“If you’re so worried about having to talk to a bunch of random guys,” Gendry said, barely looking up from his laptop as he lounged on the couch, “then why don’t you just bring someone you know to keep them away?”
Arya froze, the idea hitting her sharply. It might just be the answer to all of her problems. No forced setups, no dealing with strangers, and it would make her parents happy. She closed the fridge, forgetting her hopes of a sandwich entirely to turn toward Gendry. “Be my boyfriend.”
His eyes narrowed, and he sat up quickly as he set the laptop down. “I’m sorry, what?” Gendry was almost always composed—not in a ‘my life is perfect and everything is in order’ way, but a ‘it’s hard for things to get to me’ sort of way. Which was why it was weird that his voice was filled with nothing but shock. Arya didn’t think too much on it, her mind already several steps further ahead.
She shrugged like it was nothing, though she could sense the weight of it as she thought for a bit longer. This was a big ask. Not only to pretend to be a boyfriend, but to pretend to be her boyfriend. It was only made harder by the fact that it entailed spending time with her entire family during the most chaotic time of the year. If she could convince him to agree, she was really going to need to step up her Christmas present in thanks.
“You just said it,” Arya said. She came over, falling into the couch next to him and kneeling in his direction. “My parents are going to try to set me up, maybe even with Sansa’s help at this rate. Apparently being 24 and never having a serious relationship is a sin.”
He scoffed. “Being single at 24 is nothing. I’m nearing 29 and am as hopeless as you.”
Arya sighed. “ I am not the one who needs convincing of that. It’s my family who has backwards ideas on the whole stupid thing.” She puffed out a breath, her hair flying momentarily into the air. Tugging at a strand of it, she pushed it behind her ear in frustration. It was at an awkward length between short and long where it seemed to always get in her way. “I just want to enjoy a holiday in peace for once.”
“I highly doubt parading your slightly older, new boyfriend around is going to leave you in peace. Can’t you and Sansa just bond over the experience together or something?”
This, evidently, was not the right thing to say. Arya popped back up to her feet, instantly pacing the length of the coffee table. “We could, if my parents cared about her dating life at all. She actually goes on dates, which means she’s apparently exempt from everything. What a crock of shit.”
“Why don’t you bring Hot Pie?” he tried in one last ditch effort to get out. It was clear in his voice that he knew it wasn’t going to be the answer, and even clearer with the way she turned her narrowed eyes on him.
“You know my parents will never think I’m seriously dating Hot Pie.” Arya walked closer and sat down next to him. They sat in silence for a little bit before she turned her eyes back toward him, actually sincere. It was a rare look on her. “ Please , Gendry. You know I don’t beg. That's how desperate I am.”
He brought a hand up to his face, pinching at the bridge of his nose. “Well, it’s not like I had any holiday plans anyway.”
Arya smiled a toothy grin, all gums and teeth and wild energy. It made Gendry’s regret fly out the window, but his stomach still felt uneasy. “I so owe you,” she said. And he was pretty sure she really did.
The next two weeks were spent corroborating their stories with Hot Pie, who was taking to the whole thing with much too much zeal as far as Arya was concerned. She may have been the one who came up with the scheme, but that didn’t mean she was fond of the fact that she had to.
Like it or not, however, two weeks later they were in her car and driving north. Arya was doing a pretty good job at staying calm, though Gendry was struggling a bit more with it.
“Maybe we should run through our backstory one more time,” Gendry said as he tapped his fingers against his thigh.
Arya clicked on her blinker, easing the car off the highway. “Why are you more nervous than me? This is my family.”
“Exactly!” he exclaimed, shifting in his seat. “Your family is big. It’s intimidating. What if they don’t like me? Goodbye a fun Christmas break.”
Arya raised an eyebrow, giving him a side glance. “You’re not actually my boyfriend. If they don’t like you, it doesn't matter that much. We’re just here a week. You can manage a week.”
“If you say so,” he said.
He looked so nervous , and Arya didn’t do feelings, but she felt a little bad about it. “You’re doing me a huge favor, and I know I don’t say thank you—”
“You never say thank you,” he cut her off.
