of his thighs. He isn’t angry, but more intent, shoving her roughly into the wall.

 

Gendry was making his way closer, shoving onlookers aside roughly. Pod had the insane instinct to close his eyes, the anticipation of what was to come, overwhelming. Gendry would expose himself. Lord Bolton would surely kill him in a gruesome manner. And worst of all, the inevitable question.

 

Would Arya be horrified or relieved?

 

But his fears do not come to pass. Without him noticing, Lord Ramsay had made his way over to the couple first. He was calm, deadly calm, and quiet. The giant oaf had her pinned; her arms trapped and unable to go for his injured shoulder. From behind him, anticipation building, Ramsay raises his sword, and with one swift, precise blow; slices through the edge of the man’s skull, wedging the blade in his collar bone. The slice of skull slides off, blood spurts everywhere, and the great beast drops to the ground. All are still, some with mouths hung open in midair. Even the women stop to gape.

 

Arya herself looks shaken, speckles of blood dotting her nose, cheeks, and shoulders. If any got on her dress, he couldn’t tell. The rich red so closely resembled blood, she could have been bathing in it and he wouldn’t have known.

 

The musicians stop as well, not daring to play on.

 

Gendry watches from a few feet away; intent, motionless, breath held.

 

Arya smiles back at her ‘savior’, seemingly grateful. He takes her hand, guiding her to step over the bleeding corpse.

 

Ramsay turns and addresses the crowd again; he seemed to like doing that.

 

“I thought this went without saying, but apparently I need to be more clear. Lady Arya is mine. She’s to be my wife. You may have any other woman you wish, whenever you wish. But SHE belongs to ME.” To punctuate his point, he pulls her in closer, until her face is only a couple inches from his. “Say it.” He commands as his fingers smear the blood on her cheek.

 

At first, she’s silent. He moves a hand around to the scruff of her neck, holding firmly.

 

“Say it.” He orders, harsh whisper against her face.

 

It passes over her face then, a brief instant, but he’s sure now.

 

“I’m yours.” She promises, as sincerely as he’d ever seen anyone proclaim anything.

 

Ramsay smiles in delight. “Players keep playing. Everyone, keep drinking. The night has only just begun, and there are far more surprises in store. Enjoy.” More cheers.

 

Ramsay pulls Lady Arya along to his ‘throne’, the ornate chair; intricately carved to depict Northern creatures in varying states of ‘kill or be killed’. The position was clearly meant for the true ruler of the North. And Ramsay had taken it for himself. He yanks her down onto his lap, seating her like a prize peacock upon him; one arm wrapped securely around her waist.

 

Some of the revelers line up before Ramsay, items tucked beneath their arms. They’re gifts, favors meant to buy their safety, to offer their obedience.

 

Gendry watches as Ramsay slides his hand along his own wife’s thigh possessively.

 

“I gotta admit.” Bronn starts, interrupting his thoughts, rattling Gendry’s composure. “I see it now. She has something to her.” What a base vulgar man.

 

Pod feels moved to say something, though it won’t do much good at this point.

 

“For what it’s worth, that’s hate.” This gets him a slight show of interest from Gendry. He elaborates. “I wasn’t sure at first, but I saw it at last. The look she gave him, as he grabbed the back of her neck.” He pauses to make sure Gendry’s listening. “It’s the look a dog gets before savaging its master. She hates him, and she’s not long away from turning on him.” Gendry’s expression is unreadable; perhaps the man has taken his observation to heart.

 

“My wife is not a dog, a cheat, or a slave. I don’t need you to tell me that.” He snaps, though the sting isn’t directed toward him. “She’s my wife, that’s all that matters.” He swallows, and a new calm sets his shoulders. He wants her back, no matter what, no matter the cost. Pod sighs with relief. He’ll see sense now, at least.

 

But the opposite is true. Rather than waiting for a decent plan to take shape, he slips away easily. He pushes the other guests, waiting impatiently to get close to ‘Lord’ Bolton and his ‘Betrothed’. He has no weapons, no plan of any kind. But he surely had enough muscle and rage to cause some damage. Pod only worried the blood spilled would be their own.

 

Chapter Text

Playing with Pawns

 

Ramsay

 

Everything was perfect. The whole of the North was in attendance; well, what was left of it. Winter and war had hit the land hard enough here, and the people were looking for someone to keep them safe, to tell them how to live. And here they were, lining up to pay him tribute, to buy his good will. Laughable. Weak and pathetic; the lot of them. The ones with balls he would reward, keep close; only slicing off appendages if necessary. The weak ones he’d find a use for, or feed to the hounds. No waste, no loose ends, no unnecessary problems.

 

Arya twitches on his lap, uncrossing and crossing her legs anxiously. Her tight little ass brushes his cock, and he presses her tighter to him, holding her still. She stops fidgeting, but her skin is warm. Too much drink, all night in fact, and yet she was holding her composure remarkably well. Good breeding, he supposed. Better still, his little game with her showed no sign of growing dull. Usually he bored of his toys so quickly, but not this one. She was coming along nicely, getting used to him; learning her place. Oh, she wasn’t broken yet, far from it, though she might play pretend. Regardless, he was thoroughly enjoying every second of it.

 

For the feast, she had dressed to impress. Him or the guests, it didn’t matter. The cloth was showy and pleasing, not at all practical for the Northern climate. And dark makeup, painted so thick it reminded him of the way Wildling warriors colored themselves before battle. She smelled nice too, not flowery water like the common whores who’d always frequented his bed. No, Arya smelled of dirt, and Earth, and forest. A unique blend that only a true Northerner could possess. How anyone could possibly mistake her was entirely beyond him. No exceptions, no substitutes. She was proving to be unpredictable, a trait he was utterly unused to. He found himself evolving because of it, because of her. All the while he’d been training her, she’d managed to change him too. It was too early to tell, but he suspected it was for the better. To rule, one can always be quicker, sharper, and more prepared. The men noticed, the guests, and even the serving wenches. He felt a Lord, and by The Gods, he would revel in it.

 

“My Lord.” A short man bowed before him, sturdy and solid. He was lean, no fat on his frame. His hair was thinning, mid forties at least. His own father’s age he realized. But of course his own father wouldn’t deign to attend. The man before him looked undernourished, as most did; but he’d made it through the winter somehow. He looked so beaten; he had an impulse to put him out of his misery. Aw, but he’d developed a merciful streak.

 

“Welcome.” He responds, making sure to sound as bored as he feels. Mind wandering.

 

“In your honor.” The wretch mutters, unable to meet his gaze. He was right to be afraid, not too stupid at least. Ramsay likes the fear, the only true respect. More than his own father was capable of.

 

The weathered man sets down a bundle wrapped in finely treated leather. Ramsay takes pleasure in staring the man down, watching him squirm; clearly unsure how to proceed.

 

Of course, the proud Roose Bolton had declined his son’s own gracious invitation. His new son, his legitimate son, took precedence. When he’d received the dismissal, he hadn’t been surprised, not even then. Ramsay was the elder, so much like Roose in more than looks; his paternity was never in question. And he had proven himself, many times over; in battle and strategy. He’d kept his conquest private, upon his father’s request; a Northern matter until Roose was prepared for his next play. And still, he was passed over in favor of the new child, a useless whining piece of flesh capable only of crying and shitting. Clearly, the child was unimportant; it could never be as much a Bolton as he was. It would never have to fight for its name like he had, so it would never be strong. Not really. His father was right about one thing, only one of his sons truly mattered. He would make sure of that.

 

“Unwrap it.” He instructs, cool eyes commanding. The man does so with sure fingers, revealing a fine sword. It’s not bulky, a slim blade. He should not have been allowed through the gates with it. One of the guards on duty would need to be flayed. Maybe flogged. He would decide later. The man handles the blade well, though doesn’t dare to hold the hilt as he hands it up to him. He knows any threat would mean an instant execution. None present tonight would ever question his follow-through, his mettle.

 

His father was of no consequence. He held Winterfell; He was the new Warden of the North. All would know him now, respect him; Northerners and Southerners alike. And with the last Stark bound to him, none could question his legitimacy either. None would dare disrespect him again. Roose Bolton of the Dreadfort had made a mistake. His father might have allied himself with the Freys, betrayed the Starks. But Ramsay had outmaneuvered him, he’d unequivocally won. His father would be made to see the truth of things, at great personal cost.

 

“You made this?” Arya asks unnecessarily, hypnotized by the steel.

 

“Aye, Milady.” The smith tells her. Her brow furrows an instant, a deep swallow, and then she’s back to herself; the hostess. “It’s beautiful. Truly.” Arya praises beside him, a kind smile on her face. Was it? It seemed rather common in his opinion. No jewels or engravings; simply sharp steel. It would kill easily enough. He personally preferred small curved blades, better suited to peeling flesh from muscle. “A fitting tribute to His Lordship. Thank you.” She finishes, and the man bows clumsily, taking that as his cue to leave. She smiles at him too, acting for all the world an obedient woman, beholden to her Lord.

 

He knew better. He understood her quite well in fact. Everything she did was either motivated out of pride, or concern for Winterfell; her people. She’d made something of an effort for this one. Why? He’d received pelts, and she remarked on the fine sheen and craftsmanship. Fine books, which she admitted to already having read, and pleasure in seeing the titles once again. Elegant boots, to which she only smiled politely. Wines, which she eyed with somewhat more interest. Spices, which she humbly accepted. And slaves to which she scowled. He could be mistaken, but he thought he heard a low growl emanating from her throat. But her reaction to this smith was altogether more congenial.

 

Of course. She had a soft spot for smiths. A weakness. Hah. How would she react if he had this man flayed? He reserved that particular torment for only the most special occasions. Perhaps not. She had made a good point; decorating with human carcasses did seem a little obvious. He had no doubt she was full of excellent ideas. If she’d a mind for it, she could lighten his burden and then some. Apart from himself, she had the most stunning intellect. That was, when she wasn’t undermining him. But he could cut her down when need be. Keep her from getting too confident, too brave. He lets the man pass.

 

More supplicants approach, with offerings of ancient spells, gold, and rare beasts. She’s no longer interested, sipping studiously on her wine, offering him some ever now and again. Until a tall man; young and handsome, but unshaven, unhinged, comes closer. Arya’s back straightens until she’s stiff as a board. She’s ramrod straight, still as anything, staring through him as though seeing a ghost. She swallows, but makes no greeting. He’s flanked by a greasy, smirking man, and a rather serious boy on his other side. Her unschooled response, the way she’s unable to feign indifference makes the man’s identity more than clear. That and the dark black hair and blue blue eyes which drink in the woman on his lap. Pain swam in their depths, a look he recognized well, and enjoyed. Once he started in, cutting and ripping the skin; once their throats were too raw from all the screaming and they were soon to fall unconscious- that was the look he saw before him.

 

Clear enough. This was the husband, not dead on The Wall, not run home back to his uncle like a coward. He’d read the confiscated letter, many times in fact. He understood the words well enough to know he could cause pain here. Ramsay feels a wicked smile curl wide. Just in time. He so hated a dull feast.

 

“Welcome.” He greets magnanimously. “Please, introduce yourselves. What have you brought in tribute?” He tries to keep the smile at bay, really he does, but it’s too much fun. The man, Gendry he remembers, says nothing; grinding his jaw so hard he might actually pop out some teeth. It’s the boyish looking one who answers. Perhaps not as young as he thought.

 

“Thank you for your invitation. We bring only our sincerest congratulations, and well wishes from the South. The Hand of the Queen sends his regards to the Lady.” There’s a slight bow, but proper. The bearded one makes a joke of his. But the bastard won’t bow. On his lap, Arya shifts once more, arching her back in a show of regality. He squeezes her inner thigh too tight; making sure to rake his nails just enough to cause pain but leave no marks. She doesn’t flinch this time. She was very good at keeping up her mask; he was consistently impressed with her. She had managed what he’d thought impossible. How exactly she’d gotten that letter out was beyond him. Impressive, but insulting. She would be punished for slighting him. The Bastard glares at his occupied hand, squeezing his fists hard enough to crack bones. And there it was, the perfect opportunity for a lesson had presented itself. He ignores him and addresses the one that actually speaks.

 

“The Hand. Truly? What an honor. I wasn’t aware the Capital kept abreast of our goings-on in this far corner of the world.” She must have gotten word out. The Lady was far craftier than even he knew. She would learn that even though she might get something past him initially, he would find out eventually; and make her pay.

 

“Oh aye. Lord Tyrion is right impressed with all you’ve done here. Quite a turn-out innit?” The other companion comments, apparently incapable of being serious. For some reason he appreciated that, perhaps he would see the humor in this as well.

 

“Lord Tyrion makes it his business to keep up to date where his friends are concerned. We expected word from Lady Arya some time ago. Lord Tyrion merely wants to know his friend is well.” He looks curiously at Arya, trying to read between her flawless stare, a question.

 

“How kind.” Arya answers beside him. Her voice is scratchy, a bit higher than normal. “As you can see, all is well. Please, tell him as much, and send my regards. And I’m sure the Queen would be pleased to hear how Winterfell is prospering. Do send my regards.” Ramsay recognizes the threat in her suggestion; a slight growl hidden in her honeyed tone. She was ordering them to leave. Perhaps she truly hadn’t contacted the imp in the South. What was she playing at?

 

“And your name?” He addresses the bastard, feeling the twinge of excitement that comes from setting up a well-laid trap. He liked the tension of the spring being pulled into place, hiding the jagged teeth, and finding the squirming terrified thing later. He even liked to play with the mangled corpses.

 

“You know who I am.” His words were measured, not reactionary. As if he’d been holding his breath all night just to confront him with those words, gathering his courage. He had more balls than he would have thought, but less brains too. Ramsay detested lack of finesse; and the oaf wasn’t even playing the right way. He would have to take that conviction away from him, change the rules.

 

“Oh? Yes, I remember now.” He can feel the concern coming off Arya in waves. “Some lesser merchant, from Longtable was it?” The man narrows his eyes, so easily offended; far too easily. “Am I wrong? Clearly, you’re not a Northerner. A henchman for the imp, perhaps? Come on, give us a hint.” His personal guards chuckle in response, not truly understanding the joke, but picking up on the cruelty none-the-less. The men could always be counted on for a supportive chortle. The laughter had the effect he’d hoped, it riled up the dimwit well.

 

“It’s Gendry Fucking Baratheon, as you well know.” He steps forward with menace, his companions step back, making their non-involvement clear. Some in line decide to scatter elsewhere. His own personal guards put up their weapons as warning, effectively barring his approach. Gendry Fucking Baratheon stops in place, but energy still runs through him, veins standing at attention on his temples.

 

“Ah yes, of course. How silly of me.” He bats his eyes, eliciting more laughs from his personal audience. “Aren’t you meant to be at The Wall? Are you a deserter then?” Gendry puffs his chest out even further at this, affronted as well as enraged.

 

“I’m not a man of The Watch. But I did fight at the Wall, unlike some sitting in warm halls that don’t belong to them. I’m no merchant. Not a nameless thug. I’m the Lord of Storm’s End, the Baratheon heir, and that’s my WIFE you’ve got your hands all over. Bastard.” This he hisses, all pretense of control gone.

 

Bastard? Bastard? How dare he? He hadn’t gone to freeze his ass off at The Wall; he’d been here, keeping Winterfell alive. The guests still in line drop their jaws in shock at the audacity. He would pay for that. Bastard to Bastard.

 

Ramsay trails his fingers up higher onto Arya’s hip to provoke the man further. Ramsay can feel her struggle not to writhe away from his touch. He clenches harder, hard enough to leave bruises this time.

 

“Your wife, you say? Is that so? Funny how she’s never mentioned a husband before.” He turns Arya to face him, sitting sidesaddle on his lap, so he can more clearly see her face and her lying eyes.

 

Gendry fucking Baratheon shifts his gaze to Arya, rage not cooled, mixed with a longing Ramsay himself can’t possibly fathom. The poor idiot truly loved the She-Wolf. But she was his now. He was about to be taught the most important lesson a bastard can ever realize.

 

You hold on tight to what you want, because it can always be taken from you.

 

She hesitates. She hadn’t summoned him. She looked truly surprised to see him, at a loss for words.

 

“Well…” He prods, shattering her thoughts and keeping her on edge. But as she meets his gaze, all evidence of her discomfort is gone.

 

“He’s not.” She swallows. “My husband, that is.” He notices how cold and silver her eyes are; pools of metal. He certainly hadn’t expected that answer. Neither had Gendry or his companions it would seem.

 

“We took vows before The Seven, at sword point. The Old Gods would hardly concern themselves with such a farce. Whatever he thinks he’s doing here, he doesn’t belong. He has no place in the North.” She’s addressing Gendry, raising her eyebrows to make her point. The man sucks in a breath, a pained wheeze escaping.

 

The way she so efficiently crushed his soul, makes him want her even more. Even knowing better, having slept with one eye open night after night beside her; he wanted to believe her. Her bottom on his lap, eyes burning into his, shallows breaths escaping her lips. An image of her ruling faithfully by his side grabs hold of him and won’t let go.

 

“Not forced.” Gendry steps forward, forgetting himself. His armed men are only too happy to remind him of the proper distance, sharp points directed towards his throat. “You chose me. We…” Ramsay’s sure he was about to say love each other. But he’d changed course at the last second, questioning the truth of such a claim in that moment.

 

“The Queen chose. I agreed because The Seven and their rituals mean nothing to me. Only the word of the Old Gods has power here. Don’t mistake yourself.” She scolds, addressing her ‘husband’ coldly. Gendry’s shoulders droop in despair, the prospect of his wife’s rejection devastating. She is incredibly convincing. It’s a trick almost certainly. But still a decent point worth pondering. It might yet be the truth.

