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Dragonstone

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291 AC

Lord Jon Arryn

In some ways, Jon Arryn silently conceded, there was a hint of merit to this plan. Like everything the king did these days, though, it lacked any hint of subtlety. He was reminded, not entirely pleasantly, of a much younger Robert offering his toys and his practice arms and the sun and moon to Ned when the lumbering little boy had done something, once again, to offend his foster brother's rigid sense of honour. Then again, it wasn't surprising. Since taking the throne, Robert had been making overtures to reclaim Ned's friendship the only way he knew how. The North flourished for his efforts. Still, this was the most lavish gift yet. "I realise Dragonstone needs a new lord, Your Grace," he said, keeping his voice low as he attempted to talk reason into the king he couldn't help but still see as a boy all too often. "But Ned won't leave the North. He's already rebuilding Moat Cailin as a seat for his brother." On the crown's dime, Jon did not add. "He will not consent to have his only son and heir be given a seat in the South."

"Ned has two sons," Robert said. "He loves the bastard dearly, everyone says so. He should be happy to see him legitimised, and made a lord of his own holdings at that." Robert was smiling at the idea, and Jon absently wondered how much wine he had had today. It was barely an hour past the midday meal.

"There are plenty of second sons of noble Houses who did you a great service during the Greyjoy Rebellion," Jon said, hoping to reason with him. Gods, if only Stannis had had the fortune to survive the fighting. "Grown, seasoned warriors. Reward one of them, Your Grace. A boy of - what is he even? Six, seven? He will never be able to hold Dragonstone, no matter the title you give him. Your brother was nearly killed several times in his years there, and he was a man grown. They say the North remembers, but the blood of Old Valyria never forgets. Ned will not thank you for throwing one of his wolf pups to the likes of Celtigar and Velaryon. Not to mention that Winterfell is far inland. Even if the boy were ten name days older, he would have no idea what to do with an island, let alone a fleet."

Robert huffed, and the determination his eyes showed now was of the kind Jon had long since learnt to dread. "Ned's brother is a man grown now, is he not?" he said. "And yet his seat is years from being completed. And he married that Mormont girl of Bear Island. Let them come along with the boy, help him rule until he is of age. Those damn dragon lovers on the Narrow Sea could benefit from a bit of rigid Northern leadership these days. Perhaps that will teach them not to have half their ships off on business in the Free Cities the next time I need their fleet."

Jon sighed, ran through it all again within the sanctity of his own mind. Once again, reluctantly, he had to admit there was some small merit to Robert's mad plan. If Ned's bastard had anything of his father in him, he might truly be exactly what Dragonstone needed. And until he could grow into it, Benjen Stark might very well do as regent. The young man, by all accounts, had a good head on his shoulders. And the point about the Mormont woman was one Jon had not even thought of himself. They would have a hard few years at first, but down the line having the son of one of Robert's most loyal Lords Paramount - and Ned was that, regardless of the rift between the two of them, Jon had to believe that much at least - on the seat of Dragonstone could very well turn out to be a good thing. And who knew, maybe this overture of Robert's would finally be the one that would make Ned look upon him with kinder eyes.

"He even named the boy after you, did he not?" Robert asked, grinning more widely now that Jon was beginning to relent. "Jon Snow, or some such? What do they name their bastards up North again?"

"Jon Sand," Jon corrected. "The boy was born in Dorne." And by the Gods, he wished the boy had been born to any other woman than Ashara Dayne. If Ned had fathered him on some tavern wench, he and Robert might have been able to reconcile in their shared sorrow over Lyanna's death. Instead, Ned had returned to the Red Keep with his bastard, a wet nurse and Arthur Dayne in tow. Thus, his short stay for Robert's coronation had been a series of fights between the two over whether Dayne should be allowed to give up the White to help raise his beloved sister's child or not. Jon, truthfully, had breathed a sigh of relief when Robert had finally acquiesced and allowed Dayne to go North with his nephew. As big a legend as Dayne was and as powerful a symbol as he would have been in Robert's Kingsguard, Robert would've never been safe with one of Rhaegar Targaryen's closest friends and companions always at his back. The boy would have that, at least, Jon supposed. If he was to be plopped down in hostile territory when he was barely old enough to leave the nursery at Winterfell, at least he would have the Sword of the Morning protecting him. Jon barely kept himself from giving another sigh. "Very well," he conceded. "I will write out the legitimisation and send orders to Winterfell tonight." He reached out and pushed his hair out of his face. It was nearly all grey now, and slowly turning white. No thanks to Robert. "Now, what are we going to do about the Reach?"

Immediately, Robert's mood soured, and he spent a moment just glowering. For good reason too. If the Reach had come when they were called upon rather than dithering for moons upon moons, the Greyjoy Rebellion might have been a brief affair. Instead, they had sent less than half their fleet and arrived only when the bitter, bloody fighting was near done and had already claimed the life of many good men, the king's brother not least among them. "I should have Mace Tyrell's head for his inaction," Robert growled.

Part of Jon wanted to agree. He was not sure the Tyrells would ever truly forget that the Targaryens had given them Highgarden, the Reach, so much of what they had. They might have bent the knee, but they still dallied, and they would unbend given half a chance. "We cannot afford another war, Your Grace," he said. "Many of our men were lost, and those who remain are weary. They will have only just returned to their homes and families, and the Reach forces are fresh. If we try to muster now..."

"And the devils knew that when they tarried, did they not?" Robert asked. He picked up his goblet and drank deeply. "Tyrell has a little girl, does he not?"

"You cannot possibly mean to betroth her to Prince Joffrey," Jon said. "At this point, even the Martells have done more to warrant the honour. Do not reward them for their missteps."

Robert smiled as though he were playing some great joke. "They are not who I mean to reward," he said.

Jon picked up his meaning within a moment. "Ned will not consent," he said then. "You know how the North is. Ned's Lady Wife is Southron. His bannermen will not accept a Southron bride for young Robb as well."

Robert's grin widened. "Not my namesake," he said. "Yours. Ned loves young Jon as much as he loves his trueborn son. So Jon shall be given his father's name, a lordship, and a Lord Paramount's daughter for wife."

Jon sighed. Again, there was some merit to the plan, but it was risky. Sometimes he truly preferred it when Robert stayed as wilfully separate from politics and the running of the realm as he could. "Even if you give the boy the Stark name, he will still have been born a bastard. They might have accepted the heir to Winterfell, but planting their little rose on dreary Dragonstone with a baseborn husband... It is an insult, and they will take it as such."

Robert shrugged. "It is an insult. Hopefully it will teach them to think twice the next time they are reluctant to come to heel. We will find a way to give them the right incentives," he said. "More stick than carrot, I should think. And once the little rose has a Stark babe in her belly, they will be quicker to obey. Ned is my brother in all but name. His boys are the closest things I have to nephews. The Tyrells know that. They know rising against the Stag is the same as rising against the Wolf, and whatever else they are, the little flowers are not kinslayers."

"You speak about babes when the children in question are little more than that themselves," Jon said with a sigh.

"They will wed as soon as she flowers," Robert said. "They are of an age, are they not? I would wager that when she flowers, the boy will be close enough to grown to put a babe in her. Some five or six years is not that long in the great scale of things."

Robert, Jon knew, was not going to budge, not this time. So what was there to do except write out the letters?

***




Lord Eddard Stark

Ned did not break the seal on the letters until after the King's messenger and most of the household had gone to bed. He was not all that eager to read about what Robert wanted - or wanted to give - this time. He never was. Robert's letters were always penned in Jon Arryn's hand, and always a source of embarrassment and resentment and weary sadness. He could no more forgive Robert's easy acceptance of the Targaryen children's death than he could stop imagining Jon Sand in their place, his little skull smashed in, half a hundred stab wounds all over his small body. He could no more turn down Robert's gifts than he could be truly happy about them. He could not think about his foster brother without feeling an unsettling longing for what had once been. He sucked in a breath, steeled himself, and broke the seal.

He read the letter through once, then twice, and it was all he could do not to laugh, or cry. He was not sure which urge was strongest. He would have asked for Jon to be legitimised years ago if not for the fear and sorrow it would bring his wife, if not for his own fear of what would happen if Robert ever stopped to pay attention to little Jon's existence. Except it seemed that Robert had never forgotten about Jon, but had also never once stopped to put the clues together, and thank the Gods for that.

He had never believed in such a thing as fate, but for a moment there, he thought he might. In another world, another life, Jon would have been born the Prince of Summerhall, or even the Prince of Dragonstone. Certainly that, after little Aegon's death. And somehow, now, Robert, knowing nothing, had seen fit to make Jon Lord of Dragonstone. There was irony to it, and Ned could not help but feel chilled down to his bones at it, at the momentary thought that maybe everything had been written out already, maybe they were all playing out the roles set for them, and some things were writ in stone regardless of what else might happen. The thought of it frightened him. The thought of little Jon on Dragonstone made him shudder. The thought of sending away the child he had come to love as his own hurt like a blade between his ribs. Jon belonged in the North, in Winterfell, where Ned could look over him, could ensure his safety, where he could try his best to give him all the love his parents were unable to.

In the end, though, the only thing within Ned's power to withhold from Robert was his friendship. And if these often cruel Gods of theirs somehow, for whatever reasons, saw fit to gift Jon with some small sliver of what should have been his by birth, Ned could not deny them. Not when they weight of Arthur Dayne's accusing eyes grew heavier by the day, not when Jon himself grew more silent and solemn with every moon that passed, as if some little piece of his nephew was scoured away for every day he had to believe himself nothing more than the bastard of Winterfell.

Still, his hands shook with apprehension when he wrote back his acceptance to Robert.

***




Lady Olenna Tyrell

"This is an insult," Mace all but screamed, his hands shaking around the letter he held as he paced around the solar. "That, that Baratheon upstart want me to marry my daughter to a bastard?"

For once in her life, Olenna Tyrell found herself agreeing with her lackwit son. Something inside her clenched in shame and rage at the thought of sweet little Margaery married to a Northern bastard of all things. She clenched her hands around the armrests of her chair. Still, she kept herself calm. "I told you and Paxter it was not time to play games just yet," she said. "You would not listen to me." Of course, they might have all lucked out if Paxter's little scheme had succeeded and the king and his main allies had been slain fighting the Greyjoys, which was why she, foolishly, had not pushed harder. Now was not the time to dwell on past mistakes, however. She wanted her sweet granddaughter to marry a crass lowborn Northerner as much as Mace did, but sometimes there was nothing to do but work with what you had. Let the board reset, take time to reassess the pieces and move on from there. "Margaery is years away from flowering," she said. "There is plenty of time to figure out where we shall go next."

Mace huffed. "With Garlan in Riverrun with Hoster Tully - and I can no more turn that invitation down than I can turn down the betrothal - there is nothing we can do," he said. "One toe out of line, and my little boy..." He trailed off, shaking his head, his round cheeks flushing in anger. At least he had the good sense to see that Garlan would be going as a hostage, rather than a squire, whatever word Jon Arryn chose to use.

Margaery was supposed to have married so much higher than this, was supposed to have been a princess or a queen. Marrying the Prince of Dragonstone would have been a dream once - it had been all their dream, before the War of the Usurper was lost, that Margaery might be born a girl and one day be betrothed to Prince Aegon, and then he had died and their plans had been for naught. Marrying a mere Lord of Dragonstone was something else. The Starks would never be the Targaryens, and the Lord of Dragonstone was no longer first in line for the throne. Mace was right; this truly was an insult of the highest rank.

"Mayhap he is a good boy," Alerie spoke up from the other chair, her voice soft and uncertain. "Mayhap he will be good to her."

Olenna let out a long sigh at her gooddaughter's words. "He will still be a bastard," she said.

"If things had not gone so very wrong, he would not have been," Alerie said, holding fast to her opinion more stubbornly than she usually would. "It is said that Eddard Stark and Ashara Dayne pledged to wed after the Tourney at Harrenhal. If not for the war and Brandon Stark's death, they would have, and Jon Sand would have been born Jon Stark. Both his parents are highborn, and he is being raised and trained by the Sword of the Morning himself. He was born of love, not treason. The kind of bastard you lament, not the kind you despise."

Olenna bit back a snort. A bastard was a bastard was a bastard. "Like I said," she repeated. "Dear Margaery's flowering is years away yet. We have time to think. Time to meet him and see for ourselves," she added, for her gooddaughter's benefit as she tried not to roll her eyes. "Nothing is set in stone just yet." Even if the proposal could not be turned down, there were ways around that. Young boys receiving martial training often did not survive to wed, betrothal or not. And she did not imagine the bastard of one of the Usurper's dogs would go unscathed on Dragonstone, even if Olenna did not help things along.

Chapter Text

293 AC

Lord Jon Stark

Jon Stark's fingers clenched around the railing. He breathed in the salty tang of the sea air, felt the wind ruffle his hair. Beneath him, the ship rocked on the waves. Ahead of him, out of the fog, came the ghostly sight of a castle, sat high atop the cliffs of the island. It was tall and imposing, its towers shaped like snarling dragons. Something inside him swelled at the sight.

The island was forbidding and grim, more so the more he looked at it. But it was his. He, who should have never been a lord or have held any lands or owned any keep. This was his, and he would have loved it if it were a hut on a slab of rock in the Iron Islands. He may not have always felt that way, no. He still remembered the anger that had burnt through him when he had realised he had been given the name he had always wanted, but only on the condition that he leave Winterfell and make his home elsewhere. He had hated his Lord Father, the king, the Gods themselves, for giving him a taste of what he wanted, but not all of it. As the moons had passed, though, he had felt the rage slip away.

He was a Stark. That, more than anything, more than Winterfell, had been what he had always wanted. He had had two years to adjust to the fact that he would have to leave, two years to grow weary of Lady Catelyn's hard, sharp eyes and pointed comments about what was owed to baby Bran. And now that he was here... He would miss Winterfell. But there was no Lady Catelyn here. There was no father or Robb or Arya either, but Uncle Benjen was waiting there with Aunt Dacey, and Uncle Arthur was standing just behind him, making sure he didn't overbalance on the ship's deck. Once, for a few moons between realising what it meant that he was a bastard and finding out he had been given this gift, he had thought the only place for him might be the Night's Watch, but here was something else, somewhere else to make a name for himself. A future. It was more than he was owed, and he was grateful, especially after all Uncle Arthur's stories. He could not wait to see the Great Drum and the map of Westeros, could not wait to see the statues up close and go hunting for dragon eggs and brightly coloured dragonglass in the passages beneath the castle. This was such a grand, important, historical place, and the thought that it was all his was nearly enough to overwhelm him.

Uncle Arthur's hand closed around his shoulder as they made landfall, and Jon set his first foot on the island. He breathed in the salt and sulphur in the air, and felt somehow lighter than he ever had. Winterfell was home, and safe. It was where his family was, more than anything, where he had been raised, the only place he had known. But as his dreams of the crypts had grown more and more frequent, as Lady Catelyn's gaze had grown sharper, he had felt less and less like he belonged, had felt an ever growing urge to disappear into the walls. Here... Everything was strange and unfamiliar, but it felt almost as though the island itself was reaching out to embrace him. This was not home, not yet. But he belonged. He did not know how or why, but he knew, deep within his gut. This, for whatever reason, was where he was meant to be. He glanced over his shoulder at Uncle Arthur.

His uncle gave him a slight smile, squeezed his shoulder. "Welcome home," he said.

Jon choked on a breath, but then regained his grip on himself. "Thank you, Uncle," he said, felt his mouth tuck into a smile. He looked around himself. He wanted to explore the town, the harbour, the castle. Wanted to get on a horse and ride around the rocky beaches and cliffs, wanted to go and go and go until he knew every inch of the island better than he had ever known Winterfell. There would be no crypts and Kings of Winter here, no angry forefathers telling him he was unwelcome and did not belong. Maybe tonight he would sleep well, for the first time in years. Some part of him wanted to kneel down and embrace the very ground at the thought of it, and that sensation nearly brought tears to his eyes. He held it back. He was no babe to weep at the chance of being his own man.

Uncle Arthur's hand tightened further, and without knowing why, Jon turned back and threw himself into his uncle's arms, holding on tight as he shook from the force of it all. Arthur caught him and held him close, stroking his back and shushing him with words Jon did not understand or recognise. They sounded like High Valyrian, but Maester Luwin had barely started on their lessons in that before he left, and Jon could not grasp the meaning, so he just clung on and squeezed his eyes shut so he would not cry at the force of it all.

***

He planted a weirwood sapling along with a few ironwoods, sentinels and oaks in a corner of the overgrown gardens with Uncle Benjen and Aunt Dacey. It did not feel at all like the Godswood in Winterfell, but then the Godswood in Winterfell was near ten thousand years old, and this one newly planted. Maybe one day the Old Gods would make him feel soothed and sheltered here like they did in the North.

He worked on sums and letters and languages with the unfamiliar old maester, who always looked sad and liked to ruffle Jon's hair and tell him stories about Stannis Baratheon. He trained at swords and riding with Uncle Arthur. He listened to petitions from the smallfolk with Uncle Benjen at his side and Uncle Arthur at his back. When the septa who had apparently been living there since time untold offered to teach him music, Uncle Arthur encouraged him to learn the high harp. Jon did not understand why, and gave it up quickly. He had no head for music, could scarcely tell when a tune was wrong, and his Northern tongue was not shaped for the flowery words of Southron ballads. He did not know why it seemed to make Uncle Arthur sad; they put it behind them without another word.

Bit by bit, Jon's life began to fall into a routine. He no longer woke up confused by his unfamiliar chamber or the gritty salt air. He no longer stopped short and looked around for his father when someone addressed him as Lord Stark. Bit by bit, everything became less confusing. He did not stop missing Robb and Arya and his Lord Father, but the pain dulled to a steady throb rather than the fierce ache that had brought him close to crying himself to sleep many of his first nights there.

He had not even realised Uncle Arthur had been having the servants bring old paintings and tapestries up from one of the vaults until he came upon him and Uncle Benjen arguing about it. Hanging over the Painted Table was a portrait of a strangely familiar young man. His pale hair and purple eyes marked him a Targaryen, and Jon even recognised the legendary sword Blackfyre from his history lessons. "--must be able to see that putting up Targaryen artefacts will not endear Jon to anyone," Uncle Benjen was saying, face tight as he stared Uncle Arthur down. "Especially given the fact that no one has forgotten your old allegiances, let alone the boy's Lady Mother's."

"The place was too dreary," Uncle Arthur countered. Jon contemplated making them aware of his presence, but eventually decided not to. He did not care much about how the castle was decorated. The fact that his uncles apparently did was more than a little puzzling. "I have no idea how Stannis Baratheon stood it for all those years, or how you and Dacey have stood it for the past two."

"So have new decorations made," Uncle Benjen said, throwing up his arms. "You must know how this will make us look."

"To the bannermen, it will make it look as though Jon values and respects the history of the castle, regardless of the current political climate," Uncle Arthur said. "And I did order new decorations," he added, pointing at the banner hanging along the opposite wall, a white direwolf on a field of black. Jon was not sure who had made it up, but he had liked it since the first time he realised he would have a sigil of his very own. Still a Stark, even if he was no longer a Stark of Winterfell. He had taken to wearing black as often as he could since his father had first showed him the sigil, wearing his own colours as proudly as he had never really been able to wear those of Winterfell. "You can honour a grand history without betraying your own allegiances," Uncle Arthur said.

Uncle Benjen huffed. "And what are those allegiances, Ser Arthur?"

Uncle Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. The hilt of Dawn became visible at his side. "House Stark of Dragonstone. As it's been since the first time I saw Jon."

Jon felt a flush of warmth, felt a smile steal over his face. It was true. His uncle had always been good to him, even if he had been an occasionally hard taskmaster, even if he seemed to expect more, more intelligence, more talent with a blade, more everything, than anyone else Jon had known. He had always been there, protecting him, teaching him, pushing him, and Jon knew without a doubt that growing up a bastard would have been unbearable without his uncle there to shield him from the things even his Lord Father might have missed. "I like the painting," he declared, walking forwards. "Who is it?"

Uncle Benjen's eyes widened as he realised Jon was there. If Arthur was surprised at all - and Jon somehow doubted his uncle had not known he was there - he did not show it, just gave him that customary warm smile of his. Then Uncle Benjen glanced at the painting with a huff and made to leave only to throw a shocked glance at Jon, then back at the painting, face draining of colour, just slightly, before he walked out.

"Aegon the Conqueror," Uncle Arthur said. "The first king of Westeros."

Jon felt a smile tug on his lips as he looked up at the painting again. That would be why he looked familiar. Jon must have seen him in some depiction or other during one of his lessons. Aegon the Conqueror was legendary, strong and brave, and so important to the history of the entire country. No matter what King Robert's view of Targaryens was, no one could possibly fault Jon for displaying the very man who had once forged his Iron Throne, could they? Then, remembering Uncle Benjen's words, he felt his face fall just a little. "Is it true?" he asked. "What Uncle Benjen said? Are you still loyal to the Targaryens?"

Uncle Arthur crouched down in front of him until they were at a height, reached out and gripped Jon's shoulders firmly. "I am loyal to you," he said. "My little Prince of Dragonstone."

Jon wrinkled his nose. "I am not little," he protested. "And I am no prince. Just a lord." Even saying that still brought a disbelieving smile to his face. He bit his lip. "You were friends with Rhaegar Targaryen, though. That means something too."

"It does," Arthur acknowledged.

"So if you knew where the Targaryen children were, would you not leave me to help them take back the Throne?" he asked.

Uncle Arthur pulled Jon tight against his chest, ruffling his hair with one hand. "Never," he said. "Since the first moment I saw you, you have been the most important person in the world to me. I have only ever wanted what was best for you. I will never betray you. And I will not leave you, even when I have grown old and grey and you have grown weary of my company."

Jon breathed easier at that, although he was uncertain why he had needed the reassurance in the first place. For all his life, Uncle Arthur had been the one person he had always known he could count on. That would not change, even if everything else did. "I will not," he protested, even as he hugged his uncle back.

Uncle Arthur laughed, gave his hair a gentle tug as he got back on his feet. "Come on, then," he said. "I believe it is high time we get you started on live steel."

***

Monford Valeryon showed up one day without so much as announcing himself. Jon knew they should have feasted the bannermen before now - he had been on Dragonstone for near on six moons already - but everyone kept saying how he was not ready. And he did not feel ready. Raised a bastard of Dorne and the North, and the son of a man the realm believed to be King Robert's best friend, he knew none of them were likely to welcome him kindly. Truly, he would be lucky if trying to feast them did not end with a blade in his back. They barely had time to get ready. Nonetheless, Uncle Arthur sent him to his chambers to change out of his practice leathers. As per Arthur's instructions, he wore black with a red doublet as he raced back towards the courtyard. Uncle Arthur caught up with him outside. He had changed as well, and instead of the nondescript clothes Jon was used to seeing his uncle in, Arthur wore his own house colours, though the purple seemed to be barely more than a detail against the white. He had strapped Dawn to his side, and Jon felt immediately less frightened when his uncle fell into step next to him. He had no idea where Uncle Benjen and Aunt Dacey were. They had been disappearing more and more often lately; the servants whispered he would probably have a cousin before the year was out.

They took their places on the cobblestones just as the gate was opened. A small retinue stepped inside. The man at their head was tall and lean, perhaps a decade and a half Uncle Arthur's senior. He wore white and teal, and a seahorse decorated his doublet. His presence was imposing enough that Jon had to fight the urge to bow like he always had to in Winterfell when they received visitors. But he was not a bastard here, Jon reminded himself. He was the liege lord, and this was his bannerman, arriving unannounced and uninvited. He gritted his jaw and kept his spine straight as steel. "Lord Monford," he greeted, hating the way he had to crane his neck to meet Velaryon's eyes as the man came closer. "Welcome."

Monford Velaryon's bow was not nearly as low as was proper, barely more than an inclination of his head. "Lord Stark," he greeted, and somehow managed to make the very words sound mocking. There was a hint of a foreign accent in his pronunciation. Was Velaryon one of the Houses the maester said still learnt High Valyrian as their first language? Probably.

Before Jon could quite figure out how to move the conversation forwards, Aunt Dacey and Uncle Benjen joined them, Aunt Dacey holding a plate of bread and salt, and Jon had to forcibly bite back a sigh of relief when Lord Velaryon thanked her and ate. He was not sure how much guest rights meant in the South, but it had to count for something. "Let us retire inside, My Lord," Uncle Benjen said, his voice smoothening and losing some of its brogue. Benjen and Dacey had been here for two years already, Jon reminded himself, if only to keep the surprise at bay. After Velaryon had agreed, Uncle Benjen led the way inside, though not before casting a strange glance over his shoulder at Jon. Jon followed, with Uncle Arthur just a step behind, at his right shoulder.

They entered the Stone Drum, and went through into one of the smaller halls where a pair of fast-thinking servants were already laying out a small luncheon. Once everyone was seated and food had been distributed onto the plates, Uncle Benjen looked up at Velaryon, grey eyes piercing. "What brings you here, My Lord?" Uninvited, he did not say, but the directness of the question, Jon supposed, was enough to imply it.

"I am here," Velaryon said, "On behalf of myself, Celtigar, Sunglass and Bar Emmon, to let the Lord of Dragonstone know that the ships we were ordered to add to our fleets have been built. And to request the promised stipend."

Jon frowned.

Aunt Dacey waved over one of the servants. "Get the Maester, would you?"

Benjen cocked an eyebrow at Velaryon. "I fear I have not been informed of any of this."

Velaryon all but smirked. "When Lord Stannis requested our aid in suppressing the Greyjoy uprising, we could not muster the ships he required since most of ours were on business in Essos and difficult to recall. He told us we clearly did not have enough ships if they were not available to the crown when needed, and to go get ourselves more. When I asked him if he would fund them, he was kind enough to promise to do so. I'm sure your maester can confirm this."

Jon swallowed. He had not truly familiarised himself with the book keeping of the castle yet. It would be nearly six years before Uncle Benjen's regency ended, after all, and his uncles and the maester had agreed it was more important for him to focus on his education for now. But he knew, depending on the number of ships, that they would be hard pressed to pay. Dragonstone was not a rich holding in and of itself, meant, traditionally, to provide the crowned prince and his family with a bit of spending money and not much more. With the bare number of bannermen, who were apparently very good at withholding taxes without much of a consequence to them, that was unlikely to change. All this sounded more than passing strange to begin with. Why would Stannis Baratheon, by all accounts a stern, clever and near miserly man, agree to something like this in the first place?

"I should like to wait for Maester Cressen and see the papers concerning this," Uncle Benjen said after a moment. "Let us eat."

Maester Cressen, when he finally arrived on staggering old legs, looked horrified when Velaryon's words were relayed to him. He stared at Velaryon as though he would like nothing better than to spit in his face. Then he turned to Uncle Benjen. "I can assure you no such agreement was ever made," he said. "Lord Stannis did order them to get more ships, but if I remember correctly, his response to the matter of who should foot the bill was 'who do you think?'. The Lords deliberately misunderstood his meaning, and now they mean to entrap you, Lord Stark. There are no papers to review, for no promise of payment was ever made."

"Still," Velaryon said, purple eyes flashing. "We have acquired altogether two dozen ships, brand new and of the highest quality. Ships that we ourselves have not set aside the funds for."

"Perhaps you should pay for them, and leave them here," Uncle Benjen said. There was a snarl in the back of his voice. "As repayment for taxes owed."

Velaryon smirked and sat back, with an expression that clearly asked how they planned to make him do that. "You clearly have the wrong of it, Lord Stark," he said. "We owe no allegiance to your House. It was King Robert we bent our knee to. Lord Stannis at least had the blood of Old Valyria through his grandmother. You are nothing more than tree worshipping barbarians, here to insult us. If Robert truly means to have a bastard in Dragonstone, he might have appointed my brother. At least his blood gives him some claim."

Jon felt the blood drain from his face. No one, since he had been legitimised, had spoken of him that way, at least to his face. Stupidly, he had thought he would not have to hear things like that again. And it hurt, more than he had ever thought it would, made him feel as low and small as he once had. But underneath that, underneath the hurt and humiliation, he felt something else roar through him, some fire that seemed almost to stem directly from the Dragonmont beneath their feet, something waiting to explode. Still, it was a kind of helpless rage. He did not know how to channel or direct it. What was he meant to do? What power did he really have? The Dragonstone garrison was not large, and clearly the bannermen were united against him. And even if he had known which words to yell, what would that do except make him look like a child throwing a tantrum? He clenched his jaw, took a deep breath. "Uncle, please see to it that Lord Velaryon is given a guest gift. My Lord." He looked at Velaryon, and the urge to shout was there again. He kept it in, kept his fists from clenching or shaking. "I will see to it that you are paid for the ships, once they have been brought here to serve under Dragonstone directly." How he would ever find the money, he did not know, but they would figure something out. They had to. Besides, Dragonstone was supposed to have a fleet. It used to, before it was decimated in the Iron Islands. He glanced over his shoulder. "If you would see the good lord out, Ser Arthur?"

For long moments, Velaryon did not reply, simply stared at Jon with an expression Jon had no idea how to interpret. Then he huffed. "You presume too much, boy." He looked around himself, at the decorations Uncle Arthur had brought out from storage. Then his gaze fell pointedly at the clothes Jon wore. "Far too much," he continued. "And if you ever want peace around these parts, you would do well to cease mocking a history richer than anything you could ever hope to lay claim to."

Again, it was with some effort Jon pushed down his anger. He had been angry for much of his life; it was not as hard to control it as it had seemed, in the shock of the moment, just a bit ago. "My heroes, as a boy, the ones I would pretend to be when playing with my brother, were Aemon the Dragonknight and Daeron the Young Dragon," he said, somehow managing to keep his voice even. "As I grew, I came to admire Aegon the Fortunate and Jaehaerys the Wise. I do not have to share their blood to appreciate their history, nor do I feel the need to mock their House. The realm is what it is because of the Targaryens. Is it so offensive that I can appreciate the good done by your kinsmen?" He paused, took a deep breath, made himself gather his thoughts rather than forge on. Despite the vigorous training Maester Cressen, and Maester Luwin before him - and Uncle Arthur, who had never let him get away with his silences to begin with - had given him in rhetoric, he was still less than certain of how to shape his thoughts into proper words. Speaking had never come that easily to him. "I see you are wearing Manderly colours today, My Lord. I am honoured. However, if I had come to your keep and found Bolton keepsakes on your walls, I would have been deeply offended. I do not think the Targaryens were ever to the Velaryons what the Boltons are to the Starks, or am I mistaken?" He glanced over his shoulder at Uncle Arthur. "If you would be so kind, Ser?"

"Yes, my Lord," Uncle Arthur said, and unless Jon was very mistaken, there was a flash of fierce pride in his eyes. A flash of warmth welled up in Jon at the sight, defusing his still-simmering anger. "Lord Velaryon," Arthur said, stepping towards the doors. "I will show you out, if it please you."

"I will see myself out," Velaryon said, finally getting to his feet. His eyes flashed, but there was a strange uncertainty to his voice. "I have no wish to remain in the presence of a traitor."

When Uncle Arthur replied, there was a strange hint of humour to his expression, at odds with his hard tone. "I never bent the knee following the War," he said. "Never have I been a traitor or served where I should not."

Velaryon's steps faltered for a moment. Then he straightened his back and exited. One of the household guard flanked him, presumably to make sure he did see his way out. Jon breathed a sigh of relief, more than glad to see the back of him.

Chapter Text

294 AC

Lord Jon Arryn

"Your Grace," Lord Jon Arryn greeted, stepping into the king's private solar. He deliberately did not look at the whore perched on Robert's lap, did not even bother feeling disappointed anymore. "We missed you at the Small Council meeting today."

"Hah," Robert said. "Seems to me you lot get more done without me around. Not like I am missing anything important, am I?"

"There has been a letter from Benjen Stark, on behalf of the Lord of Dragonstone," Jon said.

Robert's eyes seemed to actually light up at that. "Oh?" he said. "And how is Ned's lad doing?"

"Quite well, according to his uncle," Jon said. "However, Lord Benjen did bring up the matter of the Royal Fleet, which was prudently done. Dragonstone has historically been the first and best line of defence for King's Landing, and with the Targaryens doing Gods know what across the Narrow Sea..."

"What of the Fleet?" Robert asked. He had pushed the whore away now, which meant he was taking the conversation at least a bit seriously. Jon wished he would do that more often. Of course, though, this was to do with the Starks, and Robert still seemed to harbour the misplaced belief that if he could make even one of them look kindly on him, it might heal the heartache left by Lyanna's death and Ned's disapproval.

