IN WHICH THE TARGARYENS AREN'T AROUND, THE SECRET OF THE LANNISTER TWINS IS SOMEHOW EXPOSED BEFORE JOFFREY IS BORN, THE TWO ARE EXILED, TYRION BECOMES THE KING'S HAND, ROBERT AND JON ARRYN DIE OF NATURAL CAUSES, RENLY IS KING OF THE SEVEN KINGDOMS BECAUSE STANNIS DOESN'T WANT TO BE, AND WITHOUT HEIRS, TURNS TO ROBERT'S ONLY LIVING SON, NAMING GENDRY BARATHEON HEIR TO THE THRONE. LET'S PRETEND HE'S CERSEI'S TRUE BORN SON. ALSO JON NEVER TAKES THE BLACK AND BRAN'S NOT A CRIPPLE.
Don't you wanna come with me
"Gendry! Up, boy! I'm to take you hunting today, have you forgotten? Either way, I've news. The Starks are visiting in a fortnight. Gods, I only wish I'd known sooner. There are four of them now, children, plus the bastard. Up, Gendry! Everyone is waiting for you."
"Gendry, Ned's coming back to King's Landing again. Some important reason, but I've completely forgotten what it is. They've had another kid now, a boy, you know. And Catelyn is pregnant again. We've a month to prepare ourselves. Shall we throw a tourney?"
"A tourney, Uncle? Just for the Starks?"
"Yes, woldn't that be nice? A tourney for the Starks. And you know, their eldest is your age, if I remember. Make some friends. Everyone loves a tourney. This will be brilliant, won't it?"
"Gods, Littlefinger! Knock next time, lest you make to frighten me out of my wits!"
"I wasn't aware you frightened so easily, my Lord. Be that as it may, the Starks are to be back in three weeks time. You're to be fitted for a new set of armor this morning. Hurry, if we're to be back by noontime."
"The Starks are coming, are they? How many kids do they have now? Five? Six? And how are you taking that, loverboy?"
"It is no concern to me if Catelyn Tully wishes to birth half a dozen children to the Lord of Winterfell."
"Catelyn Stark, Baelish."
"Get your horse ready. We're to leave five minutes ago."
"Gendry, the Starks are back."
Don't you wanna feel my bones
"Idiots. It's been far too long."
Gendry had approached Robb and Jon from the back, and they had spun around suddenly at the sound of his voice. Now that their faces had broken out in ecstatic recognition, he embraced the brothers, exchanging greetings. "Jon," Robb questioned, "How long ago was Sansa married to Theon Greyjoy? Three years, already. It has been long."
"Your wives look well," Gendry stated, grinning as the ladies in question stepped out of their shared carriage. Jeyne was a high born herself, although you'd never know it, but her love and loyalty for Robb was doubtless. Margaery Tyrell was less devoted to her husband. She'd been betrothed to Renly once upon a time, but since the horrible ordeal with the previous queen and her brother, Renly claimed it was best that he not bear any children, for his late brother's son was to succeed to the throne. He broke off the engagement with the Tyrell girl, leaving her devastated (not due to her love for him, but her love for the throne). She had since begrudgingly been wed to the bastard Jon Snow, a shocking match, a peace offering from house Tyrell to that of Stark after a squabble between the two. She had been deemed too much the elder of Bran, and Robb had already wed, so she had been bound to Jon Snow, to the utter disgrace of the Tyrells before they understood that Jon was treated like a true born son, and would be heir to Winterfell if Rbb were to somehow perish. Margaery, as well as Catelyn Stark, was displeased. "And how is the rest of the group?" Gendry continued after a moment. "Your sisters? And the boys?"
"Sansa's at the Iron Islands," Jon reminded him, "though she and Greyjoy write, every so often. But you'll see the rest by the feat tonight. Bran's a better rider than I am now, and Rickon a better archer. And Arya -"
"Gendry!" The gruff shout came from near the castle. Tyrion's mismatched eyes glared up at him; he was like a second father to Gendry, but the stricter, more demanding one. "Where in the seven hells has your uncle ran off to?"
A passing stableboy, a bucket of dung in his arms, became suddenly alert. "Lord Lannister," he said at once to the imp, "King Renly was just saddling his two favorite horses not five minutes ago in the stables." He paused, not knowing whether to add more, but quickly relented. "He was with a girl. I'd never seen her before. They were riding off faster than daybreak, my lord."
"Arya Stark," Tyrion explained knowingly. "You've seen her before, boy." Arya and Renly had always been close; closer than she was with Jon or any of her siblings, and closer than he was with Stannis, closer than he had been with Robert.
"I promise you, m'Lord," the stableboy disagreed vehemently, "I've never seen that face before. I'd a remembered it, if I had. Can't forget a face like that." He continued on his way.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Gendry asked of Jon and Robb, quickly. The two Northerners shared a look before replying.
"You haven't seen Arya since she was a child, Gendry," Robb started, but not without interruption.