 

“You promised nothing before the Old Gods? The trees did not bear witness?” Ramsay asks her. That would change things somewhat.

 

“Of course not. He thinks wolves, wildlings, and The Wall is all there is up here. He knows nothing of our ways. I enjoyed him while I could, but he is no more my husband than he is a Baratheon.” There is no pleasure in her voice, but she does appear sincere. It almost sounds like truth. The new Queen, the dragon bitch, was born across the sea and was ignorant of their ways. She would not have understood what it was her Northern ‘ally’ was truly promising; fingers crossed no doubt. He could see well enough, Arya agreeing to the arrangement only so far as it would help her get home. But promises don’t mean quite as much once you’ve gotten your own needs met. Poor pathetic Gendry had clearly not even considered that. He was mulling it over now though, pain burning behind watery eyes. Perhaps Stark honor didn’t mean the same thing it once did, now that all was said and done. Ramsay was having a splendid time.

 

“As you say. And what would you have me do with him?” He asks Arya, overly dramatic; loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear.

 

She clears her throat once before responding. “Send him back to his uncle, tail between his legs. No wife, no title, no land, and no heirs. But alive.” It’s directed at Gendry, telling him to leave while he still can. Out of love or pity? As if he had any say in the matter.

 

“Show mercy, you mean?” He laughs. “And why would I ever do that?”

 

“Mercy? He’ll return shamed. Worse than death. Why kill him? You won he lost. Make him live with it, forever.” Cold, it gave him chills. Genuine or not, it was a striking blow. He couldn’t help but be in awe. She’d been right before, her ways were unorthodox, but had proven effective. Maybe it was preferable to cut a man down with words rather than sword from time to time; keep his enemies guessing.

 

“Until Stannis gifts him an army. What then?” He counters, liking playing this intellectual game with her.

 

“He won’t even have him back. He only tolerated Gendry with me as part of the deal. Even then he only offered a handful of men, a pittance; an insult. If he crawls back without me, he’ll just as like end up back in Flea Bottom miserable and pathetic.”

 

“You don’t mean this. You can’t…” The oaf cuts in, desperate. If he were capable of sympathy, he would certainly be feeling stirrings right now. Thankfully he was free of such weaknesses.

 

“Can someone shut him up?” He asks, suddenly bored with him. One hits him in the gut with the pommel of his sword, doubling the large man over and stealing his breath. Her lips part in solidarity for his pain. He addresses Arya once more as if the distraction had never happened. “You still haven’t explained why. Why I shouldn’t just kill him and be done with it.” Gendry gasps, trying to take in air. “I can’t have all these people thinking I’m weak.”

 

Given everything, she somehow manages to roll her eyes. The balls on this woman. “Weak? Not one hour ago you sliced through a man’s skull. They’re already frightened of you. Now show them you understand strategy.” He’s listening. “A clever man would not kill a relative of one who sits the Small Council. The Queen would have to retaliate, whatever the House.” Possibly. “Show them your intelligence. Impress them. Surprise them. No one will dare cross you.” It was a valid argument. Incredibly well thought out.

 

“Interesting point. You’re making sense.” She’s stunned silent for a moment, not expecting his acquiescence. Sighing in relief, she looks to Gendry for an instant before catching herself. “But I must get something, don’t you think? Or else what’s the point? What exactly is his life worth to you?” Her cool demeanor slips off, her concern showing through. There, he’d pierced her armor. Her relief entirely too short-lived.

 

“What do you want?” She asks, lips pursed. Pretense gone. The very air changes. Gendry looks up pitifully from where he’s kneeling on the floor, warning blades never far from his throat.

 

“Convince me.” He requests, liking the confusion once more gracing her features. She looks all around, eyes unfocused, words coming slowly.

 

“What more can I say? I’ve explained everything, I…” He waves his hand before her lips and she trails off.

 

“No more words, meaningless, circling round and round. Enough talk.” Her breaths are shallower now as she takes in his meaning; a painful looking gulp slides down her pale throat. She understands, but she’s in no hurry. She’s stalling, focusing on everything and nothing, eyeing Gendry from time to time. But it doesn’t matter; he prefers to take his time. Her eyes close for a brief moment, as the resolve sets in. The oaf recognizes it as well.

 

“No Arya! Don’t do anything, don’t!...” Gendry begs in his predictably pathetic whine. Desperate to get free of the blades set to pierce him. Ramsay was about to say something cutting, to stop his squawking, but Arya beats him to it.

 

“Please, shut him up.” She orders, rubbing her brow. Ramsay nods at the men holding him, as if to say, do it. Murf cracks the man hard across the jaw, shutting him up and spraying blood in a wide arc. Arya winces in sympathy, cringing in guilt before shaking it off.

 

“As you wish, My Lord.” She says, making a big show, exaggerating every word. Yes, she very much still hated him. He had to physically stop himself from rubbing his hands together in glee. He spreads his arms wide, legs splayed to make more room. She moves slowly, sensuously. Of course she’d understood, he never had to waste time explaining matters to her. She sits more fully in his lap, straddling him. Faces close, her hands slide along his shoulders. Whatever it was she was playing at, it was working.

 

Though he knew it false, he couldn’t help but be caught up in the intensity of her gaze. Of course, the husband’s whimpering and struggling in the background only makes it all the sweeter. She shakily puts her hand to his cheek, prolonging the moment; making his own heart beat faster despite itself. So convincing, so committed.

 

Sounds of a scuffle reach his ears. So far off, but persistent. He shakes it off, a minor matter, unimportant.

 

The smack of flesh, and grunting. Base animals, the lot of them. Trivial matter.

 

She brushes her lips against his neck, and weaves her fingers through the hair on the back of his head. Everything else is unimportant. Blades sing throughout the Hall. He attempts to look beyond her head, but she holds firm, he can’t look away.

 

She’s strong, stronger than he’s given her credit for. Her fingers crawl downward, down his arm, to his chest, his stomach, making their way to his hip. The smell of fresh blood reaches his nostrils, and her spell is broken. He clasps her hand tightly before it reaches his sword, just in time, squeezing hard enough to break knuckles. He shoves her off so roughly she falls straight to the ground, bottom hitting painfully on the stone. Her eyes, her eyes were hazy, not as unaffected by the drink as he’d thought.

 

He tsks at her in disappointment, though he isn’t. He likes the idea of scolding her publicly. It would be so degrading.

 

“Did you really think that would work?” He taunts. She scuttles backward, trying to get up.

 

He grabs his Stark prize before she can right herself fully, pulling her tight against his chest, blade already out and up against her jaw. He had her, at least.

 

“Half-hearted kisses and your pathetic attempts to poison me? Did you really think I wouldn’t figure it out? I know better than to touch anything you give me. It’s no great loss to keep a clear mind for the evening. I’m not as stupid as you think.” He teases, waiting for tears; the sweet hopelessness. But it doesn’t come. Instead, he hears laughter.

 

“Oh I know. Not stupid at all. You’re so paranoid. You wouldn’t touch a drop. Even from my own cup. But I’m afraid your men aren’t half so clever.” He can actually feel her smiling against him.

 

Ramsay’s still a moment, trying to decipher her latest riddle. His personal guards look confused, not having the mental capacity to follow her reasoning. Ramsay himself had forbidden them from indulging, and they were too frightened of him to disobey. Gendry and his two men look around just as confused, utterly bewildered.

 

His eyes finally focus on the scene around him, the distraction; and notice guests and guards alike, wandering drunkenly; yawning loudly or curled up in corners. More than drunk. Not the women though; bright-eyed and alert; ready. More guests are slumped over, passed out, winded, but not just from celebrating; those with white flowers pinned to their breast lay unconscious. Those without, bleeding from various places. The women who earlier served ale and wine, held weapons in hand, painted with blood.

 

He calls out to the masses, demanding their attention. Demanding order and silence. But there’s nothing, everyone caught up in bloodlust. He yells out his victory, letting them see Arya beneath his blade as his captive. Waiting for them to put down their weapons for their Lady.

 

They ignore him. He doesn’t like being ignored. They go on.

 

Before his eyes, serving whores bandy about sharpened forks and kitchen knives, slitting throats with more precision and malice than he would have imagined possible from the weaker sex. They separate their opponents from each other, stabbing where they can reach, vital spots that bleed them out faster. Inelegant butchering, but filled with hatred; and effective. The guests marked with flowers are merely stepped over, the ladies coming together to take down guards twice their height.

 

“They won’t stop.” She informs him calmly from beneath his grasp. “I trained them, I organized them. But this isn’t about me. It’s about vengeance. Kill me if you want, they won’t stop for anything.” She’s enjoying this.

 

Arya cheers them on, yelling encouragement from within his grasp; directing the women like a general; the servants her army. Magnificent. She’d done all of this, right under his nose. Oh, he’d known she was scheming and lying, but he’d underestimated her still. He’s silent. Reveling in her offensive blow, she mocks him.

 

“Clever, Ramsay. Truly. A worthy opponent. But you can’t know everything. You never knew me.” She reveals. Her women cut a bloody path; his men fall far too easily, already weakened by tainted food and drink. He turns away from the scene, knowing when to cut his losses.

 

“I know what I need to know.” He informs her, whispering; wedging his fingers painfully into her armpit, better trapping her against him. “I’m stronger.” He bites into the shell of her ear, hard enough to taste a tongue full of sweet blood, making her bark out in unexpected pain. “And I’ll always win in the end.”

 

“It’s not the end yet.” She corrects him.

True enough. Titles, lands, none of it meant anything without her claim. She had risked everything for tonight, one way or another, win or lose, all of it. He could play it that way as well.

 

She had hurry things along; he could no longer afford to play so loose; she’d forced his hand really.

 

With his sword pressed painfully close to her throat and a bruising grip on her arm, he leads her past the affray, through the carnage; the only way out the Hall. He’s astonished at the scene before him; sights he’d never thought to witness in all his days.

 

He catches glimpses of a tall black-haired woman stomping on a man’s throat, delighting in his gurgles.

 

A little fat man grabs swords from the fallen and passes them out amongst the women nearest him; sheathing them deeply in guts and groins.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he watches as Gendry turns the tables. The Bastard had surprised him after all. He had managed to maneuver himself up, facing off empty-handed against a slew of guards, punching one hard enough to crack his temple. His guards stood their ground, holding formation, raining blows on the Bastard Baratheon and his companions. The Southerner breaks off the arm of a chair, defending himself against four at a time. He had to give him some credit, begrudgingly. She doesn’t call out to him, doesn’t dare distract him, though it costs her something. Miraculously, he even gains ground, step by step. Gendry sees Arya, captured, and freezes up, earning a nasty cut to his thigh. With the chair leg, he whacks the offending guard in the stomach with so much force that he heaves up blood and bile. He had lived up to his father’s name in strength as well as devotion.

 

But for Ramsay, the cursing, thrashing woman in his grasp was the more dangerous of the two; she demanded his immediate attention. Cunning enough to play obedient for so long; all the while planning a massacre. Who knew how many men he’d have left once the night was over. Meanwhile, he’d still have the servant bitches to deal with. They were certainly making a mess of his Hall. And if the oaf bastard lived, he’d have to sort him out. But Arya was the dangerous one.

 

The one he’d fucked, Mary-something, was stabbing a guard with his own sword, sheathing it in the man’s gut and groin.

 

He heard begging and pleading, and was shamed to learn it was coming from his own men. They were outnumbered, and slowed from the fouled libations. He’d underestimated these wenches. And he’d altogether overestimated his men. He and Arya nearly stumble a few times, having to maneuver around the dozens and dozens of unconscious and dead guests alike. She kicks out at chairs and tries to grab at sconces to slow him, but he wedges his hip against her back, keeping her permanently off-balance. Whenever she jerks her chin too hard, the steel makes shallow cuts, which bleed profusely. It does nothing to deter her, but it makes his grip more slippery. Such a little thing to make such growls. He shoves her, ever kicking and screaming; bearing most of her weight and pressing her forwards. They make it out unobstructed, the cool starless night a relief.

 

No matter if everyone else perished this night, the Old Gods would witness their vows, coerced though they may be. He’d waited long enough, too long, and had been proven the fool for it. As his father had warned, he spent entirely too much time playing rather than making the kill. He wouldn’t make that mistake again, especially not with the crafty wolf whimpering and fighting to be free. He would wed her beneath the full moon that very night. The Old Gods would bear witness, and his position would never be in question again. She would breed him an heir, boy or girl, he wasn’t picky. And then he would dispose of her. He would still win, it was the only option.

Chapter Text

Wolf’s Bite

 

Arya’s POV 

It should be stranger, she realizes. She should be feeling more pain even. But there was no pain, no fear. She was exhilarated. The pleasure in watching the women, her own women, make a bloody mess of the vermin in her Hall; had her chuckling. What a sight. One weeks in the making. Through sweat, and grit, and vitriol, she’d seen it done. If he slit her throat for it in this moment, it would still be worth it.

“What’s so funny?” Ramsay growls, not understanding the joke. He’s out of breath, the effort of heaving her all this way taking a toll on him. She made it as difficult as possible of course. He thought he was dragging her to her fate. But all the while, she was backing him into a corner.

“Your men.” She answers simply. “The sight of them bleeding out on the floor like that…” She laughs again at the image, unable to finish her thought. Her breaths were steady, her voice clear, her heartbeat constant, even slower maybe. No, time itself was slower, she was sure of it. She bled from the shallow nicks along her throat. But she couldn’t feel the pain; nothing hurt. She wasn’t afraid, though she supposed she ought to be. That was more to do with the mixture of opiate and wine coursing through her system.

He stops altogether then, spinning her out from beneath his sword; slamming her back hard into the closest tree. The move didn’t surprise her, she doesn’t blink when he pins her shoulders to the rough bark.

“Listen now. I’ve found your antics amusing in the past. I tolerated you, I even indulged you.” He quickly wipes a sweaty brow with a blood-marked sleeve. “But you’ve gone too far. You’ve abused my generosity.” She snorts outright at his use of the word generosity. “I can’t let this go, Arya. I won’t laugh this off.” He pinches her mangled ear, and she feels the pieces crunch together. His hot breath heavy on her face. “You will pay, publicly. I will take my time devising proper retribution. The punishment will end only when I say it ends. And I will relish every second of it. Do you understand?” He grinds the shattered shell of her ear between his fingertips, other hand pressing around her neck. The message was clear. Behave or else.

Or else what? Death?

Her lips twitch, wanting to smile, before she tamps it down. He would certainly misinterpret the gesture.

Finally, how she wanted to play.

She nods in mock contrition, mouth downturned. He pulls her back against him, securing her as best he can in his agitated state. One hand tangles into her hair, digging deep into the base of her skull. He flexes the fingers holding his sword hilt a few times, perspiration making his grip precarious. She could slide out, go limp and stall him further. But she had no desire to slow what was coming.

The Godswood grows ever bleaker as they leave the glow from the Great Hall behind, only the moon lighting their path. The darkness only made her braver.

This, this was how war was played. Should she lose, the repercussions would be too terrible to comprehend. Worse than death. She’d learned to read him so easily, after their time together. He thought he was playing with her, testing her- taming her. She was well past that now.

A culmination, a final confrontation, the true end; she’d promised him as much. He without his men, she without her people. It was surreal, and yet it was right; as it was always bound to be. He needed the blessing of the Gods to legitimize his claim.

She sought the Old Gods too, but it was their vengeance she coveted. She wanted him dead, and it would be by her own hand.

He slows his frantic pace at the sight of the sacred clearing, their destination reached. A ring of trees, older than Old Nan herself, from before Bran the Builder, planted by the First Men, or maybe before even them; look down upon them. He pulls her down roughly to kneel; side by his side before the bleeding Heart Tree at its apex. She goes down easily, all-too-willing.

He squints at the tree through the darkness, blood sap tears leaking from its eyes. She can see, all of it, all at once. Each branch, twig, and pebble. She can see the determined sheen on Ramsay’s face, how pale he is, how shallow his breaths are. Desperation looked good on him. 

And the smells. Cold bark, fresh-stepped dirt. She smells her own blood, already healing and crusting. And more too, the blood pouring in The Hall, so many kinds, pumping out slowly but surely. And she smells Ramsay’s blood, salty and sweet, running through his own veins, beating loudly inside his chest. So loud.

Merilee warned her this would happen, possible effects of the herb over a prolonged period of time. To get others to drink without suspicion, she needed to drink too. The same dose, which would fell a man three times her size; must not show in her. Little by little, day after day, she’d ingested small doeses, getting used to the sluggishness, the haziness of the drug. She’d built up a tolerance, she no longer felt tired or unfocused. She felt something else entirely now. It made her feel… warm. She almost imagined it made her stronger. She was not entirely unfamiliar with poisons and toxins. It was a measured risk. She would have to will herself sharp.

“Hear me, I beseech you. I come before you to claim this woman…” He starts. But a cold gust of wind blasts loudly through the trees. More than the wind. There’s something beyond that; she hears something else, she’s sure of it. A whisper perhaps. It’s familiar, she knows it, but…

A raven, black as night itself; feathers fluttering. Haunting caws, calling, berating, in disapproval. She blinks once, and the image is gone. The wind lonely in its howling. Not real. It couldn’t be. There were no ravens left free in Winterfell; Ramsay’s orders.

“I Ramsay Bolton…” Another deep caw sounds through the air. Ramsay stops reciting, uneasy. He’d heard it too. She wasn’t imagining it then. He shakes himself and starts from the beginning again. It was pleasing to watch him so unsettled. So unsure.

“I, R…” A chorus of howls; of yipping and barking. Wolves. Nymeria? So long since she’d lost her. She hadn’t seen her lupine totem once since her return. She had missed them, missed a part of herself.

