A/N: As this is the last chapter and it took so long, you may want to go back and reread the story. I went back and made a few changes, might clear some things up. Maybe take a look. If not, enjoy!
It was hot. So hot. She should be used to it by now. But everything in her fought it. She had hated the heavy humidity of the capital. Even Bravos was too hot, the sea breezes the only welcome respite. She'd finally made it home. To the snows of her youth, the brisk, clean air. She had missed it.
But she had forgotten too.
How harsh it could be. The strength it took to live here, to thrive. But she'd had family then, and the snow was never too cold through soft-knitted mittens and scarves. Not once she'd warmed herself by the fire to Old Nan's stories, cuddled up to Nymeria, wedged between her brothers. But she was alone. So alone. She'd lost everyone- dead- or chased away by her icy self.
And now, in an irony that was not lost on her, she was being boiled alive. Her skin burned as if on fire. Pungent smoke invaded her chest. Hot liquids were poured down her throat, scorching her tongue and lips on the way down. She'd tried to stop it, to scream, to bite the hands grasping her, to get away, to feel the fresh air upon her skin once more. These people. They meant well. Mostly. She had the distinct feeling someone there was enjoying her suffering. She no longer gave a shit either way.
"Fuck off!" She cursed at them in futility for holding her down. Spittle flecking down her chin.
Hands pressing her further into the bed, keeping her still- helpless.
Why wouldn't they listen? She whimpered helplessly.
She couldn't stand to be chained down. Anything but this. This was her worst imagining- trapped beneath shackles of steel, bone and sinew, branch, heated flesh. She couldn't bear any of it. Not again. To all the Gods she promised anything, everything if they would only release the bonds weighing her down and taking her breath. Burn her alive with their judgment, perhaps she deserved that, but only leave her unbound.
Finally, the Gods heard her prayer.
On the eve of the final snowstorm, when all hope seemed lost, a wizened woman entered the chambers. She was hunched and wrinkled, but still much younger than Melisandre herself. She walked slowly, steps quiet and gentle, barely grazing the floor. The eyes were milky and unseeing, but her footing sure, never faltering or stumbling. She knew the castle. She knew much.
On she hobbled, finding the window without fumbling along the wall, opening the pane with an easy move. A swirl of clean wind rushes through the room as if it had been waiting for an invitation, blowing out the small footed stoves brought in to surround the Lady. The others gasp. Arya sighs in relief.
"We're burning out the poison. It must be hot to chase out the infection." A serving girl explains as if she's dimwitted. The young always believe her senile.
"Bullshit. Where did you hear such nonsense?" She says, not a little unkindly. The others are all gobsmacked. No one answers.
She makes her way to Arya's bedside. Jon sits rigidly with utter helplessness. He was clutched onto Arya's forearm so hard she thought the fingers might dig right through the flesh. She reaches out to pat his cheek, and he flinches. "Jon, all this time returned and you haven't come to see me. You've forgotten." She scolds.
"Old Nan, I... I'm sorry, I'm." He's been awake so long he's barely coherent.
"Different. Yes, I can feel that. It is impossible to leave these walls and come back the same. None of you children did." She smiles in understanding. He can't return it.
"She calls out to me, even though I'm here. She can't feel me, any of us." Jon offers hauntingly.
Because you're all not listening!
She thinks this but doesn't say it. If Arya did not wake, the others would be buried beneath their guilt, a useless emotion.
She squeezes his tensed arm in shared grief. Her palms connect with the fragile wrist he's holding, then find their way to Arya's forehead and cheeks, her neck, and her hairline. She takes her hands away, stinging from the near-burning flesh.
The old woman's countenance turns to rebuke. "You should have come to me. She's burning to nothing."
"Yes, we can see that. We've all seen fever." Stannis remarks drily.
"But you've missed the point." She pries Jon's fingers free from Arya, and he's so surprised, he lets her. She rips the sheets free with surprising alacrity. In response Arya takes in a massive breath, chest rising perceptibly with air. "She's a Northern girl, through and through. Born of the first men. Ice runs through her veins. She's not meant for the heat." She pulls down the covers until her feet are free.
"You called for me, so I came. Sorry, I took so long." This Nan addresses to Arya, brushing the damp hair from the girl's forehead.
"What are you..." Jon begins to question, utterly confused, but she hushes him.
"We need to get her outside." She instructs them.
"What!?" The others in the room shout in unison.
"She needs cold, snow. We need to bring her body back down before her mind burns to ashes. If she can't think, she can't choose." They remain silent, confused and frozen in indecision. She needs to snap them out of their haze of futility.
"She's been like this too long already. Any longer, and she won't make it back." Another gust of wind blows in and snuffs out the candles.