"She's still a child!" Gendry argued, earning a laugh from Jon.
"The girl is ten and six now, Gendry, and looks nothing like a child. In fact, the only thing she does look like, supposedly, is Lyanna Stark."
"Impossible," Gendry said at once. "My father, as well as everyone else in the kingdom, all said Lyanna was the most beautiful Stark ever to have lived, if not the most beautiful high born lady."
"Well," replied Jon, "then you shan't be surprised when our sister finally arrives."
With that, the two brothers departed to be received by the handsome king, and Gendry greeted old Lord Stark, his lady wife, and the two youngest brothers. He discussed horsemanship and such with the boy Starks, judging how they'd grown into fine young men, until, quite suddenly, a commontion was heard arriving at the castle.
Politely abandoning the younger boys, Gendry hurriedly made his way to the front gate to see two horses coming fast towards the castle. As the pair grew nearer, they slowed to a trot, and their riders began to muck around, throwing things at each other and trying to push the other off. As they grew nearer still, Gendry recognized the shape of his uncle and a young woman, though the details were obscured by the distance. By the time they reached the gate itself, Gendry had only two thoughts; one, that that was most definitely Arya Stark, and the next, that there was no way that could be Arya Stark.
Long dark hair, a slim but supple, strong figure, large onyx eyes, and the palest skin he'd ever seen, Arya Stark was both a perfect image of her younger self and something entirely new. She still had that cautious, suspicious, untrusting look about her, and it was obvious her walls would come back up was she wasn't in the presence of Renly, and her features had stayed the same. She looked just as she had as a girl, only she had tried to deny it all those years, and now she let her beauty be known. She was still as guarded as ever, and she wore her hair in front of her face as if it hid her. And she wore no dress like the other ladies, but britches and riding gear. She wore no silk, but leather. She wore a man's outfit, which was just as well; somehow, Gendry thought she'd look silly in the dainty costume that was a lady's norm.
"Yet she has no husband," Gendry said aloud to nobody in particular, not expecting the answer that he soon received.
"She's not even seventeen," came the reply, and Gendry jumped before turning to see Tyrion by his side. "She has time to find a worthy man. But you," Tyrion said, almost accusingly, "what of you? Twenty-three years in this world and you've never even had a fancy for marriage. If I know anything about men, it's that a whore is nothing to a wife. You've had your fair share of whores, boy, it's time to find yourself a woman. Renly itches for another Baratheon, though he'd never say it."
"Then he should have picked another heir!" Gendry barked doubly, suddenly in a bad mood. "I'll marry when I'm good and ready. I'll marry for love, as my father would have had me do. Jut as he was to wed Lyanna, I'll find a woman I love and make her mine."
He realized, with a sudden bout of anger, that Tyrion had stopped listening. But Gendry soon grew nervous when he saw an obvious epiphany on the dwarf's face. "Tyrion?"
But the small man wasn't listening, and abruptly turned and made a hasty exit, all the while muttering, "Just as he was to wed Lyanna ... Baratheon and Stark ... oh, the gods have graced this boy today."
Arya's gown was blue satin, but an ugly shade, and showed too much of her breasts, in her opinion, but there was nothing to do about it, and Renly had told her it would be alright for the feast, if she would just act like she didn't loathe being there. He told her that, as long as she remained cordial to everyone in the hall, she could drink as much wine as she wanted, and later on the two would spend the rest of the night in the inviting Godswood, and he'd have ale for her there. She complied readily, but soon found out that appearing like a lady for the night was a feat easier said than done.
Bidding adieu to Ser Something-or-Other, she only had time to take a deep breath before she was forced to make conversation with Maester Something-or-Other, and, subsequently, received a great wave of relief when it was announced that the entire party was to be seated, as the feast would soon start.
Unfortunately, she had only just slumped, already exhausted, into her chair beside the eerie Margaery Tyrell when she was tapped on the shoulder. Biting back the obscenities that threatened to spill from her lips due to the interruption of her much-needed relaxation, she saw that it was only Tyrion Lannsiter who had called her attention, a man that she both admired and enjoyed the company of, and she calmed. "Yes, Tyrion?"
"You mean, yes, my lord?" The Hand replied, but the shrewdness in his voice wasn't meant to be taken seriously, judging by the smirk on his odd face. "Lady Stark, I'm afraid there's been a problem with the seating arrangements. Would you mind relocating?"
Not at all eager to spend the night next to the brooding Margaery, Arya stood immediately, unsteady in the long, heavy skirt, and followed the King's Hand around the far end of the table and across to the other side. She now sat across from Rickon, with Ser Loras to her right and Gendry Baratheon to her left. Renly was just past Ser Loras, but still too far to talk to, and she knew he would be conversing with the knight for the majority of the evening, anyway. Her options were limited, and with that thought it mind, she turned to her empty plate, hoping that the heir to the throne wasn't one for conversation.
