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settle soft and as pure as snow

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Jon walks through the clusters of tents, snow falling gently around him and catching on the fur of his hood. It doesn’t look like it’s going to turn into a true storm, but the slate grey sky gives nothing away as he peers up through the spindly branches of the naked trees.

He greets a few people as he goes along, making sure they have caught sufficient game and redistributing extra hares when they can be spared. The Wildlings had lived here, in the true North beyond the wall, for generations without any issue, but the Night King’s advance had brought brutal storms and cold snaps. Nature is resilient, but Jon can see that they are not catching nearly enough to sustain their entire camp, and the stores they had taken back from Winterfell had run out long ago.

A large hand thumps down on his shoulder, hard, and he turns to halfheartedly shake it off and back away from the person who had snuck up behind him, already knowing who he would find.

“You should wear your hood down more often, Snow, instead of hiding your pretty face.”

“Well, your face isn’t half so pretty, and I never see you in so much as a cap,” Jon shoots back, an inevitable smile tugging at his lips.

Tormund makes a sort of grunting sound and straightens up, practically preening, “And hide these envious locks? If I’m half as pretty you’re twice as thick.”

Jon continues making his rounds without another quip in response, expecting Tormund to walk with him. He stops when he doesn’t feel the familiar warmth at his side.

“What is it?” he asks, turning back to look Tormund in the eyes.

In the weeks since they had ventured beyond the wall with the remaining Wildlings, the two of them had developed a sort of joint leadership. They take turns organizing and leading hunting parties, settling disputes, and making sure everybody has a tent and food in their bellies. Jon found that after the first week or so they fell into a rhythm where they didn’t have to decide who would gather the hunters or make the rounds of camp, they simply knew and acted accordingly. The Wildlings had accepted this order of things startlingly quickly. Jon supposes they have been through enough war and strife for many lifetimes. Now, they just want to live in the way their forebears had, free from the threat of Walkers from the north or crows from the south.

Tormund looks more serious than usual, and Jon knows exactly what he is going to say before he says it. “We have to move. The pickings are gettin’ slim, and there isn’t nearly enough shelter for the storms to come. Winter is only beginning.”

“Do you really think anywhere we go we’ll find more game? With no preparation for Winter, especially a winter like this one, how much longer do you expect us all to survive up here?” Jon paused and huffed out a breath, closing the distance between the two of them and lowering his voice, wary of the tents only a few meters away. “The younger children will start dying when we have to begin rationing food even stricter than we are now. We’ve been lucky to avoid sickness so far, but you and I both know that luck is bound to run out.”

“You never used to talk so much,” Tormund replies, maddeningly amused in the face of their situation.

Despite his exasperation, Jon plays along, knowing the best way to get Tormund to talk to him is to wait until the conversation comes back around. “When? When I was your prisoner?”

Tormund lets out a gruff laugh, “Aye, when you were a fuckin’ crow, too.”

“You know I’m right, Tormund,” Jon replies after a beat.

“We can’t stay here, but I don’t like what you’re gettin’ at.” Tormund starts to walk in the direction Jon was before, as if to continue his rounds. Jon watches his back for a moment before starting after him.

“I haven’t actually suggested anything yet.”

Tormund stops and looks at him as if he’d like to laugh right in his face. “I know you, little crow.” Jon holds his gaze and waits, knowing he’s not finished. “And what do we do if they don’t want to go?” he says, gesturing around him, “What if the second we pass through that gate and out of Castle Black you get caught and executed?”

“They’ll go because they know it’s the best way to save their lives and the lives of their children,” Jon says, and then starts walking again and continues, “And I don’t think the Unsullied are lurking in the North waiting for me. I’m just a titleless brother of the Night’s Watch.”

Tormund grunts. “Not one of those anymore, neither.”

Jon stops again and raises his face to the sky, letting the flakes hit his face and melt there, not bothering to wipe them away. They have avoided talking about this up until now, pretending as if there was nothing to be said about Jon leaving the Watch to follow the Wildlings without question. “You know I broke my word the minute I left with you and the Wildlings.”

“Ach, you broke your word the second you saw we’d been waitin’ on you. You were never gonna stay with those stuffed black bastards for long.”

The conversation has shifted, and though Jon is not going to let go of his will to take the Wildlings back south, he hasn’t yet brought himself to ask why they had remained at Castle Black, and his curiosity gets the better of him.

“Were you waiting for me?”

Jon can feel that Tormund has come closer, standing at his back and radiating warmth as he always does. He turns and takes a step back to see Tormund smiling, shaking slightly with a rumbling laugh.

“The head on you, boy,” he says.

“That doesn’t answer the question” Jon says over him.

“It’s a good thing we left that castle, or you would start knockin’ it on doorways.”

Jon runs a hand through his hair, half annoyed and half amused, “Oh, just forget I asked.”

“If you could even reach ‘em”

They stare at each other, and Jon clenches his fists, ready for a fight. It wouldn’t be the first time the two of them had come to blows over something insignificant.

Tormund breaks first.

He guffaws for a few moments, head thrown back, before quieting down and meeting his eyes. Jon keeps his mouth turned down slightly, still waiting.

“We had injured who needed time to rest and heal,” Tormund says, finally, but it sounds like an excuse.

Jon keeps waiting.

“What d’you want from me, Snow? To say I couldn’t go on without you?”

“No, what I want is for the Wildlings to come with me to Winterfell until the worst of the storms pass and we can build up a working store of food.” Jon puts a fist against Tormund’s chest and pushes, not hard, and he is surprised when Tormund yields. He brushes past and starts back toward the large bonfire they have built as the center of camp.

“You think I don’t know you’ll stay with us, even if they say no?” Tormund calls after him, “You’re one of us, Snow, one of the Free Folk. I waited for you at that piss poor castle because I knew you would come back where you belong.”

“Will you call them together tonight?” Jon says, and if his voice shakes for a moment he blames it on the icy wind pushing its way into his lungs.

He keeps on walking, and Tormund’s “Aye” almost gets swallowed by the wind.

*

That night, after the sun has gone down and the children are in their tents all the rest gather around the fire. The head of each family or chosen spokesperson for each group standing closest to the flames, forming a closed ring with Jon and Tormund, Ghost laying between them.

“It’s time we’re movin’ on from here,” Tormund begins. There is a smattering of agreement around the fire. They have noticed the depletion of food and the sharpening of the wind, probably even more acutely than Jon. “The question is,” Tormund continues, “Where we’ll be movin’ to.”

Jon is surprised to see multiple pairs of eyes around the circle shifting in his direction even before Tormund turns to look at him expectantly. He never truly expected the Wildlings to see him as a legitimate leader, but the desperate and war-weary people he has come into the company of seem to care less about who is leading them and more about whether or not that person will keep them alive.

“I know what it has taken for all of you to return here, beyond the Wall to your true home, and the last thing I want to do is take that home from you, but we’ll never survive the winter up here,” Jon pauses for a moment and gauges the reactions of the men and women around the fire. Most remain unreadable, but one or two are nodding along. He takes a breath and continues, “I propose we return to Winterfell where my sister, Sansa, is queen. She’ll take us in, granted we pull our weight, and we will be safe, fed, and relatively warm for the winter.”

The moment he said the word ‘Winterfell’ he heard a hiss of malcontent make its way through the small crowd.

“You want to take us down south?”

“We’ve been livin’ up ‘ere longer than your fuckin’ castle was even a damn brick.”

“We don’t belong down there!”

“Should’ve expected this from a fuckin’ crow.”

“SHUT IT!” Tormund roars, and the murmuring falls silent. Jon is stunned as much as everyone else. “I hate the thought of goin’ back south and beggin’ at the gates of some soft southerners, but you all know well as I do the storms are comin’, and we’ll be wantin’ those stone walls when the winds starts blowin’.”

Jon stares openly at him, genuinely shocked at his agreement. The Wildlings are far from stunned into silence, muttering among themselves. He knows Tormund can feel his gaze, but he doesn’t move, staring resolutely into the flames.

