Gendry could only sit there, dumbly, while Willow barraged Arya with questions about her life and her travels. Arya spoke animatedly about having been in Essos, living primarily in Braavos and visiting all of the other Free Cities at least once while there. Gendry's mind buzzed and hummed—both from his drinking the night before and the realisation that Arya had been alive the whole time, but she had chosen to run away rather than come back to the Brotherhood, to him. He felt suddenly angry at her, thinking she must have been being a coward or utterly selfish when she made that choice.
His heart leapt when he felt her fingers begin to stroke at the back of his hand; gentle, tender. Nothing at all like Arya herself. He turned to look at her, shocked, but she was still chatting to Willow, completely unruffled and not even looking at him. Willow's eyes were huge as she asked Arya what Braavos was like, making Arya flash an easy smile.
"Well, foreign, I suppose." Gendry swallowed thickly as her fingers drew little patterns on his skin, wanting to grab her hand and just hold it, but fearing her reaction. "The language isn't so hard to learn when you're living there, though. Well—when you live there, you have to learn it. The city's brilliant, too. They've got canals instead of streets."
Willow gave a longing little sigh and asked Arya if she had learnt any other languages besides Braavosi. Gendry found he could only half-listen to the conversation.
"I picked up a bit of Dothraki," Arya said with a shrug. "Some High Valyrian, Myrish, Tyroshi. Once you've got one of the Essos languages down, it isn't hard to learn the rest."
Willow smiled stupidly, looking absolutely aglow with admiration. "Well...haven't you got a family? Or a betrothed? You're very pretty, miss..."
"Arya," she supplied patiently. "No, I'm not betrothed. And I haven't seen my family in years. That's why I've come back, you see." Gendry felt a tiny stab of disappointment at that, but he did not cling to it for long. It would have been foolish to think she would cross the sea for him.
Willow's questions had not yet run adry, much to Gendry's impatience. He was curious about the nature of Arya's absence, too, but he was much more eager to pull her aside and talk to her himself. Especially when her soft, long fingers were stroking his like that. "Aren't you afraid of rapers and cutthroats?" Willow asked. "You're just a maid. You look to be about my age, in fact."
"She's five-and-ten," Gendry said suddenly, prompting Arya to finally turn and look at him. He stared back, trying his best to say everything he wanted to with that one look. Her eyes were wide and a bit surprised—as if she didn't expect him to remember how old she was—but her astonishment lasted only a moment before she turned back to Willow. "Yes, right. Five-and-ten. But I've never really had to worry about being overcome by men."
Gendry smiled at that, glancing sidelong to see Arya smiling, too. She gave his hand a squeeze before pulling her fingers away altogether, and he gasped softly. Looking up, he saw that Willow had not noticed it.
"Well, I s'pose it's safe to say I envy you, Miss Arya. Wish I could travel all around on my own."
The children began chorusing that they had finished with their meal, and it didn't take long before they started to scatter about. Willow groaned, standing up to chase after them. Gendry turned, opening his mouth to speak to Arya, only to find her seat vacant. Brow furrowed, he looked around, spying her long braid flying behind her as she rounded the corner and left the room. He rose to follow her.
Arya smiled absently as she glanced around the forge, enjoying the heavy warmth that flooded the room. She looked down at a rack of various swords, morningstars and handaxes, fingering the blades and pommels with interest. She imagined Gendry beating the steel with his hammer until each weapon bended to exactly the shape he wanted it to, and she remembered when she used to watch him in the forge at Harenhall, working for hours.
She whirled around, seeing Gendry climbing through the doorway and looking puzzled. His eyes fell to her hands, still on the weapons, and he frowned. "Why'd you come here?"
She attempted a coy smile. "I thought I should see your forge before I go. I always liked watching you smith."
Gendry licked his lips, his eyes flickering between her face and her hand. "Before you go," he echoed, his eyes reflecting a sadness that Arya didn't want to address. She spun away from him.
"Yes, eventually," she muttered. She wondered briefly why she hadn't told him that she was planning to go to Winterfell as soon as possible—the truth.
At least, that was the truth, wasn't it?
"Right," Gendry said behind her, sounding flustered. "Well, I'm—I mean"—
She heard him sigh while she continued to finger the weapons, trying to appear busy and aloof.
"Arya...where've you been?"
She looked at him over her shoulder, smirking mirthlessly. "Braavos. Weren't you listening?"
"You know what I mean," he snapped, taking two steps towards her. "You didn't die at the Twins. You went free, clearly. You could've come back."
"To what?" she said coldly, turning to face him fully. "The Brotherhood only wanted to ransom me to mother, and she's dead."