Which he wasn't, but after both had had enough wine, it seemed only natural to talk to him.
"It's been a long time," Arya said suddenly, breaking the queer silence between them that was surrounded by loud voices echoing off the walls. Remembering her manners for once, she added: "My lord."
"So it has," Gendry agreed, and she turned finally to get her first close look at him. Brown hair the color of tree bark, light eyes the color of a pool of the clearest water, a tanned, muscular body due to his hobby of sneaking off to work in the forges, thick eyebrows, and a sharp, sturdy jaw, he looked just like a clean-shaven Renly. Much taller, though. He towered over her. She couldn't help thinking how nice he would look next to Margaery Tyrell, or her sister Sansa, or someone just as beautiful. Arya felt embarrassed, like a child, under his manly gaze. "You haven't changed at all," he told her, and as she watched his mouth stretch into a smile, she couldn't help but do the same, although she wasn't entirely sure he was complimenting her.
It's like talking to Renly, she thought, only even more natural, if that was possible. It seemed a waste, his being twenty-three and without a wife. She mentally started sorting threw the girls she knew, around her age, who she could see being the queen to Renly's king. There was the Arryn girl, but she was too young, and she was a petty thing, anyway. There was the eldest Frey girl, but she would make a horrible queen. She'd get lost in the corridors of King's Landing within minutes. He could have the Royce girl, but she was too sensitive, and too bossy. Lysandra Mallister, with her light hair and tall frame, would look nice beside him, but no, she refused to ride or get dirty in any way, and somehow she knew that he would not be pleased with a wife like that.
In fact, as their conversation deepened and continued, growing more natural and pleasurable as the night wore one, Arya could only picture the future king with a queen like her, who wasn't afraid to get dirty. It was a shame she knew no other women like that.
At a lull in the conversation, Arya was drunk and comfortable enough to bring up the matter. "You know," she started thoughtfully, a haze of intoxication making her words drowsy but not quite slurring them, "You're young, you're handsome, and you're the heir to the throne. You could have any woman you wanted, from here to the Dothraki sea. Why don't you have a wife?"
"You know," he quipped back, his words affected by the wine as well, "you're young, you're a highborn lady, and you're probably the most gorgeous sight this sorry world has ever seen. You could ask any lord or knight kiss your feet, and they'd do it without question. Why aren't you a happy wife?"
Her mood seemed to sour now, and they both felt the affects of the alcohol slowly fading. She brooded silently, brow furrowed in agitation, for a few moments before replying. "I am not a lady."
"Whatever you say, my lady," Gendry replied, and though they both wore smirks, she pushed him hard, and he toppled to the floor.
Though the intent had been harmless, and Arya could tell her companion was not offended, the hall went quiet as she grabbed for his arm and hauled him back onto the bench. Idle chit chat began again, but every pair of eyes at the long table, it seemed, was following her every move. Her face growing red, she realized she had probably never been more embarrassed in her entire life. For some reason, her eyes sought the imp Lannister, who was seated to the right of King Renly (who looked only surprised). The little man looked nothing if not disappointed. She vaguely wondered if this was how a queen felt whenever she made a mistake. She pushed that thought away instantly. She was no queen. She had only manhandled the soon-to-be king.
By the time the scene returned to what it had been before, Arya felt sufficiently ashamed of herself. If she'd been a young girl, she would have bolted straight out of the hall. She could imagine Septa Mordane's shouts after her. Get back here, Arya. Apologize to Prince Gendry. He is your host. Have you no manners, girl? The thought made her almost want to smile.
"That's something I don't look forward to when I become king," Gendry suddenly admitted, and Arya had to wait for him to elaborate. "Just because I'll wear a crown on my head doesn't mean I'll be fragile. They won't let me out of their sights, my guards. Hells, they never have." He heaved a great sigh out, and Arya realized that they both felt rather sober after a night of drinking. "And I won't be able to sneak off to the forges whenever I want to. And if I were to marry, it would be the best gossip in all the Seven Kingdoms. But the worst of it it, I'm only crowned when Renly dies."
They both shuddered at the thought, but Arya was thoughtful. Gendry didn't seem upset, per say, at the fact that he was to be Lord of the Realms. Who would be upset about that? He was concerned with all of the things it entailed, all of the expectations he would finally be forced to live up to, after Renly had let him do whatever he wanted for so long.
"I can sympathize," Arya said, before she even realized what she was getting herself into. "When I was a girl, all I wanted to do was fight and be a knight, and sitting with my sister and our Septa was the bane of my existence. I would run away whenever she told me my stitches were lopsided, even in front of the queen." Gendry chuckled, imagining her sprinting away from her Septa. "I was a disgrace, my mother would tell me sometimes. I threw food in the Great Hall sometimes, it was horrible. But, you know what? I was always a better bowman than Bran or Robb, and always faster than Jon or Jory. So my father got me a water dancing instructor from the Free Cities. My father always believed in me." She turned to Gendry once more, although she couldn't read his expression. She gave him a small, sincere smile. "I've learnt that as long as you've one person who believes in you, you can get away with almost anything."