He'd made it back.
He was just as nervous coming back as he had been the last time.
He wasn't sure he wasn't a coward.
She'd struck out at him. She'd been as cruel as possible. She'd known exactly how to hurt him. Her words made his gut churn.
If anything, it meant she truly knew him. Only someone who truly cared could cause so much pain. And he'd welcome it too, so long as she took him back.
The time away, spent executing Boltons had cleared his head. He understood. Pain beget pain. She was angry. At Ramsay. At him. At everyone. If anyone had a right to it, it was her. He was angry too.
And he could take it. But killing Roose had brought little satisfaction. Little was better than none. The older he grew, the more he saw of life, the better he understood his own father. Anger was cleansing, easy. He could vent his wrath and leave destruction behind.
She would like it anyway. Jewels and dresses certainly wouldn't do it. The blood and vengeance would have to be enough. He had something gruesome of Roose's as a present, carved off personally. He'd left the women and children, but with no name. The bastard boy inside of him might have flinched, but no longer. Besides, the absence of a name was better than Bolton any day. No one would ever proudly wear that bloody sigil or use that name again. It had been so easy in his rage. It felt scarcely more than a few heartbeats. Great wrongs had been done, and the Boltons had to be made to pay their share. No longer would 'Me and Mine', be spoken. It would never pass another man's lips.
Arya would be pleased. And if she wasn't, well he would just wait her out until his natural charm wore her down. It would work- eventually. He could wait forever.
At the gate, he's let in immediately- they recognize him this time. The entrance is guarded by men and women alike. Jon and the Queen, and his Uncle Stannis had gotten here first. She must be beside herself hosting such a retinue without him. His men who'd gone with him were sent to see to the horses and rest themselves, they were to have whatever they liked from the kitchens. They'd earned it. He would go in alone, gruesome gift in-tow.
The halls held an eerie quiet, the faces he passed were somber. It was quiet. Too quiet.
A caw pierces his ear.
Closer, as if squawking right beside him.
He looks up, and a black bird flies across the sky, silhouette clearly visible against the heavy falling snow.
It flies overhead, and then circles back around. The cawing grows more insistent. It keeps circling.
He almost gets the feeling... He's supposed to follow.
He hears it again. But this time it comes from inside his ear. He jumps. Turning half around but finding nothing.
It almost seemed like an answer.
He hears instead and fears madness. Why now? No. Crows meant something. He'd seen them before. Arya seemed to think them sentient, messengers from the Gods. He was being told something.
Yes, he understands that. He follows the bird's path, incessant cawing leading the way. They're headed away from the grounds, toward the Godswood. If the Gods themselves were trying to tell him something, then he had a mind to listen.
And just like that, the hands holding her give way. She's free. She moves her wrists and ankles cautiously, tracing circles and figure eights.
She experimentally opens one eye.
Where had they all gone?
Her first step out of bed isn't so easy, her knees give way and she sinks to the floor in a heap. No, not the floor, but soft earth beneath her feet. She takes deep long breaths, savoring every gasping gulp. Nothing seems to matter, nothing beyond this- just breathe.
A rush of snow swirls around her, mighty gusts making her skin tingle, raising bumps along the flesh. She feels more alive than she has in weeks. The breeze is still wafting, but the iciness has abated. It's day now. Wasn't it night before?
Arya puts weight on one foot and then the other- solid, the blades of grass folding beneath the pads of her feet, tickling her toes. The air smells so clean.
No dead bodies, no stuffy rooms, no charred stone, and no ghosts. The towers stand tall, the walls hold strong and the fields ebb and flow in the breeze, heavy with wheat and grain. It's so different, but not. It's as she remembers from when...
"Arya. Arya." A voice calls. She knows it.
She turns. One way, then another. The emptiness is not alarming, only peaceful.
"Arya?" A crow flies over head.
The crow. It must be...
"Arya." The voice is clear, coming from behind her. She turns.
"Bran." She manages to get out, hugging him as tightly as she can manage. He doesn't smell the same, but she doesn't give a fuck.
"Hello, Arya. You're here." He smirks, though it doesn't quite reach his eyes.
"Well, you've been cawing in my ear for Gods know how long." She responds with a smirk.
"Aye. So you understand that much, then. That makes things easier." She gets a good look at him. He is older than she remembered, 14 or 15 perhaps. She can't be sure. The light dusting of hair on his upper lip and the added height add to the effect. The fact that he's standing at all...
"Bran. How? I don't..." She starts to ask, but can't quite put words to what she's asking.
He sighs, put-upon but not annoyed.
"There are pieces that won't make sense. I'll do my best. But I'm not allowed to tell you everything. You could go mad." She shrugs.
