Her hair was short, like a boy’s would be.
Her. Her hair. Not a little orphan boy but a little girl. A little lady.
Beneath the dirt and grime her skin appeared soft, pale, well cared for. Not like him at all.
Not an orphan boy like him, not baseborn like him.
Circumstance made them equals, in some ways.
Not truly though, was the thought that stuck with him when he saw her bathing in the stream one day while they were still traveling toward the Wall. The water wiped the filth from her and her pale skin gleamed. Her short, wet hair clung to the back of her neck and he knew she and he were not really alike, not truly. Where she came from she probably had a proper bath every day. Perhaps a servant washed her hair and another combed it. Was there a third servant girl for plaiting?
When Arya dipped beneath the surface of the stream, the water swallowing up her shoulders, neck, and head, Gendry thought she looked less and less like a little boy every day.
He had figured out she was a girl so quickly. Her face— delicate, narrow, soft— was too feminine. Her lips were too full. Her body was thin and hadn’t truly begun to change but the first signs were there, particularly the slight flare of hips that breeches accentuated rather than disguised.
Gendry had been too cold to bathe.
He would let the dirt cake his skin and fill the lines in his hands and on the back of his neck and his face, if only to remind himself that he and she were not equals.
He would brown and she would gleam, if only to remind him.
Her hair is long, like it probably was before he first met her, when he sees her six years after their separation. It is pulled away from her face by a loose, long braid that swings from one side to the other when she turns her head. Did she plait it herself? It seems likely, given the many wayward strands that have escaped from the sections of the braid.
Her face is more feminine than before; still long but with high, pretty cheekbones, a long but thin nose, and dark brown lashes that frame the same grey eyes he knew six years ago.
The divide between them that he had sensed when she was a girl rises before him like a great stone wall now that she is a woman grown.
She wears a dress, like a proper lady would, but a sword hangs from her hip, much larger than the one she had called Needle. She speaks to him the same— like a friend, like an equal. It almost strikes him as cruel.
She’s taller, but he would tower over her still, he supposes. He doesn’t get close enough to find out.
She tells him where she has been, and answers his questions about Braavos with vague utterances. She plays with the orphans and lets them touch and admire her sword.
She asks Gendry to come with her to Winterfell, saying she needs a smith, and he tells her he doesn’t smith anymore.
A lie, he thinks, recalling the breastplate he had reshaped in the forge yesterday.
A look of hurt flashes in her eyes, and she is gone the next day after a brief goodbye. He knows it is better this way.
He didn't ask her why she came to the inn on her way back to her home. He has heard about the legion of men who have asked for her hand. He has heard how she has rejected every single one of them. He doesn’t know if this bothers or delights him.
After she leaves he has dreams of her as a girl and dreams of her as a woman. She flickers like a candle’s flame, a child one moment, a lady the next.
He curses himself for dreaming of her, alternating between feeling shame and lamenting his bastard status. He curses his father for being a king while he himself is lowborn. He curses the name Baratheon, a name that will never be his.
When he pounds steel all day and the heat becomes nearly unbearable he lets his mind wander to the places it only goes to in dreams.
A Baratheon could marry a Stark.
The thought rings loud in his head like the hammer on steel, repeats like the bright ting, ting, ting sound that fills the forge as he repairs another dent in another piece of armor.
He replaces the ringing, niggling thought with another: she is not for you. He raises the hammer as he says it to himself and brings it down much too hard, the truth of the words sinking into his skin, ruining the armor instead of fixing it.
Rather than let the ruined armor be a lesson, Gendry continues thinking of her. He thinks of how it felt to hold her when they were children and in danger of being killed, and thinks of how it would feel to hold her again now that they are grown and the only danger they would face is that of a bastard ruining a lady.
He thinks of her bathing in the cold stream, but pictures her as she is now, a woman replete with slender, graceful limbs and soft, faint curves. He imagines how her long hair would appear as dark as his when wet, how it would cling to her back, the strands tangling together.
Bastards are hot-blooded and shit for honor is what he tells himself when he wakes from dreams of kissing her, of touching her beneath her clothes and having her in his bed. It is a common saying, one that used to fill him with hot shame and anger. But now he thinks that maybe there is truth there; and why not let it be true?
If there was no expectation of honor placed upon him then why even try to be honorable?
He would dream his Arya dreams and think about wedding her and lying with her because it made no difference in the end— whether he thought about her every day or never thought about her ever again, she would never be his.
Gendry fills his head with thoughts and scenarios that will never become truth. He spends his days in the forge or looking after the orphans, and if he works hard enough and goes to bed exhausted and sticks to the same routine he thinks that maybe he can convince himself that he is okay with his lot in life. Maybe he is alright with being a bastard smith and an out of commission knight.
When he hears of her betrothal it does not surprise him, does not stop him in his tracks or steal the air from his lungs. It does not distract from his routine in the forge or at the inn, does not dull the heat of the fire or quiet the steady ting, ting, ting of his hammer hitting steel.
They were never equals, not truly. Maybe Arya had once fooled herself into believing it, but Gendry never had— not for a moment.
Mostly he thinks it is better for the both of them; with her being married she will likely never travel this far south again. Eventually he’ll forget what she looks like, and one day he’ll stop thinking about her all together. There will come a time, he is sure, when he will think of Arya Stark one last time, and then never think of her again.
Three years after Arya Stark is wed a thought breaks through the haze of Gendry’s routine. For some reason this is the thought that stops him in his tracks, that takes the air from his lungs. A simple, unbidden question that nestles at the forefront of his brain, that first appears while he is inspecting a bent blade.
Is she happy?
When he was younger he had thought that all highborns were happy; they had money and food and land and even castles.
But Arya is different. He begins to wonder if she had been forced to marry the lord of the Northern stronghold he has already forgotten the name of.
If she was forced then surely she is not happy, surely she hates every moment of being some man’s wife.
And surely she could not love her husband.
Gendry could not fathom that she had ever looked upon her husband the way she had looked at him when she had found him at the inn after so many years apart.
The likelihood of her unhappiness haunts him through each of his days. Her sadness becomes tangible to him, until it settles in his own chest and rings out with every ting, ting, ting of his hammer against hot metal.
It is some sort of irony that perhaps they are equals at last, made so before the bitter pain of separation from the life they could not have.
It would be amusing if it were not so cruel, that Arya would likely trade name and wealth to live like Gendry, to be what she called “free.”
And he knows it to be nothing but cruelty that he should be filled with the weight of his own sadness as well as the weight of hers.
It is her sadness that sticks to him and clings, making it certain that his prediction of forgetting her will never become true.