Arya had no idea when the conversation had turned so melancholy, but Gendry slumped in his chair now, almost at her height. "Well, once Renly's gone, I'll have no one to believe in me, and I won't be able to get away with sneaking into the forges or slipping past the guards and heading out of the castle dressed as a commoner."
Seeing him so dejected, she would reflect later on, that was what made her do it. She didn't have control over her brain, it was her mouth working of it's own accord. She really, truly didn't mean to say it.
But she did, anyway.
"I believe in you."
No, no, no, no, Arya thought, thinking of what she's just said and everything it implied. For the second time tonight she wished she was able to escape the room like she had when she a girl. Why had she ever said that? Stupid Arya Horseface. But she'd said it so quietly; almost talking to herself. Maybe he hadn't heard. Arya clung to that feeble hope as she watched for Gendry's reaction, which was this:
He sat up straight in his chair, eyes focused purposefully on the empty plate before him. He looked suddenly self-conscious, tugging at his clothing as if begging it to stretch and swallow him whole. In contrast to the way Arya's face had sufficiently paled, his had taken a drastic turn to the red side of the spectrum, pink blotches starting at his collarbone and making their way outward. Finally, he spoke (was he having trouble speaking, or was that her imagination?).
"What was that, Lady Stark?"
Arya felt the imp's eyes on her from down the table, but she didn't know why, and she certainly didn't meet his gaze.
"Nothing, my lord."
But it was all too obvious that he had heard, and she knew he had heard, and he knew she knew he had heard, but neither would care to admit it, and so a few awkward moments were held between the two until they were, for the first time all night, interrupted.
A drunk Renly clapped his nephew on the shoulder. "If I may, dear son," Renly said heartily, "I've promised the young lady here a night in the Godswood with some ale and the warm company of myself. You're invited to join us, boy."
The pair hadn't realized it, but the hall had most emptied out, the last courses having been served hours ago. The only ones left in the hall were Arya, Gendry, Renly, Ser Loras, the king's hand, Jon and Margaery quarreling in the corner (something they did much too often), and a few knights still drinking toward the end of the table. One of them was laughing at a joke yet to be made.
"I appreciate the offer, Uncle, but I should be getting back to my chambers." He bade the king a good night, and, turning to Arya, kissed her hand politely, like a prince should a lady. "I trust I will see you in the morning, my lady?"
But she replied only with a good night, and watched the prince stalk off to his rooms. She then waited while Renly spoke with Ser Loras, and then proceeded to the Godswood with the king. She strode immediately witting until she found her favorite spot, and the two made themselves comfortable, opening the bottle of liquor.
Every time she saw the Godswood of King's Landing, Arya was amazed. While in Winterfell the Godswood had the sole purpose of prayer, this one was alive in the daytime with children running through it, curious servants climbing atop its tall branches, men reading, women napping or breastfeeding, and the sounds of a busy day. In night it was even more beautiful. The stars, moons, and windows of the castle were the only light available, and long shadows were cast over the woods each time a servant passed by. After dusk it was a quiet, secluded place, and you could sometimes hear the nearby waters, if it was quiet enough. Tonight was not near quiet enough, but Arya could pretend.
"I hate being king," Renly admitted hours later, once the ale was almost done (less down his throat and more down Arya's, though both would deny it).
"Don't say that, Renly," Arya scolded, not quite sure why it bothered her.
"No, it's true," he said. "You always have to have the whole kingdom for dinner, and you can't spend one night by your lonesome or people start to think you've gone mad, and you think that since you're king you can do whatever you want. But you can't. You have to listen to everyone's problems and you have to be nice to everyone, and if you say one wrong thing a bloody war will break out!"
"Don't say that!" Arya seemed personally offended, though Renly didn't know why. The face of the king-to-be swam into her mind, and his doubts from earlier that night. She finished off the ale.
"How would you like to be king, Arya?" he offered her, chuckling.
"If only," she wished bitterly. "You're a good one, though. There have been many a worse ruler."
"You'd make a better one. In fact," and he said this as if he'd just had the epiphany of the century, "you'd make a grand queen."
Ever so humble, Arya nodded and laughed. "Renly," she jested, "there are much better ways to ask for a wife, ones that don't require begging."
"Unfortunately, you aren't exactly my type, Lady Stark." They both laughed at that, and Arya threw the empty bottle aside. "Arya," he said after a few moments, "when ARE you plannning on marrying? I pray before I die, although you seem to be quite choosy."
"I shan't marry," Arya said for perhaps the millionth time in her life. But something was different now. Renly, even in his intoxication, noticed this. She said it with less certainty. She was still as forceful as ever, but she wasn't sure if it was what she wanted. Renly could tell. He could always tell, with Arya.
