Written for tabacoychanel for the asoiaf_exchange Valar Dohaeris Winter 2010 fic/art exchange on Livejournal.
For someone who worked so hard at being a lady, Sansa could yell like a stall-owner on market day, Arya reflected. She struggled briefly with the urge to hide - not that there was anywhere to hide in the middle of an empty corridor - but curiosity won over. "I'm here, Sansa."
Sansa dashed up to her, face flushed with excitement. "You'll never guess! Mother has said that we may have high tea this afternoon, all of us girls, and Garyon will play for us!"
Arya fought the urge to roll her eyes. Garyon was a singer, the only one to visit Winterfell in more than a year. Unfortunately, he had played all the songs he knew for them half a hundred times already, and showed no signs of moving on. Even more unfortunately, Sansa loved listening to him, and dreaming of parties and dances and other lady-things.
"You'll come, of course, won't you?" Sansa continued. "You must wear something nice... maybe your new pink gown, the one you wore for your name day feast. Oh, it's going to be just lovely! I must find Jeyne!"
Sansa whirled off, all a-flutter. Arya glared after her. She didn't want to go to some stupid tea party, to sit and be bored out of her mind by the music, and ignored by the other girls while they gossiped. Besides, only this morning there had been a fierce flurry of summer snow. The ground was blanketed in sparkling white, and she wanted to be out in it, not trapped indoors.
She heard the sound of bootheels on stone, and Jon appeared from around the corner. He chuckled at the sight of her frown. "Still not scary enough to be a gargoyle." She stuck her tongue out at him, but he ignored her. "Maybe you should ask Bran for some tips; he gets a lot closer to them than we ever do." He pretended to study her carefully. "Perhaps you could get your ears stretched? Or your tongue? Or maybe-"
Arya burst out laughing, and punched him in the arm. "Sansa's having a stupid tea party, and I don't want to go." She suddenly realised what he was wearing - thick gloves, fur-lined boots and a warm cloak. "You're going outside! Can I come too?"
He made a show of considering it. "I don't know. It's awfully cold outside for little girls, and Sansa won't be pleased that you've missed her party..."
Arya punched his arm again. "I'm not a little girl! And Sansa won't care that I'm not there; she'll probably have more fun without me. Please?"
Jon chuckled. "Of course you can come. But you'd better change - that flimsy thing you're wearing won't do much to keep the cold out."
She grinned at him, then sped off to her chambers. A few minutes later, she was warmly dressed in layers of wool and her thickest cloak, and her room looked like it had been pillaged by raiders. Ignoring the mess, she ran back to find Jon still waiting, exactly where she had left him.
"Let's go!" she panted, breathless. Grabbing his hand, she led the way out of the castle.
Snow crunched under their feet as they walked, and she could hear the shouts of Robb and Theon and the clashing of swords as they practised in the yard. "We probably shouldn't hang around here," said Jon with a grin. "I wouldn't put it past Sansa to come after you when she finds that you're not planning to attend."
They left Winterfell via the Hunters' Gate. Arya waved at Fat Tom as they went past. He looked like he wanted to ask what they were doing, but let them through without question. A huge field of white spread out before them, glittering in the sun. There were no footprints save their own; Arya almost felt bad about marring that smooth blanket of snow.
"Which way, little sister?" Jon asked her, as he always did when they went exploring together. And as she always did, she closed her eyes and spun around, faster and faster until she was dizzy, her finger pointing straight out in front of her to show their destination.
She heard Jon's laughter as she opened her eyes - she was pointing straight back at Winterfell! She stamped her foot in frustration.
"Battle plans seldom survive contact with the enemy," said Jon solemnly, his eyes sparkling. "Let's try a different approach."
An enormous oak tree stood solitary in the middle of the field. Jon boosted her up into its branches, and she scrambled up as high as she could go. She was no Bran, but she could climb well enough.
"See anything interesting?" Jon called from below.
She scanned the land around them. The river was a dark smudge on the white landscape; the trees in the forest looked like they had been sprinkled with sugar. Everything looked different to what she was used to. She saw a patch of colour off to her right and squinted, but couldn't make out what it was. That way, she thought, and began the climb down.
When she reached the lowest branches, she was still a fair way from the ground. She paused, assessing the situation. "Does my lady need rescuing from her tall tower?" Jon asked.
That was all the motivation she needed. She dropped from her branch, then leapt at Jon, wrestling him to the ground. Jon tried to hold her off him, but like an eel, she wriggled free of his grasp. She wound up sitting on his chest, one of his arms pinned beneath her. "I'm not a lady," Arya said. "And if I need it, I'll rescue myself." She rubbed a handful of snow into his face.
"I yield, I yield," Jon spluttered. She considered for a moment, then allowed him to sit up. "Which way, my warrior lady?" he asked with a grin.
Arya had gotten a little turned around after her climb and the scuffle. Eventually she started off, picking a direction at random. They hadn't been walking for long before Jon stopped suddenly. "Tracks," he said, pointing at the ground.