“Ok, fuck you,” she said. “So much for me trying to say nice things.”
He laughed, running a hand nervously over his head. “Don’t start getting too nice now that we’re dating. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
“Trust me,” she said, “I’m not changing for any boyfriend. Fake or otherwise.”
Arya refused to look over at him, keeping her eyes trained on the road in front of her. It was going to be weird to pretend to be dating Gendry after years of platonic companionship. She’d never really thought about it before. Romance wasn’t on the brain often, and she certainly had never thought it in respects to Gendry.
“Who should I watch out for?” he asked, breaking her from thought. “Do I have to worry about a beat down from your dad?”
She shook her head. “No. More likely Robb. Sansa might interrogate you a little, but it’s meant nicely. We need to be wary of her sniffing us out, though. She’s really perceptive. You know that, though.”
Gendry nodded, noting it in his head. Out of all of the Starks, Sansa was the only one he’d actually met before. She’d come to the bar some nights when Arya and him both worked there, and she still lived nearby post-college. Eventually, she’d moved back home, but he’d had a handful of conversations with her before then.
“Remember you love me,” Arya said. Gendry looked up curiously, confused, before realizing they were turning down a long, tree-lined driveway. “Here we go.”
It was another minute before a house appeared between the trees, and Arya felt a ball of feeling push through her chest. The view of her childhood home appearing through the trees always made her feel secure, comfortable, loved. She’d forgotten how magical it looked in the Winter, and by the way Gendry was gaping beside her, she figured he thought so, too.
“So, this is home?” he asked. There was still shock on his face, and Arya was finding it hard not to laugh.
She put the car into park and pulled out the key. “This is home,” she said as she unbuckled her seat belt. “And there’s family.”
Turning to look, Gendry noticed her parents coming down the steps. Arya didn’t wait to see if Gendry was following before she ran excitedly to meet them. By the time she was in her mother’s arms, she turned to see Gendry coming with their bags.
“It’s so good to see you, sweetie,” Catelyn said as she hugged her tightly.
“ Mom ,” Arya said with a laugh as she pushed away and went to Ned.
As Arya hugged Ned, Catelyn took a step toward Gendry and reached out to touch his arm. “You must be Gendry. We’ve certainly heard a lot about you over the years,” she said.
Arya turned, and she narrowed her eyes at the way his eyebrows raised slightly. “Mostly how much of an ass you are,” she said as she came back next to him. Arya grabbed onto his arm, tugging him a little into her side. “This is the infamous Gendry, my boyfriend. He’s kinda like a zoo animal, don’t tap the glass or he freaks out.”
He rolled his eyes. “I am not Arya. Don’t let your family think I’m a mental case before they’ve even given me a chance.”
Ned laughed, and Arya and Gendry looked away from each other to see both him and Catelyn sharing a fond look. “Well, aren’t you two perfect for each other.” He reached forward and offered a hand, which Gendry took. “Nice handshake. Why don’t you kids come inside?”
“Hear that,” she whispered up to him as they followed, stopping only to grunt as she adjusted her duffel up onto her shoulder, “we’re perfect for each other.”
Arya felt truly in her element as she stepped through the door, and totally ignored the eye roll Gendry had given her at the comment. There was just something about being back at home that made her feel on her game, even if she had to pretend to be dating her best friend while she was there. It seemed so much more complicated when she thought it through like that.
The long hallway entered into the kitchen, where Sansa, Robb, and Jon were sitting around a table. Arya made her way to Jon first, clasping him tightly around his stomach.
“I’ve missed you,” she said into his chest. She could feel it rumble with a laugh.
“Missed you, too.” He ruffled her hair a little, and she pulled back to throw a fake punch at him. Laughing, she turned around to see Gendry talking to Sansa with a light blush on his face.
“Don’t interrogate him already!” Arya exclaimed, coming back to his side.
Robb leaned forward and gave her a hug she quickly returned. “We’re not interrogating him. I haven’t even said anything but hi, yet.”
Sansa shrugged, and took over the hug from Robb. “I was just catching up with him. Which also meant informing him that I’m grateful you two finally worked out your shit and got together.”
