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 Jon doesn’t allow himself to consciously acknowledge he’s a deserter for a long time after the Free Folk have settled back at Hardhome.

It feels too much of a simplification to label it so – deserting. Like he didn’t give everything to the land South of the Wall before he finally decided that he’d done enough. Like he hasn’t asked himself every day since if he did the right thing. Like he doesn’t still have nightmares about cutting, and being cut.

It seems silently acknowledged among the Free Folk, too, that he really has no intention of going back to the Wall. Nor that the Watch have any intention of coming to retrieve him.

Months pass, first with them travelling, camping, moving, and then resettling in the decimated valley where the old camp stood. It's trudging further into deep winter by the time they’re done with the majority of the manual work, and that’s not counting what will go into regrowing the population, and parenting the children left behind. Putting Hardhome back together has been a hell of a thing - but the Free Folk have still embraced Jon, and clothed him, and fed him, and in return he's done what he can. He’s put his own hands to rebuilding it; thrown his black cloak onto the pyre of dead left behind.

He has a hut here now, and he has people he would hesitantly call friends. He's part of a community, and aside from a few mild skirmishes, they're not at war. His days are long stretches of making repairs on the great wall around the little village, accompanying Tormund on the occasional hunting trip, and scouting for provisions.

As the time passes, Jon makes peace with this new reality. He never saw himself a king, or a hero. Maybe for a while he'd been vain enough to entertain that – some noble watchman, but none of that matters now. He can do good here, in a court governed by honest folk, and he does, teaching the children what he can remember from his days of schooling, listening to the lessons the others provide in turn. Sometimes, he sits and listens to the younger ones talk about their parents, and spends many a day herding them safely back and forth on trips to the frozen lakes, to skate and fish and forage. When he can, he even teaches the older ones some swordfighting techniques. Longclaw has been hanging on the wall of his borrowed hut for a long time, but wooden sticks and shields are fine for his purposes. He doesn’t plan to kill anyone again for a long time.

At night, the Free Folk gather in the large communal hut in the centre of Hardhome to eat and discuss business. For all that the Night's Watch did similar, it's still deeply unfamiliar, and it's more than just the jumble of languages. It's that everything seems to be a discussion, not a set of rules and orders. And the Free Folk love to talk. At length.

Jon is mostly silent for these evenings, unless pulled into the fray by Tormund. Tormund likes to talk at length too. Sometimes just to Jon. Many times just to Jon. He's getting used to it: their last hunting trip had been resoundingly unsuccessful, purely because Tormund had kept roaring with laughter and frightening off deer.

Raucous or not, Tormund is the kind of leader Jon can finally lay his sword down for without reservation. Never has he heard his friend overrule someone from a position of power, nor take advantage of his appointed position of leader. He’s loud, and brash, and unapologetically blue – but Jon would stand beside him in a dozen battles; sit beside him for countless fireside diatribes.

Tonight, someone else sits beside Jon - a young, fair woman named Isolde who he recognises from around the camp. He thinks his surprise is palpable, because she laughs at him – a common occurrence among the Free Folk – but it doesn't last long.

"What's this?" Tormund says, booming without booming, like he always does. He’s just arrived, two brimming cups in his hands, one of them almost certainly for Jon.

Jon looks between the two of them with a faint frown, opening his mouth to say she’s doing no harm. But without a word of disagreement, Isolde slides sideways on the bench, letting Tormund sit down beside Jon. Tormund gives her a long look of silent disapproval, until she slaps his knee.

"You’ve made your point!"

"I should hope so," Tormund grouses, and he turns back to Jon, finally furnishing him with what Jon has been telling himself is ‘ale’ for the last few months, though none of the ale back at the Wall could make his breath flammable.

"Should I be flattered or worried?" Jon jokes quietly. He’s not strictly sorry for the intervention - Isolde is sweet, but her fair hair reminds him too much of - someone else. Tormund just sips from his flagon, silence uncharacteristically surly.

Jon frowns.

"Did I do something wrong?" he asks tentatively. "I know I shouldn't be interfering with the perimeter wall discussions -"

"What?" Tormund looks surprised, but at least the strange anger is gone from his face. "Never in your life, King Crow."

"Don't call me that," Jon mutters.

"And why not?"

"Because I'm neither of those things."

"You're at least one."

"Which one?" Jon counters.

Tormund gives him a grin. "Definitely a king at heart."

Jon frowns again. He's not sure why the thought bothers him. He just... instinctively rejects it.

Tormund gives him another smile. "Don't like that, do ye?"

"Not really."

"Too bad, little crow."

Jon sighs, and Tormund echoes it.

"Tell me more about the perimeter wall," Jon urges.

"It’s not far off now, but the storm last week knocked a good portion back down, so that’s set us back a while. The rest needs more material, but there's another storm coming in. It won’t hit for a few days, but we’ll need to be prepared. I’m sending more of the ones who’re able out in the morning to go further afield for food – don’t want to exhaust our supplies around here too soon – but it’s a gamble if they’ll get back in time."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"Nothing more than you've already done, boy."

"I know I’ve been spending more time with the children at the minute, though, I should be dedicating more time to the gate, I could -"

"Jon." Tormund stops him gently. "We definitely can't send anyone for supplies in this weather. It's not something we can fix. Hands aren’t what’ll fix it now. Any of us, not just you." He pats Jon gently on the cheek, then looks down, rummaging in one of the many pockets hidden in his furs.

Helpless and mollified, Jon looks back to the fire with a sigh. When he looks back, Tormund is handing him something.

"Here."

A little carved wooden trinket of some sort. Jon pauses, and only takes it when Tormund shoves it at him a little.

"What's this?"

"It's a totem I carved for ye. Most Free Folk keep one with them wherever they roam. You should have one too."

Surprised and touched, Jon turns the little charm over; a wolf with a scar over each eye. "You made this?"

"Yes." Tormund looks a little sullen again. "No need to make a fuss."

"It's wonderful. It's not that much of a fuss." Tormund looks annoyed and pleased at the same time, which is quite a feat. He tucks the little wolf away in a pocket. "I'll carry it with me with thanks, Tor."

"It's to bring you luck."

"I think it's working already," Jon tells him.

"I hope so." Tor smiles at him then, smaller than usual.

"What does yours look like?" Jon asks.

At that, Tormund cuts his eyes away. "Don't have one anymore."

Jon pauses, but he doesn't press. "That's a shame."

Tormund nods, but doesn't comment. The silence that follows feels nearly awkward. But Jon is already wondering to himself if he remembers how to whittle. He thinks a bear would be appropriate. At least, he thinks it would make Tormund smile. He nudges him.

"Thank you, Tormund. It’s - I’m so grateful."

"My pleasure," Tormund rumbles. He looks back to the fire, then speaks again when the quiet has settled between them.

"I have to go on a short trip tomorrow, nothing to worry about, I'll be back by sundown. Keep an eye on things?"

"Of course," Jon says earnestly. "Do you need any help-?"

"No, Jon, no, I'll be fine on my own." He gives him another gentle smile. "It's not something you can help with."

"You’ll be back before the storm sets in, though?"

"Of course. It’s days off."

"All right," Jon murmurs, trying not to feel bereft, somehow. He looks into the fire, in the vague hopes he might see what Tormund does. But he just sees flames.

"How're you doing, Jon?" Tormund says quietly.

"I'm fine," Jon murmurs back.

"You're sure? You've been quiet since you got here."

"To the fire?"

"No, not to the fire." His tone goes a little crisp, like he's admonishing Jon for being awkward.

"I haven't been quiet," Jon protests.

"You're always quiet, but you've been especially quiet."

"I suppose -" he murmurs. Tormund waits. "I keep waiting for someone to come after me."

"And kill you for deserting? Jon, your brother is the king. Your sister is the queen."

He shrugs uncomfortably. "That doesn't make me exempt from the rules."

Tormund chuckles lightly. "We're all exempt from the rules, Jon." He pats Jon's cheek again. "That's what it means to be free."

Biting his lip at the thought, Jon looks into the licking, flashing flames for a moment. "I just feel selfish," he murmurs.

He can feel Tormund move even closer, leaning down so their shoulders rub and their voices can hide between them. "Jon... you have given the people of Westeros everything."

"And you gave it to me and mine too. You lost things to make sure we were saved, when no one else cared."

"I was saving mine too. We all lost someone, Jon, but none of us had to make the choice to lose someone." His voice dips low, grumbling something in his own tongue. "I choose to keep you here, if that makes a difference."

"It does," Jon says in truth. He's been chosen before, but it was always for what he could do. Not for himself. Not just for who he is. He takes a deep breath and touches the little lump in his breast pocket.

"I'm tired," Tormund says then, clapping his shoulder, "and I've got an early start. I'll see you soon, crow."

"Goodnight, Tormund," Jon answers, feeling a flash of disappointment as Tormund rises, warmth lingering from his touch through Jon’s clothes.

He watches Tormund pick his way through the throngs, bidding good night to people here and there, stopping longer by the chair of an elderly woman with cataract-clouded eyes and silver hair. They exchange a few words, glancing Jon’s way, sparking his curiosity for a moment. But Tormund just smiles, and then makes his way out of the hall. Jon watches until he can't see him at all. Then, he sighs, and gets out the little totem again, examining it in the light of the fire.

It's so beautiful. He wonders how long Tormund worked on it - and when. The man barely seems to sleep. With an impending sense of urgency, Jon rises from his seat and goes out into the dark camp: he needs to find a piece of wood. He knows exactly how to shape it.

*

He spends the next afternoon working on his new totem when he's no longer needed for repairs, hunched in the bright day outside his hut, his hands pink and sore from being out in the cold without gloves.

The light dims for a moment, and Jon keeps working before realising the reason is a shadow – the elder from last night, who had spoken to Tormund as he left. She’s wizened to frailty, still easily taller than Jon, her hair looking white in the cool daylight. She’s watching him work, eyes garlanded in wrinkles but still bright.

"I'm not gifted," Jon tells her bashfully.

"What is it you're making?" she asks.

"It's for Tormund. He made me a wolf, and he said it's for luck but that he doesn't have one."

"He said it was for luck?" she asks.

"Well, he said it was a totem. I'm not familiar with Free Folk customs yet," Jon colours slightly.

"You will be soon enough." She looks like she might be laughing at him, but not unkindly.

"But maybe not with carving," he says.

"Perhaps the totem will help." Then she clucks her tongue at him. "Cover those hands up for a while."

Jon looks down, and then nods. "Yes ma'am." He turns it around so she can see. "Does it look like a bear, at least?"

"I believe it does," she says warmly. "I have some stain that will make it red, if you like."

Jon turns it over in his fingers a few times, then nods. "I'd like that."

"Good. I’ll make some ready for you. It might take a minute. Now go warm up, Crow."

"Thank you." He gives her a smile and heads back inside his hut when she’s gone, getting half way to the bed and then having to double back for Ghost scratching at the door.

"There you are. Haven’t seen you since this morning. Come up here." He beckons the furry, snow-smelling creature up onto the mattress with him and sinks his hands into his fur. He's so warm, and he tolerates Jon pushing his face into his fur with only a little grumbling.

This is good, he thinks, he could stay like this for a while. It's hard to think when you're so warm.

A wriggle, and they settle down more comfortably. It occurs to Jon that he’s exhausted, and without Tormund here, it seems pointless to fight it. He drifts to sleep for a while, overcome by the warmth and content.

When he wakes, his hands feel looser. Healers always know, he thinks with a smile. He uses the last of the light to finish his whittling. Then he goes to see the healer for stain. It might be dry by the time Tormund returns from his errands.

She seems pleased to see him, which is somewhat of a novelty. He's ashamed, but still he asks - "Remind me of your name, mother?"

"I am Astrael."

"Astrael," he repeats carefully. "I came for that stain."

"I’ll fetch it for you." She rises from her seat, shuffling into her open cabin, a little larger than most of the others, to fumble through the shelves of jars on the back wall. Jon likes the way it smells in here, like the maester's quarters at Winterfell and Castle Black. Places of healing are always somewhat the same.

"Here," she brings it back to the door slowly. "Use it sparingly, it's strong. Rub it in with a cloth."

He nods in understanding. "Yes, mother."

"Good lad." She cups his cheek gently. "He will be very happy you have done this. Especially today, of all days."

Before he can think about the meaning behind those words, Jon is distracted, smiling unbidden at the reminder of Tormund. "I hope so."

"Take my word for it."

Jon nods at her and ducks back out of her hut, bottle clutched in his gloved hand. He's strangely excited to finish his gift.

Back in his hut, the stain goes on deep and rich with the strokes of a soft piece of cloth over the little bear. It dries quickly near the little fire in Jon's hut, glossy, tinted nearly copper on the pale wood. It's close to the colour of Tormund's beard, which makes it perfect, he thinks. He smiles at the little, lumpy bear, and hopes its owner will be more fortuitous than the last bear sigil he saw. Though he knows Tormund is their equal in bravery, at least.

The bravest person he knows, Jon acknowledges. Braver than him. Brave enough to be himself. Jon had never tried. He'd always just tried to be good, and hoped it was enough.

The thought makes him pull out the little wolf totem again; a deeply inappropriate sigil, he thinks, for him. But Tormund made it for him. He must have had his reasons. Jon clutches the two little figures together in his hand.

Maybe he'll be back by now. It would be good to see him. He chases the dark thoughts away.

Feeling suitably feeble, Jon rises and heads to the gathering space, Ghost on his heels. He knows it amuses the Free Folk when Ghost trails him around Hardhome.

A few smiling faces greet them now, a few mistrustful as ever. He's used to that, too. For every person, like Astrael or Tormund, who affectionally calls him Crow, there are people who don't forgive. One day, he thinks. One day. Things are different now, but many things are still fresh.

Over the distant wind, he can hear the unmistakable sound of clattering wood; grunts of effort. Momentarily distracted, he wanders through the camp, picking through the glimpses of crackling fires and laughter in the cold twilight. The familiar, nostalgic sounds of sparring stands out, though, and Jon follows it around the edge of the babes’ keep: a hut where the youngsters without families can go, if they need to.

When Jon rounds the corner, he sees two of kids he regularly teaches: Tarryn, a blond boy with dark eyes who’s small and full of laughter, and his friend, Yoanna. She’s a head shorter than all the boys but twice as fierce, her skin and curls gleaming dark in the firelight as they fight.

Jon folds his arms, leaning to watch unnoticed for a moment as the two trade parries and attacks just as he’s taught them. They’re well-matched, ceaseless, only occasionally distracted by giggles and taunts. When Yoanna knocks Tarryn onto his backside in the snow, they both startle at Jon’s heartfelt applause.

"You’re coming on," he observes, "Yoanna, that footwork was impeccable, but watch your guard – always better to block than launch a weak advance. Tarryn, you’re getting better and better, my friend."

"Thanks, Jon," Tarryn laughs, "but I’m still not as good as her."

"Don’t think I am, either," Jon admits.

"You can try, if you want." Yoanna puts in, "I need to defend my title."

"I yield," Jon holds his hands up. "I’m no match tonight. Soon though."

They both agree it’s a deal, and Jon feels pleasure alight in his core at the thought of still being able to contribute something in this place. So often now he feels unessential, more a burden than anything. It’s a small but important salve to his own conscience.

“You looking for Tormund?” Yoanna asks knowingly. Jon’s cheeks heat slightly at her tone of voice.

“He went on an errand. Said he’d be back by nightfall. Have either of you seen him?”