After a minute or so of discussion, Jon recovers and speaks again, “Think of your children. Maybe a camp of healthy adults could make it through the winter, but if we stay here, many of them will die.”

“He’s right, and you all know it. The north will still be here when we come back,” Tormund grumbles.

“The pickings are getting’ slim,” a man adds, “I wouldn’t mind a warm fire and a full belly for my little ones.”

Jon nods at him and scans the circle, waiting for anyone else who wanted to speak up. However, as he looks at their faces, he realizes that no one is going to offer up another protest. Their pride prevents them from accepting the plan with open arms, but he can see they don’t have any energy left to fight this. Like him, they are tired, and he thinks the last couple of years have taught them to take what they can get, because no one knows when the next war or raid is coming.

He looks at Tormund out of the corner of his eye and sees him nod. “We’ll leave the day after tomorrow, at dawn. Hunt for what you can and pack what you must.”

There is a smattering of “Aye’s” around the fire, and the small crowd starts to break apart, making their way back to their tents. In a matter of minutes, it’s just Jon and Tormund, the fire, and the moon overhead.

“I thought you hated my idea,” Jon says, expecting a jest or a punch to the shoulder in response.

“I’ll always do what’s best for my people. Never forget that, little crow.”

Tormund is already trudging towards his tent by the time Jon turns to look at him. He watches until the last hint of red hair fades into the hazy night.

*

The next day, camp is a flurry of activity. Jon packs up his own meager belongings, consisting of a two man tent he shares with Ghost, a blanket, and the clothes on his back. As soon as he finishes, he makes the rounds of camp, helping anyone he can fit their things into packs or distract children while they prepare to leave. The latter consists mostly of letting them climb on Ghost’s back and pretending to ride him. Ghost remains unfazed, shaking his head occasionally when a child grabs at his ear.

While Jon helps out around camp, Tormund leads a hunting party. They return with meager offerings, further solidifying Jon’s resolve.

It’s nearing sundown when Jon comes upon a squabbling couple on the edge of camp. He doesn’t know either of the women well, but he knows they are good hunters and better fighters. They usually keep mostly to themselves.

As he nears, he hears one of them, Sigurd, a tall woman who always wears her thick black hair in a braid, shout, “You didn’t skin and pack the hares in snow! What do you expect us to eat on our journey?”

Her partner, Maja, a shorter woman with dagger-shorn hair, growls back, “I’d’ve packed ‘em if you’d’ve caught a damn thing.”

Sigurd makes a sound halfway between a shout and scoff, and Jon steps between them before any weapons are drawn.

“Please, this is not the time to be fighting,” he says.

Maja laughs in his face. “Easy for you to say, Snow, you’ve had your meals caught ‘n cooked for you your whole life. Folks get mean when hunger strikes. You best learn that, ‘n quick.”

“Doesn’t matter what you say, I’m not sharing a tent with someone missing half a brain,” Sigurd sneers, leaning around Jon to narrow her eyes at Maja.

Maja scoffs, “Like I would want t’ sleep next to someone who can’t even shoot down a squirrel.”

Jon glances between the two of them, knowing that this fight will pass, like all the others, but also that a squabble like this could upset the camp at a time when they need to remain together. He slings his pack off his back without a second thought, takes out his tent, and shoves it into Maja’s chest.

“Fine, sleep in your own damn tent, then, but don’t come crying to me when you’re missing a warm body by your side,” he says.

The two women stand and stare at him for a few long moments, then Maja stalks over to their tent and grabs a blanket and a pack filled with some other items. She turns and walks towards the rest of the camp without so much as a look behind.

Sigurd turns and continues dismantling her camp, obviously signaling Jon to go. He does just that, his pack lighter and his mood darker, and finishes checking around the rest of camp.

Jon eats that evening as he usually does, on his own with Ghost at his side. Sometimes he sups with a family or another group, and Tormund often joins him, but most nights he sits alone. He chews on pieces of salted hare and listens as the restless camp gradually quiets down as they settle in for their last night here.

Without a tent he plans on making one last round before waiting by the fire. He’ll put it out just before dawn and then begin rousing everyone.

He’s distracted, thinking about the best route to take back to the Wall and looking around to make sure no stray belongings are left on the ground, and he runs headlong into another person. He would have fallen on his arse if a strong hand hadn’t gripped his arm and kept him upright.

Jon looks up and takes a step back after a moment too long, grateful for the warmth. Tormund lets go of his arm after another second, a shit-eating grin on his face.

“You should watch where you’re going at night, little crow, I coulda slid a dagger between your ribs before you even saw I was comin’,” he says.

“What are you still doing out here?” Jon replies, ignoring him.

Tormund narrows his eyes. “I could ask you the same.”

“I’m making the last checks of camp before the morning. I’ll put out the fire before the sun rises.”

“Sun won’t rise for hours yet, and nobody here needs you to mother them. Where the fuck is your tent?”

Jon looks into the trees at nothing before answering, trying his hardest not to sound like he’s sulking. “I gave it to Maja. She and Sigurd were arguing and said they wouldn’t sleep in the same tent anymore.”

Tormund laughs. “Those two fight night and day! They’re probably fuckin’ and screamin’ like they always do after and you’re out here freezing your arse off for no reason.”

“Unrest spreads like wildfire in a camp like this. I’ll give them a couple of days and then go get it back.” Jon takes another step back and turns as if to go back to the bonfire, not wanting to continue this conversation.

“Where are you sleepin’, then?” Tormund says.

“By the fire,” Jon replies.

Tormund scoffs and Jon listens to the crunch of the snow beneath his boots as he comes up behind him. “You’ll sleep with me.”

“What?” Jon turns to find Tormund looking at him like he usually does, like he’s an idiot.

“I have a two-man tent and since you only take up the space of half a man, I’m sure we’ll fit just fine.”

Jon ignores the slight, as he always does. “And Ghost?”

“Your dog can sleep outside. He’s got a coat.”

“So do you.”

“Come off it, Snow, and come get some sleep before dawn. We’ve got a long way to go to your fuckin’ castle.” He turns and walks in the direction of his tent, and Jon only hesitates for a moment before sighing and following, Ghost padding softly after him.

Once they arrive, Tormund doesn’t pause before he dives in, only shucking off his pack and his boots before laying down. Jon does the same and does his best to crawl into the tent without stepping on him. Tormund makes a low, annoyed sound in his throat before grabbing Jon by the collar and pulling him up alongside him. “There’s no space to be tiptoeing ‘round me. I’ve seen you naked, Snow.”

Jon lays down and does his best to get comfortable. They end up laying back to back, and Jon has to admit that with the two of them the tent is blessedly warm, even if a few stray red hairs tickle his cheek and the back of his neck.

He falls asleep swiftly and doesn’t dream.

*

Jon wakes with a start and panics for a moment because it feels like he’s been restrained. He relaxes a second later when he realizes it isn’t ropes, but Tormund’s arm wrapped tight around his chest. He quickly gives up trying to slip out of his grip because even in his sleep Tormund’s arm is like an iron bar, unyielding. He reaches up behind him and grabs the first thing he touches, what he thinks is a handful of Tormund’s beard, and tugs.

For a moment Tormund squeezes tighter then Jon hears him grunt and raise his head. He lets go of his beard and the arm around his chest slides off.

Tormund makes a gruff sound that could have been the word “Mornin’” or just a growl. He sits up and reaches out of the tent to put on his boots. It’s still dark outside, not quite dawn yet. Tormund lurches out and Jon laces up his own boots, ignoring the shock of cold against his back.

He climbs out of the tent and grabs his pack, rolling up his blanket and shoving it inside. Ghost follows him over to the fire and Jon starts shoveling snow onto the already dimming flames. After a few minutes, Tormund joins him, leaning his full pack against a tree next to Jon’s.

By the time the last of the glowing embers are covered and extinguished the first rays of sunlight are peeking through the trees. The snow from yesterday has cleared and it looks like their first day of travel is going to be a kind one. Jon is grateful for it while it lasts.

