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A Second Chance at Family

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Winterfell was peaceful, much more so than the last time Brienne had been there. A year prior, there’d been multiple large armies stationed outside the gates and many of Jon and Daenerys’ allies residing within the keep’s walls—but now it was comparatively quiet, filled only with the regular daily activity of servants, advisors, and Lady Lyanna Mormont.

Whatever business had taken Bran Stark from the castle was a lengthy thing, because months passed without Brienne catching a single glimpse of him nor hearing any word of his return. But Bran apparently had an implicit sense of trust in Lady Mormont to manage everything in his absence, even if he would be gone for months at a time—and as far as Brienne had been able to tell, his trust had not been misplaced. Lady Mormont may have been young, but she was stern, serious, and utterly competent.

She had requested both Tormund and Brienne to help train her in combat, wanting to learn both their fighting styles and tactics, and not a single soul in Winterfell seemed to begrudge her the desire to learn to fight—or, at the very least, none of them had the courage to express such a sentiment out loud anywhere where Brienne could hear them. But then, if Brienne remembered correctly, the Mormonts had had a long tradition of fighting women; Brienne’s own father had let her learn to fight, but only grudgingly, and the lack of pushback still struck Brienne as something of a novelty.

Lady Lyanna was small in stature still and wielded a sword in much the way Brienne imagined Arya must have before she’d begun learning to fight in the Bravosi style, fierce but underpracticed. Lady Lyanna might have benefitted from Arya’s tutelage, Brienne found herself thinking—but Arya had gone to Storm’s End with Gendry Baratheon not long after Brienne and Tormund’s wedding, remarking that Gendry had no idea how to manage a castle. Brienne wasn’t certain that Arya did, either, but she’d at least grown up the child of a great house, so she should have more of an inkling than the bastard blacksmith did. And Brienne knew as well as everyone else who had ever met Arya Stark: once she had made her mind up about something, there was absolutely no dissuading the girl.

Brienne had to hope that the two of them had good people at Storm’s End to give them advice; Brienne had loved Storm’s End, and it would grieve her to see the castle and lands that had once belonged to Renly fall into ruin not from war but from something so benign as mismanagement.

When she wasn’t instructing Lady Lyanna or taking care of Selwyn, Brienne found the rest of her time taken up with helping with various tasks around Winterfell. Some parts of the castle were still in serious disrepair, and Brienne and Tormund both did what they could to help with the rebuilding, slow going due to the snow that fell on and off every few days.

The other side effect of the damage to the structure was that Brienne and Tormund had had little choice but to share a room—and by extension, a bed. Brienne had become accustomed to sharing a bed with Tormund while they had been on the road, but that had been only intermittently; sleeping next to him every day had still been something of an adjustment. Brienne’s thoughts of protest had been stymied almost immediately, though, for even more than causing an inconvenience to Lady Mormont by asking for additional chambers, she was afraid to show any hint of discord between her and her husband, afraid to portray anything other than the fiction of the passionate love affair that had ended with her pregnant in the middle of the war.

But sharing a bed turned out to be a strangely less troublesome affair than Brienne had imagined; the bed was large enough that it was possible for both of them to have their space, and Tormund made no more overt moves to pursue her, perhaps waiting for her to come to him. Living with Tormund was, as it had been in King’s Landing, strangely pleasant—almost too pleasant, Brienne thought, as though they were just waiting for the equilibrium to shift, for everything to come crashing down around them.

They’d been at Winterfell for about four months when Brienne woke, for the first time, in her husband’s arms. It was something that, implausibly, had never occurred before; Tormund tended to be a restless sleeper, and although Brienne often woke in the same position in which she’d been when she’d fallen asleep, how Tormund woke tended to be incredibly variable. Sometimes he was so far away from her that he was almost falling off the edge of the bed—and sometimes, Brienne woke with Tormund’s arm around her waist, his hand on her thigh, or one ankle slung casually over hers. But those mornings, it had been easy enough to extricate herself before Tormund woke to find them in such a compromising position, easy enough to avoid any of the inevitable requests and accusations.