"I want to know. I need to know everything."
The sigh again. "You knew me? Before, as the crow?" He asks though he has the answer.
"Yes, I suppose I did." How?
"I don't know. I just did. And I heard you, in the woods. I thought I did."
"You did. I was trying to warn you."
"Well, you did a shit job of it." He actually laughs at that, it almost shows in his eyes.
"I broke the rules. I wasn't allowed." He explains.
"Now is different." He says lightly.
"Why? Why now? Where are we?" She thinks to ask, the strangeness seeming a mere inconvenience rather than dangerous. Her brother was there. Jon would love to see him. Wait, how was Bran here?
"What's the last thing you remember?" He asks, with more than a little pity.
"I don't..." She tries to remember, really she does. But it's all hazy. She remembers sleeping. She remembers boiling alive in her skin. She remembers... "The tea. I drank tea to help me sleep. So I wouldn't have to think. I..." She drank too much. She had been more asleep than awake.
"Yes. Arya, you aren't sleeping. Not exactly."
"Am I, am I dead?" She's not sure how to feel about the possibility. She should be terrified. But she isn't.
"No, not quite." Phew. Wait. What? "You're in between. Like me."
"What does that mean? Are you dead? How did I hear you before? How can I be in between dead?"
"I am something else, beyond life and death. I see all that has been, all that is, and the many different possibilities of what could be. I am more than alive, and I will never truly die." He explains all of this as if it is commonplace, he seems resigned.
"Okay." She answers, not having anything better to say. This must be one of those things she wouldn't or couldn't understand. "And I am too?"
He actually chuckles at that.
"No, you are painfully human. Pain being the operative word." He pauses then. "I've been watching. I saw all of it. I could only watch and do nothing." He makes a fist with more vehemence than she'd ever seen of him in life. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing? Did you know all that could happen? Did you know about Ramsay? I could have used a little bit more than fucking whispers in the wind and nightmares. Fuck." She isn't as angry as she thought, it feels more out of habit.
"I broke the rules in doing that. It's luck that I'm able to see you here, now. You can thank Old Nan for that. But not for long. Only until you make a choice."
"Choice? Choose what? What do the Gods want now?"
"The choice that only you can make. The Gods didn't do this, Arya. You set the stage and you must play your part. That's how it works."
"What? Speak clearly, you're talking in riddles." He sighs, frustrated.
"I don't know how to speak to people anymore. I only know what I see, and that no one else can interpret it but me. I can't help you choose. I can only help you understand the consequences of your choice."
"What choice? You called me here."
"No. You're here because you were playing with your life. You drank that poison to beat Ramsay at first, to trick him. Very clever by the way. Now you take it to sleep, to forget. Where did you think that would lead?" Shame clutches at her chest.
"Poison?" The incredulity sounded hollow to her own ears. She had known there would be consequences, she hadn't cared. She had wanted it all to stop. And she had finally made it stop. "You said I wasn't dead."
"Not yet. To be touched by the Gods means you are stronger, that your blood is fiercer. But your trials are more severe, more brutal. And what you choose will have lasting consequences. You must choose."
"Choose what?" She yells, exasperated.
"Go back to the land of the living, or stay dead."
"What? What are you talking about?" What they were doing hadn't been working. When the woman had insisted on bringing Arya down to the woods, to the snow-covered ground, they'd listened. Stannis and Jon helped carry her, the weight nothing.
"I can't bring her back. Only she can choose." The old woman explains further, using her gnarled hands to pack snow tightly around Arya's chest and hips.
Arya for her part has stopped fighting and kicking, letting herself be covered in snow, a look of peace on her lips. This wasn't the Arya she knew at all. Arya wouldn't lay down and die. She wouldn't go willingly into nothingness. It wasn't in her nature. She blamed the witch.
She should have trusted her instincts and had her locked up. A look around the wood and the witch is nowhere to be found. She had fled. Damn. She would make sure she was found. See how she liked being burned alive.
"She didn't do this on purpose. She can't have..." Jon is beside himself. Worse, he won't let himself be unraveled. He second guesses every pang, every instinct, every muttering. If she does die, he won't cope at all. He can't feel. He doesn't trust in himself that he can. She feels pity for him, she knows what it is to lose the last of your family. Though her brother had been more her owner than beloved relation. Jon and Arya loved each other. Even if they'd both forgotten how.
"Not on purpose. But this is her own doing." The old woman, Old Nan he'd said, explains. "Now she must deal with the consequences. We all must." She explains. Even as she speaks, steam rises around Arya, water drips down and seeps into Daenerys' boots.