“Yeah, he’s back. He’s in the hall.” Tarryn chimes in. “I saw him leave and all, wasn’t even light yet. He went on his own while there were still lights in the sky.”

That gives Jon pause, a thread of worry unspooling in him. Perhaps he was looking for something important, for the gates, before the storm comes in.

“Thanks, Tarryn. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Probably not tonight, Jon, but soon.”

Jon doesn’t know what that means, but he just nods, turning to make a beeline for the communal hall. The need to see Tormund grips him like a giant’s palm and squeezes.

When Jon finds him in the hall, it’s bustling with people, raucous as ever but warmer, somehow, and cleaner. A few sprigs of decorative dried branches and flowers hang, catching Jon’s attention for a moment. There’s music, too.

"Jon!" He sees Tormund waving at him through the bench cluster of people, and Jon goes to him gratefully, curious when Tormund nudges him. "You're just in time."

"In time for what?" he frowns gently, distracted by the way Tormund is gently herding him to his feet. He wanted to ask about Tormund’s trip, but it doesn’t seem the time, somehow.

"It's a festival. Don't worry, you don't have to stay long, but it will look disrespectful if you leave now."

"I'll stay. If you want me to. I was - the music is nice," Jon says, feeling a flush rise up his neck for some reason.

"Good." Tormund smiles. "It's for dancing, Jon."

Jon is sure his face shows his dismay.

"Come on," Tormund coaxes, and he hands him a drink. "Get some of that down you, it’ll help."

Can't hurt. Jon does as he's directed, touching his pocket absently. It’s worth it to hear Tormund laugh when Jon inevitably coughs at the strength of the stuff.

"Do I even want to know?"

"I seriously doubt it."

"Then don't tell me, no matter how much I ask."

"Deal. Have some more."

Jon groans but obeys. He hands the skin back, feeling like he must be breathing fire by now.

"Feel like dancing yet?" Tormund asks.

"If - if it's rude not to?" He swallows. "Wait, I - don't distract me, I have something for you."

Tormund blinks and smiles. "Do ye."

"Here." Jon rummages out the little carved bear, placing it gently in Tormund's palm. He watches as Tormund studies it intently, brows drawn. "You said you didn't have one," Jon murmurs. "You should."

"You made this."

"Well, I thought it would be obvious." Jon smiles crookedly.

Tormund smiles, then, bright and more like the Tormund Jon knows. "Didn't know you had it in you, little crow."

"I can whittle a bear," Jon grumbles, but he's smiling.

"You sure can." Tormund reaches out and squeezes his shoulder.

"It's - you don't have to carry it but - I thought you should have one."

"Of course I'll carry it."

Jon's turn to smile, his face burning. "Good. That's good."

"Thank you, Jon." Tormund seems intensely surprised. Jon's not sure why. Tormund seems to have plenty of people who'd want to wish him luck, or safety, or whatever a totem means.

"You're welcome," he says even so, and takes another drink when a few of Tormund's peers call him to join the festivities.

"Promise you'll dance," he rumbles to Jon.

"Alone-?"

"With me. With all of us."

For some reason, Jon still feels shy. "This is your tradition, Tor, I don't think I should be imposing-"

"We want you. I want you to."

"What if the others don't?"

"They don't have that power."

Jon forgets the sway Tormund has over his flock. He's a force of nature. It feels significant, that he wants Jon here.

"I'm bad at dancing," Jon warns.

"I don't care."

"Well, seems I have no choice." He tries a laugh and it feels real. This time, he lets Tormund pull him to his feet and they move toward the throng. Jon touches his breast pocket automatically. He feels a little fearful. Foolish, he realises, when he's fought death himself - but here he is. He doesn't know how to handle himself in this situation. Having fun has never been something his family has excelled in. But Tormund is compelling, turning this way and that, drinking and already grinning ear-to-ear.

"Jon, move," he laughs, when much jostling of the bodies around them fails to sway Jon at first.

Steadily, Jon lets himself be coaxed into the swaying, clapping circle. At first, he wants to explode with embarrassment, but everyone around him is just as compromised, he knows. And Tormund still has the flagon of liquor. It helps, just a little, until eventually he really starts to feel it, but at that point it just makes him laugh.

Time becomes a blur of breathless motion and liquor. They're making a fast, rhythmic circuit around the hut, a human chain that splits and joins with linking arms and whirling turns. Jon is frankly dizzy, thrown by the speed of it, and he takes a wrong turn and bumps straight into Tormund, gasping out a surprised laugh when he wraps an arm around him.

"Whoops, little one. You're meant to go this way."

"I'm not good at dancing," Jon affirms.

"You're doing fine. Just stick with me."

"I suppose you don't mean this literally?"

"But I do," Tormund says, linking their arms. His eyes are very bright now. Jon can't stop looking at them.

"Where did you go?" he asks then, before he can stop himself.

"What, earlier today?"

"Yes. You were gone before dawn, I heard Tarryn say."

"Had an errand up the Antler River, that's all."

"What sort of errand?"

"Looking for materials."

He's cagey enough that Jon feels embarrassed for pressing, so he stops, the wind leaving his sails a little.

"I'll show ye later," Tormund soothes.

"It's okay," Jon says quickly, "I'm sorry."

But Tormund steers him out of the dancing. "Or now," he smiles lopsided.

"No, we don't have to-" but he would love to get away from the crowd, he realises. His protests subside and he leans against Tormund's shoulder.

"Come on," Tormund ushers him.

The shock of cold when they exit the main building makes him gasp automatically. He stays close to Tor, who is warm as always, and gives Jon an encouraging smile as he leads him to his hut. Jon steals the liquor skin from him again as they walk. He feels better than he has in months, suddenly.

"Tor, I hate it when people keep secrets," he teases.

"That's because you're shite at it," Tormund tells him mildly, "too honest for your own good."

Tormund isn't wrong. But - "Honesty is honourable."

"That's why they call it honesty, I suppose. Fat lot of good that it does." Tormund tugs him into his hut when they sway to a halt in front of it.

Jon looks around, feeling Ghost brush in behind him, as always his stark white shadow. He's been in here many times, of course. It feels different today, though, maybe because it's spinning slowly. "What even is this?" Jon looks at the pouch of booze and laughs.

"You made me promise not to tell you."

"And I meant it." Jon shakes his head dizzily and looks for a chair; seeing none, he lowers himself onto the edge of the bed.

"You're absolutely legless, aren't ye?" Tormund chuckles.

"This is your fault," Jon tells him.

"Very probably."

"The dancing was too."

"I submit it was."

"What, you're not even blaming your mysterious festival?"

"You have to dance at the festival of Amarin. It's bad luck not to observe."

"C'n you explain it to me?"

Tormund visibly hesitates, and Jon feels for a moment like he shouldn't have asked: as good as the Free Folk are to him, these are their customs, and their cultural events, and he is an outsider. He’s too drunk to be too concerned about it. Swaying where he’s sat, he rolls over to press his cheek against a soft fur throw. "Don't worry, you don't have to tell me."

"It's the annual festival that marks the beginning of the season of life, and creation," Tormund says quietly.

"Oh," Jon gulps a little. He peers over at Tormund. "So people are dancing now, but -"

"It's probably better we left when we did," Tormund chuckles, "your little lordling eyes might pop out your head if we go back."

God, Jon suddenly feels hot. He sits up, fidgeting a bit. "Ah."

"I'm not suggesting we do," Tormund laughs, coming over to drop heavily onto the bed next to him.

Jon laughs too, blearily. He curls into him a little anyway, because he's warm, and settles when Tormund puts an arm around him, chuckling too. "Have more to drink, little one."

"You first." Tormund doesn't hesitate to take a swig. Jon watches and laughs. "You really won't tell me what it is?"

"You really don't want to know."

"Will you tell me what you wanted to show me, then-?"

"Oh, that," Tormund says. He sounds almost bashful. He seems to hesitate, before getting up; going to the ramshackle shelves on the far wall. He lifts down a little wooden box. When he brings it over, he looks mildly apprehensive. "This is it," he murmurs.

Jon waits, dumbfounded. "This is what you went so far for? That little box?"

Tormund looks at the box, sputtering a bit. "What-? No!" Then he laughs and hands it over. "Open it, Jon."

For some reason, Jon almost feels like he shouldn't. He hesitates, and then slides open the lid. "Oh," he breathes. There's only one thing inside, a crystal bedded in soft wool batting, shaped like a little spear the size of Jon’s thumb. It's smoky in colour, clear and flecked with gold like stars. "It's beautiful. Where did you find it-?"

"There's a cave by the river with a vein of it," Tormund murmurs. "For those brave enough to venture in."

"Incredible. Who's it for?"

"You," Tormund says.

"Me?" Jon feels like he's missed a step in the dark for a moment; slipped on black ice. But Tormund is steady, even though he's unreadable.

"You," he confirms, quietly.

"Why?" Jon can't quite give it up, confusion or no.

"I saw it and - wanted you to have it."

"You went there specially," Jon points out, muzzily but accurately.

"I needed - a few things." That sounds like gentle obfuscation. Sometimes Tor is so frustrating. Jon looks down at the crystal again, heart hammering like a war drum.

"It's beautiful," he breathes.

"I thought I might - put a hole through it, so you can keep it on- something."

"Like a pendant? I'm meant to wear it? Is this a tradition thing too?"

"You can put it anywhere. And - yes, it's... yes."

"Do you have one of these?" Jon asks, stretching lazily. He likes that Tormund treats him like one of them.

"Uh - no. I'm not really one for that sort of thing." He makes a funny little gesture with his hand.

"What sort of thing? Shiny things?" Jon pokes him in the rib.

"I tend to find people more precious than gems."

"What, and I don't?"

He sees Tormund go faintly exasperated by the faint reddening of his already flush cheeks. "Is that what I said?"

"Dunno," Jon leans against him and peers down. "Is it?"

"No," Tormund sighs. "If you're so offended by it then give it here."

"No," Jon says quickly, already miserly about the beautiful little thing. He cups it to his chest, a blush rising in his face. "I've never been given a thing just because it's beautiful before."

Tormund throws an arm over his eyes.

"What-?" Jon's face heats again.

"You should be," Tormund says, muffled.

"I should be what?"

"Given beautiful things."

Jon feels another thread of strange pleasure go up his spine, curiously shy. "Thank you," he whispers.

"No need." Tormund smiles.

"There's always a need."

"No," Tormund pats his shoulder gently. "You've been through enough. You deserve a bit of - shiny rock every now and then."

Jon sighs and curls closer to his warmth. "No more than you," he murmurs, the buzz of the liquor starting to slide into altogether more syrupy territory. He feels Ghost slink closer too.

"Are you falling asleep, boy?"

Ghost slithers his way up onto the bed. Jon sighs, relaxing even further. "No," he murmurs, eyes fluttering closed.

"Don't lie, boy," Tormund murmurs. He sounds fond though, his arm still tight around Jon.

Jon is definitely falling asleep. He doesn't even really try to stop it, just sinks into the warmth and quiet.

When he wakes up, he's covered by a mound of furs and also by Ghost. He's so warm, he can't help but let his eyes drift shut once more for a few moments. It eventually sinks in where he is: in Tormund's bed, with his head pillowed against his arm. Awkward, but also not.

Jon peers up at his sleeping face with his own distinctly awake now, and burning pink. He hasn't disturbed him yet. He's not sure whether to extricate himself or not. He's not sure he wants to; his head hurts. The mysterious liquor, most likely.

He sighs, and stays where he is, nearly out of curiosity. Ghost sighs into his ear.

"Shh," Jon tells him, getting a tongue in the eye for his trouble. He tries not to wriggle, and eventually, they both settle down, somehow without waking Tormund. Jon lets himself enjoy the warmth, Tormund's chest rising steady and deep against his back. Jon has never felt physically safe like this, not even as a child. He's too selfish to give it up. Tormund won't make him, he doesn't think. Tormund has never made him do anything he didn’t want to.

Eventually, Jon drifts again. He is happy to rest. It feels like good rest. When he's roused again, it's by movement by the bed. This time, Tormund has managed to get up without waking him. Jon isn't sure, but he thinks Tormund looks uncharacteristically troubled, and it melts away some of Jon's content.

"Tor," he whispers, sitting up in the furs.

"There you are, Princess." It switches to a smile, quick as anything.

Jon's blush refreshes. "Miss me?"

“Aye, glad to see you back in the land of the living. You slept hard."

"Sorry," Jon mumbles.

"What're you saying sorry for?"

"I should've left by now. You have other things to -"

"No," Tormund cuts him off gently. "It's a rest day, after yesterday. Trust me, crow, I'm quite at my leisure."

"Then why're you up?" he says.

"I'm going to go and get us some food." He gives Jon a firm look. "You stay here."

Jon has a feeling Tormund doesn't want anyone to know he's in here. Fine. He'll stay. Even though the thought annoys him for reasons he can't quite name. Though not with Tormund.

"Jon," he interrupts his thoughts now gently, "stop looking so worried."

Jon takes a moment, then nods, burying his face back into Ghost's ruff. "The others don't like outsiders seeing this stuff?"

"You're not an outsider, Jon." It's said with the weary patience of the oft-repeated.

"So what is it?"

"Jon. I'll be back in a few minutes."

With a sigh, Jon subsides, watching him go. Ghost lets himself be petted for another minute or two before he slips out too.

That just leaves Jon, waiting for Tormund's return. With a sigh, he rummages the little wooden box out from between the bedding and opens it up. He touches the stone within with two fingertips. Why would Tormund bring him something like this? Back home gemstones are reserved almost solely for royalty, or - gifts of intent. Surely things can't be so different North of the Wall.

He's almost certain Tormund doesn't think him royalty - but it's too fantastical, the alternative. Jon knows the Free Folk are more open in everything, including affection. Perhaps this is merely that: friendship. Gratitude, even. He's not sure why the idea doesn't fill him with satisfaction. It's just - not what he wants. That thought shocks him. Not the gratitude, the friendship. Of course that's what he wants.

He's confused, that's what he is. Suffering from the ill-effects of last night. Maybe he should go back to his own hut. But moving seems insurmountable, and Tormund told him to stay.

He curls up again, quietly confused. When Tormund returns with two bowls, he looks Jon over critically. "What's wrong?"

"Hungover."

"Ah, you're happy when you're drunk and sad when you suffer the consequences. Sounds just like you."

"Sounds like you," Jon shoots back.

"Me, sad?" Tormund snorts.

"So, maybe not that part. Bossy, though."

"I'm always bossy." He comes and sits down with Jon. "Here. Eat your porridge and stop brooding."

Bossy. Very bossy. Jon eats, fighting a smile. It does make him feel almost immediately better. "This is better than usual," he muses.

"Is it?" Tormund reclines almost lazily with his.

"Yeah. Sweeter." Jon shrugs.

"I bartered for some beet sugar," Tormund murmurs. "It's just a pinch."

"For your hangover?" Jon grins.

"And yours, crow."

"Well." Jon feels abruptly shy again. "It's good, thank you."

"My pleasure, I told you. Today is a day for rest." He bumps their elbows so Jon flicks porridge down his chest.

"Oi!" He picks the glob off his undershirt and daubs it on Tormund's shoulder.

Tormund shrugs and scoops it up. Jon watches in a mixture of horror and anticipation. Yes - he's going to eat it.

"Tormund," Jon complains, with a laugh.

He is ignored, of course. "Ghost isn't here," Tormund says with a shrug.

Wrinkling his nose, Jon just goes back to his own bowl. The food soon wakes him up a bit. "What shall we do today, then?" He offers it pleasantly, hoping to make up for his dark moment earlier.

