-1Ned Stark was dead.
As long and as hard and as fast as she ran, Arya could not stop this from being true.
In the past, when she was upset about something, she would climb over the gate that surrounded the high school track and run until she was too exhausted to move, let alone think. Then she would lay on the grass in the field in the middle and stare at the sky, waiting for breath to return, for feeling to move back into her legs, for the calm that finally followed. Then, and only then, could she think about returning home, briefly showering, and then collapsing into bed.
Try as she might, her usual tactic for distraction did not work. Of course, the usual reasons for her running were not usually this upsetting. Sansa belittling her and telling her she would never fit in. Her mother, treating Jon differently. Her father, not bringing her with her brothers to the game, no matter how much she begged. Her father…
Unbidden, the tears she had been holding in began to stream down her face. This didn't slow her pace around the track. She knew where the curve of the track began, where the tar patching cracks on the blacktop would appear to stick to her shoes. These were as familiar to her as anything else she knew.
Again, she rounded a lap, passing by the stand where concessions were sold during football games and track meets. She felt the now too-familiar flow of snot down the back of her throat, and the light-headedness that accompanied it.
It was the salty streams flowing down her face, dripping down her neck, that kept her from seeing the figure in her path on the track, did not allow her to prepare for impact.
"Oof!" grunted a male voice, followed by the sound of a body stumbling backwards and the hollow thud of basketballs. Arya stumbled over the prone figure on the ground in front of her and hit the track face first, pushing out her hands to break her fall, then her knee to stabilize herself. Sharp pain screamed out where she hit the pavement.
Slowly, she rolled to her side, then to her back, taking a moment to stare at the clouds above and begin to breathe again before she faced the person she knocked over. The force of impact had temporarily distracted her and stopped the tears leaking from her eyes, which made her feel slightly better about the confrontation she was currently facing. Taking a breath, Arya closed her eyes and wiped her face on her sweat-soaked t-shirt, and began to sit up.
Unfortunately for her, the person she had knocked to the ground had recovered faster than her, and had chosen that exact moment to get up, scoot over to her, and lean down to check on the young girl.
Their heads collided, and the guy she ran into recoiled, holding his hand to his head. So did she.
Arya lay back for a moment, contemplating the flock of birds above and the hum of the power lines in the distance, and the absurd situation she was now in. Then, glancing at the figure to make sure he wasn't in a trajectory with her rising body, she sat up, cleared her throat, and wiped her face once again, trying to rid herself of the crusty feeling of drying tears.
"Are you ok?" she asked, pushing back hair from her face.
"Watch where you're going much?" was the response she got. The person she had run into was gingerly sitting up as well, stretching his limbs and inspecting his hands to check for damage. His eyes briefly flashed with anger as he braced himself on his hand to get up.
"Sorry…" Arya murmured, and awkwardly rose to her feet, making sure not to put any pressure on the scrapes on her hands and knee. She tentatively bent down and began to herd errant basketballs back towards the guy she knocked over. He began to put them back in the mesh bag he was carrying the balls in originally.
He paused as she handed one of the orange balls back to him, muttering thanks under his breath. As he was not even looking in her direction, nor seemed like he had anything else to say to her, Arya took this as her cue to go, and began to painfully jog back around the track, wincing as her right leg stretched for her steps.
He mentally counted the balls he had taken from the equipment shed to make sure he had all of them, and glanced at the figure limp-running around the track. Sighing, he hefted the bag over his shoulder and crossed the field in the middle of the track, so he could intercept the young girl slowly making a lap. As he neared her, he could see blood oozing out of the scrape on her knee.
"Hey, kid!" he shouted, making Arya come to a stop with a frown on her face. "Come with me, I'll help get that cleaned up."
Sniffling, she looked at him, but did not move any closer.
"Listen, I'm sorry I was mad. But you shouldn't keep on going around bleeding. There are supplies back in the gym, and we can get you patched up enough to get back home."
Arya nodded slowly, and limped over to him, absent-mindedly fidgeting with a piece of gravel that was in her hand, wincing as she touched the tender flesh.
