A/N: I don't know why I'm writing this since I'm not usually a big fan of this kind of AU stories, but this idea just wouldn't leave me alone, so here it is. It should be relatively short, no more than 3 or 4 chapters, and I'll try to update every Monday.
Disclaimer: none of the characters belong to me, I'm just having fun with them for a little while.
Reviews greatly appreciated :)
Lord Eddard Stark was not prone to nervousness, yet as he waited for the visitors to show up, he felt the need to shift his weight from one foot to the other in an unusual display of anxiety. He suppressed it, of course, but his calm exterior did not fool his wife. Catelyn briefly squeezed his hand in support, releasing him as soon as they heard the distinctive sounds of approaching horses.
He could think of only one way to explain Robert Baratheon's long journey to Winterfell right after they'd heard about Jon Arryn's death, and he didn't like it. He already knew he wouldn't be able to say no. How could he, after the king himself had travelled a whole month to come here and ask him in person?
With a sigh, he looked at his children, knowing what he would see on each one of those faces. At six of age, Rickon was a bit young to really understand what was going on, but the mere fact that they'd had to dress up and were all standing in the yard was proof enough for him that something exciting was about to happen. Bran, who had just turned one-and-ten, was more serious than his father had ever seen him, taking his role as Rickon's big brother very seriously. He wanted to set an example and he was succeeding. Ned bit back a smile as his gaze went to Arya, who was almost jumping up and down in excitement, asking everyone around if they had ever met the Imp. Getting her to behave during the royal visit was going to be a challenge. While he couldn't publicly approve of his daughter's behavior most of the time, the fact that she was so fierce and wild at four-and-ten reminded him so much of his sister that he couldn't help but laugh privately whenever she did something that Catelyn frowned upon. Sansa was nervously fidgeting with her hands, trying to see as far as her eyes could see. He knew why. Marriage was all she talked about, and Ned had to admit that if he had waited this long to think of a match for her, it was because he suspected Robert would want to use her to join their houses. Ever since she'd heard of Joffrey Baratheon's blond hair, she had decided that he must look like a real prince and that she was going to fall in love with him. Here in the North, brown hair was the norm, her own red locks, the same as her mother's, were a rarity, and golden heads were even rarer. Jon's face was grim, and Ned knew this was because he was old enough to understand what it all meant. The girls were distracted, Rickon was too young and Bran was probably hoping that his father would be able to say no to whatever the king wanted to ask of him, but at eight-and-ten, Jon knew better. As did Robb. His eldest son, who was only a few months older than Jon, was trying to hide his unhappiness at having been shaved, at his new haircut, and at this whole ordeal, but he wasn't being very successful. Ned caught his eye and gave him a stern look, and Robb nodded in understanding and managed to relax and even to smile a little.
At last, after much anticipation, the visitors came through the castle gates. Ned immediately recognized Jaime and Tyrion Lannister, both unmistakable for very different reasons. He had never seen the two boys who were riding behind them, but guessing their identity was easy. The eldest one bore a striking resemblance to his father. The black hair, blue eyes and strong body betrayed his Baratheon blood. He had heard only good things about Prince Gendry, many thought he would be a better king than his father, though no one had ever dared say that in front of Ned. Prince Joffrey took after their mother. His golden head looked strangely out of place surrounded by the grey walls, grey sky and grey clothes, and contrary to his brother, he bore a scornful expression, obviously not happy with being here.
Behind them was the king. Ned couldn't help but let a disbelieving smile stretch his lips as he took in his old friend's appearance. How had he gotten so fat? Robert dismounted with some difficulty. Once he was in front of him, Ned knelt, as did every single one of his people. Robert quickly motioned for them to stand up.
"Ned, it's good to see you. You have not changed at all!"
The Lord of Winterfell pointedly eyed Robert's belly, and the king burst out laughing. The two men fell into each other's arms, and it was the signal everyone had been waiting for. Grooms approached the visitors to take care of their horses and the welcoming party dissipated, leaving only the Starks with the king, and with the queen who had just left her wheelhouse to join them.