"Whatever you like, crow. You feeling cooped up here?"

"A bit," he admits. "Not - here, just. In general."

"We could go on a trek. I'm sure we can make ourselves useful somehow. It’ll have to be brief, people keep promising me this storm’s coming."

"Yes," Jon breathes, enthusiastic. "Maybe you could show me some of the places you like best."

"Indeed I could," Tormund muses after a moment. He gives Jon one of his more troubling smiles.

Jon is made of sterner stuff than all that, however. He pulls a little fact at Tormund. "Am I going to regret this?"

"I'm sure that's not up to me to say."

"Doubt it." He's still unworried.

They eat the rest of their breakfast in relative quiet before getting up and ready to head out.

Jon hopes Ghost returns before they set out. Even so, he knows he'll find them.

"Where will we go?" He asks as he slips his boots on.

"Not sure yet." Tormund sighs. "I'll talk to some of the scouts. Can you pack rations?"

"Of course." They shouldn't need them, but it's better to pack for disaster. They're both capable rangers. And like Tormund said, it won’t be a long trip. A diversion more than anything.

They split up to get dressed proper. Where he’s gathering his travelling furs in his hut, Jon takes Longclaw off the wall and surveys the fine sword for a moment; the worn pommel and guard. Without knowing why it feels so necessary, he sheathes her, and secures her to his waist.

When they're packed and suitably dressed, they head out into the fresh snow. Tormund is whistling, pulling a small sled behind him packed with firewood and a few other essentials. The tune is something low and soft. Jon smiles to hear it, pleased when Ghost emerges from between some of the further huts to accompany them as the trudge along the bank of the bay.

"So, where are we going?" he asks after a while, not really insistent on an answer.

"Not sure, really. Somewhere with a view."

"If the view is snow, that's a guarantee."

"There'll certainly be snow, but I might be able to manage something else now that the wights are gone."

"Oh?"

Tormund smiles and taps his nose. "Trust me?"

"I always do."

"Come on then." He ratchets up the pace. They’re picking up the cliffs around the valley that overlook the sea, the forest on the other side barely visible for the blustering wind picking up snow.

Jon follows along gamely beside him, listening to the tandem crunch of their feet.

"I've never seen anywhere like it up here," he admits quietly. "Like another world."

"It is," Tormund agrees. "A free world."

Jon nods, a smile curling at the corner of his mouth. All they do here, they do of their own free will. It's finally starting to sink in for him. He's used to working hard, doing what's needed. Not that he's been complacent here, but the Free Folk don't drive for 'greatness' - it means something else here. It's merely agreement of the people. They lift one another up. Tormund is acclaimed as a leader, rightly, but he still never acts like one. Not unless he's asked to.

Jon watches him now, admiring. In another lifetime, the great houses of the North would have celebrated him. Given him some epithet - Tormund the Just, or Great, or Worthy. Instead, he has only the one he's given himself. Jon isn't even sure it fits.

Giantsbane, honestly. He shakes his head at the thought. He is filled with immense fondness. Tormund is a force of nature and Jon doesn't know what he would do without him.

He nudges him companionably. Tormund nudges back, without words. "Can I ask you something?" he says eventually, uncharacteristically cautious.

"Of course," Jon says immediately.

"It's about Ygritte," Tormund murmurs.

"Oh," Jon murmurs. "Yes, of course." He listens to the puffing breaths between the silence. Tormund will speak when he's ready.

"I think you loved her," he says eventually, "or I think you think you loved her."

"There's a difference between those two things, the way you're saying it."

"It doesn't mean you didn't," Tormund shrugs, "just that maybe love means something different to you now."

Jon thinks about it. "I don't think I really knew what love was," he shrugs, "not had many good examples. But I felt like I loved her." He pauses. "I grieved her."

"I know you did. As did I," he adds.

Jon watches him for a moment. "Did you love her?" he whispers.

"I might have, once," Tormund replies. "I was only eight years older than her growing up, and I knew her all her life. Knew how her eyes got darker when she was angry, how she was all caw and no catch. I think we all fall in and out of love with one another up here at some stage - hard not to."

Jon doesn't like the idea of falling out of love, he thinks with a twist in his chest. "I don't think I'll ever really stop loving her," he says, thinking unbidden of Dany, too. "Either of them. But I think maybe... it's okay to love other people. It doesn't detract from the way you loved those who came before."

Tormund is quiet for a moment as he considers it. "I always seem to start loving people I never imagined myself loving," he says eventually. He doesn’t sound miffed for the fact.

Jon feels like he always starts loving the people he's expected to. He says as much, and Tormund digests that for a while.

"You have a big heart, crow," he finally says.

"Small brain though," Jon muses.

That makes Tormund laugh. "It's not that small."

"It matches the rest of me?"

"You are pretty piddly," Tormund agrees then, laughing.

Jon frowns a little. Though he asked for it. "Only compared to you."

"Please, you were a hair taller than that dragon queen of yours and she was tiny."

Jon tries not to flinch at the reminder. "And look how powerful she was," he murmurs.

"Jon," Tormund replies. "You were too."

"I'm a guard dog, I always have been," Jon shrugs. "I never wanted power."

Tormund reaches out to touch him. "But you have it."

"I gave it up."

"You used it."

"When I needed to."

"That's what good rulers do." Tormund actually stops, and turns to take Jon's shoulders. Jon wobbles a bit under the force of it, but he's not afraid. He meets Tormund's fierce gaze openly. "You are good, Jon Snow."

"So are you."

Tormund laughs, helplessly. "Don't I fuckin' know it."

"I'm glad you do."

Tormund hasn't let go of him yet. Jon wishes he wouldn't. His strength is soothing, steadying Jon up here on the bluff. He squeezes Jon's shoulders like he knows.

Jon takes a deep breath. "Where are we really going?"

"We're going to look at the Gailing. Waves frozen in time from centuries ago."

"Oh," Jon says softly. "Is it nearby?"

"It's a few hours."

Jon nods. "All right," he says softly, straightening out of Tormund's grasp. They start walking again, Ghost just visible ahead. Something in him feels a bit easier. Other things feel more twisted.

Jon would dearly love to stop feeling a stranger in his own head one of these days, observing himself from the outside... like just now, when he'd found himself smiling at Tormund brighter than anyone else. But... maybe it doesn't matter. As long as the one person who makes him happy wants to continue doing it. He has room in his heart for more, he knows. The longer he stays at Hardhome, the more open it feels.

The walk is long, but the weather is relatively kind even with the snow thick under their boots. Jon has gotten used to it. He's still bewitched by the place; the ice sparkling like stars, the craggy slate mountains peeking through the snow. It reminds him of the people - clean and harsh and open. Not cold, though. No, they're the hidden flame in the snow.

"Can never believe the views up here," he says, almost to himself, as they break the crest of a rock formation.

"Me neither."

The sun is starting to break proper over the mountains, drenching them in amber light. With the forest down below, and the glimmering, dark sea below, Jon feels suddenly so aware of how very small they are. He gazes out for a long moment, savouring the feeling, taking comfort in it. The world South of the Wall will keep turning without him, and not even blink an eye. That’s fine by him.

When Jon finally tears his eyes from the horizon, Tormund seems to be looking at him. He just gives him a smile, and keeps walking. With the sun glancing off the brilliant white snow, the world is honey coloured now. It makes Tormund's hair glow. He's moving now though, and Jon scrabbles to catch up.

Tormund grins at him. "It's just over that ridge line," he says.

The climb up the last crest is particularly steep, and Jon finds himself skidding a few times on loose rock and ice. Only practice, and his ice axe, keeps him on his feet. That, and Tormund catching his hand as they get to the top, pulling him the last foot. He feels weightless at that, and then breathless at the view.

"Tor," he breathes.

Another valley down the powdered snow bank, opening up into a half dozen curved ice formations where the water has thrashed up from the sea below in the wildest of storms. They’re rolling waves, suspended in ice, glittering clear teal and shot through with cracks.

They make their way down the bank to walk amongst the towering waves, Jon’s mouth helplessly open as he walks under the drooping form of one. It really is an ocean trapped in time. Yet he imagines he can still smell it, somehow. With the sun behind the valley, the waves shine from within.

"There's so much of it," he marvels.

"It used to be an ocean."

"I wish I could have seen it."

"You haven't seen enough?"

"Before the world froze, I mean."

"You'll see it thaw again."

"I guess we all will." They smile at one another. "I hope it doesn't take too long," Jon admits.

"Me too, crow."

He sees Tormund close his eyes briefly. "Are you all right?"

"I'm all right," Tormund replies.

"What're you thinking?"

"About being warm."

"The only thing I miss about the South," Jon muses.

"The only thing?" Tormund repeats softly.

"Yes," Jon says, shrugging. "Maybe my siblings."

"Just maybe?"

"I like it here." Jon whispers.

"Feel like you need a space that's your own?"

"I just... like feeling like I don't have to belong anywhere. Belonging has always evaded me and now I don't need it."

Something flashes over Tormund's face at that. He touches Jon's shoulder gently. "You belong to me now."

Nothing in Jon has any wish to argue. "Lucky you," he mutters instead, on the heels of a laugh.

"Yes," Tormund insists.

Jon smiles out at the petrified ocean. "Well, as long as you're happy about it."

"I am."

They stand for a while until the wind whips too hard.

"Careful-" Tormund steadies Jon's shoulders when his balance is thrown. "We should rest a while. There's some shelter in the rocks that way."

"All right," Jon murmurs. They trudge toward the craggy outcrop, in the clear blue shadow of the waves. Once away from the wind, Tormund builds a fire in a blackened stone ring, using supplies from the sled. Ghost comes to join them, flopping down beside Jon and panting with his long pink tongue lolling.

"You come here a lot," Jon observes.

"Me, and many others over the years."

"But you, recently."

"Once in a while."

"Have you always?"

Tormund nods. "My father used to bring me here when I was a boy." Jon can see it, if he tries. "Ygritte too, once or twice," Tormund continues mildly, "and I’ve brought a few others."

"What others?" Jon says, suddenly curious.

"People who were important," Tormund shrugs. "The first woman I loved. The first man I loved. Friends. Family."

It makes Jon's head spin. His cheeks feel hot, and a curl of something ugly rears inside him. He tries hard to tamp it down, looks into the fire and quashes it fiercely. He is sure Tormund can see it. But he doesn't speak, perhaps charitably giving Jon a moment.

"Thank you for bringing me here," he says finally.

"It's all right."

It's more than that, but Jon is feeling a familiar confusion. It's nearly enough to frustrate him for a minute. But he tries to project a sense of calm, of appreciation. Perhaps it doesn't work, because suddenly he's hit by - a snowball. He gasps in shock.

"Oi-!" It takes him a second to shift into laughter, and Tormund is grinning too, now.

"Cheer up, little crow."

"Let's see you laugh with an ear full of snow!" Jon starts to gather a handful, patting it between his gloved hands. It's probably a mistake. But Tormund's eyes glitter with the challenge there. And Jon knows he has good aim.

He launches his snowball even as Tormund darts away and still catches him in the back. Ducking behind a rock, he starts making more. He peeks over the top and is soundly hit in the face with a soft-packed projectile.

Jon, with five siblings, doesn't believe in soft snowballs. He hears Tormund yelp when the next one makes contact.

"Is that sporting?" he calls back.

"No honour in war!" Jon laughs.

"You can't even make that sound believable," Tormund replies.

"Are you calling me a bad actor?"

"Play to your strengths, crow."

"Not something I know much about."

He sneaks another look around the rock. His turn to throw. He manages two before Tormund drops to the ground.

He could get closer if he made a quick dart. Snowballs in both hands, he rushes forward. His battle cry gives him away, but he lands one hit and dives behind the next rock with a breath of laughter. He'd have more cover in the field of waves. But he doesn't know if it's even safe. Tormund might not be expecting a direct assault.

With that, he surges to his feet, armed, and runs. Perhaps they've been spending too much time together, because Tormund seems to choose that moment to do the same. They crash into one another and fall to the snow together.

For a moment, they both seem dazed, but then Tormund rises up with a roar and a handful of snow, doing his level best to shove it down Jon's outers. Jon takes evasive action. His own handful goes directly in Tormund's face, both of them sputtering laughter. Finally Tormund collapses on top of him, flattening him into the snow.

"Ugh," Jon snorts, "you're crushing me."

"Should have thought that over before you rushed me."

"Sorry that I didn't anticipate you trying to suffocate me to win," Jon snickers.

"Whatever works," Tormund shrugs.

"No honour in war," Jon muses.

"See? One of us is good at it."

"Teach me your ways."

"I'm trying," Tormund laughs.

Jon snorts, punching his shoulder gently. "Sure you are." He's out of breath, the cold against his back, Tormund warm against his front. "I'm hungry," he says when he's not sure what to do next.

"Yeah, me too." Tormund pushes himself up. He offers Jon a snow-crusted gloved hand. Slowly, they get to their feet.

Jon leads them back to the fire. They rummage out some food, quieted now that they've officially exhausted themselves. But as always, they work well together. The sun is still relatively high, but Jon wagers it will be lowering soon enough.

"We should head back soon."

Tormund nods. "Aye." He looks a touch reluctant. Jon is too, if only because they'll have to go their separate ways.

"Sorry Ghost and I crashed in your hut last night," he offers, tentative.

"I'm not."

"No?"

"It's a damn sight warmer."

"It was," Jon agrees, still tentative.

Tormund smiles at him. "Consider that an open invitation, crow."

Jon can't decide what it is about that which pleases him so much. He just knows that it does.

"Likewise." He looks out over the waves again so he doesn't have to parse Tormund's expression. Then he works to finish his meal.

When they're ready to go, they kick snow over the fire and gather their packs. Tormund is quiet, but not worryingly. Not any more than Jon, in any case. They have never really needed to talk, as much as Tormund enjoys it.

Jon thinks about Tormund bringing Ygritte here as they walk, and wonders if she ever felt the same about him. If she ever would have admitted it. And if they ever acted on it. He needs to stop wondering. What's worse is that he's not jealous, he just wants to know. It's distracting enough that he stumbles a couple of times as they walk.

Tormund is always there, if Ghost isn't. Their footsteps crunch in the snow, snow starting to flurry down. Somewhere to his left, the sound of Ghost emitting a low, rumbling growl startles him.

Both of them automatically loose their weapons. Tormund's arm spreads in front of Jon automatically, surprising him into letting himself be nudged back for a moment. "What is it-?"

"Can you smell it now?" Tormund murmurs.

Jon inhales, and it's the high, sharp scent of a predator. He looks to Ghost. He's hunkered low by them, ears back, teeth bared. Jon follows his red gaze.

Disguised by the flurrying snow, he can't see it at first, but the shape of a polar bear isn't something he'll forget in a hurry. He feels the first flush of terror as he had the last time.

"Ghost," he commands, "go! Run!" But the wolf won't budge.

"Jon," Tormund presses on his chest, "let's back up."

He stays close to Tormund, but obeys. By retreating, they're minimizing themselves as a threat, but the distant bear doesn't look as though its qualms are in any way territorial: it's thin, and scenting the air.

"It's hungry," Jon whispers.

"So am fucking I," says Tormund.

There's a violent light in his eye. Jon has seen it before, and he raises his sword at the sound of it. They won't be running.

In the distance, the bear stands on its hind legs, scents again, and then drops down and starts to lumber toward them. The trot rapidly turns into a run. It can't decide who to attack first, Ghost or the two men. When it angles toward Ghost and Tormund, Jon attacks without thinking.