"What was that?" he asked, forcing her to look him in the eye. "Repeat those words, girl.
Arya stared defiantly up at him. "I shan't marry," she repeated, but the doubt was evident in her voice.
"Are you sure about that?" Renly interrogated, her chin held lightly in his hand.
The word yes was about to slip from her mouth, but another was fighting its way out; whether due to her drunkenness or the fact that it was only Renly she was speaking to, she couldn't say. "No," she admitted, ashamed, dropping her gaze. He let go of her face.
"Well?" Renly prompted after a minute or two of silence. "Who is he, then?" Her eyes, still averted, gave no indication that she would tell. "Fine. What is he like? A highborn?"
Aggressiveness flashed across her face at that. "And would it matter, if he wasn't?" she snarled.
Renly was unperturbed. "Just trying to narrow it down. I'll take that as a no."
Arya sighed, finally relenting. "Highborn. Strong and bold, and handsome as well. A ... a friend of the Starks. A good man. You'd agree."
"Well, he can't be all that perfect," Renly countered, "unless, of course, you're referring to me."
Arya was grateful that Renly didn't how forced her laughter was. He almost is you. But she continued anyway. "I'm scared he really is perfect. For me, at least."
"Fear is for fools," Renly announced. "What's the matter, then?"
"I still don't want to marry," she tried to explain. "At least, I don't want to be a wife. I will not be some highborn lady who does nothing but serve her husband." Gendry's words from earlier came careening back into her mind: And if I were to marry, it would be the best gossip in all the Seven Kingdoms. It was not something that appealed to her.
"But if this man is as grand as you think him to be," Renly argued, "he wouldn't be one to make you wait on him. If you have a fancy for him, and I know you, Arya, he is the type of man to let you go riding whenever it pleases you, and be only amused, and not insulted, when you best him at swordplay and archery."
Renly had no idea how right he was. Arya realized, with a start, how true his words were. There was just one more problem.
"Any maiden who breathes, let alone has met him, would be glad to marry him. He would never want to wed me."
The quiet seemed to stretch on after that. Not quite silence; the distant and near noises of King's Landing made their way through the Godswood and to the seated pair, yet Renly exuded his own silence, one that had Arya growing anxious as it continued. After hours - no, eons - but really minutes, the king stood, reaching a hand down and pulling Arya up gruffly. They walked together out of the courtyard, back into the castle, and he led her to her room. They said their goodbyes, but as Arya's hand touched the knob, Renly spoke once more.
"You," he stated, "are, most likely, the most wanted girl in the Seven Kingdoms. Men lust after you, fancy themselves in love with you. All that, before they even meet you. Whoever this lordling is, I'm sure he's infatuated by you."
She couldn't help but chuckle at that, and as she opened her door she turned to face him, stepping inside backwards. "It's all right, Renly." And, with a smirk: "I think I'd make a rotten queen, anyway. Goodnight."
The door closed gently in Renly Baratheon's face, and he was left to his own thoughts.
On your bones
Gendry was there at dawn, but he didn't find the stables empty. He woke early many a morning, to ride into town before his guards were awake, dressed like a commoner. It was harmless. He was back before anyone knew. But this morning, he was not alone with the horses.
"Littlefinger. What brings you here?"
"I've come to find you this morn. Your uncle says you're not to go out without guards while the Starks are here."
"Why?" Gendry angrily questioned, outraged.
"Truthfully," Littlefinger answered, "I'd say he'd like you to stay in the castle when there are guests around. Make a nice impression, and all. I'm to tell you you can go riding with Robb and Jon this afternoon, but you're expected at breakfast."
"Damn," he swore, thanking the lord and turning away. Sulking back into the castle, he made his way to his chambers. On his way there, he passed a servant girl, and made a rash, hasty decision. "Send the king to my bedchambers." He watched her go, and then spent a while staring out of a window, watching the sky brighten, turning less pink and more blue by the second. By the time he arrived to his own rooms, they were already occupied. He entered.
"Gendry," Renly gave in way of greeting, confused and still wiping the sleep from his eyes. "Has something happened?"
"What? No," Gendry said. "Sit, relax." Renly made himself comfortable on the younger man's bed. Gendry felt suddenly like a boy, craving advice from a father. It was a bit humiliating, but he did his best to ignore the childish feeling that came over him.
"What do you know of love?"
Renly was awake now. He gave his nephew a calculating look. "What do you know of love, boy?"
"Enough to ask your thoughts," Gendry shot back. He knew it always was best not to speak about Renly's secret love, but currently, it seemed as if this was the best route to the heart of the matter.
"Spit it out, boy," Renly commanded, in a sour mood for lack of sleep, and with a terrible headache from the drinking he'd done the previous night.
"Say you were in love," Gendry began slowly, "but the woman - man - the person you were in love with would never marry. Especially not you. But you don't suppose you could ever marry anyone else."
"Who is this stupid wench, and why would she refuse the hand of the crown prince?"