"The Fleet was never fully built back up to the standards of the Targaryen dynasty after we won the War. What we did have belongs to bannermen or was all but decimated when we fought the Ironborn." Jon sighed and took the seat across from Robert. "To add to that, it seems your brother left just enough room for interpretation when negotiating with his bannermen that they decided to hoodwink Dragonstone into paying for more ships for their personal fleets, an issue it appears Jon Stark inherited. Gods know how, but the Starks have managed to get the bannermen to relinquish the ships. There is still the outstanding payment to contend with, though. Lord Benjen says that if they must, they will pay for the ships on their own. He mentions taking out a loan from the Manderlys. He does, however, add that in that case, the ships will belong to Dragonstone, rather than the Royal Fleet, and will mainly be used as merchant ships so they can recoup the cost. He also adds that they are not adverse to the ships being part of a new Royal Fleet, but that we will need to have further financial discussions in that case."

Robert frowned. "Any ship of Dragonstone..."

"Was part of the Royal Fleet, yes," Jon agreed. "Back when Dragonstone was the seat of the crowned prince. The ships, crews and repairs, however, were financed by the crown directly. Dragonstone financed the barracks, which they by-and-large recouped through the coin the sailors spent on the island while on leave. You must remember that Dragonstone was never meant to operate independently. It certainly does not have the tax incomes to support a Royal Fleet."

Robert gave a quick nod. Then grimaced. "Taking loans from Ned's bannermen. Bah. Well then, give them the funds they will need to pay for the ships. And start making arrangements to rebuild the rest of the Dragonstone fleet, or we will be sitting flat on our arses if old Balon tries something again. Maybe the lad can become my Master of Ships someday. Better than that Lannister we have sitting there now. What is his name again?"

Despite the constant stress that was making his head hurt again and again, Jon nearly let out a laugh at the idea of a Stark of Winterfell serving as Master of Ships. Then again, Jon Stark was no longer a Stark of Winterfell; he was a Stark of Dragonstone, and that made the arrangement suddenly very fitting. Ned would never leave the North to join the Small Council, but his second son was, geographically speaking, one of their closest trustworthy allies now. He pushed his contemplations away, sighed. He reached up and pushed his hair out of his face. The movement was more habit than necessity these days; he did not have much hair left. "We do not have the coin," he said. "The Greyjoy Rebellion was long and costly, and we cannot afford to take out another loan, not until we have paid something back, or we will not be able to even pay the interests. We need to think of some other arrangement."

"I thought you said we needed a fleet," Robert said.

Jon squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment before dragging them back open. "Ask Lord Benjen to increase the number of ships. Up to a hundred over the next five years, if possible. The crown will pay forty per cent of the cost, including wages. Dragonstone pays for repairs, and half the ships must be immediately available to the crown at any time, and the rest always ready to be recalled. During times of peace, those ships not on call, however, may be used as merchant vessels. Anything Jon Stark makes from those ventures will have to be taxed, of course, but they must be able to see our position as well."

Robert was uncharacteristically silent for a moment, and uncharacteristically astute when he looked at Jon with piercing blue eyes. "And how long will it take the lad to pay off the debt we ask him to take on in the name of the crown?"

Jon winced. "With luck and peace and a kind lender... Perhaps two decades. Less, if we take the expected Tyrell dowry into account."

Robert shook his head decisively. "No," he said. "I will not do that to Ned's boy." And by the Gods, if only Robert could find it within himself to care half as much for his own sons as he did this boy of Ned's. Gods sakes, Robert had not even seen the boy since he was a babe in arms, although he had been rather taken with him even then, demanding to hold him and claiming he had Lyanna's look, Ned watching on with a fuming face all the while. Arthur Dayne had looked about ready to kill. Robert reached out, poured himself a cup of wine and drank deeply. "Give him Crackclaw Point," he said then.

Jon sat up straight. "Your Grace! He would have nearly a quarter of the Crownlands under his control. Not to mention the entirety of the Gullet."

"After the War, I made sure my allies were well rewarded," Robert said, and Jon did his best not to remember what that had done to the coffers. "I had nothing to give Ned, even though he had lost more than anyone." His eyes were shining with that old fervour again, as though he truly believed Ned was to be wooed with extravagant gifts, like some offended Lady. "The Vale and the Riverlands were on our side as well, after all, and Ned had no use for territory in Dorne or the Reach. I can give this to him now, through his son. And who better to hold the Gullet than a Stark? Lord Jon's Lady Aunt, uncle and Lord grandfather were slain by the Targaryens. He would never let them through. Besides, none of Baelish's tax collectors are doing a very good job with Crackclaw Point. The fuckers out there may be dragon lovers, but they are also blood of the First Men. Stark justice may be just what they need."

Jon took a deep breath, and once more prepared himself to find the points of merit in another idiotic idea Robert would not be talked out of. A Lord willing to carry out his own justice might in fact be something to get the stubborn lot of them to show some respect, even if it would probably have to be Benjen Stark carrying out the actual sentences until Jon Stark was old enough to swing the sword. And if it turned out nothing could be done about Crackclaw Point, there was always the option of rooting out the current Houses and putting more loyal ones in their place, something Jon had considered counselling for years but never quite got around to. "Very well, then," he said. "They also request permission to extend their household guard. And with this new edict of yours, I have no doubt they'll request permission for training even more men-at-arms, and tax collectors."

Robert waved a hand, utterly disinterested once again. "Any Stark in my realm can have as many bloody men-at-arms as he desires," he said. "Send them the papers, would you?"

***



Lady Olenna Tyrell

It took Olenna Tyrell longer than she cared to admit to convince Benjen Stark to invite her to Dragonstone. She had to admit, despite herself, that she was curious. For all she had seen in her long life, she had never been to Dragonstone, which from everything she had heard was a mixture of inhospitable cliff land, military encampment and the refuge and fiercely private inner sanctum of a family that had once been at the heart of Westeros. She supposed that it would not be the same now, with the Targaryens gone. She pushed away any lingering sadness that threatened to rise at the thought. Besides, she was not here to look around; she was here to see the boy her granddaughter was being forced to wed. It went without saying that she would rather not see her daughter wed to a Dornish-Northern bastard, but she would also prefer not to see the title of Warden of the South go to the Tarlys. It was high time she found out what - and who - it was she might have to doom her sweet Margaery to, if no good way out presented itself.

Little Loras, in a feat showing off his Redwyne blood, kept perfectly steady on the deck next to her, looking ahead as the forbidding island emerged from the sea mists. He glanced up at her, golden eyes wide. "Do you think he will want to spar with me?" he asked, and Olenna felt a pang of sadness. Out of everyone, Loras was the one who suffered the most from Garlan's enforced exile. He was a lonely boy, in his way. He did not lack for companionship, and he and Margaery were beautifully close, but everyone could tell he missed his brother.

"I am sure he will, sweetling," she said. "He is a name day younger than you, but he has been trained by Arthur Dayne. I am sure you will have some good matches." She hoped they would get along. Not necessarily because they might one day be goodbrothers. Time would still show that. No, children showed different things, different sides of themselves, to other children, things they would never reveal to adults. While Olenna assessed the situation, Loras would be her best looking glass when it came to Jon Stark. Hopefully he would take to her Loras. And she did not see why not. The boy, as far as she knew, had been without the companionship of other children since he left the North more than a year ago. A boy surrounded by adults would be even lonelier than Loras, especially given the fact that he had been raised alongside a half-brother who was only a few moons his senior. If that. No matter what questions she had asked, she had not been able to ascertain which brother was older; they were simply too close in age. It might be that only Eddard Stark and Arthur Dayne truly knew. The mystery was a problem, but Jon Stark was still high in the line of succession to the title of Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell. And if the king's plans were carried out, Jon Stark would have heirs years before Robb Stark did. Those, at least, were advantages.

She breathed in deep of the sea air, forced her mind into stillness for a moment. She would wait, and see the other players. She would drew her conclusions from there.

***

Jon Stark was shorter than Loras - probably shorter than Margaery as well. But then he was in that final, awkward stage of childhood that affected each person differently. While Olenna doubted the boy would ever be tall, he definitely might still grow. He had a solemn Stark face. Some might call it sullen, but Olenna saw intelligence in those dark eyes. That, at least, was reassuring.

She certainly noticed the décor. How could anyone not? She had not seen so much Targaryen splendour displayed since the time of Jaehaerys the Second. And somehow it was still only after they entered the chamber of the Painted Table that Olenna saw the full picture that was being painted in front of her. Jon Stark, in contrast to his family colours, wore all black, with white accents and red embroidery. At his shoulder, always, was his uncle, Ser Arthur Dayne. And while Dayne did wear the right colours, the white was so prominent the eye could almost forget there was any purple there. They struck a striking picture in and of themselves, but when they finally stood still long enough to offer welcome and refreshments, they were right underneath a portrait of a Targaryen of old. It took Olenna an embarrassing long few moments to realise the painting depicted Aegon the Conqueror. He was younger than in any depiction Olenna had seen before, face unlined and unburdened, even as a strange solemnity stood out on his features.

Jon Stark turned his head towards his uncle for just a bare second for some reason Olenna couldn't quite read, but it was enough to pull her attention back onto the boy. She blinked, looked harder. Looked back up at the portrait. Looked back again. Despite Jon Stark's dark curls and near-black eyes, his resemblance to the portrait was uncanny. Identical chin, mouth and jawline. The noses were slightly different, but the cheekbones slanted at the same high, chiselled angle. The shape of the eyes was subtly different, but the eyebrows - unnaturally dark on Aegon the Conqueror but perfectly expected on Jon Stark - were indistinguishable. While Jon Stark's forehead was higher, it was shaped much the same. Jon Stark's face was longer, and his colouring was Stark as could be. But his features were as Valyrian as they came. Olenna narrowed her eyes, looked closer. Glanced to the other side to take in Jon Stark's other uncle. The colouring alone was enough to mark them as family, and in superficial ways, their features matched up. Jon Stark was a Stark indeed, but far prettier than Olenna thought any Stark had ever been, even the late Lady Lyanna. She shook her head, subtly as she could, shook off whatever it was she thought she had just seen. Smudged soot could change the perceived angle of cheekbones and jaw and the slant of eyebrows. The pointed chin and square jaw was not so unusual among Westerosi nobility. They were painting a picture; she had to remember that.

The introductions passed her by; she could participate in social niceties in her sleep and never show anyone the difference at this point. Jon Stark's accent was of the North, she noticed, even more than his paternal uncle's was. Even so, he was well-spoken and courteous. It was the sharp glint of his eyes she could not shake.

Once the welcoming meal was over and Jon Stark offered to show her and her grandson to the rooms made up for them, she sent the boys off as courteously as she could and, as she had hoped, Ser Dayne stayed behind. "It is an admirable forgery," she told the knight, glancing at the portrait.

Ser Dayne cocked an eyebrow. "I assure you the portrait is genuine," he said. "It was commissioned three years before the Conquest began. Rhaegar showed it to me after I first joined the Kingsguard. I thought this the most fitting place to put it."

"This is how you got his bannermen to bow down to him, then," she stated. "A slightly altered portrait, some foolish hopes and a spot of makeup."

Ser Dayne laughed. "I have not touched the painting except to move it. And Jon would sooner let me shear his hair than put any coal on him. That the boy looks how he looks is no fault of his."

"When did you stop being a Kingsguard, Ser?" Olenna asked. Looking at his violet eyes and fair face, it was easy to forget that he was a Dornishman, but a Dornishman he was, and suddenly she understood everything.

"Who says I ever stopped?" he countered, as she had expected.

It was a tangled web the Dornishmen weaved, she concluded a few hours later. The Lord of Dragonstone was a Stark, and while he may not have the might of the North and the Riverlands behind him on his own merit, he had it through his father and his brother. No doubt the Dornish counted on that, on the Starks' unwillingness to let another one of their own perish. The plan, in its own way, was ingenious. Place a pawn on the throne and get their revenge, with the Starks' backing, willing or not. If they struck at the right time, they may even win. The Daynes had always had a strange look to them that could be confused for Valyrian, and Jon Stark had inherited exactly the right features to get the remaining Targaryen loyalists in territories that were nominally under King Robert's control to follow him.

Dorne was playing a game full of risk. What remained to be seen was whether the Reach would follow. She might have queen for granddaughter after all. Or they may all be slaughtered in the attempt. She closed her hands around the railing of the high walk that offered her a perfect view of her grandson training with the Dayne bastard. Jon Stark was strong for his age, especially considering his size. He was quick on his feet, sword flashing. The way he used his knees and elbows for weapons showed the fact that Arthur Dayne had allowed some Northern influence to infect more than his nephew's speech patterns. Jon Stark beat sweet Loras more often than not.

A dangerous game, but in some ways a believable one. Whether learnt or natural, Jon Stark had the right level of solemnity and melancholy to echo Rhaegar and the legends of Aegon the Conqueror and Jeahearys the Wise. He had the right features, the right body type. And his origins were just enough of a mystery. Ashara Dayne and Eddard Stark, everyone said, and that was what the Starks and Daynes claimed themselves. The timeline, unless all reports were wrong, was more in line with Ashara Dayne having a tryst in the Black Cells with Brandon Stark, which, given the relationship started at Harrenhal, made sense. However, it did also line up with the time Lyanna Stark had spent with Rhaegar Targaryen, and Eddard Stark returning from Dorne with his sister's bones, a bastard child and a knight of the Targaryen Kingsguard was just suspicious enough to work. Too obvious, though. So obvious Olenna wondered how no one had picked up on it, how no one other than the Dornish had thought to exploit it, or put it down.

Her head was still reeling when she retired for a nap, pleading old age as an excuse. She would need to see the Martells before she could begin to unravel what was afoot and how she might best serve her House.

***

"My Lady," Prince Doran said, once the pleasantries of welcoming Lady Olenna Tyrell were over. "I can honestly say I never expected to see a member of House Tyrell in Dorne in my lifetime."

"Yes, well," Olenna said, smoothing down her skirts. "If you had been content to leave my family out of your games, mayhap you would not have had to deal with my presence. But as my granddaughter is positioned to pay the price for your folly if things go wrong, I should very much like to know what exactly it is you and the Daynes have cooked up."

Doran Martell's face did not betray anything. He was silent for a long while, considering her. "To be perfectly truthful with you," he said at last. "I do not know what you mean. I have not been in communication with Arthur Dayne for well above a decade, and his brother is no plotter. Do not tell me your son knows every movement made by the younger brothers of all Lords in the Reach."

Olenna put on a pleasant smile. Inside she was seething. She could not seem to see through him, see whether he was being honest or not, and it made her uncertain of the situation. There was little she hated more than being in a situation she was not sure of, and the feeling had grown all too common in recent years. "We certainly keep track of the important ones," she said. "For instance, I know Ser Gerold Hightower is gallivanting around Essos. Apparently he won a company of unsullied in a duel, and has fashioned them into a sellsword company. Last I heard, Whent was somewhere over there as well, though he is Hoster Tully's to concern himself with. But Dayne did not go with his sworn brothers to Essos. Nor did he return here, to serve his own family or yours. For the past eleven years he has dedicated himself to his bastard nephew, a nephew who has certainly risen high in the world. And on Dragonstone, he is directing a mummer's show grand enough to have placed the Lords of Crackclaw Point and the Narrow Sea firmly within Jon Stark's pockets. Jon Stark now has command of more than half the Royal Fleet. His men-at-arms number at five hundred already, with more being trained every day. His marriage will bind my family and all the Reach to him. And you wish to tell me you had no hand in this plot?"

Doran Martell frowned, but that still did not tell Olenna anything either way. Was he displeased something had surprised him, or merely displeased he had been caught? "I am happy for Ser Arthur," he said at last. "I hear he loves his nephew very much, and although I would never turn down a man of his merit, Arthur has not truly been of Dorne for a long time. I do not know what he plans."

Olenna could admit that she might have been wrong. The plot might not have originated from the Martells after all. Arthur Dayne, it had been said, loved Rhaegar like a brother. The Rebellion had cost him much. Mayhap he had never required a liege lord's instruction to plot his own revenge. Or mayhap, a voice reminded her from deep within the back of her mind, he had not trusted Elia Martell's brothers with the identity of Rhaegar's remaining son out of fear that Doran and Oberyn would take their wrath out on the boy. No, she reminded herself again. It was both too fantastical and too obvious. It would take more than a mummer's farce for her to believe in Dayne's pretty picture. "What, then, will you do when Ser Arthur uses his nephew to overthrow Robert Baratheon and take the Iron Throne? Will you stay hidden in your deserts and hope someone else is kind enough to send you the head of the Mountain that Rides?"

Prince Doran did not respond for several long, tense moments. "I have no interest in another Usurper's War," he said at last.

"Whatever our own feelings may be at the thought of a Stark and Dayne bastard on the Iron Throne," Olenna said when it was clear he did not mean to continue. "It may be a good thing. Our kingdoms have both lost power since the War. And Jon Stark is a good boy. Strong and clever beyond his years. He might certainly be an improvement to Robert Baratheon." She had not had much opportunity, herself, to get to know the boy, but he and Loras had spent countless hours together before she left Loras to squire for Ser Arthur. While much of Loras' assessment of the young Lord Stark's character was coloured by youthful infatuation, her grandson was not a bad judge of character. He had attended Jon Stark's lessons, and admitted they were more advanced than his own, despite their age difference. He was also in awe of the answers Jon Stark had given to the maester's questions, though not as much as he was of the boy's abilities as a swordsman and horse rider. More than anything, it was because of Loras' words of Jon Stark's kind and gentle nature and sweet disposition that she had discarded the idea of simply getting rid of the boy to get Margaery out of her planned marriage. It was still a feasible last resort, for if Arthur Dayne lost control of his plotting and looked like to fail and bring them all down with him, but now she would do it sadly and reluctantly rather than eagerly.

"If the opportunity arose when we might attack the Lannisters without fear of reprisal, I doubt I could hold back my bannermen, let alone my brother," Prince Doran said at long last. "But I have no desire to see more Dornish lives wasted in a conflict that will change nothing for us."

Olenna nodded briskly. She would return to Highgarden, weigh her options. "I should like to meet your daughter," she said at last. If it did come to war, the least costly option was to have Dorne behind them. As loathe as she would be to give up Garlan to the merciless sun and desolate sands of Sandspear, being Prince Consort to the heir of Dorne was certainly not the worst fate she could imagine for him. And if Prince Doran had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, by his own family, Olenna would still do her best to make sure Dorne was not just waiting to stab her House in the back.

War, she realised as she was introduced to pretty, young Arianne Martell. She was planning for war, as though she had already decided this would be the course. A chill ran down her back. Caution. She would need to exercise caution. And there was still the chance that fickle Robert would call off Margaery's wedding and they could sit it all out, or even that Arthur Dayne came to his senses or that Jon Stark himself stopped the conflict before it had a chance of happening. She hoped and prayed for that every day. The last thing she wished was to see her family enter another bloody war, unless she could be absolutely certain of the outcome.

Chapter Text

295 AC

Lord Jon Stark

"What caused the Rebellion," Jon said, "Is that the Targaryens forgot they no longer had dragons." He glanced at the maester for approval, took a deep breath. "Aegon the Conqueror and his sister wives united the Kingdoms by having the one weapon no one could counteract. Dragons were why Torrhen Stark bent the knee, it was why everyone did. The dragons died off, and while several of the Targaryen kings were good and just, plenty of them did not have the foresight to realise that the strongest foundation of their throne had gone. They reigned absolute, even though they were no longer as strong as they had been. And when both the Mad King and Prince Rhaegar acted as though they could do whatever they wanted with no consequences, the Lords Paramount realised that the Targaryen power was an illusion at that point. If Aerys and Rhaegar had been aware of their own limitations, they might have acted more prudently, and the Rebellion would never have happened." And Jon's aunt, uncle and grandfather, along with thousands of other good men, might still be alive.

Maester Cressen nodded approvingly. "Very well, Lord Stark." He glanced to Jon's side. "And what might the Targeryens have done differently, Lord Loras?"

Loras scrunched up his nose and twirled his quill between his fingers. His foot was bobbing, as though he found sitting still to be the hardest task of the day. Jon knew he did. As interesting as their lessons sometimes were, Jon would much rather be in the training yard, and he knew Loras agreed. "Well," Loras said at long last. "Maybe if they did not marry their own sisters all the time."

Maester Cressen nodded. "Valuing marriage alliances above blood purity might have earned them more allies," he agreed. "And studies from the Citadel do show that madness is likelier to happen when no new blood is brought into a family line for too long. The Targaryens did have more than their fair share of madness."

Loras nodded his agreement, foot still bobbing. As much as Loras loathed their lessons and despised the little old maester, Jon was glad to have him there. It had been more than a year since Lady Olenna left Dragonstone and left Loras behind to squire for Jon's Uncle Arthur, but Jon could still remember the time before, the almost crippling loneliness, the long nights he spent crying for how much he missed Robb and Arya. He had spent what little free time he had had roaming the catacombs beneath Dragonstone and riding along the rocky shores, constantly turning his head with some observation or other to speak to his brother. And while Loras was not Robb, would never be Robb, Jon was grateful to have him. Even if much of Loras' free time was spent polishing Uncle Arthur's armour and doing whatever it was Southron squires did, Jon had less and less free time of his own as well. Uncle Benjen took him to hear petitions, and went over the books with him. Aunt Dacey would take him to inspect the ships, talk to the crews and learn the ways of the seas. Uncle Arthur never let him slack on his training either, not that Jon wanted him to. Even if Jon did not see the point in tourneys and had no intention of ever fighting in one, he wanted to be as good as he could be for if he ever got in a situation where it mattered. His vassal lords kept coming to call as well, and for whatever reason, they actually seemed to like him now. It made things easier, so Jon did not question it too much, but he found it difficult to like them back given the corner they had backed him into the first time he met Velaryon.

All of that was not to say that Jon did not go to the catacombs anymore. He did not know if he could have kept away if he had wanted to. As much as the crypts of Winterfell had always seemed to repel him, the catacombs of Dragonstone called to him, told him homehomehome, and it was difficult to go more than a few days without going down there. He would like to say that by now he knew them like the back of his hand, but that would be a lie. Every time he thought he did, he found some new tunnel, some new nook or cranny to draw him in.

The call was especially strong that day, leaving him distracted enough in the yard that Loras beat him more often than not, enough that he accidentally cut himself during dinner and had to ask to be excused before he went out of his skin with it. He veered off from the path that would take him back to his chambers at the last moment and took a torch down the winding stairs to the cellars. From there, he moved on to the dungeons and then through a small door in the corner that was half rotted through. Another few flights of roughly hewn stone steps, and he could breathe more easily. The smell of salt and brimstone wrapped around him like a blanket. The heat rose around him, bringing a sheen of sweat to his skin, and Jon felt as though he was breathing freely for the first time all day. Some days this was as deep as he needed to go to find relief, but tonight it was not so. Something kept tugging at him, making him short of breath again within a few short moments, making his throat tighten and his chest hurt. The barely crusted cut on his hand throbbed.

He went deeper, let the strange tugging sensation guide him. Deeper and deeper he went. His footsteps echoed around him. The tunnels he walked through became gradually more irregular, more roughly hewn. Unmined dragonglass glinted in the walls. Most of it was black as jet, but every few steps some would be different, red or blue or yellow, all the colours of the rainbow. The sight was soothing, made him feel sheltered in some strange way he could not even begin to understand.

He was not sure how long he had walked when the walls of the tunnel he was in began to smooth out, marking the ancient passage of molten rock, from one of the Dragonmont's ancient eruptions. The dragonglass deposits only seemed to grow richer and more colourful the deeper he went, and he felt gradually more at peace, though the tugging deep in the pit of his belly was still there. The sound of his own footsteps echoed around him, and the torch in his hand spluttered from the gases in the air. It occurred to him, as if from far away, that he should not be able to breathe so easily down here. But he was, so there was no use questioning it. He took a turn and stared down the tunnel before him. This was one of the ones he had never been down before, he was near certain of that. And it was where the tug in his stomach was guiding him. He sucked in a deep breath that tasted far too much like rotten eggs, and followed the wordless call.

The tunnel was wider than he would have expected, given how deep he figured he had to have gone. His torch sputtered again. It kept blazing, but more dimly than before. Vaguely, he was aware that perhaps he should be concerned with his own ability to find his way back to the surface. He was not, though. Could not be. No matter the winding twists and turns of the catacombs and molten tunnels, Jon had somehow always been able to find his way back up, with nary a misstep. He had no reason to think tonight would be any different. He reached out his hand, let the palm of it trail along the smooth surface of the tunnel walls. The fire of his torch reflected in a stray stub of obsidian, reflecting all around him only to be cast back in a prism of colours. It was beautiful down here, in a way he did not know how to explain, did not know if anyone would ever understand. His clothes clung to his body with sweat and the brimstone was heavy in his nose, even if it did not affect him much. It was hot as sin, and an otherworldly kind of gorgeous, and this, down here, more than even the keep above could ever hope to be, was the heart of the island.

Jon carried on following the silent call.

Despite his expectations that the tunnel would narrow, it stayed the same width, although the walls were becoming less smooth. There were gashes in the walls, as though something enormous and inhuman had carved out this final stretch of the tunnel. And it was the last stretch. He could feel it, somewhere deep within. The tugging was becoming harder, something close to a physical pain, even as the relief kept battering him like a promise about to be fulfilled. His fingers trailed along the grooves of the walls while the torch cast many-coloured shadows and flashes of light around him. Beneath his feet, small holes in the floor became visible, breathing steam and heat around him. Through them, he heard a faraway, contented rumble, as though from an enormous boiling pot of soup.

The tunnel bent sharply, and Jon followed the turn. A sudden pain shot through his hand and he pulled it from the wall immediately, hissing. A sharp piece of obsidian jutted from the rock beside him. Blood welled from a second cut along the palm of his hand, deeper than the mere scratch he'd managed to get himself from his meat knife at dinner. He gritted his teeth, reached down to wipe the blood on his breeches, and kept going. The tunnel bent again, and when Jon came around the curve, he was faced with a dead end.

The tunnel widened into a cave, rounded oddly and still riddled with those inhuman grooves, like wounds in the rock face. There was a strange formation at the end, like a bird's nest made all from sharp rocks. More holes opened in the floor here, and steam and fuming gases obscured his view. He carefully sidestepped them as he made his way to the nest-like structure. He climbed onto it and sat down gingerly, eyes riveted by the rocks in the centre of the would-be nest. Four strangely shaped stones lay there. They were like chicken eggs, but far larger, coloured as brightly as the caches of obsidian he had passed. They were strangely structured, as though the rocks themselves wore scales.

The tugging was nearly unbearable.

Jon did not stop to think, simply followed the foreign instinct that bid him reach out and touch. The blood of his open wound smeared along the sharp scales of the oval stones as he traced each of them. Strangely, the blood seemed to remain for only a moment before vanishing, as though the rocks themselves were gobbling it up. Somewhere in the back of his head, his good sense was screaming at him. What was he doing here, cutting himself and likely getting the wound infected? As undignified as it was, he should be going straight to the maester, should be getting stitches and ointment and going to bed. It had to be late by now, closer to dawn than nightfall. He was not sure he had ever gone this deep before. He took a deep breath, hoping to clear his head despite the sulphurous fumes around him, and got back to his feet. He turned to leave.

His feet refused to follow his command.

The tugging in the pit of his belly picked up, becoming as painful as if it were his own stomach and not merely his palm he had cut open. He turned back to the rocks, and some unnameable instinct told him he could not leave them. Groaning, Jon unlatched his cloak and fashioned it into a satchel. Then he gathered up the rocks and put them inside, smearing more blood on their unnaturally warm, living, surfaces, and more dirt in his wound. Gritting his teeth, he heaved the satchel over his shoulder and began the slow, arduous trek back to the surface.

He could not say why he stopped to break off the piece of bright red obsidian he had cut himself on, but it ended up in his satchel as well. That was the only part of his return trek he remembered.

The next thing he knew, he was back in his chambers, sitting before the fire with the oval stones spread out in front of him. They all felt so terribly cold, outside of the heat of the catacombs. Rocks should be cold, he reminded himself, but somehow that did not seem to matter. Something inside him cried out in protest at the cold, screamed wrongwrongwrong. So one by one, he picked the stones up and placed them in the fireplace before stoking the fire up as high as he could, never mind that he had never had much use for the fireplace at all. After growing up in the North, Dragonstone had always seemed plenty hot to him, but he needed to heat the rocks, come what may.

You are going insane, a sensible corner of his mind screamed. Jon ignored it, and turned away from the rocks, and finally his mind felt like his own again. He glanced down at his palm, grimacing at the look of the wound there. It was not quite as deep as he had feared, but certainly deep enough, and still oozing blood. Bits of rock and dirt were crusted in it. He winced, clenched his hand shut before quickly opening it back up when a stab of pain changed his mind. Already embarrassed at the knowledge of the lecture he was about to receive, he set off to see Cressen and have it cleaned up.

Even though he knew what a stupid idea it was, the tug in his gut would not be ignored, and the next evening, he stretched his hand in such a way that he knew he would break his stitches and make himself bleed again. He smeared the blood over the rocks once more, and sighed at the relief it brought, before he went to Maester Cressen to be cleaned up all over again. Three nights later, he knew he would no longer be able to come up with excuses for reopening the same wound. Besides, it was interfering with his swordplay.

Carefully, he cut open his other forearm. Instead of smearing the blood, he gingerly dripped it down upon the stones, watching at steam rose where each drop hit, before bandaging himself up and going to bed.

He never stopped to realise that the call to the catacombs that had lasted as long as he had been on Dragonstone had finally ceased.

***

"Are you going to get my sister a present for her name day?" Loras asked as they made their way through the harbour market. The first few trade journeys the fleet had made, Jon knew, had been hard and full of trials, but then some unknown benefactor - an old friend of Uncle Arthur's, apparently - had deposited a chest of gold to sponsor them and, apparently, given his own good word for their venture, and since then things had been going boomingly. The ships already owned and being made would be paid off within two years rather than the projected fifteen, since trade was going swimmingly and Uncle Arthur's friends seemed determined to send some funds back with the ships every few moons. The pick-up in trade was reflected in the harbour market, which was livelier and far more colourful than Jon could have even imagined when he first saw the grey corpse of it almost two years ago.

Jon did not particularly like to think on his future Lady Wife. It was not that he disliked her. He had never met her himself, but he liked Loras, and Loras only had good things to say about his sister. It was that Jon did not know her, and it was the fact that he could not imagine being married at all, let alone within the year. He wished he could feel enough of an adult to accept such a thing as possible, but he simply did not know how. "I do not even know what she might like," he said, keeping his eyes of his own feet. He knew Loras wanted him to be deeply in love with Margaery, and he knew that in turn was only a reflection of how much Loras liked him. He loved his friend all the more for finding him worthy of his sister, for wishing them every happiness in the world. Jon just simply did not know how to deal with any of it, let alone this Lady of Highgarden he had barely managed to exchange a few letters with through Loras.

Loras, infuriatingly tall as he was, wrapped an arm around Jon's shoulder and pressed his jaw to Jon's temple, holding the pose for several long moments, long enough for Jon to relax into it and let go of a few of his screaming fears, for now at least. "It is a good thing I know my sister better than anyone, then, is it not?" he said, flashing a grin at Jon. He wrapped a calloused hand around Jon's wrist and pulled him along as they made their way through the throng of Dragonstone sellers and Westerosi buyers. Jon might have stopped to be impressed all over again at how his uncles had managed to make Dragonstone a centre of trade between Westeros and Essos once more if his future goodbrother had given him half a chance. Instead he found himself in the booth of a merchant peddling Myrish lace. "Roses," Loras told him, and gave Jon a gentle push in the back.

Jon still felt lost, but the salesman certainly did not, and Jon left a moment later with several yards of Myrish lace to be delivered to the castle before dawn. "It seems so impersonal, though, does it not?" he asked. "Anyone could have got her that."

Loras shrugged. "She will be happy with it," he said. "She is sowing her maiden's cloak, did you know? She told me in her last letter. She cannot wait to meet you."

Jon sucked in a nervous breath. He did not even want to imagine what marriage might be like if he were not already best friends with his future goodbrother, but it was daunting even still, and he hated the fact that he was sending off something as trite as a few yards of lace anyone might have bought. He may not wish to be married yet, but he wished even less for himself, let alone his future wife, to be unhappy. Being a worthy husband, when he had once been nothing more than a bastard, was beyond daunting. And he did not wish for just some estranged political union. If he had to be married, he wished for himself and his wife to be friends at least. He may not have ever been on good terms with Lady Catelyn, but he knew his Lord Father and Lady Catelyn loved each other dearly, political marriage or not. That was what he would want, but he had no idea how to forge it.