Adjusting the bag over his shoulder, he turned to the girl next to him, "So, kid, what's your name?"
"I'm not a kid!"she protested, scowling at the taller boy.
"Well, you're a kid to me, so get over it, pipsqueak." As if to prove that he was far older, he mover his hand to his chin and stroked the few wispy hairs that were growing there. "But if I'm going to be helping you, you should at least give me your name."
After a resentful glare, she said "Ayra" and looked down at her feet.
"Gendry," he volunteered, glancing at her. "Cool to meet you, pipsqueak."
With a flash of anger that he did not expect from a girl of her age, she hit him with a surprising amount of force. "My name. Is ARYA."
It was at this point that two realizations hit him. First was that Robb, who was in his English class, had been out of class for over a week, and had only returned yesterday, pale and withdrawn. From the whispers he had heard around school, Robb's father had died in a car crash. Second was that Robb had talked about his little sister, who was a total daddy's girl, whose name was…Arya.
Blushing red, he began to stammer at her. "I'm sor- I mean, I heard th- that is to say- what I mean- aah, shi-shoot!" Gendry narrowly avoided swearing in front of the girl, feeling like he shouldn't, at very least, mess that up.
"It's fine," the small girl said with an air of finality. "I'd rather not talk about it."
They walked in silence down the hill to the school. As they reached the door, he fumbled in his pocket for a key ring, located the correct key, and held it up triumphantly, then put the key in the lock.
Arya was the first to break the silence she had created. "How did you get keys to the building?"
Gendry smiled proudly, once again touching the hairs on his chin. "Coach was looking for someone to help coach middle school basketball, since he's having trouble making enough time to run drills and do individual practices with the players on his own. He picked me to help out with it, so I get to come up with practice schedules and take care of the equipment. Since he can't always be here to let me in to prepare, he convinced the principal that I was responsible enough to have keys to the school and his office."
He made sure to leave out the part where he could only get in one door to the school, but had no access to other areas, and only had the key to the outer coaches' office, but not the cabinets within that held student records. It wouldn't do to have this kid thinking he didn't have enough authority to get into the really important stuff. Now that he was in high school, his reputation was a bigger deal to him.
"Great," Arya said as he opened the door for her. He wasn't sure if she was congratulating him on his access to the building, or pleased with the air conditioning in the building. She raised her hand to her face again to tuck back a strand of hair and winced as the salt from her sweat and tears touched her scraped hand.
"This way," Gendry gestured, towards the door to the locker rooms, "we'll go through this way to Coach's offices to get some bandages." One of the less fun parts of his new job as assistant coach was taking over care of players with minor medical mishaps, like scraped elbows and knees, or those who got hit in the head with the ball. This did, however, give him some knowledge of first aid, which seemed like it would come in handy right about now.
Arya paused as he pushed open the door, looking at the sign. "This is the boys locker room. I can't go in there."
"It's fine," he replied, gesturing for her to follow him. "It's the weekend, no one's here, and everyone goes through this door, since it's the most direct route in."
Frowning, she followed him in, looking as if an alarm were going to go off as she stepped in. Gendry rolled his eyes at her expression.
"The principal at my school gives us a big lecture every year about how we're supposed to go into the bathrooms for girls if you're a girl, and boys if you're a boy, and how we'd get into so much trouble if we broke the rule," Arya said defensively.
"What grade are you in?"
"Fifth," she replied. "Can you hurry up with the stuff? This is really starting to hurt."
He pointed to the doorway that led to the bathroom. "Go wash your hands with soap and water, then come on over to the office. I'll get everything out and set up."
Once again, Arya stared at him.
"It's a BOYS bathroom."
Gendry closed his eyes. He felt like he had to be patient with her, no matter how silly her qualms were. "I promise you won't get in trouble. I'll be way over there in the office. It'll just be a lot easier for you to get washed up here, rather than go to the other side of the gym to get into the girls' locker room."
"Fine," she said, walking through the doorway. She paused and looked back, then the older boy waved her on as he turned and pulled out his keys again.