Ramsay can’t be heard, can’t hear himself think. His gaze scrambles from point to point, afraid. She’s invigorated. It’s all clear. His heart pulses so loudly within his throat. She can hear it. She can see the blue artery pumping beneath thin pink skin. It’s not possible. It’s too dark. The wolves move in closer. She remembers this feeling. What it was like to slip into an animal’s senses, to feel things the way they do. To see from their eyes.

They are loud, just beyond the circle, watching on, drooling viscous puddles on sodden leaves. They come no closer, as if waiting. Had she called them somehow? Or had they called to her? They can smell the blood, and his fear. Rich and sweet. Ramsay is transfixed. Is it them he fears? Or the Gods he’d angered and misused. She felt their power working righteously through her.

They’re growling now, low; lips curling over sharp teeth. And then a strange howl, unlike any she’d ever heard, beyond lupine, breaks free, resonating in the night air.

It’s her, the growl is hers. She’s hearing his heartbeat, she’s smelling the blood pump. And it’s her that jumps on him, biting soft buttery skin, chewing through plump full veins, puncturing the breath-filled column nestled beneath, and finally gnawing on meaty spine.

He never even got to scream, only time for a gasp before she was upon him, savaging his throat and lower jaw so badly he could only gurgle. He’s so shocked, wracked with disbelief. She props herself up, examining her handiwork, hovering over him, watching him exsanguinate. One masculine palm clasps desperately to the wound, trying in vain to stem the flow. But his hand isn’t big enough; it can’t fit all the way around the gash, blood seeping freely from between his fingers. His body spasms with each spurt of blood. There’s desperation there as he clings to life.

“Don’t bother.” She soothes, voice thick with honeyed blood. “You’re dying.”

She’s telling the truth; even he knows it as he stares at her with stunned, glassy eyes. There’s terror underneath, the fear of the unknown, what came next.

“As you choke on your own blood, everything will get darker, fuzzy. There will be quiet, only the sound of your own heart beating itself to death. And then it will be over, all of this. You’ll die as you lived- a bastard.”

His lips twitch, trying in vain to form words. She smiles wider in delight. The twitching eases, his body finally giving out.

She leans in closer and whispers in his ear.

I win. She tells him, feeling the full force of it.

She calmly spits up the blood she’d swallowed, tasting sour bile mixed in. It’s victory. The sighing breeze brushes up against her, a calming touch against flushed skin; congratulatory. The wolves have gone. If they were ever really there. She had more than drank her fill.

She sits back, making herself comfortable. She watches on as he finishes dying, blood steadily pouring from his neck onto the ground, seeping into the crunched up leaves underfoot. The smell of decay taking hold, wafting towards her in waves. She wanted it slow, she wanted the death to take its time; to not miss a second of it.

The Old Gods were on her side; she never should have doubted it. They were harsh, but fair. They rewarded those bold enough to keep the faith, but took their cost in flesh. She would enjoy this triumph, blood fresh on her tongue. Her women can wait, they were more than capable. She deserved this; she’d promised herself after all.

 


 

Gendry’s POV

 

Of the six surrounding him, he’s down to two now. Fighting them had been a blur. The rage had gotten into his blood. He liked it. It helped it block out distractions and doubts. Facing off against them, he could hear their steel calling to him. The rage helped him in battle. Perhaps he had more of his father in him than he’d like to admit.

He had nothing in his hands. The Imp’s men were busy themselves; not much help regardless. Bronn, the arsehole, was still fighting one feet away. He lacked any grace, but Gendry still admired his intensity; damn but he was effective. The other one, Pod, he was helping the women, divvying out swords. He was the thinker of the two. But the women hardly needed any assistance. They made a wonderful mess of things, felling their enemies ruthlessly with sharpened bits and pieces. He had only his rage. And the drive to find Arya. And the thought that The Bastard must die.

Two men left. Two men standing between him and her. One is quick, moves well. He’s smaller than the other, a graceful form with smudged, misshapen features. Gendry’s so busy dodging his blows, that he gets the brunt of the other’s hacking. This one is huge, bigger even than him. He hadn’t met too many men larger than himself. And one was a true giant. This man must have a bit of colossus in him, a distant relative of Wun Wun. But he stood in his way. He’d have to be cut down just the same.

Every other breath is spent peering out the side of his eye for glimpses of Arya. He’d lost sight of her, and it was a constant squeeze in his gut; like a dishrag being wrung out. Gods damnit, that bastard had her. He was doing Gods knew what with her, right now. Fingers clutching her silky skin, well-used blade against her all-too delicate throat. He would rip off all the bastard’s parts once he got a hold of him and stomp on what was left.

Ugh. Pain radiates from his thigh.

Right, don’t lose focus.

Rage; give me strength he prays out, to what he doesn’t know.

He’s knocked downward, staggering not to lose his feet out from under him. He braces himself on one knee; the other pierced by the quick slice of the littler one’s blade. The thing looked filthy, poorly taken care of. It went in easily, he felt the steel go deep through flesh and fat and muscle. As the man struck, Gendry grasped the blade, holding it impossibly tight; sharp edge biting into his palm. He was wounded, he had the disadvantage, but he was still stronger. His anger made him strong. With a mighty pull he had the blade out of the man’s hands. The fucker only had time to drop his mouth in shock before Gendry flipped the sword around and slice him right up the groin. The blade got stuck in bone for a moment before he pulled it free. He knew it wouldn’t take the man long to bleed out, so he turned his back to him; focusing his attention on his last opponent. He wouldn’t waste his fury.

Agonizingly Gendry rose, balancing his weight between both legs evenly, ignoring the pain. The man was big, and stronger than him. But it didn’t matter. One last obstacle before he could get to Arya, to save her. The tip of his sword well placed, he punctures the man below his ribcage neatly. A meaningful twist of his meaty forearms, and the man drops. Finally, enough distraction.

Around and around he searches, eyeing every corner for her deep red dress, for that bastard’s pig-like face. He sees a flash of something in a far corner, and makes his way towards it. The Hall is as crazy as any battlefield he’s ever been on. The women are in a blood rage, stabbing corpses, slicing men up like cuts of meat, laughing at desperate pleas and moans of suffering. His injured leg steps unsurely on a thick puddle of blood, and he almost slips. A sturdy hand steadies him, and he comes face to face with Hot Pie, breathing heavily from the effort. He claps the other man on the back affectionately; even in all this the sight of his old comrade warms him. His only friend left from those days now.

A cold breeze wafts through the Hall, stirring the already heady copper scent. Many of the stab-happy women stop their butchering to look up expectantly. He turns to follow their gaze.

Measured steps can be heard beneath the clatter in the Hall. A red dress trails along the floor, following its mistress, streaking blood along the floor like elegant brush strokes on a canvas. Familiar curves sashay confidently back into the room; her small figure drawing attention from all present; the candles burned low to almost nothing. He’s desperate to see her fully; to view her face and know she was alright. He gets his wish; she steps further into the light.

He’s stunned still once more at the sight of her, but for very different reasons. There’s so much blood streaking her chest and arms, he can’t tell where the dress ends and her skin is meant to begin. Her mouth and jaw and most of her nose are painted with gore, red and glistening- fresh. Some drips from her lips, like a juicy kill in a wild beast’s muzzle. Her hair, once braided carefully back, stands up straight around her face; mangy clumps seemingly dipped in scarlet ink. The effect is that of an unholy crown.

Rivulets make their way onto her dark-spattered throat and chest, blood long since crusted over underneath. Even her shoulders down to her elbows had smears of it. So much red. Made all the more stark in contrast to the few splotches of pale flesh here and there. Was she hurt too badly? Was she dying? He wants to go to her, but he’s rooted to the spot. As if under a spell. As they all seemed to be. On she walks, despite the state of her, or maybe because of it.

There is quiet now, all waiting anxiously for a word or a gesture. He waits too. Why can’t he do something?

The giant table rests at the center, a few seats filled with the slumped over dead. She pulls one up and onto the floor, making the motion look easy.

She steps first onto the newly empty seat, then up onto the table, raising herself high for all to see. The women form a protective circle around her, faces eager. He’s still frozen, watching.

The expectant hush is terrible, none sure what to make of her ghastly presence.

“Listen. And listen well.” She intones. She needn’t have bothered; every ear, conscious or otherwise, was trained on her. “This.” She says, wiping her mouth with her palm. “This is all that’s left of Ramsay Bolton.” So calm, so unemotional. “The wolves will eat well tonight.”

A moment’s hesitation, and every woman there roars and cheers. True joy, relief, and amazement. It’s deafening- not with the rage of battle, but with the fervor of conquest.

She motions with one hand, and her audience quiets once more.

“And with him dies his savage ways. His ill treatment of women, disrespect for the Gods, and dismissal of our laws. For these sins and many others he was judged and sentenced. The Starks have always held Winterfell. Once again, it is so. Order has been restored. The Gods have set things right. No one will displace us, not ever again. I rule here.” She announces.

The thrill is palpable; the intensity of it hits him in the gut.

A chant begins.

 

‘Queen in the North!’

 

Queen in the North!

 

“Queen in the North!”

 

She settles them down once more, easily. Then continues.

“I am no Queen.” Some concerned looks at that. Some no’s ring out. “The true Queen rules in the South.” She’s looking out into the crowd, at someone. He looks to where she’s focused. It’s Pod and Bronn she’s looking at. “I bend the knee to the Dragon Queen. And express my humble gratitude to her men. I hope you’ll thank Lord Tyrion for his concern and continued friendship.” She looks deeper into the crowd, at each and every one of the women. “But Winterfell takes care of itself. The North takes care of itself.” A chorus of ‘yes’ and ‘aye’. “Every woman here is responsible for liberating our lands, and ridding our home of filth. To each of you I owe my deepest thanks, and my utmost respect.” She means it, there’s a depth to her words that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Each of you will be returned to your homes and families, with whatever else you might need.”

More cheers, but there are concerned whispers as well. A tall black-haired woman steps forward. He recognizes her from the gates; passing out those little white flowers with a stern look etched on her face.

“And if we can’t go home?” She asks. Though there’s too much chatter for her to be heard. She tries again, louder. “And what of those who can’t go home?” She asks. All stop twittering, intent on the new turn. “My parents traded me for a pair of pigs. I wasn’t worth much to them then. I have no place with them now.”

Another speaks up. “When I was taken, none came looking for me. They all knew what Ramsay and his men were like; what it would mean for me to be taken and used.” She swallows in discomfort, the motion made even more unnatural by the stark splotches of blood. “They won’t have me back. I’ve been ruined.”

More babble as the women agree, echoing the other’s disquiet. He’d seen enough of Ramsay; he’d fought his men. He’d no doubt these women had been used and hurt. Their anger had been righteous.

Arya’s eyebrows crease, a slight frown at their questions. She takes in a breath, ready to speak. Once more they’re silent, intent to hear her answer; no gesture necessary. That’s how closely they follow her.

“As I said. Any who wish to return home, have my blessing and will be given provisions. Should you wish to travel South, East, I will find you passage. But, should you stay,” The pause is strongly felt. “You will be give a place of honor at my table, for all time.” Excited gasps of disbelief. “You are champions of Winterfell, all. You were my army when I needed one. The loyalty you have all shown will not be forgotten. I won’t forget.” A few have tear tracks down bloodied cheeks, smiles emblazoned on their faces. “I need you, all of you. We will make Winterfell what it once was. We are the North, and we are unstoppable.”

The screams are fanatic, almost religious in their fervor. The effect is heady, a richness in the air.

No one is unaffected by her, by the outpouring of devotion.

Gendry is once again in awe of her. He feels, however, like he’s seeing her anew. Spattered in her enemy’s blood, eyes fierce and wild. She commands the room, effortlessly earning their respect. More than that, they worshipped her. He's never felt so far apart from her.

He’d thought the same of the Dragon Queen when he first laid eyes upon her; every inch of her regal. The way everyone looked to her, at her; following her without question, believing in her, striving to impress her. He saw now those same things in Arya. No longer the saucy rebel he’d met in King’s Landing, but every inch a leader. Beyond the poise and perfection, Arya also had her tormentor’s blood dripping from her maw. A truly startling image. He saw now why Daenerys feared being usurped by her. And why Arya had bothered to mention the Queen in her speech; she thought of everything.

“I’m sure you all must be exhausted. And you’ve earned your rest.” She pauses. “But I don’t want this filth staining my home anymore. First things first, we clean house.” A few laughs. “The wolves will have to make room.” More laughter and roars of agreement.

They get to work immediately, no hesitation, no complaint. They drag out bodies and scrub floors. He is lost again in the flurry of motion. Again there is talk fluttering throughout the Hall as they labor; excited retellings of vicious blows, disbelief the plan had worked, even a few remarks at the state of the floors, and all that good wine wasted. The innocent guests yet waking are directed to the side, given water and blankets. She gives quiet orders to a few closest to her, whispering into ears before they run off to comply. She peers directly at him, but only for a moment before turning back to delegate. Going from woman to woman. Getting swept up in the crowd.

She’d seen him. Looked right at him. Then turned away. Disappeared. Gods damnit! He'd only taken his eyes off her for an instant, and lost her somehow.

He feels a tap on his shoulder, he pivots to find a woman looking directly at him. It was the tall one who’d stood out, hair like his own. She’d said her family traded her for a few pigs.

“Baratheon.” She addresses him, face devoid of emotion. “The Lady requests your presence.” So matter of fact, giving away nothing. He wanted Arya not some messenger. But he followed, no protest. So long as it meant he would see her. Whatever it took to talk to his wife, look upon her up close, smell her even. Once he held her in his arms, it would all be right again. He thought it over and over again.

Chapter Text

Aftermath

 

Gendry

 

The tall woman leads him onward, not slowing for his limp. It throbbed with each step, but he ignored it. They went the long way, on the outer edge of the bustling women. Already setting about their tasks, joyful in their win. He’d never seen anyone scrub so vigorously before. They stop at a doorway and the servant messenger unlocks the door, leaving it open for him. This is not the master suite, but a hell of a lot nicer than what he was used to at the Wall. She doesn’t follow him, and he’s glad for it.

 

It’s simple enough, small and unadorned; but comfortable and warm. Not a servant’s room, but hardly like their suite in Storm’s End either. Not complaining mind, but an odd observation. A table and chair, parchment and ink spread atop it. A mirror, and another little side table, a basin of water resting on top. But no Arya. With a long sigh he sits down on the bed, thick comforter soft beneath him, full weight sinking him deep into the mattress. He runs his hands along the surface, the soft bed a thousand times silkier than what’d he become accustomed to in these weeks away. It’s like a dream, parts of it familiar from The Wall, and his fantasies that had seemed so real and close. But here, now, it’s unreal. The ache in his leg the only thing he’s really sure of.

 

He’s meant to wait, he supposes; that was the ‘instruction’ he was given. But for how long?

 

The sky outside gets lighter, and still she doesn’t come.

 

He can’t bear it any longer; he knows he’s going mad.

 

Or he’s dead already, holding on too tightly. He’d died at The Wall; a white walker took a chunk out of him, or Melisandre had finished her ritual, or the bloody cold itself had done him in. His spirit had made it here, but to what end?

 

Perhaps he hadn’t left the Wall at all; he was there still, dreaming crazy things that made no sense.

 

The door clicks and opens, the sound rings in his ears. Another servant, a messenger perhaps…

 

Soft footsteps.

 

It’s her.

 

She stands in the doorway, watching him.

 

He stands, pain forgotten.

 

Arya’s here, and what’s more, she actually resembles his wife once more.

 

It’s her, really her. Blood, dirt, and make-up washed clean. She was out of that tight dress, and wrapped in bulky fur robes, grey pelts covering her from jaw to ankle. All covered up, but still the lady, authoritative. Her wet hair is tied back, and out of her face. He can see the hollows around her grey eyes, how pale. But it was her, up close.

 

Arya’s still in his presence, lips parted; he can’t read her. He’s frozen; heart beating faster, but muscles unwilling to move. Something cruel always seemed to get in the way for them. His body might give up right there and then.

 

“Gendry.” She greets with a small smile, though it doesn’t quite meet her eyes. There it is. The smile is for him. “It’s you. I half thought I imagined you. A half dream.” She fumbles with the words, a rare thing for her. He rushes toward her and wraps his arms around her. Letting himself feel, letting himself believe.

 

Gods, the smell of her. It is her, real. He squeezes her against him, not able to get enough of the feel of her. So warm, so right. He knows his eyes are watering, but he doesn’t care in the slightest.

 

“Arya.” He kisses the crook of her shoulder, fingers stroking the base of her skull. “I’m real. You’re real.” He stops himself, tripping over too many thoughts at once. “I dreamt... The things I saw… And I didn’t know what to believe.” Again, there’re no words. Nothing is coming out right.

 

He can feel, keenly, painfully, that she’s not clutching as fiercely as he is. “It’s alright.” She soothes. Carefully, she pulls free of him, kind smile still on her face. Kind, and polite- almost distant. His chest feels tight.

 

“You’re limping.” She notices. He glances down, having forgotten. But not her, she missed little. “Let me see.” She instructs. Before he can respond, she presses down on his shoulders, hard; he sits back down. She could have thrown him to the floor and he would have gone down easily.

 

Arya viciously rips open his trouser leg, startling him into silence.

 

A particularly painful prod makes him jump. But it’s worth it to have her so close.

 

“Seems clean enough. Will need to be bound though.” She answers, like he’s not even there. She’d changed too.

 

Arya sets beside him.

 

Gendry opens his mouth to say something but Arya presses down just below the wound, the jolt of pain startling him.

 

She’s staring too hard through it, eyes not quite focused, blinking frequently.

 

“Made it all the way here, only to be skewered within these very walls.” She swallows. “How did you make it back?”