Tormund blows his horn to signal the camp it’s time to wake and prepare to leave. He meets Jon’s eyes and nods, once, a wordless agreement, and they start at opposite ends of camp, helping everyone prepare, meeting in the middle.

They set off walking south with Jon and Tormund at the front, walking side by side, and Ghost in the lead, white fur on white snow guiding them forward.

*

They run across a couple of storms, as Jon expects, but they don’t lose anyone along the way. The food they have saved and additional hunting where they can find it keeps them fed.

Each night Jon and Tormund go to sleep side by side, and nearly every morning Jon awakes first, with an arm around his waist or a leg hooked over his knee. The tent is always warm and comfortable, and when Jon sees that Sigurd and Maja have made up and moved back into one tent, he elects to say nothing and continue as is.

Another couple of nights after that he knows there is no chance Tormund hasn’t noticed, too, and has apparently also decided to remain silent about it.

Jon elects to say nothing about this, either.

They reach the Wall without much trouble, and the black brothers remaining there, now numbering only in the dozens, let them through without comment. Jon greets them and thanks them for the passage, but no faces are familiar there any longer, and Castle Black has long since stopped feeling like his home.

After that, the rest of the journey to Winterfell goes by with startling quickness. On the last night of camping out before reaching the castle, Jon lies awake. He is not nervous that Sansa will welcome them and allow them to stay, but he is fearful that the Wildlings will refuse to integrate into life at Winterfell and she will be forced to turn them out. He knows his sister, and he knows she won’t stand for anyone creating unnecessary strain or unrest in her home, even him.

He lies on his back with his arm behind his head and listens to Tormund’s deep breathing. After a few minutes, he feels himself start to drift off, but just before he does Tormund shifts and turns over, slinging his arm over Jon’s waist in the process and then proceeding to pull him closer. His chin is resting lightly on Jon’s shoulder, and Jon can feel his warm breath on his neck.

Tormund takes a particularly deep breath and settles just the slightest bit closer, and the end of his beard and hair touches Jon’s neck and Jon feels… something. Something that he had decided, for the second time in his life, to leave resolutely in the past.

He elects to breathe in and out and ignore it, and eventually he falls into a fitful sleep. When he wakes up in the morning, he peels Tormund’s arm off and resolutely decides to forget everything about the night before.

*

As they approach Winterfell, Jon pulls his hood up over his head and falls back into the crowd. He knows it is unlikely anyone in the kingdom of the North would turn him in or report him, however, it would be unwise to march into Sansa’s throne room and publicly announce himself as a leader of the Wildlings.

Tormund takes the lead and they are admitted into the castle gates without much deliberation, almost as if they are expected.

Most of their group remains in the courtyard while a smaller group led by Tormund and two other respected and battle-tried members of their camp, Ugnė and Brogan, enters the castle. Jon slips into the hall with them and stands at the back of the group, easily shielded behind the rather tall and often stout Wildlings.

He peers around shoulders to catch a glimpse of the throne. Sansa sits on it, back straight, a benign smile on her face. Upon her brow is a circlet of two entwined howling direwolves. She looks every inch the queen she was always meant to be. Jon smiles to himself, full of pride seeing her look so comfortable. Arya is standing off Sansa’s left shoulder, and though she wears no armor her Needle is at her side and her dagger strapped to her belt. Jon knows Sansa couldn’t ask for a better protector.

His eyes move upward from Arya’s weapons to her face and he jumps slightly to find her staring directly at him, a knowing smirk on her face. He brings a finger up to his lips, and she smiles the slightest bit wider, and then shakes her head, minutely. Jon drops his hand and sighs, realizing he probably should have stayed outside.

Tormund bows ever so slightly to Sansa and greets her, saying, “Your Grace.” She is probably one of the only people in Westeros who Tormund would give deference to. Jon knows he sure as hell isn’t one of them.

“Welcome, Tormund Giantsbane, and welcome, Free Folk of the North,” she says, “What has brought you back to Winterfell?”

Before Tormund can reply, Arya steps forward and murmurs in Sansa’s ear, and Jon suppresses a groan. The corner of Sansa’s mouth turns up and she nods to Arya.

“You can come out, Jon,” Arya says simply.

Tormund turns around as Jon takes down his hood and steps forward. Brogan sidesteps so that he can come to stand at Tormund’s left. “Your Grace. My Lady.” He nods to Sansa and Arya in turn.

“Your disguise could use some work,” Arya says, and Jon resists the urge to snap back at her teasing and gives her a sheepish smile instead.

“It’s good to see you, Jon.” Sansa gives him the barest hint of a smile before her expression returns to one of unreadable regality.

Jon knows she will not ask her question a second time. “We have come back south to Winterfell because the Night King’s advance took a toll on our land. There is not enough game to keep us all fed through the winter. We ask, humbly, Your Grace, to remain here at Winterfell as the worst of the winter passes.” Jon gestures to either side of him, “We have hunters, fighters, cooks. We can work to earn our keep.”

“How many do you number?”

“Just shy of two hundred,” Tormund replies.

Jon adds, “Most would prefer to stay in their tents outside the castle gates and can hunt for themselves. All we ask of you is permission to stay here and some additional shelter and care for the children.”

Sansa looks at him for a moment before shifting her eyes to Ugnė. “Are you willing to work here, in Winterfell, as a castle guard or a cook? As a servant?”

Jon holds his breath, knowing this is the moment which decides their fate. Sansa loves him, but she will reject them without a second thought if she believes they will be an undue burden or source of unrest in her castle.

“I am, Y’Grace. For the good of my people. I’m sure you understand that.” Ugnė meets Sansa’s gaze directly, and Jon is relieved both by her answer and by the fact that Sansa isn’t the type of queen to read impertinence into the countenance of Wildlings.

“I do,” Sansa replies. The timbre of her voice changes slightly as she continues, her words shifting from conversation to proclamation. “I welcome the Free Folk to remain here. You will be provided an area of land to establish your camp, and we will admit children into our castle nursery. I expect every able-bodied adult to contribute and earn their keep. We are not fond of handouts here in the North.” She turns her head and a guard is instantly by her side. She says something to him in a low voice before facing them again. “Brunn will show you where you may settle your camp.”

The guard nods at the gathered Wildlings and walks out of the room. They turn and follow him, Ugnė giving Sansa one last lingering look before filing out of the room.

“Jon, Tormund, stay.”

For a moment Jon has the strongest feeling of he and Robb being scolded by Catelyn because they broke something or stole a couple of swords to spar with. It passes as he turns back and looks at Sansa, and seeing her sitting there again, Arya at her side, the people who raised them years gone. He feels for a moment achingly old.

“Yes, Your Grace?” he says.

“You can stop that now, Jon,” Arya says, coming forward and giving him a hug, “It’s good to see you.”

He holds her tightly, resisting the urge to pick her up like he used to when they were children. “You too,” he mutters into her hair. To his surprise, once she lets go, she turns to Tormund and he holds out his arm to her. She grasps his forearm and they exchange a nod. Jon supposes Arya, as the slayer of the Night King, is one of the only other people in Westeros Tormund respects.

Sansa stands and gives him a hug as well, her arms around his shoulders. His nostalgic mood is lingering, and when they break apart he smiles and says, “You know, I think you would be taller than Robb.”

He is gratified when she laughs. “Maybe even as tall as Father,” she adds.

Arya chuckles, too, and although the mood is still light, all of their ghosts seem to be gathered in the room at that moment. Jon looks at his sisters and smiles, pride filling his chest and practically crawling up his throat.

“We knew you would be back,” Sansa says.

“We had a bet going for how long it would take you,” Arya adds, “Sansa wins.”

Jon laughs, “Naturally.”

“We can prepare a room for you, if you like, or you can stay in the camp with the rest of the Free Folk,” Sansa turns to Tormund, “You are welcome to a room, as well.”

Jon glances at Tormund out of the corner of his eye. “As comfortable as our tent is, I wouldn’t mind sleeping in a bed again.”