"What can we do?" Stannis asks seriously.
"Cool her down. Be here. It's all we can do. It's up to her." She explains though no one really understands. But she sends her prayers anyway.
The winter is supposed to break any day now, but suddenly it's as cold as ever. Daenerys is fairly certain if Arya dies, Spring will never come.
He'd followed the crow into the Godswood, the sky almost purple in the near-Dawn.
Why is everyone out here? Had the crow called them as well?
Stannis stands taller upon eyeing Gendry.
"Uncle, what..." He cannot even complete the question before his uncle embraces him.
"Gendry, I..." His uncle is at a loss for words. A first in all the time he's known him. Dropping the bloody trophy, he pushes his way through. They're formed in a semicircle around a figure on the ground.
Arya lay packed tightly into the snow, skin an unnatural shade. He calls her name, she turns her head towards him, but her eyelids never open. She had heard him. He calls her name again, and a low moan escapes her throat. He approaches her, shaking her lightly. Her skin feels wet and rubbery, paler than usual. He uses his fingers to lightly pry her eyes open. The eyes are bleary, unfocused, and hazy. She wasn't seeing him. She moans again, so he leans closer to hear better. He can't make it out. Though he can barely hear anything over the sound of his own heart beating.
"How could this have happened? What happened?" Gendry demands, asking no one in particular.
"She..." Jon starts, swallowing uncomfortably. "She is ill. Fever. She won't wake up. Won't respond." But how? How could this happen?
Not his Arya. Tougher than anything.
"I'm glad you're here, Gendry. She would want you here." The Queen comes up beside him, offering a hand to his shoulder. "She looked up when you called her. That's something."
He doesn't know what to ask. The way the heat of her skin burns his palm scares him more than the pitiful looks on everyone's faces. This can't be happening.
"But Arya can't get sick, she's all wolfblood. She can't..." He cries then, embarrassing sobs which make them all wince. He doesn't care who watches, well past propriety. His hopes of going back to the way things were- gone. He lays beside her in the snow, letting the heat of her skin burn him as he holds her close. He wasn't meant to have nice things.
Crying. Echoing off the hills. It was pitiful. She covered her ears to block it out.
"Were you trying to kill yourself, Arya?" His lips form a thin line of concern. It's hard to read between the lines with him, he barely gave any hint of emotion.
"No, of course not, I..." But she needed to stop and think before answering fully. Her initial response was to deny it. It sounded so pathetic and weak as her brother said it. "I couldn't sleep. I just wanted to sleep." That was all. She hadn't thought deeper than that.
"I understand." He nods sagely. "If that's what you want, you can have it. You've earned that. You can sleep now. You can stay asleep there, and remain here."
"Where is here? Why does death look like Winterfell before?"
"It looks the way I like to remember it too. It's different for everyone." She closes her eyes for an instant, breathing in deeply. Yes, it smelled like wildflowers and icy air.
"This is what I would pick. It's Winterfell, but as it was. Before everything. It feels like home, like it's supposed to."
"Yes, I'm sure it does." A sad smile. What did that mean? Couldn't he smell it?
Bran's tainted smile grows wider as he looks past her, over her shoulder.
She turns around and her mouth falls open.
Slowly, her brother Robb approaches, auburn curls sparkling in the low sun, a mischievous grin across his face.
"So Arya Underfoot, you finally made it home at last."
She hadn't expected, hadn't thought...
She runs over to her brother, skirts in hand, hair flowing behind her. She picks up speed as she runs down the slight hill, and straight into her brother's arms. Oh, Robb. It had been so long since she'd seen him, so long since she'd let herself remember him. He chuckles into her hair, clasping her shoulder with his free hand.
The smell. The smell is the same, the almond oil he used in his hair, and the sage leaves he liked to chew. She'd heard stories of the Red Wedding, he'd been left to bleed out. She looked at him now, no wounds, perfect skin, wide smile, full hair. This was her brother, as she'd last seen him.
"Robb..." She can't get any more out. Thankfully, she doesn't have to.
"I hoped you might be up for practicing. Won't do to get rusty." He lifts the hand he'd kept by his side to reveal a wooden training sword, the kind she used to beg him to practice with her.
"What, I..." And a sword appears in her hand as well, matched well to his.
"Don't question it. It's better if you don't question. There's time for all that." He whispers conspiratorially.
He moves into position, one arm raised, sword pointed invitingly in her direction.
"En garde," he dares, smirk only growing in question. The heft of the wooden sword feels strange and familiar all at once. With a move now instinctive, she strikes out at his guard. He blocks her easily, clearly enjoying the challenge. She feels jubilation, this was right. His high blow, her high parry. She goes low, he redirects the attack. Another press and he's down on the ground, laughing. He grabs her ankle to pull her down, tickling where he can reach. She giggles hysterically.