Truthfully, Arya was glad for a minute alone. She wanted to wash her face too, since it probably looked as terrible as it felt. She splashed some water to clear up the worst of it, but that did little to make her feel better. After a moments consideration, she dunked he head under the tap and turned the water on. As the cool water spread over her hair and washed down her face, she began to feel a little better.
It was only after she removed her head from the sink that she realized the flaw in her plan; namely, that she didn't have a towel, and now had a head of dripping hair. She squeezed it out as best she could, an used a paper towel to try to blot her hair.
Gendry was waiting for her in the coach's office, as he said. In front of him was an opened red and white box, and he held a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a cotton swab in his hands. "Sit down," he said, gesturing to the chair in front of him. "And dry off," he said as he tossed a gym towel her way.
The younger girl obeyed and sat herself down in the desk chair that seemed to have been in the office since the seventies, with the stuffing poking out of a tear in the side. She toweled her hair gratefully.
Gendry pulled over a box and put it in front of her. "Leg up here, let's take care of that first," he said, pouring some peroxide on the swab and pressing it to her leg. He cleaned her wounds and kept up a stream of questions and chatter to keep her from dwelling too much on the process. This was made difficult because she was constantly in motion - tapping her foot, adjusting the stray hair that kept bothering her, and fidgeting in the chair
Once he was finished, she stood up, and held out the towel. "Thanks…for everything. I'm sorry I ran into you…have a good day. I'll just head back to the track now."
"Wait," Gendry said, grabbing the towel from her and tossing it in a pile of dirty towels. "You shouldn't go running again."
"Why not?" she asked, looking slightly panicked that he was trying to dissuade her.
He didn't know how to broach the topic, but he couldn't ignore that Arya had been blinded by tears during her time around the track, so he said the first thing that came to mind. "You could- do more damage to your knee running around more. You should keep from running until tomorrow, just so it has time to heal a little bit." Gendry prayed she wouldn't call him on this, but he felt like he shouldn't let her go out and run and cry alone again.
"But…I…I just have to…do something." She was lost for words at this point, and stared at him lost.
He paused for a moment, looked at her, then grabbed a roll of athletic tape, a clipboard, and a pen from the cabinet behind him. "Come with me."
He led her through the locker room to the door to the gym, then through to the workout room. In the corner was a punching bag.
"This was something I used to do all the time when I wanted to stop thinking," Gendry said, gesturing to the bag hanging from the ceiling. "My dad got one for me and taught me how to hit it so I wouldn't get hurt."
He cringed as he mentioned his father, cursing himself for not having thought before speaking, but the younger girl didn't seem to notice his faux pas.
"Give me your hands…they're in better shape than your knee, so you should be fine. I'm going to take you up so you don't hurt yourself, but you should stop if it starts to sting." Silently, she nodded and extended her hands.
A few minutes later, Gendry sat relaxing on a bench on the other side of the room, making notes on his clipboard about training drills he wanted to run when Coach was out of practice next week, keeping on eye on Arya in the opposite corner. At first, she had started off slow, getting accustomed to the moments, but once she got the hang of it, was hitting the bag in a frenzy, as if her life depended on it. She breathed heavily and looked as though nothing else in the world mattered.
After some time, she slowed down, then slid to the floor, panting and exhausted. Concerned, he hopped over a bench to check on her.
"I'm fine," she gasped, staring up at him from the ground, "I just need to sit."
The catharsis he usually got from his sparring matches with the bag seemed to be working for Arya as well. She looked, for the first time that afternoon, as if she were at peace.
"Um…if you want, you can…um…wash up. I can give you an old gym uniform to wear home…." Gendry wasn't sure the best way to tell an ten-year old she needed to shower, and thus stumbled over his words again.
Arya accepted wearily and started walking back to the locker room, not caring at this point she was heading to the room for the wrong gender. Silently, Gendry followed her and gave her the necessities she would need, and went to the office to pack everything up. Once she was out again, he would walk her home, just to make sure she got back. Then, on Monday, he was going to talk to Robb Stark so that he could maybe do something for his little sister.
He didn't know why, but there was something about this girl that made him want to take care of her.