Arya is bounding off the rig before it has properly swung into the driveway. Bags in both hands, she giddily bellows “FOOOOD!” as she bounces across the yard to the main entrance of the firehouse. Brienne simply rolls her eyes, straightening the wheel and carefully setting the brakes with a loud hiss and squeak sounding from the back. Normally they would pull straight into the garage, having already scrubbed the truck to a sparkle before leaving for a grocery run, but she wants to run a broom across the empty floor while it is still daylight.
The dusting of dry leaves across the ground from the large oak out front had swept into the open door on the broad breezes that September brought them. Never mind that she had called down from the cab to Jon to close it as they were leaving, distracted as he was by his phone she was certain he heard her instruction. Order? She wasn’t in charge of Jon, but she was... in a way. Brushing her fingers through her short platinum hair, and retucking her t-shirt into the back of her navy cargo pants she secretly smiled at the idea of having the garage to herself for a few minutes of sweeping. She just couldn’t bring herself to be bothered by it tonight as she jumped down and went to gently kick a chock behind the back wheel- not with the autumn glow slanting in from behind the tree line and the lights of the garage glinted across her rig as she turned to admire it. She made her way around the back to grab the largest cooler from the jump seat and her heart leapt at the feeling of being home, something she never took for granted here. Belonging.
Gendry, who had the courtesy to remain buckled-in until the truck came to a complete stop, eases out of the cab now with a full armload of gathered bags only to race ahead of her. “I’ll be back in a jiff, Brienne. Don’t try to shift it all inside on your own.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it! Tell those lazy sods to get out here and help while you’re at it. If Arya is already throwing those burgers together, I’ll take her off shopping duty permanently.”
Gendry flashed a grin at her and attempted a shrug with two loaded-down arms. He knew as well as her that the newbie was always hungry and Arya’s glee at getting Brienne to acquiesce to real beef burgers over turkey (as well as to the dragging of briquettes and grill outside to the drive tonight) had the girl bouncing in her seat the whole ride back. No doubt the boys would be pleased at the respite from the strictly healthy menu that she alone insisted upon. Tonight was a special occasion, afterall- the first shop of the month everyone gathered in the rec room whether they were on-call or not. The only time they were all there at once and no one missed it. Not even her old friend Davos, who had retired back in the Spring. It certainly helped that Poddrick always made a beer run for those not on-duty- an incentive to budget wisely, they split the bill and shared the reward. And Arya proved to have an eye for bargains at the big box store all the way across town, saving them enough coin for poker at least and she felt sure the boys would be clinking IPA’s tonight, to boot.
Despite her reluctance to automatically befriend the only other female in her engine house, Arya’s enthusiasm for everything was enough to spark real affection in her. She was initially surprised that the recruit was only slightly taller than the truck tires, but Davos insisted that she had applied with the best recommendations from the nearby volunteer department- one that took training seriously and had provided them with Jon only five years before, a double endorsement to be sure. And beggars can’t be choosers, as they were left wanting for new hires over two years now.
She smiled to herself as she crooked a finger into the handle of the door and kicked it wide with her toe, bumping the cooler through the entrance with ease. It was funny to her now, how concerned she had been about a woman upsetting the balance at the station. Once more she felt a swell of pride remembering the first time she saw the wee girl in full gear and SCBA tank strong-arm a giggling but limp Pod down the practice tower out back, the men gazing up at her with only slightly confused faces. Of all of them, she alone should have trusted that a female recruit would make her proud.
Not yet halfway around the corner, Brienne’s toe caught on something and she was suddenly fumbling long leg over limb to try and keep the cooler upright and in her arms. Catching herself and her galloping heartbeat, she turned back to see a large olive green rucksack sprawled across the hallway with a shoulder strap pulled to an arrow pointed at her foot. With a low growl, she hitched the cooler higher on her hip to wrap one arm around its width and swung wide the rec room door to her right.
“Oyy!” she bellowed into the room of cheerful but startled men. “I know we have our EMT brothers joining us tonight, but I doubt they come here to set bones and stitch together split foreheads!” She stared expectantly at Pod and Devos, who were left only to stare back, mouths slightly agape until Gendry rushed in from the kitchen door.
“It was me, Bri- I kicked it over accidentally as I passed by and meant to come right back after I dropped the bags”-
“No, don’t listen to him, we’ve had him distracted a minute, it was our fault!” Jon peeked at her apologetically from the space under the cabinets and above the island that divided the two rooms.