Longclaw gives him reach, though it still puts him uncomfortably close to the creature. He hears Tormund's shout, but the move does what it was meant to, and diverts the bear's attention. Tormund moves quickly to flank it. The bear rounds on Jon, incensed, and he backs up, blade held aloft. He'd prefer not to kill it, if he can drive it off - but it keeps coming, paws swiping, groaning and baring teeth. He swings at it again.

It swings at the same time, and Jon's blade strikes its forearm, leaving a gaping wound and diffusing the swipe of the great paw so that it merely spins him, rather than breaking his neck. Tormund roars from the side, and he sees the arc of the great axe. When Jon hits the ground, the bear lands on top of him, and he's frozen with fear, scrabbling for his lost sword until he realizes that it isn't moving.

Dead, then. His heart beat roars in his ears and in the back of his throat, like it's grown in his panic. He can feel pain in his head and neck, and smell the bear's stinking breath, and panic propels him to shove the great head away even though it wrenches every muscle in his arms.

"Jon!" Tormund cries out from very near. His great arms are around him then, bloodied as he pulls Jon bodily from beneath the bear. Longclaw tumbles to the snow as Tormund snatches him up, hands searching his body for injuries.

A gash on his throat, one on his jaw, from the claws. Tormund looks at the bear like he wants to kill it again.

"I'm all right," Jon insists. Even so, he watches in horror as Tormund goes to the bear's carcass and tugs his axe free from the skull. "Tormund-" he flinches as he watches him hack the head off the carcass.

Tormund stoops and coats his fingers with its blood, touching his own forehead; then he comes to touch Jon's as well.

"What's that?" Jon asks, startled. Even so, he stays still while Tormund smears the blood on his forehead.

"You shared in the kill," Tormund tells him. "Be anointed." He pulls him close, looking over him again, both their breaths finally starting to settle.

"You saved me, again," Jon sighs.

"You saved me first."

With blood on his forehead, his cheeks flushed high with colour, he looks wild as the stories Old Nan used to tell, back in Winterfell. But the way he looks at Jon isn't fierce. Jon bumps their cheeks as he hugs him, grateful and relieved. Their beards rasp, the smell of blood strong on them both.

Jon can't make himself let go, not yet, but Tormund squeezes him as if to remind him of where they are. "Jon, the smell might attract more. We have to go." Jon wrinkles his nose, and Tormund pats his cheek. "We'll dress it first, get out your knife."

Jon does, feeling a little uneasy. Behind him, he feels Ghost's muzzle bump under his free hand, and he scruffs gently under his ear. "Keep watch, boy," he whispers. He gives him a quick hug, and then moves to help Tormund.

They do a quick field dress of the carcass, and Tormund works on loosing the giant white pelt as Jon unsheaths a belt knife and carves it into quarters to wrap and stow. They load their supply sledge as quickly as they can and clean their hands in the snow. Jon sees Ghost approaching the bear's remains, and can't quite bring himself to hate the thought of him eating them.

 "Let's go," Tormund says. They each take one leather trace and pull the sledge together.

It's not an easy trek, but it seems to go faster than the walk here, and thankfully they don't encounter anything else in the white wilderness. Ghost eventually catches them up, his muzzle and chest stained red.

Jon shudders a bit. They're all anointed, now. The three of them, a unit.

By the time they're drawing close to home again, Jon feels bone tired. He's not sure if Tormund does. He never seems to show any signs of fatigue. Jon tries not to, and Tormund and Ghost both keep pace. Eventually, a gentle shove gets Jon giggling as he tries to right his balance in the snow.

"You're terrible."

"Nah," Tormund grins. "Just reminding you of who won out there, during our snow fight."

"You didn't win!"

"Who ended up on top?" He quirks an eyebrow.

Jon runs at him and tackles him to the ground before he can stop himself. He hears a smattering of applause. "Now who wins?" he laughs, trying not to acknowledge that people almost definitely saw that.

"You do," Tormund tells him. He seems surprised but pleased, holding onto Jon's arms gently for a moment before he pushes him up. "Come on. Let's get you fed."

Jon lets himself be hustled through the settlement. He's again inflicted with the suspicion he's being watched more closely than usual by the other Free Folk, and he opens his mouth to ask Tormund about it before deciding against it: he said it would take time. He can be patient.

Once they’re through the gate, a noisy greeting awaits them: a polar bear is a good kill, with plenty of meat. Jon is distracted by myriad congratulations, and a few commiserations on his scratches, but he hears one of the old mothers asks Tormund what he intends with the skin.

"I intend to use it for seduction purposes," Tormund grins, raising an eyebrow.

Around him, the laughter rises. Someone makes a lewd gesture, and the men with him shout, pointing at the first, "Going after his wife now?"

Tormund shakes his head. "She's a girl. This one's for husband hunting."

Another clap of laughter. Jon laughs too, because he's almost sure that's the signal he's receiving, but the older woman just gives Tormund a knowing smile. Tormund returns it, then hefts the straps of the sledge again.

"Jon, go with Astrael, let her tend your face."

He looks around for the Elder, sees her in the doorway of her hut. Obediently, he trudges to her, and she gives him a smile as he draws close.

"Some new scars," she comments, "to impress the youngins."

"Let's hope I don't get too much uglier when they heal," he grumbles.

"Ugly," she shakes her head, "don't make me laugh. Come sit."

He sits, staring at his hands while she mixes an herbal paste. He still has blood under his nails.

"You'll be needing a bath," she observes, "now's the time for it, during Amarin. Make sure you get one soon, mm?"

Jon frowns up at her slightly. Even so, it doesn't seem an objectionable suggestion. "I wouldn’t mind one.”

"The springs are temperate this time of year, Tarryn will show you one of the quieter caves if you ask, give you some more privacy."

“Why do I need to use the quieter caves?”

“Amarin can be a little daunting for outsiders, and Tormund says you blush easily, Jon Snow.”

Pink just at the thought, Jon nods mutely, trying not to move too much as she spreads paste on his scratches.

"Don't get this wet until tomorrow," she orders.

"You just told me to have a bath."

"Have a wash. Tomorrow, have a bath." She eyes him with a gimlet stare. "You'll be sore tomorrow anyway."

He probably will. He sighs at the thought: a ton of bear did land on him earlier. Not to mention Tormund. Not quite a ton of bear. Much more welcome. At that thought, he looks at Astrael.

"Can I ask you something?"

"Of course, crow."

"Tormund gave me - he gave me a gemstone, he said he found it... but. I feel like I'm missing the significance. I'm sorry to ask, but do you know what it means-?"

"May I see it?" she asks.

Jon immediately rummages in the pouch on his belt for the little wooden box and hands it over. Astrael opens it up, humming when she sees the stone.

"Interesting," she says softly.

"I think... it's beautiful," Jon says.

"It's very beautiful," she agrees. She brings it back to him, walking carefully, and sits down in front of him. "Tormund has never been one for tradition - but this is..."

"A traditional item?"

"It will have taken him great effort to procure it," Astrael says, something motherly and vaguely proud in her voice. "It's a very important gift, Jon."

"That's all the meaning it has?"

"Unfortunately, it's not up to me to explain it to you. You should ask Tormund."

Unsatisfying response, he thinks. It must show, because she touches his shoulder lightly.

"It is a very good thing, and a great honour, Jon Snow."

He frowns slightly. "I'll ask," he whispers.

She nods. "Good. Did he like your totem-?"

Jon nods. "I think so."

"I'm glad to hear it. Come to me if those wounds start to itch."

"Yes, mother," he replies politely.

He sees himself out with a bow of thanks, heading to the water to get himself a bucket, reminding himself to ask about the other baths tomorrow. He'll need to give Ghost a washing now, too, if that creature thinks he's sleeping in Jon's bed tonight.

Grumbling at the thought, he traipses to the baths to fetch a pail of hot water.

The baths are a network of underground caves containing pools of hot water fed by geysers deep in the mountains. The water cools through the channels of rock, meaning it’s temperate enough to bathe in, the steam suitable for drying off in the warmth before heading back into the cold.

It’s a slippery, frosty path down to the first chamber, and Jon goes steadily through the others gathered there, stopping to pay his daily niceties tax when a few of the huntsmen there address him, reposed amongst the steam. They all have a thing or two to say about the bear. Jon endures light hearted teasing about it mistaking him for a maiden. More like dinner, he thinks to himself.

Saying as much only gets a few more laughs. He laughs along with them, because it's easy to. Less easy to ignore a mutter that's gets another round of laughs, this time rather more directed at his expense, he thinks. He doesn't ask, not caring for confrontation.

 Around him, some of the others in here are doing dishes, or washing laundry.

“Best to fill that at one of the bathing pools,” says a familiar voice: Isolde, elbow deep in the water with her washing, down to her unders in the hot chamber. There’s an edge of mischief to her voice, and it raises a couple of chuckles, but Jon concedes the water here is murkier from soap and scum.

“Thanks,” he bows his head, taking the bucket through to the next chamber and then immediately freezing at the water’s edge when the steam parts on the deeper pools.

Bodies, entwined and writhing like a mass of snakes among the water, some couples, others in larger groups. Jon gawps at the unmistakable sounds of coupling and backs up at once, nearly slipping on the steam-damp stone as he goes, bucket sloshing.

A chorus of laughter goes up when he stumbles back through to the shallower pools, cheeks flushed.

“Thank you,” he shoots to Isolde, a little less grateful than before.

Laughter follows him back out of the cave. Cheeks burning, Jon trudges back through the camp, filled to the brim for a moment with the utter embarrassment of it all – and irritation at his own childishness.

A well-timed appearance from Ghost diffuses that slightly. Jon takes the opportunity to fuss him, and shoo him towards their own hut. He takes the water, and a slice of soap, with him.

Washing feels good, better after he changes his clothing as well. His hair is getting long out here, and he finds an unexpected crust of bear blood in the ends that takes a little time to untangle. Then he's scrubbing it dry as rigorously as he can before he gives Ghost a similar, albeit less successful treatment. He'll just have to stay splotchy. At least he doesn't smell of blood anymore.

Watching him throw himself onto the snow and start to rub his great white body dry, Jon snorts. He ties his own hair back, and secures his outers more snugly than usual to keep out the cold before he trudges toward the Keep. The pretty crystal feels heavy in his pocket. Jon makes a note to ask for some leather to bind it, so he can secure it properly around his neck. He'd like to be able to wear it.

Outside the keep, he's greeted by a chorus of cheers again: several of the others are further butchering the skinless bear carcass on the snow, staining the white plain of it red.

"Bear stew for dinner," Tarryn tells Jon cheerfully.

"Good," Jon replies.

"Jon, the bear - Tormund said you fought it with your sword!"

"I did," Jon confirms. "Poorly, albeit."

"You were so brave! Most men would run."

"Tormund was the hero," Jon argues quickly, "he saved my life. He has countless times. One of these days I'll be caught out in his absence."

"So stay with him then!" Tarryn says merrily. "I think he'd prefer it that way anyway."

"Perhaps," Jon allows. For some reason, his face is warm. "Little Brother, d'you know where he is?"

"With the tanner," Tarryn says. He points, and Jon goes quick. He can't keep away, it seems.

Tormund is overseeing the treating of the bear skin when Jon finds him, his own forehead still smeared with blood. Jon isn’t sure, but he thinks Tormund might be spinning a tale about her coming back for more – and of course, he’s saying this is the bear he fucked.

“She’d never been able to get anything like it since, you see, such a seeing to I gave her.”

Shaking his head at the confirmation, Jon announces himself with a slight cough, interrupting Tormund’s speech. He looks up at Jon, eyes tracing over the scratches on his face.

“Oh - Jon. I was just, uh...”

“I heard you. Don’t let me interrupt.”

“Sounds like someone’s jealous,” chimes in one of the tanners, to a few scattered laughs.

Jon raises his eyebrows. Tormund is actually going pink, and he silences his friends with a wave of his hand. As soon as Jon is close enough, he reaches out to tilt his head this way and that.

"She's done you up proper. And you've had a wash."

"She told me to. Smelled of great bloody bear, didn't I?"

"I didn't notice."

"That's because you smell of bear too."

Tormund raises an eyebrow, then chuckles. "Maybe I do."

"So do we all," calls one of the tanners.

"Nothing wrong with it," Tormund chuckles, "well, except the smell."

"Will you be long?" Jon asks him, changing the subject.

"I was just - no, it needs a couple of days. Do you need me?"

"No," Jon shakes his head automatically. "No, just curious. I heard we'd be having bear stew for dinner."

"Standard procedure." Tormund smiles. "Did you want to eat with me, crow?"

"I just - well, I. You being here was just a pleasant coincidence. I wanted some leather, too. And here seemed like a good place to get some."

"It is," laughs the tanner.

Lyn, Jon remembers him as. "I haven't got anything to trade-"

"You brought home a fucking bear, that's a trade."

"Half a bear," Jon says, but he describes what he wants all the same, and that makes Lyn laugh again.

"Leather scraps. You never told me the Southerner was so cute, Tormund."

"I thought it went without saying." Jon feels a blush coming on. Tormund grins at him. "You tied your hair back."

"Aye," Jon murmurs.

"I like it down more."

"Do you?" Jon says, a bit quizzically.

"Well." Tormund shrugs a shoulder up. "Looks good either way."

"Thanks," Jon stutters slightly.

Lyn is looking between the two of them, one eyebrow raised, and he shakes his head. "Would you like me t'give you two a minute or what? Go on, both of you. You're getting underfoot."

Jon tucks the roll of leather thong into the pocket of his cloak and turns, head bowed. Face touched pink under the grime, Tormund follows.

"Come back tomorrow," Lyn calls after him, apparently further to some conversation Jon has not been privy to.

"Ta," Tormund calls back, and he slaps a hand onto Jon's shoulder, giving him a gentle wobble. "Come on. Let's get us a drink, and some fire."

Jon smiles at the thought, but warns Tormund - "None of whatever we had the other night!"

"Whatever you say, my King."

*

The next afternoon, Jon is finishing chopping wood when he sees Tarryn running across the compound. He calls him over, remembering the promise of the quieter baths. With Amarin apparently still well under way, there are smaller springs where he’s not – as Jon had discovered yesterday, going to get his pail of water – as likely to see three public conceptions.

"I'll show you," the boy agrees cheerfully.

Jon makes a detour to his hut to grab some supplies.

"Say," Tarryn sounds nonchalant as they walk, “Do you not have Amarin, South of the wall?"

“No, no. We have a day that’s a little like it but it’s more about presents, and... spoiling the one you want, I think.” Jon doesn’t have much experience with that, though it was something Robb always put plenty of stock into, when they were boys.

“That’s what Amarin is too, isn’t it?” Tarryn asks. He’s leading Jon away from the usual baths, up a rockier path down to a smaller set of caves fringing the other side of the valley.

Jon isn’t sure he should be discussing this with a boy, even if Tarryn is nearly the age he was when he left to take the Black.

“I suppose I don’t know much about it.”

"I suppose you don’t and all. Trust me, Jon."

The entrance to these baths is tucked away from the cold and furnished with a couple of baskets filled with soap and oils, just like the other. The Free Folk don't have any real concept of ownership outside of personal effects - everyone puts in, everyone gets out. Jon clutches his linens to his chest and selects a bar of soap.

He's startled by how hot it is just in the mouth of the caves. He'll need to strip off layers in no time. He starts to unbuckle his outers. "Anything else I need to know?" he asks Tarryn.

"So many things."