"But she isn't stupid," Gendry defended. If only he knew. "She's probably the cleverest person I know, and the best shot, too. And she rides just as well as I do, and could fight half the men in King's Landing without so much as a scratch. Seven Hells, she'd make a better king than I would." He sat on the bed beside Renly. "And she's the most beautiful creature I've ever seen. But -"
"I have to go," Renly said, standing up quickly and losing his balance a bit. Gendry held out a hand to steady him, but the older man pushed him away. "I have to go," he repeated, and without another word, he ran from the room.
Gendry didn't know it, but he didn't make it far. Hobbling by the time he made his way into the corridor, he reeled towards a ledge and retched out a window, head throbbing, brain pounding. That was the worst of it. He made his way uneventfully, if not slightly queasily, back to his rooms to lie down for a bit before breaking his fast with his guests.
The worst part of drunken nights was not remembering it the next morning, Ser Loras had once told him. Renly had to disagree. The worst part, he reasoned with his lover, was the sudden remembrance of bits and pieces the next morning. That was was sent him hurling over the side of the building, that morning.
I think I'd make a rotten queen, anyway.
When the boy had first mentioned love, something had tugged at the back of Renly's mind, nagging and nagging at him until he could see it all so clearly; her face, half hidden behind the door, and her voice, speaking words he couldn't quite understand. Gendry couldn't have been more obvious who he'd been speaking about that morning, but it had suddenly clicked that the two children had been speaking of each other.
She'd make a better king than I would.
He had to speak with Tyrion.
He wouldn't say he'd been waiting for her to find him or any such thing. But he'd been waiting - no, sitting - right outside the entrace to the courtyard that would be most convenient to her. And he wouldn't say he'd been awaiting her call, either, because three servant girls, a stableboy, and a squire had all called for him in the last hour, and he'd known it wasn't her because he remembered her voice.
No. He was just enjoying his day outside, a pleasant morning of not waiting.
"Arya," he replied, maybe a bit too enthusiastically. He vaguely wondered when they had stopped with the "Lord"s and "Lady"s, but he wasn't complaining. "Good morning."
"I've a problem. Lady's been damaged." She was walking towards him at a fast pace, and Gendry had only a moment to wonder who Lady was. "My longsword. I think Rickon was throwing it around on the way from Winterfell. I've asked around, and everyone claims you're the best smith in the Red Keep. Would you mind very much a quick trip to the forge? It's only the handle - see, the grip's a bit lopsided now."
Gendry readily complied, and before the hour was up, he had started on the job. A beautiful blade - a gift from her father, she had explained on the way over. She had named it after her sister's pup direwolf when the two were girls. She had had it since the day Sansa and Theon Greyjoy wed, three years ago. It was a true sword, the mark of a good blacksmith. Valerian steel, a gilded handle, all the way from the Free Cities, Pentos or Myr or some such, she'd forgotten, but it didn't really matter. It was a beautiful thing.
But the pair didn't leave the forge once the sword was refurbished. Gendry produced apples out of somewhere or other, and they snacked as Arya told him of times when she'd bested Jon and Robb and Theon with that sword. She was enchanted, and as he watched her speak, he became enchanted as well. She spoke with such passion that he couldn't help hanging onto her every word. He sat on a tabletop in his work clothes and she reclined against the near wall in her day clothes, a pale dress that had grown quite dirty since the morning.
"You hate wearing dresses, and the clothing of ladies," Gendry stated plainly, late into the day, still seated in the forge. It was well past noon, but neither was hungry for a noontime meal, their discarded apple cores in a far corner. He thought he could see the ghost of a blush arrive on Arya's cheeks, but it was probably nonexistent.
"They're horrible for sparring and riding," she explained softly, her voice the only sound in the room. "And I was never one to act like a good lady, so why must I dress the part?"
"My opinion," Gendry started cautiously, "Is that you look much lovelier in britches and leather than you do in satin skirts." No, no, no, he thought as her face snapped up to meet his, a challenging look in her eyes. Stupid. "I only meant ..." Stupid. "My lady, not that you don't look beautiful at the moment. And you certainly looked ..." Breathtaking. "Grand, at the feast last night, but ..." Stupid.
"But?" the girl prompted, brow narrowed.
"But," he continued hastily, scrambling for words, "You seem more natural in your britches and such. More comfortable. You're being yourself in your own clothes, not acting as some highborn lady who you don't want to be."
He studied her, slightly frightened, awaiting her reaction. Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn't what he received. She produced a shy smile for him, avoiding eye contact, and blushed madly. She thanked him softly, slightly embarrassed, but he could tell that, thankfully, he had taken his compliment to heart. In that instant, even dirtied and slouched on the floor of the forge, she looked more like her sister than he had even seen her.
They were only in the forges for not an hour more when they were interrupted - by Ser Loras. Ushering them out, he informed them it was near suppertime and Arya needed to bathe and change before then. So the knight took her to her bedchambers, and she and Gendry parted ways.