"You could've come back," he insisted. "To me and Tom and Lem and Archer; we would've protected you!"
"I don't need protection," she bit back, sweeping her eyes over him. He was stronger than before, all long muscle and tanned skin. Arya felt a quick flush of desire for him just then, and an idea occurred to her.
"Of course, if you were the one protecting me," she said in her lowest voice, approaching him slowly, "mayhaps I would've reconsidered." Arya stepped close enough to him so that she could run her fingers along his collar bone, left exposed by his tunic. She was trusting that this was still the same shy Gendry she'd known as a child, the one who blushed and ran away when women flirted with him. Arya was quite desperate to avoid this conversation, for some reason.
Gendry frowned, snatching at her hand and peeling it away. "Lady Stark," he said firmly. She looked at him as innocently as she could manage to, inwardly wondering why he hadn't bent to her flirtation the way the boys on the ship had.
"What?" she returned, blinking.
"Stop," he said simply. "Just answer the question."
Arya refused to do anything but smile. "I was just afraid, that's all," she answered evenly. "Of the Hound and—well, of rapers and brigands, of course."
Gendry wasn't accepting it. "I don't believe you," he growled, taking hold of both her wrists. "You were running away from something. What was it?"
You, she thought, feeling sick in her stomach. She had had Gendry to rely on, up until he decided to become a knight and live with Jeyne Heddle. They could've been friends forever, but he'd decided to give up on her.
"Running away? Surely not," she said, letting her free hands stroke along the lines of his chest through his apron. "How could any sane girl run away from you?"
Gendry growled fiercely, shoving her hands away and taking a step back from her. "Stop it, Arya! Stop this—this flirting slut thing you're doing. It won't work!"
Arya's face went still, caught between humiliation and hurt. She straightened herself, fixing her eyes pointedly and unemotionally on his. "Fine," she whispered. "Then I'll go."
She heard Gendry call her name again as she walked away, but she did not respond.
Tom, Lem, Archer, and another man from the Brotherhood Gendry could not place came to the inn that night, badgering Jeyne and Willow as usual while making good-natured japes at Gendry. When Arya appeared at supper, Archer whistled while Tom whispered something to Lem, making him erupt with laughter. Gendry was quite certain it was crude.
Arya sat across from them and a few seats down, looking utterly unbothered as she supped. Gendry's eyes kept flickering to her as he supped in his own place next to Archer.
They don't recognise her, Gendry thought, seeing the way Tom winked at her and Archer watched her in the same furtive, curious way that Gendry himself did.
"Arya," Gendry called suddenly, making her head as well as Tom's, Archer's and Lem's snap up, "don't you wanna say something to your old friends from the Brotherhood?"
Her eyes widened at him, to which he only smiled. He knew it was childish and unfair for him to blow her secret like that—and a moment late he remembered that these were the men who had once wanted to ransom her—but he was still stung by her treatment of him earlier. He didn't know exactly why, but he was certain that whyever she had behaved that way, it was because she was tricking him or playing with him. And he didn't like to be treated that way; especially by Arya Stark, the girl who had never seemed to do anything but mistreat him.
Tom Sevenstrings leaned forward, his eyes bulging. "Arya Stark?" he whispered in nonbelief, his eyes going all around her face and body and lingering in a few places that made Gendry's fingers twitch to strike him. Tom let out a booming laugh that was both startled and pleased. "A woman grown! Last I saw you, you were just a little thing still! We had all thought you died at the Twins with"—
He paused, his next words ringing in the air. His smile died instantly, and Lem raised his eyebrows. Arya surprised Gendry by smiling patiently.
"It's alright, you can say it. With my mother and brother." She took a bite of salted pork, chewed, and swallowed before speaking again. "As it happens, letting me die was not in the Hound's interest."
"But he wanted to ransom you," Lem clarified, cocking a single eyebrow. "If he didn't want to kill you, he wanted to sell you, no?"
"Yes, that's true," Arya said. "But I managed to get away."
"From the Hound?" Lem said in his cool manner, sounding sceptical.
"That's our girl!" Tom said, rising from his seat to go and sit beside her. Gendry watched, nearly scoffing aloud at Tom's boldness. Woman-grown or not, this was still Arya, not some girl from the Peach.
"So what'd you do, knock him with the pommel of a sword? Or a rock, perhaps? How'd you manage to have him out long enough to scamper off?"
Arya's eyebrows pulled together in genuine puzzlement. Her grey eyes were hard. "'Have him out'? I thought he was dead."