It was just when they were leaving the market that he stopped short before one of the local craftsmen who were trying to ply their trades to the passing merchants. The man had a selection of jewellery in substandard dragonglass and crude metals displayed before him, but despite the inferiority of the materials, his pieces were truly beautiful, at least in Jon's eyes. He came to a stop, looking the jewellery over before looking up at the man himself. He was the age Jon imagined his own grandfather would have been had he survived the Mad King's reign. Jon glanced back down at the intricate carvings displayed, then up again. A quick clearing of his throat was enough to get the man's attention. "If I were to get you green dragonglass and some gold, could you make me a rose necklace?" he asked.

The old man's purple eyes widened and he nodded his head, looking at Jon with more reverence than was strictly necessary. "Certainly, My Lord."

Jon nodded. Glanced back down at the pieces. "For a cut of your income, I might keep supplying you with superior materials, if that is acceptable to you?" he continued. "Depending on how the rose comes out, of course."

The man gave a deep bow before clasping Jon's hand to signify a deal struck.

When they were a few paces out of earshot, Loras turned to him with a grin. "See," he said. "That was perfect. She will love you for sure."

Jon felt himself flush. "I do not even know where I am going to get her marriage cloak," he confessed. "It is supposed to be made by my female family members, but Aunt Dacey cannot sew to save her life. Lady Catelyn hates me, and my sisters are still children."

Sympathy flashed across Loras' eyes, and Jon was reminded yet again why this was his best friend. It was not just that Loras was the only person his own age he had had a chance to be around in a long time. It was the fact that for all Loras' flash and pomp, he was good and kind and honourable, in his own way. It was the fact that Loras, despite the differences in their backgrounds, had somehow understood him, had liked him, had managed to sympathise with Jon's position in life for all that he did not understand it. Loras had never once uttered the word 'bastard' where Jon could hear, and Jon loved him for it. "Ask the bannermen," Loras said at last. "They all love you. Surely one of them will have a wife who will sew the cloak for you."

Jon grinned, and knocked his shoulder against that of his friend - well, his elbow, really - and led the rest of the way back to the castle.

***

At night, Jon dreamed. When he woke, all he remembered was flying, soaring high above, setting fire to those who might hurt him. That, and a voice, whispering to him. 'Wake up,' it said. 'Wake up, Jon Sand. Wake up.'

Even when he was awake, the voice was still there. 'Wake up, Jon Sand,' it told him, and Jon wanted to cry and scream and rage. He was not Jon Sand anymore. He was more than that. He was Jon Stark, Lord of Dragonstone, trusted and celebrated by King Robert Baratheon. 'Wake up, Jon Sand,' the voice would whisper, and Jon would take his piece of dragonglass and cut the welt in his arm back open. He would watch as his blood dripped onto the rocks and sizzled and steamed when it hit. He would put his hands on the rocks and feel how they were finally growing hot, almost as though they were alive. He would go back to sleep.

'Wake up,' the voice would call, but this time the name it called was not his own.

***

"I hope he really likes her," Jon said when the raven arrived carrying the news of Garlan Tyrell's betrothal to Princess Arianne Martell of Dorne.

Loras shrugged. "I hope so too," he said. "But in the end it does not matter. He will do what is best for our House, and if Grandmother believes we need the Martells on our side, that is all that matters. She is the smartest of us, except maybe Margaery, but Margaery is a girl still, and she will be a Stark soon enough."

There was a bittersweet hint to Loras' smile that Jon did not quite know how to interpret. "Still," he said. "I hope they will be happy. They will expect a present, will they not?"

Loras nodded, the grin right back on his lips. "Do not tell me you will commission that dragonglass carver of yours again. He is busy enough already. Has been getting orders from all over the Reach ever since you sent your present." He ruffled Jon's hair, a new move Jon was not all that fond of. He tended to dislike people touching his hair, especially because it took so little to make him look unkempt, which never failed to get him a lecture from Uncle Arthur. "Margaery loved it, by the way," Loras added. "She had never seen a piece like it. She loves how thoughtful you are."

Jon swallowed down his nerves before they could grow into full-fledged nausea as they had tended towards for a while now. "Well," he said. "I could not very well give her a sparring match or a maester's lesson, and I fear I am not much good for anything else. I am glad she found old Ballon's piece nice."

Loras grinned. "She adores it. And Old Ballon adores you for your patronage. You would think you are Aegon the Conqueror reborn, hearing him speak of you. I heard your uncle complain of the number of local craftsmen showing up in between the men requiring petitions in the hopes that you would grant them fame and fortune as well."

Jon frowned, suddenly uncomfortable. Who was he, truly, to be anyone's patron? "I just wanted to give your sister something she could not get anywhere else," he said, feeling suddenly more bashful than he had for a while.

Loras ruffled his hair again. His hand lingered for a long few moments. "I hope Margaery has the good sense to know how lucky she is," he said, his voice oddly sad.

Jon scrounged up a smile and nudged his temple against Loras' cheekbone, no matter how uncomfortable he got every time their difference in height became so obvious. "I do now know what I would do without you," he confessed.

Loras' arm tightened around his shoulder. "I think we are late for the yard," he said at long last, and Jon followed him down the stairs with a grin.

'Wake up,' the voice whispered in his ear. 'Wake up. Wake us up.'

Chapter Text

296 AC

Lord Eddard Stark

Ned, despite himself, could barely manage to swallow down his sob when he stepped foot on Dragonstone and a pair of strong arms wrapped around his neck. Ned brought up his own arms and wrapped Jon in his embrace, held him tight. Gods, he never wanted to let the boy go, and judging by how tightly Jon was holding him, Ned could only imagine that the feeling was mutual. Ned let his hand smooth through the boy's tight curls, holding his head close against his own shoulder. He could not believe it had been nearly three years since he had last seen Lyanna's boy, could not believe how big and strong the lad had grown. Gods, he could barely believe it was little Jon in his arms, always smaller than his age, always deceptively fragile. Jon had shot up like a weed, broader and far taller than Ned remembered. "It is so good to see you again, lad," he managed.

"You too, Father," Jon replied, fingers digging into the back of Ned's neck. "I missed you so much."

Ned clutched him all the tighter at the words. Jon had never been meant to grow up apart from him. Ned had always meant to keep him close, keep him safe and loved. He would have, if circumstances had not conspired against him. And by the Gods, it was good to see how well Jon had thrived in spite of how little Ned had been able to give him for the past few years. "You too," Ned said. "You too."

It took Arya's near-frantic tugging on his breeches to make Ned finally step back and watch as little Arya launched herself at Jon, who caught her easily and twirled her around, laughing as he did so. Jon's voice broke mid-laugh, marking the fact that Ned's little boy was somehow already on the verge of manhood even as he clutched his little sister tight. He finally let Arya down so she could dart to their Uncle Benjen and Jon made his way back to Ned's side. "I had the papers made up," Jon said. His accent these days were a curious mixture of the North, the Crownlands and the Reach, and given who his wife to be was, Ned supposed he would have to get used to that. "Until I have a child of my own, Arya is my heir. She is far enough down the line of succession to Winterfell. It should not disturb anyone. And I... I would like to think she would take to these lands."

Ned nodded his assent, even though he knew Jon was wrong. Arya would never take to this craggy island like Jon had. She lacked everything Jon had that had made Jon thriving here so natural. Blood and history first of all. Jon wore black, white and red like he was born to it, which should be no surprise to anyone who knew the truth. And he seemed steady, settled, in a way he never had at Winterfell. Part of Ned almost wanted to laugh. Whatever he had done to make Jon feel wanted and loved, it could never compare to what Arthur and Robert had done, placing the boy on Dragonstone and giving him back the other half of his heritage, even if no one ever told him the truth. Here, he looked part of the land, looked natural, like he belonged, in a way he never had in the North, regardless of his looks. I was wrong, Lyanna, I was wrong, his soul whispered, and he blinked back a sudden sting in his eye. Jon, here, where he belonged, with his deepening voice and broadening shoulders, was flourishing in a way he never could have in Winterfell, especially with Catelyn there. Ned had always hated the enmity between them, and always accepted that it could not be different. Never had he realised what Jon might become if there was no weight holding him down, if he were surrounded only by people who meant to raise him up. "She misses you," he said. "You and Benjen both. Regardless of what happens, I think she might do well, spending a few years here. She butts heads with her mother and sister more often than not, and I do not have leave to give her the freedom I may want her to have."

Jon nodded, swallowing. "She is always welcome here," he said. "For as long as she may wish to stay." With the he went on to hug Robb tightly and kiss Sansa's hand. Ned could have cried when he realised little Bran did not recognise his own brother, but Jon took it all in stride, grinning and joking, a golden-brown haired boy at his side who had to be his future goodbrother. Soon enough Bran was taken enough with the Lord of Dragonstone that Ned, for all that he missed her, was happy Catelyn had been left behind in with little Rickon. She had no place here, not for this. And for all that it might be Ned's own fault, even if Winterfell had not required a Stark to remain, he could not have subjected Jon to Catelyn on this of all occasions. He knew his own boy, and Jon was likely to be shaking enough with fear already, however well hidden, that adding Catelyn to the mix could have only spelled a disaster.

***

"Jon is..." Benjen stopped, sighed. "I cannot believe we ever considered the Wall for him, Ned. He is kinder and smarter than any of us, and with Ser Arthur's instructions, he's a better warrior too. He was born to be a lord. But then I suppose I never had to tell you that. After all, you were the one who decreed he grow up with the trueborn children."

Ned could not help but smile at those words. It was all he had ever hoped for for Jon, and everything he had never thought he would be able to give the boy. As honourable as the Wall had once been, and as necessary as the Night's Watch still was, it would never have been a place where Jon could have reached his potential. He was the best of both his parents, of what both lines had to offer, and Ned had no idea how a creature like him had even come to be in the midst of a War that had threatened to tear the fabric of the realm apart. "Jon is far more than the sum of his parts," he said at last, and that much was definitely true. "He did not need my guidance for that; it is simply what he is. If he had gone to the Wall, I expect he would have made Lord Commander before too long. And then what? Where could he have gone from there, given what the realm affords the Night's Watch? No, he is better off this way, and whatever else I have to hold against Robert, I am beyond grateful for this thing."

Benjen gave him a smile that was almost impish, more in line with their early youth than their current stations in life. "Are you ready to see him wed?" he asked.

Ned laughed out loud. "Not at all," he said. "I would rather he remain my little boy forever. But it is for the best, is it not? Dragonstone needs an heir, and however shrewd a girl Arya may be, she won't be able to trade on the respect Jon has gained the way a son of his would, will she?"

Benjen shook his head, face growing solemn. "Ned," he said. "I do not understand what is going on here. I cannot tell you why the vassals stopped resisting and decided to suddenly give Jon their full support. Arthur Dayne is up to something, and I do not know what. It frightens me. I have watched it happen, and I still do not understand, and I am terrified, for Jon, for myself, my wife and our babe."

"Jon would never let anything happen to you," Ned said. "The lad knows the value of his own kin. And you know Arthur. He would do anything to keep Jon safe, even put on a mummer's show. I promise it is nothing you have to fear. And if he oversteps... He is the Sword of the Morning. For now, he is untouchable, and Jon by extension."

Benjen gave a quick nod, sucked in a deep, audible breath. "The servants say Jon is always cold," he said at last. "He requires hot stones on his fireplace, and he is always showing up with cuts on him. No one can explain them. I worry for the boy, Ned."

Ned had no idea what that meant, but the worry carried into his own being immediately. Dragonstone should be positively warm to a Northman - hot, even, on sunny days at least. But then, Jon was not just of the North. He was warm-blooded, in a way few could claim. In a way few could even hope to understand. His ancestors had always resisted the maesters' efforts to study them. The cuts, though, those were worrying. Ned, for all that it did not feel quite logical, wondered whether the boy suffered from the lack of the Old Gods' presence. "Make sure he does not over extend himself in the training yard," Ned instructed.

"He is not over extending himself," Benjen said. "Ser Arthur is the only one to really challenge him these days. Even his Tyrell friend, however talented, only gets the upper hand when Jon is distracted. Something is going on, Ned."

Ned swallowed, made himself bite it all down. Whoever he told would have a part in his treason. He had come to terms with that a decade and more ago. He certainly would not have his little brother put in danger because of his own decisions, his own promises. Whatever Arthur Dayne was devising only made it that much more important that Benjen stay ignorant. "I am certain everything will be just fine, Ben," he said. "The boy needs grounding. He came into a Lordship very young. He is clever and talented, yes, but it must still have been daunting and very lonely. I know it is frightening to see him married off so soon, and I hate it and am no more ready for it than you are, but it will be a good thing. He needs a companion, more than anything. More than what we can provide him with."

Benjen looked doubtful, and Ned felt the doubt himself, but still his brother nodded, and Ned had no choice other than to heed his own words.

***


Prince Oberyn Martell

Oberyn Martell was less than pleased to be back on Dragonstone. When Doran had first commanded him to go as a representative of the family, he had refused outright. He would have continued to do so, but then Doran had told him about that highly strange meeting he had had with Olenna Tyrell almost two years ago. There was every chance, Doran had said, that another war might be brewing, with Arthur Dayne and his bastard nephew somehow at the centre of it all, and it might not be one they could afford to sit out. Oberyn, despite his desire to be anywhere other than at the impending Stark-Tyrell wedding, agreed with the need to gather as much information as they possibly could beforehand.

Still, it was one of the hardest things he had ever had to do, stepping foot on the rocky, dreary island again after so many years, when he had never before been here without Elia. Though the wound his sister's death had left on him had mostly scarred over throughout the past thirteen years, the sharp, near unbearable pain of it dulling to a steady throb, which, while never far away, was something he could almost live with, he felt it keenly then. He squeezed Ellaria's hand in his own, and did his best not to think of the times he had visited Elia and Rhaegar here, of bouncing Rhaenys on his knee and strolling through the harbour market, which seemed even more lively and bustling now than it had back then. He was not as successful in banishing his sister's ghost as he had hoped, but then he never had been. "It will be all right, my love," Ellaria told him, voice uncharacteristically soft. "We will only be here for a few days. Then you can report back to your brother in the Water Gardens, and we shall never have to set foot on this cursed island again."

Oberyn nodded jerkily, and somehow managed to keep his feet moving as they entered into the castle itself. They were greeted by Jon Stark, flanked by Arthur Dayne at one shoulder and a Tyrell boy at the other. The Stark boy was pretty enough, for a child, but nothing particularly remarkable. Oberyn saw nothing of his Dayne blood in his face, which was as Northern as they came. His resemblance to the Stark girl who had stolen Elia's husband away made it almost physically painful to look at him. Still, Oberyn held the boy's gaze as he inclined his head in greeting. He waited as some footman or other introduced him before putting his hand at the small of Ellaria's back and guiding her into everyone's line of sight. "And this is Ellaria Sand," he added onto his own introduction. "My paramour." The vindictive beast that had grown in the pit of his stomach for the past thirteen years crooned its excitement at the prospect of watching the boy squirm.

Jon Stark did not squirm. He took Ellaria's hand and kissed her knuckles, called her My Lady without so much as a hint of scorn or mockery in his voice. Belatedly, Oberyn remembered that for the first eight years of his life, this boy had carried the name Sand as well, that it might possibly be more likely do endear Ellaria to him than repulse him. Despite himself, he felt the first inklings of respect for the pup. "Will you let me stand with your sisters, My Lord?" Ellaria asked. It was a further test, but there was genuine mirth in her voice, and Oberyn was reminded that for all Ellaria's strength, for all that she pretended none of these petty lords' words and feelings ever got to her, she did not always have it easy or handle it as well as she appeared to.

Jon Stark smiled, wide and genuine, and Oberyn was struck dumb. Because he knew that smile. He dreamed of that smile, still, and woke up with tears in his eyes, so desperate for the blood of Amory Lorch he sometimes thought it would drive him mad. That was Rhaenys' smile, and Rhaegar's before her. He could not tear his eyes away from the boy's face, all of a sudden, and with a closer look, those features were not so Stark after all. He did not see Rhaeger, so much, or even Aerys. But he saw Rhaella reflected there, in his pointed chin and full, generous mouth, the delicate sweep of his long, thick lashes. His build was all Rhaegar, however, and standing there, flanked by Arthur Dayne and the Tyrell squire, the very air around him seemed to scream out the truth.

By the Gods. Eddard Stark had managed what Oberyn had not. Like Oberyn, he had not been able to save his sister, but a child of hers still lived. Oberyn's first, instinctive reaction was the almost overpowering urge to reach for the dagger in his belt and plunge it into the boy's heart. He had no right to be alive, to be breathing and strong and thriving when Rhaenys and Aegon were long gone, when Oberyn's own blood had been killed in the most horrific of ways. It was the boy's kind banter with Ellaria as he continued speaking with her, treating her like an equal, that stayed his hand. It was his sister's memory that made him disregard the impulse completely.

In another world, one where Elia had lived and Lyanna Stark had still died, Oberyn's sister would not have hesitated to take the boy in. Elia was kind like that, soft and sweet where Oberyn was all too aware of his own barbs and sharp edges. Elia's heart would have gone out to the motherless child immediately, the way Ellaria's had to the daughters Oberyn had fathered before her, and she would have insisted on raising him alongside his brother and sister. 'He is still blood of our blood, remember', she would have said. 'Remember Mariah Martell and Daenerys Targaryen'. She would have fed him at her own breast if she could. And Oberyn still loved his sister enough that he could try, at least, to see the boy for what he might have been, not for what he was. Forget this child of war who was alive when his brother and sister were not, and remember the boy who might have grown up as Aegon's closest friend and companion, hiding behind Elia's skirts when the world became too much to bear, the man who might have joined the Kingsguard or been Hand to Aegon's King. Forget the crimes of the boy's parents and remember that in that other, imaginary world, Jon Stark - or whatever his name might actually be - would have grown up calling Oberyn uncle. Another one of those things he did not doubt Elia would have insisted upon. If the Gods had been kinder, this boy would have spent the hottest moons of his childhood splashing in the Water Gardens with Oberyn's own daughters. He would have learnt to hold a weapon alongside Oberyn's nephews, would have been babied by Rhaenys, who had always loved a headful of dark ringlets on her favourite dolls.

In this world... In this world, Oberyn doubted the boy would ever not be a source of pain. But more than that, he was their best chance at vengeance. He was their best chance at casting down the Baratheons and Lannisters and claiming justice for his slain siblings. Elia, with her own children dead, would have placed him on the throne herself, had she been alive to do so.

Oberyn knew better than to speak to Jon Stark directly. He had no knowledge of how much the boy knew of the great game that was being played with him at its centre. He grasped Arthur Dayne's shoulder instead, at the first chance he got. "I will speak with Doran," he promised. "I will do everything in my power to ensure your king has our spears."

Arthur grasped his shoulder back, squeezed, wordless, and walked off. No more words were needed.

***

Lord Monford Velaryon

Monford Velaryon leaned against the gallery railing, looking down at the Dragonstone training yard. Ardrian Celtigar stood next to him, probably watching just as intently as Monford did. Watching the exact same thing. Young Jon Targaryen was sparring against his Stark cousin, making it look almost ridiculously easy.

"It has been a long time since that House had a genuine warrior," Celtigar said.

Monford might have objected and pointed out the boy's own father, except even a fool could tell it was an unfair comparison. Rhaegar had been a good fighter, yes, strong and honourable, but he was no more a natural fighter than his son - while still far beyond merely passable - was a natural scholar. Where once people had jested that Queen Rhaella had swallowed a book and a candle while carrying Rhaegar, Monford truly did not think he would be shocked if someone came up to him one day and told him Lyanna Stark had swallowed a sword and Jon Targaryen had been born holding it. Yes, of course some of it came from being raised by the Sword of the Morning, who had probably put a wooden sword in his charge's hand before the boy even toddled his first steps. But there was a naturalness in the way he moved and fought that even Rhaegar had only ever accomplished with a high harp, even while Jon Targaryen had been able to learn some wisdom and book knowledge, just as his father had reluctantly taken to the sword and lance. "It is the perfect time for one, though, would you not say?" With a throne to regain and an uphill struggle to get there, Jon Targaryen was better served being a warrior than anything else.

Monford still remembered, shamefully, his first encounter with the rightful king of the Seven Kingdoms. He had mistaken the boy's natural solemnity and tendency towards melancholy for simple, immature sullenness. He had taken the Targaryen decorations on the walls - many hidden away for the duration of the festivities so as to not incur the Usurper's wrath prematurely - as a mockery. He had hoped to push the greenboy far enough that he would do something unforgivably stupid. Instead, the boy - all of ten name days old back then - had lectured him, and Monford had heard the ghost of Jaehaerys the Second in his words, had seen Rhaella in the restrained flash of anger in his eyes.

It was only after he returned to Driftmark that the puzzle pieces truly began to come together in Monford's mind. The timing of the boy's birth, Lyanna Stark's inexplicable fever and death, the uncharacteristic stain upon Eddard Stark's honour, and Ser Arthur Dayne appearing to run from nearly every oath he had ever spoken so he could remain with the infant he had claimed for a nephew.

Without complaint, he had given up his portion of the ships he and his fellow lords had commissioned once upon a time to show Stannis Baratheon how unsuited he was to Dragonstone. The invoice he had sent barely covered the cost of the materials that had gone into the ships. The rest, he had absorbed himself, while counselling his neighbours to do the same. He had even sent his bastard brother here, to serve as harbour master, and to observe the king, take his measure.

Young King Jon had a good head on his shoulders, by Aurane's accounts, and while he did display a few of the typical Targaryen oddities, he showed no tendencies towards the madness that had plagued his grandfather and had been visible in his uncle even from early childhood. Even Rhaegar had showed the signs in the end, but Jon Targaryen's infusion of Northern blood seemed to have shielded him from the affliction. Monford thanked the Seven for that each and every day.

In the yard below, Jon Targaryen sent his cousin flying to the ground once more. Monford smiled. "I would," he agreed.

***


Lord Jon Arryn

Robert had been all grins ever since they had boarded the ship for the wedding at Dragonstone, looking almost as proud as if it were one of his own children he would see wed. But then Jon Arryn supposed that did make sense. For as little political manoeuvring Robert could be bothered with, this was one thing he had been the sole instigator of. He must be excited to finally see it all play out. Still, it was probably more than a little inappropriate of him to catch a boy he had not seen since infancy up in what looked like a bone-crushing hug, laughing and congratulating the young lord, showering him with more affection and attention within the span of a few moments than he usually afforded his own sons over the course of a moon's turn.

Jon's young namesake looked startled and ruffled and more than a little embarrassed, even as he did his best to return Robert's enthusiastic greeting. He looked a strong lad. Not especially tall, but then Ned had never been large either. He had the look of the North, though his hair and eyes were darker and his skin fairer than Ned's, more like Brandon or Benjen in looks, but still very much a Stark.

Robert finally extricated himself, and then made for the boy's father. Ned endured a hug much like the one their young Lord of Dragonstone had just received, though he stood as still and unforgiving as Winterfell itself in Robert's arms. Jon felt a stab of disappointment that rather than heal old wounds, the time his wards had spent apart seemed to have only widened the rift between them, at least on Ned's side. Still, they would all be here for a further sennight. Perhaps proximity might soften what distance had not. Or perhaps the tension he could feel pressing down on him would come to a head.

It did, sooner than he had expected and not between any two people he might have predicted, though he supposed he should have. "Arthur, please." There was a pleading note to Jaime Lannister's voice, as if the past however many years had been stripped away and he was once more the young boy who had been so proud of his white cloak, and earlier yet, so proud to have been knighted by the very man he was now facing. "All I did was ask you to spar with me."

"And all I did was turn you down," Arthur Dayne responded. "I only spar with people I feel some measure of trust towards these days, Lannister. I prefer not to be stabbed in the back."

Ser Jaime gritted his jaw, and Jon could not help the sense of trepidation that came over him. He should step in, break this up somehow, but neither knight had so much as noticed him, and this verbal scuffle was really more private than he was comfortable with. Part of him wanted to leave them to it, but someone should be there to step in.

"You think you are less of an oathbreaker than I am?" Ser Jaime asked. "The Kingsguard is for life. You left it, and you left your brothers, and--"

"Maybe I would have stayed," Dayne said. "Had I thought there was any honour left in the Kingsguard at all. Instead you have Selmy, who bent the knee while his king and Prince Aegon still lived. And you, Kingslayer. You showed the world that no amount of oaths could make you less a Lion. The House I swore to was gone. The Order I was part of was as good as dead." A bitter smile played about his handsome face. "I hope and pray that the next boy I knight will be worthy of it."

Ser Jaime scoffed, although Jon saw the flash of naked hurt in his eyes before he hid it away. "The Tyrell boy?" he asked. "I have known him for less than a day and even I am aware of the fact that he would take his sister's place in the marriage bed in a few days given half a chance."

"He would not," Dayne said. "Loras has enough honour to know that just because you wish for something, it does not give you the right to reach out and take it. I have known many grown men who might do well to learn the same."

Ser Jaime's face twisted. "You knew Aerys as well as I did," he said. "You know what kind of man he was, the kinds of things he did. You may not have been there for what he did to the Starks, but do not tell me you could have heard of that and still wished to serve him. You knew what he did to the Queen, for years and years and years. Well, I had ignored the knightly oath I swore long enough. I could not stand by and watch him burn down the entire city and every soul within it. If you think you could have, you are less than the man I believed you to be."

Dayne narrowed his eyes. "Aerys was not the only person you were meant to protect," he said. "Tell me, what did Rhaenys and Aegon do to deserve your negligence? Or did you not sit on the Throne, waiting for your father to arrive, while Lannister bannermen slaughtered the babes and their mother?"

Ser Jaime turned on his heel and walked away, his white cloak snapping out behind him. Jon decided, hopefully prudently, to make himself scarce as well.

Chapter Text

296 AC

Lord Jon Stark

When, at last, a Redwyne ship bearing the House Tyrell sigil docked in the harbour, Jon could barely breathe past the nerves that seemed to tighten his chest and throat. He could not recall ever being so frightened in his life. And that was beyond silly, was it not? He was not facing some great foe or heading into battle. He was meeting the girl who, in a few days, would be his Lady Wife. But in a way, was that not as good a reason to be afraid as any other? If she disliked him, there would be nothing to do. They would still be bound to one another for the rest of their days. Whenever he let himself think on marriage, all he could think of was the playful love between his Uncle Benjen and Aunt Dacey, or the quiet, affectionate companionship between his father and Lady Catelyn. But then he would always remember how much Lady Catelyn had loathed him. It had been years since he had last been as constantly aware of the circumstances of his birth as he had been for the past few sennights. No matter what name the king had bestowed upon him, he had still been born a Sand. Lady Margaery likely had not forgotten it either. What Lady of a Great House would want to be wed to a bastard, even a legitimised one?

Loras had picked up on his fears and done his best to dispel them, telling him over and over again about Margaery's kindness and wit and graciousness, but all that had truly done was make everything all the more daunting. If Loras had told him Margaery was homely and simple, Jon might have been able to feel some confidence in their union, but as it was all he could comprehend was that he was utterly unworthy. And as she stepped into view, that belief was only further reaffirmed.

She was beautiful, with golden brown curls and eyes that were somehow blue and gold all at once. Her face bore an impish smile. She was as tall as he, if not a little taller, and looking at her, he knew he would never think of her as a girl again. She was a woman grown, and even looking upon her made him feel young and awkward and so unworthy all he wanted was to shrink into the nearest crack in the cobbled courtyard. For all that she was of an age with him, a few moons older at most, in that moment he could not help but feel like a foolish child.

It took great effort to keep his hand from shaking as he bent over hers and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. His stomach twisted with nerves, and he thought he said something or other, but he did not know what and knew he would never be able to recall it. Whatever it was, she responded with a gracious smile, her voice both strong and sweet.

He was not ready for this, he realised. Not at all. He was a boy still. How could he wed a woman? How could he even think to bed her? It was all he could do not to flush when he remembered the awkward talk Uncle Benjen had had with him a few moons back, when they had first been informed that the wedding would take place soon. He was not ready at all, and for all that the smile on her face remained unwavering, he thought she knew too. She must. He could not imagine she would look at him and see anything but a fumbling, frightened child.

Loras stepped past him to greet his sister while Jon managed to somehow keep hold of his courtesies for long enough to greet the rest of the Tyrells and their retinue. Feeling almost nauseous, he offered his arm to Lady Alerie and led the way into the Stone Drum with Uncle Arthur falling silently into step behind him.

***

Loras had told him enough about Highgarden that Jon knew Dragonstone must seem drab and dreary and utterly forbidding in comparison. As proud as he was of his home, he could not shake those thoughts the next day as he showed his betrothed around the castle she would be Lady of. She spoke her pretty, courteous words at many of the sights he showed her, small hand almost unbearably heavy in the crook of his arm, but they were just bland and nondescript enough that he knew she must be struggling for anything good to say. Between the stone monsters and barren cliffs and heavy black sky, he supposed that made sense, even though all he could see was a place he loved, the only place where he had ever belonged.

"Show her the gardens," Loras spoke up from where he was chaperoning them. "You will be outraged, sister. These wolves, they fuss over their Godswood, but they have no idea what to do with the rest of it."

Jon bit back a snort. Loras, to be perfectly honest, was right about that. Neither he nor Benjen and Dacey had much of a green thumb, or the patience for something as useless as attempting to restore Aegon's Garden, which, from what Jon had heard, had been half-wild even before Stannis' tenure as Lord anyway. Besides, Jon had little to no idea what an ornamental garden looked like in the first place. The glass gardens at Winterfell were mostly utilitarian, for growing fruits and vegetables even when the cold weather should have prevented it. The winter roses were the only truly ornamental thing he remembered from there, and even those were often sold for good sums, to be made into oils and perfumes. "Uncle Benjen says he tried to plant a patch of winter roses the first year he was here," he said. "They do not do so well south of the Neck, though, and when the plants died, I suppose we all just kind of gave it up as a lost cause. It was that, or turn Aegon's Garden into a cabbage patch." He only realised how he had spoken after the words had already escaped his lips. The way he had with Loras for a good long while now, honest and wry. But he and Loras had known each other for two years now. Loras knew him well enough to understand that Jon's way of speaking would always be of the North, and Jon knew Loras well enough by now to trust he would not be judged for it. He had forgotten, for a moment, that Margaery was even there, and now he could not hold back a flush at the thought of how much of an idiot he must have sounded to her ears. Turning Aegon's Garden into a cabbage patch. What must she think of him?

Somehow, despite all his fears, she laughed. Not as much as Loras did, but a short, small one that made him breathe a sigh of relief. "A cabbage patch might still have been better than leaving it to ruin," she said. "It might not have been pretty, but at least it would have been good for something."

"Well, there are cranberries there," Jon said. "They are growing wild and have mostly swallowed up everything else except the oldest trees, but at least it is good for something. Cook makes delicious cranberry preserves." He stopped, replayed the words in the privacy of his own mind, and flushed all over again. He should just keep his mouth shut now, since everything that came out seemed designed specifically to make her think less of his intelligence.

"I should like to see the Garden," she said at last, saving them from an awkward silence that would have been left for Loras to fill. "And with your leave, perhaps, in time, work on replanting it?"

Jon let out a sharp breath and nodded, turning them around and leading the way towards the Dragon's Tail. The garden truly was in shambles, overgrown and utterly wild, excepting the fledgling Godswood in the far corner. But something lit in Lady Margaery's eyes at the sight of that plot of land. As she spoke enthusiastically with her brother about plants and flowers whose names he had never heard before, her hand felt a bit less heavy on his arm. For the first time since she arrived, he felt he could breathe almost freely.

When they moved on to see the Sept, which Jon had barely stepped foot in for the past three years, her words were a bit less bland and guarded than they had been. "Do you enjoy music, My Lord?" she asked.

Jon winced, remembering his disastrous attempts with the high harp. "I enjoy listening to it," he said. "I fear I have no talent for performing, though. And I will warn you now that I am like to step on your toes at the feast tomorrow." Tomorrow, Gods, was it really so soon? The realisation made his stomach knot and his palms grow sweaty.

She gave him a soft smile. "You are graceful in the training yard, though, are you not?" she asked. "My brother tells me if you had squired with your uncle, you would have likely been knighted already." So why have you not? she did not ask, but clearly thought.

"I fear those two do not always translate," he said. "And my Uncle Arthur is kind enough to train me without expecting me to squire for him; he understands that I do not wish to make a mockery of my Gods or his by entering into an institution that holds so closely to the Seven."

"There are knights in the North, are there not?" Margaery asked.

"Aye," Jon replied. "There are also Septs and followers of the Seven. There is a Sept and a Septa in Winterfell, even."

"So if I wished to raise our children in the Light of the Seven?" she asked slowly. "If I wished for our sons to be knights..."

