She hadn't been able to pose as a lad for nearly two years now.
She flowered not long after reaching three-and-ten, and from there, it became impossible to hide her swelling bust and newly flaring hips. For awhile she attempted to conceal her new shape, wearing looser and looser tunics to obscure her sex, but upon her four-and-tenth name day, she gave up. Her training among the Faceless Men gave her leave enough to change her appearance, in any case, so it didn't much matter either way. Still, she felt a bit of sadness, knowing that the last of her true tomboy days were done.
Arya had always thought herself to be an ugly girl; as a child, she had been told as much by her sister and all of her peers. She had grown up with eyes and a forehead too large, lips too thick for her baby's teeth, legs too skinny, fingers too long. Since becoming one of the Faceless, Arya nearly never wore her own face, and had no one to judge her looks. The idea of seeing her true face again found its way into her head shortly after she heard news of Arya Stark being released from the grip of Roose Bolton's bastard, who had been terrorising the North. Apparently the news was years old, and had come slower to Braavos than in Westeros. The discovery that she had an impostor bothered her more than it should; had this girl actually been her—or at least a decent pretender—she would have never submitted to a beater and a raper. She would open her own neck with a dirk before she did.
Hearing the name again, however—that name, her name—sent her spirit barrelling years backward. Back to the nine-year-old girl, thin as a boy, with her Stark coloured hair and eyes and her new adult teeth. Back to the frozen dirt and dark greens of Winterfell where that girl made her sister groan in shame when she beat her own brothers at wrestling or riding or swordplay. Her memories did not seem true anymore; they felt like stories she could spy in her mind's eye, someone else's memories. She no longer felt like she had been an active participant in her own past; she felt as if she had never been more than what she was now, that the girl in those fog-edged dreams had died young and been buried long ago.
She was no one now. She did not have a family, or a past, or a life coloured with all that those things entailed. And she did not miss it; at the end of that little girl-boy's life, the only colour she saw was red. Red so thick, so dark, it was nearly black. Everything was red. Her clothes, her hands, the road before her.
No; she did not miss that, she thought. She did not miss the horrible, unspeakable pain that accompanied grief and loss and heartbreak. She did not miss the weeks without proper sleep, the lonely hours where she would run just into the beginnings of a wood, press her face to a tree without care of receiving scrapes, and scream as if she were on the end of spear. She refused to cry; crying was what helpless women did instead of actually doing something. Crying implied despair, and despair meant inaction. Screaming was rage; it was better to scream, she thought. So she had. She had screamed herself absolutely hoarse in that time, screamed like she was dying, screamed without care of the wild pitch of her voice and the way it cracked with emotion. She had dug her raw, chewed nails into the tree bark, then beat her fists against it until they bled.
That was back in the time when it was not so easy to escape who she was; back when she could not even spy her own reflection without feeling her heart break at the sight of her father's Stark eyes staring back at her. Back when the name 'Arya Stark' alone was enough to make people want to kill her or be her saviour.
But the news of her impostor bothered her a great deal more than it should have. She could not seem to shake the desire to see herself again, to know whether the short life of the girl-boy Arya Stark had been a dream after all. She wanted to measure how much the dead girl had grown, see if she was still there beneath the lid of her coffin.
Next time she found herself by the canals in daylight, she leant over, briefly closing her eyes and relinquishing her mask for the first time in years, and studied her distorted, gently rippling face in the water. She was breathless for a moment, wondering again if it could all be a dream, a phantasmal illusion of a life that never was.
No, she realised with a startling rush of spirit. Arya Stark—because that was who she was, see, she was Arya Stark—lifted her hand to her cheek, letting her long, spidery fingers ghost along the planes of it. Her face had a strangely sensual vulpine quality about it that it had not had when she was a child; the weight in her cheeks was gone, her face taut and mature, leaving her eyes wide and grey, her nose slender and so very Stark that she had to collect herself for a minute.