“Not me,” Tormund says, “I’d rather sleep on a bed on snow than feathers. And the little crow snores.”

Arya has a funny expression on her face and Sansa’s eyebrows are raised so high they touch her crown. “Very well,” she says, a slight strain in her voice.

“I should go, though, and make sure camp is set up properly.”

“Join us for supper, both of you,” Arya says, “in the private quarters.”

“Will there be ale?” Tormund asks.

Arya smiles and nods at him. Tormund grins in return and then gives Sansa a nod before turning and putting his hand on Jon’s chest, pushing him towards the door. Jon catches a glimpse of Sansa and Arya, heads bent together, both smiling, a sight he thought he would never see, before finally turning and leaving the hall.

*

Jon and Tormund oversee the camp setup, helping out where they can. A few servants come outside with some additional blankets and Jon distributes them where they are most needed. The land Sansa has set aside for them is large enough for everyone to have space for their own tents and personal fires, and it is shielded on one side by a hill and the other by the castle walls, providing a pocket free from the worst of the wind.

Once everyone else has been properly settled Jon helps Tormund set up their tent. “It’s probably colder in that draughty castle than in here, you know,” Tormund says.

“I won’t stay in there every night. I should be out here with the people, too.”

Tormund grunts something in reply and starts to walk away before Jon can tell him to speak up. “We should gather everyone, divvy them up,” he calls over his shoulder. Jon nods at his back and follows behind.

They call everyone together around the central bonfire they have established here. Jon lists off positions and allows each person to choose how they wish to contribute to life at the castle while they are here. Some will be allowed to remain at camp to tend to the children and guard their belongings, mostly the elders and some of the mothers.

Jon decides to lead the collection of Wildlings who have volunteered to guard the castle, helping them to integrate and interface with the Winterfell guards. Tormund will lead the hunters.

By the time everyone has been given a responsibility, the sun has gone down, and Jon and Tormund return to the castle after making sure there is supper enough to go around at camp.

Jon leads them through the castle towards the private quarters, surprised no one stops or questions them, though he supposes their faces are rather recognizable around here.

When they enter the room, much to Jon’s relief, only Sansa and Arya are sat waiting for them. The table is set with plenty of food for the four of them and Tormund tucks in immediately once they sit down.

“Is everything in order?” Sansa asks.

Jon nods and gives her the exact numbers for guards, cooks, and other positions around the castle. She hums in response, seemingly pleased, and he is glad of her approval. He can’t pinpoint the exact moment he started to defer to her, but she is Queen in the North now, his queen.

“So,” Tormund says through a mouthful of food once the business talk has finished, “I understand her title here,” he nods at Sansa, “but what is it you do?” he asks Arya.

Arya smiles, leaning back and holding a cup of ale. “Technically my title is ‘Lord Commander of the Queensguard,’ but seeing as there are currently no knights at Winterfell, I don’t have anyone to command.”

Jon looks at her and sees that though even as a grown woman, barely reaching up to his chin, she has a presence where he feels he has to look up to truly meet her eyes. He doubts she has any trouble getting respect despite her stature. The Northmen probably treat her as a god.

“Had to use that recently?” Tormund asks, nodding at her dagger.

“No. But I keep it sharp.”

Tormund laughs and slams him cup on the table. He turns to Jon and says, “I don’t ever want to get on the bad side of this one. Turn ‘round and she’ll have slit my throat before I know she’s there.”

Jon laughs, too, and takes a drink of ale. He sees Sansa watching him and turns to meet her eyes, but she just quirks up the corner of her mouth and turns back to her food.

Over the course of supper, Sansa and Arya fill him in on what has happened at Winterfell and in the North as a whole since he had gone back to Castle Black. He tells them about their time beyond the Wall, but there isn’t nearly as much to tell.

Once they’ve finished, a servant comes in and clears their plates. Jon watches her leave and remembers suddenly that he is in violation of the law each second he remains in Winterfell. “Am I endangering you by staying here?” he asks belatedly, “If anyone gets wind of my breaking my sentence, I could bring war down on the North for you harboring me.”

Sansa smiles at him as if he is a total idiot. “The people here are loyal to the laws of the North and to me. As far as we are concerned, you are free to do what you like,” she pauses and lowers her voice, her tone more serious, “The world is tired of war. I doubt anyone is willing to start another one over, well, you.”

The silence is broken by Tormund guffawing. He turns to Arya and says through his laughter, “I’ve said it before, the size of the head on this one.”

Arya and Sansa both laugh in reply, and Jon can’t help but smile, too. He puts both his hands up, as if in defeat, and then gets up to go and relieve himself, confident Tormund can get along just fine with his sisters, even if their only common topic of conversation is taunting him.

He walks through the castle and up to the battlements, everything here constant and familiar even though so much has changed, even though he has changed. He looks out over the walls and sees the fires of the Wildling camp settling down for the night, and he is reminded of just how far he has come from his childhood in this castle.

When he returns to the private chambers, something about the tone of the conversation coming through the door gives him pause. He quiets his footsteps as he approaches the door and listens to the soft voices from inside.

“So, the two of you share a tent?” he hears Sansa ask, her words low and slow in the way of someone who has had a couple cups of wine.

“Aye. Have t’ stay warm somehow,” Tormund replies.

“And you are… what? Partners? Brothers in arms?”

“Married?” Arya adds, a laugh already following her words.

To Jon’s surprise, even as a flush climbs up his throat, Tormund simply laughs. “Aye, I’m sure Snow would make a pretty bride, prettier’n most of the women in camp, but I’m sure he’d take offense t’that.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Sansa says. Jon doesn’t feel sure of anything at all in that moment, like the floor has been taken out from under him.

“All I know,” Arya adds, “Is that I’ve seen Jon smile and heard him laugh more in the last two hours than I have in years. Since we were children. Possibly ever.”

Jon decides now is the time to stomp loudly a few times and step back into the room. When he enters, all three of them are acting completely normal, and Jon schools his expression and stands behind his chair at the table.

“I think it’s time for me to turn in,” Sansa says, and as she stands Arya and Tormund rise, as well. “Jon, I’ll show you to your room.”

Jon nods and turns to Tormund, but he speaks before Jon can open his mouth. “I can make it back out t’camp on my own. See you in the morning.” He clamps Jon on the shoulder and gives Sansa and Arya a nod before leaving. Jon watches him go, and then watches the door for just a moment too long. When he turns back both Sansa and Arya are giving him knowing smiles. He ignores them.

They take him to his room and say goodnight before going to their own quarters. Jon watches them, the queen and her faithful shadow, until they turn a corner and step out of sight.

There is a fire blazing in the hearth, and Jon undresses and falls into the bed, exhausted from the journey and the day. However, once he closes his eyes, he can’t stop hearing the words he overheard over and over again in his head. And, even more distractingly, Tormund was right. The room isn’t as warm as their tent, and Jon tosses and turns all night, yearning for a warm presence at his back and a strong arm around his waist.

*

The next week is a flurry of activity getting the Free Folk organized and working with the residents of the castle, many of whom are more than a little reluctant to stand side by side with Wildlings.

Each night Jon falls into bed, completely exhausted, and each night he barely sleeps.

He doesn’t see much of Sansa because she is constantly busy with queenly duties, and Arya practically never leaves her side. They’ve invited him to dinner once more, but he spends most of his evenings with the Wildlings, mingling among the people and settling small disputes where he can before returning to the castle and his solitary room.

Though he wants to, deeply, he doesn’t return to Tormund’s tent, feeling as if the action would have a much different weight, now.

On the eighth day since they arrived, Jon gathers a mixture of Winterfell men and Wildlings who have joined the guards to train in sword fighting. Most of the Free Folk have never fought with a sword, and most of the Northmen have never fought with a Wildling, so he sees it as a learning experience for everyone.

He is about to call up Brogan to be his sparring partner for a demonstration when Tormund enters the courtyard. Jon sees him size up the situation and immediately grab a sword out of one of the Wildling’s hands and step up to Jon in front of the small gathered crowd.