"The 'ound?" said the man Gendry didn't know. He had heavy brows and a scruffy growth of hair along his jaw. "No. 'e was poisoned, I 'eard. Taken to a maester or summat, got it all cleared outta 'im. Now 'e's up in Winterfell."
Arya's eyebrows loosened, but her eyes froze to ice. She stared at the nameless scruffy man, her lips parted but saying nothing. Tom put a hesitant hand around her shoulder, and in spite of the tender circumstances, Gendry noticed it and was annoyed again.
"Oi, Arya," Tom said soothingly. "It's alright. He's sworn fealty to your sister."
Arya's eyes dropped. She did not look the slightest bit relieved, but nonetheless, she had planted a smile on her face again when her eyes lifted. Gendry thought that she was probably used to hearing bad news about her family by now.
"And this Bolton fool who thought he'd had me?" she said, her proud facade back in place. "Where's he run off to?"
"King Stannis had him imprisoned and executed ages ago," Lem said with a touch of pride. "House Bolton has been since destroyed. Now your sister alone rules in the North."
Gendry's heart swelled when a bright, genuine smile tore across Arya's face. Her stormy eyes were dancing for once.
"Let's toast," Tom said, raising his tankard. "To the Queen in the North, and her sister, returned from the dead!"
Lem and Anguy raised their own cups, as did Gendry, though reluctantly. He did not trust Tom where mead and a pretty girl were involved.
The five of them discussed politics for another half-hour or so. They talked about the Dragon Queen, biding her time in Dorne, and King Stannis' rot leg, still festering after receiving a wound there. Lem expressed terrible doubt over another Targaryen possibly taking the throne—since Stannis had no sons—while Anguy pointed out that she had already abolished slavery in much of Essos and therefore couldn't be the madman her father was. Arya's eyes were alight through the whole conversation; whether from interest or mead or both, Gendry could not say.
"You would support a woman as the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms?" Arya asked them.
"If Stannis should die—gods be good, he won't—I see little alternative," Lem said with a frown. "The girl's got dragons at her back—huge things, I hear, the size of this inn. If she chooses to invade—and I doubt she'd come to Westeros if she wasn't planning to—she could torch entire cities with a wave of her hand."
"Moreover, the Dornish sing her praises," Tom said, leaning in to Arya. Gendry's fingers twitched again. "Say she's a beneficial ruler, freeing slaves and showing kindness and all. And beautiful to boot."
Arya's brow gathered. "The Targaryens are often mad, though."
Tom took another swig of his drink before dropping it clamorously to the table. "The Targaryens were incestuous, and yes, madness is a consequence often resulting from that particular sin. They aren't always that way, though. Remember Rhaegar Targaryen?"
Arya scowled. "He kidnapped my aunt Lyanna."
"Yes, that is what Robert said, but"—
"You support the Baratheons," Gendry said suddenly, and everyone turned to look at him. "Calling him a liar is treason."
Tom frowned. "I am calling him no such thing. I believe that he believed she was kidnapped. But I remember the time before the rebellion, boy, and Rhaegar was a good man. I only mean to say not all Targaryens are as evil as we paint them."
Arya's face was dark. "Then you are suggesting my aunt simply ran off with him?"
Tom smiled sadly at her. "People have done much worse for love, my dear."
Arya said nothing, reaching for her tankard and finishing the last of her mead. Gendry watched her, appreciating her long, spiderlike fingers as they curled around the handle.
From there, conversation was more light-hearted. Tom spoke merrily of Brotherhood victories, significant kills and the like, and told crude stories about things which had transpired while Arya was absent. When they were all on a second tankard of mead—Gendry drank his rather gloomily and thirstily—Tom was blatantly flirting with her.
"You've grown into a lovely little thing," he told her with a subtle slur. Arya blinked up at him, her eyes dazed. Lem had gone off to speak with Jeyne about something, and Anguy was far too absorbed with his drink to pay attention to what was happening, leaving only Gendry to glower at the pair of them.
"I remember when you had boy's hair," he said, fingering the long, rich strands that had fallen in her face. "But no one could mistake you for a boy, now." Here, Tom's eyes fell plainly from her hair to her chest. Gendry kept expecting Arya to swat him away or kick him, but she only stared, a small half-smile on her face.
Tom leaned in and smelled her hair. "Ah, and you smell like a woman, too."
Gendry's hand came down on the table loudly and suddenly, and the two of them broke apart to stare. Gendry glared between them, his chest heaving and his face hot with rage, before flying from his seat and striding to the door. Jeyne caught him on his way out and demanded to know where he thought he was going, and he heard himself snap something about firewood.