"My siblings were raised in both religions," Jon said. "Lady Catelyn wished for it, and I would no more deny you than my father denied his Lady wife. I know my brother Bran plans to become a knight."

She seemed to let out a small breath of relief at that, and Jon wondered if she had thought him some kind of savage, the way he knew his bannermen had when he first arrived. He would have hoped his friendship with her brother might have inspired more confidence than that, but then what had he done since she arrived other than make himself look a fool? Considering that, he could not really blame her for her misconceptions. "Your siblings were raised in both religions," she said. "Yet you were not." The question was not stated, but it was there nonetheless, and Jon could not quite help but wince.

"Lady Catelyn did not care to take any part in raising me," he said. "I believe she preferred that I never set foot in her Sept. My religious upbringing was left entirely to my father, and he is of the North." He swallowed, hated having to remind her of his own bastardy, but was it not her right to get to know him, at least a little, ahead of tomorrow's ceremonies? "Besides, Septa Mordane scared me."

She gave a small laugh at that, and Jon felt a brief flash of pride at the sound. If he could make her laugh, could continue to make her laugh, perhaps this union need not be some horrible cage for them to live out the rest of their lives inside.

***

Jon tossed onto his other side, rucking the bedclothes up around him. His nightshirt stuck to his back with sweat. By now, he was used to the warmth in his chambers from the fire in the grid he had ordered the servants must never go out, and the extra heat that seemed to emit from the four stones themselves. The cold of the North was more a memory than anything, and the heat bothered him far less than he had expected. It was not the heat, he suspected, that had left him drenched in sweat and unable to get a wink of sleep. It was those nerves of his again, the knowledge that tomorrow night at this time, he would be in the bridal chambers with his Lady wife, and despite what Uncle Benjen had told him, he did not think he would have the faintest idea what to do with her. It was the thought of speaking vows that would hold until his last day, the terror that if he did something wrong, made her dislike him, the unhappiness could be lasting, for them both. The thought alone made him feel sick to his stomach.

He turned over again, stayed on his back this time and stared up at the ceiling, feeling infuriatingly awake. He just wanted to sleep. Then, for a while at least, he would not have to think on any of this, and time would pass faster. As much as he was frightened of tomorrow, he also could not wait to just get it out of the way, get all these strangers off his island and see life go back to something like normalcy, whatever that would end up looking like. Besides, he had no wish to be tired and that much more miserable on his own wedding day.

At first, he was so consumed by his worries that he did not hear the knock on his door. Then it made it through the muck of his mind, and he shot up in the bed, sucking in a sharp breath of air as shock rushed through his body. "Who is there?" he asked.

The door fell open, and Uncle Benjen stepped inside. Despite the fact that Benjen, unlike Jon, had never grown accustomed to the Southron weather, he was dressed in Northern leathers and furs, looking more like how Jon remembered him from his childhood than how he had grown used to seeing him for the past three years. "Get dressed," Uncle Benjen said, before stepping back out and letting the door fall shut behind him.

Jon frowned, uncertain what was going on. Still, that had been unmistakably an order, and Uncle Benjen did not order him around much at all these days. He had best comply. And honestly, he was more than a little relieved at the thought of no longer having to toss and turn as sleep continued to evade him. He extricated himself from his damp bedding, stumbling a little as he made his way across the floor to his trunk. After a brief contemplation, he dug to very bottom and got out his own fur mantle, following his uncle's lead and dressing like a true Northman for the first time in years.

He made his way out the door and found not only Uncle Benjen waiting for him, but his father and his brother Robb, who was wiping sleep from his eyes, as well. Jon cocked an eyebrow at Robb, but only got a shrug in return. Seemed they were both being left in the dark, then.

Uncle Benjen led the way down the hallways and out into the cool night air. A breeze was blowing through the overgrown garden, and Jon sucked in a deep breath, still over-warm from his uneasy rest and the furs around his shoulders. Even the light rain was a relief. They made their way through the brambles and plants, cloaks snagging on the thorns of the old, unkempt rose bushes, until they finally reached the Godswood. They passed the sentinels until they stood before the small weirwood with its unblemished bark. It was meant to serve as the heart tree, Jon knew, but he had never felt any presence from it, never felt the sheltering and calm he had with its parent tree in Winterfell. It had not stopped him from coming to the Godswood, but more often than not, these days, it only left him feeling sad and empty.

"Ever since Brandon the Builder," his father said, breaking the long silence at last, "Every Stark marriage has been witnessed by the Old Gods." Jon wondered at that. From what he had heard, his father had wed Lady Catelyn in the Sept at Riverrun, but then he supposed it was not out of the realm of possibility that there had been a private ceremony in the Godswood as well, like the one planned for him tomorrow. "You should not be an exception, Jon," Ned Stark continued, reaching out and giving Jon's shoulder a brief squeeze that made Jon feel a lot more grounded than he would prefer to admit. "But I fear that with no eyes in their tree, the Gods will see nothing at all."

Jon swallowed down the sudden pang he heard at those words. "So why are we here?" he asked. He wished he did not sound so hoarse, but his throat had felt clogged for days.

"We mean to give them eyes," Uncle Benjen said.

"I thought the Children of the Forest carved the faces into the trees," Robb protested.

"We are blood of the First Men," Uncle Benjen said. "But if legend is to be believed, we have a few drops of blood of the Children as well." He paused a moment. "I have no idea if this will work, but we should at least try."

Jon's father said nothing, which Jon knew very well meant he agreed and had nothing he found important to add. Instead, Ned Stark pulled a dagger from a scabbard at his side Jon had not even realised he carried. The metal glinted in the moonlight, and it took Jon long moments to realise it was not made from steel, but from bronze and iron. The blade vanished again, when his father closed his fist around it and pulled it abruptly down. When the bronze and iron became visible again, the glint of it was dull with blood. Still silent, Ned Stark passed the blade to Benjen Stark, who repeated the motion before passing it on to Robb. Robb hesitated for long moments with his fist closed around the blade, breath held and a look of apprehension on his face. When he cut himself, it was with a wince Jon had only ever seen him give in the training yard, and even then this was different.

Robb passed the dagger to Jon, and Jon did not hesitate. He supposed he would have, except he was used to drawing his own blood by now, guided by his dreams, feeding the drops to the rocks that even now lay in his fireplace. He pulled down the dagger, adding his own blood to the others'. He went to return the dagger to his father, but instead of taking it, Ned Stark guided Robb's hand to rest over Jon's, then Benjen's, then his own. Then he pushed the dagger and their joined hands to the trunk of the tree.

Jon had never felt anything like it. The blade slid through the wood as though it were warm butter. Something seemed to guide their hands. None of the others were pushing at Jon's hand. There was no pressure. But the dagger moved anyway. And rather than small bits of wood, whole chunks seemed to fall off under their hands. The dagger appeared to lift itself for a moment before digging in elsewhere, and again, and then, somehow, Jon knew they were done. Almost as one, they stepped back, and Jon looked at the tree to see a face so very different from the one in Winterfell that it took his breath away. It was already weeping red sap, but unlike the heart tree he had grown up with, this one seemed happy. Smiling. Grinning even. The eyes, despite the tears, looked benevolent.

Benjen swallowed audibly.

Jon's father gasped. "The laughing tree," he breathed. His arm wrapped around Jon's shoulder, suddenly, pulled him tight against his side. "By the Gods."

Jon glanced over at Robb, who looked just as confused as he felt, but still Jon was fairly certain they both felt the weight of the moment, felt the way that true presence was filtering into the Godswood, felt how it was becoming a true Godswood. A peace he had all but forgotten spread through him, and suddenly he was staggering on his feet, absolutely exhausted. His father's arm tightened around him, and then he felt himself float through the air only to be cradled against Ned's chest and carried through the Godswood. "Come on, lad," his father said, voice soft. "Time for you to get some sleep."

***

Jon's wedding day seemed to pass almost unbearably quickly. First, there were the vows before the laughing Heart tree, and then the far more complicated ceremony in the Sept where he tried and failed and tried again to recite his vows properly.

All he remembered of the feast was the tight knot in his stomach that made him feel sick when he tried to eat and made him actually think he would vomit when he attempted to sip his Arbour Gold. He did his best to dance, and probably wrecked his bride's feet beyond repair. When the bedding was called, he avoided everyone's eyes, felt a flush rise on his face. Gods, he could not believe he was doing this, could not believe that everyone currently gathered in Dragonstone was going to know. As the Tyrell ladies gathered around him, pulling at his clothes, it was all he could do to even keep breathing.

He was deposited in the bridal chamber, and he could only imagine what a sight he must have presented, stripped down to his smallclothes, struggling to breathe, eyes probably wild with the panic that made his heart pound and his hands shake.

Margaery was there all of a sudden, dressed in just her shift and smallclothes, and just as beautiful as she was in her elaborate dresses. She reached out, trailed her hand down his cheek, and Jon felt his breath catch. He could not help but feel small before her, unworthy. Once again, all he wanted was to disappear into the shadows, but there was nowhere to go. "Come on," she said, voice soft, as she pulled him towards the bed.

How was she so brave? And how was it that he could not find it within him to be the same? Still, he let her pull him with her, up onto the bed and closer, until he was hovering over her, her small hand on the nape of his neck pulling his face down. Then he was kissing her, or she was kissing him, and it was nothing like it had been in the Godswood or the Sept. This made something fiery blaze alive in the pit of his stomach, made his hands tremble with something more than just apprehension.

He wanted to touch her, he realised, but he did not know how, did not know if she would let him or if it would even be proper. And if he did something wrong, he would have to live with her scorn for the rest of his life. He did not dare, he realised, did not dare to do anything more than keep kissing her, and by the Gods, he almost thought he could do that for days without tiring of it. Her fingers carded through his hair, and he could not help but groan at that. Shivers raced down his spine as he broke their kiss, gasping for breath he had not even been able to tell he had grown short of.

After a few moments, she pulled him back down. He tasted wine on her lips, and the sweetness of the desserts that had been served at the banquet. He wanted to tell her he did not know how, wanted to tell her they did not need to do this tonight, that they might wait, like most couples wed as young as they did. Before he got the chance, his smallclothes had somehow ended up pushed down to his thighs, and she, he realised, had not been wearing any, regardless of what he had assumed.

She was the one who pushed at the small of his back, and suddenly all he knew was a tight, pressing heat. She let out a pained gasp, and Jon fought to hold himself still, make sure she had not been hurt, but his head was a flurry and he could not remember how to think, how to, well, anything really.

It took maybe five thrusts before he was panting his relief against the silken skin of her neck. Her fingers were still absently smoothing through his hair, and Jon felt at once as though his whole body had melted with more pleasure than he had known he could feel and a humiliation that made him want to die. He wanted to roll away, to be alone, but she held him fast. He could have broken away easily, but he had embarrassed himself enough for one night. Throat almost painfully tight, he hid his face in the crook of her neck and let her hold him until he fell into an uneasy sleep.

Chapter Text

297 AC

Lady Olenna Tyrell

Olenna Tyrell watched from her perch on the balcony as her grandson received another whooping from his goodbrother - Loras was improving, but he still had some catching up to do, it seemed. She watched as Jon helped Loras back on his feet, the two of them grinning together. She caught the surreptitious glance Jon sent in their direction, and looked to her side, only to see Margaery too focused on her stitching to notice any looks sent in her direction. Down in the yard, Jon Stark's shoulders seemed to slump a little before he got ready for the next bout. Olenna looked at her granddaughter once more, spent a long, uncertain moment wondering how to broach this subject at all.

Olenna had not been many name days older when she had wed, but even she remembered what a difference a few name days made at that age. And for all that they had done their duty, Jon and Margaery had been too young. Had they been granted a few years, even a few moons, of courtship, things might have been different. Instead, Jon spent his time with Loras, seeming to hope against hope that Margaery might notice his feats and smile upon him, while Margaery remained aloof and distant from the boy, tending the gardens, becoming accustomed to the household, sewing by Olenna's side and spending her evenings in Olenna's solar. It was high time Olenna figured out a way to untangle this mess. Thank the Gods she had stayed behind after the wedding.

Jon Stark was no knight, and surely that would have been Margaery's first strike against him. But some men did not need the title to embody the principles, and Olenna had no doubt that Jon would grow into that kind of man. That aside, things would not stay as they were forever. Sooner or later the spark would be lit that would propel the boy into the position the people closest to him seemed to have been grooming him for for years. And if he did not have a trueborn heir by then, it would be rumoured that it was because Margaery was unable to bear one. She could easily be set aside if things remained this tenuous between them. A situation like that would cost the Tyrells dearly, especially if Margaery managed to make the boy feel humiliated in some way or other. An heir was vital, and while Olenna could not tell her granddaughter why - in some cases, Olenna believed, it was more than right for a wife to know more than a husband, but with a relationship as fragile as this, it would only widen the gap - she still needed to somehow convey the importance. "He is a strong lad," she commented, watching as Jon disarmed Loras again, handing the sword back with a grin. Olenna could almost see the deliberate effort he put into not glancing in their direction, and some compassionate part of Olenna's heart she had not realised still existed for people outside her family ached for him. But then, he was part of her family now, was he not?

"He is," Margaery replied, voice neutral.

"Do you dislike him?" Olenna asked. It was more direct than she would usually have been, but perhaps she had spent enough time with the Starks for them to have rubbed off on her. Or perhaps it was just that some part of her knew that what her granddaughter needed right now was not pretty words, but frank honesty.

Margaery gave a small shrug of her shoulders. "I do not know him, Grandmother," she said. "How could I possibly dislike him?"

"You have been wed for five moons," Olenna said. "If you feel you do not know him, that is no one's fault but yours."

At long last, Margaery looked up from her stitching, eyes flashing. "He avoids me," she said. "He avoids me at every turn. Not once since our wedding night has he come to my chambers. How am I meant to be wife to a husband who cannot even look at me?"

Olenna let out a breath, and suddenly the picture was all too clear to her. "Boys his age do not often make good husbands," she said. "What was your wedding night like, dear?"

Margaery gave another one of her delicate, well-bred shrugs. "Quick," she said at last.

Olenna nodded, strangely reassured. The fact that no harsh words seemed to have been spoken between husband and wife, at least, bolstered her. "As I said, boys his age do not often make good husbands. And the ones who could be good, they know their own faults all too well." She reached out, grasped her granddaughter's hand. "Women tend to become women before men become men, and you are moons older than him. I imagine the boy felt unmanned, and he does not know how to cope. As his Lady Wife, it is for you to teach him otherwise."

Margaery's face went through a strange succession of expressions, from neutral to haughty to sad. "How?" she asked at last. "It hurt, Grandmama. And all he did was grunt and rut, and it was over in moments. I suppose that was a mercy, at least."

Olenna squeezed her granddaughter's hand. "There is great pleasure to be found in the marriage bed," she told her. "But sometimes the husband has to be trained up. Teach him to enjoy it without hurting his fragile manhood, and he will make you enjoy it too. If you cannot enjoy one another, he will eventually learn to find his pleasure elsewhere, and you will have bastards to deal with. Do not expect him to turn them away, not this one." She paused for a moment, holding Margaery's hand tight when the girl tried to deny her. "The one good thing about so young a husband is that he is still malleable," she said at last. "He came to you as much a maid as you were. Teach him what true pleasure means, and he will not be likely to cast you aside for another."

Margaery was silent for long moments. Then, "I do not even know what true pleasure means," she said. "All I know is that it has to be more than groaning and rutting and spending all within a few breaths."

"True enough," Olenna conceded. "But you must figure it out. You need a child in your belly, girl. Not just because the king commands it. Not just because of the pleasure I know a child will give you. This is more important than I can possibly explain."

"Try," Margaery said.

Olenna shook her head. "One day, your Lord husband will find cause to feel betrayed by everyone he ever trusted. I will not have you be among our ranks. He will need you more than ever, and it is imperative you know no more than he does." Of course, there was the possibility that the boy knew of the schemes already, but if he did, he needed to be the one to tell Margaery. Olenna knew in the back of her mind that it was possible the partnership she wished for between these two would never happen outside her imagination, that even if Jon were to take the Throne, Margaery would be no more than his ornament, the woman in the shadows of the Iron Chair. Olenna could not help but believe her granddaughter was meant for more, even if she needed some guidance. Guidance was understandable; Margaery was young yet.

Margaery's eyes narrowed for a moment before they lowered, resigned. Thankfully, the girl knew what she could and could not get from her grandmother. "I would not even know how to get him to my chambers," she said.

Olenna bit back a smile. "Look down," she instructed. Along with her granddaughter, she watched as Jon and Loras duelled yet again, their swords dancing with more skill than she might have honestly expected from boys their age. Finally, she almost thought Loras might win, but then Jon switched back into the Northman style that still seemed to come most naturally to him, and with a quick duck and kick sent Loras crashing to the ground once again. Olenna waited as the boy picked up her grandson's sword, offered his hand and hauled Loras back onto his feet. Waited another moment, and another. "Move closer to the railing," she instructed. At long last, Jon glanced up over his shoulder. His eyes seemed to widen when he caught sight of his Lady Wife. "Smile," Olenna said.

Margaery smiled.

Even from where she was seated, Olenna could see the flush spreading across Jon Stark's face.

"Wear the dragonglass rose he gave you for dinner tonight. Touch his arm," Olenna instructed when her granddaughter sat back down. "Make him talk. Laugh when he says something funny."

Margaery picked her stitching back up. "I know all those things," she said.

"Leave early," Olenna said. "Tell him you await him. If he does not come tonight, do the same thing tomorrow, and the night after. If he has not come to you by then, it will be your turn to come to him. And when you are with him, guide his hands. Make him know that there is no part of you he cannot touch. Reassure him. Do not ever let him leave your chambers embarrassed."

Jon Stark crumbled on the second night, and judging by the slight smile on Margaery's face the morning after, the boy had at least managed something slightly more than a rut and a grunt this time around. The sense of doom that had been bearing down on Olenna slowly began to dissipate.

***


Princess Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys Targaryen watched in apprehension as her brother glared down the cheesemonger, who seemed to absolutely refuse to be cowed. Fear knotted in her stomach. She prayed to the Seven Gods she barely knew that Viserys' temper would remain calm, that Illyrio Mopatis would not wake the dragon. She did not want Viserys to quarrel with their host when he had been gracious enough to offer them shelter indefinitely. She did not want to find herself back on the street, going hungry as her brother looked for another lord or merchant to beg favour from. And she did not wish to feel his temper turned upon her, again, when things inevitably went wrong.

"I did track down Sers Hightower and Whent," Mopatis said. "I sent them the message that their rightful king required their aid. They did not see fit to answer me; apparently they have well and truly taken to the life of common sellswords."

Daenerys' stomach sank to the ground at those words. Viserys had so hoped, and she had too... Combined, the two former knights of the Kingsguard commanded fifteen thousand highly trained soldiers. Their feats were legendary. Rumour had it that Ser Whent and some of his trusted captains had even stolen Blackfyre back from the Golden Company. Even aside from that, she had grown up hearing Viserys speak of them, their deeds and their legends. How could they turn them down in their hour of need, the House they had once sworn their lives to? They were the only two members of the Targaryen Kingsguard they had had to rely upon. Ser Jaime Lannister had slain their father. Ser Barristan Selmy had bent the knee to the Usurper. Ser Arthur Dayne had apparently foresworn everything and everyone to help raise his bastard nephew. What hope did they have now?

Viserys' fury looked to be near the point of boiling, hands trembling at his sides. "Traitors, the lot of them," he declared. "I shall have their heads when I sit my rightful Throne."

"Do you have any other news for us, Magister?" Daenerys asked, and fought not to cringe at the sound of her own voice. Viserys glared at her interruption, but Daenerys felt sick at the thought of seeing the previous conversation through to its conclusion. And, as always, she was eager for any news of the homeland she remembered only through her brother's tellings.

"I do," Mopatis said. "Something most definitely appears to be afoot. The old marriage alliance between Stark, Tully and Arryn now encompasses all Great Houses, save Baratheon and Lannister. A few moons back, Jon Stark of Dragonstone wed Margaery Tyrell, and Garlan Tyrell is set to wed Arianne Martell before the end of the year. And it appears Doran Martell has asked for one of the Stark girls of Winterfell to wed his son Quentyn, offering them a lordship of their own in return."

Viserys all but growled, and Daenerys understood his fury. Arianne should have been his. The betrothal had almost been in place before the Martells suddenly withdrew their support. And a Stark in Dragonstone, when it was meant to be theirs, when she had been the rightful Princess of Dragonstone her entire life, was near to unbearable.

"The good thing," Mopatis pressed on, before Viserys got a chance to explode. "Is that should a conflict occur, Baratheon and Lannister will find themselves isolated, with all the other Houses interconnected. The ill is that we cannot tell what anyone means to do with this alliance, or whether they mean to use it at all. If there are any plots afoot, everyone involved is being so tight lipped not even my friends in Westeros can tell what they are."

Viserys seemed to relax all at once. "It is obvious, is it not?" He smirked. "They have seen the error of their ways. They have seen what a wastrel the Usurper is. They mean to topple him and welcome me back as their rightful king."

"Maybe," Illyrio hedged. "Or maybe they mean to crown someone else. The Starks are at the core of this. They are what tie every part of the alliance together. They are who everyone will be related to." He paused for a moment, looked Daenerys up and down, as though he were evaluating one of his wares to be bartered and sold. "The heir to Winterfell is unpromised, and of an age with your sister, Your Grace. It may be in your best interests to enter into this alliance, find out what they are planning and use it to your own advantage."

Daenerys felt her own lips curl with disgust. The Starks were the Usurper's dogs. Viserys had always said so. To have to wed one, be bound forever to the desolate, barbarian North... The thought alone frightened her.

Viserys seemed to grit his teeth. "My sister shall not wed a dog," he said. "We shall have to wait and see. And you shall not fail me again."

***


Lady Olenna Tyrell

Olenna had not merely imagined the possibility of a partnership. Jon no longer avoided Margaery, and though she still made him blush, Olenna was certain there was little embarrassment left in it. He was sweet with her, sweeter, even, than Olenna had dared hope, looking to her for a reaction when he spoke, taking her for walks in the gardens and visits to the harbour market, inviting her to his Godswood and even allowing her to take him to the Sept. Which was just as well; one day he would have to be able to follow both religions, even if he would not foreswear his Old Gods, and Margaery would have to be his guiding hand there. Within a few moons of their newfound connection, Margaery sat the petitions with him, went over the books with him and Lord Benjen.

Margaery was softening to the boy as well, of that Olenna had no doubt. She brimmed with pride when he wore a doublet she had embroidered. Her smile, when he caught her eye from the training yard, was natural now, unselfconscious, no longer a ploy. Olenna could have done without the once she had caught them kissing in Aegon's Garden, but it had been a reassuring sight nonetheless, and perfectly natural for a pair of children their age. And the sweet girl would get an almost vacant smile on her face sometimes, fall into long silences as though lost in thought, and when she stirred back to awareness, more often than not her first word would concern Jon. It was sweet to see.

Today, however, for the first time in a long while, Margaery looked troubled, biting her lip as she glanced surreptitiously between Olenna and her stitching. It took three bouts down in the yard, this time of the long ones between Ser Arthur and Jon, before Olenna had finally had enough. "Out with it, girl," she demanded.

Margaery wrung her hands, her sewing lying forgotten upon her lap. For long moments, she did not speak at all. Then, at long last, "What is it like to birth a babe?" she asked.

Olenna kept her own eyes from widening, kept from giving away her joy and relief. A babe. Her sweet granddaughter was with child. And not just any child. A child that might very well sit the Iron Throne one day, a child who would have the allegiance of five of the Seven Kingdoms. She took a breath, kept herself grounded in the here and now, the slow building of things, rather than skipping ahead to where she planned for them to one day be, whatever schemes it would take to get them there. "It is painful," she said. "I will not lie to you, child. It will hurt worse than anything you have ever felt. But it will be more than worth it once the maester places your babe in your arms. You will have never known a love like it."

Margaery gave a soft, apprehensive smile.

"How long has it been since your last moon blood?" Olenna asked.

Margaery flushed. "At first, I thought it might just be irregular again, like it was at first," she said. "But it's been two moons now, and I keep feeling ill in the mornings. I have not spoken to the maester yet, but I do not know what else it could be."

Olenna reached out, plucked Margaery's sewing things off her lap and deposited them in their basket for the servants to return to her rooms. "Come, child," she said. "Let us go pay old Maester Cressen a visit."

Chapter Text

297 AC

Lord Jon Stark

Jon swallowed down his nerves, and still felt them fluttering all through his stomach. It felt silly, in a way, to still feel so nervous around a woman who had been his Lady Wife for the better part of a year, and his true companion for several moons' turn by now. They had taken countless strolls through the gardens, and Jon still could not believe how they had come to life under her care, full of day and night blooming flowers alike, alive with scents he could have never even imagined. She even, at times, accompanied him to the Godswood and looked upon the laughing Heart tree as he prayed. Somehow, though, tonight felt different, weightier, her hand heavier on his arm than it had been since they had finally come together, and he could hardly catch his breath for the apprehension rushing through him.

When he knelt before the Heart tree, she sat herself down next to him, smoothing her skirts out around herself, and as always she was silent, waiting patiently, but she was not as restful as usual. Rather, she seemed to almost thrum with something he could not possibly name, and it racked his own anxiety up to where he did not even know what to do with it. It was only minutes before he gave up the hopes of finding peace and prayer that night and turned towards her. His breath caught in his throat at the sight of her; she was beautiful in ways he could not describe, and regardless of what he had thought for a while there, so fearful of her rejection he had walked through his own castle on the tips of his toes, frightened and embarrassed, she was kind as well, thoughtful. Funny, even, when she chose to be, and although he had not chosen her himself, and would not have wanted it to happen so early, theoretically, he was beyond grateful that she was here, with him, that she was his Lady Wife, his, the one person no one could ever take from him. He only hoped she felt half of that for him. "Is something wrong?" he asked, suddenly uncertain. Half of him near thought she meant to tell him that she wished to go back to how things had been, to the polite distance and overt avoidance, that he had become too much of a burden. He did not know what he would do if that were the case.

She looked at him for long moments, her blue eyes glowing gold in the faint light of the evening. Her hand came up to clasp his, and relief gripped him tight and warm for a moment. She could not possibly mean to go back to formalities alone if she could touch him like this. Still, for long moments she did not speak, and Jon felt fear begin to rise. What if something was wrong? Was she ill? Had someone caused her some kind of harm? She must have read something in his expression, because at long last a faint smile tugged on her shapely lips. "Nothing is wrong," she said. "At least I hope not." The long breath she drew in shuddered audibly, and Jon turned his hand over, laced their fingers together. Margaery's other hand came up, covered the back of his, and utter fear made Jon's breath catch and his chest constrict once more. He glanced up at the laughing tree, fought to find some kind of solace from the sight of that kindly face, but it did not come. He had no idea what to do with this situation, and that always seemed to draw him up short. Her thumb rubbed across his knuckles. She drew in another breath. The knots in Jon's stomach tightened further. "I am with child," she said.

For one long moment, Jon's whole world stopped and seemed to hang suspended. He could not breathe, or move, or speak. A million thoughts rushed through his mind. He was barely more than a child himself, hardly a man grown, for all that he had been wedded and bedded for almost a year. He still required his uncle or aunt to sit in when he heard petitions. He still woke from night terrors telling him to 'wake up'. He still did not even know what kind of man he would be at all, for all the hopes he had for himself and his future. When it came down to it, he was still the motherless bastard who would rather find a way to hide than have too many people look upon him. The thought of being so utterly responsibly for another human being made his throat clog, made his vision threaten to white out. If they had not been in the Godswood, he thought he might have run away. But how could he? He was before the Heart tree, before the Old Gods of his Lord Father, and they saw everything that happened within their domain. How could he run away when they would forever know him to be craven? He could not, would not, bring shame upon his House or his father's. Somehow, he dredged up a smile, hoped his undoubtedly too-wide eyes would not give too much away. "That is wonderful news, My Lady," he managed. He could almost imagine that his voice did not sound strangled.

How much of an idiot was he? They had been bedding almost nightly for moons. She was flowered, and his stubble was growing coarser seemingly by the day. He had been shaving for moons now, and his voice was that of a man. Most of their peers did not wed until they were at least a few years older than the two of them, and of the few who did wed so early, most did not have children until years later. Jon supposed it was just something he had put out of his mind, to deal with later. But later, it seemed, was now, and unless he wanted another several horrible moons of distance between himself and Margaery, he was going to have to be a man grown and deal. And so he would. It was not the hardest thing he had had to do. At least he did not think so. Although, honestly, at that very moment he was hard pressed to remember anything that might ever have been harder.

Margaery squeezed her hand, leaned closer towards him, close enough to press her forehead against his. "You are frightened," she said, and Jon swallowed in response, did not answer. He did not want her to think him craven. But perhaps he was. Perhaps this responsibility would prove more than he knew how to handle. And he could not bear to imagine her response when she realised. "I am too," she said, inadvertently breaking him out of the riotous circle his mind had been unable to crack on its own. "We are so young," she said. "We still require a regent. Neither one of us knows what it is everyone wants from us. We still--" She stopped, and Jon heard her swallow. "But he will be ours. Our flesh and blood, Jon. We cannot fail him." Her voice, on those last few words, was almost pleading, and that both broke and staunched him, in ways he had never even imagined.

He did not make a conscious choice to wrap his arms around her and pull her to his chest, but he did it nonetheless, pressing his jaw to her temple. "Aye," he heard himself whisper. "We cannot."

Jon had never known a mother, not her touch nor her love or confidence or pride. But he had grown up knowing exactly what a mother should be like. He had seen it every day of his early life, seen it in the way Lady Catelyn would shelter her children, soothe their hurts, teach them of the world. For a brief moment, when he had burnt with the fever of the pox, he had believed he might have received it himself, and until Margaery, he had known nothing sweeter. Margaery, he believed - had to believe - would be that, the thing he had watched and never had, for their children. He had to believe that. Believed it, even if he did not have to. She loved her family fiercely, and she was so strong, so much older than her years. If he could believe that of her, he had to believe the same of himself, that he could be to their child what his Lord father had been to himself and his siblings, what his uncles had been to him. He had to, or he could never be worthy of her, of any of this. Even telling himself that, however, did not take away the terror that seemed to make his blood run cold.

"He will be a lovely little thing," Margaery continued. She released the back of his hand, reached up to card her fingers through his hair. Despite the situation, the touch shot sparks of icy heat down his spine, made him shudder. "He will have your beautiful curls." Her fingers traced along his face, and he could not help the instinctive tremble that still went through him at her touch. "Your cheeks and jaw and mouth." Her forefinger traced his lips, and Jon could not help but suck in a sharp breath, felt the first stirrings of arousal despite all the fear, all the things he did not know how to deal with. "He will be strong, and kind, and gentle."

"And smart," Jon interjected, the words catching on even if he still could not quite seem to see more than some blurred vision of her fantasy. "And chivalrous and fierce."

"Aye," she returned, and he thought her imitation was deliberate this time, a gentle jape to ground him, and it did steal some of the tension right out from his ramrod straight back. "And we shall love him, and raise him right, and we will be a family, Jon. A true family."

Suddenly, it was a sob and not a fearful gasp that Jon was choking back. Family. The word alone touched something so deep within him that it hurt. Jon had grown up with relatives, but he had never had a family, not truly, not one that was his. In so many ways, he had been on the outside looking in, not quite belonging to anyone or anything, never quite able to claim anything or anyone in return, except perhaps his Uncle Arthur, the uncle who looked least like him, believed least in the things he did. As if that word alone had broken something within him, suddenly most of his fears and apprehensions seemed to wash away. He was left imagining the warm, delicate weight of a newborn within his arms, the joy of watching a trueborn child of his own blood take his first steps and speak his first words, of teaching him the sword and leading him to the Godswood. Tenderness unlike anything he had ever even dared imagine swelled through him. He was not aware of the tears before he felt the wetness on his own cheeks, before he felt a sob tear through his throat. It hurt, badly, but it was the best kind of hurt he thought he had ever felt. "We will," he said.

Somehow, without him quite catching on, she detangled herself from his hold and rose to her knees, and the next thing he knew, his face was buried in her shoulder, and her arms were tight around his back. She held him steady as the sobs came, pressed his face to her neck and stroked his hair, comforted him without speaking a word. That, more than anything, reassured him, finally, that everything really would be all right.

***

Only a few sennights after the official announcement had been made, a gift materialised from some unknown benefactor from Essos, which was mystery enough in and of itself, though Jon supposed this was more of Uncle Arthur's furtive friends. The sword, as it were, created a far greater mystery when Jon uncovered it. Its hilt and pommel seemed simple enough, leather wrapped and plain. It was the blade itself that made Jon's breath catch. The dark ripples in the steel told the tale of how the steel that made it had been folded, over and over, of all the painstaking work that had gone into it. He turned back to his Uncle Arthur the moment he presented him with it. "This is Valyrian steel," he said.