Letting the door swing shut behind her, Brienne watched as Arya popped her head out from the kitchen with an accusatory eyebrow crooked in her direction. She swung the door wide open and Jon slid out behind her, only half in the room and tucking a lock of hair behind his ear with a hesitation that made her uneasy. “C’mere, set that down. There’s someone here for you to meet.”
Three long strides and the two half-siblings split apart to make way for her large frame to pass through the open doorway.
There, in her kitchen, stood a tall stranger with a close crop of red hair and a sheepish grin set in the most ridiculous beard she had ever laid eyes on. Looking back over her shoulder at Jon, she startled as this stranger rushed to lift the forgotten cooler out from under her arm and stared back into her eyes with a frankness that made it hard to look away. “Name’s Tormund, miss. And the gunnysack’s mine. Would’ve broken my heart if it’d split open that pretty head of yours. Have a sit and I’ll get Jon boy to put this all in the fridge while I find a better spot for it. I wasn’t thinking.” His voice was a growling Scottish sounds- too loud for the space and he lurched forward a bit as he stared into her eyes, making them seem at bit crossed. A red checked flannel shirt stretched over his chest at the buttons as he grinned madly and flexed his biceps against the weight of the food. His sleeves were rolled up high on his forearms, and his arms were covered in the same red hair as his beard.
Brienne’s arms hovered in the air for a beat as she turned once more to look at Jon, a crease beginning to form between her brows. Over his shoulder, Devos gave her a small encouraging smile that only served to hasten the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Jon shuffled past her to the fridge without making eye contact and Arya grasped her elbow slightly, pulling her toward the back of the stationhouse and mumbling something about finding the grill. The door swung freely behind them as they crossed the rec room once more and she looked back at the door blinking slowly the scene of the very large man’s denim-covered bottom poking out of the fridge as he helped Jon toss things in with haste. Her fridge.
Like a record speeding up, Brienne’s thoughts caught up to her again while standing in the bright fluorescent light of the doorway to the shed out behind the fire station. The sound of Arya angrily tossing things about mixed with the sounds of her yelped “-could’ve told me two blasted days ago! And its my apartment too- we only just signed the lease last month for the EXACT purpose of not living at home with mom, and now he asks me on a minute’s notice to ‘go crash at home for a night’, when I-“
Brienne grimaced and said softly “Arya, what are you yelling about again? I’m sorry, I’ve not been listening.” She was still sorting out the arresting green eyes, the wild red beard. Her happiness at having everyone at home tonight had suddenly gone missing and she shivered slightly as a cool breeze slid up her back. “And who is that man in the kitchen with Jon? Was I to have known about this?”
Arya popped her head out from the back corner with owl eyes and tossed a large bag of charcoal at her chest with a grunt. She caught it and in swift form the can of lighter fluid tossed after it. “YOU! Yes, you ‘oh Brienne, Mistress of the fire station’ probably SHOULD’VE known about some wildfire man driving cross-country on Jon’s promise...” her words evaporated in the rattling sound of her dragging the metal grill out the door and over the path stones to the back of the garage and on through, “...and if he had helped me bring that second-hand couch I found back to our place! Well, I still would’ve had nowhere to shower that wasn’t covered in ginger beard hair, but-“
Arya wheeled about to stare at Brienne, who had followed her and was now standing a bit stupidly while holding the charcoal bag like an infant. “One bedroom. We both agreed- opposite shifts, dorm style.” She wrenched the bag out of her arms suddenly and tossed it on the concrete below the grill before ripping it open from the tab. “They are his student debts to pay off from that fancy university, not mine! He agreed to be the one to stay at home if there was ever overlap and he knows Gendry has to stay over some nights when he’s not at the station, because of his dad-” she grabs the can of lighter fluid and squeezes it haphazardly over the briquettes, “but he’s all ‘doe-eyed fine with it’ until his boyfriend shows up from the North or wherever-“
Brienne’s hand closes over her own, wresting away the bottle and giving her a look that says ‘that’s quite enough accelerant, young lady’ while she drags the grill a precious few more feet away from the engine. Arya rolls her eyes only just a bit before glancing back at something.