After seeing her to her rooms, Ser Loras returned to those of the king, who was seated in his window, looking out, with a thoughtful air about him. "I found them in the forge," Loras reported, lying down on the bed easily. "A servant boy told me the two had been in there since morning. They missed midday meal." He paused, not knowing whether to proceed or not. He did. "They could become the best leaders the realm has ever seen, if we give them time."
Renly finally made his way down from the windowsill and joined the younger man on the bed. After a moment, he answered his lover with a smirk.
"Or the worst."
"... I still don't understand," Gendry said, exasperated. "How could you know that Gregor Clegane would fall? The identity of the Masked Swordsman was a secret, and the Mountain was undefeated."
It was hours after sunset, and her entire family had probably retired to sleep by now. They had finished supping what seemed like eons ago, and she and the prince had been roaming about the courtyard since. They had watched twilight come and go, and the sky was black now, stars shining as yellow as the Baratheon banners above. Spirits still lively, their conversation had grown from amiable to interesting as the darkness continued. Neither had a torch, but neither seemed to mind.
"Because," she said merrily, eager to explain, "Jon had just come back from visiting the wall, and said that my Uncle Benjen wasn't there. And when Lysa Arryn visited, she mentioned that some of the Night's Watch had passed her on their way south, and she would never have expected it to be for the tourney, because men who've taken the black are no longer representative of any house. Which is exactly what the Masked Swordsman was - he didn't ride for the Vale or Riverrun or the Fingers, even. He fought for himself. So I realized it must have been my Uncle Benjen, and I was right. But his horse was so shoddy, and he so small compared to Gregor Clegane, that everyone else bet against him. But I remembered that my uncle had once said that he trained the man who trained the Mountain and the Hound in fighting, so he must have known his opponent's weaknesses. So I bet on the Masked Swordsman, and THAT was how I won enough gold to buy Sansa her own ship to coast the Iron Islands."
"You," Gendry announced, slightly awestruck, "are the cleverest person I've ever met."
"Many thanks, your grace," she said, half laughing. "And what of you? Any stories of fame and fortune you'd like to share?" But Gendry only shook his head. "Come, now. The crown prince has no tall tales of heroism and riches? Doubtful."
"Well," Gendry began reluctantly, a half grin on his face, "once, when I was five or six, I was on a visit to Storm's End to see my Uncle Stannis. It was when my father was alive, soon after he had banished my mother and the Kingslayer, and he and Renly and Tyrion and I, and the whole party, were there. Now, Stannis never did take to me, because I was like a little Renly, unkempt and running around and mucking up his castle. But my father thought it was only funny, so Stannis could do nothing about it. So one afternoon I was running through the corridors, knocking down servants and upsetting squires, and I found a secret pass. Right under the eastern stairwell, if you pulled the old tapestry back, there was a hall that led down, down underground, and I followed it all the way down, until it was so dark I couldn't see my own self, and I didn't know which way I'd come from. I must have gone for miles and miles, until finally I arrived in a graveyard so far from the castle that it was invisible behind me, and it had been so many hours that it was dark out. I was covered in dirt and grime, as well. I probably looked like a rat. Luckily, an old septon was passing by, and he saw me emerge from the ground. I told my story and he made sure I got back to the castle safely, and delivered me straight to the hands of my uncle. My father thought it had been hilarious, and Renly hadn't even noticed my absence, but Stannis had gone mad. He must have screamed at me for decades, for even when we woke in the morning, he was sore of voice. The moral of the story being: never, ever visit Storm's End. Gods, what a horrid trip."
Laughter was flowing easily that night, and it felt natural for her to be telling tales with Gendry. It felt right. She studied him in the moonlight, each moment feeling like another hour. She could stay with him until daybreak.
"But the next year," he continued with a bittersweet tone to his gruff voice, "father passed, and I've not seen Stannis since. I'm sure he'll come when I marry, but he was never so fond of Renly, and I won't see him much after that. Maybe he'll come to King's Landing for something important when I'm king, but no leisurely visits. It's a shame. I do wish the Baratheon's had been more like the Starks in that respect. You're quite close with your siblings, anyone can tell."
"True," Arya admitted to him, "but some of that does come from the Tully in our mother. People oft acknowledge that Jon and I are the only true Starks. Robb, Sansa, Bran, Rickon. They would all bode well in Riverrun. Jon and I are of the North. But now Sansa's a Greyjoy and the boys in Winterfell. Rickon may join the Night's Watch, and Robb will be Lord of Winterfell, and he and Jon and Bran will stay in the North with their wives. And I'll soon be betrothed to some man I've never met, and shipped off to some place where they won't let me ride or fight, and that will be the end or Arya Stark and the beginning of Lady Something-or-Other."
She looked so resigned to her fate, and Gendry hated seeing her without a fight somewhere within. He had to ask. "How soon do you think they'll marry you off?"