“Shall we give them a show, little crow?”

Jon meets his eyes for a moment before turning. “Watch how our styles of fighting are different, and how each of us can alter our positions to better fight the other. There is a lot we can learn from each other.” He makes sure he has everyone’s attention before turning back. Tormund lunges at him so quickly that Jon barely has enough time to unsheathe his sword and parry the blow.

“Striking when your opponent’s back is turned?” he says while he blocks another swing.

“When’ve you ever known me to fight fair?”

Tormund is all forward momentum, striking hard and backing Jon towards the courtyard edge. Jon waits until he is almost up against a wall to deflect a blow and sidestep. Tormund flies forward and lodges his blade into the wooden wall. Jon raises his sword so the point hovers a hairsbreadth away from Tormund’s neck. He hears mutters and murmurs from behind him.

He turns back towards them. “Always try and use your opponent’s strengths against them.” Jon hears the thunk of Tormund wrenching his sword out of the wood and turns just in time to meet his blade again. This time he goes on the offensive, swinging and thrusting his sword instead of just blocking.

Jon is about to make his final move and disarm him when Tormund surprises him by switching his sword to his left hand, parrying Jon’s swing and grabbing his wrist with his right hand, pulling Jon close and stopping him from using his sword.

For one quiet, still, long moment all Jon can hear is a ringing in his ears and all he can see is Tormund’s eyes trained on his own and all he can feel is his hand around his wrist and his breath against his face.

Then, Tormund twists his wrist, hooks a foot around his ankle, and pushes him with his shoulder, putting Jon flat on his back. Tormund lifts his foot and puts his boot on Jon’s chest, resting it there but not stepping down.

“Don’t fight a battle like you’ve already won,” Tormund says, then he removes his foot and puts out his hand, helping Jon to his feet. He turns and leaves the courtyard, and Jon watches him go, out of breath for reasons that have nothing to do with the fight. He clears his throat and turns back to the guards, finding a range of expressions from amusement to awe on their faces.

“Now,” he says, voice rough, “Find a partner and get to work.”

He goes through the rest of the training session feeling like a boot print has been branded into his chest.

*

That night, the urge to return to Tormund’s tent is like a physical weight, a stone in his belly tugging him in that direction. Jon is completely certain now what that would lead to, so instead he goes back to his room, alone, and stares into the fire, searching for answers.

An answer comes, much sooner than expected, in the form of a knock at the door.

Jon stands so quickly he nearly tips over his chair, and he feels his throat tighten and stomach clench and he goes to open it.

It’s not a surprise, but he still struggles to breathe normally for a second when he finds Tormund there, leaning against the doorjamb with a pitcher of wine.

“Drink?” Tormund says, pushing past him and pouring out two cups before Jon has a chance to respond.

“Thanks,” he replies, slowly, as Tormund presses one of the cups into his hand.

They both take long drinks, silence hanging heavy between them in a way it never has before. “You fought well today,” Jon says, fishing for anything to say.

“Oh, shut your fuckin’ mouth. You know why I’m here.”

Jon turns his cup around in his hands, nervous. “I don’t know how to do this.”

“I want you, you want me, it’s pretty fuckin’ simple, little crow.” Tormund doesn’t look away from him, and Jon can’t avert his eyes, even though pretty much every one of his instincts is screaming at him to look somewhere, anywhere else. “I always thought you were pretty.”

“I thought you were mocking me,” Jon says, trying to regain his footing, “And that you thought I was an idiot.”

“I was mocking you. And I do think you’re an idiot.” Tormund sets down his cup and takes a step closer. “Now, can I take you to bed?”

Jon feels like there’s a waterfall rushing behind his ears and his mouth is open, but no sound is coming out, so he just nods his head and sets down his cup and watches as Tormund comes toward him and hooks a big hand around the back of his neck, pulling him closer and bending down to bring their mouths together.

Tormund’s beard on his face is unfamiliar but soft and not at all unpleasant and his mouth is shockingly gentle as he kisses Jon. Though he’s never had to stand nearly on his tiptoes and crane his neck up to be kissed, this, at least, Jon is familiar with, and he kisses back, opening his mouth and feeling a low fire of arousal start in his belly as Tormund tightens his grip on Jon’s neck, thumb over his pulse point, and brings his other hand to grab his waist. Tormund puts his tongue in Jon’s mouth and Jon responds in kind, letting himself be walked backward until his back is pressed up against the smooth wood of the door.

Jon moves his hands to Tormund’s chest and starts undoing the laces of his coat and pushing off his layers, one by one, until there is a small mountain of furs on the floor and his naked chest is under Jon’s hands. He curls his fingers into ginger chest hair and Tormund presses closer, putting his thigh between Jon’s legs and putting gentle pressure there. Jon groans low in his throat as he feels himself start to get hard.

He threads his other hand into Tormund’s hair, tugging him closer as their kisses become sloppier and more uncoordinated, mostly open mouths and sliding tongues as Tormund unties the laces of Jon’s shirt and pants. They pull apart for a second so Jon can pull his shirt over his head. He is leaning heavily against the door, bracketed in by Tormund arms and held in place by his gaze, eyes dark and hungry.

“I don’t know how to do this next part,” Jon says, too aroused to be embarrassed and just the slightest bit frightened by the feeling of Tormund’s not un-intimidating cock hard against his hip through the fabric of their pants.

“I do,” Tormund says, and drops to his knees.

He pulls Jon’s pants down and immediately has his cock in hand. Even knelt before him, Tormund is huge, looking up and meeting Jon’s eye as he curls his other hand around the back of his thigh. Jon closes his mouth over a moan, making a sort of strangled humming sound instead, but any hope of staying quiet flies out the window as Tormund takes Jon’s cock into his mouth.

Jon’s head falls back against the door and his hands search for something to hold onto, grabbing the door handle with one and settling the other in Tormund’s hair, scraping the back of his head with his blunt nails every time he sucks hard or runs his tongue along the underside of his cock.

He spares a single thought to the fact that Tormund has obviously done this before and then he can’t think of anything at all other than the feeling of Tormund’s mouth on him and Tormund’s hand squeezing the back of his thigh.

Tormund pulls back to suck on the head of his cock, and when he takes Jon’s length back down Jon’s hips stutter forward involuntarily. Tormund holds onto Jon’s hips with both hands, his thumbs pressing into the skin just above his hipbones and holds him against the door. Jon realizes that Tormund is strong enough that he can’t move, so Jon can’t help but remain still as he bobs his head up and down and brings Jon closer and closer to coming. He surrenders to it immediately. He just tightens his grip on Tormund’s hair and strains against his hands just enough to feel the pressure of being held down and taken care of.

Jon moans and squeezes his eyes shut as his breaths start to come short and his heartbeat quickens. As he feels himself going over the edge he can’t hold in his breathy, “Ah, ah, ah,” and he comes with a choked off moan as he takes his hand from the door handle and bites down on his fist. Tormund swallows and wipes the corner of his mouth as he stands and looks Jon up and down, a smug smile on his face.

It takes him a few moments to come back to himself and slow his breathing, and he hasn’t taken his hand away from where it’s tangled in Tormund’s hair. He uses this to draw him closer into a slow kiss, tasting himself on Tormund’s tongue.

He pulls away and moves his hands down to Tormund’s pants, untying the laces and pushing them down his hips. Tormund pulls them the rest of the way off and steps out of them, naked and proud with his arms at his sides. Jon spares a long glance at the slightly darker red hair between his legs and his very large and still-hard cock before putting a hand on Tormund’s chest and pushing him back until the backs of his legs hit the bed and he sits down, hard.

Before he has any time to become self-conscious, he climbs onto Tormund’s lap and starts kissing him again. The only thought on his mind is of reciprocating as Tormund’s arms come around his back and tighten like a vice, pulling their chests flush together.