They all hustle out the front door now, Jon holding it open a beat and the men quickly converging on the front of the truck and making short work of all of the forgotten food bags. She pushes her hands in her pockets slowly as she watches the tall ginger one laugh loudly at something Devos has said before disappearing around the corner of the station with his green bag slung over his shoulder. He is back in a moment, hands full of six-packs and Sam and Sandor on his heels with more of the same. Both of the men glance up at her with soft expressions, nodding a hello from across the yard. His expression is anything but soft, licking up her frame in an odd way. The three look like fast-friends, having only met a heartbeat ago. She didn’t even hear their ambulance pull into the parking lot.
Glancing back forlornly at the open garage door and the push-broom leaning against the wall, she remembers suddenly that Pod was the one manning the dispatch room for first watch, though she has seen him everywhere but. With a great gust of a sigh pushing out of her lungs, she checks the call light inside the door out of habit and turns back to find Arya furiously flicking a lighter into the grill and cursing.
“So this man is a friend of Jon’s?” She leans her shoulder lightly against the truck, willing away a headache. Hoping Pod found his way back to the radio. Grumping a bit, probably.
Arya levels a sharp look at her and snaps, “Co-worker. His coworker from when he was on loan during all of those forest fires up north. Your newest hire, according to Jon! My new roommate, apparently!”
Brienne nods her head slowly. “He was a fire fighter when Jon was up north last year?”
“Forest fires... but yes. Probably doesn’t even have his first response levels or packable training or- “ Arya faltered as the fire caught and they both stared at the flames for a moment.
Willing her voice to be more positive than she felt, Brienne mummered “Arya, you know Jon wouldn’t bring him to Davos if he didn’t have the skills. And they all carry tanks, probably more often than we do, responding to our kitchen fires and asthma attacks.” She stands up straight now and crosses her arms decisively. “We need him, if... he’s good, that is. We’ve been short-staffed too long with new apartments built each quarter year... things were bound to change eventually.” Selfishly, she hoped not much. Not too much.
Behind her, she hears a throat clear and Davos reaches around her to hand Arya a heaping platter of raw meat patties. With an apologetic smile, he stands shoulder to shoulder with her, and gives a peace offering- a large grill spatula.
“He’s good. Jon’s filled me in a bit in the kitchen. Seems a right fit here, a good man to have around.” He shifts his weight from one foot to the other as they all watch the coals begin to glow orange. “Of course, its not my call anymore Bri but if you like I’ll put in a word with the mayor next week. They’ve been waiting for a request to hire, so it shouldn’t take you long to get him on the payroll.” He worries his beard a bit on the heel of his hand.
Refusing to look up, Arya begins slapping the burgers in rows across the grill.
“You’re not going anywhere, love.” Devos watches the girl for a moment, glances up at Brienne.
Brienne nods and clears her throat a bit before taking the que and continuing, “Jon should have told you he was coming. He definitely should’ve told me. But I promise you, Arya. You’re not being ambushed out of your place here. I’m only the acting chief right now, but I can promise you that your probation is just a technicality. If you didn’t have the required years before you came to work here, well- you’ve more than proved yourself.” She looks up to meet Davos’s eyes, “And we all know it. The boys all respect you, every one of us knows you would stake your life for ours and we’d do the same.”
Perhaps the girl’s eyes are just a glint too watery at the edges as she swallows then and nods, arms wrapping around her waist protectively in a way she never does. In the darkness dropping around them they hear footsteps then and turn to find Gendry with a handful of beer bottles.
“Good news, m’lady” he is grinning down at Arya, passing bottles around the circle, “Jon’s trading shifts with you tonight. You are officially off the clock and he promises you’ll have the house to yourself tonight.”
Brienne smiles softly at her two young friends and passes the spatula to the tallest. “Unfortunately, I am not off the clock... must go find someone to volunteer to polish off this beer in my honor. And whoever has mess duty better be prepping veg or they’ll have hell to pay.”
As she turns, she turns straight into the broad flannel wall of Tormund, only just arriving. She fumbles only a half step back before looking up into a mad smile that makes her feel a bit wobbly again. Thrusting a second beer at his empty left hand, she curtly says “Here- you look like a man who can handle two before the night is over. I’ve got to go... find your pretty friend.” As she leaves the glow of the grill, she glances back to find him staring at her gleefully before raising the beer to his lips and taking a long, slow drink.
For the second time today, she pushes open the door to the rec room with a strong arm and a soft thump. “JON.” All three men at the long table turn at once, Sandor chuckling lowly as he takes a sip of beer while Poddrick leaps up to cut through the kitchen to the dispatch room. Sam only watches her cross the room, chancing a playful “Ooooh-“ before her sharp gaze cuts him off. Sandor reaches back surreptitiously to turn down the scanner with an impish grin.