"Gods," Jon mutters. He has no idea what that means. The boy is off like a dart before he can ask.

He ventures deeper into the cave, announcing himself by dropping his overcoat and belt onto a ledge nearby. He waves his hand to clear a curl of steam. It's murky in here, and blessedly deserted. Jon starts to relax, stripping off his unders and untying his hair. The paste on his cheek has left nothing behind but clean scabbing over the gashes on his face.

His first step into the water is delightful, taking the edge immediately off the ache that has indeed set in after their trek yesterday.

"Why don't they live in here?" he mutters in amusement.

"We'll get mouldy," comes the reply that makes him jump out of his skin.

He reaches for a sword that isn't there, then curbs his instincts: it's Tormund. Next, he has to remind himself it's not the first time Tormund has seen him nude. Even so, he drops into the water quickly. It's ferociously hot and he hisses immediately.

"It's cooler over here," Tormund tells him mildly. Through the mist, he's reposed in the shallower water, flushed and thoroughly immodest.

"Is it?"

"The rock cools it, aye."

"If you say so." Jon shuffles slowly closer. He's pleased to find that there does seem to be a slightly cooler channel, and he sheepishly settles into the shallower water close by, drawing his knees up and hugging them. "Didn't realise you were in here."

"As you can see..." Tormund spreads his hands illustratively. "Hoping for some alone time?"

"No, I - just a bath. Honestly. I don't need alone time from you."

They're a couple of metres apart, but Jon can see how that pleases Tormund. "I'm even ridding myself of the smell of bear," Tormund grins.

"On my account? Don't I feel special."

"You should."

Jon smiles, savouring the heat of the water, leaning his good cheek against his knees. "All right then."

Tormund smiles at him. "You gave in easy."

"Because it's you."

"What about me?"

"I like to make you happy," Jon shrugs a shoulder a bit.

The silence that follows is nearly shy, before Tormund lifts a hand to the tinkling sound of water and itches his neck. "Well, likewise."

Jon touches the stone around his own neck. He'd strung it securely onto the leather and tucked it under his tunic that same afternoon.

Tormund sees the movement. "That's what the cord was for?" he asks.

"Yes, is that all right?"

"Of course," Tormund says. "I'm glad you like it."

"It's beautiful," Jon murmurs. He sees the way Tormund smiles at that.

"It suits ye."

That makes him blush. "Not with my face all mangled I guess."

"A few scratches. They'll fade."

"The green sets off my eyes in the meantime."

"Jon," Tormund scolds gently, but he's smiling. They grin at one another.

"It's nice in here," Jon says.

"Aye, it is."

"I remember finding hot spring caves -"

Tormund waits, raising an eyebrow.

"When I was out here before," Jon finishes quietly.

"Oh, with Ygritte," Tormund concludes with a knowing chuckle. "Yes, she always liked Amarin for that."

"There you go with the Amarin again," Jon gripes.

Tormund smiles at that. "No one's giving you a straight answer, mm?"

"It's really annoying," Jon says pointedly.

"It's not the sort of thing southerners like much. It's about sex. Children. That sort of thing. Declaring love, making your intentions known. We have certain... rituals."

"Like... dancing?"

"Yes, suppose so."

"And how else do you make your intentions known?"

Now, he notices Tormund starts to look almost comically nonchalant. "Well, there are lots of ways..."

"Gifts?" Jon asks, stomach feeling dangerously light.

"That's... yes, that's one way."

"What kind of gifts, Tormund? Traditionally," he adds softly.

Tormund seems to fidget at that. "There are different ones for different intentions."

"And they are?"

"Why do you want to know, got someone in mind?"

Jon sighs. "Just tell me, Tor." He sees him take a deep breath.

"To express that you want one of the folk to think of you, you might give them a totem to travel with them in your place." He rolls his shoulders a bit. "There's other things - trinkets, things that are hard to find - things to express you're... you're willing to work hard. To provide. It's all - a little outdated now I suppose."

"Outdated how?" Jon asks softly.

"You know. Precious."

Jon supposes he does know. His face is hot even outside of the water. He looks down at the little hunk of quartz around his neck. Things that are hard to find.

That's probably not what he means. It can't be. Jon touches the pendant gently. When he looks back at Tormund, he's still watching him intently. Jon smiles, but he's thinking about Tormund talking about finding a husband. People had laughed, but Jon can't help but think about what Tormund said up at the Gailing - the first man I ever loved.

He thinks he'd meant it.

On the surface of it, he's not even shocked. Tormund has made it perfectly clear on several occasions that what Jon heard people from Winterfell call "deviance" isn't regarded as strange up here. Plenty of places. Then again, he always teases Jon about girls. He's not even sure why he's thinking about it. He thinks that if Tormund marries, they'll have less time together.

But the other night, when Isolde had sat beside Jon... Tormund hadn’t been making jokes then. He’d seemed so uncharacteristically possessive, like he had that day when Jon had arrived back at Castle Black, when no one else was to touch him before Tormund had looked him over. He’s been stuck to Jon’s side ever since, even though he’d wailed for a few days about being rejected by Brienne of Tarth.

Jon is struck with a strange feeling, a percolating of ideas. Maybe it's overthinking, but he can't help himself.

"So," he says finally, "husband hunting." Tormund winces a little. Jon tilts his head. "What?"

"I don't know that I would call it that."

"You did call it that."

"Less so the hunting part, I suppose."

Jon smiles at him, growing a bit braver. "Seduction is more your gambit."

Tormund laughs. "Sometimes. Not always."

"Oh, not always?" Jon grins.

"It doesn't always work."

"Learned your lesson with Lady Brienne, did you?"

Tormund laughs again, shrugging. "Sometimes you have to look for likelier candidates when others seem out of your reach." He says it easily.

"Who's a likelier candidate than her?"

"I meant she was the likelier candidate."

Jon shakes his head. "Than who?"

Tormund shrugs. "Does it matter?"

Yes, it matters. Jon bites the inside of his cheek.

"She wouldn't have understood all of this," Jon replies.

"You don't think so?" Jon shakes his head. That makes Tormund smile. "And you do?"

"These are my people too."

"You're ours, more like."

"If you say so."

"I do." Tormund smiles. "You were always meant to be."

For some reason, it catches Jon in the back of the throat, as Tormund's words so often do. He smiles a little crookedly. "You're going soft, old man."

"Suppose I am." He shrugs. "I can think of worse things."

"Me too," Jon tells him. After a moment, he runs his hands through his hair, shaking the damp curls out. He dips under the surface of the water completely. Finds Tormund still watching him when he resurfaces.

It's hard not to feel like prey. Jon isn't entirely sure it's a feeling he dislikes, with Tormund. At least he's fairly sure the tremors don't show.

"Gettin' long, all that dark hair."

Jon runs a hand through it. "S'pose." Without knowing how he finds the confidence, he teases Tormund a bit. "You're being very forthcoming with your compliments tonight, Tor. Part of husband hunting?"

"...Depends," Tormund replies after a long pause. "Why, you interested?"

"I think I'd want more than 'Your hair is getting long,'" Jon says with a faint blush.

"Got to do better if I want to bed a lordling?" Tormund laughs.

"A bit, yeah."

"Come here then, let me work my wiles."

Jon's eyes widen. Regardless, he shuffles closer. Even standing, he's not that much taller than Tormund. He slinks down beside him again with a shivering breath, trying to laugh.

"Go on. Show me your wiles."

They're both struggling to keep a straight face now. "Are ye sure? You'll be a changed man."

"I'll risk it." He drapes his arm over the side of the spring. "How would you woo me? You’ll have to make it better than whatever you said to Brienne."

"You're a slippery one, little crow. I'd have to be cautious."

"Slippery? How so?"

"Like that!" Tormund laughs.

"You mean I like clarity?"

"I mean stubborn."

"You're one to talk!"

"Why do you think I like you?"

"My charms and good looks, obviously."

"Those too." Tormund pats his cheek.

"Bear slaying skills," Jon lists, snickering, holding up his fingers, "deserting the Night's Watch twice, making people hate me so much they decided to stab me-"

"Enough," Tormund says, laying his palm on Jon's chest. Jon sees he's not laughing anymore, and he quiets. "Enough,” Tormund says again, and he leans down.

Jon doesn't realise exactly what's happening even when Tormund takes his chin between thumb and forefinger. But he doesn't move, doesn't think he could. It occurs to him, thinking of Tormund's warmth radiating toward him, and thinking of his comforting weight behind him in his hut, that he doesn't want to.

"Tor?" he whispers.

"Why don't you know what you're worth, after all this time, Jon Snow?"

Jon touches automatically at the stone at his throat. "I don't think it's more than anyone else, is all."

"It's more than everyone else," Tormund corrects.

Colour bleeds into Jon's cheeks. He's overcome with a grateful tenderness. "Tor..."

Tormund stops the argument with his mouth. A kiss, Jon realises. His brain races to catch up with his body, but he's not pulling away. He's not doing anything at all. He's being kissed, and he thinks perhaps he's kissing back. He knows he's kissing back.

His hand finds the hot, firm plane of Tormund's chest for purchase. Warm skin and crinkling hair, and a man who – gods, a man. Tormund slides a hand into the curls at the base of Jon's skull and a shiver goes through him. This can't be what Tormund meant. Jon didn't know that strange idea that had occurred to him was anything but that. He moans softly, mostly in overwhelm.

Tormund reels him gently closer. Jon can't find the strength to struggle. He feels good. He feels desired. And awake for the first time in months, since that terrible guilty grief first set in. Every follicle of hair feels relieved. He can't help but grasp for more. It's Tormund who finally pulls away.

"See?" he murmurs. "Slippery. You never act in the ways I think you're going to."

"Don't you like being surprised?" Jon asks dazedly.

"I occasionally do." Tormund reaches for him again, like he's not entirely aware he's doing it.

Jon can feel his heart galloping in his chest again, like it did when he first caught sight of the bear on the horizon. He feels like he might burst. He meets the second kiss helplessly, even so.

Tormund's hands feel greedy on his skin. It's startling, the way it affects Jon. He's never felt this great hot rush of feeling before, it's always been a slow build. He's always been slow, at everything. The thought sears him with embarrassment: how long has he been blind to this? It makes him want to squirm. He jolts back, face hot, hand still tight on Tormund's chest. He's not sure what he's feeling.

"Jon," Tormund rumbles.

"I'm sorry," Jon says quickly, throat tight, "I'm - I just need -" He pushes himself away, limbs clumsy in the water.

"Jon..." Tormund sounds nearly annoyed, but Jon knows he's wounded.

He can't make himself stop. It's too hard to breathe in here. He yanks on his trousers, pulls on his jerkin, and all but runs. He only stops when there are people around to see. Walks quickly instead, the freezing air turning the water in his hair into crystals as he walks. He runs his hand through his hair and feels them scatter.

It's not far back to his hut, and he closes the door over fast, leaning back against it and closing his eyes. The room feels so empty. And he feels crushingly stupid. How could he be a credit to anyone? What could Tormund possibly see in him? Is it some kind of joke? He's surely not so much of a stray.

The panic chokes all the sense out of him. He rushes to his cot, to grab a fur to wrap around himself, and that's when he sees the cloak laid out on top of it. Dense white fur, freshly tanned.

He sighs and sinks to the floor beside the cot. His heart pounds in his throat. He sinks his fingers into the polar bear pelt and clutches it tight.

"Gifts," he murmurs.

The cord around his neck feels heavy. The totem too. He flings the pelt around his shoulders and closes his eyes. What did he do? Why did he run? He doesn't know how to fix it.

He ought to go back, but then he'll have to explain himself. Jon simply doesn't know how. He doesn't know what he's even feeling, everything seems suddenly different colours. If he stays here, he only has to worry about one.

He huddles down under the pelt and tries to order his thoughts. Can he hope that Tormund will come looking for him here? He's not sure he deserves it. He's also not sure Tormund would care about that.

His mental gymnastics are interrupted by a rap at the door, but the voice saying his name isn't Tormund's.

"Who is it?" he calls brusquely.

"Astrael."

Knowing she won't be deterred, he pushes himself to his feet. "Come in, Mother." He keeps the cloak in his arms and turns to the door.

When she enters, it's quietly, as though she'd rather no one had seen her. Jon tries to keep his expression pleasant. However, when her eyes go from his wild, frozen hair, to the pelt on the bed, she seems illuminated.

"What happened, little crow?"

He feels ashamed of himself, for reasons he can't name. "I'm afraid I've been incredibly stupid, my lady, as usual."

"How so, child? Tell an old woman a story."

"I... didn't realise the depths of my feelings for someone and - now that I have, it... I'm afraid of it. Everyone I've loved before has been taken from me, and I'm not strong enough to endure it again. I thought I was but... I don't think it's so."

"You've looked death in the face," she replies. "Can you not look at life?"

Jon looks at the bear pelt on the bed. "I fear I'm only suited to death."

"From what I understand," Astrael says unsympathetically, "death spat you back."

"So death doesn't want me either."

"Death ain't the one who wants you, boy." She shakes her head in exasperation and points to the fur on the bed. "Do you know what kind of mantle this is?"

"Polar bear," he mutters.

Her eyes nearly hit the ceiling. "It's a joining mantle, Jon. Two cloaks from the same beast."

"Two?" he whispers.

"Two. If you can't figure out who has the other then I don't know how to help you."

No, Jon knows. "He said half the skin was mine. He said I'd earned it."

"And you have."

"Because he wants to - join with me?" Jon rubs a hand over his face.

"I think that could be on the cards."

Jon sits down on the cot again. Heavily. He glances up at Astrael, and she softens a little at his expression.

"Is it mutual?"

"I didn't...realise it was, until today."

"I thought you were... reciprocating, Jon."

"Reciprocating how?"

"The totems... they're, well. They're given with the intent to court."

"Then he lied to me when he gave it to me," Jon says, touching the pocket where his little wolf resides.

"Did he lie to you? Tormund is rarely dishonest. Are you angry with him, little crow?"

"Yes!" Jon blurts, even though he knows he's only angry because he's confused.

She hums thoughtfully. "You'd have preferred him to simply confess?"

"I'd have thought he was joking," Jon replies.

"So he couldn't do the right thing."

Jon's hand strays to the deep pile of white fur again. He looks down at it, remembering the way Tormund had smeared the blood on his head and held him; the way he'd viciously beheaded the bear that had sought to do him harm.

"You should put it on," Astrael murmurs.

"I - I'll look - black has always been my colour..."

She folds her arms.

Jon wants to. He picks it up again, looks at the workmanship for the first time. It's beautifully made. It will be warm, he can tell.

"Do you want me to help you?" Astrael asks. Jon sighs, then nods.

With the warm weight of the fur on his shoulders, some of his bath-induced shivers die off. It's heavy, and luxurious. He feels foolish, and undeserving. Courting, joining..."what does this stone really mean?" he whispers, before she can move away.

"What would it mean down south?"

"Jewels that size, of a precious stone, would typically represent a dowry," Jon mutters.

"Well, we don't sell our daughters here, Jon Snow," the old lady tells him, her blue eyes keen and pale with age, "but we do give gifts to express our intent to cherish."

Cherish. There's another word. Jon closes his eyes against the well of emotion in him. If he's made Tormund angry with his reaction, he surely deserves it.

"How do I repair what I've broken?"

"Start by not assuming you've broken anything." That seems sound advice, in theory. "Next, find the person you actually want to be talking to."

Jon looks down at the mantle. "I don't have anything to give him in return."

"He has the other half of the fur," Astrael says. "And I’ll show you how to make something else. Come with me."