'Che Bellissima!' Arya's head snapped at the catcall, only to meet the eyes of a young Braavosi peddler-boy who was grinning at her, his eyes twinkling. She was too stunned to return the smile.
Her identity was flooding back to her in massive, bone-crushing waves, and she was certain that if she tried to stand at that moment, she would lose her balance and fall face-first into the canals; and she never, ever lost her balance.
Arya's chest was suddenly tight with an unbearable longing for home that she had not felt for many years; she knew that most of her family was dead, but she was holding out hope for Jon and Sansa, whom she had not, at the very least, heard anything about. Her mind began to spin and whir with ideas about returning to Winterfell—the rebellious, prodigal daughter come home—and reclaiming it for the Stark family. She thought of finding this Bolton bastard and carving his heart from his chest for doing what he had done to her home; she even thought that she might laugh at him as she did, mocking him for ever having thought that for even the briefest minute, he had broken Arya Stark.
She decided it was fate when she heard the peddler-boy who had catcalled her earlier speaking fluidly in Braavosi to an old man of an auburn-haired beauty who had claimed Winterfell as Queen of the North.
Arya was on a ship back to Westeros that same night.
It was oddly easy to leave the Faceless Men behind; it had been a refuge to her, certainly, but not a home. Try as she might, she could not completely squeeze the yearning for a family from herself; however, she had certainly steeled near everything else. She surprised herself by smiling coyly at the young men on the ship who stared at her with equal measures of blatant desire and confusion over what was probably her mannish garb. Her father had once told her she looked like Lyanna Stark—'but she's beautiful,' she'd replied, dumbfounded. But now, she felt the thin, pleasing hum of power buzzing about in her chest, knowing that there were men mooning after her. She wondered if this was how Sansa felt all the time. Arya decided to enjoy the company of her young Essos admirers, drinking and laughing with them, learning their names and their tales. Most of them seemed content to watch her and speak to her, and the one who tried to slip into her cabin in the night was met with a sword to his throat.
She was surprised to find the face of Gendry, the boy who had abandoned her for a knighthood, floating behind her eyes as she sought sleep on the rocking ship. She wondered absently—or, at least, she would claim it was only so—if he was still at the Crossroads Inn with Jeyne Heddle, herding the orphan children. She wondered if he might be dead, too. She felt the terribly familiar ache of loss when she realised that if he had died, she wouldn't have heard of it, because when a nameless bastard dies, next to no one mourns them.
The notion made the ache so much worse.
Gendry Waters had not left the inn since she disappeared.
He had accepted she was dead; it did not mean he didn't mourn for her still, however. She was his first and only true friend, and he had betrayed her. And it was because of that betrayal that she had fled, been taken by the Hound, and promptly delivered to her death at the Twins.
It tortured him.
He and Jeyne's passion had run dry long ago; in fact, he didn't like using the word 'passion' to describe the pair of them at all. 'Liking' seemed more appropriate. They were both terribly alone and lost, and found solace in one another. Moreover, the both of them had lost themselves to someone long before climbing into bed with one another. For Jeyne, it was an errant pageboy; for Gendry, it was the tiny thorn in his side that the world had used to know as Arya Stark.
When he used to lay awake at the Inn, silently asking himself what he was doing and where he was going, it had been Arya's voice that snapped back, 'What, were you just going to leave me, stupid?' and he would answer resolutely, No. He would not leave her—her memory, that is—behind. She had been a girl of one-and-ten when last he'd seen her, just on the verge of womanhood. So young and so spirited. When she died, he became certain that there was no justice in the world. Surely no god would create something so special only to have it snuffed out before it could properly burn.
His days moved slowly. He often forgot things that transpired, or conversations he had. None of it mattered much, really. He kept on living because she had kept him alive for so long; and he had repaid her by killing her. He may as well have sunk the blade into her throat himself.
He ignored the japes of the men of the Brotherhood, the way they all painted him as a lovestruck fool for the way he patiently rejected the advances of the women who flirted with him. Many of the more crude men referred to him as 'Cunt-struck Gendry', the young man who lost himself to some pretty slut as a lad and now desired no one else.