Yes, she remembers this. This was as it should be. Just as it was. They'd use to spar together. She remembered this exactly. Those days were her happiest. He gets up and dusts himself off.
"We'll be late for supper you know? Mother will skin us alive." He jokes, offering a hand to help her up. Joking. It was good and right and odd.
They must have been practicing for hours, but the sun hadn't changed in the sky.
Then she truly hears his words.
"Mother?" She'd seen their mother back at the Crossroads, but... It couldn't be.
"Aye, we're all here, Arya. Waiting for you, and Bran and Rickon and Sansa and Jon... it took you long enough. We've been missing you."
"Come on then!" He yells, already a ways down the hill.
A quick look behind her, and there's nothing. Bran had gone. Was she meant to catch up? Robb had mentioned him as though he couldn't see him. How much did Robb understand? Rickon was alive. And Sansa? Gods, she hadn't thought on her sister for so long, a mixture of guilt and resentment. They had never gotten along, and she'd left her behind so easily. She'd just assumed Sansa hadn't survived. It looked as though she'd outlasted her. And Jon... Robb had spoken of their illegitimate brother differently. Did they know he had Targaryen blood? Did it matter?
With a war cry that was half laugh, she runs after Robb, sword left forgotten. He'd slowed down a bit to give her a chance, then began to speed up as she got closer.
The more she runs the better she can breathe. Had she even used her lungs before? Had the air ever been sweeter? Her muscles tingle. When had she last run? It feels delicious to run as fast as she can.
A large dining table comes into sight, oddly placed outside, but charming in its sentiment. The table is heaped high with foods, fruits and tarts, and roasts piled on the table. She can smell the savory and sweet aromas, swirls of marvelous steam circle around the rich fair. Strangers sat on the far end, already enjoying themselves.
She stops in mid-stride, deep surprised breaths rack her chest.
"Mother." She calls.
Her mother looks up, smiling warmly. Tears glisten in her eyes as she holds open her ams. Arya regains her footing and runs into those arms. So different from the last embrace. No smell of death, no skin falling off the bone, no bloated flesh. Just her mother, holding her tight.
"Oh, Arya." She cups Arya's face in her hands, measuring the jawline.
"Mommy." Arya sheds no tears, there is no need here.
"You've finally come. At last. I've missed you so." Her radiant auburn hair sparkles in the sun's rays. Light wrinkles crease around her smile.
"Do you remember? Before, at the Crossroads?" Arya tests.
"Almost. Not quite. Did something happen?" Her mother asks concerned.
"No nothing." It doesn't matter. Her bones were buried, she could rest now. They'd found each other here, in true form, home. "I'm here now."
"Yes, love. And we'll catch up properly after supper. Have a seat. We're just waiting for..." She breaks off as a hearty chuckle fills the air.
She knows that laugh. More than the eyes she recognizes as her own, the smell of leather and musk he always carried with him... His laugh, so filled with happiness.
Arya abandons the chair to stand and greet the most honored guest. She can scarcely move, barely breathe. She has wanted this so badly, She almost can't believe it. She had resigned herself to never seeing him again.
"Welcome, Love." He says, still stubbled, still dressed in fine leathers and carrying his Valyrian steel sword.
And now it's his arms she burrows into, his smell she takes in. And still, she can't let herself believe it.
"Now, now. You're home. You're with us. Nothing else matters." He assures her as if reading her mind. He ruffles the top of her head as he used to. "Shall we eat then? We've arranged your favorites." He tells her, making his way to the head of the table. Of course, her mother is by his side. He takes his wife's hand and kisses her knuckles sweetly. Robb moves aside so she can sit beside Father, a kindness. There are empty chairs at the table. Rickon. Jon. Sansa. They would come eventually, she felt sure of that. "These are our ancestors." He gestures towards the unfamiliar faces, Starks all. They wave and greet her, going back to their conversations. One woman with familiar eyes meets her stare. Arya has to force herself to look away before becoming rude.
Robb starts to fill his plate with bread and cheese, digging in without a care for propriety. Her parents simply smile in indulgence. For an instant, she imagines she sees Gendry sitting beside her, filling his plate. But a shake of her head and he's gone.
"Arya?" Her mother prompts, motioning to her chair. She hesitates.
"We can go riding later. Or we could go hunting. Whatever you like." Robb says through a mouthful of food, noticing her indecision.
Arya pauses. With one hand on the chair back she turns around, just over the hill, stands Bran.
"What about Bran?" The words just leave her tongue without thought.