Frowning, he does. He leaves the pelt behind, for safekeeping, and winds after her through the huts. She leads him past the winter garden near the smoke shed, then inside. Jon watches dumbly as she starts to gather supplies from the shelves in there - dry branches, long fronds of dry grass. "Come here, Jon."

He lets her load his arms, then lead him back to her hut. He's entirely nonplussed. And Astrael moves fast for an old woman. He hurries to keep up with her, and then he's unloaded again, the supplies spread over Astrael's table.

"What are we doing?" he asks finally, frustrated.

"We're making sure you don't go empty handed."

In the end, what they're doing is making a wreath, not unlike the crowns he'd seen Sansa make out of field grasses when they were children. She shows him how to wind dry, petrified leaves through the frame of it, ghostly white. The reeds are pale blue, golden poppy pods among them. The colors remind him of Tor, and he wishes he had something red. He's winding the white leaves carefully amongst the bands when it occurs to him, and he looks up at Astrael slowly.

"Mother, is there anything red that I can use?"

She smiles and goes to a wooden box on a low table. She draws out a string of red beads - no, he thinks, they're dried seeds. Jon accepts them gratefully. He feels a little foolish, all told, working on this craft project.

"What is it for?"

"It will hang on the door of your shared quarters," she smiles slightly, "to bring Amarin's blessings to your door."

That makes Jon choke on his breath in surprise. "Oh," he whispers. Shared quarters.

"Unless that isn't what you want?"

He still thinks of what it's like to sleep with Tormund whenever he's alone. He can't answer, but he doesn't stop making the wreath.

It's satisfying, just like the whittling was. Eventually, he starts to feel like he might ruin it if he carries on. He sets it gently down on Astrael's table and steps back to take a look.

Beside him, she folds her arms. "You're a quick study."

"I do my best. Do you think... is it good enough?"

"Of course it is." She nods again for punctuation. "Take it to him."

Jon had less trepidation at the thought of facing a hungry bear. With a gulp, he tries to tidy himself a little of twig ends and his hurriedly laced jerkin. Before he picks the wreath up, he unties his hair. He ignores the twitch of Astrael's lips. "Thank you," he tells her.

"You are most welcome." She opens the door for him. "He's back at his quarters."

He doesn't ask her how she knows, he just goes there. As he walks, the snow is streaming down, the storm they heard tell of moving in proper. He sees Tarryn loading reclaimed wood into the dry cave, and he raises a hand to Jon in greeting, then seems to take in the sight of the wreath in his hand.

"Good fortune, Jon!" he calls.

Good fortune, he thinks wildly. Yes, he could use that.

"Thank you, Taz." He gives him a grim smile as he walks, feeling more like he's walking to a gallows. Tormund's hut isn't far from his own, but he doesn't allow himself to give up.

When he knocks, he hears a howl of recognition from inside and realises Ghost must be with Tormund. So much for taking him by surprise. Shuffling nervously from foot to foot, Jon waits out the shuffling footsteps inside.

When the door opens, he looks up, knowing exactly where Tormund's eyes will be. They're very blue, in the white light of the blizzard. They glisten like frozen waves, flicking over Jon, and then down to his hands.

"May I come in?" Jon murmurs.

An uncharacteristic lack of words, Tormund just steps back. He looks a little flushed. Jon bites his lip and holds the wreath out.

"I don't know how to make a cloak like you did for me, but Astrael showed me how to do this."

"Do you know what-"

"I do know. I know what it means now," Jon interrupts desperately. "I know what it all means."

Tormund still doesn't say anything for a moment. Hope waning, Jon lowers the wreath.

"I'm sorry, I didn't... I was confused..."

"Stop," Tormund rumbles. "We have to hang it on the door together."

Jon's breath catches in his throat. They don't break eye contact for a few long seconds, and then Tormund steps close. He reaches over Jon's shoulder to remove a hide that had been hanging from a nail there.

"Inside, or outside?" Jon asks dumbly.

"Inside for now," Tormund murmurs. "Because I want to look at it."

He closes the door, and together they raise the wreath. When it's secured, Tormund's arms fold around his waist instead. His expression has gentled, finally, and Jon dares to lean against him.

"You scared me for a moment there, boy," Tormund rumbles.

"I did?" Jon whispers.

"You did. But now I see that I confused you."

Jon laughs weakly. "It's not hard to do."

"Stop. I'm not letting you insult yourself, little crow. Not here. Not now."

Jon bites his lip in apology. Tormund touches his cheek, and Jon can’t help but lean into the heat of his calloused palm.

"Thought for a second that maybe I was just a horrible kisser."

Jon catches his breath, half a laugh coming out. "Tor - no!"

"It's a joke, Jon." He's laughing too. But he leans down even as he does it.

Jon folds his arms around his neck and pulls him the rest of the way. It's such a relief when their lips touch again. This time, the same rush of feeling, just as fast.

He has to know, this time, that it's the same for them both. Tormund's hands are tight on him now, and Jon makes a soft, needy noise that he can't help. He didn't realise he could miss things he's only felt once. He didn't realise he'd memorised things like the way Tormund smells. Like woodsmoke and herbs, and salt. It's familiar now, and things don't seem right without it.

"Tormund," Jon whispers, "I'm sorry, I've been so stupid."

"No," he murmurs, trailing his fingers through the loose strands of Jon's hair.

"I was. I didn't understand."

"I wasn't honest with you," Tormund replies. "I just wanted the pleasure of giving you things that were special."

"I know. They are special, Tor."

"They are," he agrees softly. "But you're - you deserve that, Jon. You're special."

"I feel special," he says, because he does. Tormund always makes him feel that way.

"About fucking time," Tormund mutters. He pulls Jon in again. This time, he lifts him up and carries him over to the bed.

It takes everything Jon has not to make a noise. It doesn't stop him from shivering. Being borne down onto the cot has him blushing though, Tormund's weight over him new, novel. The way Tormund is looking at him has him blushing too.

"Why're you looking at me like that?"

"I like looking at you," Tormund tells him, touching his hair again.

"You do, do you?" Jon smiles up tentatively.

"Very much so." Tormund strokes over his eyebrow and the faint scar there. "You're a pretty thing."

"So are you," Jon says, and then blushes again.

"Oh, am I? Tell me what about me is pretty, Jon Snow," Tormund smiles.

"Your - your hair. And your eyelashes and - the freckles on your shoulders."

"How many times have you see those?" Tormund teases gently.

"Just once, sadly."

"Want to see them again?"

"I do." He smiles helplessly. "If that's agreeable to you."

"Oh, yes, it is." Tormund sits up and fumbles for the ties of his shirt.

Jon can't help but laugh: that was easy. He has a feeling Tormund will be very easy, which is good - Jon seldom is. Even now, when Tormund starts to unbuckle Jon's outers, he has a moment of shyness. Tormund stops when he feels him tense and kisses him again.

"I'm all right," Jon protests quickly.

Tormund laughs. "You're more than all right. But I am enjoying the freedom to kiss ye."

"Me too," Jon says honestly. He lets Tormund pull his outer layers off and wrap him up in his arms. For a moment they just lay together. "I like - the fur," Jon murmurs, "thank you."

"I'd like to see you in it," Tormund tells him.

"Well. You can." Jon grins helplessly.

"I just... like picturing your dark hair against the white."

Jon's face heats. "I - I'm told I ought to ask you to wear the other half?"

"You don't know what they're for, do you, Jon?" Tormund smiles helplessly.

"Astrael told me!" he says hotly.

"She did, did she?"

"She said it was a joining cloak," Jon repeats, more softly. Then, he bites his lip. "Down south we - we use cloaks in weddings."

"Do you?" Tormund murmurs.

"Yes, we do."

"Well, so do we. That's what joining is. We just don't... stand on all that ceremony. And you... that's what you want? That's your intent?"

Jon can feel his heart pounding. "Obviously. I know what it means." He can watch the confirmation bloom in Tormund's eyes. It makes Jon breathless. "You want to marry me?"

"I want you to be mine," Tormund murmurs. "Always. I don't ever want you to leave again. If anyone comes for you, I'd fight them. I don't want you to give yourself up for anyone else, ever again."

Jon stares up at him, chest tight with emotion. "Tor..." he whispers.

"I'd fight for you," Tormund repeats. "And I've seen you fight for me."

"With my life," Jon murmurs.

Tormund smiles and cups his face gently. "I'd rather we spend that together, if you don't mind."

"Gods," Jon whispers. It seems feeble, laughable, such a small word. Everything suddenly looks so different. He's not alone. He never has to be alone. He feels like he knows himself better, too. An entire new world inside he hasn't yet navigated. And he doesn't have to do it by himself.

"I didn't know I felt like this until recently," he admits, almost a warning.

"I know," Tormund tells him. He smiles. "I've known longer than you have."

Jon pouts slightly. "Thanks for clueing us in."

"I got us here."

"Eventually, I suppose."

"Are you impatient, little crow?"

"Suppose I am a little." Impatient, and nervous.

Tormund's answering grin is knowing. But he merely leans in and kisses Jon again. It's deep, and easy. It sparks a pleasant, growing heat. Jon, hemmed in between warm fur and Tormund's hot skin, can barely recall the icicles in his hair from before. They might as well be in Dorne.

He searches carefully with his hands, experimentally pulling him closer. Tormund braces himself on his elbows, one leg slotting between Jon's thighs. One hand tucks under the base of Jon's skull. He feels incredibly held. It's hard to breathe, but he likes the feeling. He likes Tormund's hard body against him. He's all-encompassing. Jon thinks of having him inside, and groans softly.

"Jon..." Tormund noses at him.

"Yes?" Jon whispers.

"Can I touch you?"

Jon nods. "Please, Tor."

"How much?"

"Anything you'd like to do." That seems to please and surprise him. It makes Jon a little wary, but pleasantly so. He grins helplessly. "Come on then."

Suddenly Tormund's mouth is moving, his beard tickling. Jon shivers under the touch. It feels so different. So soft and good. His fingertips are rough when he slides his hands under Jon's clothes.

"Let's take the rest of these off," he murmurs.

"Okay," Jon agrees quickly. He wriggles helpfully up off the straw mattress.

It's warm enough between their bodies, especially when Tormund pulls up the furs. The sensation of hot skin and soft fur just adds an extra element of caress. Jon is all too aware of how vulnerable he is, shirtless and down to his unders. He's only been completely nude with two other people - other than the day he died. That, and in the baths.

"I've told you, boy," Tormund murmurs, "I've seen it all before."

"I didn't know you were looking!"

"You should have."

"I didn't," Jon whispers. "And I never got to look back."

"Not even earlier?"

"I was... not trying as hard as I usually would have not to look."

"I didn't think so." Tormund laughs softly. "Look now. Look all you like."

Jon is, it's nearly impossible not to. Tormund is just so - big, and broad. Built like he was made to guard and protect. Bigger than Jon, undeniably. Bigger than most of the men in Jon's family, and still with that startling capacity for gentleness, alongside the ferociousness.

"I like the look of you," Jon murmurs.

"I'm very glad to hear it." He grins naughtily. "… All of me?"

Jon bites his lip against a shy grin, glancing down, and then nods. "All of you."

Tormund's answering expression is nothing short of gleeful. "Ye have healthy sight, then," he teases. "A good quality in a husband."

"If you say so," Jon laughs.

"Shall I list them?"

"To see if I fit the bill?"

"I already know the answer to that."

"For novelty's sake then."

Tormund grins again, then nuzzles back into Jon's neck. "Well, there's brave..." Jon starts to protest, and Tormund lays his fingers across his lips. "Loyal. Sweet-hearted."

Jon kisses his fingertips. "Don't be too kind to me."

Tormund kisses his jaw. "Pretty."

"I'm not," Jon complains.

"So pretty. The prettiest thing North of the Wall."

"I'm not pretty, I'm all scars."

"So am I, crow. It doesn't matter. Not in the slightest."

Sighing the sigh of the defeated, Jon just reaches up to cup Tormund's cheeks. He pulls his face up to kiss it. Tormund wraps his arms around him once more and lets their mouths drift back together. He seems in no particular hurry and Jon is partly glad for it. They indulge in a few long minutes just exploring, touching, kissing as though making up for lost time, biting and licking. Even so, Jon senses Tormund’s gentleness with him.

His big hand sliding down Jon's bare flank isn't shy, though. For a moment that's all he does. Then, he kisses down his throat with purpose. He keeps going, slowly down.

"Tor," Jon says quietly, breath lodged in his throat.

"Don't tell me to stop," Tormund whispers.

"I - I don't want you to."

So Tormund doesn't. Jon can't help holding his breath as his lips skim lower and lower. This is usually his job.

"Tormund-" it's hard not to feel shy about it. He just gets shushed in the most fond manner possible. The hot points of his fingertips appear on Jon's hips, and his mouth in the centre. It closes gently over the crown of his cock where it’s flush and heavy against the join of his thigh.

Jon can't keep the shaky cry from escaping. He thinks Tormund enjoys it. He's just teasing with his tongue under the head, hands still firm on Jon's hips. It's a good thing, because he can't hold himself still. It's been months. And it's Tormund. Tormund, who is overwhelming always.

Jon can't get his breath. He tips his head back and pants. Tormund is easing him slickly deeper. He keeps his motions slow but assured, and Jon squirms under his ministrations. He can't even comprehend how good they feel.

"Tormund," Jon sighs.

Tormund squeezes his hands in reply. He pulls off with a wet sound to kiss Jon, their bodies sliding together.

"So sweet," he murmurs.

"I'm not," Jon protests, voice shaky.

"You are." Tormund kisses him again.

Jon has to keep him close for fear of being overwhelmed by him again. He winds his hands into his hair. "I want to touch you too," he says quickly, more bravely than he feels.

"You don't have to," Tor murmurs.

"I said I want to, didn't I?" Jon frowns a little to get his point across.

"All right, all right. I'm just saying there's no rush."

"Yes there is," Jon murmurs.

"Why's that?" Because Jon is overwhelmed. Tormund strokes the worried crease out of his brow with a thumb. He presses their cheeks together. "Tell me, Jon."

"You've waited so long for me," Jon murmurs.

"I can wait longer."

"I don't want you to, Tor."

"So what's wrong?" He says it gently.

"I'm going to be bad at this," he grumbles.

"I doubt it." Tormund touches his face so gently.

"It's true." Jon sighs.

"I doubt it," Tormund repeats. "Prove me wrong."

It's both difficult and easy to rise to the challenge. Jon starts by kissing him again, this time with intent. Tormund's rumble this time is pleased. Arching against him pointedly triggers another. Tormund is hard from sucking him, the hot weight of him against Jon’s thigh triggering a flash-flood of heat in him.

It feels better, being close. Jon feels braver with Tormund's breath in his ear. Braver yet when his breath shivers. They slowly rub together with twin sighs. Jon has never felt anything like it. It's intense even just like this, electric and new.

He sets a hand to Tormund's powerful, furred chest.

"Tell me what to do. What you want. I won't know otherwise."

Tormund takes his hand from his chest and gently moves it downward. It's easy to touch him, to curl his fingers around the heat of him and savour. After a moment of tentative movement, Jon gains confidence, encouraged by Tormund's pleased noise.

He presses in to kiss Jon, who offers up his mouth eagerly, startling just so when Tormund takes him into his own hand in turn.

"Oh!" he gasps.

A warm rumble of laughter at that. "Oh?"

"Can we -"

"What, love?"

"We can touch each other together?" he murmurs.