Arya looked. It was hard to tell in the snow, but she thought they might be prints from little paws. They certainly didn't belong to anything big enough to be dangerous. As one, she and Jon turned to follow them. The tracks led into a small copse of trees near the edge of the forest. As they approached a small ridge, she could hear strange barking noises, not quite like a dog. She and Jon turned to each other. "Quiet," they both whispered at the same time, and Arya fought the urge to giggle. As silently as she could, she crept towards the top of the ridge, Jon right behind her. She stayed low to the ground, and was grateful they were downwind of whatever they were approaching.
She peered over the top of the ridge, and bit back a gasp. In a small clearing, a group of young foxes was playing, wrestling with each other and scrambling about in the snow. A larger fox - their mother? - sat close by, watching. The half-eaten carcass of a rabbit lay off to one side; was she teaching them to hunt?
Jon had come up beside her, and together they watched as the pups frolicked. Several of them were scuffling in a bunch, and whenever one of them tried to escape, it would get pulled back in by its siblings. Eventually the biggest one seemed to decide that he was the winner, and sat on the others while they wriggled to get free. The bravest pup struck out on its own, and managed to climb partway up the ridge where Arya and Jon were hiding before its mother called it back with a sharp command. One of the pups stayed off to the side, not joining in the play, content to sit quietly and wash its paws. Arya mentally named that one Sansa.
All too soon, the mother fox decided that enough fun had been had for one day. A series of barks and whines had the pups melting back into the trees. Gathering up the remains of the rabbit, she followed, and soon nothing was left but scuffed-up snow.
Arya suddenly realised that she was uncomfortably cold in front. The snow she was lying on had started to melt and seep through her clothes. She sat up.
"Theon has been looking for fox pelts," Jon said thoughtfully.
Arya stared at him, concerned. "He won't-"
"Be getting these ones," Jon finished for her. "I'll tell him we saw fox sign over by the river. That should keep him occupied for a while. Besides, we'll want to come back here and watch for them again." They shared a smile of secrets and discoveries.
"Snowmen," said Arya suddenly. Jon looked at her quizzically. "Well, the foxes are gone, so there's nothing to do here, and it might be ages until it snows again. So we should make snowmen."
They followed their tracks back out into the fields and set to work. After the first snowman had been erected, they ran back to the edge of the woods. Arya scrabbled beneath the snow for pebbles, while Jon collected twigs and branches. Soon they had an army of snowmen, all armed with branches, and Arya was putting the finishing touches to the leader. He was the tallest snowman, with the biggest branch-sword, and a group of pebbles pressed into his chest that was meant to look like a direwolf. She turned her head sideways, squinted, and added another stone. It still looked mostly like a blob, but you could sort of see where the head and the tail were supposed to be.
She was considering whether to add another pebble when a snowball hit her square on the side of the head. She shouted, and turned to see Jon ducking down behind another member of their snowman army. She scrabbled on the ground for a handful of snow.
What followed was a brief but intense snowfight, which culminated in her pushing one of their army over onto Jon. As he struggled to unbury himself, she took the opportunity to shove a handful of snow down the back of his neck. By the end, they were both breathless with laughter, and too weary to fight any more.
Jon glanced at the horizon, where the sun was beginning to fade. "We'd best be getting back."
Arya made a face, but dutifully started back to the castle. She had hoped to get inside and change for dinner without anyone being the wiser, but her hopes were dashed when she found her mother waiting for them at the door. Her mother looked her up and down. Arya was uncomfortably aware that she was wet and muddy from rolling around on the ground, and that she had twigs tangled in her hair.
"Time to change for dinner," her mother said finally. "And you might like to explain to Sansa why you missed her tea party."
"That was my fault, Lady Catelyn," Jon put in. "I was going outside, and Arya wanted to come along."
Her mother looked right through Jon as if he wasn't even there. "I see," she said, her tone faintly disapproving. "Nevertheless, Arya, you must clean yourself up. And I believe Septa Mordane had some things to say about the state of your chamber."
Arya watched her mother leave, then turned to Jon, uncertain. He shrugged, and reached out to mess up her hair. "Best get cleaned up, then."
"It was worth it," she said fiercely. "It was something that's ours, only us."
"I know," Jon replied. "But you'd still better get dressed, or you'll catch it. And catch your death of cold."
"I'm going," she said, hopping up the steps. In the doorway she turned back to Jon. "Just make sure don't tell Theon what we saw."
"I won't," he said solemnly. "And you-"
They said it together: "Don't tell Sansa!"
Sansa marched into Arya's chamber as she was struggling to brush the knots out of her hair. "We had the most wonderful afternoon," she announced airily. "We had apple tarts and lemoncakes, and Garyon played us a new song, one that he wrote himself. We talked, and danced, and it was lovely, and you missed it all. I hope you're happy."
Foxes and snowmen and snowfights and Jon - Arya didn't even have to think about it. "I am."