Her mother stills at that, a flash of pain before she shakes it off. Her father squeezes his wife's hand in commiseration. Robb looks down at his plate.
"Bran? He is the only one we can't see. Have you seen him? What have you heard?" Her mother queries.
"He's..." Arya starts, looking back over at Bran. He shakes his head solemnly. He's telling her not to continue. "I'm sorry. I don't know." And she didn't know, didn't understand. "I just..."
Her mother calms and a smile appears instead.
"We have been separated a long time. You're with us now. And the rest will come, someday. No hurry. I hoped you would take longer as well. But the selfish part of me is simply glad you're home. We must enjoy each other, enjoy the food, and be together as the Gods intended." Her father explains, changing the mood just like that. Yes, that sounded right, fair.
Yes, this was what she wanted, all she wanted. She would have all of eternity to play swords with her eldest brother, meet her ancestors, catch up with her mother, and simply take in her father. Just being around him made it all seem right.
So what if the sky never turned darker?
So what if the plates never got empty?
She was surrounded by her blood. She would never again be without her father's wise counsel and grounding presence. The others would come some day. But one look over at the invisible brother, the one unable to come sit, the chairs she wishes were there, and she understands what's missing.
"One moment, I will return." She makes by way of an excuse. They let her go easily enough. Well, that was different. They treated her as a grown woman, yet she felt as carefree as a child. Though, she supposed, she could hardly get into much trouble here.
It's easy to find Bran, he was waiting.
"You can never show yourself, can you?"
"After I awoke from the fall, I was different. I had dreams that I couldn't understand. I only knew what they wanted of me. To go North, to find further answers."
Yes, she understood that well enough.
"And what did you find?" She asks.
"The Old Gods are real. I can't always make sense of everything or put it in order. I can't always tell the difference between what is real and what may be. And I cannot set foot in either world."
"And was it worth it? This power?" She asks not only for him but for herself as well. It was a question she'd pondered often.
"I had no choice. And there's no undoing it now." He pauses for a breath. "But I know things, Arya. The why, the when, the who. I saw the moment Raegar and Lyanna wed. I saw the creation of the first White Walker. I saw the future you may yet have. I saw children." He finishes. Her lungs catch in mid-breath.
"I'm sorry, I cannot see any future for certain. Just as Melisandre sees but one possibility. There are hundreds more. Some more likely than others, but by no means set in stone. Anything can be changed, can be altered. There are no assurances, no promises." He says.
"There never is." She agrees.
"You can stay here, you can live in peace. Our family is here. Things can be as they used to be. You will only know quiet and happiness for the rest of eternity. You can have them back. It can be like it was. But you can never leave. You can never go back."
She looks back at her family, her true family- eating, talking, laughing. She wants it so much it makes her chest hurt.
"Why would I? I'm alone there. They left me. Or they're going to. They all leave me." I made them leave. "If I go back, I'll have nothing. Nothing."
It was true. All the servants, her ladies, her supposed friends, even Jon only ever made her feel lonely. Gendry had taken her venom to heart and runoff.
With a sinking realization, she knows Gendry will never make it to the table either. Their wedding before the Seven meant nothing here.
And it meant nothing there anymore.
"What reason do I have to go back?"
He sighs, considering.
"I can't tell you what to do, Arya. It's not my place. I could no sooner speak for you than any other soul."
"That's not... I'm not asking that. I want to know... What would you do?"
He was always pensive, he liked to think things through, even at a young age. Bran always made her look impulsive, reckless in comparison. She truly did value his opinion.
"I..." He has to think. "I don't have such a choice. It feels I never did. To know and see everything, but be so set apart." He scratches his head. "But if you're asking..." He regroups, thinking through his words carefully.
"I would give anything to have more adventures, Arya. To keep writing my story. Anything."
Arya feels pity for her brother, trapped- more lonely than she. She thinks of the constant struggle that is life, the pain that never ceased. She looks longingly at her father, who smiles back at her as if feeling her gaze. His smile fills the hollow spot she'd been nursing all these years.
"I'm afraid, she's not waking." The old woman informs them, though it's plain to see. Each face is frozen in pain, waiting for the daybreak, one way or another.
Arya had not yet woken. Her body would have the occasional spasm, nonsense sounds puffed from her lips. She would not respond to any of their efforts.
Stannis had tried screaming in her ear to no avail.
The servant girl begged, lovely tears down her pink cheeks.
Jon could only apologize over and over, muttering more to himself than anything, promising not to leave if she'd only come back and chastise him properly.
Gendry held her tenderly, face pressed against his wife's cheek.
Daenerys herself could not speak, could not do anything. They had failed to call her back.
Daenerys felt helpless. Watching her husband die had felt impossible. This was another.