 

“I came early. I was worried.” She raises a single eyebrow at this.

 

“Unaccompanied, no men to speak of? What of the thousands of men your uncle sent to the Wall, did any of them live? Did we lose?”

 

Right, she didn’t know all that had happened.

 

“No, no.” He assures her, stroking her cheek where it met her fur collar. She doesn’t flinch, but she doesn’t lean into his palm like she used to. “The war is all but won, the men are well, as is my uncle.” She scrunches her brow in disbelief, just the way she used to.

 

“The war is won? The dead walk, but the war is all but won? How is that possible? Was the letter an exaggeration? Or did you defect? Tell me the truth.”

 

“No. No. The letter spoke the truth. And we lost many men. The Watch lost even more. But not in vain, the threat is over.” She nods, relieved.

 

“Thank the Gods.”

 

He watches the movement along her throat; drawing his attention to the faint nicks marking the flesh there. He doesn’t share her sentiments; he thanks the Gods for nothing. The way he saw it, he had fought the Gods every step of the way, everything he cared about he’d clawed for.

 

“Not the Gods. We all keep worshipping them, and for what?” He bites out. She pulls back, affronted. “I’ve seen poor, hungry, scared. I’ve seen many; many fall, only to rise again as one of them. Many blades broken and useless; they did nothing. Prayers unanswered. Cold enough to lose fingers, snow so thick you could barely see in front of you. All that, and still they punish you. Punish us.” He brushes his fingers along the cuts along her neck, mourning each one.

 

She sucks in a breath, startled at the intensity in his voice. He’s startled too, removing his fingers.

 

“Never mock the Gods, Gendry. Never. They are just, but ultimately, unforgiving.” She warns him, steely eyes tired.

 

“Just? That’s not the word I would use.” Had she gone mad? He was relatively sure he had. And he didn’t want to be arguing with her.

 

“You’re alive, aren’t you? Winterfell is free once more, isn’t it? And the unnatural creatures that threatened the North have been beaten back, haven’t they? What more could one ask for?” He got the sense she wasn’t actually asking him. She wasn’t looking at him.

 

“How about a moment’s peace? Some real rest? It shouldn’t have to be this hard.” He jests.

 

She relents at this, another sad smile. “And yet?” She replies. He picks up her hand, caressing the knuckles. After a moment, she pulls the hand away to stifle a yawn. He feels its absence.

 

Her eyelashes flutter, then another yawn escapes right after. She could use rest as well.

 

“Are you alright?” The words are out of his mouth before he can even think them through. Of course she’s not alright, pale as anything, neck cut, barely keeping her eyes open. How was she even sitting upright?

 

Another sad smile. She looks as tired as he feels. Of course, he hadn’t even considered how exhausted she must be. He was looking forward to lying beside her more than anything.

 

“Do you know where we are?” She asks him out of the blue. It’s as if she hadn’t even heard him. The words are slow, dreamy.

 

“Uh, we’re in the Eastern corridor, I believe.” Not sure what she’s asking. He’d gathered that much on the walk though.

 

“This was my room, as a child.” She announces proudly. He suddenly sees everything with new eyes. Of course- simple, unadorned, but comfortable.

 

“It’s nice.” He comments, not knowing what else to say. It is nice; it feels right to be in this private place with her. It’s something she would have shown him right off if they’d come together in the first place. Something normal. Normal for them.

 

“Whenever I misbehaved, which was often, I would be sent to my room. I could only leave once I apologized or made amends.” She laughs. “I would refuse of course, and end up locked in here for hours, or what felt like it. I hated it so much. I wanted out.” It’s a strange turn, but he is swept up in her tone just the same. A nice memory, sort of.

 

“Why didn’t you just apologize?” Though he wouldn’t expect any less of her.

 

“I did, eventually, when I couldn’t take it anymore.” She rubs her hand across the bedspread, feeling the fabric as he’d done earlier. “I wanted out so badly. Now, I just want to stay there, here… forever.” She’s talking so strangely, he doesn’t understand her. And no wonder, she can barely keep her eyes open.

 

“Arya, you’re tired. Get some rest now. We can talk more in the morning.” He would have liked to speak more in truth, but her fluttering eyelids made him think otherwise.

 

She lays down on her side, props her head onto her upper arm. “Tomorrow. We’ll talk properly tomorrow.” She agrees. Her eyes close, her breathing evens out.

 

“Arya?” He says softly. There’s no answer. Her chest rises and falls, rises and falls. She’d fallen asleep. So quickly.

 

He’d barely shared a few sentences with her. He hadn’t even kissed her yet. There was so much that didn’t make sense. But questions could wait. As he’d done before, he holds up a palm to feel her breath, and strokes the ends of her hair. He was careful though, knowing she was a light sleeper. But she didn’t stir, she didn’t swat him away. He lays full-length beside her, taking her in. He can rest now, whatever else, he was finally home. He’d found her.

 

 

 

She was gone when he awoke. It was eerily familiar, actually, to their first morning as husband and wife. He’d lost sight of her then too. They had been strangers then. And now she’d become his everything. As he’d fallen asleep last night, he’d let himself believe that he’d never have to wake without her again.

 

But she had made herself scarce. She had done it in The Red Keep, of course she knew Winterfell twice as well.

 

He asked women where their Lady was, and received no help whatsoever. This was meant to be his home too, but he was being treated like a stranger.

 

No conqueror's welcome, though even in his dreams he hadn’t really expected it. He’d rushed back, somewhat triumphant; but he never felt the hero. He hadn’t done much, except get in the way. No one here thought him above a nuisance. But it wasn’t just him. He got the sense men were none too popular around here. It was by the grace of his wife he was even tolerated at all. And he couldn’t even keep track of her.

 

Dinner that night was raucous but merry. The women were like so different, nothing like the squirrelly looks he’d received the night before. They were joyous, open, and free; laughing and drinking. He was temporarily distracted from his search for Arya by the presence of Stannis’ men, the ones he’d sent back with Arya, sickly from their time in the dungeon, but with the cheer of liberation. Hot Pie was there as well, celebrating and merry as the rest. When asked to recount Lommy’s death, he became somber, and ate another slice of pie to keep his mouth too full to answer.

 

He imagined all the ways his presence might have made a difference. That he might have done his duty by Arya, protected her as he was meant to. But he couldn’t think what better he might have done; the odds were well and truly fucked to begin with. The Gods had seen to that.

 

There.

 

He’d seen her.

 

Only the blink of an eye, a figure outside the periphery. She popped up here and there, giving orders, taking the time for each and every one who needed her. Except for him.

 

Without even a farewell to Hot Pie and the others he makes chase, following close behind the way she’d gone.

 

He caught up with her by the kennel, checking on the state of the hounds, keeping her distance all the while. She’s dressed in breeches and a tunic, a fine dark leather; hair braided neatly and simply. This was her at her truest.

 

“Arya.” He calls to her, needing her to stop and look at him. She doesn’t jump or flinch.

 

“Ah, Gendry, I’ve been looking for you.” She turns slowly, no sign of surprise. As though she hadn’t disappeared, as though she hadn’t been avoiding him.

 

“Where’d you run off to? I thought we were gonna talk, I…”

 

“I’m very busy, I have to make arrangements. But yes, let’s talk. I have some questions for you.” Her lips are stern, she’s playing the Lady now, he recognizes. Her eyes are still hazy as the night before.

 

Questions? What? “What questions?” This was what she wanted to talk about? No, not talk, interrogate. It was what a good leader would do, he realizes. He was far more interested in what had happened here. He had questions of his own.

 

“The war is won you said. How? How did you defeat those, creatures?” Was she doubting his word?

 

“I didn’t. The dragon Queen came to our aid, burning the fuckers by the hundreds. We would all be dead without her.” She lets out a deep breath, but it’s not relief.

 

“It seems we needn’t have bothered ourselves then. Things sorted themselves out.” Not relieved, irritated. At him?

 

“Many men died. And many thousands of more would have had we not shown up when we did. Stannis’ men, My men, kept everyone alive until she came. I have to believe it wasn’t for nothing. There was a need, and we answered the call.”

 

“So what exactly are you doing here then? Didn’t they need you any more?” He feels a clutch at his heart at her question.

 

“I came to rescue you. I thought you were in trouble, that you needed me…” He can hear the defensiveness in his voice. He had come to save her, and what a joke that was.

 

She sighs, and it stings. At least she hadn’t laughed, the humor not lost on him.

 

“But you were needed there. You made a promise. Your men needed you.” She accuses. There, not here.

 

“The war was won. The Dragon Queen saw to that, her dragons burning them back. I did nothing but mend useless swords. And dream of you. She said you were in danger, so…”

 

“Who said, the Queen? Did she get my letter?” Her brows furrow in confusion. What letter? Sigh. He hadn’t meant to mention the Red Woman. Not yet.

 

“No. Melisandre.” Her lips tighten into a thin line. “She said you were in danger, that you were…”

 

“Melisandre? Melisandre was there?” There it was, a hint of her old fury; the jealous Arya he remembered. At least she hated Melisandre as he did.

 

“Yes, she came with Stannis. She…”

 

“Right, of course. No wonder he went North, She told him to. Not that he’d listen to me. An actual Northerner. ” She tsks, then looks back at him. “You’ve forgiven her then. You’re friends once more.” She’s needling him.

 

“Of course not. I hate her as much as I ever did.” He feels his temper mounting.

 

“But you trust her just the same.” She presses.

 

“Yes. No. I don’t know. She said she saw you in chains. Chains, Arya. Whatever that means. I had to save you. Only a fool ignores prophecy. I couldn’t risk being wrong. I couldn’t live with it.”

 

She laughs, and it’s cold. So was everything up here it seemed.

 

“What’s funny?”

 

“Well you certainly have peculiar timing. Too late to be of any use, and just early enough to get in the way.” He hisses at that, her words the most hurtful she could have said. Off his look, she stops her tirade. “I apologize, that was poorly said. It’s not your fault, none of it.” She seems ashamed, the glaze of her eyes clearing. “You couldn’t have known. There’s nothing you could have done besides. I didn’t mean that.” Her apology releases a floodgate.

 

“I’m still sorry. For not knowing, for not coming, for coming too soon, or…”

 

“I know. I know.” She pauses, messing about with her hands. “Honestly, I don’t know what to say to you. I thought it would be easier in the light of day, with a few hours sleep, but it’s worse. When I awoke, I…” He takes her palm in his own, stilling her anxious movements.

 

“It’s me, Arya. You know me. It doesn’t have to be hard. It could be like it was at Storm’s End. We can go back to before. Like you said. Forget all that has come to pass since we parted.” She pulls her hand back at that.

 

“No, Gendry. I can’t do that.” Her gray eyes, so sad, so distant.

 

“Tell me what to do. What to say. Tell me what you want. I can make things better. I can…”

 

“You can’t.” So matter of fact, so sure.

 

“For fucksakes Arya, at least give me a chance. I’m trying. And you’re making it impossible.”

 

“I know. And I can’t help it.” Agreeing with him puts him more ill at ease.

 

“What happened? Tell me and maybe…”

 

“Why? What difference will that make?” Her eyes are earnest, she really wants to know.

 

“The difference is I’m your husband, and you’re my wife. We can’t just…”

 

“That’s the thing, Gen. I’m not. We’re not.” She swallows.

 

“I know all those lies you told Ramsay were bullshit. About us not being married, about wanting me gone, you were just trying to protect me.” His tone is a little too desperate.

 

“Yes, I was. He would have killed you without pause, without difficulty. Painfully. You had no chance.” How flattering. “But, it wasn’t all lies.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Gendry, I’m not her, not anymore. I’m sorry; I don’t know how to explain it any better than that. I’m not her, I can’t be again. Last night I meant what I said. I hoped we could talk and it would be… But when I awoke this morning, I knew. You’ve come a long way for nothing.”

 

There, that’s the feel of his chest caving in, of his heart being squeezed until it bursts.

 

“What? I don’t…”

 

“The North isn’t what you hoped. These women, they don’t follow you, they follow me. We worship the Old Gods here, not some Lord of Light. And I don’t know how to begin to be a wife to you anymore.”

 

“What… That’s not…” The sides of his vision are blurred, the words echoing around him not registering.

 

“You were happy at Storm’s End, you said so yourself. You have family there- Stannis, Shireen. A woman if you want one, even her child. It might not be so bad to…”

 

“WHAT!?! No! Arya, you’re my family. You can’t just…” His voice breaks.

 

“I’m not. I’m sorry.” She is, she looks- sorry. “You may stay, you are welcome, and it is your right. But I can’t promise anything more, I have nothing more to give.” So final, so sure.

 

His windpipe closes, nothing comes out. These words should never be coming from those lips. The corners turn down, a condescending frown. Worse than anger, she feels pity for him. She’s about to turn away again, the conversation finished in her eyes.

 

“I am glad you’re alive, Gendry. Truly. I wish you nothing but happiness, you deserve that. I doubt you’ll find it here.” She turns and leaves. Shock freezes him through and through, he won’t let himself believe such nonsense.

 

“Arya!” He yells out, desperate for her attention once more. She stops, hesitant; trying to decide whether to turn back around; if she should. He’s tempted to profess his love, to apologize more, to scream at her, to accuse her, to rip her clothes off and press her body against his. But he does none of those things. No. There was something else. A distance- longer than his absence at The Wall, farther than the distance back to Storm’s End. What in the Seven Hells had happened here?

 

She was too busy to talk to him. But she must hear this. He owed her this much, no matter what else.

 

“The Lord Commander.” She does turn, interested. “Your brother Jon, he’s alive.” Her mouth falls open at that. “I told him about you. He misses you, wouldn’t stop asking after you. He’ll be coming soon enough.”

 

Finally. She had been so calm and collected; careful with her expressions. But not now. Her dear brother’s fate was of interest to her. She could still be surprised. And he’d been the one to unfasten her icy armor.

 

“Oh.” She says.

 

Oh. Oh?

 

“Thank you for telling me.” That’s it? That’s all. “Goodnight, Gendry.” Dismissed. Forgotten. Just last night he’d slept next to her. Now he knew she’d simply tolerated him. Like he was some bloody guest, or worse, a stranger. By the Gods, how had his happy ending become this?

 

Her boots click an even pattern upon the stone as she walks away.

Chapter Text

Jon’s Homecoming

Arya

She had changed clothes twice before she was ready to stand at the gates. She hardly ever cared about what to wear, and now it seemed vital. The wrong choice could send the wrong message. Why was it so hard? This was her brother, her favorite brother, who’d known her as a child. He’d seen her with mud on her face and her hair all tangled. He’d seen her with snot running down her chin and ridiculous frills puffed round her neck. He wouldn’t truly care what she wore or what she looked like for that matter.

But it wouldn’t just be him alone , she reminded herself. Damnit.

A formal corseted gown, blue and embroidered with flowers; truly befitting the Lady of Winterfell. Quite beautiful. Ornate. Tight.

 

No, too much. She needed her full breath today, to be able to pick up her feet when needed. She makes quick work of the laces, leaving it lying stiff in a puddle on the floor.

The boyish trousers and tunic she normally favored then. Simple, comfortable. It spoke to her banality, a remembrance of the past. Back when she wanted to hide, to not be seen, to have as little to do with politics as possible. She didn’t have that luxury anymore. And today was a special occasion. She was meant to impress the Queen, Stannis, and bloody Melisandre. She needed all the neighboring kingdoms to see her as strong; else another Ramsay would try his hand at domination.

 

Basic battle strategy. She needed their attention and respect. Dress then , she settled on finally. But then how would he recognize her? Alright, nothing so layered she couldn’t move. One of her mother’s simpler dresses then. She chose a rich brown garb, soft against her skin, but shapely on her curves flowing long to the ground. Her hair was loosely braided to frame her face. She was pale, dark circles around her eyes. She pinches her cheeks to add a little color, little being the operative word. Some ochre around her eyes does something to hide her exhaustion.

She looked old, or older anyway. Too… severe. Why wasn’t she more excited? She should be beside herself. But she couldn’t quite muster it. Jon would be disappointed in what she’d grown into, she knew it.

She wouldn’t truly believe her brother was alive until she saw him with her own eyes. And she had no idea what exactly she would say to him when she did. She prayed to the Old Gods that she would feel something more once he got here. That he’d see her as the Arya she once was and then magically she would be. Unfortunately, wishing almost never made things come to pass in her experience.

Gendry would notice, he would reassure her, or say something stupid and take her mind off it.

He’s not here. She reminds herself with a pang.

He had simply disappeared after her hurtful words, without warning, taking a good chunk of men with him. No goodbye. Just gone.

 

She couldn’t actually believe he’d left at first; wouldn’t believe it. He was off brooding somewhere or hiding out in the forge.

 

But after missing one meal too many, she couldn’t deny it.

 

And by then she was furious.

 

How dare he leave her? No final word, no proper goodbye. No warning.

 

And how could he just take her at her word? What was wrong with him? Who did that? He should be able to understand without her having to explain it. Bloody idiot.

 

And then she felt ridiculous for it. Of course, he’d gone, she’d all but stabbed and twisted. It was one of his best and worst qualities- he did whatever was asked of him. To a fault. She’d said terrible things, and part of her had meant them. A part of herself she hated. The part of herself that still remembered what it was like to feel helpless next to Ramsay, the part that still cringed when anyone tried to touch her.

 

In the Weirwood, she promised fervently to try harder if he came back. She would take it all back. She would will herself not to flinch. But Gendry didn’t worship her Gods, he couldn’t hear. He didn’t return.

Then it was loss for the life she’d thrown away. Not lost, not taken. Arya had cursed herself somehow. She deserved this. She trudged on through her days.

 

But guilt was useless. As was regret.