Jon moves his hand from Tormund’s neck down his side to his hip, and finally takes his cock in his hand. He may not have much experience when it comes to this, but he feels emboldened to continue when Tormund opens his mouth and lets out a mix between a grunt and a growl as Jon starts to move his hand a little faster and grip a little harder. He moves his mouth to Tormund’s neck and bites, doing it again when Tormund makes a low, pleased sound in his throat in response.

He continues to lick and suck at his neck as the mixture of their sweat and Tormund’s precum make his cock slick and allows Jon to speed up the pace.

“Harder, little crow,” Tormund growls in his ear and Jon is happy to comply, squeezing harder.

He moves his other hand in search of something to grab onto and settles on clutching a fistful of Tormund’s beard and tugging lightly. He almost loses his rhythm when this startles a full-on moan out of Tormund’s throat. Jon continues to mouth at his neck and pull at his cock and tug on his beard, harder and harder as he hears Tormund’s breath start to come in short pants.

Tormund’s hands are roaming all over his back and down to his arse, squeezing tight as he nears his climax. Jon pulls once more on his beard, hard enough to hurt, and Tormund comes on his fist and both of their stomachs.

They both sit there, breathing heavily and holding each other. After a few moments, Jon pulls back so he can look Tormund in the eyes. To his surprise, Tormund looks at him almost tenderly, and leans up to kiss him once more. Jon kisses him back, and then steps off of his lap and walks on shaky legs to grab his shirt to clean the two of them up. He can’t think of a thing to say, but he realizes that nothing needs to be said as Tormund lies back on the bed and gestures for Jon to join him.

Jon lies down next to him and turns on his side. Tormund comes up behind him and places an arm around his waist, a position that has grown familiar and comforting in the last few weeks.

Jon falls asleep swiftly and doesn’t dream once for the first time since they arrived.

*

When Jon wakes up in the morning with Tormund’s very warm and absolutely naked body wrapped around his own, he can’t quite place the feeling turning his stomach into knots. He extricates himself gingerly and rolls off the bed onto his feet. Tormund continues to sleep as he always does, not even stirring as Jon finds some pants, a clean shirt, and his leather tunic.

He looks back at Tormund on the bed, not wanting him to wake up alone and think the worst of him, but Jon can’t stay in that room filled with the smell of them and the memory of last night if he wants to clear his head.

It’s the cowardly thing to do, he knows, but he slips out and closes the door silently behind him.

The halls of Winterfell are mostly empty, except for a few passing servants who greet him with a nod or simply a bowed head, still treating him with deference even though he no longer holds any title nor position.

He finds himself wandering in a specific direction, and just as he realizes he is coming upon Sansa’s quarters that he turns a corner and stops in his tracks in order to avoid crashing into someone coming the other way.

Jon lifts his eyes and then immediately furrowing his brow at coming face to face with Ugnė. This early in the morning he can’t seem to process why she would be in the castle at all, much less in the corridor outside Sansa’s chambers, but then he glances over her shoulder and sees Sansa herself standing in her doorway, wearing a long robe and smiling faintly.

“Good day, Ugnė,” she says, a gentle dismissal.

“Good day, Y’Grace.” They smile at each other for a moment as if sharing an inside joke, and then Ungė steps around Jon and disappears down the hall.

Jon turns back to look at Sansa with his mouth slightly open, and she actually laughs in his face. He thinks it’s the first time he has seen her genuinely laugh in his presence in their entire lives.

She looks him up and down and he curses just how smart she has become because he can tell the moment she realizes the truth in a slight change in her expression. She looks almost smug.

“Would you like to join me for breakfast, Jon?” she asks, taking a step to the side and gesturing into her quarters.

He nods dumbly and enters her room, walking over to table set with food and sitting down heavily, putting a hand over his face as Sansa takes the seat next to him. Sansa and Ugnė have obviously already broken their fast for the morning judging by the state of the food, and Jon finds he doesn’t have much of an appetite. He looks up at Sansa, after a moment, and he can see in her controlled expression, in the tilt of her head, that she is waiting for him to speak first. For the second time since he arrived, he is struck by how much she reminds him of Catelyn.

“You’re just like your mother, you know,” he says, and then realizing how that could sound, coming from him, hastily amends, “And I mean that as the highest praise. You’ve become the strong and honorable lady of this house, just as Catelyn was.”

“Thank you, Jon.” As always, her face gives little away, but Jon thinks he can see a hint of true emotion in her eyes. “I like to think she would be proud of me. Father and Robb and little Rickon, too.”

“Well, I know I am,” he says, smiling at her softly, marveling at the little sister he never thought he would get back.

She reaches over and grabs his hand, squeezing lightly. A moment of silence hangs between them, heavy with the weight of the past and with the very real present. Jon glances around the room, realizing it’s the first time he’s ever been in it, never having been allowed when it belonged to Ned and Catelyn.

“So,” Sansa says, and Jon wants to say something to stop her from continuing, or simply get up and leave the room, but instead his is rooted in place, silent, as she continues, “you slept with Tormund.”

He opens his mouth to protest or object, but he has always been honest to a fault, and instead he shuts his mouth into a firm line and nods.

“And? How do you feel?”

Jon blinks at her for a few moments, having expected a bit more interrogation and perhaps some disgust and outrage, but he finds none of that is Sansa’s calm countenance. He thinks about her question and realizes, with some surprise, that he truly feels comfortable and satisfied and well-rested, and though his stomach still feels strange and just the slightest bit queasy, on the whole he is not upset or panicked.

“I feel… fine. Is it wrong that I feel fine?” A little edge of desperation seeps into his voice.

“Do you think you shouldn’t be?”

“I’m not sure,” he replies honestly.

Sansa looks at him head on, forcing him to hold her gaze even though he desperately wants to look away. After a long moment, she sits back a bit.

“Do you value Tormund, as a companion and a leader?”

“Yes,” Jon says without pause, “I trust him with my life.”

Sansa smiles. “And do you enjoy his company, as a friend?”

“Yes,” Jon says, thinking of laughter around a burning fire and many a cold night made better with Tormund prattling on beside them.

Now Sansa’s smile turns alarmingly sly. “And do you find him attractive?”

Jon thinks of bright blue eyes and red hair a booming laugh and strong arms and curly chest hair and big hands on his hips and his cheeks start to warm up as he thinks of the night before.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

He chuckles and looks at his hands, and he knows if he weren’t being faced by it head on, he would deny it, to himself and anyone else, but Sansa is too perceptive and knows him too well for him to lie to her. It’s as Tormund put it last night, they want each other. Jon supposes in that sense it really is quite simple.

“So, what is wrong?” Sansa says.

“He’s a man?” Jon suggests, upturning the end of the sentence like a question.

“Is that something that truly bothers you, or are you just using that as an excuse?”

Jon is startled again by how much she sees. It’s an excellent trait for a queen, and a rather unfortunate trait in a sister if one wishes to avoid conversations such as this one. He decides to answer her as honestly as he can. “I’m not sure. This is all very new to me.”

Sansa stands up from the table and puts her hand on his shoulder for a moment. He covers her hand with his and takes a deep breath. “Let me guess,” Sansa says as she draws away and walks over to place a piece of wood on the fire, “You slipped out while he was still sleeping?”

Jon nods, ashamed.

“You should go to him. If you don’t speak honestly this will be like a drop of water in stone. When the freeze comes, the stone will crack apart.”

Jon nods, knowing she’s right, and stands to go. He turns just before he reaches the door. “Ugnė?” he asks.

Sansa looks at him over her shoulder, and he sees in her eyes that if he hadn’t bared his heart to her, she would turn him away without an answer. She is not one to share with anyone undeserving. And he sees, also, that very few are worthy of the queen’s confidence.

“No man will touch me, not ever again.” Her voice has turned to steel. “I’ve found that other women treat me like a person instead of an object to be claimed. I will accept nothing less.”

He meets her eyes and then turns to leave, saying nothing because he realizes she deserves the last word on this.

Out in the hall he finds the nervous feeling in his gut that Sansa had helped to dissipate return with a vengeance. He is scared that when he returns to his room Tormund will be there, and even more scared that he will have woken up and left.