Robert asked Ned to lead him to the crypt. He was reluctant to leave Catelyn alone to deal with the Lannisters, but he couldn't refuse his friend, not when he wanted to pay his respects to the woman he had loved.
Once they were underground, Robert didn't waste any time. After a few words about Lyanna and the man who had taken her away from him, he went straight to the point of his visit.
"I would name you Hand of the King."
Ned had expected the words, but he had hoped he would have at least a day before the king broached the subject. He dropped to one knee.
"Your Grace, I am not worthy of the honor."
This drew a loud laugh from his friend.
"If you are not worthy of the honor, then no one in this bloody realm is. I need you, Ned. There aren't many people I can trust. Someone has to rule the Seven Kingdoms and the Gods know it shouldn't be me."
"You're underestimating yourself, Your Grace."
"Enough with the 'Your Grace'! And you know I'm not. I can win a kingdom, but as far as ruling it goes… We were meant to rule together, my friend. We should even be brothers," he added with a sad glance towards Lyanna's statue. "Well, it's not too late for that. You have daughters, I have sons. We will join our Houses."
Ned was speechless for a second. He had suspected Robert would want to marry Gendry to Sansa, he had been prepared to negotiate for her because he knew she wanted to marry Joffrey. He had never thought Arya would be part of the discussion as well.
"Daughters," he repeated, his voice breaking on the last letter.
Robert looked surprised.
"Yes. You do have two daughters, don't you?"
"I… I do, your Grace. But Arya is so young, and…"
And wild, and unladylike, and not ready for marriage, and completely opposed to the very idea of it, and…
"Nonsense. Catelyn was younger than that when she was betrothed to your brother."
Ned couldn't deny it anymore than he could deny that Arya was old enough for marriage. Yet even though he had always known the time would come, the idea made him uneasy. A feeling of dread crept up his spine as he tried to imagine Arya as a southern lady. There was something so wrong with the picture that he almost winced visibly.
"Robert, I am not sure Arya would be a good wife."
"Joffrey will make sure she becomes one."
This wasn't going as planned. Not at all. He knew Robert well enough to know the decision about the number of marriages was made, he would not be able to get Arya out of it, but maybe he could still do something for Sansa.
"Robert, may I suggest we let your children choose?"
He was careful not to say 'our children'. Robert would be more willing to go along with his idea if he thought Gendry and Joffrey would get to make the decision on their own. And he had no doubt Joffrey would choose Sansa, she had the makings of a perfect princess, especially since she was already so full of admiration for Joffrey. He would just need to try and convince Gendry to let his brother marry Sansa, and to choose Arya for himself. It might prove difficult, but it was the best he could do at the moment.
"Let my children choose? Why?"
"Why not?" He replied. "As long as there are two weddings between the Starks and the Baratheons, why should it matter who marries whom? Let them choose someone they have at least some form of feelings for, and these marriages may end up being more successful than…"
His voice trailed off as he realized what he had been about to say, but Robert chuckled good-naturedly.
"Say it, Ned. I'm in dire need of your honesty, don't you dare become one of those lying bastards I find myself surrounded with."
"These marriages may end up being more successful than yours, your Grace."
"There you go. You're not even officially Hand of the King yet, and you're already giving me good counsel. Now let's go have a drink!"
The feast had been fun… Right up until the moment she'd thrown a spoonful of food at Sansa and her mother had ordered her to go to bed. Arya waited for a few minutes in her bedchamber to make sure she wouldn't get caught, and then she slipped out of the room. Everyone was busy tonight, she would make the most of it and visit the stables. She spent as much time as she could with the horses, she found they were often more entertaining than people. Outside, she heard the voices of her brother Jon and her uncle Benjen. She didn't think they would tell her mother that she was out of her bedchamber, but she didn't want to take that risk, so she stayed hidden in the shadows, moving silently with her back against the wall. She reached the stables at last and decided to go straight to Winter, her mare, but before she could reach her, a voice made her jump.