After talking herself into it enough, she settled on relief. A kind of sour calm that settled in her stomach. Gone was better, better for him anyway. He could never be happy here, with her. Perhaps he’d find it still, with someone else, someone easier. The thought calmed her.

Finally came the emptiness she couldn’t shake. In fact, she welcomed it. Days were easier; they at least had a pattern to them.

She gave instructions, seeing to the rationing and stores. Mostly, the women took care of things themselves. They were quite capable. Life went on at Winterfell, no more fear around the castle. The women seemed happier without the men, freer. This was the peace she had promised them. She had done that much.

Even the skies had finally grown warm; Winter truly at its end. Everyone was in bright spirits, waiting for the Spring. They rose early and went to bed, as the days grew dark.

Arya always got to sleep at first opportunity. No dreams. The tea she took made sure of that. Just enough to get some rest. Then in the morning, she’d rise late. Fighting the pull of daylight. Even awake, she felt half in slumber. She spent much of her waking time in the Crypt, the Godswood, the Rookery, the Kennels, and more and more, the Stables. She rode when she could, and brushed and fed her horse herself. She liked it best there, the chestnut mare a true comfort. They’d rode the King’s Road together, the beautiful beast knew her. Everyone else seemed to expect things from the Lady of Winterfell. But the horse wanted only simple things, things she could provide, and it loved her for it. Never mind the empty stall where Gendry’s horse had been kept.

She would go to sleep just after the setting of the sun. It took more and more of the herb tea to keep the dreams at bay. She slept more and more, stayed beneath the covers longer and longer. And yet somehow, she was always weary.

She stifles a yawn. She wasn’t dreaming this time. Her brother was coming. A messenger had arrived the night before to announce the Lord Commander’s return. Accompanied by hundreds of men. The women were nervous, but she gave her word they wouldn’t be touched. And she meant it. The spare rooms were prepared, food gathered from the stores. By her accounts, they wouldn’t have enough to keep everyone indefinitely. However, she couldn’t very well send men who fought at the Wall away; they were Northerners after all. She reminded herself to inquire around the neighboring keeps and villages, finding as many places as she could. Perhaps the Queen would take a few.

Hot Pie had gone with Gendry as well. He was loyal, after all. So it was up to the capable women in the kitchen to put together a proper feast. They had lived through much; a dinner should be no problem. She had faith they could make a little go a long way. For her own part, Arya cared little for how impressed the guests were, as long as they were fed. They were a proud people, but they would never be ostentatious, they couldn’t afford to be.

A stir starts up among the women, men are approaching en masse. From her position atop the gate, she can see the outlines; moving figures still unrecognizable.

There are a few horses leading the pack. She can make out long silver hair, a light blue dress. A white horse with a silver mane. The Queen.

Bright red hair and a red gown. A brown horse with white on its nose. Melisandre. Unbidden a low growl rises in her throat. She would have to tolerate that woman.

And riding beside her, a man with dark hair and full beard; black fur-lined robes. A black horse, sturdy. She can’t make out his features, but…

It’s him.

 

He’s alive.

 

She can tell by the way he rides, the way he holds himself. Strange how the details come back to her.

Suddenly she has to reach out for the brick wall to keep herself upright. A flutter in her belly picks up, becoming a full-blown squeeze.

His eyes search, quietly taking in Winterfell, the women; looking to each in turn. Was he looking for her?

He’s close enough now she can hear the clip-clopping of horse hooves. She wants to call out, to get his attention. But she can’t make her voice work. Her body won’t listen at all.

His sweeping gaze freezes as it reaches her, she feels the instant he’s seen her. His breath catches; she can see his chest tense from up high.

He was seeing through her. He could tell she was wrong. He was disappointed.

And then a slow smile spreads across his face, eyes warming. He saw her. He knew her. She feels her own lips mimicking his smile.

There it was. There was the glimmer of feeling she’d hoped for.

And just like that, her body returns to her control. Fast as she can she skips down the steps, scurrying along with the hem of her dress clasped tightly in her fist.

The gates are thrown wide open, the beautiful black steed through first. Her brother dismounts with grace. He turns to her.

It seems an eternity before she’s in front of him. His arms are open. And she falls into them. He wraps her tight, pressing her into his chest, scratching her with his beard. She smells dirt, snow, blood, and grime. And beneath it all, the smell of Jon, her brother, her blood.

He gives a deep sigh, one of relief, of coming home. She only burrows deeper at the familiar sound. How had she gone so long without this? It almost felt like a true home again with him here. Still, she wants a proper look at him.

He must feel the same as he loosens his hold, bringing her farther out, but still close.

“Arya.” He rumbles out. The sound makes her want to weep. He reaches out to touch her hair, her face. He’s studying her. “Gods look at you. You’ve grown...” His voice is choked up. “lovely.”

She feels her own eyes well, but no tears. She swallows and smiles so hard it hurts the corners of her mouth. She looks him over in turn. Older, scarred. She touches his beard and his brows. “And you…” She swallows again, feeling the enormity of all of it. What could she say? “You look just like Father.” She sniffles, loudly. It was the truth and all she could think to say.

His smile falters for an instant before returning even wider. He nods, almost sadly.

A throat clearing breaks up their reunion rudely; reminding her they have an audience.

It’s Stannis, of course.

What an arse.

She’s not embarrassed. But she would prefer to get to know her brother again in private. It should be just them. Too many eyes intruding on their reunion wasn’t right. It wasn’t how it should be.

Stannis clears his throat again, and loudly.

The Queen smiles patiently, almost apologizing for Stannis’ rudeness. Melisandre sits unmoved, trying her best to appear more regal than the Queen to her right.  Rows and rows of bedraggled men stand beyond the gate, waiting, anxiously.

“Yes of course.” She remembers herself and slips back into the mask of a proper lady. She turns from Jon to greet the Queen warmly, a small embrace between them. To Stannis, she offers a nod. He’s lucky she doesn’t knock his teeth out. Melisandre receives a stone glare. She addresses the crowd. “You must all be tired from your journey. We have prepared accommodations. Rest and refresh yourselves. We feast tonight, humble though it may be.”

Some of the men cheer in appreciation. She raises an arm above her head, seeking their returned attention and further silence. They comply after a fashion.

“These women are under my protection. If you touch one without her permission I will send you to the Gods for judgment.” She makes eye contact with a few, staring them down long enough to make them uncomfortable. “Their punishment will seem a relief after what I’ve done to you.” She tries hard to keep the growl from her voice, she really does. But her blood has other ideas. She is fiercely defensive of her pack, her women. She needs everyone to understand this before they are welcome. By the following silence, she takes that as agreement. “Now, enough unpleasantness. Welcome.” She finishes with a more pleasant tone.

Her women smile quiet smiles, appreciative of her warning. Come to think of it, her women could very likely handle themselves now, without her interference. They help lead horses, shoulder packs, pass out water and bread, and direct the more noble guests where to go.

Arya takes Jon by the arm.

“Here.” She says, leading him away, arm through his. Sneaking away from the gathered crowd, like old times.

He follows without complaint, putting his hand warmly atop hers, knowing the routine. His glove is rough on her hand, worn leather a comfort on her knuckles.

She takes him to the Crypt first. She can’t be sure why it just feels right. A true family reunion.

He looks around in wonder, almost with new eyes, adjusting to the darkness bathed in torchlight. It’s colder down there; she clasps her own forearms for warmth. She’s at a loss for what to say.

They pass ancient ancestors, some older than Winterfell itself. Deeper in they come across famed Starks; made legend in Old Nan’s stories. Onward they find their uncle, who died valiantly to protect his sister. And Lyanna herself, tall and proud.

He stops there, measuring her features and somewhat smug expression.

“Do you remember? Father used to say I looked like her. I don’t see it though.” She says it more to fill the silence than anything.

He stops his perusal of the statue to look at her.

“I suppose you do. It’s not a bad thing. She was meant to be beautiful. No one can call you a horse face any longer.” He jests.

She punches him playfully on the shoulder, almost knocking him off balance. He places his hand there in mock pain, grinning. The awkward silence has passed.

Finally, they come upon the resting place of Eddard Stark. Noble and proud. No matter how many times she comes to visit, it makes her breath catch.

The statue resembles him somewhat. But not enough. It couldn’t come to life and smile at her. No matter how hard she imagines it. She touches the stone cheek wishing more than anything that he could see them together again, home once more.

Jon for his part seems equally moved, taking it in.

“He’s here.” She says.

“Hmm?” He must think her half mad.

“His bones. I brought them home.” She explains, knowing he’ll understand the gravity of her declaration. He grunts in approval.

“You’ve done well, Arya. Truly.”

“I almost lost him on the way. I…” Her voice is a bit choked up. She remembered how it felt to lose him all over again, and then to find him. “But, he’s home now.” She could be proud of that.

 

“And what did you find when you got here?” He asks.

 

“What?”

 

“I heard things, about the Boltons. I was worried. What happened? How did you manage to...” She cuts him off.

 

“It was nothing. A minor house with too much ambition. Not quite an army of the dead, eh.” She’s not sure why she says this. But the truth seems too hard to speak.

 

“I was worried.” He admits, showing vulnerability.

 

“So little faith.” She chides.

“You made it home, that’s what matters most.” He claps her shoulder.

“So did you, Lord Commander. However you managed that.” She jokes.

“I’m as surprised as you.” He answers honestly.

“Forgive me. I’m not surprised. And Father would be proud you know, at what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve become.”

“And what about you, Little Sister? The way you spoke out there. The way you stand. You are Father’s daughter. You hold the land. Ruling suits you.”

“The people will rejoice at your return. You’re the eldest son now. The rightful heir.” The words came of their own accord, but they seemed right once spoken.

He looks at her again, smiling his easy smile.

“And a bastard, and a man of the Night’s Watch.” He counters. So bloody argumentative.

“Times have changed. Being a bastard means very little. Blood and strength are all that means anything. You must have gathered that much by now.” She insists. The shadows flicker on his face, making it impossible to tell what he was thinking.

“Blood and strength? You have both. You took back Winterfell, not I.” So he had read between the lines somewhat.

“Reclaiming Winterfell and ruling it are two different things.” She insists.

“And I heard you just now, with them. Confident, demanding, but reasonable. I may look like Father, but you’re his true heir. You are meant to lead here, not me. Those women serve you. They love you. I could never take your place in their eyes. And I wouldn’t want to.” There’s no trace of resentment in his tone. He seems proud of her. She feels tears now as the full force of missing him hits her hard. How had she lived so long without her brother?

“And now we have you here. To help me. To make sure I don’t fuck it all up.” She hugs him again, so glad to have his presence, his council. He made her feel more sure. With him by her side, it might be alright.

He pulls away, about to say something, and then changes his mind.

“I’m famished. When is the feast? I could use a warm meal and something to drink.”

“Of course, of course. I wasn’t thinking. Come. I’ll take you to your old room first, you’ll want to wash the stink off you before we eat.” She teases, to which he tugs on her braid.

“And you can wipe off all that war paint and go back to being my bratty little sister.” She makes to swat at him but he anticipates it and runs ahead, making her chase. As she runs after him, she feels freer than she has in a long time.


 

The men were seen to. They were fed, and warm, and there was wine. They seemed content, talking wildly, dozens of conversations flowing at once; sounds of clinking, sloshing, chewing, and laughter filled the air.

The main table was no less merry, though considerably quieter. Arya sat at the head of the table, and Daenerys the other. Jon sat right at her side, as she’d promised. And Stannis and Melisandre were seated as far away as propriety would allow.

“Thank you for receiving us.” The Queen breaks the silence around their group. “The food is delicious.” She compliments with a straight face. Certainly not the rich fair she’s used to in King’s Landing. A serving girl passing by hears the comment and blushes prettily, having helped with the preparations. Daenerys really could be gracious. Her silken purple gown low cut and tapered at the waist suggesting otherwise and putting Arya’s figure to shame.

“Better than the Wall.” Stannis cuts in, chewing great chunks of steak smothered in red wine sauce.

“Nice to be warm, in a castle. I fear the charms of The Wall were lost on me.” Daenerys makes light, doing her part to keep the conversation going.

 

The Queen shares a secretive look with Jon who smiles back. An inside joke. Arya feels a stab of jealousy. She was meant to know her brother best.

 

“And where’s young Gendry?” Ser Davos asks out of the blue, changing the topic, and setting her completely off-balance. “I thought I would have seen him about. I miss the lad.” Why hadn’t she expected the questions so soon? Why didn’t she have an answer ready?

The seconds tick by and the stares become more inquisitive with each passing beat.

“Why he’s in Storm’s End, of course.” He very well might be by now.

“What for?” Stannis counters. His bright blue eyes, so familiar, become suspicious.

“Shireen requested a visit.” At his concerned look she continues her lie, guilt-free. “I think she’s a bit lonely, poor thing.” She washes the untruth down with a great gulp of wine.

 

“It seems you two spend more time apart than together. What sort of marriage is that?” Stannis comments unkindly. Right, because he had such a perfect marriage with Lady Selyse.

“Well, I’m sure he misses you terribly. He couldn’t stop talking about you at the Wall.” Daenerys comments animatedly.

The guilt again. More wine can fix that. She signals for more. Merilee reluctantly fills her glass as she passes. A look of concern on her comely face. It’s a celebration, drinking wine is expected. She won’t look out of sorts.

Melisandre looks on knowingly, seeing through her, while Merilee pours as requested. Arya fingers the knife lying untouched beside her plate, seriously considering stabbing one or more of the guests through the eye with it. But she refrains.

“So what happens now?” Stannis asks unceremoniously. “Now that your brother’s home. Will you be moving back to Storm’s End?” He asks.

“Arya holds the North,” Jon answers for her without hesitation. “A Stark must hold Winterfell and she’s more Stark than I.” His tone brooks no argument. Arya offers him a grateful smile. For some reason, she doesn’t feel up to sparring with Stannis just now; his grammar was always superior.

“And how will that work then?” Stannis continues, not taking the hint. “You’ll live here as a second son or an honored guest or…”

It’s Daenerys who clears her throat, signaling the end of this particular line of questioning. Stannis desists, but it makes Arya wonder.

She looks to him out of the corner of her eye, questioning. He sighs a long drawn out sigh.

“Jon.” She prompts. Never one to let things go.

He puts down his silverware and turns to address her.

“I was hoping to do this later. There’s no rush to…”

“Rush to what?” Arya insists, voice rising. Her grip on that steak knife tightens.

The others look on in interest and pity.

“Later.”

“Rush to what?”

“I can’t stay, Arya. Not indefinitely.” His dark brown eyes seem so resigned, so melancholy.

“What? What are you on about? You just got home. You can’t just…”

Abandon me.

Ashamedly, she feels her lower lip start to tremble. She presses the point of the knife into her thigh and stops the show of emotion. A look around at the others at the table tells her what she needs to know. They’re all pitying her. Even fucking Melisandre.

 

“Don’t smirk at me, Bitch.” There went the decorum.

 

That had earned her a few scandalous looks. She can’t seem to care.

 

Abruptly she stands up from the table, the chair grinding loudly against the floor. All eyes follow her.

 

“I see.” She says instead.

Jon for his part looks taken aback at the quick turnaround. She can’t stand it.

“Arya…” Jon starts, clearly concerned; guilty even.

No. Not here. Weakness in public is death.

 

“Not here.” She hisses through clenched teeth.

 

She bursts out into the great hall, expecting her brother’s footsteps to follow. They would speak and in private.

Once out of the great hall, she speeds up her walk. Quick short steps match the pace of her heart, the rapidity of her breathing. They all left her, again and again. She’d never had any say then. It was no different now being Lady of Winterfell; she still couldn’t make people stay.

She hears purposeful footfalls behind her, striding close behind her.

“Arya!” Whatever he intended to say, she wouldn’t make it easy on him. It would only hurt worse; she could feel it in her bones.

She walks faster, earning strange looks from the women completing their chores.

He catches up and takes her arm, turning her to face him.

“Listen to me, Arya. Listen. I won’t leave yet. Not yet. I’ll stay as long as you need me, but then, eventually…” He trails off.

“But I’ll always need you, Jon. Always. You’re my brother, my family.” She explains.

“And you’ve a new family now. A husband. Children some day. I don’t want to get in the way of that. That’s the last thing I want.” He insists.

Gods, don’t bring up Gendry. And children. It throws her.

“You’re not. You don’t.” She says, gasping at the other wound he was unknowingly poking.

“But I will. And you don’t need anyone questioning your position here. Stannis is easy compared to some other Lords. You don’t need that. I would only complicate things.”

“But this is your home too. We’re blood. Nothing matters more.” She argues further. He sighs deeply then, readying himself.

“I’m not a Stark, Arya. I never was.” He lets out in one breath.

“Of course you are!” She screams at him, unmindful of the women who had stopped the pretense of working all together to watch. “Enough with all the bastard shit! I’m sick of all the whining. You are Father’s son, who cares what anyone else thinks?”

“I’m not.” He swallows, deeply pained. “Ned Stark was not my father. He was my uncle. We share blood, but…” His words are drowned out by the sound of blood rushing through her ears.

“What are you on about? I don’t understand…” She tries to get out but barely manages.

“I learned the truth at the Wall. Rhaegar was my father. Lyanna, my mother. It was kept a secret. Even from Robert Baratheon and Catelyn Stark.”

“What?” What? “Where did you hear such nonsense?” She asks desperately. Before he can answer, she figures it out for herself.

“Melisandre.” Who else could fuck up her life this badly?

“Yes, she saw it.”

“And you believe her? She’s a scheming, self-serving witch.” She swallows to clear her throat. “Do you know what she did to Gendry? Did you know that she cursed me? Her prophecies only cause pain. How could you believe one word that bitch says?”