Jon looks up and sees Arya coming towards him down the hall. She looks him up and down and her face breaks into a rare smile.

“What?” he asks, already knowing he’s not going to like what she says.

“You slept with him. I won the bet this time.”

Jon’s mouth drops open for a second and he decides not to speak because he’ll probably splutter and embarrass himself more than he already has. Arya just breezes past him, patting him twice on the chest, and then walks into Sansa’s quarters and leaves him alone in the hallway again. He lets out a bemused chuckle, more at himself than anything else, and then finally starts the way back to his room.

However, as he feared, when he steps back inside the room, it is empty. The fire has burned down to embers and when Jon places a hand on the bed, he finds it just barely warm. Tormund must have woken soon after Jon and left swiftly.

Jon sits down heavily on the bed and covers his face with his hands. He doesn’t know what to expect when he next sees Tormund, and he wants badly for it to be in private. Not least because if it dissolves into a fight as it is wont to do between them, he’d like to keep other people out of the way, but also because he still has no idea what he is going to say.

He puts on his furs with perfunctory movements and goes to meet the castle guard to start his work for the day. He participates in a morning patrol and then walks around and makes sure all of the Wildling guards are working well with those from Winterfell. That day he only has to settle two disputes, neither turning into a true fight, and though he is glad for the distraction, he feels Tormund’s absence like a constant shadow in the corner of his eye. By late afternoon, Jon knows that Tormund is avoiding him. They usually cross paths at least once or twice a day and by the time dinner time comes around he hasn’t seen hide nor hair of him.

Jon decides to take supper alone, is his room, and he expects every moment for a knock at the door like the night before, but one doesn’t come. He stares at the fire and realizes all at once that he wants Tormund to knock on the door. And, just like that, his decision is made.

He stands and puts on his coat and leaves the room before he can change his mind, both because he knows he’ll never forgive himself for being a coward and because Sansa and Arya will bother him about it until winter ends and comes again.

As he walks through the castle out into the courtyard and then beyond the gates, his steps become quicker and quicker with determination and nerves. By the time he steps up to the tent he shared with Tormund he realizes he still has no idea what he is going to say. It’s dark, but from the faint light from the central fire he can see the shadow of Tormund’s body, sitting up and facing the tent’s opening. Jon entertains the thought that Tormund is waiting for him, but dismisses it quickly, knowing down that path lies madness.

“Tormund,” he says as he comes closer.

“Hello, Snow,” Tormund replies, not moving to come out or open the tent flap to invite Jon in.

Jon looks up at the stars and hopes this isn’t going to be as painful as he thinks it is. “Can I come in?” he asks.

Tormund is quiet for a long moment before muttering, “Do what y’ like.”

Jon takes this as the best invitation he’s going to get and crawls inside, sitting down cross-legged just inside the entrance, leaving a couple of feet of space between the two of them. They stare at each other for a few moments, Tormund looking as if he’d like to bore a hole between Jon’s eyes.

“Are you angry with me?” Jon says, incredulously, unable to take the silence any longer.

Tormund makes a noncommittal grunt and looks intently above his head. “No.”

“Well, you seem angry.”

“Why are you here, Snow?”

Jon resists the urge to growl in frustration. “I’m here to talk to you. Don’t people usually talk in these sorts of situations?”

Tormund grumbles something so quietly Jon can’t actually make out the words.

“What?” Jon asks, balling up his fists.

Tormund’s eyes snap to his face. “I said you didn’t want to talk earlier so why should you now!”

This shocks Jon into silence, and the moment hangs between them like a taut wire, liable to snap at any moment. It takes him a few seconds to place the expression on Tormund’s face, clouded with rage and nearly unfamiliar to him, as real, honest hurt.

“What do you want from me, Tormund?”

Tormund seems completely caught off guard, and Jon is equally unbalanced when he genuinely ponders the question before answering him.

“I don’t know if you want to hear it, little crow.”

Jon tries to quell his fear, Tormund’s taunt-turned-pet name comforting him. He knows he’ll never get anything out of Tormund without giving something first. That’s one of the first things he learned about the Wildlings. Never expect anything freely given. Life involves recompense when surviving in the true North.

“I came here because I was sitting in my room, staring at the door, waiting for you to come through it,” Jon confesses.

“I want to fuck you.”

Though the words come as a slight shock, the answer doesn’t particularly surprise him. What does, however, is the thrill he feels in the pit of his stomach, a combination of nerves and anticipation. Jon looks up to meet Tormund’s eyes and he says, “Alright.”

Tormund is frozen in place for a couple seconds as if his brain is trying to catch up with his body, then he practically lunges forward and grabs Jon by the front of his coat and haul him on top of him. They tumble backwards, still barely fitting in tent even literally on top of each other, but any thought of this flies out of Jon’s mind as Tormund reaches up to cup a hand around the back of his neck and pull him down into a kiss.

Their mouths move together, and Jon suddenly feels burning hot in all his clothes. He pulls his coat off his shoulders and Tormund helps drag it the rest of the way off. Tormund tosses it to his right and then rolls them over, laying Jon down and hovering above him on all fours.

Jon pulls his tunic and shirt over his head and watches as Tormund sits up on his knees and does the same. Tormund leans down again and brackets Jon’s head with his forearms, his hair falling down around Jon’s face. He places his forehead against Jon’s, and for a moment he is the only thing filling Jon’s mind. The feeling of Tormund surrounding him, the smell of him, the sound of his breaths, already heavy.

He lifts up his chin and meet’s Tormund’s lips, and this kiss is too gentle, too tender, veering into territory Jon is not prepared to brave. He hooks a leg around Tormund’s ankle, and then in one swift movement takes out his arm and rolls them over so Jon is back on top.

This time when he leans down to slot their mouths together, he is far from gentle, biting Tormund’s lip and humming against his lips when Tormund responds in kind. Tormund has one hand threaded in the hair at the back of his neck, holding him firmly against him, and the other is roaming down Jon’s back and moving down to his arse, pulling Jon even closer so they’re pressed together completely, Tormund’s leg between his.

Jon groans into Tormund’s mouth as Tormund presses Jon down onto his thigh while simultaneously lifting his hips to chase that same friction. Tormund squeezes his arse and puts his tongue in Jon’s mouth. As they rut together like this, tangled in a vice-like embrace, Jon feels them both getting hard.

He feels more than hears Tormund moan, and then Tormund pushes him away so suddenly he has to catch himself on his chest.

“Pants,” he growls, and Jon doesn’t waste time complying and Tormund does the same, undoing the laces of his pants and lifting his hips to pull them off. “Lie down.”

Jon does as he’s told, laying down on his back as Tormund reaches over to his pack, tucked into the corner of the tent, and takes out a small stoppered bottle that looks like it was taken from the Winterfell kitchens. Jon gives him his best approximation of a stern look with his kiss-swollen lips and face flushed with arousal.

Tormund ignores his look and unstoppers the bottle. “Turn on your side.”

Jon complies again without question, feeling oddly free turning over all leadership and control in favor of being handled. Tormund comes up behind him as he does when they sleep together and reaches his arm around to grab Jon’s cock, his hand slick with the contents of the bottle. He keeps stroking him as his other hand trails down Jon’s back. Jon is expecting it, but he still gasps when Tormund’s finger traces around his hole, and he stops breathing completely for a long moment when he presses one finger inside.

“Relax, little crow,” Tormund murmurs, voice tight. Jon breathes deeply and does his best to do just that. Tormund strokes his cock slowly as he works his finger inside him.

Jon reaches back for something to hold onto as Tormund starts to add a second finger, settling on gripping a handful of Tormund’s hair. Tormund puts his mouth on the spot where Jon’s neck meets his should and bites down, soothing it immediately after with his tongue. Jon finds himself slowly adjusting to the feeling of Tormund’s fingers inside him and as Tormund crooks his fingers just so Jon feels a completely different kind of pleasure than just the hand on his cock.