But that morning was different, and Brienne knew it the moment she returned to consciousness from sleep, even before she had a chance to open her eyes. She felt the rough, almost ticklish feeling of Tormund’s beard against her neck, the warm sensation of another body pressing against her side.

For a brief moment, once she realized the situation in which she’d found herself, Brienne felt a sense of rising panic—but she forced herself to calm down and consider her situation carefully while Tormund slept on, blissfully unaware. Tormund’s head was tucked against her neck, his right leg tossed casually over hers as he cuddled against her side. The most perilous part, though, was his arm thrown full across her chest in such a way that Brienne knew she would have a difficult time moving out of his grasp without waking him.

Tormund wasn’t a very light sleeper until there was some kind of noise; most mornings, if Selwyn didn’t wake them by crying, Brienne was able to slip out of their shared bed without him ever stirring. So Brienne set about strategizing the most methodical process of extricating herself from her husband’s arms.

She started with her leg, trying to slip it slowly out from beneath his—and trying to remain as silent as possible as she did so, knowing that any sound was more likely to wake him than her movements were. She bent her knee, using the movement to carefully leverage his leg off of her—and then stopped abruptly as he made a soft noise in his sleep. She froze in place for an interminable minute, waiting to see if he’d open his eyes—but there was no further reaction from him, so she continued, undeterred, in her attempts to extract her leg.

After another long minute, her leg was free, and so she turned her focus to the arm wrapped around her torso. It would be trickier, she realized, to move away without waking him, and after a bit of consideration, she resolved that the best way to get out of the predicament would be to simply try to slide out from under his arm. And so she shifted and, ever-so-slowly, started to move.

For a second, Brienne thought she was going to get away with it—but then Tormund released a groggy groan of protest, and his arm tightened reflexively around her. And then, she realized in a brief moment of shock before it happened, Tormund was kissing her.

It was clear that her husband was only half awake, his eyes still closed as his mouth found hers seemingly instinctually—and Brienne froze, too taken aback to react.

It was different than she’d thought, when she’d tried to force herself to consider this; the touch of his lips to hers was gentle, barely-there. His lips were dry, warm and slightly chapped from all the time spent outside in the cold; his beard tickled her skin as it brushed against it, the hair there coarse and thick.

Her senses returning to her suddenly, she pushed Tormund away almost without thinking about what she was doing. He didn’t quite fall out of the bed—though it was a near enough thing—but his eyes shot open suddenly, catching himself before he tumbled backward to the floor. His posture went tense almost immediately, searching their surroundings for any sign of danger—and after a long moment, his eyes fell on her, and that seemed to produce a moment of recollection, of clarity. His eyes narrowed.

“So I’m thrown out of bed for kissing my wife?” he inquired, voice still gravelly and uneven from sleep—and his tone wasn’t obviously anger, was indistinct and difficult to read. Brienne felt a renewed moment of shame at his words; their arrangement certainly wasn’t a typical one between a husband and wife, but put in Tormund’s words, it sounded like a bitter accusation. After all, he’d asked her to be his wife not just in name, and she’d agreed—and then she’d gone back on her promise, unable to hold up her end of the bargain, and she still couldn’t put her finger on why it was so difficult for her to truly see Tormund as her husband.

“I’m sorry,” Brienne told him, quietly and sincerely, unable to think of anything better to say; although she knew she owed him an explanation, she still didn’t have one. Tormund rubbed his eyes, a strangely innocent gesture, belied by the crassness of his next words.

“You won’t fuck me because you want to fuck your one-handed crow,” he declared with absolutely no pretense of propriety. Something about the way he said it, the suddenness of the statement, struck Brienne.

“No, I—”

Tormund cut her off, something he rarely did, and that was the only reason Brienne could tell how angry he was, because his voice remained strangely soft and even.

“Don’t lie to me, lady knight,” he said sternly. “You’re not good at it.”

It was strange to hear the words directed at her in anger, an address Brienne had come to think of almost as a term of endearment from him. It was a peculiarity of Tormund’s that Brienne had gotten used to very quickly, the way he never actually referred to her by name. It could have been irksome, even patronizing if it was directed only at her—but she’d found that it was a quirk of Tormund’s that applied to most everyone.