“Guard your balls, brother! I don’t know what you’ve done, but I’m glad it wasn’t me!” He leans back in a roar of laughter. He’s always roaring, or braying or shouting at his friends here, but he’s always here just the same- no one more willing to help you move or drive you to the airport, grumbly as he may be along the way.
She sees Jon peeping from under the cabinets once more before pushing her way into the kitchen. Drawing herself up to her full height, she has to remind herself not to put her hands on her hips like wonder woman and instead makes a sweeping gesture with an open hand towards the hallway. “May I have a quick word with you, oh captain my captain?”
In a child-like way, he holds up an enormous bowl of spring greens and radishes and carrots, all finely chopped and ready to serve, with edamame and almonds sprinkled throughout. He lets out a sigh before dropping it softly back onto the counter and following after her retreating form.
“I honestly didn’t mean to keep it from you.” He walks behind her past the showers and into the bunkroom, where she sits on a cot in the middle, boots and breeches tucked just under the end of each one. She slides the tips of her fingers between the cot and her outer thighs and quiets a moment, collecting her thoughts. “Ages ago he and I talked about him coming here, but I never thought... he called me today and he was just here, in his truck. You remember the stories I told you when I came back last year? He’s the one. He led us out of that brushfire when none of us could see it coming and the smoke was all around us. He ran hotshot crews no one would volunteer for, dragged men half a mile to get to a recovery point. And I haven’t promised him anything, but he’s good Brienne. I promise you he is.”
She took in his words with a thoughtful look and then nodded slowly, sliding her hands out and clasping them together as she leaned forward. His posture was all openness and contrition, palms pleading with her to forgive him.
“I believe you, Jon. I do.” She gazed up at him a moment and then leaned back with a sigh and gestured for him to sit down. “But we agreed when Davos left that I would be acting chief due to seniority and that includes hiring decisions. If we don’t want the city to bring in an outside hire we know nothing about, we have to show solidarity. The last three junior candidates all failed the review process, but it is me that has to find the next one and go listen to the council tear apart their credentials. You know I would be happy for you to have chief in time... but for now it is me. I’m it. I have to be the authority... and I know that doesn’t seem important but there will come a time when it is.”
“You are it. Brienne, no one is as happy for that as me. Every man and woman in this station is happy to follow you. You deserve it and we’re all better for it.”
She smiled one of her real smiles then, feeling her tiny corner of the world slide back into place. Her found family as knitted together as ever. Plus one, perhaps.
Standing, she reaches out a hand to him, pulling him up on his feet and wrapping an arm around his shoulders as they walked to the door. “And I wouldn’t trade you and your sister for the world. But you’re on thin ice with that one so let’s go feast and see if we can’t get ourselves sorted. At least for tonight.”
She and Pod ushered everyone out late, cutting beers off at a respectable time and cutting poker off at a less respectable time. Even she had to admit that the avocado burgers were good, everyone quieting for a precious moment as they took their first bites. She smiled to herself thinking of all the quinoa and kale they’d be eating to earn another. Barely a grumble about the menu anymore, they had all seen the changes in their waistlines and mile times. Everyone even seemed to enjoy a fresh face at the table last night, save herself. Try as she did, she could not shake that uncomfortable feeling of being on edge, busying herself with the washing up with Davos and refusing even to sit a hand at poker. Arya and Gendry left early and Sam begged off soon after saying Gilly had given him a strict curfew- in dollars lost.
Tormund had seemed agreeable enough the whole evening, listening to them all trot out old stories of almost dropping people from ladders and of chimney fires in lightning storms. Or, in the case of Sandor, tales of split eyelids and foreign objects in wrong places. But she had a nervous feeling all the while, something she wished she had grown out of by 34. He was just a man, something hard to forget after her failed attempt at escaping the goodbyes after poker. She heard the sound before she saw him- the soft brush of the broom bristles over the floor. Peering through the window of the supply room adjacent the garage, Brienne watched for a moment as he bent and rose, the sweeping motion natural to his tall, bulky frame. Jealous that he had stolen her moment alone in the garage, she allowed herself to watch under the guise that he might miss a corner or might knock into one of the gear racks. But as she watched she tried not to admit to herself that it was the broad back that kept her there. The flexing forearms, the fingers curled so gently around the handle. As she failed, she stepped back into the shadows and left to find someone else to move the rig back in and close up, and tried very hard not to feel like a coward.