“She must be serious if she’s swearing ,” Jon teased as he came up to Sansa’s side.
“You guys are already too much,” Arya said. “My boyfriend and I are going to put our bags away in my room.”
The group laughed as Arya purposefully dragged Gendry behind her, only stopping to lift up her bag. “God,” she said. “They’re the worst.”
He shrugged as he followed her up the stairs. “I think they’re just excited for you.”
She stopped midstep. It was so abrupt he knocked into her. “Oh no. What did Sansa say?”
The blush crept back in, and he shook his head no. “Let’s just set our stuff down, yeah?”
Grumbling, Arya continued her trek back up the stairs. She hadn’t contemplated that her room might be embarrassing for Gendry to see, but besides for a few dated posters there wasn’t much she felt the need to hide, luckily. His eyes wandered the space as if he was receiving a gift, though, and she felt the littlest bit anxious.
“Huh,” he said as he dropped his bag on her desk chair. He leaned toward the surface and examined the pictures of her in High School. There were some pictures of her and Meera Reed during her goth phase, some of her teching the High School musical as she always had. Some of her and Sansa, others of her and Nymeria. They showed all the facets of younger her. “It’s interesting to see you in your element.”
The fact that Gendry hadn’t immediately mocked her felt strange. Arya was used to their territory of laughter and joking, making fun of one another, but this was a sphere they only entered into on occasion. “Interesting?” she asked.
He nodded. “I’m going to need to get as much dirt on you as possible. If I come back with nothing Hot Pie will surely be disappointed.”
Arya threw a pillow at his head, which he dodged and crashed into one of her lamps. He laughed, and she glared at him. “I suppose it’s payment for making you trek all the way out here and spend the holidays with relative strangers.”
He shrugged. “It’s not like I have anyone to spend them with anyways.” That left the room feeling heavy. Arya knew his mom had died almost ten years prior, and his dad had never been in the picture. Maybe this could be good for him, to have a nice family Christmas. “And that's not true. I know you.”
Arya nodded. “You know me.”
His smile was almost sloppy after that, but he looked down and rubbed at the back of his neck. By the time his head was raised again, his face was neutral. “One bed, huh? I never knew this was going to be how you’d try to get me into your bed.”
Rolling her eyes, she flopped down onto her pillows. “You don’t like my bed? Sounds like someone wants to sleep on the floor. Which, more space for me, really.”
Gendry fell down beside her, the mattress bouncing them both before it settled. “Nope, definitely not complaining.”
Arya watched him from the corner of her eye, unwilling to admit that there was something nerve-wracking about sharing a bed with him. It was just a few days and then this whole thing would be over, the two of them could return to their normalcy. “Glad your attitude has shifted.”
Arya wasn’t one for tradition. It was antiquated, and it had never served her. And yet, there was something about the yearly Winter Festival in town that held a special place in her heart. The town was lined in glittering lights and music played from all the buildings. At the center of town was a bunch of booths where there was food and homemade gifts and anything you could need to get into the Christmas spirit.
“I need hot chocolate,” Sansa said. “Pronto. This is a mission of the utmost importance.”
“Well if it’s of the utmost importance,” Jon mocked. She rolled her eyes but smiled sweetly.
“It really is the highlight,” Arya said. Her arm was looped through Gendry’s, tugging him behind her. Robb had disappeared to go flirt with Margaery somewhere, and the boys had went to meet up with friends, so it was just the four of them.
Gendry nodded, eyes alight as he looked at the displays around them. Lights adorned everything, and the streets were lined with decorations. Arya tried to see it through his eyes; if anything had ever come close to the idyllic nature of a Christmas card, Winterfell was certainly it in the winter time.
They fueled up on hot chocolate as they walked by stalls and booths. There was a spot where the animal shelter had set up, and they all stopped to pet the dogs and give them some love. It looked as if Sansa was about two seconds away from taking them all home with her, but Arya steered her out of the way.
“I want to see the reindeer,” Sansa said. “But I know you prefer the sculptures, Arya. You should take Gendry to see them.”