Gendry tolerated all the japes directed towards himself, but the first time he heard Tom refer to Arya as a 'pretty slut', he broke the man's nose in two places. It was foolish to be so offended, given that Tom did not know the identity of the girl who had so ensnared him, but it mattered little to Gendry. Arya's memory was sacred to him; it was, after all, the only thing that remained of her.
It tortured him to know that he had forgotten the sound of her voice. She had been so close to womanhood; budding breasts, hair curling under her chin, all bright eyes and luminous skin when she bothered to wash. He recalled how she'd looked in that acorn dress, all tight and laced in just the right places, looking pretty enough to be presented to the King himself. He could not remember her exact features, but he remembered that her face had always had the kind of odd but somehow matching qualities that promised a unique future beauty. He had certainly thought she was comely enough. The only thing—aside her eyes—that he could remember with sharpest clarity was the cinnamon sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose and her cheeks. He had discovered their existence one day after she returned from bathing for the first time in ages. Previously, they had been indistinguishable from the dirt that caked her skin. He found himself queerly and feverishly loving the memory of her freckles, imagining that they would multiply as she grew older. She would be five-and-ten now, Gendry would think, staring into the inky blackness, spying the tiniest shreds of moonlight that peeked in from the poorly thatched roof. Five-and-ten; a woman grown, flowered and tall and feminine. Gendry nearly laughed at the idea of Arya being tall, and then he could not stop himself from sniggering at the thought of her being feminine; woman's body or not, Arya would never be seen in a skirt or a hairnet, Gendry thought with surety. Sometimes he would find himself dreaming of this five-and-ten Arya Stark, traipsing across the world somewhere. He dreamt of finding her—sometimes in King's Landing, sometimes in Winterfell, sometimes in some exotic place he invented in his mind—and kissing her like a man kisses a woman, like lovers kiss. He would always see her sharp grey eyes, framed by her messy dark fringe, and then he would see those lovely freckles...but nothing else. Her nose, her lips, her body, they were all absent, memories lost. She would try to speak to him, but the words were muted and faraway, impossible to hear or understand.
She was fading away, and it was killing him.
Few had ever paid him much mind; being knighted had been Gendry's first step in becoming someone. He wanted to be worth others' time, to be seen as a real person. Someone worthwhile and useful and important, rather than just another forgettable baseborn. Arya had been his friend besides that, and she was the first girl who he had ever spent real time with. Since then, he had come to know other women, but only to realise that there would be no better than her.
For a long while, Gendry had loved her the way an older brother loves his younger sister. She was bold, and terribly fun to tease besides, and nothing more than a little girl who looked like a little boy. He protected her from brigands and rapers, poked fun at her, and all the other things he imagined brothers did for sisters.
It was not until that night when she had appeared in that acorn dress that his idea of her changed.
His first instinct—one which he promptly followed—was to laugh. Here was Arry, his headstrong, bold, half-mad little friend, stuffed into a gown, washed, combed, and perfumed; and looking ready to murder someone. It had seemed so absurd at the time, to see Arya actually dressed like a girl. She had looked so...so not at all like Arya.
But then he found himself watching her. Watching her speak to Tom and Lem and that highborn arse, Edric Dayne, 'Lord of Starfall'. He noticed how...nice she looked, now that he could properly see her smile and her laugh. And somewhere after he had had more ale than he should've, he'd found himself noticing her chest. When had she gotten a chest? But there it was, plain as day; two small, round bumps, drawn tight beneath the bodice. He found himself bristling when he wondered who else had noticed them before he had.
He abruptly realised that this was not how brothers looked at their sisters, how they thought about them. And then, so sudden and so plain, he remembered he was not her brother, that he was a young man and she a young lady, small and bright and pretty. And somehow he had ended up in the forge with her, touching her wrist, sniffing her, and then he was on the ground and tickling her and wrestling her—
Since that night, Gendry had often wondered what it would be like; a future with Arya Stark. Those many years ago, he had turned the idea around in his mind several times, thinking that mayhaps they could runaway together or her family would not mind her marrying a baseborn lad or mayhaps he could be legitimised or mayhaps he could just follow her as her servant...