He gasps and then moans lowly as Tormund does it again, trying to stifle the sounds coming out of his mouth unbidden. Tormund presses a third finger inside him, and Jon breaths through the discomfort as it once again gives way to pleasure.

“You can,” Jon gasps out, “Now.”

Tormund removes his fingers and Jon turns to look over his shoulder to watch Tormund slick up his cock with the oil. He moves his hand from Jon’s cock to grip his hip as he comes closer, lining himself up.

Jon tightens his grip on Tormund’s hair at the first touch of his cock and hisses out a long breath as he starts to push inside. He moves slowly and Jon can tell from the tight grip on his hip that Tormund is restraining himself as much as possible. Jon clenches his other hand into the fabric beneath them as Tormund presses completely inside him, his hips against Jon’s arse.

“Jon…” Tormund breathes, and it is the first time he has called him by his name, and Jon feels so overwhelmed by it all that he can do nothing but moan in response.

He gives Jon a few seconds to adjust before pulling out and thrusting in again, just as slowly as the first time. Once more and Jon starts to feel the discomfort dissipate, and on the fourth thrust of Tormund’s hips a soft, pleased sound escapes his lips as that feeling returns.

Tormund grips his hip even tighter and brings his mouth to Jon’s neck as he begins to set a rhythm. Jon grabs the nearest piece of clothing he can find, which appears to be his shirt, and bites down on it to stifle the sounds coming out of his mouth. Tormund moves his hand back to Jon’s cock and starts stroking him in time with his thrusts. Jon can’t do anything but hold onto Tormund’s hair and close his eyes, losing himself in the pleasure.

He can feel himself getting close, and Tormund brings his hand up from his cock to take the shirt away from Jon’s mouth before continuing to bring him closer and closer to the edge.

Jon lets out a small sound with each thrust, his voice getting higher and higher. Tormund keeps up his steady rhythm, but as he lets out one deep groan Jon knows he is also getting close. He speeds up his hand on Jon’s cock and Jon is overwhelmed by his orgasm, crying out while Tormund fucks him through it. Once his breathing has slowed slightly and he comes back into himself Tormund pulls out.

Jon turns around, and although he knows his movements are clumsy in his afterglow, he grabs Tormund’s cock and brings their mouths together. It only takes a few strokes before Tormund is coming, Jon swallowing his groan.

They both roll over onto their backs, breathing heavily, arms pressed together. They lay like that for a couple long minutes until their breathing evens out and the cold air from outside the tent starts to bite at their naked skin.

Jon finds his shirt again and does his best to clean himself off before handing it to Tormund. He pulls his pants, tunic, and coat back on to keep warm and Tormund puts on his pants and shirt, as well.

“Stay?” Tormund says.

“Yes,” Jon replies.

And they go to sleep curled together, having said all they needed to say.

*

This time when Jon wakes, the muted light of dawn suffusing through the small tent, he puts his arm over Tormund’s around his waist and holds him tighter, pressing back into the warmth of his body. A few minutes later Jon feels Tormund wake, and his first instinct is to hold Jon tighter, too.

The only sound is their gentle breathing, and the soft snuffling of Ghost sitting outside the tent, who has chosen since they arrived to remain with Tormund and the Wildlings when Jon ventures into Winterfell.

“You planning on going anywhere, Snow?” Tormund mumbles gruffly into his hair.

“No.”

It’s easier for them to talk like this, not face to face. Jon knows if Tormund could see him his eyes might give too much away. He thinks, too, a thought caught halfway between a hope and a worry, that Tormund might feel the same way.

“I didn’t sleep well,” Jon says, “In that room, alone.”

Tormund grunts. “Me neither. Your dog isn’t quite so warm as you.”

Jon chuckles softly. He feels set adrift, unsure of where to go from here. He knows they are standing on the cliff’s edge, not ready to jump but not wanting to retreat.

The air in the tent feels stuffy, stifled by the weight of all their unsaid words and half-formed thoughts. Jon thinks back to the night before, impossible to forget with the skin of his shoulder purple with love bites and his arse so sore he doesn’t think he’ll be able to sit today. A flush rises in his cheeks and he says, sheepishly, “D’you think anyone heard me last night?”

Tormund laughs, a softer version of his usual guffaw. “I’m sure they did, little crow, but all the Free Folk think we’ve been fuckin’ for months.”

Jon makes an indignant noise and is about to protest, but then he thinks of how the Wildlings treat he and Tormund, like a unit, like a couple, and he realizes they probably all thought that was the reason Jon came with them in the first place.

“You left your direwolf with me. Some probably think we’ve been fuckin’ for years.”

Tormund is teasing him, he knows, but there is a current of something deeper in his voice, something heavier hanging between them.

“You never corrected them,” Jon says, unwilling or unable to voice the question he desperately wants to ask.

But, when Tormund speaks, Jon realizes he already knows the answer, and has known it all along. “I guess I was hopin’ someday they’d be right.”

And that’s it, the moment they can’t come back from, over the cliff’s edge and into oblivion. Jon finds it much less scary than he thought it would be. This is his life now, and after everything, it’s much better than he deserves.

“I’m not askin’ you to marry me,” Tormund says.

Jon laughs, “Good thing, because I’m not allowed to get married.”

He lifts Tormund’s arm and sits up, turning back to look at him. Tormund has an expression on his face that Jon has never seen before, like all his rough edges and gruffness have been softened into something small and tender.

Jon leans down and kisses him, and it feels like sealing something big and permanent, it feels like strong stone too tightly fit together for water to slip between the cracks.

He pulls away and puts on his coat and his boots and slips out of the tent, Ghost now following along as he heads to the gates of Winterfell. He doesn’t look back, but he walks with a soft smile on his face, feeling more at peace than he has in a long, long time.

*

The winter is long, but not nearly as long as the summer that preceded it. Jon watches with pride as the Wildlings fall into place at Winterfell, still keeping to themselves but slowly and surely seeing themselves as less of outsiders. He spends as much time with Sansa and Arya as he can, but when he can’t he simply observes from afar as Sansa leads the North through the leanest times and deftly handles all that she comes across.

It feels a little bit like a betrayal, but Jon thinks that Sansa is the best of all of them, in the end. She is a better queen than Robb would have been king, much better than Jon would have been, and he thinks, privately and quietly in his own mind, a better ruler than even Ned Stark was. She is everything she was always meant to be.

Over the course of the winter he notices a couple more Wildling women going in the castle to meet with the queen late at night, and it makes him smile. Perhaps the Starks have always yearned for something a bit more on the wild side.

Arya is, as always, impossible to read, but Jon thinks she is happy here, protecting their family in Winterfell, her home. He marvels at how close she and Sansa have become since the days of their childhoods. However, when he sees them together and thinks of what they have been through, he thinks they have more in common than they do different, now.

He and Tormund never spend a night apart, and Jon doesn’t plan to ever again.

As soon as the thaw begins, they begin to make preparations to return to the true North. The Wildlings begin to disassemble the semi-permanent camp they have made here and gather supplies to keep them fed on their journey back.

Sansa and Arya are sad to see him go, but as they embrace him on the morning of their departure their goodbye feels far from final.

“We’ll see you back here,” Arya says, voicing what he is thinking. She turns to Tormund and hugs him as well. He has to practically bend down onto his knees to put his arms around her shoulders. “You, too.”

As she pulls away Tormund turns to Sansa and bows. “Your Grace,” he says. Sansa steps forward and puts out her arm. He grasps her forearm and returns her smile.

“Keep my brother in one piece,” she says to him, and he chuckles and nods.

Tormund turns to meet Jon’s eyes, and they both turn towards the gates to leave. Just before they step outside Jon turns to give Winterfell and his sisters one last long look.

The Free Folk are gathered in a crowd, all their fires extinguished, and belongings packed. Although Jon knows they have been comfortable and some even quite happy here, he sees the relief on their faces at the thought of finally returning home.

Jon and Tormund lead the way north, Ghost walking between them, and Jon smiles at the thought that he has finally, after searching his whole life, found his way to where he belongs.

*