“That’s all true. But that doesn’t mean she’s lying about this.” He insists too calmly.

“Well, you’d think those flames of hers would tell her to mind her own fucking business every once in awhile.” She pouts.

“She’s telling the truth. I know it. And it makes sense.” No. Her brother was supposed to be her brother, that made sense. “And Father- Ned, kept me safe from Robert Baratheon. He would have killed me just for being alive. It was the best way to protect me. He told no one, not even his wife.” She hears the words but they don’t sink in. He puts his hands on her shoulders to get her to look at him. “We are family, Arya. You’re more dear to me than anyone, that hasn’t changed. Only, we’re cousins. I’ve no rights to Winterfell, or to your name. I may be a Targaryen, but still a bastard. I’m a man of the Night’s Watch, but there’s no such thing anymore.” He keeps going, seemingly unable to stop.

“This hasn’t been my home for a long time. So much has happened and everything has changed.” He breathes out, getting things off his chest. “I don’t feel right here. But then, I never did. I wouldn’t feel right in any castle anymore. It’s too grand, too warm, too full of the past.” He continues.

He rubs his thumb along her cheek, and only then does she realize she’d been crying. For fuck sakes. The fucking Gods.

“That’s not me anymore.” He explains simply.

She stands there for some time, unable to say anything.

“Arya?” He questions, unnerved at her silence, expecting her to lash out as she usually did. But she didn’t, she couldn’t.

He wraps his arms around her.

“We’re still blood, Arya. We’re still family.” He reassures her. She hugs him back with all her might. But all she can think over and over again is that he’s leaving. He will leave; it’s only a matter of time.

That’s not me.

No matter what he says, he still feels like her brother; still smells like him. She won’t believe otherwise. She can’t make herself feel any different, she doesn’t want to.

She pulls away, knowing it can’t last forever. His choice, not hers. Pulling away first was always safest. One lesson she’d learned the hard way.

“Goodnight, Brother.” He smiles through his own tears at that, hugging her once more.

“Goodnight, Little Sister.”

They were already in front of her door. She unbolts the lock easily and manages to close the door behind her just as absent-mindedly.

She hadn’t lied before. She was tired. Exhausted actually. She was always exhausted. She’d had a reason to get up that morning. What would she wake up to tomorrow? What had she done wrong? Why were the Gods so displeased?

She doesn’t bother with the tossing and turning, the struggle to sleep among racing thoughts. Her special poppy tea is cold and bitter, but she gulps it down gratefully regardless. Before the blackness, she begs forgiveness of the Old Gods and prays for a peaceful, dreamless sleep at last. She says nothing about waking up.

 

 

Chapter Text

Previously On:

"We're still blood, Arya. We're still family." He reassures her. She hugs him back with all her might. But all she can think over and over again is that he's leaving. He will leave; it's only a matter of time.

That's not me.

No matter what he says, he still feels like her brother; still smells like him. She won't believe otherwise. She can't make herself feel any different, she doesn't want to.

She pulls away, knowing it can't last forever. His choice, not hers. Pulling away first was always safest. One lesson she'd learned the hard way.

"Goodnight, Brother." He smiles through his own tears at that, hugging her once more.

"Goodnight, Little Sister."

They were already in front of her door. She unbolts the lock easily and manages to close the door behind her just as absent-mindedly.

She hadn't lied before. She was tired. Exhausted actually. She was always exhausted. She'd had a reason to get up that morning. What would she wake up to tomorrow? What had she done wrong? Why were the Gods so displeased?

She doesn't bother with the tossing and turning, the struggle to sleep among racing thoughts. Her special poppy tea is cold and bitter, but she gulps it down gratefully regardless. Before the blackness, she begs forgiveness of the Old Gods and prays for a peaceful, dreamless sleep at last. She says nothing about waking up.


 The Sickness

Stannis

He could tell something was wrong with the girl upon his arrival. Oh, she'd held herself proudly, she always did. She'd threatened and acted graciously in turn, playing the lady to perfection. She always managed to impress him, even from the first, despite what she thought. She was dressed well enough, rather comely in fact. He'd thought her quite homely at first, true, dressed as a boy. But on her wedding day, she had quite resembled her aunt.

Oh, no mistake.

He certainly hadn't worshipped Lyanna as his brother had, no infatuation, but he could recognize strength and respect it. Arya did, in fact, take after her- surpass her even. Gendry was smitten from the start, poor bastard. And Stannis was partly to blame for that. He'd known the Stark girl would eat him alive, and he'd thrown his own nephew to the wolves anyway. He'd expected a marriage of convenience, a joining of houses, nothing more.

He'd been proven wrong at Storm's End. They'd acted as a couple, true partners.

Then the whole mess with the serving girl...

And then miraculously, they'd seemingly reconciled before splitting up on the way to The Wall. It was quite the riveting epic. It almost made him yearn for something he'd never fully had. His own wife was rather more reserved- Selyse was hardly a partner. They had never truly gotten to know each other. He blamed himself for that, too closed off, too private. And Selyse had been driven mad by all the babies she'd lost. He'd thought that was a normal marriage. Arya and Gendry had had something completely different. He'd never seen it's like and doubted he would again. And yet... It was rather telling that Gendry was not here. Most like, it was not of his own volition.

Contrary to what others believed, Stannis admired the girl's spirit. Strength of will, even above sword skills, earned his respect. And she had will in spades. Not to mention, Arya's grammar was impeccable. So, he was somewhat looking forward to her acerbic wit during his stay in Winterfell. But he was sorely let down in that regard. The way she glided through polite conversation with so little interest simply wasn't like her. Frankly, it was a disappointment. He missed her biting comments which always kept him on his toes. No more. One could attribute it to maturity or a softening into her role.

But he knew differently- she was only halfway present. Alarming in a passionate woman like that.

Her reunion with her brother and outburst at Melisandre aside, she was almost an entirely different person. The Queen was concerned as well, but too polite to mention it. And her brother merely attributed the change to time; years having passed since they had parted. He noticed they barely spoke either. Stannis knew something was deeply wrong with the newest Baratheon. What's more, he highly doubted Gendry would leave again so soon, so easily, even for Shireen.

The Queen sent back the two lackies, Brenn and Poe, he thought their names were. They were to inform Lord Tyrion of recent events. Though what exactly would be said he could only guess. Many of the men left with them, looking to escape the cruel North and try their luck farther South. Part of their eagerness was due to the Queen herself, able to charm savages and Wildlings alike, offering them a new start in the Capital. Stannis had never managed to secure loyalty in such a way. He could admit when a woman had what he did not, although grudgingly.

Stannis stayed. It surprised Lord Snow almost as much as it had surprised him. Stannis cared for his wolf niece, but more for Gendry's well-being. The least he could do was to look after the girl while his nephew was away. Though he doubted the lad would properly appreciate it. If her scowls were any indication, Arya certainly did not want him there. Stannis sent Ser Davos South to speak in his place until he returned. Melisandre stayed in Winterfell as well, but he had the sinking sensation that it was not based on loyalty to him at all. She was quite taken with the Crow who turned back into a Wolf.

Lady Arya stopped bothering to entertain all-together after the bulk of her guests left. She seemed to truly resent smiling. The wolf had looked none too kindly on Daenerys' all too clear interest in Snow- that was evident. The Queen had been her friend once, he seemed to remember. She was angry at her brother too. Oh, she'd forgiven him, publicly. She would sit beside him at dinner, and reminisce about their childhood. But she only half-answered Jon's questions, nothing about her life in between. Jon for his part was determined to give her space and not push her, for fear of earning her true wrath. Things were troubled between the siblings, more like casual acquaintances now. Jon still planned to leave. Arya must have sensed that, it underlay all their interactions. She was clearly sick of the dinners. The talking and the smiling. She wasn't really listening to what they were saying, her nods seemingly disconnected from the conversation. She always seemed exhausted. Even with her own brother. She was having to pretend after all. He could almost hear her thoughts. She believed it would be better if he hadn't returned. Or if she hadn't. Stannis was more than concerned. Mostly, she kept to her room nowadays. She ate when she could get it down, drank tea whenever she awoke to put herself back into dreams.

She kept to herself. Waiting for them to leave, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Daenerys and he would share uncomfortable looks.

Though he received many hints to the contrary, he believed it important that he stay for some reason. Something in his gut persuaded him. Perhaps The Red God was speaking directly to him. Perhaps he simply wished to see Gendry once more before leaving for good, having become sentimental in his old age. He even missed his daughter and was looking forward to spending time with her.

Arya was always the first to retire and the last to join them for breakfast. Eventually, she stopped attending breakfast altogether, arriving at varying times in the afternoon, picking at her lunch or dinner. Until one day when she didn't come down at all.

She wasn't accepting visitors, not even her brother Jon. Well, she would see him, whether she liked it or not.

It was not easy to convince her women to allow him entrance to their Lady's chambers. But, they too were worried, enough to let him pass. Immediately upon entering, the air changes. Her figure is somewhat hard to make out in the bed. He steps in fully.

"You look like death. What exactly is wrong with you?" Stannis asks after a long while of silence. It had taken some time to get over the shock of her. She was pale, paler than he had expected. With cheeks too red. Her hair was in disarray, and her nightdress clung to her skin, damp with sweat.

"What's wrong with you ?" She answers back bitterly. Good, a little bite, it relieved him somewhat.

A deep chirping sounds outside. No, not a chirp. Strange.

"I'm concerned. You're acting..."

"No, you're not. You don't give a shit about my well-being. What are you really doing here, Stannis? What the fuck do you want from me?" He was offended at that.

"I told you, I'm..." He tries to answer but she cuts him off.

"Waiting for Gendry. Yes, yes, so you said. Just go meet him in Storm's End. You'd rather be there anyway I'm sure. I'm sure we'd all prefer that." She takes a swallow of water from a pitcher beside the bed, shuffling tangled up bed sheets. The chirping again. No, not chirping... She looks out the window, distracted.

"Charming." He remarks, rolling his eyes, making his way further into her room. The heavy smell of sweat assaulting his nose. The glow of candlelight further highlighting her features.

"Who said you could come in here? Do you think you're welcome?"

"I'm not the only one who's concerned."

Again. It's cawing. A loud caw.

"All you bring is discord, with your bullshit conditions, your judgments. You made Gendry walk through hot coals for you. Your own daughter is as a stranger to you."

He scowls at that. That had hurt. He hurts her in turn.

"You seem to me not so different. Did you not also torture the boy? I know he wouldn't just leave unless you broke him. You did, didn't you?" He asks it as if he knows the answer.

She attempts to prop herself up to face him, but her heavy limbs betray her. The cawing grows louder.

"Shut up." Not one of her more clever retorts. He sits in a chair pulled close to her bedside. She has no choice but to face him. The corner of her eye keeps turning toward the window.

"And your brother has one foot halfway out the door. You're doing your best to push him out. Was that your intent?" He cuts deep.

"Mind your own business." She growls. She strains to see out the window, a tapping on the glass joins the cawing. He ignores the obvious distraction and keeps going.

"What, you think your father would be proud of this behavior? The spectacle you're making of yourself. Lying about like an invalid- it's pathetic. He wouldn't know what to make of you."

He has her full attention now.

She slaps him.

It's not hard.

He wasn't all that surprised. When he blamed her for Gendry and for Jon, he expected something. But her father... that got her attention.

"You have no right..." She means to say more, but it doesn't come out right. She keeps getting distracted by that damn bird. She attempts to straighten her nightdress, but it sticks to the sweat on her skin. He winces in discomfort in her stead.

"It's the truth." He states calmly, shaken by her apparent frailty.

"Fuck you." She curses half-heartedly.

He raises his eyebrows at that.

"Not nearly as witty as usual." He taunts, but without sting.

"Just go home, Stannis." She tells him before returning her attention fully to the window.

"Jana! Ferron!" She calls out. "Someone open the damned windows."

"Arya." He tries to get her attention. She's already turned away. "Are you alright?"

"The window..." She answers, forgetting her anger at him for an instant. And then she remembers. "Just fucking go."

He puts his hand on her forehead, fire beneath his palm. She shakes him off violently.

Outside the bird is tapping, pitch dark, a crow.

So that's what's been calling. What does it want? Was it here for her?

Its figure is obscured by the glass, frosted by the snow. The crow.

She mumbles, fighting to get up. He puts a gentle hand beneath her shoulder to help her, but she only struggles harder. He's worried she'll injure herself. He can't help but think of his own wife on her sickbed.

She thrashes about, fighting hard to escape the sheets wound tight around her body. She's pleading. But she's making no sense- delirious, unintelligible. It's no longer just her sanity he fears for, but her very life. Where was Gendry?

A crow with three eyes looks on.


 Melisandre

The girl needed her. That was clear. Snow begged her to save his little sister. Even Lord Stannis seemed to care for her well-being. They believed her unwell, poor ill thing. Melisandre could see things more clearly. The young woman was dying. It was of her own making. She was on the verge. She could see everything.

The others questioned her, and her motives. They believed her a sewer of discontent. But she only ever told the truth. It was both a virtue and what set her apart. Others, even the most powerful, found her truths unsettling. She understood their unease. No one wanted to face their darkest selves. Stannis could not face his own mediocrity. Snow could not face his own lack of humanity. Gendry could not face his own limitations. And Arya herself, could not face her calling. She was being tested. The God of Light had a hard road intended for Arya, a particularly trying one. But then, all his chosen ones had trials. Meant for important things. Arya had capitulated. Given in. Nothing could be done. Not if the girl was determined to die. Who was Melisandre to go against her will? To go against God's will? To be burned was the truest death, even more so from the inside out. A pure end for a bright soul.

They tried to talk to her, to bring her back, but the poor thing wouldn't listen, she couldn't. She muttered nonsense about birds, and other whispers no one could quite make out. The Targaryen Lord Commander was beside himself, most resembling the boy he was before she'd had to bring him back as 'less'. He cared, but had no idea what to do. He left her care in the Priestess' own hands. The serving women worshipped their Lady, and were more than willing to follow her every command.

Her nightgown was see-through with sweat, sheets kicked off, scrunched at the foot of the bed. Her skin was flushed, an unnatural shade of pink, completely wrong against her naturally pale flesh. And the smell... Death was assured, and it would be a blessing.

They all thought her cold, uncaring, disconnected. But Melisandre saw things as they were and as they would be. It was hard to get attached when she knew all people were mortal. They all died eventually, whether she cared for them or not. Only Melisandre remained. To watch Kings rise and fall, religions spark and die out, and even great women change the course of history only to take their last breaths. She could not end the woman's suffering, but she could hurry along the dying. And ensure the Lord Commander King would take his true place as Ruler of the North and further fulfill his destiny. The little sister dragging him back to the past only got in the way.

"What do we do? How can we save her?" Eventually, they looked to her.

"Burn the fever out." Melisandre answers with a straight face and a stiff upper lip. Cleansing fire. A kindness, a service to her God, a favor to the tormented young woman.

"What? But she's so hot already..."

"Boil some water. She needs the heat to let the poison out. Only The Lord of Light can release her." That was true.

She receives a few doubtful looks, but no matter. The Lord of Light did not require faith to exist nor to be effective. Melisandre showed no hesitation, and so they followed, wanting to believe in a cure.

Arya howled when they placed her in the hot bath, fighting tooth and nail to be released. She scratched some, but was too weak to cause much damage. Her brother could not take her torment, having to leave, pacing back and forth along the halls. The Queen comforted him. It was easier to work without his prying, pitiful eyes anyway. Arya screamed unintelligible curses, but it didn't deter Melisandre. It was for the greater good.

The windows remained shut tight, keeping the steam within. The serving women were more than loyal. And yet still, some had to leave the room periodically to get fresh air, others even fainted, but not she. Heat she could withstand. The room felt like a furnace, but outside was the last of winter. Heavy snows marked the last fall before Spring would finally take hold over this barren land. A pity Arya would not be around to see what she'd fought for.

For days they tended to her like this, pressing rags steeped in willow bark to warm her forehead, giving her more of her favored tea to soothe her. Tears leaked from Arya's eyes, in futility or capitulation, it didn't matter.

And still, Arya fought, though not for her life. When not attended to, the young woman would crawl to the window, trying desperately to open the latch. The others feared she would jump, or get sicker from the frigid air. Melisandre sensed something more.

One of them would drag her back, only to bury her deeper in her woolen comforter and warm furs. The chambers remained locked. She kept crying out. The women would get squeamish and unsure. Melisandre had to assure them she was delirious, that this was the right path.

It was almost done. The fever had taken hold. She would be with her beloved R'hllor now. Melisandre was almost jealous.

Chapter Text

A/N: As this is the last chapter and it took so long, you may want to go back and reread the story. I went back and made a few changes, might clear some things up. Maybe take a look. If not, enjoy!

Arya

It was hot. So hot. She should be used to it by now. But everything in her fought it. She had hated the heavy humidity of the capital. Even Bravos was too hot, the sea breezes the only welcome respite. She'd finally made it home. To the snows of her youth, the brisk, clean air. She had missed it. 

But she had forgotten too. 

How harsh it could be. The strength it took to live here, to thrive. But she'd had family then, and the snow was never too cold through soft-knitted mittens and scarves. Not once she'd warmed herself by the fire to Old Nan's stories, cuddled up to Nymeria, wedged between her brothers. But she was alone. So alone. She'd lost everyone- dead- or chased away by her icy self.

And now, in an irony that was not lost on her, she was being boiled alive. Her skin burned as if on fire. Pungent smoke invaded her chest. Hot liquids were poured down her throat, scorching her tongue and lips on the way down. She'd tried to stop it, to scream, to bite the hands grasping her, to get away, to feel the fresh air upon her skin once more. These people. They meant well. Mostly. She had the distinct feeling someone there was enjoying her suffering. She no longer gave a shit either way.