Little good it did him. Now he simply lived, toiling through the hours because he needed to. Everything reminded him of her; stars and dirt spatters and cinders on the ground made him think of her freckles. He could not see any shade of darkened brown without relating it to her hair. And should he have the misfortune of stepping outside on a grey day? It was as if he were walking under a huge, cruel version of his dead Arya's eyes.
The voyage was not long. They arrived in the Saltpans in the evening, a heavy, creeping fog around them. Arya gave the ship's Tyroshi captain several silvers before disembarking. It was quite cold and she had no horse, though Arya figured she could remedy that soon.
The town was still only a ghost of what it used to be; even after several years of reconstruction, the damage from its sacking had not been erased. Nonetheless, Arya found an inn, stayed the night, and in the morning bought a strong-legged sorrel courser with the destination of Winterfell in mind. She'd asked around the inn about the 'Queen in the North' and been met with stories of a beautiful young auburn-haired girl who intended to restore Winterfell to its former prestige. The bitterest cold of the winter was past, and as Arya rode northwest from the Saltpans, she kept imagining seeing Sansa in the Great Hall of her family's restored castle, all donned in black and grey and navy like their mother had always worn. The thought made her chest swell with longing and affection for the sister she used to disregard and insist that she hated. It had been far too long since she'd heard Sansa's voice; she even missed her barbing comments about Arya being ugly or uncouth or unfit to be a lady. Arya smiled at the memory; you were right, sister, she thought. I was never suited for the life of a lady.
Arya rode for two days with little rest. She was so eager—it had been so long, so long, so long—and she could not find it in herself to pause for anything.
And then she found the inn.
Arya yanked the reigns so fast that her horse nearly bucked her off its back. She found herself staring into the dimly lit windows, just staring, waiting for a familiar face to pass by.
What am I doing? She asked herself, closing her mouth from the cold. She had to go and see Sansa; everyone she knew from the Brotherhood had probably already left or been killed long ago anyhow. It wouldn't do to go poking around at old friends who probably though she was dead anyway.
When Arya slipped from her horse and led him by the reigns to the stable, she did it with the fierce internal insistence that she only needed a good night's sleep; nothing more. In the morning, she'd be gone again. She was very good at being gone.
Gendry was drunk.
He'd scoured the inn for ale, wine, mead, anything. And he'd drank it all. Today had been one of those terribly frosty, terribly grey days when nothing seemed to be exactly worth it any more.
He sat by the fire at the back of the inn's main room, sitting precariously on a wooden stool and using his weight to lean it backwards and forwards, finding a slow, drunken rhythm. Staring into the cracking, spitting tendrils of flame, the thought to just reach his hand in, just to see how it would feel, had passed into his mind. And he stared at his right hand, imagining it black and charred and dead; useless. He would have no place at the inn if he did that, he thought. He wouldn't be able to smith or haul or anything; completely good-for-nothing. Just a baseborn nobody who can't even summon a smile any more.
He heard the sharp, howling suck of wind that announced the front door was open. "Jeyne," he shouted hoarsely, not even turning around. "Someone's at the damn door!" He knotted his hands together and tucked them under his chin, refusing to rip his gaze from the hearth.
He heard Jeyne's noisy curses from upstairs, remembering that she had been bathing the orphans. He supposed the kind thing to do would be to see to the guest himself, but Gendry didn't feel like being particularly kind tonight.
He heard footsteps easing along the old rotted floorboards, and then the door slammed shut. The footsteps stopped, and the room was silent, save the fire.
Gendry was too drunk and far too tired to deal with whoever it was. Lifting his ale mug from the floor and draining the last of it before setting it down again, he waved a dismissive hand behind him. In his mind, it seemed an appropriate way to say to the 'visitor' that he didn't give a single damn about them or whatever they wanted.