“Meet up with you guys at the car in about twenty? We should all be properly frozen by then.” The others agreed, and Arya tugged Gendry over to her favorite spot. She’d never been much for art, but Arya liked the way they sculpted snow and ice sculptures. She thought it was a feat of hard work and at least a little bit of magic. Anything someone had to do with incredible skill Arya found mesmerizing.
“Wouldn’t have taken you as an art enthusiast,” Gendry said, speaking her thoughts aloud.
“Definitely not,” she said. “My favorites are always at the end of the row, come on.”
They walked down, stopping momentarily to look at a few of them. Someone had done a lifelike Santa Claus, another had sculpted a fine looking swan. Finally, they got to her favorite collection. There was a mermaid with her hair flying through invisible wind. A strong warrior woman, her hand on her sword’s hilt. A princess with a billowing dress. All strong. All as cold as ice.
“Well, I can see why you’d like them,” Gendry said. “They’re you.”
She laughed. “Me?”
Nodding, he continued. “Yeah. Strong and tough and powerful. You.”
Arya hit her shoulder into his own, hiding the small blush that seemed to heat at the tip of her ears. “There’s no one around you have to trick, you know.”
“I know.” He nodded, and when she looked up to see her looking down at her there was something strange blooming in her chest. The week and Winterfell and Christmas left them in a strange limbo, where things they never said seemed to come out with far more ease than normal.
Gendry was in a beanie and a fuzz-lined jean jacket over a sweatshirt. It had been the warmest thing Arya was able to find in his closet to protect him from the cold. For a moment, she contemplated reaching out a hand to see if his palms were frozen through. She shook her head and the thought away, ignoring the way his eyes seemed to burn a hole into the side of her face as she looked back at the statues.
The smell wafting from the oven filled the whole kitchen. Arya was sure there was flour on her face as she rolled out the sugar cookie dough, much rougher than Sansa would have preferred if her hums of disapproval were anything to go by. She was glazing ginger snaps with white chocolate while their mom rifled through their decorations.
“I don’t really like baking,” Arya said with a huff, her hair flying off her face. “And where did my boyfriend go off to?”
“Robb and Jon took him somewhere,” Sansa said. “I’d say they probably went trapshooting with dad but your guess is as good as mine.”
“God, they’re going to murder him.” Arya reached for the cookie cutters, choosing the star and tree first to slice into the dough.
“Have some faith in your father’s peacemaking,” Catelyn said. “It really won’t be that bad. He’s clearly head over heels for you, so I can’t imagine your dad would be disappointed.”
“Head over heels?” Arya asked. She tried to play it cool, but she could hear the way her voice grew a little higher. Gendry was not head over heels in love with her. But if he was that just meant he was acting his part perfectly, right?
“Don’t get scared of feelings, dear,” Catelyn said as she came up to her side. Grabbing the reindeer cutter, she made a few cookies of her own. “He looks at you like you hang the moon. It’s wonderful, really.”
“He’s always looked at her like that, mom,” Sansa said. “Honestly, when they worked at the bar together you should have seen how many advances he turned down just because he couldn’t stop talking to Arya.”
“I don’t think that's quite true.” Arya breathed in deeply, keeping her eyes away from her mom and sister. That was three or four years ago. Gendry had not been in love with her three or four years ago. No way
“It’s not a bad thing to have a good man in love with you, Arya,” Sansa said. It was soft, and Arya looked up to meet her gaze. Love. “I’m almost a little jealous, really”
“No man deserves you,” Arya said. She hated picturing Sansa with anyone, mostly because everyone she had ever been with was horrible. Sansa was too smart, beautiful, powerful (things she never said to her face, though she probably should) to be caged. She would need someone who could respect her freedom. Who wouldn’t hold her like a clasped bird between two hands.
“No man deserves either of you.” Catelyn slid the cookies from the counter to a tray, moving them to the oven. Afterwards, she came behind her girls and squeezed an arm around each of them. “I hope you find people who come close, though. Gendry seems pretty damn close.”