"Fuck off!" She cursed at them in futility for holding her down. Spittle flecking down her chin.

Hands pressing her further into the bed, keeping her still- helpless.

Why wouldn't they listen? She whimpered helplessly.

She couldn't stand to be chained down. Anything but this. This was her worst imagining- trapped beneath shackles of steel, bone and sinew, branch, heated flesh. She couldn't bear any of it. Not again. To all the Gods she promised anything, everything if they would only release the bonds weighing her down and taking her breath. Burn her alive with their judgment, perhaps she deserved that, but only leave her unbound.

Finally, the Gods heard her prayer.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Old Nan

On the eve of the final snowstorm, when all hope seemed lost, a wizened woman entered the chambers. She was hunched and wrinkled, but still much younger than Melisandre herself. She walked slowly, steps quiet and gentle, barely grazing the floor. The eyes were milky and unseeing, but her footing sure, never faltering or stumbling. She knew the castle. She knew much.

On she hobbled, finding the window without fumbling along the wall, opening the pane with an easy move. A swirl of clean wind rushes through the room as if it had been waiting for an invitation, blowing out the small footed stoves brought in to surround the Lady. The others gasp. Arya sighs in relief.

"We're burning out the poison. It must be hot to chase out the infection." A serving girl explains as if she's dimwitted. The young always believe her senile.

"Bullshit. Where did you hear such nonsense?" She says, not a little unkindly. The others are all gobsmacked. No one answers.

She makes her way to Arya's bedside. Jon sits rigidly with utter helplessness. He was clutched onto Arya's forearm so hard she thought the fingers might dig right through the flesh. She reaches out to pat his cheek, and he flinches. "Jon, all this time returned and you haven't come to see me. You've forgotten." She scolds.

"Old Nan, I... I'm sorry, I'm." He's been awake so long he's barely coherent.

"Different. Yes, I can feel that. It is impossible to leave these walls and come back the same. None of you children did." She smiles in understanding. He can't return it.

"She calls out to me, even though I'm here. She can't feel me, any of us." Jon offers hauntingly.

Because you're all not listening!

She thinks this but doesn't say it. If Arya did not wake, the others would be buried beneath their guilt, a useless emotion.

She squeezes his tensed arm in shared grief. Her palms connect with the fragile wrist he's holding, then find their way to Arya's forehead and cheeks, her neck, and her hairline. She takes her hands away, stinging from the near-burning flesh.

The old woman's countenance turns to rebuke. "You should have come to me. She's burning to nothing."

"Yes, we can see that. We've all seen fever." Stannis remarks drily.

"But you've missed the point." She pries Jon's fingers free from Arya, and he's so surprised, he lets her. She rips the sheets free with surprising alacrity. In response Arya takes in a massive breath, chest rising perceptibly with air. "She's a Northern girl, through and through. Born of the first men. Ice runs through her veins. She's not meant for the heat." She pulls down the covers until her feet are free.

"You called for me, so I came. Sorry, I took so long." This Nan addresses to Arya, brushing the damp hair from the girl's forehead.

"What are you..." Jon begins to question, utterly confused, but she hushes him.

"We need to get her outside." She instructs them.

"What!?!?!" The others in the room shout in unison.

"She needs cold, snow. We need to bring her body back down before her mind burns to ashes. If she can't think, she can't choose." They remain silent, confused and frozen in indecision. She needs to snap them out of their haze of futility.

"She's been like this too long already. Any longer, and she won't make it back." Another gust of wind blows in and snuffs out the candles.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Gendry

He'd made it back.

He was just as nervous coming back as he had been the last time.

He wasn't sure he wasn't a coward.

She'd struck out at him. She'd been as cruel as possible. She'd known exactly how to hurt him. Her words made his gut churn.

If anything, it meant she truly knew him. Only someone who truly cared could cause so much pain. And he'd welcome it too, so long as she took him back.

The time away, spent executing Boltons had cleared his head. He understood. Pain beget pain. She was angry. At Ramsay. At him. At everyone. If anyone had a right to it, it was her. He was angry too.

And he could take it. But killing Roose had brought little satisfaction. Little was better than none. The older he grew, the more he saw of life, the better he understood his own father. Anger was cleansing, easy. He could vent his wrath and leave destruction behind.

She would like it anyway. Jewels and dresses certainly wouldn't do it. The blood and vengeance would have to be enough. He had something gruesome of Roose's as a present, carved off personally. He'd left the women and children, but with no name. The bastard boy inside of him might have flinched, but no longer. Besides, the absence of a name was better than Bolton any day. No one would ever proudly wear that bloody sigil or use that name again. It had been so easy in his rage. It felt scarcely more than a few heartbeats. Great wrongs had been done, and the Boltons had to be made to pay their share. No longer would 'Me and Mine', be spoken. It would never pass another man's lips.

Arya would be pleased. And if she wasn't, well he would just wait her out until his natural charm wore her down. It would work- eventually. He could wait forever.

At the gate, he's let in immediately- they recognize him this time. The entrance is guarded by men and women alike. Jon and the Queen, and his Uncle Stannis had gotten here first. She must be beside herself hosting such a retinue without him. His men who'd gone with him were sent to see to the horses and rest themselves, they were to have whatever they liked from the kitchens. They'd earned it. He would go in alone, gruesome gift in-tow.

The halls held an eerie quiet, the faces he passed were somber. It was quiet. Too quiet.

A caw pierces his ear.

Again.

Again.

Closer, as if squawking right beside him.

He looks up, and a black bird flies across the sky, silhouette clearly visible against the heavy falling snow.

It flies overhead, and then circles back around. The cawing grows more insistent. It keeps circling.

He almost gets the feeling... He's supposed to follow.

CAW

He hears it again. But this time it comes from inside his ear. He jumps. Turning half around but finding nothing.

It almost seemed like an answer.

Gendry

He hears instead and fears madness. Why now? No. Crows meant something. He'd seen them before. Arya seemed to think them sentient, messengers from the Gods. He was being told something.

COME

Yes, he understands that. He follows the bird's path, incessant cawing leading the way. They're headed away from the grounds, toward the Godswood. If the Gods themselves were trying to tell him something, then he had a mind to listen.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Arya

And just like that, the hands holding her give way. She's free. She moves her wrists and ankles cautiously, tracing circles and figure eights.

She experimentally opens one eye. 

She's alone.

Where had they all gone?

Her first step out of bed isn't so easy, her knees give way and she sinks to the floor in a heap. No, not the floor, but soft earth beneath her feet. She takes deep long breaths, savoring every gasping gulp. Nothing seems to matter, nothing beyond this- just breathe.

A rush of snow swirls around her, mighty gusts making her skin tingle, raising bumps along the flesh. She feels more alive than she has in weeks. The breeze is still wafting, but the iciness has abated. It's day now. Wasn't it night before?

Arya puts weight on one foot and then the other- solid, the blades of grass folding beneath the pads of her feet, tickling her toes. The air smells so clean.

Home.

No dead bodies, no stuffy rooms, no charred stone, and no ghosts. The towers stand tall, the walls hold strong and the fields ebb and flow in the breeze, heavy with wheat and grain. It's so different, but not. It's as she remembers from when...

"Arya. Arya." A voice calls. She knows it.

She turns. One way, then another. The emptiness is not alarming, only peaceful.

"Arya?" A crow flies over head.

The crow. It must be...

"Arya." The voice is clear, coming from behind her. She turns.

"Bran." She manages to get out, hugging him as tightly as she can manage. He doesn't smell the same, but she doesn't give a fuck.

"Hello, Arya. You're here." He smirks, though it doesn't quite reach his eyes.

"Well, you've been cawing in my ear for Gods know how long." She responds with a smirk.

"Aye. So you understand that much, then. That makes things easier." She gets a good look at him. He is older than she remembered, 14 or 15 perhaps. She can't be sure. The light dusting of hair on his upper lip and the added height add to the effect. The fact that he's standing at all...

"Bran. How? I don't..." She starts to ask, but can't quite put words to what she's asking.

He sighs, put-upon but not annoyed.

"There are pieces that won't make sense. I'll do my best. But I'm not allowed to tell you everything. You could go mad." She shrugs.

"I want to know. I need to know everything."

The sigh again. "You knew me? Before, as the crow?" He asks though he has the answer.

"Yes, I suppose I did." How?

"How?"

"I don't know. I just did. And I heard you, in the woods. I thought I did."

"You did. I was trying to warn you."

"Well, you did a shit job of it." He actually laughs at that, it almost shows in his eyes.

"I broke the rules. I wasn't allowed." He explains.

"And now?"

"Now is different." He says lightly.

"Why? Why now? Where are we?" She thinks to ask, the strangeness seeming a mere inconvenience rather than dangerous. Her brother was there. Jon would love to see him. Wait, how was Bran here?

"What's the last thing you remember?" He asks, with more than a little pity.

"I don't..." She tries to remember, really she does. But it's all hazy. She remembers sleeping. She remembers boiling alive in her skin. She remembers... "The tea. I drank tea to help me sleep. So I wouldn't have to think. I..." She drank too much. She had been more asleep than awake.

"Yes. Arya, you aren't sleeping. Not exactly."

"Am I, am I dead?" She's not sure how to feel about the possibility. She should be terrified. But she isn't.

"No, not quite." Phew. Wait. What? "You're in between. Like me."

"What does that mean? Are you dead? How did I hear you before? How can I be in between dead?"

"I am something else, beyond life and death. I see all that has been, all that is, and the many different possibilities of what could be. I am more than alive, and I will never truly die." He explains all of this as if it is commonplace, he seems resigned.

"Okay." She answers, not having anything better to say. This must be one of those things she wouldn't or couldn't understand. "And I am too?"

He actually chuckles at that.

"No, you are painfully human. Pain being the operative word." He pauses then. "I've been watching. I saw all of it. I could only watch and do nothing." He makes a fist with more vehemence than she'd ever seen of him in life. "I'm sorry."

"Nothing? Did you know all that could happen? Did you know about Ramsay? I could have used a little bit more than fucking whispers in the wind and nightmares. Fuck." She isn't as angry as she thought, it feels more out of habit.

"I broke the rules in doing that. It's luck that I'm able to see you here, now. You can thank Old Nan for that. But not for long. Only until you make a choice."

"Choice? Choose what? What do the Gods want now?"

"The choice that only you can make. The Gods didn't do this, Arya. You set the stage and you must play your part. That's how it works."

"What? Speak clearly, you're talking in riddles." He sighs, frustrated.

"I don't know how to speak to people anymore. I only know what I see, and that no one else can interpret it but me. I can't help you choose. I can only help you understand the consequences of your choice."

"What choice? You called me here."

"No. You're here because you were playing with your life. You drank that poison to beat Ramsay at first, to trick him. Very clever by the way. Now you take it to sleep, to forget. Where did you think that would lead?" Shame clutches at her chest.

"Poison?" The incredulity sounded hollow to her own ears. She had known there would be consequences, she hadn't cared. She had wanted it all to stop. And she had finally made it stop. "You said I wasn't dead."

"Not yet. To be touched by the Gods means you are stronger, that your blood is fiercer. But your trials are more severe, more brutal. And what you choose will have lasting consequences. You must choose."

"Choose what?" She yells, exasperated.

"Go back to the land of the living, or stay dead."

Oh

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Daenerys

"What? What are you talking about?" What they were doing hadn't been working. When the woman had insisted on bringing Arya down to the woods, to the snow-covered ground, they'd listened. Stannis and Jon helped carry her, the weight nothing.

"I can't bring her back. Only she can choose." The old woman explains further, using her gnarled hands to pack snow tightly around Arya's chest and hips.

Arya for her part has stopped fighting and kicking, letting herself be covered in snow, a look of peace on her lips. This wasn't the Arya she knew at all. Arya wouldn't lay down and die. She wouldn't go willingly into nothingness. It wasn't in her nature. She blamed the witch.

She should have trusted her instincts and had her locked up. A look around the wood and the witch is nowhere to be found. She had fled. Damn. She would make sure she was found. See how she liked being burned alive.

"She didn't do this on purpose. She can't have..." Jon is beside himself. Worse, he won't let himself be unraveled. He second guesses every pang, every instinct, every muttering. If she does die, he won't cope at all. He can't feel. He doesn't trust in himself that he can. She feels pity for him, she knows what it is to lose the last of your family. Though her brother had been more her owner than beloved relation. Jon and Arya loved each other. Even if they'd both forgotten how.

"Not on purpose. But this is her own doing." The old woman, Old Nan he'd said, explains. "Now she must deal with the consequences. We all must." She explains. Even as she speaks, steam rises around Arya, water drips down and seeps into Daenerys' boots.

"What can we do?" Stannis asks seriously.

"Cool her down. Be here. It's all we can do. It's up to her." She explains though no one really understands. But she sends her prayers anyway.

The winter is supposed to break any day now, but suddenly it's as cold as ever. Daenerys is fairly certain if Arya dies, Spring will never come.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Gendry

He'd followed the crow into the Godswood, the sky almost purple in the near-Dawn.

Why is everyone out here? Had the crow called them as well?

Stannis stands taller upon eyeing Gendry.

"Uncle, what..." He cannot even complete the question before his uncle embraces him.

"Gendry, I..." His uncle is at a loss for words. A first in all the time he's known him. Dropping the bloody trophy, he pushes his way through. They're formed in a semicircle around a figure on the ground.

Arya lay packed tightly into the snow, skin an unnatural shade. He calls her name, she turns her head towards him, but her eyelids never open. She had heard him. He calls her name again, and a low moan escapes her throat. He approaches her, shaking her lightly. Her skin feels wet and rubbery, paler than usual. He uses his fingers to lightly pry her eyes open. The eyes are bleary, unfocused, and hazy. She wasn't seeing him. She moans again, so he leans closer to hear better. He can't make it out. Though he can barely hear anything over the sound of his own heart beating.

"How could this have happened? What happened?" Gendry demands, asking no one in particular.

"She..." Jon starts, swallowing uncomfortably. "She is ill. Fever. She won't wake up. Won't respond." But how? How could this happen? 

Not his Arya. Tougher than anything.

"I'm glad you're here, Gendry. She would want you here." The Queen comes up beside him, offering a hand to his shoulder. "She looked up when you called her. That's something."

He doesn't know what to ask. The way the heat of her skin burns his palm scares him more than the pitiful looks on everyone's faces. This can't be happening.

"But Arya can't get sick, she's all wolfblood. She can't..." He cries then, embarrassing sobs which make them all wince. He doesn't care who watches, well past propriety. His hopes of going back to the way things were- gone. He lays beside her in the snow, letting the heat of her skin burn him as he holds her close. He wasn't meant to have nice things.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Arya

Crying. Echoing off the hills. It was pitiful. She covered her ears to block it out.

"Were you trying to kill yourself, Arya?" His lips form a thin line of concern. It's hard to read between the lines with him, he barely gave any hint of emotion.

"No, of course not, I..." But she needed to stop and think before answering fully. Her initial response was to deny it. It sounded so pathetic and weak as her brother said it. "I couldn't sleep. I just wanted to sleep." That was all. She hadn't thought deeper than that.

"I understand." He nods sagely. "If that's what you want, you can have it. You've earned that. You can sleep now. You can stay asleep there, and remain here."

"Where is here? Why does death look like Winterfell before?"

"It looks the way I like to remember it too. It's different for everyone." She closes her eyes for an instant, breathing in deeply. Yes, it smelled like wildflowers and icy air.

"This is what I would pick. It's Winterfell, but as it was. Before everything. It feels like home, like it's supposed to."

"Yes, I'm sure it does." A sad smile. What did that mean? Couldn't he smell it? 

Bran's tainted smile grows wider as he looks past her, over her shoulder.

She turns around and her mouth falls open. 

Slowly, her brother Robb approaches, auburn curls sparkling in the low sun, a mischievous grin across his face.

"So Arya Underfoot, you finally made it home at last."

She hadn't expected, hadn't thought...

She runs over to her brother, skirts in hand, hair flowing behind her. She picks up speed as she runs down the slight hill, and straight into her brother's arms. Oh, Robb. It had been so long since she'd seen him, so long since she'd let herself remember him. He chuckles into her hair, clasping her shoulder with his free hand.

The smell. The smell is the same, the almond oil he used in his hair, and the sage leaves he liked to chew. She'd heard stories of the Red Wedding, he'd been left to bleed out. She looked at him now, no wounds, perfect skin, wide smile, full hair. This was her brother, as she'd last seen him.

"Robb..." She can't get any more out. Thankfully, she doesn't have to.

"I hoped you might be up for practicing. Won't do to get rusty." He lifts the hand he'd kept by his side to reveal a wooden training sword, the kind she used to beg him to practice with her.

"What, I..." And a sword appears in her hand as well, matched well to his.

"Don't question it. It's better if you don't question. There's time for all that." He whispers conspiratorially.

He moves into position, one arm raised, sword pointed invitingly in her direction.

"En garde," he dares, smirk only growing in question. The heft of the wooden sword feels strange and familiar all at once. With a move now instinctive, she strikes out at his guard. He blocks her easily, clearly enjoying the challenge. She feels jubilation, this was right. His high blow, her high parry. She goes low, he redirects the attack. Another press and he's down on the ground, laughing. He grabs her ankle to pull her down, tickling where he can reach. She giggles hysterically. 

Yes, she remembers this. This was as it should be. Just as it was. They'd use to spar together. She remembered this exactly. Those days were her happiest. He gets up and dusts himself off.

"We'll be late for supper you know? Mother will skin us alive." He jokes, offering a hand to help her up. Joking. It was good and right and odd.

They must have been practicing for hours, but the sun hadn't changed in the sky.