"Well," a woman's cool voice said from a good many paces behind him, "you're closed then, are you? Or just rude?"
Gendry scowled into the fire. "Both, as a matter o' truth. Haul arse, girl, there's no bed for you here."
The footsteps started again, coming a bit closer before stopping for a second time. "Don't call me girl. How many stags for a bed, then? I'll bet if I slap enough on the counter one will just appear."
Gendry bent down to retrieve a bottle of old Dornish wine. It was sour, and probably well past drinking age, but it got him just as drunk as anything else. He gulped it greedily, and his head swam. The hearth was blurring before his eyes when he set it down. "No bed," he repeated, slurring. "Geddout."
This time, the footsteps were not slow or few. They marched noisily—ugh, far too noisily—right up to him. He could feel the woman's presence just behind.
"This is the only inn for miles, and my horse and I as well are near death with exhaustion. I'll pay you well, just get off your arse and find me a bed, will you?" she snapped irritably.
That tears it, he thought, anger flaring suddenly. He jumped from his stool, letting it flip and fall over, ignoring the way the room spun before his eyes. His hands snatched at the girl's wrist—tiny, soft—and gripped it tight.
"Listen, now, you"—
Gendry's voice withered and died in his throat, sticking there, dry and useless. He inhaled sharply, but did not exhale. He had forgotten how.
Eyes. Those eyes. Grey eyes. Grey and huge and slanting the tiniest bit in the corners, just like he remembered. His gaze fell just below them, where a sprinkling crop of freckles was scattered along cheeks and nose.
His brow furrowed. His mouth opened and closed like a fish dying on a beach shore. His stomach twisted with nervous, stunned sickness.
"Drunk, are you?" she said, flashing a tiny half-smile that did not reach her eyes. "I s'pose you have more of your father in you than I thought."
"Dead," he gasped, looking into the face of Arya Stark. Her eyes told him she was just as shocked as he was.
"Not exactly," she muttered back, her gaze flickering between his two eyes.
His dreams that night were colourful for a change.
Arya was there—Arya was always there—but she was not dead or angry or missing this time. He could see all of her face, as pretty and grown as he pictured it, all lips and eyes and freckles. He could hear her voice, too, all sensual and low: "Not exactly. Dead? No, not exactly." He did not know what she was talking about, but he found he did not care. Arya was there, and even though it was only a dream, it kept him happy for a little while.
A slap of water to the face woke him from his pleasant dreams, and when he found his sight, he saw Jeyne standing over him, a now-empty bucket in hand.
"You conked yourself out on the floor," she said with distaste. "Too much drink, I imagine. Geddup, there's guests to attend to."
"Guests?" he croaked, rubbing at his face. "What guests?"
Jeyne rolled her eyes and stalked off without answering him. Gendry sat up, shaking the water out of his hair, and then cursing noisily when it made his skull pound.
Pulling himself to his feet, he made his way to the next room, where the tables were crookedly assembled. The children all seemed particularly bright and jumpy today, he noticed irritably. That means they'll be running and mucking about all day. His eyes followed the line of children down to the end of the table where Willow was speaking to someone.
When Gendry took a few more steps, he saw the stranger's face appear where it had before been obstructed by Wat's head. Arya Stark.
He stopped in his tracks, blinking dumbly in between his wide-eyed stares. His heart jumped up into his throat and when he tried to swallow, he found he couldn't.
It was her. The same Arya he'd seen in his dream. She was the guest.
She looked up at him, still saying something to Willow, and smiled a tiny smile.
The smart thing would've been to turn around and go. The smart thing would've been to forget she was back or even alive, to keep trying to get on without her. The smart thing would've been to realise that she wasn't here to stay, that her being alive didn't change the fact that he was baseborn and she highborn, that the best thing for him to do was ignore her until she left again, as she was of course planning to do.
As he moved towards her and took a seat beside her, his heart pounding and his stomach twisting in nervous excitement, he thought that mayhaps Arya had been right when she insisted he was stupid.
New chapter up soon.