The word love kept rattling in Arya’s head, unescapable. He loves you, loves you, loves you. It had never crossed her mind that he could have those feelings for her. People in general didn’t see her that way, and that was fine. Arya didn’t need a relationship, most people she met weren’t worth even the barest of thought in that direction. But Gendry was different, he was… well, Gendry. Tough, reliable, honest. He was her best friend.
“I want to show you something.”
Gendry looked up from the book he was reading by the fireplace, something science-fiction Arya wouldn’t bother picking up in a million years. After setting it down, he followed her to the back porch. They bundled up with coats, scarves, and hats. Then they braved the snowy world outside.
“Where are we going?” he asked after a minute as they reached the border of the woods.
“You’ll see,” she said unhelpfully. They walked for a few more minutes before the woods opened up, revealing a small pond that was cleared of snow. Arya sat down on a bench that was also a box after having opened it to pull out two pairs of skates from its depths. “You and Jon should be the same size, right?”
“I don’t know the last time I tried to skate,” he said with a nod. “I don’t think I’m that good.”
“Well, good thing I’m spectacular enough for the both of us then.”
She slipped out onto the ice without a single hitch. It was like she was made to slide across the glittering surface. Gendry followed with far less grace, and she skated closer to help him balance. After a minute of skating side by side, she flipped backwards and held his hands to guide him around.
“This isn’t at all emasculating.”
She rolled her eyes. “I think your fragile masculinity can handle a single blow.”
They went like that for a while longer, until Gendry had a handle on skating again and the two moved companionably side by side. The slightly shadowed sun kept them warm enough to feel comfortable.
“I need a rest,” Gendry said. He walked over to the bench and fell down onto it. “Why don’t you show me something.”
“Am I just a performing monkey, then?” she asked, but her frustration was manufactured. Her bones were aching for a chance to fully skate. She started slow, easy, just getting a feel for the size of the pond again. Then she maneuvered around the whole space, twirling one way then another. She went onto one leg with ease, flipping it around and turning it into a spin.
“I didn’t know you could be quite so graceful,” he called. She didn’t even bother breaking her spins to flip him off. “You’re incredible, though.”
“I know,” she said with a smile, catching her breath. He loves you. She pushed the flutter of a feeling far, far away. Then she skated back toward him, sitting down to take off their skates. It couldn’t be true. “But thank you.”
The Christmas Eve party started uneventfully. It was tradition—family, friends, colleagues all came to drink and dance, catch up into the late hours of the evening. Arya had never been much of a fan of it simply because it usually meant being shoved into a dress followed by the expectation of speaking with the guests. Sansa was good at it, naturally, and Robb could charm the pants off of just about anyone, but Arya never took to it.
This year, though, she had a boyfriend. Which meant people who had long ago given up on communicating with her now wanted details. Arya evaded them as well as she could with her small frame and speed, attaching herself to allies whenever possible (Sansa liked talking too much, but Jon had never grown out of his inability to fit into the fancy parties—preferring to watch from a distance which made him perfect). Robb had slipped away with Gendry before she could latch onto her fake-boyfriend’s arm and keep him at her side.
The whole place looked beautiful at least, which Arya could appreciate. Ned Stark and Catelyn together were a force to be reckoned with. Together, their eyes had always been impeccable and their taste even better. A tall, highly-decorated tree stood in the corner and, along with the other twinkling lights, cast a magical glow over the guests. There were sprigs of mistletoe and holly spread everywhere, wreaths hung on the walls, and even the whole room smelled of a subtle blend of peppermint and fir tree.
“There you are,” Arya said as Gendry made his way toward the appetizers. “I lost you.”
“More like I was quarantined from you, your brother…” he trailed off in a way that left Arya wanting to question more, but then he was shaking his head and laughing to brush the thought away. “Theon is a real piece of work. I don’t think I really like him.”
Arya barked out a laugh. “No one likes Theon. It’s like the base of his personality.”
“Well, Robb certainly likes him. Probably more than me,” Gendry said, dipping his head down and rubbing his hands over his face.
“Why wouldn’t Robb like you? You’re…. you,” Arya said as if that explained everything. To her, it did.