If even Arya Stark could be brought low, there were no assurances.
Arya had always understood something that the men in her life never could- the enemies without were not half as harmful as those within. To be a strong woman in this world meant being tougher, more adaptable, and more sure than the men. Arya understood this. They understood each other. But she couldn't understand this. Daenerys couldn't help but be... angry at her friend.
How dare she?
And of course, the anger gave way to guilt. The guilt gave way to a deep hurt that would flare off and on for the rest of her life.
Another look at the sky reveals a yellow tinge creeping its way through the trees. Sunrise was coming. And with that, Arya Stark would be gone.
With a gasp to rattle the branches on the trees, the silence is lifted.
What follows is a painful, hacking cough. The packed snow breaks free, glacier chunks sliding to the ground. Arya is coughing, eyes watering, chest heaving.
She was alive.
Every eye looks on in disbelief, speechless.
"Holy... fucking..." Arya croaks out, completely disoriented. She takes in deep, unsteady breaths. The rest of them are frozen in shock, looking as though they've seen a ghost. She was as good as dead just a second ago.
"Arya?" The Queen questions, though what response she's expecting she couldn't say.
Arya responds with more coughing, though she's noticeably more alert.
"Yeah." Arya finally manages, all out of sorts.
"By the Gods!" The servant girl praises. She immediately falls to the ground and prostrates herself.
"Well, there you fucking go," Stannis remarks, not without humor. He seems relieved though.
She looks up at Gendry who is clearing the remaining snow off, breath bated.
"Ar... You alright?" Gendry makes out, clearly numb with shock.
"I'm alright." She assures him, though she doesn't look it.
"By R'hlorr." Stannis bites out.
Gendry takes off his cloak and wraps it around her.
"Arya, what?" Jon asks.
"I died." Arya says matter of factly. Daenerys gasps, though she had believed her friend dead moments earlier. Hearing the young woman admit it made it real again. "But I came back."
"Obviously," Stannis comments drily.
"Gendry," Arya says, returning her attention to the Baratheon helping prop her up on a nearby tree. "The things I said..."
"Shhh." He quiets her. "Don't worry about that now. All that matters is you're alright." He squeezes her shoulder tenderly. He means it. He'll forgive her anything in that moment. Daenerys is once more touched by the love between them.
He helps her to better sit up, and Arya can face everyone.
"Yes, you're back with us. It is truly a miracle, I thought..." Daenerys trails off, eyes watery, not sure what else to say.
"I'm sorry. So sorry. For being stupid. Please, forgive me." She presses her hands against the trunk, trying to stand. Gendry helps her the rest of the way up until she's firm and stable.
"But it's all my fault. I should have been a better brother, I should have noticed, I..." Jon apologizes, more open than she has yet seen him in the short time they'd been friends.
"Jon, there was nothing you could have done. I was set down this path to begin with. You were right to want to leave."
"No, I should have been here, listened. I should have..."
"But you will someday. You have more adventures ahead. You could no sooner stay here than I could be anywhere else. It's not your fault. Not any of it. You..." She breaks off to organize her thoughts. She will tell him about seeing Lyanna eventually. "We will talk, at length. It will all come out right."
"Arya, what happened to you? Where were you?" Jon wants to know.
"Tomorrow. I will tell you all, tomorrow." He nods in understanding.
"Well, you had us bloody worried sick." Stannis' usual tact. Arya rolls her eyes, but then a warm look comes over her pasty features.
"Thank you, Stannis." His shock is palpable. "You knew something was wrong. You stayed, put up with my abuse. Thank you."
He stutters for some time before mustering a 'you're welcome.'
"Daenerys, My Queen, my friend. I heard you judging me so I came back to prove you wrong. Thank you for not giving up on me." Daenerys feels herself get choked up.
"Merilee... I could not ask for a more loyal companion. You've sacrificed so much, I promise to make it up to you." The woman looks pleased beyond belief. Daenerys thought perhaps the girl believed Arya a God.
"Old Nan, so wise. If I lived to be twice your years, I could never know all that you know. Thank you for your wisdom and your strength."
"Your return to health is thanks enough. We need you here, My Lady. The North needs you. I am glad I could serve."
All the while she leans back slightly for support, not quite able to stand on her own. It seemed everything was at peace, all was well.
The sky is almost full day, and despite the melt of the snow, it's still rather cold for a Southern Dragon Queen who was not prepared to be out in the woods all night.
Gendry looks disappointed that he was not mentioned, but covers it well.
"I am so glad you're better. But do you think we could go in? I'm freezing." Daenerys jokes. A few of the others laugh, the tension all but gone. She starts back toward the warm, inviting walls.