"We are touching each other together."

"Just tell me if it's good."

"Do you want me to help?" He doesn't say it scathingly.

"Yes," Jon breathes.

Tormund simply nods, and takes them both in hand. "Like this."

"Good," Jon says softly. He joins him with his own hand. Doing this together, it feels like something he can control.

The first true pass after their initial couple makes him gasp. Tormund dips down to kiss him gently once more, deep and yielding, so soft it makes Jon whimper. He ends it with a nip to his lower lip, dragging gently between his teeth.

Meanwhile, he keeps their hands stroking them together. Jon groans against his mouth, thigh muscles tensing. His head is swimming with sensation. He's working hard to keep up with Tormund, and pay attention, but it's been so long since he's been touched. He can't keep back a soft moan of overwhelm.

"That's it, boy."

"Yes?" Jon gasps.

"Perfect. Just relax." Tormund kisses him again softly.

Jon tries his best. Even so, soon he's breathing hard, need pooling low in his belly, the fast swipe of their hands slick with fluid now. It's quick but it feels right. He doesn't need anything more but this; he's starting to shake.

"Jon," Tormund rumbles, quickening their hands.

Good, he's close too. Jon can't wait.

"Tor," he breathes, "I'm-"

"Do it," Tormund urges, kissing him hard.

Jon spills between one breath and the next, tremblingly, hard. His vision sparks, and he can't keep his hips still.

Tormund doesn't stop coaxing it out of him until he's gasping for him to stop. Even then, he scrabbles for a better grip on Tormund. Just focusing on him now, it's easy to stroke him faster; let Tormund squeeze his fingers gently tighter. Jon seeks out his mouth again, and Tormund's rushing breaths feel like a triumph.

Jon can feel him tightening. And then, the release.

Jon whines in sympathetic overwhelm at Tormund's choked-off groan. He thought it wouldn't be enough; that perhaps Tormund would think him weak for not being able to offer anything more - but now he gets the sense neither of them could have foreseen how intense it would be between them.

As soon as Tormund stops moving, Jon clutches him close. They're wet and messy between their bellies, hot skin sliding. Jon only wants more. What's a little mess if it means he can feel warmth like this?

Tormund is wrapping him up in his arms then and curling up around him, bathing Jon in comfort.

"Jon Snow," he murmurs. "I love you."

It chokes Jon with surprise, eyes widening. Moved, he flushes with pleasure.

"Tor," he breathes.

"What do you have to say to that, little Lordling?" He strokes his cheek gently.

"Tor. I love you too. I didn't know that's what it was, but it's true."

His expression is uncommonly gentle, but his smile is still sly. "I knew that, Jon."

"Of course you did," Jon sighs, leaning into his hand. He's not insulted. He knows his limitations.

Tormund doesn't seem to mind them.

"Anything else on your mind, crow?"

"Sounds like there's something on yours."

Tormund kisses his forehead.

"Only us." He inhales like he's memorising the scent of Jon. "The wreath."

"What about it?" Jon whispers.

"I wanted - I wanted to make one for you. To make it official. You said you know what it means, does that... do you... did you mean what you said?"

"I meant that I want to marry you, and live together, starting now."

Tormund's turn to look overwhelmed now. And then he breaks into a watery grin.

"I have to go talk to the Elders."

"We don't need... permission, do we?"

"No, no," Tormund chuckles, levering himself up despite Jon's little stutters of protest and starting to redress, "but I want it to happen as soon as possible."

"H-how soon is soon?"

"How soon is too soon?"

"No such thing," Jon shoots back.

It's the right answer. Tormund beams softly.

"Tomorrow. We'll walk to the nearest Weirwood tree, and Astrael can bind us."

Jon nods. "I doubt she'll say no, anyway."

"She won't say no. But arrangements have to be made."

Jon just nods in acknowledgment. Then, that ticks his interests. "Arrangements for - just the words?"

"And the rest of the ceremony." He smiles at Jon. "Just us, nothing public."

"Do you need me to do anything?" Jon asks softly.

"Not right now, love. You stay here." Then he smiles. "I'll bring us back some supper."

"Sounds good." Jon smiles. He watches Tormund leave, fondness swelling. He has a new awareness of being told to stay here - on the morning after the festival, he had thought Tormund had wanted him to stay put so no one saw him. Now, he can plainly see it's a form of protection. A sort of extra level of care.

The novelty of it prickles Jon with blushing pleasure. He thinks he could have had this all along, if he hadn't insisted on moving into his own quarters when they came here. Tormund had even suggested he could stay, and gods, Jon is thick as a plank. He'd been sure it was offered out of distrust of his skills, or worry that he wasn't ready to be alone. It had never occurred to him that he was simply wanted.

He looks down at where Ghost is sprawled on the woven mat floor. Predictably, he's has made himself at home without any of Jon's compunction, and he looks very relaxed indeed.

Smiling, Jon slips out of bed and gets down to pet him, cleaning himself up and redressing as he goes: the Free Folk don't have much consideration when it comes to privacy, as a general rule. He'd rather be prepared if someone comes knocking.

Especially as he's almost certain, as he sits there, that Tormund is telling everyone he comes into contact with that Jon has agreed to marry him. He might even be shouting it. The thought makes Jon laugh to himself, hiding his face in Ghost's fur. Of course he would. Jon gets to his feet, opening up the door. Sure enough, the distant sound of cheering. Jon sighs, but he knows he's smiling. He's never been one for secrets anyway.

Leaning in the opening, he moves the wreath to the outside and waits to greet Tormund when he returns.

It takes a while, but when he comes back, he's holding a woven basket covered with a hessian. He smiles at the sight of Jon.

"Missed me?"

"Of course."

Tormund beams. "Hungry?"

"Starving."

"Good, let's go sit down. This is nice and hot."

Jon steps back to let him in, following Tormund to the little low table.

"I saw you moved the wreath," Tormund says, uncovering the basket.

"Good, that means everyone else did too."

"Only if they're lurking around our door," Tormund chuckles.

"Which they probably are, after all your crowing, mm?" He accepts a roll of bread and a clay bowl of stew with a murmur of grateful thanks.

"Well, then whatever earful they get is on their own heads." He looks pleased at the prospect.

Jon's not really surprised. He starts to eat happily.

"More bear?" he asks.

"It is."

"Good."

"Aye, she came good in the end."

Jon reaches for his hand. "She's not the only one."

"Aye, I know someone else who's tasty."

Jon laughs helplessly. "Don't-!"

Tormund raises an eyebrow at him.

It's useless; Jon can't smother his smile. "You're terrible."

"You won't think so for long."

"Oh? And why is that?"

"You'll have to trust me."

"I do," Jon promises. He nudges their knees together where they're sat, making Tormund look smug and pleased. "What did Astrael say?"

"She said it's about time we got our act together."

"About tomorrow!" Jon blushes.

"She said she'll make the arrangements," Tormund relents. "Daybreak tomorrow."

He sets aside his bowl, empty now, and waits for Jon to do the same before he pulls him close. "There's a couple of other small things, if you wouldn't mind indulging me."

"Tell me?"

"Well, tomorrow there's bathing, and then it's traditional to add braids to one another's hair - to symbolise coming together." He looks a bit pink at the thought.

"Oh," Jon breathes. His own cheeks are warm. He's struck with a sudden vision of Tormund braiding his hair. It doesn't sound altogether terrible. And the bathing... well, it's not exactly the first time.

Tormund is watching him closely. "Jon?"

"Bathing," he explains softly.

"What about it?" Tormund strokes his hair.

"We do that together?"

"Yes, unless you don't want to."

"Of course I want to." He thinks he's blushing.

"So why're you looking all wound up about it?"

"It just makes me wish I hadn't run off the last time."

"Do you always do that? It might make it harder to wash your hair if you keep trying to run away I suppose." Tormund winks when Jon gapes for a moment too long. "I can have someone waiting with a net, if you like."

"No," he says finally. "No, you know I won't run."

Strange, to accept contact now as Tormund pulls him gently closer. He's always been so wary of it before. Now, it feels so necessary. Truthfully, Jon never thought he'd want it again.

But Tor has always been an exception to the rule. He was the first one to take Jon into his arms when he'd awoken from the most terrible dream of oblivion. The first to take him into his arms when he returned from the second, terrible destruction. He'd held Jon tight enough to keep him from shaking apart.

Like now, when he butts their foreheads together, their closeness making his eyes blurry in Jon's vision, despite their intense gaze.

"What're you doing?" He laughs.

"Just what I feel like." He rubs their noses together. "And trying to see if I can hear what it is you keep in that pretty little head of yours. Whatever it is that makes you look so worried, always."

Jon sighs. "Just doubting myself, as usual."

"What is it you're doubting?"

"What don't I? But this time, at least I know I'm doing what I want."

"Is it?" Tormund asks, quietly. "Truly?"

"Yes!" Jon whispers urgently back. "It's - it's the first time I've felt like it was a decision I've made, and not one made for me."

Tor's smile returns a bit. "Is that so?"

Jon nods.

"I'm happy to hear that." Tormund murmurs. "If you need more time-"

"No!" Jon snatches at his hair, pulling him in for a kiss. That gets him a laugh; Tormund's broad arms tightening around him.

"As you wish," he chuckles.

"I do," Jon whispers.

Tormund, discussion apparently done, scoops Jon unceremoniously into his lap.

"If you're worried about the bathing part of the equation, we can practise."

"Oh?" Jon asks. Tormund nods, that tell-tale eyebrow cocked. "Well, all right then."

"No funny business," Tormund teases, "I promise."

"Not even a little bit?" He feigns disappointment.

A slow, warm smile.

"Well, maybe just a little. Come here," Tormund tugs him closer.

Jon winds his arms around his neck. Kissing Tormund is hard to resist.

*

The practise run did come in handy: Jon isn't nearly so nervous the next day as he eases into the water with Tormund. They've been given special soap, and special clothes to change into, and they are under strict instruction from Astrael to take their time.

Tormund washes Jon as tenderly as he'd wash a child, and Jon does the same, smoothing the lather over pale, scarred skin, getting to know the freckles he's never mapped before with the same concentration as an astronomer. It's humbling to know him like this; to realise he's known Tormund intimately for years. He feels tears welling in his eyes at the thought, bowing his head to try and hide them.

"Jon?" Tormund cups his face gently, stroking back his hair and touching their foreheads once more. Jon can only smile helplessly, brushing their cheeks together.

"Never knew I'd get this. Said I'd never marry, or have a family. Didn't think I deserved it. I'm still not sure I do."

"You deserve everything. Things change, love."

"They do." He touches the myriad scars on Tormund's shoulders. "I'm glad it's you."

"I can't believe it finally is."

"Believe it," Jon murmurs. Even so, the phrasing makes him curious. "How long has it been?"

"Oh, Jon. Since the very beginning."

"Tormund..."

"It's true."

When Jon makes himself remember, he can believe it.

"Tor," he says softly.

"Yes, little crow?"

"Thank you."

"You don't have to thank me for loving you, Jon. You deserve it."

"Thank you for believing in me," Jon corrects gently.

"Thank you for giving me something to believe in, mm?" His eyes are meltingly blue. Jon can't stop looking at him, even when he's winking out of focus through the haze of Jon's emotion. Tormund presses their foreheads together again; touches the tips of their noses and makes Jon's eyes sting afresh before he rubs his shoulders. "Let me wash your hair. Come sit between my knees."

Jon shifts obediently to be closer. He closes his eyes as Tormund carefully soaps, combs and rinses his hair, the water making soft, mercurial sounds around them. With nimble fingers, Tormund begins to twist some of the dark strands into braids. Just a few, bound back into one bundle at the back, an echo of the way Jon used to wear it. The way his father wore it. He shows him in the beat up mirror he's brought with him.

"It looks nice," Jon murmurs. "You're good at this."

"Have to pass the long winters somehow," Tormund chuckles.

Jon laughs too. "My turn."

"All right, King Crow. Make me pretty."

"Shouldn't be too hard." Jon climbs up to the ledge now to return the favour. He soaps the silky red strands well, and rinses them with a small pottery bowl. It's soothing just to touch this way, gently, to be allowed to look. Tormund's hair has always drawn his attention. Bright as dragon fire, but still soft to the touch. Silky smooth in his hands, easy to twist into long braids. It's been a while since either of them saw shears. Jon smiles and carefully secures the first braid with a small metal cuff. He's enjoying each moment.

He takes his time liberally as he continues, until his own shoulders are touched with gooseflesh from being in the cooler cave air for so long. But Tormund, he thinks, looks magnificent. Not that it's any different from usual, to Jon's mind, this is just more formal. So are the clothes they've been left.

He shows Tormund in the mirror, and smiles when he grabs Jon's hand and squeezes.

They dry off in the steam when they're out of the bath, Jon's hair already starting to dry in waves. He can't stop watching Tormund where he's reposed on the stone, bare and unconcerned and glorious with it.

"My husband," he tries.

That makes Tormund smile. "How's it sound?"

"It sounds wonderful, Tor. Are we... ready now?"

"Are you ready?" He touches Jon's hand lightly.

"More than ready." Jon turns it up so they can link fingers. "Let's get dressed."

The clothes are carefully bundled for both of them, wrapped in their polar bear mantles. When they're dressed, Tormund gathers the furs up and beckons him.

"Shall we?"

"Let's," Jon smiles.

Outside the baths, Ghost is waiting, and so is Astrael. It's snowing, but not so viciously as last night, fresh powder disturbed by their boots.

Jon smiles at the way the direwolf sits alertly by the old woman's side, but his eyes skip to her quickly. She's holding a covered basket, and smiling. When Tormund nods, she gestures them toward the gate.

"Come. It's a fair walk."

"We're ready, mother," Jon murmurs.

She nods, and they start to walk. Shortly, two other elders silently join them.

"Witnesses," Tormund explains softly. Jon glances at him, but he's distracted as they walk through the camp. He expected relative anonymity, but he forgets sometimes - Tormund is the only one any of the Free Folk would call king.

He looks like one as he walks, rising sun catching his on his fiery hair and the crisp grey fur of his leathers. There's a chorus of cheers rising up, and near the gates, a gathering of their friends, and Tormund's family, and the kids Jon teaches to fight. Tarryn is holding a wooden sword, and he salutes Jon with it as they pass.

Others line either side of the path into the Weirwood, extending their blessings in all their many languages, hands making waves. Jon feels his face heating, but...they're all so happy, and they call his name as often as they call for Tor.

He looks at Tormund again when he claps an arm around him and pulls him close. Jon only just manages to save the furs from falling out of the one-armed grip, but they're still both laughing as they leave the cheering behind. Looking up at the smiling face once more, Jon feels calm settle over him. So much time spent wondering if he's doing, or has done, the right thing. This feels concrete. Not just his own choice, but a choice made by both of them, together.

The rest of the walk is quiet, and calm. Astrael and their witnesses precede them with light tread on the snow, and eventually, through the straggling, frost burnt trees, they spot the red leaves.

Jon feels Tormund's arm tighten. He's grinning so wide when Jon meets his gaze that Jon gets infected too.

When Astrael reaches the white trunk and turns, her lips curve too. She sets down the basket, and draws out two circles of wound twigs and leaves, pure white as if kissed by frost. They look like smaller versions of the wreath Jon made.

"Come forward, Jon."

He glances at Tormund, who hands the mantles to one of the witnesses, ready to succeed him. When Jon steps forward, Astrael places the circlet on top of his head - "To symbolise the circle you made, the never ending cycle of it."