Gendry shrugged, but Arya felt something flare within her. He looked genuinely upset, no matter how he attempted to hide it, and it left her frustrated. She had already made him come to her house for the holidays, he shouldn’t be made more depressed because of it as well. She was doing this out of kindness, and she would not have him being treated with anything less than that in return.
“Did he say something? Because I’ll take him down. I swear I will.” She shook out her arms, throwing her fists up in front of her face as an example.
It made Gendry smile. He tilted his head, taking a step forward. His hand came up to the side of her face, twisting a fallen strand of hair back behind her ear. “It’s so strange to see you like this. All dolled up.”
Arya looked down at her black dress, tights, and boots. She had never learned how to dress for these functions, so black had quickly become her go to. “Please don’t say you like me better like this, because it will not bode well for us. This isn’t me.”
“I know,” Gendry said. “You’re always beautiful, Arya, but I do miss you when you’re dressed like this.”
His face was tilted toward hers, and though he still stood too tall above her to bring them truly close, the space between them felt charged. His hair was short and neat, his arms defined even through the button up white shirt and black tie he had opted for, but despite the pure strength still evident in him there was something softer on his face Arya didn’t know how to identify. She felt her heart beating in every limb of her body. For a moment, she wished all the space between them could disappear.
But this was Gendry . She didn’t feel things like that with him. She didn’t really feel them at all. They were friends of the most platonic sort. They helped each other through their grief or trauma, called each other on their shit, sat beside each other when they just needed someone around, and they were friends at the base of it all. Go-to-the-pub, play-video-games, shit-talk-coworkers friends.
“Arya!” It was Sansa’s voice calling from not that far off, and the pair turned toward it. She was standing beside Bran, who was smiling smugly. He pointed up, and Sansa cupped her hands around her mouth to say, “mistletoe.”
Gendry and Arya looked up at once, noticing the small green sprig that had been above them the whole time. They made eye contact again, and there was something in Gendry’s gaze she didn’t know how to read. Trepidation, maybe? But it almost seemed sad. Arya most certainly did not want to be a pity kiss, especially after everything she had already forced him into. Movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she looked to see Robb walking past. Another anger flared awake.
Arya stepped up onto her toes and kissed Gendry’s cheek, afterward moving to the shell of his ear to tell him she would be right back. She didn’t stop to gauge his face. A boo came from where she was sure Sansa had been standing, but even that she didn’t have time for. She couldn’t shake the dejected look of Gendry after being with Robb.
“Robb!” she called, finally catching him in the nearly empty hallway. “I need to talk to you.”
“I’m on the way to the bathroom, it can’t wait?” he joked. His hair was slicked back; he practically looked like a prince.
“What did you say to Gendry? He’s too nice to mention it, but I can tell you said something to ruin it.”
He sighed. “Arya.”
“Don’t.” She pointed a finger in his direction. “Don’t do that. If you insulted my boyfriend, we are going to have a problem.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, the tension palpable, before Robb sighed even louder and threw his hands out to the side. “I said something about his job is all. He works for a mechanic, Arya. Certainly, it can’t last him forever.”
“You absolute prick Robb.” Arya stepped forward to push on his chest, feeling the anger course through her veins. “Who cares an ounce what my boyfriend does when he makes me happy, when he is a good person, and he can take care of himself like an actual adult. You barely know him, Robb, and you judge because he doesn’t have a lofty office job like yourself. Not to mention, if you ever let him talk about his job at all you would know he’s been training there for almost a decade so he knows the place in and out, saving money. When the owner retires in the next year or two it’s his. Not that that should matter in the first place for you to like him.”
“I just want the best for you.” He at least had the decency to look bashful.
“And you don’t think I can tell that for myself? You don’t trust me?”
“You’re my baby sister,” he said.
“I don’t care about a lot of people,” Arya began. Her voice was low and sharp. “I care about my family, obviously. I care about a few friends. And I care about Gendry. He has always been there, through everything, and when I felt like I had no one I always had him. He may be my boyfriend, but he’s also my family and I’m his.”
Running a hand through his hair, Robb let out a low breath. “Wow. I didn’t realize.”
“Listen more than you talk next time,” she said. “And you better have got him something nice for Christmas because I’m still mad at you.”