"Wait!" Arya shouts, voice not back to full strength.
They all turn to look back at her concerned.
"What's wrong?" Gendry asks, looking frightened all over again, checking her over with his eyes for some new wound or malady.
She turns to face him and takes his hands in hers. "I need you to forgive me, to understand." His face softens at her words.
"I told you, I do forgive you, always." He vows. "I know you didn't mean what you said."
She looks down guiltily.
"In the North, we don't believe in the Seven. We follow the Old Gods and speak to the trees. We pledge ourselves before them. No other contacts are valid." Gendry still looks confused.
"Why are they doing this now?" Stannis whispers in her ear, having the grace at least not to interrupt too loudly. She finds herself agreeing with him. Everyone waits expectantly. Arya has not released his hands.
"So, now, before another day passes, I want to marry you here. Now. In our custom. For real." She looks away nervously. "That is, if you still want to be married to me." She finishes with a hopeful smile.
Gendry could not have been more surprised than if she'd grown a second head. The silence lingers and Arya bites her lip anxiously.
His face warms in pure joy. "Course I do." He swears. She smiles once more. He goes to kiss her.
"Wait!" Daenerys shouts. All look to her as though she is mad. A few crunched brows even accuse her of objecting to the union. She clarifies. "Arya, forgive me, but you do look as though you've just returned from the dead. Let me just..." The Queen trails off, motioning to her hair. She pulls Arya off to the side to fix what she could. The servant girl accompanies them.
Unfortunately, there wasn't much to be done. Arya's skin was still too pale, only a slight tinge of pink beginning to form along her cheeks. Her lips looked thin and dry. Arya's shift was all out of sorts, hanging uneven off one shoulder and twisted by the bottom. The girl goes about taming the wild mess of hair that closely resembled a rat's nest.
A look over her shoulder shows Gendry, Jon, and Lord Stannis huddled together in conversation. Jon and Stannis seemed to be giving the younger man advice, but it was met with smiles. Awww. Men could be cute when they set their mind to it.
When they've done their best for Arya, they both bestow their blessings. Arya thanks them and catches Gendry's eye. They move to stand together beneath the tree. There is silence for some time. Daenerys takes it upon herself to break the silence.
"So how does a Northern wedding work?" She asks.
The bride and groom look to each at a loss.
"Well, it varies. The tradition is so old, it's changed over time. Some say a man needs to simply put his cloak on the woman's shoulders. Others require blood or bedding. My personal favorite involves vows to each other. The exact words don't matter, so long as you pledge what's in your hearts." Old Nan explains.
Gendry tries to start but can't quite.
"Go on." Nan prompts him.
"I don't know what to say." He admits sheepishly.
"I'll start." Arya offers to everyone's surprise. There is absolute silence, the birds having stopped their chirping to hear.
"I do pledge myself to you Gendry. Here, now, before the Old Gods. Before my ancestors, my people, and my friends. Those that made it home, those who haven't yet, and those that have passed." She breathes in. "I take you Gendry Baratheon of Storm's End. Ser Gendry of the Hollow Hill." She sniffle. "And I take you Gendry Waters of Flea Bottom, to be my husband." Gendry chokes up at that. "To stand beside me for the rest of my days, and all the days after that. I want you here, tied to this land by blood like I am. I want my Gods to look after you as well. I want you. I love you, for now, and always." Arya finishes.
By now there are no dry eyes. Everyone has tears of joy streaming down their cheeks, even Stannis is discretely wiping at his eyes. Gendry leans in to kiss her, but a few loud throat clears remind him it's his turn.
"I still don't know what to say. I'm not good with words. Not smart like you." He sighs. "But I do love you. In ways I didn't even know I could. More than I've ever loved anything. I can't live without you, I tried, and..." He wipes at his eyes. "I don't have much to offer you, but myself. But I can promise... I promise to hold you when you sleep, to care for you when you're sick, to listen to you, to fight with you, and to do everything in my power to give you a happy life. I won't give you orders, I'm not stupid enough to think you'd obey. And I wouldn't want that besides. We'll listen to each other, yeah, be partners. Forever and always. For all the days of my life and every day after that." He swears.
The silence. No wind. And yet the trees rustle, the branches clacking as if applauding.
Teary-eyed they kiss, truly bonded before the Old Gods and all of them. It was a lovely wedding, though she had gone to an awful lot of trouble setting up the first one. That dress alone... But no matter. It had all worked out. Her friend could finally let herself be happy now and let go of the past.
These Old Gods were cruel, but they were also fair.
For now, true love had won.
Now they could finally go inside, she was bloody freezing!
A/N: Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for the sequel.