"Why am I not surprised to see you here?"
She turned around, trying to figure out where the intruder was, but it was too dark to see.
"Forgive me, my lady, I did not mean to scare you."
A tall man rose from the spot where he'd been sitting and walked closer to her. She relaxed when she recognized him. She would have preferred to be alone, but at least he was not a criminal who had been waiting for someone to show up so that he could assault them. At least she didn't think so. She stood as tall as she could, but he still dwarfed her.
"I'm not scared. And I'm not a lady."
She'd probably forgotten a title in there somewhere, but he didn't seem to mind. He just lifted one eyebrow, and she couldn't tell which one of her sentences he doubted. Maybe both. But he didn't comment. He nodded towards the horse that was the closest to her.
"Is he yours?"
"No, he's Robb's."
She gestured for him to follow her as she walked to the far end of the stables and opened Winter's stall, giving her an apple she'd stolen from the kitchen earlier. The mare happily ate it and nudged her rider's shoulder, asking for more. Arya smiled.
"She's a glutton."
"And fast," she added proudly.
"Faster than my horse?"
She thought back to the grey stallion he'd been riding when he'd arrived. His mount was huge, but Winter's strides were quick and powerful, and she never, ever tripped, no matter how tricky the ground was.
"We'll have to find out one of these days," she challenged.
Most men, especially noble men, would have turned her down, their time too precious to waste it racing against a girl. She expected him to react exactly like that. Instead, he smirked and nodded.
"I'll look forward to it."
She raised her eyebrows as he lifted a hand to stroke Winter's neck. They left the stall after a while and sat down in front of it, their backs against the wall, side by side.
"Aren't you supposed to be asleep?"
She thought he was asking a serious question until she remembered he'd said he wasn't surprised when she'd showed up in the stables and she realized he was teasing her. He must have seen her at the feast, fighting with Sansa and then throwing food at her, and understood that she wasn't the type of girl who did what she was supposed to do.
"Aren't you supposed to be courting my sister?"
Prince Gendry smiled at that, and she found herself momentarily mesmerized by the way his whole face lit up, making his blue eyes look even brighter in the faint moonlight.
"I guess I am. But then, Joffrey is supposed to be courting you, and I didn't see him pay much attention to you tonight."
It didn't take long for him to understand what she was confused about and he frowned.
"Oh. I'm sorry. I thought your father had told you."
He paused, and she felt a chill that had nothing to do with the cold run throughout her body as she tried to deny what his slipup had told her.
"Told me what?"
"Joffrey is your betrothed. Or I am."
"What are you talking about?"
"Our fathers arranged it earlier today. There's going to be two weddings. I get to choose which one of the Stark sisters I want to marry. So does Joffrey. Let's hope we don't pick the same one," he added with an uneasy smile.
Arya felt the air leave her body as she realized she couldn't deny it anymore. How could her father have done this to her? He knew she didn't want to get married, much less become a princess or worse, a queen! She couldn't decide which fate would be worse: to be chosen by Joffrey, whom she'd decided tonight was not only a prick, but also a very twisted boy, or to be chosen by Gendry, who seemed pretty decent but would be king after his father's death. And why did they get to choose? Didn't she and Sansa have a say in it?
"I need to talk to my father," she announced.
Before she could stand up however, he grabbed her wrist.
She struggled to break free of his grip but he held on even as her fist connected hard with his shoulder.
"Let go of me!"
"You won't change their mind, and if you make a scene in front of everyone, my father will see to it that you are punished. If you want to talk to your father, wait until he's alone."
It made sense, and she stopped trying to fight him. His hold on her loosened just a little bit. Once he was sure she wasn't going to run away, he released her completely.
"You're strong," she reproached as her fingers unconsciously rubbed her sore wrist.
"Sorry. My father would have done worse if I had let you go."
"Is he a violent man?"