Arthur Dayne nodded his confirmation. "That it is," he said. He took the sword back from Jon, spun it, tested its balance. "It is a fine sword," he said. "You may still have to grow into it. This is a hand and a half longsword, after all. It may be light, but it is longer than what you are used to, and you are not that tall yet."

Jon reached out his hand and held his stance until Uncle Arthur put the sword back in his hand. Jon tested it himself, weighed and swirled it. It was longer than he was used to, true, but he was not as short as he had been, and it did not feel like too much of a hindrance, especially given the light weight Uncle Arthur had pointed out. It weighed less than the regular long sword he was used to. The leather-covered hilt fit almost perfectly in his hand. And once he had broken it in, he let himself believe, it would feel like just another part of his arm. "Who would give me something like this?" he asked. "And why? There are so few Valyrian steel swords left in the world."

"More than most people realise," Uncle Arthur said. "And do not forget, you are the Lord of the Narrow Sea now. There are more people willing to vie for your favour than you realise."

Jon felt himself flush. "I am just a bastard," he said.

Uncle Arthur actually laughed at that. "You are not," he said. "You are Lord Stark of Dragonstone, the Gullet and the Narrow Sea. You are like to become one of the best swordsmen Westeros has seen in generations. And you are a good, just man. People take note of these things, boy."

Jon felt his back straighten almost of its own accord. True praise, praise that went beyond technique and footwork, came so rarely from Uncle Arthur that Jon, even now that he was supposed to be grown, could not help but respond to it like a Northern flower would lap up every last ray of sunlight it might find. He had always got the impression from Uncle Arthur that he hoped for the best and expected the worst, like he was always hoping and despairing of whether or not Jon could rise above the treacherous, lecherous stain brought on by his birth, all this completely removed from the love Jon had never doubted his uncle felt for him. Words like these... No matter how grown, Jon thought he would always treasure them. "Thank you," he managed.

Uncle Arthur reached out and ruffled his hair with a laugh. And when Jon tried to evade him, he only laughed more loudly. "Allow an old man his indulgence," he said. "Soon enough you will be a father, and I cannot do these things from fear that your children will disrespect you."

Despite himself, Jon could not help but grin at those words. As devastating and frightening as the news of his impending fatherhood had been at first, now he found he could not wait. Could not wait for the family Margaery promised, and the promise of getting to be a father to his child the way his own Lord father, for all the good intentions Jon did not doubt he had, had never truly got to be to him, with Lady Catelyn's disapproval always weighing heavy between them, and the unspoken sorrow Jon had always seemed to evoke in Lord Eddard. Carefully, he put the sword back in the scabbard, ignoring the way his hands itched with the urge to spar with it. Instead, he looked up at his uncle, trying to tell him without words how much he needed his honesty. "Do you think I can be a good father?"

Uncle Arthur's eyes turned sad for a moment, and a succession of expressions Jon could not even begin to understand seemed to pass over his face. At long last, he reached out and gripped Jon by the back of his neck, pulled him close enough that they were eye to eye. Jon did not have very far to look up anymore, he suddenly realised. "Any child would be luckier than they know to call you their Lord Father," Uncle Arthur said, and another burst of confidence came in to bolster Jon up where he might have failed on his own. "You listen to me now, boy," he continued. "You are the best of both your Houses. You are greater than the sum of your parts, greater than anyone could have foreseen. You are one of the best men I have known and the greatest lord I have served." His hand slid into Jon's hair, and Jon's forehead was resting against his uncle's jaw. The whole encounter was so charged it hurt in a way Jon could not even explain. All he knew was that he could not bear the thought of letting Arthur Dayne down. As much as he did not believe those words to be true, he would have to make them so. "You will love that child as fiercely as a wolf loves its cub, protect it just as strongly. And you are strong enough to live for him rather than die for him. He will never think to ask for a better father."

Jon swallowed, remembering the number of former sworn Lords who had died on his uncle's watch rather than see their duties through. Jon would not, would never, be one of them. He swore it. He had smallfolk depending on him. He had lords sworn to him, also depending on him. He had a father he would make proud if he could. More than anything, he had a Lady Wife and a child to be. Jon would be what his uncle believed him to be, even if it took everything he had within him. And he might not be very old, but he had lived long enough to know that sometimes it required more strength, more courage, to live than to die. He hoped he would never have to make that choice.

He wrapped his arms around his uncle in a quick, brief hug before stepping back, somehow managing to hold onto a trembling smile. And then, before he could say anything in response, the door opened and his Uncle Benjen stepped inside. He eyed the sword, and Uncle Arthur, and Jon, back and forth over and over again. Jon did not think he could have read Benjen's expression for all the gold in the known world. "Ser Dayne," Uncle Benjen said. "I would have words with you. Alone."

Uncle Arthur's expression revealed nothing. He gave Uncle Benjen a pleasant smile. "After the evening meal," he promised. "I believe our nephew would like to try out his new blade."

Uncle Benjen's lip curled into something that almost seemed to resemble a snarl. "After the evening meal," he agreed.

***

"We should not be here," Jon whispered.

Loras rolled his eyes. "Are you the Lord of this keep or not?" he asked, and Jon could not help but regret having told his friend of his uncles' designation. He cared deeply for his goodbrother and the man who had become probably his very best friend in the world, but Loras had a way of talking him into doing things he usually would not do. Loras also had an insatiable curiosity and thirst for gossip Jon was not sure he could have understood if he had tried. He only knew that Loras' need to know absolutely everything that went on around him was why he found himself heading towards his Uncle Benjen and Aunt Dacey's solar, readying himself for eavesdropping on his uncles' conversation.

Jon gritted his teeth. Honestly, he would much rather be in Margaery's chambers right now, mapping out the recent changes to her body. The new sensitivity in her teats had kept them both entertained and more than satisfied for a few nights now, and her condition, surprisingly, seemed to make her appetites actually surpass his own. He nearly flushed to even think those thoughts when he was crouched right next to her brother, but he also knew that not only would Loras mock him mercilessly if he got to know something important before Jon, but Margaery herself would not forgive him for letting some important piece of information, which there was some small chance this might be, pass underneath his nose.

Loras opened his mouth, undoubtedly meaning to say something else, but before he could, conversation started up within the solar, rendering them both silent.

"Do you honestly think I do not know what that sword is?" Uncle Benjen asked. "Nothing makes its way into Dragonstone without Dacey or I knowing." He paused a moment, then, "I know what's beneath that cheap leather binding, and you do too. Who sent it?"

"My brother did," Uncle Arthur said, voice even and calm as always. The only time Jon could remember Uncle Arthur's voice rising was that once when Robb tried to ride a horse too wild for him and Jon had to run them down. Arthur had shouted at him for hours about how risking his own life was not worth it for anything. Jon had not realised that Lord Aron Dayne might agree, might care one way or the other. Aron Dayne was the one uncle who had never so much as spared him a word, by raven or otherwise. Even Lord Beric Dondarrion, who had not yet wed his Aunt Allyria, who Jon had also never met, had come to his wedding. Why did Arthur and Benjen suddenly think that might have changed?

"Ser Oswell Whent sent Ned Stark's bastard son a legendary blade made from Valyrian steel?" Uncle Benjen asked.

Jon started. Oswell Whent had sent the sword? Why would he? Yes, he and Uncle Arthur had been sworn brothers once, but why would Ser Oswell send Arthur Dayne's bastard nephew a priceless blade? His own blood still lived on. If Jon remembered correctly, he was related to Lady Catelyn somehow. This should have been Lord Edmure's blade, then, or Robb's. So why had Jon been the one to receive it?

"It is his by right," Uncle Arthur said.

Uncle Benjen snorted. "Speak truth to me for once, Dayne," he said. "Why have you stuck by Jon's side all these years? You have a brother and a sister and a trueborn nephew in Dorne. Am I really supposed to believe you simply loved your closest sister enough to give all that up? Am I supposed to believe you ever truly abandoned the Kingsguard when you just put Blackfyre itself into my nephew's hands?"

Jon's mind reeled. He wished to the Gods he had thought to keep the sword on him. But then he would have been tempted to tear off the leather bindings here and now to find out what lay beneath, and the noise would have certainly given him away. He needed to hear the rest of this conversation. He could not say why, but he knew he did, more desperately than he had ever needed any truth in his life.

"I always knew he was not Ned's son," Uncle Benjen continued. "It is subtle," he added, "How he has my mother's looks while Ned and Arya both have my father's. They're lighter of hair and darker of skin, yet all of them have the Stark look. No one would think to question it. It is subtle enough; my parents were cousins, after all. Yet Ned is the only one of my siblings with that colouring. I always noticed, but I did not think it mattered. I thought he was Brandon's, sired on your sister, and that Ned claimed him so he would be less of a threat to Robb. I did not care; it made him no less my nephew. But that is not true, is it? All along, you have served the man who deceived her and incited a war as his madness grew."

"I served Rhaegar," Uncle Arthur said. "Then I protected your sister, in the hopes that she would bear a King. And then I guarded your nephew. Because of my vows. Because I promised her. And then because I grew to love that boy more deeply than subjects usually get to love their king." He paused for a moment, but Jon could not process his words, could not even begin to comprehend what was being said.

Wake up, his mind whipered.

"Even when Rhaegar did what he did and bid us help," Uncle Arthur continued. "Even when Lyanna followed him like the naïve little girl she was, I never believed in prophecy. I simply obeyed. Then I watched Jon grow, watched him become... More. He is the product of the Pact of Ice and Fire, even if it was mishandled. The Song of Ice and Fire, Rhaegar would have said. He is the Prince that was Promised. I do not know what that means. I do not know what it is he is meant to defeat. But if anyone could do it, it is him. I can still beat him in the training yard, true. But I had less skill and less talent at his age, and no more drive than your nephew does. He is a king and a commander, not only raised or trained, but born. I suppose you have to give Rhaegar his due the one time it was truly earned outside of composing ballads."

Wake up.

"So that is the great secret?" Uncle Benjen asked, and he sounded both toneless and as though he was close to tears. "Ned never sired a bastard, nor did Brandon, but Lyanna carried one. Ned protected him, and lied even to me. And there is yet another plot afoot that will devastate the North and bring instability to the whole of Westeros."

"Ned never sired a bastard," Arthur said. "Nor did Lyanna carry one. They wed on the Isle of Faces. I was one of two witnesses. Ned protected his nephew, after he had seen the boy's brother and sister slaughtered like they were less than cattle. He protected his secret to protect those around him, like any soldier betraying his general would. And the only plot afoot is to right the wrong that was done to your own nephew." His voice was so even, so matter of fact, and Jon's head was pounding. Everything inside him rebelled. His stomach was turning and his throat was so tight he thought he might never breathe right again. He could not comprehend what was being said. Could not even begin to. It was too much, so far beyond anything he had the ability to deal with.

As if from far away, he heard Uncle Benjen draw in a breath to speak once more, and suddenly he knew with such certainty that it brought him actual, physical pain, that he could not bear to hear what he meant to say. He turned away from the cracked door and walked towards his chambers.

Wake us up, his brain screamed.

Without stopping to think or consider, he made his way back to his chambers. Hands scrambling, he tried to assemble a bag for the stones that had been heating fruitlessly for almost two years. They burnt through his sheets and cloaks and mantle before he gave up. As careful as he could be with his limbs shaking, he stacked the stones in his arms instead, utterly unable to figure out what he was doing or why, even as he did it. It was only when he made his way from the dungeons to the catacombs below that he realised he was not alone. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Loras there.

"Not a word," he heard himself say. "Please, not a word. Right now, I do not wish to know if you knew or not. I do not want to know if your sister did. Let me do what I need to do. Not a word."

To Loras' credit, he simply nodded, mouth slammed shut, and followed Jon into the steaming innards of the island, shadowing him step by step. Jon resented his presence nearly as much as he felt grateful for it.

It might have been days upon days or less than a few hours before the heat rose to a level that was nearly unbearable. Steam and noxious fumes rose from holes in the floor, and Jon was suddenly all too aware of the fact that it should have killed him, or at least made him too sick to continue. Instead, he breathed in the brimstone as he had on sleepless nights for years, and felt comforted and reinvigorated rather than set upon. He did not stop to think on it, let alone consider what it meant. Instead, he kept going, deeper and deeper, half aware of the fact that he had left Loras behind, coughing and hacking, a while back.

Wake up, the voice that had been living in his mind since he first set foot on Dragonstone, and which had only grown stronger after he recovered the stones, cried. Wake up, wake up, wakeupwakeupwake.

The tunnel he was in widened abruptly, and suddenly he found himself in an enormous chamber, lit red, like he was standing in the midst of a live fire. The shadows flickered and spluttered around him. The heat called beads of sweat to his face, soaked through his tunic and doublet, made him feel soggy and disgusting, somewhere far away in the distant corner of his mind that still cared about such things. Still, he stepped closer and closer until he came upon a cliff. He walked to the edge of it and looked down, and all he saw was bubbling red, distorted by the heat steams. Molten rock meandered past his line of vision, blowing bubbles in his direction every few minutes. Some foreign corner of his mind suggested that he ought to feel afraid, but Jon was not sure he knew how to feel afraid anymore. Without stopping to think, he hauled the rocks he carried into the maw of the Dragonmont one by one. The chest of his doublet was seared through, he realised. His tunic too. His clothes alone made him look as though he had stepped right out of someone's funeral pyre. A hysterical voice in the corner of his mind insisted that it was his own.

Once he had let go of the final stone, he collapsed to his knees. He was distantly aware of his own sobs, his own cries of fear and despair, of the fireball spat up from the mountain itself. He was no longer certain what it was that made him act so madly in the first place, let alone why it all hurt like a knife to his heart. A sob racked his body, and then another and another until he thought he might just die from it.

He did not realise the heat of the volcanic chamber and the fire that had exploded upwards had set him aflame until he felt strong arms encircle his chest and pull him out of the burning mountain. It was only when he rested against cool bedrock that he realised that most of his clothes had burnt away, leaving him half-naked and so horribly exposed. Loras was behind him, he realised then. His goodbrother's chest was pressed to Jon's back, heaving for a half-proper breath. His clothes were more soot and rags than anything bearing his grandmother's signature stitches. Even his skin was so distorted with soot that Jon barely recognised him.

A sudden shriek wrenched his thoughts asunder. The sound chilled and warmed him all at once. He turned around, his whole body shaking, and then he saw them. He could only gape and watch as a tiny, unnatural form emerged from within the fiery end he had nearly doomed himself to. And then another and another and another. They staggered like newborn foals. Their entire tiny bodies glittered with scales the colours of the dragonglass caches all around them. Their tiny wings fluttered about them, and Jon was almost certain he was dreaming, because whatever it was his uncles had said, there was simply no way any of this was real.

Chapter Text

297 AC

Lord Jon Stark

Jon could not look away. His mind refused to wrap around what he was seeing, refused to comprehend it. And yet those tiny, strange little things kept coming towards him. He felt no threat from them, he realised. He had no idea why he thought he would know even if they were threatening him. He had never looked upon anything like them before, had no scope for understanding them.

"Dragons," Loras breathed. His voice was so hoarse it was barely there, and the word ended on a strangled cough. His hands tightened around Jon's upper arms. But Jon, without even stopping to think, pulled himself free and stepped towards the little things, crouching down.

The biggest of them, a tiny black thing mottled with white, hopped onto the hand Jon had not even realised he was holding out, and suddenly Jon felt something alien wash over him. He would have called it tenderness, except he knew what it was like to hold his Lady Wife and feel their babe move beneath her skin. That was tenderness. This was something different. Fierce too, but different. Wilder, in a way. Instinctive, just as the tenderness was, but it reached... not deeper, exactly. It reached a different part of him, the same one that had first told him that Dragonstone was home, the same one that had called him down to the catacombs for years, the same one that had told him to spill his blood on the stones - eggs, they had been eggs - night after night. Possessive. These creatures belonged to him, were part of him, but he belonged to them as well. And, something else, something that roared and raged somewhere within him, something he had no words to describe.

He let the other three climb onto him, settle on his shoulders and forearm, and then he stood, with the first one still cradled in his hand. It nuzzled against him, like a pup or a kitten, wings spreading flat along his palm. Jon could barely bring himself to breathe, could not remember how, could not seem to remember anything other than the fire and the blood he had fed them for years.

Loras coughed again, and this time it sounded deep and truly painful. Jon pulled himself out of his stupor for long enough to take in the sight of his friend. Most of Loras' clothes had been singed off. He was pale beneath the soot, paler than Jon had ever seen him. Every breath he took sounded difficult, rattling through his chest and whistling on its way out. He had a hand on the wall, Jon realised, and even then, he was barely holding himself up. He coughed again, and a drop of blood dribbled out the corner of his mouth. Immediately, the actual rational part of Jon's brain kicked back in and he rushed back to Loras. The dragons, as though sensing his intent before he acted, migrated to parts of his body where they would not be in the way. Jon wrapped Loras' arm around his shoulder, let him lean against Jon's side as Jon set as quick a pace as he could. They had to get back to the surface, and it had to happen fast. Loras needed a maester, and quickly. Jon did not even want to know what he had been breathing down here - what Jon had been breathing as well, but it had never hurt him before and did not seem like it would this time either. Worry pounded through him, made his own chest feel tight. He pushed himself to set a harder pace.

Still, every step seemed to take half an eternity, and Loras only grew heavier against his side. At times, Jon was half carrying him, barely holding him up. For all that Jon had just come out of a bit of a growth spurt, Loras was still taller than him and definitely heavier, for all his slenderness. The way back to the surface had never seemed so long before, or so hard.

As soon as Jon felt the first hint of a breeze on their skin, sucked in fresh, clear air, he allowed for a break. He was not sure if Loras would even be able to catch his breath before the maester had worked his craft, but if Jon could just give him enough of a respite to regain his feet, to stop shaking, maybe things would be better. Loras looked ashen. He was still coughing and Jon felt a flash of guilt go through him. He was truly frightened all of a sudden. What if something was seriously wrong with him? What if Maester Cressen did not know how to help him? If Jon had not been such a child, to run off and sulk when he should have stayed and demanded answers - if he had controlled himself, Loras would not have felt the need to run after him, and he would not be looking as though he were on the Stranger's doorstep now.

One of the dragons, a milky white one with bits of purple running along its scales and bright purple eyes, made a sound, almost like a chirp, in his ear. Jon squeezed his eyes shut for long moments. His head reeled. He did not know what to do with this. He did not--

He needed to help Loras. He could worry on all the rest later. Gritting his teeth and ignoring his aching shoulder and back, he wrapped his arm around Loras once more and dragged him upwards and onwards. Without him even having to think on it, his feet found the passage that would lead him straight back to the Lord's chamber. He pushed through inside and deposited the dragons on his bed. He would deal with them later. "Stay," he said, and he was not sure why, but somehow he was almost certain they had heard him and meant to comply, at least for now.

Then he went for the door, dragged Loras through his solar and out into the hallway, kicking the door shut behind himself. The guard posted at his door startled and turned towards them, then seemed to take in the situation well enough to take Loras' free arm and help Jon in the direction of the maester's chambers.

Jon knocked loudly as soon as the door was within reach. He kept knocking, could not get enough of a hold of himself to be bothered with courtesies right now. His throat was tight. His free hand shook. As if some part of him was observing from outside his own body, he could see his own exhaustion, see how everything threatened to overwhelm him. It was difficult to get a proper breath.

Maester Cressen finally opened the door, and the irritation on his face was immediately replaced with worry as he took in the sight before him. "Come in, come in," he instructed, quickly waving them on through into the sick room. Jon and the guardsman deposited Loras on the bed, and suddenly it was all Jon could do to keep standing himself. He sank into the nearest chair. The room seemed to spin around him.

"Get my wife," he told the guardsman. "Please."

It was only when the guardsman left with a quick nod of his head that Jon realised he should have asked for Lady Olenna as well. She would want to be here too. And Loras would want her presence. But then maybe he had not called Margaery for Loras, not entirely.

Not at all.

"My Lord," the maester said when he had spent several moments examining Loras, who had apparently dropped into sleep. Or unconsciousness. Jon hoped it was only sleep. "Could you tell me what happened to Lord Loras?"

Jon took a deep breath, tried to get a hold of himself, tried to hold himself together. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could not help but wonder if Cressen had known. No, he could not have, not if Benjen had only just found out. It could not be only he who had not known. He swallowed. What if Loras had known? What if that was why he had followed him? He shook the thought away. As much as he preferred not to admit it, he knew well enough that Loras would follow him anywhere, for no other reason than that he thought Jon needed him. Did Margaery know? He swallowed again. This time it hurt. And what was it all anyway? What was there to know? He might have misheard, might have misunderstood.

There were dragons in his bedchamber. He did not think that was something he could possibly misunderstand.

"My Lord?" Maester Cressen pressed, inadvertently pulling Jon out from where his own mind had threatened to pull him under.

"We went down into the catacombs," Jon managed. His throat felt raw and painful, and he knew his voice was coming out hoarser than normal, with more of his brogue coming through than was usual. It was not with whatever ailed Loras, though. It was just... Gods, he was tired. He was so tired and something inside him ached like an open wound. "And below, to the lava tunnels. Into the Dragonmont itself, I think. Then Loras was coughing and he was not breathing right. It only got worse as we made our way back towards the surface. I had to drag him most of the way." He glanced at his goodbrother, at his ashen face and the burns on his arms and face. Jon was not even sure when or how he had been burnt. And Gods, if Jon had only thought faster, had only reacted when Loras first started coughing. Or turned around when he first realised Loras was following him, even though he could not breathe down there... He pushed the thoughts away. He had been stupid, yes, and careless, and a very poor friend, but there was nothing to do now except pray Loras would waken soon so he could apologise.

Maester Cressen looked back and forth between them, seeming more than a bit confused. "And you went as deep as he did?" he asked.

"Aye," Jon confirmed. Deeper, but there was no reason to say as much.

Maester Cressen gestured at the other bed in the room, looking Jon up and down for long moments, seeming to take in his mostly burnt off clothes and the soot on his skin. "Lie down, boy," he ordered even as he bustled towards the cabinet in the corner where Jon knew, from experience, that he kept his ointments and concoctions.

"I am fine," Jon said.

Maester Cressen huffed. "If you know what is good for you, you lie down on your own before your Lady Wife arrives and I ask her to make you," he said.

Jon winced, and lay down. It would be nice to get a bit of rest, even though he knew he was not sick. Besides, Margaery's unique mixture of sharp scolding and gentle concern was more effective than any orders anyone else had ever given him. He could admit that, would do it gladly. It was another one of those things she had not started doing before they grew closer, and as such it was dear to him, even if he disliked it while it happened.

Maester Cressen crossed back over the floor, tipped a vial of something or other down Loras' throat before getting to work spreading ointment over the wounds visible on his skin.

The door opened and Margaery walked inside, and as happy as Jon was to see her, part of him felt the apprehension too. He liked being fussed over, as much as he hated to admit it. Lady Catelyn had only bothered to the once. His Lord Father rarely had the time. Dacey was not much of the type to fuss over anyone, even her own babe, and Jon's uncles were more the types to clap his shoulder or give him a quick, tight hug when absolutely necessary, and then leave him to his own devices. It was not the fussing he was scared of. It was... He had dragged her brother into danger, thoughtlessly and carelessly. And if she thought Jon had been in danger too, he was looking at the tongue lashing of his life.

The fussing came first, and he let himself relax into it, let himself forget what would follow, and wallowed in her soft gasp and the way her small, strong hand carded through his hair. Another wave of exhaustion swept over him. As if from far away, he heard her talking to Cressen, who was still fast at work on Loras. He felt a wet cloth wipe away the soot on his face and chest. There was another gasp, and then Jon was fast asleep.

***

"…by and large unharmed," Maester Cressen was saying. "He has pulled a muscle in his shoulder, probably from dragging Lord Loras up from the lava tunnels, but he has none of the same symptoms that have Lord Loras out cold. Mostly, he seems to be suffering from shock."

Jon breathed in deep, slowly blinked his eyes open. His head pounded, and he was still so exhausted he just wanted to go back to sleep, which told him, along with the words, that he could not have been out for very long. He let out a groan, felt Margaery give his hand a tight squeeze. He managed to get his gaze to focus somewhat. Met her eyes, which somehow managed to call him an idiot much more loudly than she could have if she had shouted. There was gratitude there as well, though, which brought him some hope. "Loras?" he croaked.

She huffed, but seemed more amused than anything. "In most other circumstances I would have been deeply offended that mine is not the name you choose to call when you wake up," she said. Then relented with that crooked, lopsided smile of hers. "He will be fine, according to Maester Cressen. Thanks to you." It was only thanks to him that Loras had been in danger to begin with, but Jon did not have the energy to argue right now. And even if he had, the sight of her free hand caressing the slight swell of her belly would have silenced him, striking him with awe the same way it always did.

He attempted to pull himself into a sitting position, only to realise that the arm not held fast by Margaery's grip on his hand was caught up in a sling and twinged with every movement he made. He groaned, tried to move up without using his arms at all. Then he relented and slumped back into the pillows with a huff that made Margaery snort out a small laugh and smooth his hair out of his face.

Uncle Arthur was there the next moment, gently pulling him up and arranging the pillows behind him. The look he was giving him made Jon more than aware that he would be paying for his own idiocy in the training yard, and he was on the verge of relenting at the sight, like he had his whole life. Then the overheard conversation, the confusion and disbelief and anger, all the reasons why he had run in the first place, came back to him, bolstered him. Fury all but strangled him, made him grit his teeth and clench his fists. For half a moment, he wanted to attack Arthur bodily, scream and rage and punch and bite. But that was the wrong impulse, was not even what he was feeling, not really. What he wanted was not to punish. It was to get answers, get some kind of explanation that would make those words make sense, make the world make sense again. He glanced across the room at Maester Cressen. "Does Loras need you right this moment?" he asked.

"No, My Lord," Maester Cressen replied. Seeming to catch up on Jon's unspoken request, he gave a quick nod. "I will be back to check up on him within the hour," he said. Then he bowed and left the sick chamber.

Jon turned his attention back to Unc-- or was he even that? To the man he had thought of as his uncle since he had been old enough to think anyone anything. "Why did Ser Oswell Whent decide to gift me with something as priceless as Blackfyre, Ser Arthur?" he asked.

Arthur looked at him for long moments, seeming to hesitate for a moment. His serious violet eyes appeared to stare into Jon's very soul in that way they had, like they had not done for years. Then he sighed, and went to the door. He opened it long enough to check the outside before shutting and bolting it and walking over to sit in the chair next to Margaery's. "Because it is the ancestral sword of House Targaryen and should always belong to the King of the Seven Kingdoms," he said. "Whatever Aegon the Unworthy did and caused, it is time that holds true again."

Jon swallowed, let his eyes drop shut for a long moment. Then he opened them once more and stared up at the man who had been the sole true constant in his life, often as much a father to Jon as the man he had called by that title. "Tell me?" he asked. "Please?"

Margaery's hand tightened on his, and Arthur glanced at her for a beat. Jon wanted to as well, but he did not want to look away from Arthur, did not want to give him a chance to back away. Nor was he going to let Arthur drive her from the room. She was his Lady Wife. She carried his babe. He trusted her. Whatever he knew, she could know too.

Arthur's eyes went back to Jon, and yet more time passed, but this time Jon thought it had the quality of a man having to gather a great many painful strands of thought. Jon could give him that much, at least. "I was about the same age you are now when I first met Prince Rhaegar," he said after a long while. His gaze seemed far away, as though he was looking at a picture Jon could not see. "It was some tourney or other, but we became fast friends. He was a strange young man, in some ways. He was thoughtful, yet rash, and prone to melancholy. He hated fighting, but rarely have I met a better swordsman or horseback rider. I admired him from the start. I like to think it was mutual. A few years later, I was named for the Kingsguard. Rhaegar became my dearest friend. My sister was brought on to serve Elia Martell after the Royal wedding, and those were some of the best years of my life."

He paused, frowned, and a sadness Jon had sometimes seen in Arthur became visible again, except this time it was open, not hidden or restrained, and seeing it made something inside Jon clench up in pain. "On the one hand, he had so much potential," Arthur said. "He was a truly good man, gentle and compassionate and wise beyond his years. I worshipped him. I think a lot of people, even those closest to him, did. But even if it hit him differently, I do not think the Targaryen madness passed him over entirely. His parents were brother and sister, and theirs before them. As Jaehaerys the Second liked to say, whenever a Targaryen is born, the Gods toss a coin, and it lands either on true greatness or madness. Rhaegar, I think, is the only one I have ever known of whose coin might have landed on the edge and stayed there. He had both."

Jon swallowed, and part of him wanted to object to this seemingly nonsensical story about some long-dead prince, wanted to ask why it even mattered. But some part of him knew, he supposed. After everything that had already been said, and with four dragons probably making a sooty mess of his bedchamber... He knew, whether he wanted to or not.

"Rhaegar loved stories. People liked to say he had read every book on Dragonstone before he reached the age of eight. It was only later that he decided to become a fighter, because of an old prophecy he had read. He believed he was the Prince that was Promised. The Prince would need to know how to fight, which is how he ended up deciding to be a fighter at all.

"He cared for Elia," Arthur continued. "He was kind to her. He was kind to most people he met. She loved him dearly. I do not think he ever loved her back. And when Aegon was born and the Maesters told him she could have no more children, I think that was the true end of it. Another one of his prophecies told him that the dragon must have three heads, you see, and by then he believed that not he, but his son, was the Prince that was Promised, and that he must have two partners for whatever lay ahead - King Aegon and his sister-wives reborn. But Elia could not give him his Visenya, no matter how badly they both wanted it.

"To this day, I am not sure if the Pact and Song of Ice and Fire is the reason he pursued Lyanna Stark, or if Lyanna simply caught his eye and his heart and inspired his obsession with it." Arthur paused for long moments, let out a sigh. "I do know that they met at the Tourney at Harrenhal when his father sent him in pursuit of a mystery knight known as the Knight of the Laughing Tree and he found Lyanna struggling to get off her dented chest plate. He covered for her and returned to King Aerys with only the shield in hand. After that, they would meet up in the Godswood in the evenings, and talk, and simply spend time together. A few days later, he crowned her the Queen of Love and Beauty. He doomed his House and the realm that should have been his, and if he realised that was what he was doing, he did not care. He was deeply in love with her by then, and she returned it just as fiercely.

"They exchanged letters for the better part of a year. It was during that year that Aegon was born and Rhaegar learnt that there would be no Visenya, at least not with Elia. His obsession with the prophecy grew, just as rapidly as his longing for Lyanna. In the end, he could not stand it, and she was heartbroken that her planned marriage to Robert Baratheon was nearing. They agreed to meet up in the Riverlands, en route to Brandon Stark's wedding to Catelyn Tully, and ran away together. Whatever you have heard, know this: there was never a kidnapping. There was never a rape. They left a note, though I cannot begin to explain how it was lost. They wed at the Isle of Faces, and ran to the Tower of Joy in Dorne, with not a care for the consequences their actions might cause. Lyanna, I can excuse for it. She was little more than a girl with her head full of songs of love and knights and princes, and a heart full of resentment for a man she had decided to hate because of the bastard he had sired."

Jon could not help but wince at that, reminded painfully of Lady Catelyn. For a moment, he could not help but be glad, whatever chaos had come to the realm, that Lyanna Stark had not wed Robert Baratheon. For all the he found the king to be more than a little embarrassing and foolish, he knew him to be a good man, and he knew he owed everything he had to King Robert. He would not have wished Catelyn Stark on any bastard, and it sounded like that meant not wishing Lyanna Stark on any of Robert's baseborn children either. Not that he thought Cersei Lannister could possibly be much of an improvement.

"Rhaegar, however," Arthur continued, eyes still faraway. If he had noticed Jon's wince, he did not acknowledge it. Margaery did, though, and gave his hand another squeeze, lifting it to her lips and pressing a brief, sweet kiss to his knuckles. "He was a man grown. He should have known better, but by then his mind was fevered with love for Lady Lyanna, and his obsession with prophecies, and he saw no more clearly than she did. We had been in the Tower for but two moons' turn when we learnt that Brandon and Rickard Stark had been killed by King Aerys in his mockery of a trial by combat. Lyanna... I think something within her broke at that news. She became quieter, more subdued. Her guilt weighed her down. I thought she would never stop crying, let alone smile again. Then she realised she was with child, and that became the thing that sustained her, through everything that happened after. She loved her babe dearly. She sang to him at night, although she had not the voice for it, and told him all the stories she knew, everything she wanted to be for him, everything she wanted him to be for her. Lyanna Stark became a woman grown in that Tower, a woman I came to admire and respect and mourn as a friend and not just my Princess."