Arya waited in the forge, sitting cross-legged on Gendry's small, ragged bed. She fingered the furs absently, then felt the scratchy fabric of the mattress underneath, wondering if the material roughened his back. She had been waiting for half an hour, knowing she wanted to speak to Gendry but not daring to ask herself why.
The door opened abruptly and slapped against the wall, and Gendry saw her immediately. His eyes dragged over her sluggishly.
"...Get out. I'm going to sleep."
"Why are you behaving like this?" she asked him simply.
Gendry laughed mirthlessly, slamming the door behind him as he walked into the room. "Now you're the one askin' questions? Earlier you dismissed me like some stupid boy, and now you want to play the friend again?" Gendry snorted. "I ain't lettin' you play with me twice in one day, milady. Now, if you could absent yourself"—
"I'm leaving for Winterfell," she said abruptly, feeling panicked, as if the world was tightening around her. "Tomorrow. At dawn."
Gendry stilled. He stood there, staring at her, his brow drawn and his eyes hard. He looked at the floor, and she saw his hands knotting into fists at his sides. "I thought you were." When he looked back at her, he was glaring. "So you're going back to your pretty castle and your servants and your dresses. What's that got to do with me?"
Arya's chest stung as if he'd pricked her there with a knife. "I will never go back to servants and dresses. I am going for my family. My sister is there, she needs me! "
"I'll ask again: what's that got to do with me?" Gendry snapped back at her immediately, advancing on her. "Why'd you stop here if your plan all along was to leave again?"
Arya swallowed back the answer that was standing and glaring a few feet away from her. "I had to rest. My horse"—
Gendry interrupted her with a rude scoff. "It looks like you haven't changed one bit, milady. Still as much of a liar and a pretender as little Arry was."
Arya jumped from the bed and stalked to him, the mead making her brash and angry. "Call me a liar again, bastard boy. Do it."
"I wouldn't need to if you told the truth, Lady Stark."
Arya could have slapped him for that alone; but now his eyes weren't as hard. Now they were searching, imploring. Now he was licking his lips anxiously, and she couldn't lie to him, not now, not when he was so close.
"Alright," she blurted, frustrated, "I wanted to see you, idiot. But clearly that was a mistake, since you've done nothing but behave like your stupid self."
Gendry's eyes went soft at once. He licked his lips again, and Arya was ashamed when she was struck with the sudden desire to kiss him. She had always thought he was handsome, even as a child, but she couldn't kiss him. This was Gendry.
"Come with me," she whispered, unbidden. She thought for a moment to recall the words, but she couldn't. She did want him to come with her. She wondered if, secretly, this was what she had wanted all along. "My sister will have need of a good smith. You'll be well paid, and you can live in the castle." Arya paused for a beat. "With me," she tacked on as an afterthought.
Gendry's eyes swam with a thousand and one emotions. He kept shifting and opening his mouth to say something before shutting it again. Arya squirmed, feeling anxious and afraid all of a sudden.
"I can't," he said quietly, and his gaze was full of regret. Arya's heart dropped. "I have a place here. I have to help Jeyne with the orphans, and"—
Arya fist shot out and she punched him hard in the shoulder. He staggered a bit before looking up to give her a wide, incredulous stare, his unhurt side rubbing at his wounded shoulder. "Gods! What in hell was that for?"
Arya's lip quivered with humiliation. "Piss off, you stupid baseborn! You'd probably burn the castle down anyway, like the idiot you are!" She hadn't shouted like this since she was one-and-ten, back when she and Gendry were together with the Brotherhood. Back when he'd gotten himself knighted and come to apologise for leaving her.
She fled the room before he could call her back.
Her courser tossed and brayed while she saddled him, tying burlap sacks of food to the empty loops. Frost crunched on the grass beneath her feet and cold, stinging air bit at her nose and cheeks and weathered her lips, but she ignored it.
Arya climbed into the saddle, Needle slung over on one hip, and had her leg poised to rouse her horse when the call of "milady!" stilled her.
Whipping her head around, she saw Gendry running towards her, a rucksack bouncing at his back.
Arya could not fight a grin when he reached her, smiling boyishly.
"What are you doing?" she asked, her stomach flipping wildly.
Gendry was breathless when he answered, "Well, I'd be a piss-poor knight if I let a highborn lady travel alone all the way to Winterfell, wouldn't I?" Then he'd flashed her a smile full of bright teeth.
"What about the orphans?"
"Willow said she'll take my place. I can't stay here forever." He did his anxious lip-lick again. "Is your offer still good?"
Arya pretended to contemplate it. "Well, I suppose so." She raised a conditional finger. "But you'll sit behind me in the saddle. The reigns are mine."