"He doesn't like it when people challenge his authority. He would hate it coming from such a small girl in front of a room full of his men."
"I'm not that small!"
He just smiled and looked down at her, silently pointing out their height difference, which was obvious even while seated.
"Shut up!" she scoffed.
He chuckled and stayed quiet after that, either because he was enjoying the calm or because he wanted to let her process what she had just learned. Either way, she was thankful.
"I can't believe my father did that," she whispered after a while.
"Why not? Most highborn girls are betrothed to someone before they reach two-and-ten."
"I know, but I had…"
"Hoped you were going to avoid your responsibilities?" he finished for her with a smile that was more kind than mocking, she noticed with no small amount of surprise.
She wanted to tell him that this wasn't true, that she had just hoped for more time, but he was right.
"Why?" he asked curiously.
She raised her eyes to meet his, not sure why she wanted to confide in him. Maybe because he hadn't run to her mother as soon as he'd found her here. Maybe because he'd stopped her from making a mistake a few minutes ago. Maybe because he actually seemed interested in her answer.
"Because… Because why should I be anything but myself? Why are they trying to turn me into Sansa? Do you know how many things there are to see in this world? Who would want to be stuck in one place forever, doing things they're not meant to do, having children who will also be forced to become someone they're not? And if I absolutely have to do those things, why can't I do them here, where I belong?"
When she finished her rant and looked at him, she saw that he was staring at her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. She frowned, wondering if she'd said too much. He was the future king and she'd just told him that she hated pretty much everything he stood for. She briefly wondered if she should apologize, decided that she should but wouldn't. She couldn't be sorry for who she was, especially not if she had only a few months of being Arya Stark left. When he spoke at last, his question and the grave tone of his voice unsettled her.
"Do you pray to the gods?"
"Not really. Why?"
"You should. Pray that Joffrey doesn't choose you. He'd beat you into submission."
"I'd like to see him try," she joked, though she could see his warning was serious. "What about you?"
He smiled, and some of the tension left her body at the sight that was becoming familiar a bit too quickly for her taste.
"I'd beat anyone who tried to beat you into submission."
She was strangely touched by this promise from a man she hadn't known a few hours ago who seemed to accept her as she was, more than her mother or sister ever had. Instead of saying so and making herself more vulnerable than she already had, she returned his smile, hers mischievous.
"If I didn't do it myself."
Suddenly, they heard someone call his name outside. His groan made her laugh.
"You should go back."
He pouted like a child, which made her laugh harder.
"It's not fair. Why can't I be sent to bed?"
"You could try throwing food at your brother."
"That's more tempting than it should be."
There had been no hidden motive behind his invitation other than the fact that he'd wanted to take her up on her offer of a race, and to prove it, he had asked Joffrey and Sansa to come with them. But Joffrey had wanted to go hunting with their father, which was odd since he hated hunting, and Sansa hadn't wanted to miss her sewing lesson. He had told Arya that they could ask someone else to accompany them if it would make her feel more comfortable, but she had just looked at him strangely, like she couldn't understand why she shouldn't feel comfortable alone with him.
She led him through the woods behind Winterfell until they reached a big open field, and before he could react, Winter broke into a gallop. His protest died in the wind and he went after her, laughing, his mount quickly closing the distance between them. Just as he was about to catch up with Arya however, the black mare sped up, and he realized she was playing with him. He shook his head, narrowing his eyes against the cold wind that was bringing tears to his eyes.
They reached the top of a hill and she abruptly turned left. He lost a few precious seconds following her lead and realized that there was no way he could beat her now. He smiled. It was well played on her part, but the next time they did this, he would choose the itinerary and see what happened. Even knowing the race was lost, he didn't slow down. He never had time for this kind of fun in King's Landing, and he had almost forgotten how much he loved it. His stallion was obviously enjoying this as well, the seemingly endless countryside a welcome change after a month of tedious walk in a long line of slow horses and even slower wheelhouses.