Then she truly hears his words.

"Mother?" She'd seen their mother back at the Crossroads, but... It couldn't be.

"Aye, we're all here, Arya. Waiting for you, and Bran and Rickon and Sansa and Jon... it took you long enough. We've been missing you."

We?

"Come on then!" He yells, already a ways down the hill.

A quick look behind her, and there's nothing. Bran had gone. Was she meant to catch up? Robb had mentioned him as though he couldn't see him. How much did Robb understand? Rickon was alive. And Sansa? Gods, she hadn't thought on her sister for so long, a mixture of guilt and resentment. They had never gotten along, and she'd left her behind so easily. She'd just assumed Sansa hadn't survived. It looked as though she'd outlasted her. And Jon... Robb had spoken of their illegitimate brother differently. Did they know he had Targaryen blood? Did it matter?

With a war cry that was half laugh, she runs after Robb, sword left forgotten. He'd slowed down a bit to give her a chance, then began to speed up as she got closer.

The more she runs the better she can breathe. Had she even used her lungs before? Had the air ever been sweeter? Her muscles tingle. When had she last run? It feels delicious to run as fast as she can.

A large dining table comes into sight, oddly placed outside, but charming in its sentiment. The table is heaped high with foods, fruits and tarts, and roasts piled on the table. She can smell the savory and sweet aromas, swirls of marvelous steam circle around the rich fair. Strangers sat on the far end, already enjoying themselves.

She stops in mid-stride, deep surprised breaths rack her chest.

"Mother." She calls.

Her mother looks up, smiling warmly. Tears glisten in her eyes as she holds open her ams. Arya regains her footing and runs into those arms. So different from the last embrace. No smell of death, no skin falling off the bone, no bloated flesh. Just her mother, holding her tight.

"Oh, Arya." She cups Arya's face in her hands, measuring the jawline.

"Mommy." Arya sheds no tears, there is no need here.

"You've finally come. At last. I've missed you so." Her radiant auburn hair sparkles in the sun's rays. Light wrinkles crease around her smile.

"Do you remember? Before, at the Crossroads?" Arya tests.

"Almost. Not quite. Did something happen?" Her mother asks concerned.

"No nothing." It doesn't matter. Her bones were buried, she could rest now. They'd found each other here, in true form, home. "I'm here now."

"Yes, love. And we'll catch up properly after supper. Have a seat. We're just waiting for..." She breaks off as a hearty chuckle fills the air.

She knows that laugh. More than the eyes she recognizes as her own, the smell of leather and musk he always carried with him... His laugh, so filled with happiness.

Arya abandons the chair to stand and greet the most honored guest. She can scarcely move, barely breathe. She has wanted this so badly, She almost can't believe it. She had resigned herself to never seeing him again.

"Welcome, Love." He says, still stubbled, still dressed in fine leathers and carrying his Valyrian steel sword.

And now it's his arms she burrows into, his smell she takes in. And still, she can't let herself believe it.

"Now, now. You're home. You're with us. Nothing else matters." He assures her as if reading her mind. He ruffles the top of her head as he used to. "Shall we eat then? We've arranged your favorites." He tells her, making his way to the head of the table. Of course, her mother is by his side. He takes his wife's hand and kisses her knuckles sweetly. Robb moves aside so she can sit beside Father, a kindness. There are empty chairs at the table. Rickon. Jon. Sansa. They would come eventually, she felt sure of that. "These are our ancestors." He gestures towards the unfamiliar faces, Starks all. They wave and greet her, going back to their conversations. One woman with familiar eyes meets her stare. Arya has to force herself to look away before becoming rude.

Robb starts to fill his plate with bread and cheese, digging in without a care for propriety. Her parents simply smile in indulgence. For an instant, she imagines she sees Gendry sitting beside her, filling his plate. But a shake of her head and he's gone. 

"Arya?" Her mother prompts, motioning to her chair. She hesitates.

"We can go riding later. Or we could go hunting. Whatever you like." Robb says through a mouthful of food, noticing her indecision.

Arya pauses. With one hand on the chair back she turns around, just over the hill, stands Bran.

"What about Bran?" The words just leave her tongue without thought.

Her mother stills at that, a flash of pain before she shakes it off. Her father squeezes his wife's hand in commiseration. Robb looks down at his plate.

"Bran? He is the only one we can't see. Have you seen him? What have you heard?" Her mother queries.

"He's..." Arya starts, looking back over at Bran. He shakes his head solemnly. He's telling her not to continue. "I'm sorry. I don't know." And she didn't know, didn't understand. "I just..."

Her mother calms and a smile appears instead.

"We have been separated a long time. You're with us now. And the rest will come, someday. No hurry. I hoped you would take longer as well. But the selfish part of me is simply glad you're home. We must enjoy each other, enjoy the food, and be together as the Gods intended." Her father explains, changing the mood just like that. Yes, that sounded right, fair.

Yes, this was what she wanted, all she wanted. She would have all of eternity to play swords with her eldest brother, meet her ancestors, catch up with her mother, and simply take in her father. Just being around him made it all seem right. 

So what if the sky never turned darker? 

So what if the plates never got empty? 

She was surrounded by her blood. She would never again be without her father's wise counsel and grounding presence. The others would come some day. But one look over at the invisible brother, the one unable to come sit, the chairs she wishes were there, and she understands what's missing.

"One moment, I will return." She makes by way of an excuse. They let her go easily enough. Well, that was different. They treated her as a grown woman, yet she felt as carefree as a child. Though, she supposed, she could hardly get into much trouble here.

It's easy to find Bran, he was waiting.

"You can never show yourself, can you?"

"After I awoke from the fall, I was different. I had dreams that I couldn't understand. I only knew what they wanted of me. To go North, to find further answers."

Yes, she understood that well enough.

"And what did you find?" She asks.

"The Old Gods are real. I can't always make sense of everything or put it in order. I can't always tell the difference between what is real and what may be. And I cannot set foot in either world."

"And was it worth it? This power?" She asks not only for him but for herself as well. It was a question she'd pondered often.

"I had no choice. And there's no undoing it now." He pauses for a breath. "But I know things, Arya. The why, the when, the who. I saw the moment Raegar and Lyanna wed. I saw the creation of the first White Walker. I saw the future you may yet have. I saw children." He finishes. Her lungs catch in mid-breath.

"But... How?"

"I'm sorry, I cannot see any future for certain. Just as Melisandre sees but one possibility. There are hundreds more. Some more likely than others, but by no means set in stone. Anything can be changed, can be altered. There are no assurances, no promises." He says.

"There never is." She agrees.

"You can stay here, you can live in peace. Our family is here. Things can be as they used to be. You will only know quiet and happiness for the rest of eternity. You can have them back. It can be like it was. But you can never leave. You can never go back."

She looks back at her family, her true family- eating, talking, laughing. She wants it so much it makes her chest hurt.

"Why would I? I'm alone there. They left me. Or they're going to. They all leave me." I made them leave. "If I go back, I'll have nothing. Nothing."

It was true. All the servants, her ladies, her supposed friends, even Jon only ever made her feel lonely. Gendry had taken her venom to heart and runoff. 

With a sinking realization, she knows Gendry will never make it to the table either. Their wedding before the Seven meant nothing here. 

And it meant nothing there anymore.

"What reason do I have to go back?"

He sighs, considering.

"I can't tell you what to do, Arya. It's not my place. I could no sooner speak for you than any other soul."

"That's not... I'm not asking that. I want to know... What would you do?"

He was always pensive, he liked to think things through, even at a young age. Bran always made her look impulsive, reckless in comparison. She truly did value his opinion.

"I..." He has to think. "I don't have such a choice. It feels I never did. To know and see everything, but be so set apart." He scratches his head. "But if you're asking..." He regroups, thinking through his words carefully.

"I would give anything to have more adventures, Arya. To keep writing my story. Anything."

Arya feels pity for her brother, trapped- more lonely than she. She thinks of the constant struggle that is life, the pain that never ceased. She looks longingly at her father, who smiles back at her as if feeling her gaze. His smile fills the hollow spot she'd been nursing all these years.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

Daenerys

"I'm afraid, she's not waking." The old woman informs them, though it's plain to see. Each face is frozen in pain, waiting for the daybreak, one way or another.

Arya had not yet woken. Her body would have the occasional spasm, nonsense sounds puffed from her lips. She would not respond to any of their efforts.

Stannis had tried screaming in her ear to no avail. 

The servant girl begged, lovely tears down her pink cheeks. 

Jon could only apologize over and over, muttering more to himself than anything, promising not to leave if she'd only come back and chastise him properly. 

Gendry held her tenderly, face pressed against his wife's cheek. 

Daenerys herself could not speak, could not do anything. They had failed to call her back.

Daenerys felt helpless. Watching her husband die had felt impossible. This was another. 

If even Arya Stark could be brought low, there were no assurances. 

Arya had always understood something that the men in her life never could- the enemies without were not half as harmful as those within. To be a strong woman in this world meant being tougher, more adaptable, and more sure than the men. Arya understood this. They understood each other. But she couldn't understand this. Daenerys couldn't help but be... angry at her friend.

How dare she?

And of course, the anger gave way to guilt. The guilt gave way to a deep hurt that would flare off and on for the rest of her life.

Another look at the sky reveals a yellow tinge creeping its way through the trees. Sunrise was coming. And with that, Arya Stark would be gone.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

With a gasp to rattle the branches on the trees, the silence is lifted. 

What follows is a painful, hacking cough. The packed snow breaks free, glacier chunks sliding to the ground. Arya is coughing, eyes watering, chest heaving.

She was alive.

Every eye looks on in disbelief, speechless.

"Holy... fucking..." Arya croaks out, completely disoriented. She takes in deep, unsteady breaths. The rest of them are frozen in shock, looking as though they've seen a ghost. She was as good as dead just a second ago.

"Arya?" The Queen questions, though what response she's expecting she couldn't say.

Arya responds with more coughing, though she's noticeably more alert.

"Yeah." Arya finally manages, all out of sorts.

"By the Gods!" The servant girl praises. She immediately falls to the ground and prostrates herself.

"Well, there you fucking go," Stannis remarks, not without humor. He seems relieved though.

She looks up at Gendry who is clearing the remaining snow off, breath bated.

"Ar... You alright?" Gendry makes out, clearly numb with shock.

"I'm alright." She assures him, though she doesn't look it.

"By R'hlorr." Stannis bites out.

Gendry takes off his cloak and wraps it around her.

"Arya, what?" Jon asks.

"I died." Arya says matter of factly. Daenerys gasps, though she had believed her friend dead moments earlier. Hearing the young woman admit it made it real again. "But I came back."

"Obviously," Stannis comments drily.

"Gendry," Arya says, returning her attention to the Baratheon helping prop her up on a nearby tree. "The things I said..."

"Shhh." He quiets her. "Don't worry about that now. All that matters is you're alright." He squeezes her shoulder tenderly. He means it. He'll forgive her anything in that moment. Daenerys is once more touched by the love between them.

He helps her to better sit up, and Arya can face everyone.

"Yes, you're back with us. It is truly a miracle, I thought..." Daenerys trails off, eyes watery, not sure what else to say.

"I'm sorry. So sorry. For being stupid. Please, forgive me." She presses her hands against the trunk, trying to stand. Gendry helps her the rest of the way up until she's firm and stable.

"But it's all my fault. I should have been a better brother, I should have noticed, I..." Jon apologizes, more open than she has yet seen him in the short time they'd been friends.

"Jon, there was nothing you could have done. I was set down this path to begin with. You were right to want to leave."

"No, I should have been here, listened. I should have..."

"But you will someday. You have more adventures ahead. You could no sooner stay here than I could be anywhere else. It's not your fault. Not any of it. You..." She breaks off to organize her thoughts. She will tell him about seeing Lyanna eventually. "We will talk, at length. It will all come out right."

"Arya, what happened to you? Where were you?" Jon wants to know.

"Tomorrow. I will tell you all, tomorrow." He nods in understanding.

"Well, you had us bloody worried sick." Stannis' usual tact. Arya rolls her eyes, but then a warm look comes over her pasty features.

"Thank you, Stannis." His shock is palpable. "You knew something was wrong. You stayed, put up with my abuse. Thank you."

He stutters for some time before mustering a 'you're welcome.'

"Daenerys, My Queen, my friend. I heard you judging me so I came back to prove you wrong. Thank you for not giving up on me." Daenerys feels herself get choked up.

"Merilee... I could not ask for a more loyal companion. You've sacrificed so much, I promise to make it up to you." The woman looks pleased beyond belief. Daenerys thought perhaps the girl believed Arya a God.

"Old Nan, so wise. If I lived to be twice your years, I could never know all that you know. Thank you for your wisdom and your strength."

"Your return to health is thanks enough. We need you here, My Lady. The North needs you. I am glad I could serve."

All the while she leans back slightly for support, not quite able to stand on her own. It seemed everything was at peace, all was well.

The sky is almost full day, and despite the melt of the snow, it's still rather cold for a Southern Dragon Queen who was not prepared to be out in the woods all night.

Gendry looks disappointed that he was not mentioned, but covers it well.

"I am so glad you're better. But do you think we could go in? I'm freezing." Daenerys jokes. A few of the others laugh, the tension all but gone. She starts back toward the warm, inviting walls.

"Wait!" Arya shouts, voice not back to full strength.

They all turn to look back at her concerned.

What now?

"What's wrong?" Gendry asks, looking frightened all over again, checking her over with his eyes for some new wound or malady.

She turns to face him and takes his hands in hers. "I need you to forgive me, to understand." His face softens at her words.

"I told you, I do forgive you, always." He vows. "I know you didn't mean what you said."

She looks down guiltily.

"In the North, we don't believe in the Seven. We follow the Old Gods and speak to the trees. We pledge ourselves before them. No other contacts are valid." Gendry still looks confused.

"Why are they doing this now?" Stannis whispers in her ear, having the grace at least not to interrupt too loudly. She finds herself agreeing with him. Everyone waits expectantly. Arya has not released his hands.

"So, now, before another day passes, I want to marry you here. Now. In our custom. For real." She looks away nervously. "That is, if you still want to be married to me." She finishes with a hopeful smile.

Gendry could not have been more surprised than if she'd grown a second head. The silence lingers and Arya bites her lip anxiously.

His face warms in pure joy. "Course I do." He swears. She smiles once more. He goes to kiss her.

"Wait!" Daenerys shouts. All look to her as though she is mad. A few crunched brows even accuse her of objecting to the union. She clarifies. "Arya, forgive me, but you do look as though you've just returned from the dead. Let me just..." The Queen trails off, motioning to her hair. She pulls Arya off to the side to fix what she could. The servant girl accompanies them.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much to be done. Arya's skin was still too pale, only a slight tinge of pink beginning to form along her cheeks. Her lips looked thin and dry. Arya's shift was all out of sorts, hanging uneven off one shoulder and twisted by the bottom. The girl goes about taming the wild mess of hair that closely resembled a rat's nest. 

A look over her shoulder shows Gendry, Jon, and Lord Stannis huddled together in conversation. Jon and Stannis seemed to be giving the younger man advice, but it was met with smiles. Awww. Men could be cute when they set their mind to it.

When they've done their best for Arya, they both bestow their blessings. Arya thanks them and catches Gendry's eye. They move to stand together beneath the tree. There is silence for some time. Daenerys takes it upon herself to break the silence.

"So how does a Northern wedding work?" She asks.

The bride and groom look to each at a loss.

"Well, it varies. The tradition is so old, it's changed over time. Some say a man needs to simply put his cloak on the woman's shoulders. Others require blood or bedding. My personal favorite involves vows to each other. The exact words don't matter, so long as you pledge what's in your hearts." Old Nan explains.

Gendry tries to start but can't quite.

"Go on." Nan prompts him.

"I don't know what to say." He admits sheepishly.

"I'll start." Arya offers to everyone's surprise. There is absolute silence, the birds having stopped their chirping to hear.

"I do pledge myself to you Gendry. Here, now, before the Old Gods. Before my ancestors, my people, and my friends. Those that made it home, those who haven't yet, and those that have passed." She breathes in. "I take you Gendry Baratheon of Storm's End. Ser Gendry of the Hollow Hill." She sniffle. "And I take you Gendry Waters of Flea Bottom, to be my husband." Gendry chokes up at that. "To stand beside me for the rest of my days, and all the days after that. I want you here, tied to this land by blood like I am. I want my Gods to look after you as well. I want you. I love you, for now, and always." Arya finishes.

By now there are no dry eyes. Everyone has tears of joy streaming down their cheeks, even Stannis is discretely wiping at his eyes. Gendry leans in to kiss her, but a few loud throat clears remind him it's his turn.

"I still don't know what to say. I'm not good with words. Not smart like you." He sighs. "But I do love you. In ways I didn't even know I could. More than I've ever loved anything. I can't live without you, I tried, and..." He wipes at his eyes. "I don't have much to offer you, but myself. But I can promise... I promise to hold you when you sleep, to care for you when you're sick, to listen to you, to fight with you, and to do everything in my power to give you a happy life. I won't give you orders, I'm not stupid enough to think you'd obey. And I wouldn't want that besides. We'll listen to each other, yeah, be partners. Forever and always. For all the days of my life and every day after that." He swears.

The silence. No wind. And yet the trees rustle, the branches clacking as if applauding.

Teary-eyed they kiss, truly bonded before the Old Gods and all of them. It was a lovely wedding, though she had gone to an awful lot of trouble setting up the first one. That dress alone... But no matter. It had all worked out. Her friend could finally let herself be happy now and let go of the past.

These Old Gods were cruel, but they were also fair.

For now, true love had won.

Now they could finally go inside, she was bloody freezing!

 

*The End*

 

A/N: Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for the sequel.