"After the War was lost, she gave birth in that Tower on the same day her brother, Lord Eddard, finally came for her. My sworn brothers and I were under strict orders from Rhaegar to only let her brother through. No companions could be trusted. But they had been beset by remnants of the Dornish forces on the way there, and only Ned and Lord Howland Reed arrived out of the band that had set out, both bloodied and exhausted. I knew from Lyanna's stories that Howland Reed owed her his honour and possibly his life, and was no more likely than her own blood to betray her. I persuaded Gerold and Oswell that we need not fight, and Ned sat with his sister as she died. We had to pry her stiff hand out of his, hours later. He was still crying, clutching the babe to his chest. And what an irony it was, to find that the babe was not Visenya at all. Lyanna named him Jaehaerys, for the Conciliator. Less than two moons' turns after Prince Aegon died, his younger brother, Jaehaerys, Third of His Name, Lord Protector of the Realm, was born, the true king of the Seven Kingdoms from the moment he first drew breath." Arthur paused then, and looked at Jon with such intensity in his eyes that it was nearly staggering.

Jon's breath hitched and caught. His hand, he realised, was trembling in Margaery's. His whole body felt weak. He was no idiot. He knew who Arthur must be talking about. It still did not feel real, felt as foreign as though this all pertained to someone else, someone not him. And yet there were dragons in his bedchamber. Dragonstone had not hurt him, with fire or with fumes. He was... He stopped, swallowed. He was not Ned Stark's son. He was not Arthur Dayne's nephew. Robb and Arya and the others were not his siblings. His brother and sister were long gone, as were his parents. Uncle Benjen and Aunt Dacey remained to him. They must. Benjen, too, had only just learnt of this, had he not? And he was no less his uncle now, even if it was through Lyanna rather than Lord Eddard. And Margaery. Jon glanced up at her, took in the pallor in his cheeks, the way her mouth hung open, as though caught there. She had not known either. Jon did not know why that made him feel so relieved. It did, though. He did not know what he would have done had she known and not told him.

"Beyond everything else," Arthur said. "We needed to keep you safe. And at that time, with the loyalist forces scattered and broken, that meant keeping you secret. The five of us agreed that I would go with you and your uncle to Winterfell. He would claim you for his own, and I would claim you for my sister's. That way fewer people would question my presence. Gerold and Oswell had to leave. We could never have managed the ruse with three Kingsguard around you, and so they went to Essos, to raise an army for the day we would need it." A wry, sad smile stretched Arthur's face. "Ned and I rarely agreed on anything. He wanted to keep you secret your whole life. I always believed that keeping you secret, in the long run, would come with risks we could not foresee. You would be safer in a seat of power, where we could at least see the threats coming. Ned, for all that he resents the man, loves Robert like a brother, and would hesitate to rise against him. But he will if he has to, and some day he will, for your sake. That Throne does not belong to Robert Baratheon; it never did. It is yours, Your Grace. It has been since the moment of your birth."

Jon felt a sob try to tear free from his throat. He bit it back with some effort. 'Do not call me that,' he wanted to scream. He could not bear the sudden distance it put between them. It was bad enough that Arthur was not his uncle, that Ned was not his father, that everyone had lied to him, that he had lost them all halfway already. Did Arthur have to make it clear that he had lost them fully? "Is that why you left Dorne?" he managed. "Is that why you stayed all those years? Just because--"

"Because you are the rightful king?" Arthur said. He sighed, reached out a hand and stroked it through Jon's hair like he had when he was younger. "Yes." His voice was sad. "It is. But it is also because I loved your father like a brother and counted your mother among my dearest friends. That was why I came along. That was why I swore my sword to you on the day you were born. But Jon." He caught Jon's chin with his strong, calloused hand and pulled up his head until they were eye to eye. "I swear myself to you every single day, and it is no longer because of any of those things. It is because of you. Because you are all the things that were good about Rhaegar, but with none of his madness. Because you are all the things that were right about your forbearers, and none of the things that are wrong. It is because the realm needs you, and because I love you like mine own son." He was silent for a long moment, and his eyes told the tale of both his sadness, and of pride and love and all the things Jon had thought, for a moment, that he had stood to lose, if he had ever had them at all. "I am sorry I lied for so long," he said. "I can only say that for the longest while, it was necessary. Then it was habit. Then it was... waiting for the right moment." The apple of his throat bobbed on a swallow. "And perhaps I was afraid, to never hear you call me uncle again."

Despite himself, Jon felt a smile tug on his face. And for all that he was a man grown, was supposed to comport himself with dignity and pride, Jon let go of Margaery's hand, and when Arthur opened his arms, Jon all but fell into them. "Rhaegar was your brother in all but name, was he not?" Jon asked.

Arthur held him close, cradling him like he had when Jon was a little boy, hurt by the barbs the world liked to throw at him over and over again. "Yes," he confirmed.

"Then how are you not my uncle?" Jon asked.

Arthur chuckled against him, his chest vibrating against Jon's. "I suppose I cannot answer that," he said. He gave a small grin. "Besides," he added. "We are still kin. Or did your maester not teach you about Dyanna Dayne?"

Jon let out a breath he had not realised he was holding, and smiled against his uncle's shoulder. Some things had to change - were changing rapidly, as if he needed a reminder of those dragons in his chambers - but some did not. He had to believe that, if he were to keep hold of anything at all. He felt Margaery's hand settle on his back, rubbing in circles of warmth. That, too, helped him hold the pieces of himself together.

Jon was not sure how long he had sat like that, in the arms of the uncle he had chosen, regardless of the distance of their blood, with his wife's hand steady and reassuring on his back. Around him, his whole world must be realigning itself, but right then, Jon did not care to notice.

At long last, he pulled away, straightened up. He felt stronger than he had for hours. Probably longer. Later, he knew, he would ask Uncle Arthur to tell him everything he knew about Rhaegar and Lyanna, and he would drink in every word. But for right now, his head was already spinning. He was not sure there was anything else he could take in. And he had something to share as well. Slowly, he got to his feet, careful on the shoulder that he had forgotten, for a moment, was aching and jolted with pain with every movement he made. "I have something I need to show you," he said, glancing at the both of them. He was suddenly nervous. He was not at all done processing what Uncle Arthur had told him, let alone what had happened down in the Dragonmont. Had not at all begun to even consider what it might all mean, or what anyone might have to say about the hatchlings. Still, he could trust them. If there were two people in his life he could trust, it had to be these two.

Margaery reached out and gripped his free hand, lacing their fingers back together, as though she was unwilling to put any distance whatsoever between them right now. Jon was more grateful than he could say. From his other side, Uncle Arthur gave a sharp nod, though he looked nearly as shaken as Jon felt. Still, Jon steeled himself from it and led the way out of the sick chamber. The walk through the long, dark hallways seemed to take forever even as Jon half felt it went by in the blink of an eye.

His breath caught sharply in his throat as he let Uncle Arthur reach out and open the door ahead of them. Before Jon could follow, Margaery tugged on his hand, holding him back. He turned to face her more fully, and she reached up with the hand not already gripping his, cupped his cheek so gently it made his chest ache. "Are you well?" she asked softly.

Jon sucked in a deep breath, made himself nod. "Confused," he admitted. "Scared. But--" He squeezed his eyes shut, could not keep himself from asking. "Did you know?"

"No," she said, and her voice sounded firm now, for all its softness. She hesitated for a moment, stroking her thumb absently over the angle of his cheekbone. "I think Grandmother knew," she admitted then. "I knew there was something they were not telling us. But she would not tell me. She said it was something I needed to learn along with you."

Jon breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow, he could not even be bothered that Lady Olenna had known. In the time he had known her, he had come to accept that she knew most everything worth knowing. He leaned in, pressed his forehead against hers. "It does not bother you?" he asked.

Her hand slid to the nape of his neck, fingers tangling in his hair. "A year ago," she said. "I would have been overjoyed. I will not lie. My family has always wanted to be tied to the Targaryens. Now, though... It does not matter, on one level. It does not change who you are. It scares me, though. It puts you in so much danger, and I hate the thought of you being hurt."

Jon felt a shuddering breath leave his mouth as another smile tugged on his lips. A strange wave of tenderness went through him. "I love you, you know that?" he suddenly heard himself say. Immediately he felt heat rise to his face. He had never told her that before, was not sure he had ever even thought it before, but it felt right, all of a sudden, like a deep, essential truth of himself that had just waited to be discovered.

Tremulously, she returned his smile. "I love you too," she said, and Jon could not really help but lean in and press a kiss to her lips. It was meant to be quick and light, but Margaery's hand tightened on the back of his neck, her fingers digging in and her head tilting ever so slightly to the side to deepen the kiss. Jon breathed her in, could not help himself, could not help but breathe in her reassurance, her love. He still could not believe, whatever it was Uncle Arthur had just told him, that someone such as Margaery was his, wanted him, loved him.

Part of him would always, he knew, regardless of what names he was given, be the Sand of Winterfell.

Uncle Arthur's gasp made them both start and break apart. Jon kept hold of Margaery's hand, breathing hard, and pulled her inside only to find Uncle Arthur looking more wide-eyed than he had ever seen him, stunned and frightened and awed like a small child. "How?" he gasped.

Slowly, Jon let go of Margaery's hand and stepped forward, extending his hand and letting the black and white dragon climb into the palm of his hand. He could see the others in the fireplace, which they had apparently decided to make their home for now, but this one kept seeking him out, so it would be the one he introduced. "I found the eggs years ago," he said. "I did not know what they were. I had... dreams. They told me what to do. And a few hours ago, I went into the lava tunnels. I threw them in the Dragonmont. Loras followed me. That is how he got hurt. But these... they came out of the molten rock. I do not--" He stopped, took a deep breath. "I do not know what it means, but. They are here, and they are mine, and that is how it is."

Uncle Arthur swallowed noisily. Then he dropped to one knee and bent his head, and Jon wanted desperately to tell him to get back up, to stand tall. Something kept him silent. "Your Grace," Ser Arthur said. "It means that for all his follies, Rhaegar truly did do one thing right."

Margaery took a step closer, bending over his hand. The dragonling eyed her, and Jon thought he saw wariness in its red eyes. For long moments, they faced off. Then the hatchling seemed to relax, and Margaery reached out a careful finger to run over its scales. "He is beautiful," she breathed. She looked up at Jon, and he saw stark relief in her eyes. "This means you will be safe, Jon. And our babe too. Whatever happens, they will never let you come to harm."

Jon was not sure he shared in her belief entirely, but it felt right, standing here with her pressed against his side and the small dragon in his hand. It felt natural, in a way very few things ever had, aside from the training yard and the sword. And Blackfyre, which he had received just the previous day. And maybe that could comfort him as much as it did her. Not that there were no fights ahead - he did not believe that for one moment. But that, at the very least, things were right, for once in his life. A strange thought struck him then. "Blackfyre," he muttered, glancing at the hatchling, who seemed to actually preen at the word. "You like that, do you not?"

The hatchling coughed out a mouthful of black smoke in reply.

Chapter Text

297 AC

Princess Daenerys Targaryen

Dany was exhausted. She had never stopped struggling, not once. Not when she was captured in the gardens of Illyrio Mopatis' manse, not when she was tied up and gagged and thrown over the back of a horse. Not when she was thrown on this ship and left in the bunk of a tiny, cramped cabin. She had snarled, had tried to bite through her gag, work her small hands through her bindings. Blood made her fingers sticky now, from where the ropes had bit into her wrists. And she was tired, so tired, and so frightened. It thrummed through her, made her shiver as though from cold, made her throat tight and her head feel as though someone had stuffed cotton inside her very skull.

Just when she thought there was no possible way she could stand it anymore, when the lull of the ship had made her half drowsy and more than a little seasick, the door opened and a tall, slender, middle-aged man wearing white armour stepped inside the cabin. "Princess," he greeted her, inclining his head in respect.

Dany blinked, and tried to place the man. She had never seen him before, was not sure what to make of him at all. There was a bat on his helm. But this could not possibly be Oswell Whent, could it? The Kingsguard had abandoned them, had not even cared to answer Viserys' missives. She swallowed, did not react otherwise. She could not have, even had she wanted to. Her bonds and gag prevented her.

With a sigh, her captor stepped forth and freed her from the gag. "I apologise for all this," he said. "The cheesemonger had his own plans for you, and they were not pretty. Nor would they have led you anywhere productive, unless you like the Dothraki Sea this time of the year. We had to remove you from his care." He paused a moment, grimaced. "I apologise again, My Princess. My years of exile have stolen some of my manners, I am afraid. I am Ser Oswell Whent, of the Kingsguard."

Dany narrowed his eyes, tried to stare him down the way she had seen Viserys stare down Lords unworthy of their attention and unwilling to give them their due. Of course, Viserys' stare was rarely effective, but for right now, it was all Dany had. "I thought you had forsaken the Kingsguard."

Ser Oswell had the temerity to laugh at that. At long last, he shook his head. "Never," he said. "I have served the true king since he was a squalling, ugly newborn with exceptionally pretty curls, and I shall do so until my last breath."

Dany blinked. "You ignored my brother entirely," she said.

"Your brother has no pretty curls that I have seen," he said, a slight grin on his face now. "Viserys is a second son, and not the useful kind of Second Son either. He must have forgotten what that means, but I hoped you were smarter than that. Your priss of a brother will sit no throne while a trueborn son of Rhaegar's lives."

Dany thought she actually felt her heart skip a beat at those words. The thought that Rhaegar's son still lived, that she might have family beyond Viserys, it frightened and excited her almost equally. Maybe Aegon would be kind, would be everything she had always wished and dreamed Viserys could be, but had known in the cruel light of the day he did not have within him. "Aegon survived?" she breathed.

"Rhaegar's son lives," Ser Oswell repeated, lips quirking. "His Lady Wife is at most a moon's turn away from birthing his first child. You have more family than you could possibly imagine." For a moment, his smile seemed almost kind. "And an old friend of mine informed me that he needs his family as well. He is lost and confused right now, and for all that he loves his wife and the people closest to him... A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing, or so I have been told."

Dany nodded, swallowed down another lump in her throat. How often had she felt just that? The crippling, biting loneliness, the cold fear and bleak isolation? How much had it dominated her life, even with Viserys in it? "May I meet him?" she asked.

Ser Oswell inclined his head. "If you swear fealty to your nephew, if you vow to never betray him and to follow him always, as any good princess should do for their king, I will take you to him."

For a moment, Dany's thoughts went to Viserys. Their mother had crowned him, she knew, before she had even been born. All her life, she had been told that Viserys was the rightful king, the true heir to the Targaryen name. Would leaving him for their nephew be yet another betrayal for her brother to bear? Or would he understand? He should. If Aegon still lived, he was the true king. Even Viserys would have no choice but to admit as much. And if so... was not going to him her privilege as much as her duty? And a babe. Something within her sang at the notion. A babe of her own blood, even if it was not hers. She would hold her and love her, and she would call her Aunt Dany, as her nephew might think himself too old to use that title. She would teach her Old Valyrian, and how to avoid her father's temper, if it were like Viserys'. Suddenly, that was all she wanted. "Is he a good man?" she asked. "My nephew?"

"The best my friend says he has ever known," Ser Oswell assured her. "The honour of an Arryn, the ferocity of a Stark and the heart of a Targaryen. The true kind, like your grandfather, and his father before him."

Dany was not entirely certain what any of that meant, but she hoped it was as good as it sounded. She let out a harsh breath. Felt a smile stretch her face. It was the first one that had really felt true in longer than she cared to remember. "I will swear fealty to my nephew," she promised. "He is the one true king." She swallowed again, more noisily than she might have wished. "And I wish to hold my great nephew or niece, and get to know my goodniece. Please, Ser Whent. All I ever wanted was family. To know so many of my kin still exist is the happiest thing I have heard for as long as I can remember."

He smiled, reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "Good girl," he told her. "You are the very image of your mother," he added then. "I pray to the Seven you have her kindness and wisdom. Your nephew needs women in his life who are not Tyrells. Gods know the queen dominates her husband already."

Somehow, despite herself, despite the fact that she knew he was warning her of a weakness in her own House, the words brought a smile to Dany's lips. A king who would let his queen's words matter, have weight, would have to be a kind, gentle man, would he not? Maybe, even if he loved this supposed Tyrell bride of his, he would have something left for her as well, for his own aunt. Maybe, one day, he would love her too, as she did not think Viserys had since she had killed their mother to come into the world.

It was only after Ser Oswell left that she realised the only young Tyrell woman from the main line she had heard talk of was the one wed to the Usurper Stark of Dragonstone. She shook her head. No, obviously there had to be another sister. Or a cousin, even. Her nephew must be hidden or exiled somewhere. Considering his circumstances, the cousin to a Great House was still a more than decent match. And she would make friends regardless. She had had enough of being alone, now that she knew that more of her blood existed out there in the world.

***

Lady Olenna Tyrell

Olenna could not help the smile spreading over her face as she watched Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, knight her grandson. He had earned it, she knew. Even with no battle or obvious strife, young Loras had earned this in a way many knights had not. He had seen his liege lord rushing into danger, and had followed at his own peril. That was more than many seasoned knights could claim. It had taken moons, nearly half a year, for Loras to regain his full strength, but now that he had, he looked stronger and more determined than ever, and Olenna could not remember the last time she had been so proud of anyone. She glanced out the corner of her eye, caught sight of her Margaery, her belly large and swollen beneath the clothes she had sewn at Loras' bedside. She looked ready to burst, but also content. No, that was not the word. Olenna had been content for most of her life. Margaery, she looked more than that. She looked happy, radiantly so, and the way her eyes softened when they settled upon her husband was more than enough to warm even Olenna's old, frozen heart. There would be a babe within a sennight, if Olenna was not very mistaken, and it would be lovely. For all that they were painfully young, the both of them, Olenna could not help but think they would be far better parents than most. Another point of pride for her.

Down in Dorne, Garlan had wed as well, and Olenna had travelled with Jaehaerys, Benjen Stark and Ser Arthur Dayne to attend the festivities, and just a moon ago they had received a raven announcing that Arianne Martell was expecting the next ruler of the southernmost kingdom.

All they needed was the Iron Throne, and she would be fit to burst with all her family had accomplished. And to be honest, right here and now, watching everything playing out in front of her, she did not mind the wait. She was a patient woman. Every small success now would make the big success later that much sweeter, and that much more earned, not that the Tyrells had not been working to earn it for the past three centuries. Still, she struggled to even recall songs of a Targaryen monarch looking upon his queen like Jaehaerys looked upon Margaery. She struggled to remember as proud and deserving a knight as her Loras. And never before had Tyrell blood been in line for Sunspear. Her pride was well earned.

Something within her fluttered with an almost childish giddiness as she looked on her Margaery's Lord Husband again. It had been five moons since her granddaughter had pulled her into the Lord's chambers, silent and seeming almost struck speechless. The boy had been sitting there, on the floor of his bedchamber with four tiny, newly hatched dragons climbing all over him. He had turned to face them, and in the firelight, his eyes had looked almost purple. Olenna would prefer not to remember how close she had come to fainting, how only Margaery's hand on her elbow had kept her knees from buckling.

Before that, when she had first resigned herself to her granddaughter's marriage, she had also resigned herself to usurping the Usurper, to putting another pretender on the Throne. At least this one was good-hearted and clever and would make her Margaery queen. But a usurper nonetheless. She had resigned herself to spurning Prince Viserys if he ever returned from exile, to lying the rightful heir to the House her own owed so much to, in the face. She had decided, on the day of the wedding, to forget the truth, to do her best to believe and to never think on the matter of the boy's true origins. For the sake of her granddaughter, her House, to keep growing strong, it was what she would have to do. So she had allowed herself to focus on those of the boy's features that seemed so deceptively Targaryen, on the faith of his Valyrian bannermen, on his skill with a sword, the love his people had for him, and the quiet dignity with which he held himself. To put her faith in the humility and good heart her grandson could never seem to get enough of telling her about, the knight's heart without the title of 'Ser'.

Relief and awe had crashed through her at the sight of the boy and his dragons. There were no lies, except the necessary ones. No schemes, only the righteous plot to put the true king on the Throne. Her Margeary's husband truly was a Targaryen. The dearest wish of her family had truly come true. To her shame, it had been all she could do not to weep.

She was not a particularly loyal woman, to anyone outside her family. Had never considered herself as such. But she had been a Tyrell long enough to know the debt they owed the Targaryens, and that their fates would be far better with a good Targaryen King on the Throne than that lumbering Baratheon lackwit.

Now, Loras rose from where he was kneeling on the floor, bleary-eyed from his long vigil, and turned towards Jon Stark - Jaehaerys Targaryen; Gods, it was a good plot when even she wondered what to call the boy. "Your Grace," Loras said, and Olenna was suddenly beyond grateful that Ser Arthur had ordered everyone out and banned any audience beyond the most trustworthy from witnessing her grandson's knighting, even if she had been displeased when she had first learnt of it. "I know it is customary to be appointed and recommended for the position, but your Kingsguard, while it has three noble knights, has four empty places. I would like to humbly request that you consider me for one of them."

Olenna held her breath. Like Loras said, it was rather irregular for a knight to request the honour. Still, she thought he had earned the right. Had he not already proven his loyalty to Jon? Was his loyalty towards Margaery - his sister - and the babe - his niece or nephew - not beyond question? He was a third son, and as such, being a Kingsguard was a worthy and honourable pursuit, one she commended him fully for wanting to take. Jon would take him. How could he not? The two were as close as Prince Rhaegar and Ser Arthur Dayne had ever been, and their blood united far more recently besides. Jon would not deny her boy this honour.

"I recommend the boy, Your Grace," Ser Arthur Dayne spoke up. "He is strong and honourable and deadly. Very few opponents will be able to stand up to him, in a tourney or on a battlefield." He paused for a moment. Then, "Let him pretend to be his sister's sworn sword. He is a third son; no one would question it, or the fact that his protection extends to you as well. And he is loyal. Of that, I have no doubt."

Jon smiled, and Olenna could breathe again, though she knew she would treasure Arthur Dayne's words for the rest of her life, whatever the outcome. She knew her grandson would as well. "I want to accept, Loras," Jon said, far less formal than the others had been. "You must know I do. But you would have to lie, to dishonour yourself, for a while at least. Perhaps for good. Stay in the shadows without being able to fully explain your cause. I cannot ask that of you."

"That is why you are not asking," Loras said. "I am offering. I am asking. I want you on the Throne, like everyone who knows the truth. I want to protect you until you get there, and I want to protect you afterwards. Your Grace." The last was said with a cheeky smile, a jest and an afterthought all at once, and Olenna would have boxed the boy's ears if she did not know he and Jon had the closeness to warrant it. As it was, she was rather grateful this was the form her grandson's infatuation had taken, rather than some fruitless pursuit. No one could tear Jon and Margaery apart, she was grateful to know. Not even Loras, had he wanted to, even had Jon been of the inclination. She was proud of how her grandson bore his pain, made something productive of it, even if she ached for him in the midst of her delight.

Jon's expression retained hesitation for long moments, and Olenna could not say she was surprised. The foolish boy had no wish for the Throne, even if he was clever enough to know that sooner or later he would have to take it or watch his family put to the sword. At long last, his face broke into a smile. He rose from his chair. "Then I accept," he said. The tiny dragon that had been hiding behind his chair hopped out of the shadows and climbed his cloak to sit on his shoulder. It was the green and black one, she noticed, rather than the black and white, which had taken to roaring at its brothers recently and ignoring its master while the black and green - Longclaw, she thought the boy had named it - followed Jaehaerys around unfalteringly. Again, Olenna was beyond grateful that only the most trusted people were here. If news of the dragons got out, it would move their schedule up. They could bear it, but not as easily as if they had been fully prepared. Still, the beasts never ceased to fill her with awe and joy. She could not believe she was one of the witnesses to the dragons' return. She was struck with happiness at being part of these times they lived in, where only a few years ago she could have sworn only sorrow and empty scheming would be left to them, only attempts at forging something good out of the ashes of the Seven Kingdoms of old. Now they had dragons, and a Dragon King, and her dragon great grandchild on the verge of being born, and Olenna was rendered near motionless by a fierce, proud joy that she thought would carry her through everything and anything. Jon, in front of her, turned to Ser Arthur. "I am afraid I do not know the vows," he admitted.

Ser Arthur smiled. "Only the rightful king and his true Kingsguard does," he said. "From everything I have heard, even Barristan's oath to the Usurper was incomplete." He turned to Loras. "Ser Loras," he said. "If everyone else will leave the room, and you, Ser Loras, repeat after me..."

Olenna Tyrell left the room with her head held high and her arm wrapped around her granddaughter's.

***

Princess Daenerys Targaryen

"We will make land soon, My Princess," Ser Oswell told her, sticking his head into the cabin without entering entirely, in a way that suggested he would be there only briefly before exiting once more. He tossed in a bundle of clothes. "I apologise for the quality, but we cannot exactly march you through the gate wearing silks." He, she noticed, was wearing a rough spun tunic and simple boiled leather rather than his usual plate and cloak. He made to withdraw, and Dany felt another fierce burst of desperation rush through her, mixing with the fear and anticipation that had made her stomach churn almost continuously for the entirety of their sennights long journey.

"Wait," she called. She swallowed down her nerves. "What of my brother?"

"He remains in Essos with my sworn brother," Ser Oswell said. "Prince Viserys is known to presume too much, My Princess. He needs to be taught the truth of things before we can introduce him to His Grace. It is my hope that within time, he can be brought here as well. If nothing else, it should be amusing to watch."

Dany nodded, swallowed again. As much as part of her was fiercely glad to be away from him, she missed Viserys so much it hurt. All her life, he had been her one constant, her whole family and the one person she could rely upon. She understood, though. Her brother would not take kindly to learning that he was not the rightful heir to the Throne, and it would do no one any good if he came to their nephew still screaming about what he should be given, what he believed should be his. Still, Dany wished he were here. She wished she were not coming to meet their nephew alone. What if he did not like her? What if he saw her and Viserys as threats and tossed them right back out on the streets? Or worse. What need did he have for them, with a wife of his own and an heir already so close?

However, as much as she dreaded meeting Aegon, she longed for it as well. She longed to see the face of the man who had been a babe in arms when her brother had last seen him, who was so close to her in age. She longed for more family, for someone who she could trust, who might love her without hurting her like Viserys was prone to. And if she wanted that to happen, she had best prepare herself.

She stripped out of the silk dress, which was not exactly presentable anymore either way. Then she pulled on the drab, rough spun dress Ser Oswell had presented her with. The fabric itched her skin, and the cut was foreign. She took a moment to wonder where it even was they were taking her. Where might they have hidden Aegon for all these years? Ser Oswell had not told her to cover her hair, so it had to be somewhere that still held Valyrian descendents. Myr or Lys, perhaps. Or the Stepstones. No. No one would have raised a Prince of the Blood, the rightful king, in a pirates' nest.

As she ascended onto the deck and looked ahead at the land becoming visible ahead of them, she barely bit back a gasp. She did not need anyone to tell her where she was. Even if she had not recognised it from Viserys' stories, she thought her very soul would still have recognised Dragonstone. The home of her ancestors, the place where she was born. But how? How could Aegon be here? Last she heard, Dragonstone was held by Eddard Stark's bastard. How, then, could Ser Oswell think she would be safe here? Unless he meant to give her up. A sharp stab of fear went through her, but before she had time to do anything, they docked in the harbour and Ser Oswell gripped her arm and led her down the gangplank.

Dany's hands trembled and her legs felt less than steady underneath her. Her stomach turned. She wanted to turn around, to run back, go back to Essos and Viserys where, even when everything was uncertain, she was at least not being given up to their enemies. She swallowed painfully, made to jerk her arm free.

Ser Oswell looked at her with eyes that were strangely compassionate. "I swore an oath to your family once," he said, barely breathing the words just under his breath. Dany barely heard him. No one around them could possibly have. "I am no oathbreaker."

Dany fought to lower her own trembling voice until it was as inaudible as his. "The Starks hold Dragonstone," she breathed. "This is not safe. My nephew... You cannot mean to tell me he is here."

Ser Oswell opened his mouth to answer, but before he got quite that far, a tall man, younger than Ser Oswell by maybe half a decade or a bit more, with dark hair and violet eyes, stepped into view. He looked between them, then gave a brief nod, grasping Ser Oswell's free arm in a tight clasp, the greeting of two long-time comrades. "Come quickly," he said, voice kept just as soft as Ser Oswell's was. "Margaery has just taken to the birthing bed. Jon is about to go out of his skin, and our newest brother is not much better off. I must be there."

Ser Oswell nodded, and without ever breaking his hold on her arm, he followed the other man, upping their pace until Dany's shorter legs could barely keep up. Dany's head was spinning, and all she could do was stumble along in their wake. There was no way she would be able to slip away now, not with two of them, not with the rush they were apparently in. Margaery... Did that mean Margaery Tyrell? But she was wed to Jon Stark, Lord of Dragonstone, and that had to be who the new man had said was going out of his skin. Which meant, she realised with a sinking heart and growing, freezing panic, that regardless of Ser Oswell's reassurances, they really did mean to hand her over to her enemies.

Under different circumstances, passing through the gates to Dragonstone proper would have been a dream come true for her. She would have wanted to stop and take in all the sights and smells and sounds, all the tiny wonders of being back home at long last. Now, though, it was all she could do to keep from crying, keep from sobbing out the fear that gripped her tight in icy jaws. She did not see any of the sights they passed. She did not smell anything, or hear anything. She could not, over the pounding of her own pulse in her ears. She could barely draw breath. Vaguely, she was aware of the fact that they were passing through into another, more private, courtyard. The training yard, she deduced, when she saw the glint of steel in front of her.

Two boys were there, sparring hard enough that sweat shone on their faces. They could not be much older than her, but they were both taller and broader, though they were both slender and one was shorter than his movements with the sword would imply. She took in the sight of them, even as the sight of their bared steel struck fresh fear within her. Somehow, despite herself, her eyes seemed to insist on sticking to the smaller of the boys. He moved with an almost predatory grace, even though something about him seemed distracted. Thick, near-black curls swung about his cheeks with every move he made, and once or twice she saw a flash of dark eyes against skin paler than her own. Something about him was familiar even through her haze of fear, made him, despite the situation, feel safe in a way that was all instinct and showed not a whit of sense on her part.

"Jon," the man who had met them shouted. "Should you not be wearing grooves in the floor outside the birthing chamber?"

The fighting in front of them ceased, and both young men turned to face them. The taller one moved into position at the shoulder of the one called Jon - Jon Stark, she reminded herself, legitimised bastard of the Usurper's dog. The stance seemed so natural. She had no idea what to make of it. Jon Stark shrugged, looked almost bashful for a moment. "This seemed more productive," he said at last. She saw his hand twitch, even after he had sheathed the sword. The leather covered hilt and crossguard looked almost absurd against what Dany was near certain had to be Valyrian steel. His gaze flickered up towards the Stone Drum even as he spoke and he was shifting from foot to foot.

The man who had brought her here looked like he might almost laugh, but he was nervous too, Dany realised, though he hid it better than the boys. "You have guests," he said then, voice even. "I would have you meet them in the Lord's solar."

Jon Stark's dark grey eyes widened for a moment before he nodded and led the way. Both of the other men fell into step at his shoulders, almost like an honour guard. No, Dany realised. They were within Jon Stark's own home, and they were both still armed, one hand always near the hilt of their swords. Not an honorary guard. A very serious one, almost like she would have imagined the Kingsguard of old. Ser Oswell kept his grip on her arm as he pulled her along with their 'hosts'.

It seemed to take an eternity before they entered into a large solar. It was warm and utilitarian all at once, and lived in, judging by the books of laws and ships lying open on the desk. The tapestry on the far wall was of Targaryen origin. She did not recognise it, but she remembered Viserys' stories of Queen Alysanne's visit to the Wall and her granting of the New Gift. Viserys had thought her quest as silly as her long-standing grudge against her husband the king, and her giving away land to a useless Order of men who were not even knights downright foolish. Dany could never really help but admire her, if for nothing else than her courage to stand up to her brother-husband, the King.

"Your Grace," the violet-eyed stranger said once the door had shut behind them, and with a jolt of surprise, Dany looked away from the tapestry to see that the man was addressing Jon Stark. "May I present my Sworn Brother, Ser Oswell Whent of the Kingsguard." He paused, just long enough for Ser Oswell to take the knee and Jon Stark to give a deep, albeit distracted, nod of acknowledgement. "And your aunt, the Princess Daenerys." He turned towards her, then. "My Princess. I apologise for the rough handling and the secrecy, but not everywhere is safe, even in the seat of your family's power." He paused a moment, inclining his head to her. "May I present to you your nephew, Jaehaerys of Houses Targaryen and Stark, Third of his Name and the rightful king of the Seven Kingdoms."