He caught up with Arya after she had slowed down and they walked side by side, letting their mounts choose the destination.
"Told you she was fast."
"You didn't tell me you were going to cheat."
"Not my fault you're so slow to react," she mumbled.
"Do you do this often?"
"Not as often as I'd like. Mother doesn't want me to go off on my own, and no one wants to race with me except for Bran, but he's usually busy training or learning boring stuff."
"What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Don't you train and learn boring stuff?"
"Oh. Yes. I should be sewing right now. Thank you for getting me out of that."
"How long are you going to stay here?"
"Just a few more days. Why?"
When her face fell, he understood. For him, leaving in a few days meant going home, however oppressing home might be. For her, it meant leaving everything she had ever known.
"I talked to my father," she said after a few minutes of silence.
She looked surprised.
"Your sister was ranting about it when I went to ask her if she wanted to join us."
He waited. It didn't take long for the fire he'd quickly come to expect from her to light up her eyes.
"What was she saying?"
He chuckled at her sarcasm. When she looked at him expectantly, he sighed.
"She said that you always ruin everything, then she went on about how she couldn't believe you would do that to her. I didn't really get that part, how is that doing something to her?"
She snorted in a very unladylike manner he found endearing.
"It's always about her."
"So, I take it your father didn't have any good news for you."
"No. It seems that the peace of the realm is resting solely on my shoulders. Apparently, if I don't marry you or Joffrey, the Seven Kingdoms will fall."
She rolled her eyes as she spoke. He gave her a small smile, unsure of how he should phrase his next words.
"If… I mean… I know we don't really know each other, but I also know we could get along fairly well, probably better than you and Joffrey, and definitely better than Sansa and I."
She didn't finish her sentence, but she didn't need to. He nodded his answer. The fact that he'd have to marry for political reasons was something Prince Gendry had accepted long ago, contrary to her, but it didn't mean that he didn't want to make the most of the situation. And the way he saw it, Arya Stark, in all her unconventional ways, was someone he could come to at least like, which was more than he'd hoped for, and more than he could say about her sister. He'd only spent a few minutes with Sansa, but it had been enough. He had felt like shaking her just to see if she would even react or if she would just keep her head down and wait. He'd bet on the second option.
He also knew that Joffrey and Arya were a bad match. It wasn't hard to imagine what would happen if they ended up married to each other. Arya would try to be herself, and Joffrey would try to break her. He was actually afraid his brother might choose Arya for that very reason: he'd see her as both a challenge and a way to channel his aggression.
If it had been all there was to it, he would have been confident Arya would agree to marry him, if only to avoid his brother. And because he was certain she could come to like him too. But this wasn't all there was to it.
He would be king one day.
And for Arya, he was pretty sure the only thing worse than being a princess would be being a queen. He'd only known her for two days, and already he knew she would hate everything that came with the title, from the responsibilities to the constant surveillance, from the manners to the daily life.
Thankfully, there was something he could give her, something Joffrey wouldn't give her. Time.
"Listen, despite his many excesses, my father is in very good health. We wouldn't need to have the wedding right now. In fact, we could wait until I'm king." When he read the hope in her eyes, he quickly added, "We would have to get married eventually. I'm not offering you a way out, I'm offering you a few years of relative freedom. We won't even have to see each other if we don't want to."
She smiled at that.
"I think I could live with seeing you every once in a while."
"Does this mean you're agreeing?"
She looked unsure, and the few seconds before she answered were the longest he had ever known. Maybe he'd been a bit oblivious when he'd thought he could come to like her. His reaction to her hesitation sure felt like he already did and he was waiting for her answer more impatiently than he should considering he'd just met her.
"It… It means I'll think about it. My only other options are marrying Joffrey or running away, so I'm probably going to say yes, but I need to think about it."
He nodded, and they walked in silence for a while. Suddenly, as an afterthought, he asked, "You're not really thinking of running away, are you?"
He couldn't quite decipher her smile, and he found he liked that.