Robb nodded, and Arya walked away from him toward the cleared out dining room. She never should have tried to play this ridiculous game. It had seemed silly, maybe, easy definitely, but now it was all convoluted. She was playing with real lives, and Arya had been acting like it was child’s play. In and out before the holidays were over and then afterward everything would just snap back into place. Something felt terribly strange now, though, like Gendry and Arya were not the piece they used to be. Shoving it back into the old world wouldn’t work.
She was going to need a drink.
The morning of Christmas was nearly idyllic. Arya woke up before Gendry, sparing him a glance on the other side of the bed. He had been nothing but respectful since they had arrived as he dutifully stayed on his own side. They had curled toward each other during the night, though, like two parentheses holding a dangerous gap between them.
She hopped up to her knees and rattled the bed. “It’s Christmas!” As Gendry stirred slightly, swatting her out of his way, she jumped closer and shook his body. He groaned, and she landed on his chest with a self-satisfied smile. “Good morning, sleepyhead.”
“It’s barely pushing eight.” Gendry groaned, throwing an arm over his eyes. “Is this really necessary?”
“Tradition, I’m afraid.”
His hand instinctively came to her lower back as he rolled his eyes in her direction. The warmth bled through her thin shirt, and she could feel her cheeks flush at their proximity. This was the closest they had felt to an actual couple this whole charade. No one was even around to witness it. Arya needed the normalcy of her life to return. This was all too much.
“Well,” he said, “I can’t fight tradition.” His eyes glistened, and it was a lot to handle. Love was what her family had said the other day. She had been able to push it away for a while, but she was starting to think it would be impossible to ever forget that word and the way it made her feel.
Nearly everyone besides Bran was already up as they went downstairs. After corralling everyone to the table, they ate a feast for breakfast before moving to the living room to do presents. The pile grew less and less over the years as they got older and needed less toys, but it was still exciting.
Arya gave Sansa a pretty mug, Jon a new scarf, Robb a fancy shaving kit, and she received a million little, beautiful things in return. A new pair of boxing gloves from Rickon. Computer stickers from Bran. Still, there was something intimate about waiting for Gendry to open the present she had gotten him.
“You’ve all really been too generous,” Gendry said just to be waived off by Catelyn. It was times like these that Arya remembered Gendry did not grow up with much. Everything he owned he had earned, had worked day and night for.
“Well, this one is from me so you have to pretend it’s the best.” Arya leaned into his shoulder, and he leaned back.
Sansa smiled so full of pride at Arya that it made her feel guilty for the lie. It made her feel squeamish in her own skin, unsure of where the lie started and ended. This whole operation had become far too complicated.
It was a thick envelope which he opened gingerly. From it he pulled several pieces of cardstock. “Is this…” he trailed off, looking down at the designs and back up to her face as if it was too good to be true.
“I asked a friend to help design some new logos. I figure, if the shop is going to be all yours soon you’re going to need to go through some rebranding.” Arya paused, watching him look at the logo for his shop. “Do you like it?”
“I– uh.” He cleared his throat. “I love it, Arya.” He bent forward to give her a big hug, and when he pulled back he cleared his throat. “I just need a second.” He darted out of the room.
She looked at her family, who looked about as confused as she felt at Gendry’s sudden moment of strangeness. Her mother suggested she go check in on him, and unsure of what else to do she did just that.
“Gendry!” she called. She wound her way up the stairs, hearing sounds come from her doorway. As she stepped through into the space, she saw him throwing his things into his bag. “What are you doing? Whe-where are you going?”
“Arya,” he said, and she noticed his eyes were wet and his face was heavy, “I can’t do this. Your family is good people; it’s been so long since I’ve been a part of something like that. And–and you. ”
Her throat felt dry. “Me what?”
“You give me the perfect gift like it’s nothing.” He shook his head, running a hand over his forehead, before meeting her eyes. “You know me better than anyone else, and I can’t lose you, but I also can’t keep pretending anymore.”
“Gendry, my family will get over it, honestly. It’ll be fine.” She couldn’t understand the desperation in his voice, and she couldn’t understand it in her own. She felt so small next to him in this uneasy space.