Dany's breath caught. Her eyes immediately swooped back to Jon Stark. And she saw what she had not, before. His familiarity had a reason after all, then. He shared Viserys' nose and chin. His mouth, while more generous, seemed to come from the same cast. The slant of their eyebrows and the curve of their foreheads were nearly the same, for all that Jon Stark's was set in a longer face. She did not know what to make of it. She did not understand, could not make all the pieces fit. A rush of blood to her head made her dizzy, made her sway on her feet. In front of her, Jon Stark's eyes seemed to have widened, and he was staring at her in mute shock, which, even then, did not look quite as great as the one that was threatening to send her crashing to the floor at any moment.

Out the corner of her eye, she was vaguely aware of a door that was open to just a crack. It must lead to his bedchambers. And as she watched, most of her attention still on this boy they claimed was her nephew, she just barely caught sight of the door opening fully. Something came through, squeaking softly and balancing precariously on immature limbs. It looked like an awkward winged lizard, its scales glittering black and white. It stared at her with red eyes, and something inside Dany went still at the sight. Her fears and uncertainties seemed to wash away, and all she could do was stare at the tiny thing. Another one came out behind it, milky white and violet, and another, pale blue and silver, and a final one of green and black, and Dany sucked in a sharp breath. Awe raised her up, and she was so amazed, so, so... She did not know the words to describe it. She was home. She was safe. What they had said was true. She did not know the details yet, and she did not need to, not with true dragons staring her in the face from behind the form of her nephew. She was home.

Gasping out a sudden sob, she rushed forward and threw her arms around Jon Stark, Jaehaerys Targaryen, whatever his name was, and clutched him to her. Rather more slowly, his arms came up to encircle her, but when they finally did, he clutched her to him, shuddering against her, his breath uneven against her temple. "My sweet nephew," she breathed, even though he was bigger and stronger and older than her. "My sweet, sweet nephew." He just held her more tightly.

Dany could not have possibly said how long they stood there, both fighting down sobs as they clung to each other. The three knights of the Kingsguard in the chamber - and she knew that must be what they all were - did nothing to interrupt. Even the dragons did not interrupt, though she thought she felt them climbing all around them, tiny claws clinging to their clothes while carefully never piercing their skin. And she felt home, and she felt safe, like she never had before. She did have family, family that was not Viserys, someone with her blood who would not harm or punish her for something she could not help, and that was everything, all she had ever wanted. From the way he held her, she thought he must feel at least a little of the same.

At long last a knock on the door interrupted them. The servant did not come in; apparently they were well trained, as befit Dragonstone. "Lord Stark," the servant called through the heavy wood of the door. "The Lady Margaery is near to birthing the babe. Lady Olenna requests that you come to the birthing chamber and be ready to meet your child."

Dany felt him go rigid against her, and looked up to see the naked fear and hope on his face, the breathless quality of it. And she felt it herself. Family. All she had ever wanted was family, and even now her House might be growing by a member. She squeezed his forearm, dredged up a smile for him. "Go, Jaehaerys," she said, and she could not have kept her voice steady if she had tried. "Go meet your babe."

Jaehaerys gave a jerky nod. Then he walked out with the younger of the unidentified men following him so closely Dany almost thought he would be racing his king there if not for the dignity of the knight of the Kingsguard. She felt shaky, utterly exhausted by the events of the day, the past moon's turn, and all the years before, everything that had happened since she was last here, at home in Dragonstone. Her legs gave out beneath her, and she might have slumped all the way to the floor in weariness and relief if Ser Oswell had not caught her and swept her up in his arms. He said something about the servants' quarters, but Dany could not have cared less. She was home. She would have slept in the Dragonmont, had she had to.

Chapter Text

297 AC

Lord Jon Stark

Jon was not sure who placed the babe in his arms. He honestly did not care. His whole attention, his whole being, was focused on tiny little boy he held. The babe was beautiful, almost unnaturally so. Jon thought he might have been more frightened, had he not been face to face with his own apparent aunt just moments ago. It still felt foreign, frighteningly so, but Jon could not possibly love this babe less for the tuft of silver hair on his small head or the black-purple eyes blinking up at him. Damson, he thought, but he had never really paid that much attention when Maester Cressen went into colour studies.

The babe in his arms stretched on a long deep yawn, and all Jon's thoughts seemed to just vanish into thin air. He could not stop looking at the tiny little human being in his arms. He truly did not think he could ever love anyone more, that it was even possible to do so. His throat tightened and his chest felt so heavy he was surprised each and every one of his breaths did not come out a sob. The slight, warm weight in his arms grounded him in a way nothing ever had. He could not look away. Did not think he would have been able to, had the whole world threatened to fall down around his shoulders.

For one brief moment, Jon was painfully aware of his own age. He was four-and-ten namedays old, as much a boy as a man grown, still two years away from his majority. And he was so utterly inadequate, so unqualified to give this son of his what he needed. But his son was here, warm and real in his arms, and come what may, Jon would just have to be grown enough to take care of him, to shield him and be the father he would need. He wondered if Eddard Stark and Arthur Dayne, his own fathers in all but blood, had felt this way when he had been a babe himself. Tiny, incredibly strong fingers closed around his thumb, and Jon swallowed down a sudden stab of emotion. He leaned down, pressed his lips against his son's forehead. Never had he, nor would he, love another person more deeply.

The babe was the one, in the end, to pull Jon out of his trancelike state. He was screaming by then, tiny body wriggling, and nothing Jon did seemed to make any difference when it came to calming him down. "The babe needs his mother," Lady Olenna told him. "He is hungry, I believe."

Jon nodded, and let himself be led into the birthing chamber. All the fears he had been doing his best to push away were there, suddenly, pulling and pushing at him, repelling and drawing at him. Margaery was strong. She believed in herself, in her future, in a way Jon's mother had not. She had a trained, experienced maester to help her. Jon had to believe that would be enough. He was not an idiot. He knew well enough that a younger mother was that much more likely to be lost to childbirth, and his own dead Lady Mother had been more than a year Margaery's senior. Ever since Uncle Arthur had told him the truth of his origins, that part of it had played itself out over and over again in his mind until it had driven him close to mad. If Loras had not taken him out into the yard, if his aunt had not showed up... Jon did not know how he would have made it through Margaery's labour with his sanity intact. "Of course," he said, and let Lady Olenna guide him into the birthing room.

Someone must have changed the sheets. They looked pristine, white as fresh fallen snow. Margaery was paler than Jon had ever seen her, her cheeks milky and her eyes unbearably tired. But there was life in her yet. That lopsided smile of hers played on her lips regardless of her exhaustion, and there was still a glimmer in her eyes that made Jon wish he had the courage to step close enough to kiss her. Margaery stretched out her arms, seeming somehow unbearably weak and incredibly strong all at once. "Give him here," she ordered, and Jon could no more have denied her than he could have stopped winter from coming. As gently as he knew how, trained by near a handful of younger siblings, he deposited the babe back into its mother's arms and watched as she pushed her shift aside and allowed the babe to suckle at her own breast. For long moments, all she did was stare at the babe, seemingly as captivated as he was, and Jon was truthfully so captivated he did not think it was within him to ever look away. He could not help the audible sigh at relief when she accepted this babe that did not look like either one of them, looked like something out of a song or a fantasy instead, a babe that had the potential to put them in as much danger as his own dragons would when they grew. "By the Seven, Jon," Margaery breathed. Her eyes were fixed firmly on the tiny form in her arms. "He is perfect."

Jon, for all that the babe looked so utterly foreign to anything he had ever known, could not help but agree. "He is," he managed, voice cracking midway through even that simple sentence. With some effort, he wrenched his gaze away from his newborn son and looked upon his wife instead. He took in her pallor, the exhausted cast of her face, and threw off his fear. Regardless of the example his own mother had set, Margaery would not end here. They had Maester Cressen, who would give his own life for hers. And Margaery was so strong, had so much to live for, and no guilt to live with. Jon still did not know how to deal with his Lady Mother's death or the guilt that predicated it. He only knew that he would never allow his own wife to feel the way Lyanna Stark must have at the end of things. And thank the Gods, he seemed to have succeeded in at least that much. Margaery would survive. Jon had to believe that, or he did not know how he would find a way to put himself back together yet again. Right now, putting himself back together seemed the one thing he had done all his life, and he was so tired, so sick of it. His babe would know peace, one way or another. He swore it, by the Old Gods and the New. "He is," Jon said yet again, unable to grasp hold of other words, breath near painful where it caught in his throat. "As is his Lady Mother."

Without warning, Margaery reached up with her free hand, caught his jaw and held him tight, held their eyes together long enough for Jon to use her surety to steel himself. Gods, how could any one person possibly be this strong? How could he have even thought to live this long without her? "What do you want to call him?" she asked. "Do not tell me Eddard," she added, before he had the chance to speak. "I know what you owe him. I know how you love him. But this is not the future Warden of the North. Our bannermen might accept a Stark name for a girl child. Not for the heir."

Jon swallowed down a lump so hard the sound of it might very well have made its way to the other side of the castle. "Aemon," he said at long last. "I know no king has ever carried that name," he added quickly. "But all men who have have been honourable. When I was growing up, all I wanted was to be the Dragonknight. Those are the values I would instill within our boy." He sucked in a deep breath, straightened his own shoulders. "And the king would not have our heads for it like he would if we named him for my brother."

"Aemon," she repeated, speaking the name slowly as though she were tasting the syllables one by one. At long last she nodded, looking down at the babe with such tenderness in her eyes Jon could have wept to look upon her. "My little Dragonknight," she whispered, pressing her lips down onto the top of his downy silvery-blond head of wispy hair. The babe fussed within her arms for a moment before settling down contentedly, suckling happily at his mother's breast. A moment later, Jon grew all too aware of his own weariness. When Margaery held out her free arm, inviting him into the bed with them, Jon could not have denied her if he had wanted to. With something close to a gasp of desperation, he collapsed down onto her featherbed and let her draw him close and card her fingers through her hair. And when he watched, from barely a foot away, how his son fed at her teat, he knew he had a family, in a way he had never even dared imagine before.

***

"You cannot possibly mean to call him that," Uncle Benjen said, sitting down with his own ironically named son, Torrhen, on his lap. Torrhen was Northern through and through for all that he had been born on Dragonstone, all black hair and grey eyes and pale skin, small but strong for his nearly two name days.

Jon shifted Aemon in his arms, could not help but smile when his son let out a soft gurgle. The babe shifted, as though to mold himself even more closely to the shape of Jon's chest, and Jon could not help but melt at the feel of it. He knew that the smallfolk were talking, that people were speaking of how absolutely scandalous it was that the babe was hardly ever in the nursery. If Aemon was not with Margaery, he was with Jon, and when even that was not possible, he was with Lady Olenna or even Daenerys, who, for all her small size and wide eyes, looked fierce as a dragon when the little one was entrusted to her. "Why?" Jon asked. He knew, logically, that Aemon's name could still be changed. It would be another moon or so before they feasted the bannermen and officially presented the babe. Jon, however, did not want to.

"It is dangerous, first of all," Uncle Benjen told him. "Your boy already has his looks against him--"

"He looks like the Daynes of old," Jon snapped. "Blood of the First Men, for all that their looks are different. And that is what you will tell anyone who tries to question it." He had considered dying the babe's hair to make that story more believable. While both pale hair and violet eyes were common enough in the Daynes, it was rare for both traits to show up all at once, but it was still feasible enough that they did not have to seriously consider putting herbs in their babe's hair. He had to be grateful to his Lord Fa-- To Uncle Ned and Uncle Arthur for creating a ruse that would cover him so well.

Uncle Benjen nodded. "Ser Arthur has invited his nephew here to be his new squire," he said. "He is very pale of hair, I hear. Even though his eyes are blue, his presence next to Ser Arthur should help keep the boy safe. But a Targaryen name, Jon?"

Jon swallowed. When he had first named his son, even with Margaery's instructions strong in his ear, he had not realised it would be so big a thing. Naming a babe should be something private and intimate, something that mattered only to the immediate family. Margaery and Lady Olenna had been the ones to remind him, even before the birth, that it was a political move as well, that whatever he named his son might signify his allegiances and sway whole kingdoms to or from his cause, if his cause ever became a thing to pursue. "No Targaryen King ever bore the name," he said. "The most notable man of that name was Aemon the Dragonknight, who was good and honourable and died for his king when it came down to it. The name signifies unrelenting loyalty. No one can question that."

"Your bannermen, doubtless, would like the name," Uncle Benjen said. "But for all the loyalty it exemplifies, Robert - or his Small Council, at least - will remember that the loyalty was to a Targaryen king. They will wonder why you did not give your son a Northern name. As will the Lords of the North."

Jon swallowed, looked down at his son for long moments. Perhaps Uncle Benjen did have a point. Aemon's appearance already lent itself to their Targaryen lineage. Adding the name on top of that might be overly risky. "And what name would that be, then?" he asked. "What name would make a solid compromise, Uncle? Even if I wanted him to go through the confusion of sharing a name with the cousin he will spend years growing up besides, no one outside the North has any respect for Torrhen Stark. Even many Northerners do not. They do not see his love for his people; only how he bent the knee without ever fighting for his rights. Cregan? They do not see the service he did as Hand of the King, or the honour with which he carried it out, only that he abandoned the office prematurely. Theon, for the Hungry Wolf? Aside from the fact that I loathe Theon Greyjoy, most people forget the fact that he was defending the North and only remember that he sailed to their beloved Andalos with the guts of his enemies on the prows of his ships and mounted their heads on our coasts. Harlon or Karlon? Both did the North a great favour, but all anyone would remember is how they killed off an entire cadet branch of their own House. Brandon? Brandon the Builder is renowned throughout the realm, but Brandon the Breaker allied with the Wildlings to slay the Night's Watch nearly to a man, including his own brother. And that's without even mentioning Brandon the Bad." Jon paused, swallowed. "I am proud of who I am, Uncle. I am proud to be a Stark. But the Seven Kingdoms at large do not understand the North, and if I were to give my son a Northern name to honour him, there would be a dozen lords calling us savages. They would remember the Rape of the Sisters, the countless wars the North fought amongst itself before the Winter Kings ruled all, the rituals of the followers of the Old Gods in the Age of Heroes, and the fact that we still worship Gods different from theirs. They would only remember how different from them we truly are. I am not doing us a favour by keeping to the Old Gods. I know that. But I do not know that I could give them up. I can give up giving my son a Stark name, if it means peace with the South."

"A Southern name, aye," Uncle Benjen agreed. "But a Targaryen name? Even your bannermen, even the ones who have guessed who you are, would understand that you are in no position to do so. You cannot go to King Robert and introduce yourself as Jaehaerys, even if you tack on Stark. You cannot name your son Aemon and hope to keep the peace, however much you admired the Dragonknight growing up. At least not your first son."

Jon drew in a sharp breath, let the words filter through his mind, through the rebelliousness that had been telling him, ever since he found out the truth, not to listen to anything any Stark had to say to him after all the lies he had been fed. He let the breath back out, calmer now. Calmer now, he let other options go through his head, apologising mentally to his son that he might have given him a name he could not safely keep. "Duncan," he said at last. He looked down at his infant son, trailed a careful finger through the platinum down on the top of his head. "Duncan Stark."

Benjen took long moments to think it over before giving a sharp nod. "It is a good compromise," he said. "It was a Westerosi name long before the Targaryens used it, and Duncan 'The Small' Targaryen was never crowned King, nor is he remembered as well as his namesake Ser Duncan the Tall, who even the King Robert still honours as the pinnacle of a Kingsguard. Those who must know remember Duncan Targaryen, the brave young warrior price who chose love. Those who must not, remember first the loyal, honourable knight who gave his life for his friend and king's line to continue. His allegiance might have been to a Targaryen king, but he was never a Targaryen himself. And his death saved Rhaella's life even as she birthed Rhaegar."

Jon nodded, took a moment to glance down at the babe in his arms. He was beginning to fuss, tiny fists slowly pulling free from the swaddling to swing through the air. Given Jon's own stature, this Duncan was unlikely to ever be Tall, but had Ser Duncan not embodied the same ideals Ser Aemon once did? Did he not have the same honour, the same code that Jon wanted to ingrain into his own son? Was he not, in some roundabout way, the reason either Jon or his son had ever even had a chance to exist? Mentally, he apologised to the babe for how confusing a name change must seem when he was so far from old enough to understand the reasoning. The babe let out a small, hungry wail, and Jon got to his feet, carefully cradling his son in his arms. "Come on, Dunc," he muttered. "Let us go see Mama, and explain to her why your name is Duncan now."

Behind him, Uncle Benjen actually laughed, even though it was tense and uncertain the way it had been ever since his suspicions about Jon had finally been confirmed. Jon knew his uncle still loved him. He just hoped Benjen's natural Northern wariness would not win out and leave Jon alone in the end.

***

Daenerys stared at him with those piercing lavender eyes that never failed to make Jon think of the birth father he had never known and all he had done, good and bad, and Jon could not help but cringe. "You would host a tourney?" she asked. "You, who do not even believe in tourneys, who would rather suffer bed lice than participate in one?"

Jon shrugged, and he did feel more than a little uncomfortable. He was grateful the women in his life were willing to stand up to him. Margaery's political understanding far exceeded his own, and Daenerys knew more about the Targaryens than Jon ever would. And Lady Olenna, well, she was Lady Olenna. Still, sometimes he had to cater to someone other than them. "I did not want to," he said. "But when the King offers to sponsor a small tourney for your son's first nameday, you do not turn him down."

"Besides," Margaery added, her hand resting on her still flat stomach, where Jon alone, aside from Maester Cressen, knew their second child grew. "It is as good an opportunity to assess our assets as any. Any lord out there who has an inkling about who Jon is and who wishes to support his claim will be here, and we will have a chance to meet with each of them personally."

Daenerys rolled her eyes. "You just want your brother to win the tilt and crown you the queen of love and beauty," she said.

Margaery smiled that crooked smile of hers that Jon would always claim was responsible for this second babe of theirs, conceived moons before Maester Cressen felt it was safe. Jon did feel guilty about that. Would have felt worse if Margaery had seemed to share even a bit of his apprehension. Then again, her mother had not died in childbirth, but had birthed four healthy babes and lived to see them to adulthood. Jon supposed he had no choice but to trust in those numbers. "That I do," Margaery confirmed. "My Lord Husband is never going to lift a lance outside of battle, and he would have favoured the melee even if he had appreciated tourneys. If I must count on my brother, I will." She flashed Jon a cheeky smile. "Of course, there is still the risk Loras crowns Jon ahead of me."

Jon rolled his eyes, but could not help the flush stealing over his face. As flattering as Loras' regard and loyalty was, they were also friends and goodbrothers. That was all that would be shared between them, and while Jon and Loras had worked that out between them years ago, Margaery still thought it entertaining enough to bring up repeatedly. Jon thought it cruel, but he did not point that out either, since he knew Margaery did truly love Loras more than life itself. She just had an odd way to go about it. "I would look ridiculous wearing a crown of roses," he said with a small huff.

Margaery grinned. "You would look a vision," she said. "Just as I am certain your Lady Mother did. However, I am not so sure the realm is ready for a shock like that again. So let us hope Loras keeps his senses."

Dany's disapproving frown cut through any levity Jon and Margaery had established between themselves throughout the course of the conversation. "It is dangerous," she said. "I can be hidden away with the dragonseed here," she continued. "Duncan cannot; it is his nameday, after all. And we have four dragons on the island. All of them larger than horses. Can we truly keep them out of sight for a full fortnight or more?"

Jon breathed in deep, suddenly quite a bit more anxious than he cared to be. "We must," he said. "And you have to do it. I cannot. People will be watching me at all times. No one knows you are here, Aunt, but the dragons listen to you. You must keep them confined to the catacombs, or take them even deeper than that, or it will all be over. We are not ready for war, especially if Robert Baratheon and all his loyalists decide to show up here all at once." He stopped, swallowed, and suddenly this tourney that was being pushed upon him seemed something far more than he could manage. "They heed my commands, if I think of them hard enough. All you have to do is reinforce them. Can you do that?"

Daenerys looked at him for several long moments. Then she inclined her head. "Even if I have to sit them down and attempt to explain to them in High Valyrian what will happen if we reveal ourselves, I will do it," she said. For all that her words painted a humorous picture, Jon knew to take her seriously, so he gave her a deep nod, gave her his trust. Then he took Margaery's elbow and led her out of the room.

"How are you?" he asked, forcing his own voice to remain steady, free of all the worries that gripped him whenever he was careless enough to allow them to get a hold.

"I am tired," she said. "My feet and breasts ache, and everything I try to eat makes me want to be sick. It is no worse than it was with Duncan, and I am nearly two name days older than I was when we made him. There is nothing to worry about."

Jon opened his mouth. Shut it again. He swallowed. Then he nodded. "If you are certain," he said.

She turned towards him suddenly, her hand coming up to cover his cheek. Her thumb stroked the underside of his jaw. "You worry too much," she breathed. "Did I not bear you a healthy son at an age when most women have yet to wed? Did I not escape birthing fevers and complications at four-and-ten? I am older than that now, Jon Stark. I am stronger. Do not dare doubt me now."

Jon swallowed, and nodded, and drew her to him. Absently, he noted that in the two and a half years they had been wed, he had grown taller. He would never be tall, be she only came up to his forehead now, and he was broader than he had been at the first, and she fit perfectly within his arms these days. No longer did she feel like she might overwhelm him if she would only try. No longer did she make him feel small and boyish. With her in his arms, like this, he felt a man, in a way even holding their son had not let him. "I do not doubt you," he muttered. "I doubt myself. I doubt what I would do if you do not survive this time. I doubt whether I would survive myself."

Her hand tightened on his face, and she pulled him down for a brief, hard kiss. After all, she knew better than to dismiss his fears out of hand; she knew where they came from. "You really think I would leave you and the babes alone when there is still so much out there for us to do?" she asked. She leaned in, pressed another kiss to the corner of his mouth. "Jon, you need to rid yourself of this ridiculous belief that you killed your mother. You did not. As a mother I can tell you that even if childbirth had been the sole thing to kill Lyanna Stark, she would never in a lifetime have blamed you. If it had come down to me or Duncan, I would have given my life for his each and every time. But even that was not what happened to Lyanna Stark." She paused for a moment, raising her other hand until her palms framed his face, held his forehead to hers. "She gave up. I am sorry, Jon, but that is what happened. Your mother gave up. I do not blame her. She did not know how to deal with losing her father, her brother, her husband and his whole family. She did not know how to handle the consequences of the choices she had made, how to handle the reality of King Robert's rule and what that would mean for her, let alone for you. She did not have the best care. And so she did not survive what another woman might have. The fact that you lived is a miracle in and of itself. You came weeks early, you were small and you were born with an unspoken kill order on your head. Yet you lived. Lyanna may not even have wanted that. It would have been the perfect tragic song to go with the death of her Silver Prince, would it not? Her death, along with the son she bore him, the final heir to the dynasty behind him? To a young girl who knows only songs..." She stopped, pressed her forehead against his so hard that for a moment it hurt. "I understand her, you know? But I could never be her. That is not me. So long as my children live, so long as you live, and my brothers. So long as the world still moves, I will not give up. That, I swear to you."

Despite himself, Jon smiled. He was not sure how she had deducted exactly what had been bothering him. He did not waste time being surprised. This was who she had been to him for almost as long as they had made this - oddly successful - attempt at an equal partnership. Margaery was still a mystery to Jon in so many ways, but he, it seemed, was an open book to her. "Thank you," he told her.

She flashed him a crooked grin, pressed another kiss to the corner of his mouth. "I was born a Tyrell," she said. "I will grow strong, even with your seed inside me." An impish grin tugged up her face, made Jon smile in response. "I will never stop growing strong, whatever my name. I promise."

Jon pressed his own kiss to her mouth. "I love you," he said, then. "You know that, do you not?"

Her grin only widened, growing all the more lopsided and imperfect, and all the more lovely for it. "Of course I do," she said. "You need not ride in a tourney to show your worth. I already know the warrior you will be. You need not worship the Seven; I can do that for the both of us. Just keep being a good liege and a good husband, and I will do my due." There was no question as to the level of suggestion in the wink she shot him them, and Jon laughed even as he felt certain parts of himself coming to attention. Well, at least he could not get her with child against Maester Cressen's recommendations this time.

Chapter Text

298 AC

Prince Oberyn Martell

Oberyn Martell made sure to issue a personal challenge, as discretely as he knew how, towards any and every lord who saw fit to call Lord Stark a craven for not taking the field in the tourney. The ones who were just too lowly for him, he had his daughters or nephews challenge.

"But Father," Obara said before he sent her out to her first brawl. "Why should we give one damn what one Crownlands lord says about another?"

The challenge, Oberyn remembered, had been given by one of those new Lords of Duskendale, whatever their name was these days. Or, more aptly, the Duskendale upstart had thought to challenge Jon Stark, who had turned him down, only for Oberyn to present Obara's challenge. His girl should be able to do this with no issue whatsoever. He walked a step closer, grasped her shoulders and looked into her eyes. They were so like his own it took his breath away sometimes. "Do you remember when my sister Elia and her daughter visited the Water Gardens?" he asked. He knew very well that she did. She had still been a young girl then, clumsy and not yet grown into her broad shoulders and strong arms. Rhaenys, in her high little voice, had challenged anyone who had dared say a word against her much older cousin. From that day, Oberyn's loyalty towards his sister's children had been absolute, even, for the past few years, towards the stepson Elia had never had a chance to claim for her own. Oberyn, however, had no doubt she would have, especially if she had had the chance to see the young man her stepson had grown up to become, all the best sides of Rhaegar, but with the dirt of him displaced by sheer Northern, well, Northerness. Oberyn did not pretend to understand them, or how they operated, but this solemn, serious boy whose reputation already warned most sensible men off him... Not only would Elia have claimed him; Oberyn would too, given half the chance and half the common cause they already had.

Obara gave a sharp nod. Without a word, Oberyn walked close enough to her to press their foreheads together. "The Lord is your cousin's little brother," he breathed, keeping his voice so low he was not even certain his own daughter, well trained though her ears were, would understand. "Every insult towards him or his is an insult towards little Rhaenys, you understand?"

Obara gave another swift nod. Her eyes, however, were still inquisitive. "If my cousin," she started, and Oberyn could not help but smile at the thought of how Elia would have smiled at that word, "can fight for himself, why should I fight for him?"

"Your cousin," Oberyn said, rolling his eyes obligingly, "Is part Northman. They believe tourneys to be mere frivolities and that it is folly to let the enemy know your true skill with any weapon, let alone your preferred one. Not that it will do your cousin much good. There is much talk, even with no tourney to support it, that Jon Stark is the Sword of the Morning come again, only younger and fiercer. There is wisdom in it, however." He paused a moment, looked straight at his firstborn daughter, tried to make her someone pick up his thoughts and feelings within him having to find those impossible, half-treacherous words. "Let them have their legends without tasting the real thing until it is time. Let your cousin surprise them when it comes time for us to have our vengeance. Until then, we will let no slight on his name go unpunished. You understand me, girl?"

She gave yet another nod. "I understand you, Father," she said. She paused for a moment, looking half the fierce snake he was so proud of and half the uncertain girl he had first taken in so many years ago. "Could I fight him, do you think?" she asked. Now a smile did bloom upon her face. "No audience, no stakes, no injuries. I just want to know that the man who is little Rhaenys' little brother is not some cunt who does not know how to hold a weapon."

Oberyn nodded. "I will see what I can do," he promised. A few hours later, he watched as his (step) nephew deposited his young son into his wife's arms. He was reminiscent of Rhaegar in some ways, but at the same time, he was so different it took Oberyn's breath away. He looked upon his son the same way Oberyn looked upon his own daughters, rather than the distant, sometimes analysing gaze Rhaegar would give his children. Jon Stark looked at his son not as a man would look upon his heir, like a business transaction, a sack full of possible future opportunities, but as a person, to be loved and respected and heard. And he looked upon his wife, as painfully young as she was, as they both were, with so much love that it made Oberyn long for Ellaria, who had had to stay back in Dorne for the final months of her most recent pregnancy. And when Elia's stepson met Oberyn's daughter sword to spear, he made it look ridiculously easy. Oberyn knew how good Obara was. Obara knew how good she was. And yet it had taken Jon Stark only a few moves to disarm her. "I think I might subscribe to no tourneys," she told him later. "People whisper that he's magnificent, but they have no idea how deadly he actually is. He could have killed me in a few moments if he had wanted to. Staying out of tourneys might be better for us after all, Father."

Oberyn laughed. "Maybe after this one," he said. "Let people wonder how much you have improved, how much stronger you have grown. For now, go and teach them all their place."

Obara nodded. "Yes, Father," she promised, with a viper's smile upon her face. And with that, she went out and taught a thorough lesson to all those who still looked down upon the Lord of Dragonstone, for his birth, for his reluctance to participate in tourneys, for his youth and the youth of his wife, as though any of that was truly going to matter in the end, when Jon Stark believed in justice and was, truly, the best swordsman Westeros had seen since the Sword of the Morning.

***



Lord Jon Arryn

Jon Arryn watched very carefully as King Robert held the tiny Duncan Stark to his chest, trying to interest the clearly too intelligent babe with a piece of ribbon his wife or daughter must have granted him. Duncan Stark was utterly uninterested, his dark purple eyes following the ribbon for a few moments at a time before seeking his Lady Mother for reassurance.

Duncan Stark's looks were extraordinary. Arthur Dayne himself, when he had first showed up with his squire/nephew with his pale blond hair and dark blue eyes, had attested to how it had been generations since a Dayne had last displayed both the pale hair and the purple eyes. According to Ned Dayne, their whole line was more than pleased with the little boy's appearance for all that they had had next to nothing to do with Jon Stark's upbringing. Still, Jon Arryn could not find it within himself to blame them. A daughter of their House had been dishonoured. Of course they would distance themselves from the shame. Who would not? Only Arthur Dayne, it seemed, and Ned Stark, of course, who Jon had always thought had a tendency towards taking the principles of honour taught to him in the Eyrie just a bit too far. But then how could Jon have known that the Quiet little Wolf of Winterfell had come with an honour code already present and all Jon had done was make it more rigid? Working with Rickard Stark directly, he could not help but think, might have been easier, no matter how much he loved his foster son.

Little baby Duncan began to fuss, and Robert, thankfully, did not really have a choice other than to hand him over to his mother, who still looked so young it hurt Jon's old heart. The slight swell of her belly, indicating a new babe, made him feel both reassured for the choices he and Robert and made and painfully guilty because, Gods, was the girl even six-and-ten yet? And there was her second babe, already visible for all to see. They were the ones who had doomed her to it, he reminded himself. He and Robert had japed about wolf pups and how the Roses would be at peace. Neither one of them, Jon could not help but think, had considered the very real little girl pulled into their schemes. And then the next moment, she drew level with a young man Jon knew must be Jon Stark of Dragonstone, if only for the way he resembled both Ned and Brandon Stark. He had grown so much since Jon had last seen him he could scarce recognise him. The young Lord wrapped an arm around her and kissed her temple, and Jon Arryn found himself relaxing. Perhaps they had not doomed two children to eternal unhappiness after all, even if they had forced them to grow up before their time.

A few moments later, he found himself wondering what he and Robert had started when the Sand Snakes of Dorne took it upon themselves to guard the honour of Jon Stark when he refused, as any good Northman would, to do it himself. Had they made some kind of gross miscalculation? Had they let Ned go far enough to lose his loyalty and see him act through his children? Or was this all down to the Tyrell-Martell marriage that had been the talk of the realm for more than a year now?

Then he forgot his suspicions, turning them towards the golden-haired heir to the Throne. Never had a Baratheon looked like that, and, unlike with Duncan Stark whose colouring could at least be explained, if only through the inexplicable ways the Blood of the First Men reacted to the very distant other strain of Blood of the First Men and mixed with the Andals, unseen for centuries now. Jon Arryn was not one to discount history on a whim.