His tone was flat, still, but it was hard to imagine that there wasn’t animosity behind the words, and Brienne had no idea how to respond. Her instinctive reaction was to want to tell him that he was wrong, that she didn’t have any desire to bed Jaime Lannister—but she knew that that would be a lie, and lying on top of everything else she’d already done to him seemed unbearably cruel. She’d never bedded a man, although she of course knew what that entailed—but even so, it was difficult for her to imagine what bedding Jaime would even mean.

Except that she was still entirely certain that she did want to.

“You’re my husband—” Brienne started feebly instead, and he uncharacteristically cut her off a second time.

“And you want to fuck the one-handed crow,” he said again, more forcefully this time—and Brienne fell guiltily silent, unable to make herself deny the accusation. She looked at her husband helplessly, not sure what he wanted her to say; she was so thrown off-kilter by the unexpected turn the interaction had taken that she was woefully unprepared for it, her mind feeling thick and slow, as though she wasn’t yet fully awake. Perhaps, so thought helplessly, this was all a strange dream.

“So do it,” he startled her by saying, his voice flat and emotionless. Brienne stared at him, not sure she hadn’t imagined the words.

What?”

Tormund sighed, shaking his head like he was disappointed in her, like he couldn’t quite believe that she was so thick. When he spoke the next time, his voice was low and gentle once more.

“Take the babe to see its father at the Wall,” he suggested.

Brienne continued to stare at him in disbelief, everything about the suggestion sending her reeling, both the idea that Tormund could suggest it and the idea that any of it would even be possible in any way. The idea that her husband was asking her—no, almost commanding her—to have sex with another man was something that, for as little as she knew about marriage, she certainly hadn’t had any idea to expect, hadn’t been even remotely prepared for.

“He doesn’t want me, Tormund,” she told him numbly, with perfect conviction behind her words. Because since she’d first met Jaime, he’d referred to her as a beast and mocked her for not being enough of a woman; she was certainly no competition for Jaime’s one and only great love. Cersei, for all her other faults, had been beautiful and ladylike in ways that Brienne couldn’t even hope to mimic; even trying would be nothing more than a grotesque mockery of the mere idea of femininity.

Tormund gave her a long-suffering look.

“He gave you his baby,” he insisted impatiently. “He gave you away at our wedding. He wants you more than you think.”

Brienne shook her head reflexively; Tormund had scarcely even spoken to Jaime, and when he had, it had generally only been due to disagreements about battle strategy. Tormund didn’t know anything about Jaime, and certainly not enough to truly understand if Jaime had feelings for her. But from the steely look in Tormund’s eyes, it didn’t seem worthwhile to argue that point with him; even if he had very little to support his claim, his expression told her he wasn’t going to back down from it.

“The Night’s Watch has vows,” she reminded him instead, a sense of hysteria building up inside her at the absolute insanity of the conversation she was having.

Tormund laughed a full, throaty laugh.

“The crow fucked his sister,” he reminded her once he’d gotten control of himself again, and Brienne winced at it being laid out so plainly before her once again, one of those irreconcilable bits of darkness that muddied Brienne’s love for the man. “He doesn’t care about rules.”

And Jaime had been a member of the Kingsguard at the time, Brienne’s inner voice told her insidiously. They had vows, too.

When Brienne didn’t say anything in return, Tormund seemed to think he’d won the argument, and perhaps he had. He stood from the bed, making his way over to Selwyn’s crib—and Brienne only then noticed that the child was awake, standing and supporting his weight on the edge of the crib to keep himself on his feet. For once, Selwyn had woken silently, and he was staring at them with large, blue eyes, curious and interested. Tormund gathered Selwyn up into his arms and turned back to Brienne.

“We can’t keep on like this,” Tormund said to her, with a sense of sincerity. “So fuck him, find out what it’s like, and get it out of your system.”

And with that, Tormund turned and left the room with Selwyn, and all Brienne could think of then was the genuine hope that their son wouldn’t immediately learn the word “fuck.”