Jon inclines his head to her. She kisses his forehead, and then beckons Tormund to do the same. Jon watches her place it on the fiery head, the hair he'd braided with his own hands. He really looks like a king now, holding a hand out for Jon's. When he takes his forearm, they turn their wrists together, and Astrael binds their hand with a white strip of cloth.

Jon only has eyes for Tormund. Everything else feels like some hazy nightmare. Then Astrael says his name, and he looks up.

"Are you ready to say the words, boy?"

"I'm ready, mother." He looks at the tree arching over their heads, then at Tormund. His gaze stays on him even as he echoes Astrael. The words are simple, deceptively so. Binding, honest, sweet and clear.

Then Tormund says them too, hand tight on Jon's wrist.

"Do you witness?" Astrael asks the other two elders present.

"I witness," says one, and the other echoes it. "The gods witness."

"You are witnessed. You are bound. You are one," Astrael tells them. She raises her hands from theirs, and touches both their foreheads. "Forever."

Then she looks at the elder with the mantles. She brings them forward, and Jon and Tormund work together with their bound hands to cloak one another. Tormund wears a gentle smile on his face the entire time.

When they're bound, and cloaked, they hold onto one another, by the ties, and then Tormund pulls Jon in and kisses him.

"Time for someone to pledge themselves to you for a change, little crow," he whispers.

"And that's you," Jon whispers back.

"You're fucking right it is. From this day, until my last."

"From this day, until my last," Jon repeats softly, for Tormund's ears. Tormund looks like his smile might be straining his face.

"Go forth as one," Astrael bids them from beneath the spreading tree.

A great wind is blowing in, with another wave of fat flakes; the storm they've been waiting for. They don't need a reason to walk faster on their way back to Hardhome. Even so, Jon is glad to get back to the hall, where the others wait.

It's already loud inside, louder still when the people see them enter in their white mantles.

Jon is passed a skin of what he hopes is wine, and for once it doesn't fill him with dread to give in to celebrating. The cooks of their little settlement have made a wedding lunch - not the same, but to Jon's taste, that could rival any down South.

The party that follows it lasts longer than Jon anticipated, and he's ashamed to say he doesn't remember a good portion of the afternoon. By the time he's conscious of his own thoughts again, the dusk is settling in, and so is the storm proper.

Tormund gathers him into his arms where he stands and talks to Tarryn.

"Jon." He laughs. "You need to sleep."

"No, I'm fine," he protests, leaning into the embrace.

Tormund chuckles. "You're swaying."

"Maybe I am."

"Come on, love." His eyes twinkle. "Or should I carry ye?"

"It's snowing, you'll fall over."

"Sounds like a challenge to me."

"Maybe it is."

Tormund laughs. "Challenge accepted."

The snow, it turns out, is harder to traverse than anticipated. They aren't the only ones who decide to leave at this point, as it happens, and their steps aren't the only ones to stumble. Laughter sounds muffled from all around. Finally, they stumble into their hut, Ghost, and a curl of snow, following them inside.

Tormund has somehow made it with Jon in his arms. He lets him down gently until his feet are holding him, but doesn't let go. Jon touches the braids in his hair; carefully extracts the slightly battered circlet of leaves. Then Tormund lifts off Jon's in turn, takes them both and hangs them on the back of the door.

They've had to relinquish the mantels during the festivities, and Jon is half glad he doesn't have to fight with it now. They'll get them back. And Jon doesn't really plan on leaving the hut for quite some time.

He starts to unfasten Tormund's jerkin with only slightly unsteady hands.

Tormund, for once, stands still and lets him.

"I don't know what I'm doing," Jon warns him.

"Of course you do," Tormund smiles. "You've undressed yourself all your life."

"You know that isn't what I mean."

"That's all you need to worry about right now."

Jon strips the outers off his shoulders, fingers finding the hem of his undershirt. "All right, then."

He lifts that off too, and now he's unlacing Tormund's breeches, sighing when he returns the favour. They make quick, quiet work of all of their clothing.

Jon fails to suppress his noise of surprise when Tormund finally scoops him up and bears him down onto the bed. Tormund just grins. He kisses Jon sweet and deep, while Jon clings, shamelessly, so he can't pull away.

It's just that for a while, kisses that start gentle and turn fierce with yearning, their hands travelling over skin and bodies shifting until they align, and rock, and the first few moans burst forth. Jon tips his head back to grant Tormund access to his throat as they grind lazily together, arousal creeping up like a fire catching. It has Jon arching in minutes.

"Tormund," he hedges, "I want you..."

"I know, love." Tormund kisses him again, tiny presses across his face. "You are absolutely stinking drunk though..."

"Not that drunk," Jon laughs. "And I'm not the only one."

"No, you're not."

Jon kisses him again. "I want this. So much."

"You're sure? There's no rush, Jon."

"Yes, there is. Please, Tor."

"All right. What do you want?"

"You, Tormund, I want to be with you. I've waited all day."

"All right, love." Tormund nuzzles him gently and pushes himself to his feet. "I'll be right back."

"Where are you going?" Jon complains. Drink, it seems, makes him impatient.

"Just here, love." He's digging through an open wooden box on a low shelf. Jon watches, curious, but Tormund only retrieves a small stoppered pot and returns to the bed. "Come up on your knees, love."

Heat touching his cheeks, Jon pushes himself up to a sitting position, then, slowly, turns to hands and knees.

Tormund settles close behind him, one hand on the small. "Comfortable?"

"Yes," Jon nods. He feels a little far away from Tormund, though, and he rocks back to see how close they are, hearing a laugh as Tormund presses against his back, warm and solid. He kisses the dip of the spine. Jon peers back, watching him open the jar and scoop out a quantity of a pale ointment.

"You know what I'm gonna do?" Tormund asks softly.

"I hope so," Jon says uncertainly.

"I'm going to open you up for me," Tormund murmurs.

That makes Jon's stomach tremor. "Aye?"

"Just so."

"All right," Jon whispers, feeling his muscles trembling a bit.

"I've got you," Tormund tells him softly. "Just relax, love."

"Yes. Yeah." Jon nods shakily.

Even so, it makes him jump when he feels Tormund touch him, fingers slippery and slightly cool. Behind his balls and up between his cheeks, caressing, gentle pressure. Jon gasps, feeling his fingers circle and press, finally. Hushing him quietly, Tormund turns his palm down as he slides his finger deeper, gentle and careful but not slow.

"Oh," Jon breathes. It feels both strange and right. A few light surges of his finger make Jon stutter.

"Tormund," he finally groans.

"Jon?" He squeezes Jon's hip.

"More," Jon breathes.

A satisfied sort of hum at that. "Of course, love."

Another finger pressing gently makes Jon's back arch. Gods; it's good. He's never felt anything like it. His entire body starts tingling, like he's come in from the cold. Tormund's fingers are finding nerves he didn't know existed, making him gasp and whimper as he strokes in, rhythmic and deep. Jon's legs start to shake, his cock filling out all the more between his thighs.

"Tor," he gasps, "Tormund-"

"You like it, little one?"

Jon doesn't know exactly how to describe how he feels - 'like' doesn't quite touch the sides. He just moans softly, making Tormund chuckle.

"That sounded like a yes."

"Yes," Jon echoes dazedly.

"I like it too," Tormund rumbles. "I like hearing you like this."

"Maybe I'll get to hear you like this sometime, too."

"If you like, love."

"Would you-?" Jon breathes, feeling strangely vulnerable for a moment, asking.

"Course," Tormund hums. "Why wouldn't I, husband?"

"I don't know, it's not - this isn't something people freely admit to, where I'm from."

"You're where I'm from now," Tormund tells him softly. "And you must need another finger, you're thinking too hard."

"Maybe just you," Jon murmurs, glancing back at him.

"Is that so?"

"Yes, please, I'm - hurry up."

"Anything you want, love," Tormund hums. He slowly eases his fingers free, making Jon shiver, and then for a moment his hot thighs are pressed against Jon's as he arches to him, letting the head of his cock rub between his cheeks.

"Tormund," Jon pleads, equal parts fear and desire. A gentle pat at his side quiets him.

"All right. I think we should move, though. Just a little. On your side, Jon."

Too addled to argue, Jon settles gingerly onto his side, facing their fire, and feels immediately better when Tormund curls against his back in one hot, solid length, all muscle and hair and the hard press of his cock. Jon can smell another whiff of the herbal ointment, and when he feels the pressure of Tormund's cockhead against him, things are slick and ready. _He's_ ready.

They're a tangle of neatly slotted limbs, Tormund's forearm braced between the space under Jon's bicep. He nudges Jon's upper calf against his thigh before he starts to guide his cock home with his free hand, the smearing slick against Jon's rim and gradually pushing.

Jon feels warmth and pressure from every side, Tormund encompassing and invading him. He arches instinctively to relieve it, but Tormund's hand covers his hip, and he holds himself steady; tries to relax.

"All right, little crow?"

"I'm fine, don't stop."

He doesn't stop, pushing himself deeper and deeper inside, rendering Jon breathless with the stretch of it. Then he moves, and that's even better, a dragging, sapid sort of fullness, teasing every nerve, almost on the verge between pleasure and something not-quite painful.

Jon breathes hard through it, hips squirming restlessly, experimentally, to maximise contact in every way; to feel Tormund as deep as he can go. When the path becomes softer and easier, Jon can barely restrain the starts of moans, and soon, Tormund brushes against something inside him that makes his entire body tremble.

He jolts in surprise, and then Tormund puts his hand on his tremoring belly and keeps him there while he rocks again and again.

Jon means to say words, but nothing comes from his lips but a moan, trembling and long.

"There you are," Tormund sighs, keeping it up. "It's good, isn't it."

Fisting his hands into the furs, Jon just drops his face against his forearm and rocks his hips back experimentally. Another moan bleeds out.

"Tormund," he gasps.

"Perfect," Tormund praises softly. "Oh, love, you feel perfect."

Jon feels _afire_ with pleasure, and the foreign satisfaction of being filled and fucked. He feels utterly taken over, happily so, wrapped in Tormund's arms as he starts to let his hips jag faster and smoother, fucking another few startled moans out of Jon. They stutter when Tormund slows, rocks deep and punctuated, and then picks up speed again.

"Good?" Tormund checks again, breathless.

"Don't stop," Jon pleads.

"No," Tormund breathes, "no, never." He kisses Jon's shoulders with a sense of desperation that Jon can easily match.

Jon twists to kiss him, more a smear of cheeks and mouths than anything but still so intensely necessary. He needs it; needs him. Tormund wraps a hand around his braids and holds him in place. His hips snap fast and ruthless now, his other hand still tethering Jon close. Their voices meld in soft groans and cries.

Jon can feel himself dripping, throbbing, his cock untouched and still so hard. He's not even sure he needs it, this is so unimaginably good. He turns his face to Tormund's and breathes in the heat between them. He can feel Tormund stirring liquid heat in his core as he pistons faster still.

"Tor, I'm - I think -"

"Good," Tormund whispers back. He doesn't slow, in fact if anything his movements grow more pointed, his own breaths deep and vocal.

Everything in Jon moves with the same rhythm, and when his cries grow more demanding, Tormund gives him what he asks for without Jon even knowing what that is, grinding against that spot inside him that makes his vision cloud. He's swept away in the heat of it. It rushes up between his hips, stoked in his core like ash and ember licked by white hot flame.

With Tormund filling him entirely, Jon spills like a flood, against his own belly and inner thigh, clenching around Tormund in great pulses.

Clamped by the flickering muscles of Jon's body, Tormund's hips kick forward in an irregular rhythm.

"Jon, fuck-" He sounds lost, and Jon can feel him start to shake; his hands tightening, and then he surges and stalls unmistakably, a rush of warmth inside.

His weight comes down onto Jon after a moment, muscles relaxing with his release. He clutches Jon against his front, rubbing his face into the back of his neck, beard tickling.

"Love," he murmurs.

Jon can't speak, he's filled with the buzzing of nerves, still, but Tormund says no more, merely covering him with small kisses. Turning his face to it, Jon lets their lips connect, and sinks his fingers into Tormund's cloud of hair.

"Jon," Tormund whispers against his mouth.

"Husband," Jon whispers back.

He feels a smile. "My little crow. Never thought I'd get you here."

"Never say never, I suppose," Jon smiles back.

A soft hum of agreement, and Tormund's hand sliding up his belly, smearing wet. It splays over his heart, the cluster of scars there, while he slips out of Jon, staying close.

Jon whines a bit but curls gratefully into his arms. He's feeling tender and open and soft, and thoroughly in love with the feeling of it, though it has rendered him somewhat speechless.

"Let me look at you." Tormund turns him over gently, resettling him in his arms with their bodies making a narrow valley between them.

Jon looks back up at him and sighs at the warmth of Tormund's palm cupping his cheek.

"Flushed," he murmurs. "Prettty little crow."

"Men who called me pretty used to mean it as an insult," Jon points out.

"Their loss." His thumb skims under Jon's lower lip. "You're pretty, Jon, but don't think I don't know you're a hell of a warrior. I've seen you ride a dragon."

Jon smiles, only a little sad. "You've seen me get squashed by a bear and all."

"Don't think I don't know you were protecting me by drawing its attention."

"You don't need me to protect you," Jon laughs.

"Maybe I don't. But you still did," Tormund croons.

Jon sighs, kissing him to shut him up. He feels the love rolling off Tormund, and hopes to the Gods his own is just as apparent. He thinks it must be: Tormund looks completely at his leisure.

"Husband," he says after a while.

Jon peers up at him sleepily. "Husband?"

"Reminding myself. Reminding you. We're bound now." He sounds very self satisfied. "I meant what I said, Jon. I'll never let anyone take you. Not any king or queen. Even if you are fucking related to them all."

Jon buries his face in Tormund's chest. "Good. Don't."

"Never," Tormund repeats. He turns onto his back then, pulling Jon onto his chest to rest there.

On top of him, feeling his naked body pressed so unflinchingly against his own, Jon can't quite catch his breath.

"What we just did," he breathes, "can we do it again soon?"

"I don't think anyone's expecting to see us for a few days," Tormund chuckles.

"Good," Jon sighs.

Smiling, his eyes soft and satisfied, cheeks pink with drink and exertion, Tormund soothes a hand up and down his back.

"Stay here with me, Jon," he rumbles.

"I am. I will."

Tormund kisses him then, a soft, deep press of lips that ends with the nip of his teeth and a few more small kisses. Chuckling sleepily, Jon rubs their cheeks together and reaches blindly for their fur coverlets, pulling them up around them.

"Time to sleep a while," Tormund agrees, stroking Jon's curls.

A moment later, Jon hears a soft rustle, and then a whine. He looks up at Tormund.

"Ghost-"

"He can stay," Tormund murmurs, a smile in his voice.

Jon smiles and pats the end of the cot, and Ghost jumps up with a soft rumble, curling in a heavy, warm lump over their feet. Both of them laugh a little at the contended snuffles and snorts that drift up from the end of the bed.

"We're married," Tormund mumbles. "How do you feel?"

"Like a new person," Jon tells him.

"A good one?"

"With you? Yes."

"You've always been a good person, Jon."

"But now... I like what I am now."

"And what are you now, boy?"

"Yours."

"You are. And you're free."

Free. It rings like a bell in Jon's ears.

"Free," he murmurs.

"Aye, love. Free."

The thought makes Jon relax. He thinks he could fall asleep with his cheek pillowed against Tormund's chest, hearing the deep draw of his breath, running the words around his head. He thinks he wants to, every night.

He'll start with tonight.