“But I won’t ,” he exploded. “I can’t keep pretending I’m not actually in love with you, Arya. I can’t do it anymore because the thought of having this and then letting it go is too much. I know we try not to talk about feelings if we don’t have to, neither of us are quite suited for it, but you have to understand that I can’t let this go. I love you.”
Arya wasn’t sure she could hear anything besides her own heart beating. Her breathing was ragged, and her palms were slick with sweat. No one had ever told her they loved her before. She never would have cared if they had, but here she was, distinctly caring.
“Do you have anything to say?” he asked. His voice was desperate but resolute.
Her voice was much quieter than she expected. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
His whole body stilled. For a moment, no one breathed. “If you don’t know what to say, then I think that says it all. Sorry to ruin Christmas, Arya.” He zipped up his bag, threw it over his shoulder, and left the room.
For a few seconds she couldn’t move, and then she was running down the stairs. “Gendry!” she called, but he was already out the door, and if he heard he wasn’t turning around. “GENDRY!”
The car flew out of the driveway, and Arya fell onto the steps. It felt like a part of her had been ripped out and she hadn’t even known she needed it to live before this. She felt like a ragdoll thrown haphazardly onto the ground.
“Arya, are you okay?” Sansa came up beside her and threw an arm over her shoulders. “What happened?”
She turned and noticed Robb standing in the doorway, Jon a bit further back. She assumed her mom and dad were back in the living room keeping Bran and Rickon detained as to not overwhelm her. Usually, she would fight this comfort, but she let her head drop to Sansa’s shoulder.
“I did something stupid,” she said. “I lied to all of you. And now everything is ruined.”
“Lied how?” Jon asked.
Arya turned so she could see them all, Sansa still rubbing her arm in comfort. “Gendry and I weren’t really dating. I was just tired of being set up, so he came and pretended but he just told me he does love me and I botched everything.”
Jon started laughing the second her words halted, and she narrowed her eyes in his direction. Robb looked neutral, while Sansa’s eyebrows furrowed.
“You’re certainly not the sister I would pick to live in a Hallmark movie, but here we are,” Jon said. His face softened, and he moved to stand beside Robb.
“And he loves you?” Sansa asked, and Arya nodded. “Then what’s the problem?”
“What do you mean what’s the problem?” Arya asked. “He’s my best friend.”
“So you don’t love him?” Robb asked. “Because the Arya who fought me last night for being a jerk certainly loved him. And if you don’t, that's fine. Sometimes, we lose people in our lives because the timing isn’t right, but if you feel the way Gendry feels about you, then you would be a fool to let it go, Arya. Do you love him back? Nothing bad is going to happen if you say it.”
She breathed in deeply, glancing at Sansa beside her. Her sister squeezed her leg, and Arya sprung up to stand. “I need to go after him.”
Robb reached for the keys in his pocket and threw them to her. “Go get ‘em, champ.”
It took an hour before Arya located Gendry’s car at a gas station. He was refusing to answer any of her calls or texts. She swerved dangerously, pulling into a parking spot and rushing out of the car.
“Gendry!” she called as she ran through the doors.
He stood in the candy aisle staring listlessly at a box of junior mints. His head whipped up at the sound of Arya’s voice. “Wha–”
“I’m sorry I’m so shit at feelings,” she said. “I can try to be better, I swear. Just don’t expect me to change too much or anything because–”
“Arya,” he said, stepping closer. “What are you saying?”
She rolled her eyes. “I love you, you idiot.”
He bent down at the same time she rose up on her toes, the two of them meeting in the middle. His hands cupped her face, and she felt delicate and impenetrable all at once. She thought kissing Gendry might be weird after being friends for so many years, but it wasn’t in the slightest. It was like a popsicle on a warm day. It was like winning something you hadn’t even known you were playing for. It was like coming home.
“I can’t believe our first kiss was between a box of three musketeers and a bag of beef jerky,” Arya said.
Gendry’s head bent forward with laughter before he reached down and kissed Arya again, because he could. Because he loved her and she loved him. Because Arya, though she would never admit it aloud, almost believed in Christmas miracles.