She snorted and sat, leaning against a stone wall of the castle. He followed suit. "If my mother had had her way, I'd have borne little lordlings by now. Any day, I suppose, they'll tell me I'm off to be a happy wife. Sansa wed at fifteen, and that was only because they were waiting for Theon's father to die so he would be a lord by the time they were married. My mother is ashamed that I'm still a maiden. They'll give me to whoever will take me."
Sighing, Arya wished they'd brought liquor. This was her least favorite topic, but it was somehow all right to speak of with Gendry, although she would run whenever her parents or brothers brought it up. It seemed all right to speak of anything with Gendry, she realized. She turned to see him, but he had a lost look in his eyes. "Gendry?"
It was if something snapped within him when he whirled to face her, sheer determination in his heavyset eyes. "But what if it wasn't like that?" he asked, as if it solved all the problems in the world.
"What if what wasn't like what?" she questioned, caught off guard.
"What if you had a husband who wasn't like that," he explained hastily, blue eyes locked with her dark ones. "What if he let you ride all day long, and spar with all his knights, and you didn't have to wear gowns all day, and he wouldn't throw fancy feasts just to show you off. And -" Here he faltered, but continued on almost immediately, as if his live depended on it. "- and what if he loved you, truly?"
Her first thought was, what does he mean?, and her second was stupid, this is all hypothetical, but it didn't stop her heart from hammering louder than it ever had, her blood rushing through her veins twice as fast as a mountain cat could run, her fingers fidgeting as if she were playing a harp. Here she was, speaking with Gendry of marriage, her brain feeling furiously too large for her head, her wits trying to escape through her ears, her feet trembling as if she had just run for days.
She tried to grasp for words, but none came to her. After stuttering for a few moments, she managed to choke something out, voice hoarse. "That would be ideal, but unlikely. And there would have to be a negative. There's always a negative."
He hoped he didn't look sweaty, but he felt hotter than the hottest days of summer had ever been, as if roasting him on a spike could not have made him any more sweltering than he was already. His clothes felt suddenly too small and he wanted nothing more than to tug at them, but he was too paralyzed to move at all, except for his mout, which seemed to speak of its own accord.
"There is one negative. You would have to be queen."
It's only natural
"But, your grace," Catelyn Stark stuttered, the shock evident on her slim face, "you were present at her wedding. Sansa has been married to Lord Greyjoy for three years now. You must remember."
Gendry's face was the color of blood, it seemed, and his voice a sheepish mumble as he stood before the Starks, hopeful if not confident. "Not that daughter," he clarified, eyes tracing the patterns on the ceiling. His thumbs twiddled. "I speak of Arya, Lady Stark."
He couldn't miss it, the swivel of eight heads towards their ninth. Arya had an innocent, embarrassed look upon her face, and, for once, kept quiet.
"Arya?" Came the bark, and Jon laughed along with his brother as Robb continued. "What do you want to marry Arya for?"
"Hush, Robb," Jeyne scolded, sending Arya a sympathetic smile. "Don't be impolite."
"Are you being straight with us?" Jon was questioning harshly, staring Gendry down. "Is this some cruel sort of jest." Gendry shook his head, but the elder paid him no heed. "I don't believe it."
"Arya's getting married?" Bran all but shouted, turning to his younger brother. "A wedding! It'll be grand, Rickon, just grand."
"Wait," the eldest Stark commanded, and the talk died out. "Who's to say there will be a wedding? I've not even answered the prince, yet. Calm yourselves, sons."
A long silence followed this as Eddard Stark considered the Baratheon's proposal. Anxiety filled the empty air as Gendry berated himself. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
It was the first thing Arya had said, and all heads turned to her once more (Gendry's included this time) when she broke the silence. It shocked Gendry to see how genuine she looked, and the proof of her love was staring him in the face. He couldn't help the grin that spread across his face, even before Eddard had spoken. He didn't quite hear what the Lord had to say, but he could assume that it was somewhere along the lines of YES, because Bran was whooping and Robb was clapping and Margaery glowering and Arya was turning towards him, grinning back at him. And suddenly she was there, bounding across the room and into his arms and he held her, and he had never been happier.
They left the room to the celebrating Starks and passed the king, who looked so ecstatic he was close to tears, with Ser Loras who congratulated them, passed the Hand, who wore only a satisfied smirk and an air of authority, and out of the castle and into the yards.
"I love you." And it didn't matter who said it, because they both meant it, and that was the way things were.
Tyrion strode out of the Tower of the Hand and over to the Lord, who wore a look of contempt.
"I believe you owe me a hundred golden dragons."
Cme and take a swim with me,
Don't you wanna feel my skin,
On your skin,
It's only natural .
A/N not gonna lie, i'm actually really proud of this. it's over eight thousand words and so far the longest oneshot I've ever written. i'm really happy about it. it's also the first AU i've ever written. please oh please tel me what you thought! ~bill