***



Lord Eddard Stark

Ever since Benjen's panicked, cryptic letter almost a year and a half past, Ned had been desperate to get to Dragonstone and find out what in the world was going on, but the re-emergence of the old Forrester-Whitehill feud had made it impossible for him to leave the North. Robb was still too young for Ned to trust him to deal with runaway brides and Houses seeking alliances and attempting to start civil wars on his own. Still, now, as he was approaching Dragonstone once again, Ned could barely make himself breathe properly. Apprehension and excitement warred within him. Excitement for his first grandchild - regardless of their actual relation, that was what little Duncan Stark would always be to him - and apprehension because the one clear thing in Benjen's letter had been 'he knows', which also indicated 'I know'. Even now, after the news had had so long to settle into Ned's mind, the thought was still jarring. He had no idea what awaited him on the island. Would he be meeting his son, or a young man embittered against him? His sweet little Jon, or a man who would spurn his presence? For the first time in a decade and a half, Ned thought he might have some small understanding for Robert. Still, that did not soften him. He could not forgive the murder of his son's brother and sister, even if he had wanted to, and certainly not Robert condoning the savagery. As always, thinking of it only made him imagine Jon dead in front of him, even if the boy might be too close to grown for his skull to crack so easily now. Ned pushed the thought away. It was more than he knew how to deal with on top of everything else right now.

He was only half-aware of the ship docking, of the harbour town, which seemed even more colourful and flourishing than it had at Ned's last visit, for his son's wedding. Robb, Sansa and Arya piled out of the boat ahead of him, so eager it was almost humbling. Ned did his best not to remember how Robb had seemed hobbled and diminished for years after Jon's departure, how Arya was left without anyone to act her mirror among her siblings, how Jon had left a hole in their family even little Rickon had not been able to fill. Gods, Ned could only hope and pray that Jon considered them family still.

Jon was not there to meet them, and Ned could not help the way his heart fell at that realisation. Arthur Dayne was there instead, looking at their party with solemn eyes. His nephew stood half a step behind him, his white blond hair gleaming in the sun. Given the rumours Ned had heard about his grandson's colouring, he could do nothing but commend Arthur for keeping up appearances, whatever other games he might play. Ser Arthur greeted Ned with a tense nod. "Robert Baratheon arrived a few hours past," he said with a grimace on his face that told Ned he wanted to be back in that company, and nothing would get him there fast enough. "He has been keeping Lord and Lady Stark occupied since then. He is very taken by little Lord Duncan."

Ned nodded, swallowing down his dread. "I should like to meet my grandson," he said. With a look, he silenced Robb and Arya's protests at the fact that their favourite brother had not been there to meet them, and Sansa's disappointment that she would have to wait another few moments to meet the goodsister she so admired, for all that they had only known each other for a few days and a handful of letters. "Come," he told his children. "Let us go meet your brother's family."

Ned did not remember much of the trek up to the castle, let alone the journey from the gates to the Great Drum, but he did feel the tensions the moment he stepped into the Great Map Chamber, even if Robert, fool that he was, did not. Robert sat in a high-backed chair in the centre of the room with a tiny, silver-haired infant in his arms that Ned knew, with dread churning in his stomach, had to be none other than his firstborn grandchild. Jon and Margaery were both hovering nearby. Lady Margaery shielded her fear better than Jon did, but it was still there, clear for anyone to see who knew what to look for. Arthur Dayne, when Ned chanced a glance at him, looked just as murderous as Ned remembered he had when Robert had first held Jon.

And Jon, by the Gods, he was a vision from the past and a punch from the future all at once. Ned looked at him and saw Rhaegar's beauty and serenity, Lyanna's wild cleverness, Brandon's deadliness and Rickard's intelligence all wrapped into one person who looked more like a mix of a young Benjen and the long dead queen Rhaella than anything, and for all that it frightened him, it made Ned love the boy all the more. Ned only realised he had hesitated a moment when he watched his children swoop in. Robb caught Jon up in an embrace that looked like to crush either or both of them. Sansa and Margaery kissed each other's cheeks like the long separated goodsisters they were, Sansa looking upon Margaery as if all her hopes and aspirations were all wrapped up in one neat package to emulate. Arya was right on Robb's heels, inserting herself easily into the brothers' embrace before extricating herself just as fast to look Edric Dayne up and down, as if sizing up an opponent. Gods Old and New, that was probably exactly what she was doing. Ned sucked in a deep breath and walked forward himself. Robb stepped back to make room for him, his face tucked into a wide smile that had been all too absent recently as Ned and Luwin had tried to slowly introduce him to the duties of the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. And then Ned was face to face with the child he had held first, loved first, promised his protection to before he had even known the weight of any of the others in his arms. For long moments, Ned could only stare at Jon, and Jon seemed no more able to close the gap than he was.

Jon had his mother's eyes. Ned had always known that, but he was suddenly more aware of it than he had ever been in his life. Ned had his father's eyes, and for all that Ned could see Arya in him, Jon more than any if the others had the looks of their slaughtered family. He shared his colouring, somewhat, and his features, somewhat, with Arya, but that was where it ended. Jon, alone, like Ned's siblings, had Lyarra Stark's eyes, had their Flint grandmother's mountain clan eyes, and something deep within Ned hurt at the sight of them. He felt himself swallow. He didn't break the gaze, kept looking at Jon's eyes, watched as they went from implacable to confused to outright pleading, and that was when Ned stepped forward and pulled the son he first held and loved into his arms, held him close. "I love you," he whispered into Jon's ear. "I loved you first, when even Robb was still just letters on parchment. I have loved you longest, and I love you as much as any of my other children. None of the rest of it matters."

At those words, Jon let out a breath that was loud as a sob, next to Ned's ear as it was. It was only as Ned reached up to cradle his first son's head against his shoulder that he realised the boy was nearly of a height with him. Robb had grown taller than him by an inch already, but Ned had long known Robb would be taller than him. Jon was different. Jon had always been so small, always been so frail in Ned's arms. Ned had always suspected he had been born too soon, and part of him had never stopped seeing the small babe that had first been put in his arms when he was near to mad with grief at Lyanna's death, that too-small infant, too-silent and too-solemn, even as a newborn. Smaller, then, than any of Ned's other children had been at birth. To have him suddenly be of a height with Ned himself, even if it was no great height, made something inside him tremble and shatter. Jon was a man grown, he had to admit. More so than Robb was. He had had to be, after all, smart enough to understand bastardy at a young age, and coming into a lordship so young, and when no one had expected it. Coming into fatherhood years before Ned had, and Ned himself had felt too young, woefully underprepared. "I am so proud of you," Ned breathed, even though he was uncertain how Jon would receive the words, whether he would accept them at all. They were the truth, though, so Ned saw no reason to hold them back. "So very, very proud."

For a short, precious moment, Jon seemed to slump against him, entrusting Ned with nearly his full weight. Then he straightened up, features stiff the way Lyanna's had been, long ago, when she had tried to conceal her tears. "I would like you to meet your grandson, Father," he said. His voice cracked halfway through, but Ned thought it was from emotion, rather than immaturity. Jon's voice seemed to have settled into the same baritone register Brandon's had taken on when he had been alive. Deeper than Rhaegar's, simpler and less frilly, heartfelt in a different way that had naught to do with songs and all to do with the world as it was. The voice of a lord, a man grown, even if he had yet to reach his majority. Pride, once again, squeezed Ned's chest in a vice.

Ned nodded, did not even care to conceal his eagerness as Margaery, with all courtesies, extricated her son from King Robert's arms and walked over to Ned, handing the babe over. And Ned was dumbstruck. Duncan Stark was a Targaryen through and through, was Rhaegar Targaryen's grandson without a doubt. Even Robert might have seen it, had he not been so blinded by the presence of the Daynes and the memory of Lyanna. Ned did not care, though, not in the least. Just as he had loved Jon the first moment he had held him, in spite of their true relation, he loved this boy and knew him for a grandson, regardless of the actual truth. And, he realised, as he held the silver-haired, purple-eyed infant close to his chest, he would protect the babe with his life. Against Robert too, if the need ever arose. The same fierce, wolfish need to protect that he had first felt that moment he had first laid eyes on Jon rose within him once more, that first taste of his own wolf's blood no less strong for all the years that had passed, and he raised the babe up to press a kiss against his soft little forehead. "You are my grandson," he whispered, and he did not care who heard him and disapproved, Gods or Jon or Arthur or any of them. "And I love you dearly." He turned to Robb, suddenly very conscious of what he was showing Jon, what he was showing Robert, even. "Come, son, hold your nephew."

Robb stepped forward and took Duncan from Ned's arms with a competence borne from taking care of his younger brothers. He cradled the babe carefully against his broadening chest, stroked his finger carefully through the softly curling white-blond fuss on his nephew's head.

"He is our blood. Swear you will never let anyone hurt him, as Jon will never let anyone hurt you," Ned instructed, making sure his voice left no room for misinterpretation.

Robb glanced up at him for a moment before looking back at the babe as if enchanted. Then he looked directly at Jon. "By the Old Gods and the New," he said. "I will protect your babe with all I have, brother. And all the might of Winterfell and the North with me."

Even from where he stood, Ned heard Jon's breath stutter. He saw the glint of moisture in the boy's eyes before he used a long blink to hide the vulnerability. "Thank you," Jon said, and Ned knew they would have more words, knew he would have to tell the whole story, explain how he swore Arthur to silence, explain how he had wished to keep the peace with Robert as King, even as Jon grew up within his sight. How, to his own shame, he was still torn - he would never lie to the boy. But now, he thought it might be easier than he had feared. Jon still loved him, he did not doubt that. And Jon, he had to trust, knew Ned loved him as dearly as he ever had. That was most important. Everything else rested on that, after all.

***

"You swore an oath," Ned spat, doing his best not to raise his voice. However alone he thought they may be, he could not run the risk of being overheard, not for this. "Arthur--"

"I know I did," Arthur replied, violet eyes implacable. A muscle jumped in his jaw in what Ned had long since learnt to recognise as restrained frustration. He had seen that plenty of times in the ten years they had lived under the same roof. "And I kept it," he continued. "Do you know how many times I wanted to tell him? Every time that boy put himself down for being a bastard, for not being good enough, I wanted to tell him everything. Every time I told him the stories about the Targaryens of old, I wished to the Gods I could tell him his connection to them, make him feel like he belonged somewhere."

"He did," Ned hissed. "He is a Stark. He belongs with his family. Why would you tell him?" Ned knew there was a chance he was being irrational. Jon was an intelligent boy. No doubt, even thinking himself half a Dayne, he would have had questions when his first son was born looking the way he did. But the anger had been building for a year and a half, and the fear with it. Ned was sick and tired of war. The last thing he wanted was to fight yet another one against a man he still loved as a brother, even if he could not forgive the things he had done since. And he could not help but think that Arthur was pushing in exactly that direction.

"Ned." Arthur sighed and dropped into a nearby chair, reaching up and running a hand over his face. "He is a Stark, but he is not. You gave him what you could, but there was always another half to him that you could no more understand than you could nurture it, and he never felt complete without it. Especially since he could never fully be a Stark of Winterfell." He paused, just long enough for Ned to feel that old bite of guilt at how little, in the end, he had had to offer Lyanna's boy. He had taken a Targaryen King and made him a Sand, and he still believed it had been the right thing to do. The last thing the realm had needed was another war, let alone an infant king. Being a bastard had shielded Jon long enough for him to grow up strong and healthy. It had been the question of what should happen afterwards that had always divided Arthur and himself. Ned had hoped, perhaps foolishly, that Dragonstone might be enough to satisfy Arthur's ambition on Jon's behalf, but he should have known better, he supposed.

"Jon is a sweet, gentle boy," Ned said. "You cannot possibly think he wants war, especially with all King Robert has given him."

Arthur snorted. "Robert has given him less than should have been his by right of birth and blood," he said. "You are right, though. Jon does not want war. He wants to be left in peace with his family. He will always be a Stark in that way, I believe. But in the end, there may not be a choice." He paused, let out a long breath. "By the time I told him," Arthur continued, "he had already hatched four dragons. He was hysterical and confused and frightened, and he could not make sense of anything. The last thing he needed in that moment was more lies, when he already had all the puzzle pieces to figure out the truth for himself."

"Dragons?" Ned breathed, and felt his knees threaten to buckle beneath him. "You have dragons?"

"Jon does," Arthur corrected. "They answer to him and Daenerys only. She is keeping them hidden down in the catacombs and lava tunnels while the tourney is happening. They are the size of horses now, and they will only keep growing."

"Daenerys?" Ned interjected. "You have Daenerys Targaryen here?"

Arthur nodded. "With all the dragonseeds on this island, another young girl with Targaryen colouring is not something people will notice. She is dedicated to Jon and Duncan, and gets on well with Margaery." He gave another sigh. "From everything Oswell and Gerold could make out, Viserys' madness was only growing, and he would have made a move sooner or later. And he was mistreating the princess. We thought it better to split them up and keep them where we could control them. Daenerys is here, and she is a sweet girl, no threat in and of herself. Viserys is with Gerold and Oswell in turns, still ranting and raving about his birthright. He will be kept far away from here, with no means to gather a powerbase." Another pause. Then, "Jon may not want a war, but in the end there may not be a way to stop it. The dragons will not stay small forever. One child with the look of Old Valyria might be overlooked, but if this second one has that same colouring... Sooner or later, someone hostile will put the pieces together, and Jon will have to rise up to defend himself and his family. And half the realm will rise with him. You and your son included, unless you were lying earlier."

Ned, suddenly overcome with exhaustion, dropped into the nearest free chair. "I would never lie to one of my children," he said. "Nor would I let one of them be hurt, no matter who threatened them." He hated the idea of another war, but if it had to happen, he knew which side he would be on. Gods, but sometimes he wished he could have prevented Jon from coming here. He could have kept him safe in Winterfell, for as long as he remained there as Lord, and Robb would have done the same after him. Or he could have gone to the Wall, where Robert could never have touched him. He almost snorted at that. He knew, deep down, that Arthur would have never stood for that. Jon, along with Arthur, would have only vanished on the way there, and Ned would have had even less control over the situation than he did now. Still, it was no use wishing to change the past. It was already written, and the ink was dry.

"He does not want to be king, this boy of ours," Arthur said after a while. "But then, none of the best ones do."

Ned raked a hand through his hair, but could only nod.

***



Ser Barristan Selmy

Barristan was both grateful and hesitant to be leaving Dragonstone behind. There were so many memories there, good and bad, so many things he would rather not confront. And then there was Jon Stark.

Barristan might not have seen the truth for what it was, if not for little Duncan Stark. But Barristan had been a Kingsguard for a long time. He had held Rhaegar and Viserys and Aegon when they were babes. He knew the look of the Targaryens better, he suspected, than anyone alive. Duncan was a Targaryen through and through. And once he knew that there was something to look for, had known to look more closely, he saw the distinctive features in Jon Stark's face as well, disguised only by his Stark colouring. Saw the echoes of Jaehaerys and Rhaella and Rhaegar as clear as day.

Seeing the young Lord sit out the tourney as the good Northman he must be had filled him, strangely, with just as much pride as seeing Rhaegar break lances against his opponents' shields, unhorsing them with his careful, powerful cunning, once had. Seeing Arthur with him, always half a step behind, always vigilant and full of the pride of a man who knew his place and knew he was doing his duty to the best of his ability, that filled Barristan with bitter regret and more shame and envy than he had known for years.

Had it been cowardly, to bend the knee at the Trident all those years ago? Aerys, Aegon and Rhaenys, Rhaella and Viserys, they had all still been alive. He had been wounded and near delirious, in no state to fight, rocked to his core at the memory of Rhaegar's death. Would it have been better to let them kill him and be done with it? By the time he had been well again, the Targaryen dynasty had been well and truly broken. But there had been Targaryens left still. Had he dishonoured himself by not going to them?

Bitterness rose in his throat. Barristan did not take oaths lightly. But he had made several, and they may one day come to a head. Robert, Robert was a drunkard and a womaniser, and Joffrey was little better than a monster in human form. Barristan still remembered how the boy had cut open a kitchen cat because he was too impatient to wait for the kittens to be born of their own accord. Jon Stark, on the other hand, for all that Barristan had not had much of a chance to get to know him, had struck him as a better man than most. Not one of his forbearers come again, but his own man, the product of the blood of two royal lines and Arthur's hand in his upbringing, and somehow still more than that. Strong and gentle and clever. Of course, Barristan might just as well be wrong, and the boy might be as mad as his grandfather. Still, he doubted it. Most likely, there was more of Rickard Stark than Aerys Targaryen in him, and more yet that was just the boy himself.

Barristan did not know. He did not take his oaths lightly, and he had sworn his life twice. He hoped those oaths would not come into conflict. He did not know what he would do if they did.

Yet, he did not go to his king and tell him what he knew. He could not find it within himself to do so.

Chapter Text

299 AC

Lord Jon Stark

Lyarra Stark was born with the dawn just a few sennights before Jon's sixteenth name day. By then, he had been awake for what felt like weeks. Margaery's labour had been long and difficult, but although she was exhausted, Maester Cressen was quick to let Jon know that she was not in any real danger. Those words made Jon breathe easy for the first time in more hours than he could readily count. And then his first daughter was placed in his arms, and all the weariness and fear melted away into that near-painful tenderness it seemed even Duncan had yet to get him used to. The tiny, red-faced babe was as different from Duncan as night from day. The tiny patch of hair on the top of her small head was black as pitch, and she looked out at the world with solemn grey eyes. She did not squirm or wiggle or cry, just watched unseeingly, and Jon felt as though he was looking through a mirror, seeing himself reflected in her every feature. He did not know if that made him love her more, but it broke something within him, made his family feel like family even more than Duncan had, more than anything had, cut him so deeply the pain was near physical, for all its sweetness. He reluctantly placed her back within Margaery's arms while whispering his grandmother's name, because the only alternative would have been his mother's, and she was still taboo throughout Westeros for more reasons than he could count, each one varying depending on who was telling her story. Margaery held their babe close, eyes softening while she ran gentle fingers through their daughter's downy, dark hair.

"She is her father's daughter," Margaery said with a soft, tired smile, and the tenderness in her voice and upon her face as she said that was near enough to make Jon lose all sense of composure. Jon did not know what to do with himself, how to properly handle the feelings that threatened to overcome him. Arya and Ned and Benjen had been his only mirrors in the world for so long. Then he had learnt the truth and Daenerys had showed up, and he had seen that they shared the same mouth, the same chin, and some part of him had been confused ever since, unanchored. He knew, on some level, that it was stupid, feeling so unsettled about how he was suspended between two Houses. What must Robb and Sansa, who looked more Tully than Stark, feel each and every day? But still, something within him was soothed at the sight of this daughter, this single other person in the world who showed both the North and Old Valyria within her very face. Margaery, treasure that she was, seemed to somehow pick up on this without requiring Jon to speak a word. "Look," she said softly. "Those are yours and Benjen's eyes. Those are yours and Lord Eddard's ears and jaw. That is yours and Dany's mouth. She is beautiful."

Jon bit back a sharp hitch in his breath, because he had no reason to feel this torn up. He was happy, as happy as he had been when Duncan was born. He should not be broken down by it too, but he was. He had no idea how to show her without confusing her. And still, somehow, she knew, and just as she had with Duncan, she pulled him down on the bed to rest beside her as she fed their babe. "I always knew where I belonged," she said, voice impossibly soft. "I look so like my brothers, no one would ever doubt that we are family. I always knew where I belonged, and to whom. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be adrift, without a House to call my own." Her free hand carded through his hair, and Jon knew he should be ashamed at the fact that once again, she was comforting him after the ordeal she had gone through. "You are not a Sand anymore, Jon," she continued. "You never truly were. You are a Targaryen, and a Stark, and even a Tyrell of Highgarden should you ever wish it. You belong. As does our daughter."

For long moments, Jon could do nothing more than bury his face against her shoulder. Then, bit by bit, strengthened by her words, he pulled himself together. He straightened his spine, sat up straight and wrapped an arm around her, letting her worn out body slump against his. If they could always do it like this, taking turns being strong, taking turns caring for each other's weaknesses, he thought they might just overcome anything.

***

Seeing Benjen and Dacey and their two boys off as they left for the newly restored Moat Cailin was one of the hardest things Jon had ever had to do. Ever since he had first set foot on Dragonstone, Jon had relied on his uncle and aunt for their council, their regency, for their knowledge to guide him along. Now that he was of age, he would no longer have that, and the thought of being a lord in his own right, no matter how long he had known he would be one, frightened him.

"You must think me such an idiot," he told Margaery that evening, as they sat in the Godswood. Jon found some comfort in the laughing face of the heart tree. The same face, Benjen had told him, that his mother had taken for her sigil when she had ridden in defence of Lord Reed's honour. "I keep crying all over you like a babe in arms when we have two actual babes to look after."

Margaery smiled that crooked smile of hers that still made him feel weak in the knees. He thought maybe it always would. He could not help but hope so. "I have never seen you weep for no reason," she told him after several long moments. Her suddenly solemn expression told him she was being utterly serious. "And you have had more reason than most, even when you cannot find the words. I do not begrudge you your tears. I would be worried if you showed no emotion. And I am grateful I am the one you choose to show it to. You are my strength when I feel weak. I am grateful I can be the same for you."

Jon managed a smile that felt like more of a grimace on his face. So far, it felt a lot more like him being weak and Margaery being strong than the other way around. Once more, he was reminded of how good she was to him, how little he deserved her. "I love you," he told her, did not think he could ever tell her enough. "I do not know what I am going to do without you."

His whole life felt in disarray. There was the new babe, still so small he thought he might crush her if he held her too tightly. Benjen and Dacey had left and now that Jon had entered into his majority, he was expected in King's Landing within a moon's turn to swear fealty and take up his position as Master of Ships on the small council. He would much rather stay on Dragonstone with Margaery and the children. He was well aware of all that King Robert Baratheon had given him, and despite everything he had learnt about his own heritage, he wanted nothing more than to keep the peace. Still, could they not just leave him be? Did he have to be part of it all?

"You will be home as often as you can," Margaery said. "When Lyarra is older and weaned, I could join you in the capital. I will make sure we have a good castellan. In the meantime, you will have Arthur and Loras with you. Arthur knows King's Landing inside and out, and they would both die for you."

"And who will you have with you here?" Jon asked, and he could not help that spike of fear within him. What if their secrets were discovered by the wrong people while Jon was waylaid in King's Landing with both Loras and Arthur at his side? Who would be with Margaery and the children? Who would guard them?

"Daenerys, and the dragons," Margaery said. "And Arthur said Ser Oswell will take command of both the companies. Ser Gerold will come here before you even leave. He will keep me and the babes perfectly safe."

"Ser Gerold is an old man by now," Jon said, unable to let go of his misgivings.

"Ser Gerold is a very loyal old man, one who protected you even as you were born and no one could rightly tell what kind of man you would one day be. And before you, he served your grandparents, and he will be bringing a dozen of his Unsullied. And our men-at-arms number at two thousand now. It is not like you will be bringing them all. Do you distrust the ones who will remain?"

Jon shook his head, could still not help the wretched feeling that threatened to take him over. "I do not know what I would do if you or one of the children died," he said. "I do not know..."

Margaery leaned in and pressed a kiss to his temple. "You would go on," she said. "I do not care how much it would hurt. You would go on, and you would wed Daenerys. She loves our babes like they were her own. She is loyal to you and your House. She would raise them right, and would shield you like I would have myself. If something happens to me, not that I believe anything will, that is what I would have you do. You hear me?"

Jon wanted to cringe away at the thought of him marrying his own aunt. He knew both of his Houses had wed that closely or even closer before. The Starks, after all, were second only to the Targaryens in Westeros when it came to intermarriage. He could see the logic in Margaery's words, though, and he knew it was not Dany or the concept of her he shied away from as much as it was the thought of Margaery dying, leaving him alone. "Let us not think of that," he said at last, wrapping her more tightly in his arms. "I love you," he added. "You. Not whoever would mother our children or be loyal to my House. You."

She turned her head, pressed her lips to his. "I love you too," she said, her voice dropping on the register, and Jon's abdomen tightened. He knew he should leave her be, should not tempt fate once more, let alone so much sooner than he had last time, but she left him breathless just by looking at him right - or wrong. Even the touch of her voice, it seemed, could make him come undone. And when her hands dropped to fumble at the ties of his breeches, he knew he was lost. Groaning, he reached out and framed her face within his hands, drew her into a kiss that left them both gasping and panting.

***

King's Landing was nothing Jon truly had words for. It was vast, beauty and depravity layered each on top of the other, like the way the stench of piss and shit layered itself beneath and around the scents of summer blooms and salt water. He could not take a deep breath without remembering where he was, and he was not sure if that was a good or a bad thing. The Red Keep... The Red Keep took his breath away, made his chest clench tight with a strange mixture of vague belonging, deep-seated sorrow and fear, and a rage he had not realised, until now, he had cultivated. He pushed it all beneath the surface, clung onto Lady Olenna's words of advice as he struggled not to give anything away where anyone might see.

No one, thankfully, was paying a whole lot of attention to him; Jon arrived in King's Landing in the middle of a scandalous tragedy. All he could seem to find out from the rumours that reached his chambers in the Red Keep was that Renly Baratheon, Lord of Storm's End and King Robert's last remaining brother had died in a duel. Jon did not know what it had all been about. Most said a maiden's honour, though whether he had dishonoured her or dishonoured her by dishonouring someone else was not something Jon could discern the truth of. All he knew was that some lordling from the Reach had challenged him to a duel and killed him. Jon wished that did not make him feel guilty, but it did, whether he had a reason or not. After all, he was vaguely aware that he did stand to profit from any loss the Baratheons took. As did much of the Reach.

Jon had barely been in King's Landing for a sennight when the lordling showed up, apparently called in for a trial of combat by Robert Baratheon. Jon had the honour and dubious pleasure of being seated with the royal family to overlook the fight. He did not take in much of the goings-on. He was sure Margaery would have scolded him for that, but Jon did not have a head for sigils and those kinds of politics. Trials by combat, he could not help but think, should have been outlawed long since. He did not doubt in the Old Gods, but he doubted the New and despised the idea of any Gods giving a man skill at combat and also creating ways for that to replace his honour, duty, and the work of law at large. Honour and martial skill did not go hand in hand. Even had Jon once thought so, Arthur's stories of the Mountain that Rides and Aegon and Rhaenys, those siblings of his that had died before Jon was born, would have disabused him of the notion.

Being seated with the royals, however, did give Jon a chance to meet the rest of them, and it was strange. Robert alone appeared to be a true Baratheon, looks and temper. Jon was not one to judge. He knew that distinguishing features could be hidden under a different colouring, but while he knew he was a mix of both his Houses, he could find not so much as a single one of those distinguishing features on the Baratheon children, who all seemed to be their mother reborn. Even that much might be understandable. How looks were inherited was convoluted and strange, as evidenced by Duncan's own colouring, which was nothing like Margaery's or his own. Jon would never in a million years claim to understand all that. No, what truly disturbed Jon was Joffrey, the crowned prince, who was only all too excited to see the lordling dead. Jon might not have blamed him for that - he would have wanted to see anyone who might dare try to kill Uncle Benjen dead as well, after all. It was the way Joffrey went about it that disturbed Jon. He did not speak of justice, or even vengeance. Instead, he whispered in Jon's ear, as though they were co-conspirators, of pools of blood and what exposed guts might look like glistening in the sun, seemed to view everything as some macabre show all put on for his benefit. Afterwards, Jon shuddered to even think on it.

It was after Jon had relayed his misgivings to Arthur that his Uncle helped him word his vows of fealty so that they would tie him to Robert and Robert alone and require a new oath before the wording of it all might require him to enter into the service of Robert's heir. Maybe Jon would not have asked for it had Renly lived to be an insurance, if he was what all had claimed he was, or had Joffrey not seemed so... off. But those were the circumstances, and Jon refused to swear his loyalty where he was not sure he could find it within himself to give it. And that was without considering what the combination of Arthur, Aunt Daenerys and four growing dragons might cause all on its own.

He missed Margaery and the children so much it hurt. Each and every night when he went to bed on his own, all he wanted was to be back where he belonged with his Lady Wife in his arms, and that desire made it easy enough to spurn any and every invitation to the whorehouses he received. He did not wish for anyone to be raised a bastard on his account, whether or not he was a true one himself, however high he had risen in the world. And besides that, he could not imagine dishonouring his Lady Wife so. As for the feeling of displacement... Yes, the Red Keep held some familiarity to him, some echo of belonging, but it was weak and distant and barely more than a hum against them din of the busy city outside and the busier keep all around him, and the pain and slumbering rage the place seemed to imbue into his very bones.

Too many lords to count had showed up in a bid to be made Master of Laws now that Lord Renly was out of the way, and several of them tried to make friends with Jon, as though the very newest member of the Small Council would have any kind of say in the new appointment. The Small Council in itself was, more than anything, an affair that threatened to give him permanent migraines. Very few of the discussions going on had anything to do with the Royal Fleet or ships in general. And yet Jon was expected to be there for each and every meeting and have an opinion on even the most minute of things that had nothing to do with him or his area of expertise, when he would have been better served by keeping up his skill in the training yard.

Jon Arryn was everything Jon's father had told him, good and honourable, kind but harsh when he had to be; Jon liked him. He disliked the Grand Maester and the Master of Coin almost the moment he met them. Barristan Selmy and Lord Varys, while both made him uneasy in each their own ways, he had less of a problem with. Still, half the time he did not know what in the world he was doing among men like these or how he was ever supposed to even attempt to do his duty, whatever that even was. What was his duty in the first place? Was he a Stark, like his Lord Father had raised him to be? Was he the Targaryen his Uncle Arthur had taught him of and his Aunt Daenerys wanted so badly for him to show himself as?

'You might not have my name'. He remembered those words from his earliest childhood. 'But you have my blood.' Try to make his Lord Father proud, even if half the issues brought to fore did not pertain to him. Try to be as honourable a man as he knew how to be, and to keep his family as safe as he could in the process. If the need to be a Targaryen arose - and Jon did not kid himself, it likely would, though hopefully far into the future - he would be the wall between any threat and the people he loved, no matter how much fire and blood it would take to do that. He was used to bleeding himself and going places where he might be burnt.

"Lord Stark," a strange voice said once, when he was in his chambers, supposedly alone. Jon jumped, and did not recognise the intruder until he turned around and saw Lord Varys. His voice was deeper and weightier than it had ever been in any of the Small Council meetings they had attended together in the three or so moons' turns Jon had served with him.

"Lord Varys," Jon returned, more than a little uncertain. Lord Varys had never sought him out before, even though Jon had felt the weight of his gaze several times during their sessions. He did not know the Spider at all, let alone enough of him to figure out what he might be doing in Jon's chambers.

"I am loyal to the realm," Varys said, well ahead, it seemed, of any of the questions Jon might have thought to ask. "I know what the king is. I know what the heir is. Your friends are loyal. It has been very difficult to get word of anything. Yet, my little birds sing to me, even, these days, from Dragonstone and the Reach, of a different path to stability for the realm. I bring you a present." He swept a hand towards a chest Jon had not noticed earlier. "I hear you might know what to do with them."

Jon swallowed down his questions. He crossed the room and pushed the chest open, felt his breath catch as he caught sight of the three dragon eggs within, lying in their neat row. He remembered all too well. Nearly two years of bleeding himself nightly. Possibly, at least according to Loras anyway, stunting his own growth in the process - not that he thought he would ever have been tall in the first place; his uncles were not. Stout and strong, but never tall. Two years of daily pain and fatigue, of falling into sleeps so deep he was never entirely sure he would wake. Of feeding his own blood to the past. Two years of his own instincts commanding him to a degree where he did not know which actions were even his own. He could not do it again. He could not.

Wake us up, Jaehaerys Targaryen, something whispered, and Jon wanted to break down in tears, because those voices had finally left him when he had thrown the last eggs in the Dragonmont, and now they were here, haunting him all over again. Wake up. Wake us up.

I am already awake, Jon could not help but think. He did not need these eggs. He knew what and who he was. He could not do it again. "Thank you, Lord Varys," he managed, only to realise the pudgy lord had already left his chambers, and then he was face to face with three glittering dragon eggs that somehow utterly prevented him from looking away. Gritting his teeth, Jon pulled a dagger from his belt and opened up the old scar on his left forearm, if only to get his own mind to leave him in peace. He let his blood drip over the petrified eggs; they would allow him no rest if he did not. It was an experiment, he told himself, only a way to find out if they would react as the previous ones had.

Like the last four, they sucked up the blood like hungry sponges. Groaning, Jon picked them up one by one and put them in the fire that lit up his rooms. He rang for a servant. "Inform the castellan and Small Council that I will be going to Dragonstone for a few days," he instructed. "I will leave the day after tomorrow."

"I cannot fully recall what my daughter looks like," Jon said when he met up with Jon Arryn the next day. To his shame, it was the truth. All he could do was look in the mirror and try to imagine his own features on an infant. And he needed so badly to see how his children had grown, both of them. "I need to be home every once in a while. Lady Stark might be the Lady of Dragonstone, but she is also my wife, and I need to be with her when I can."

'Wake up, Jaehaerys Targaryen,' his own mind whispered. 'Wake us up.'

"I understand," Jon Arryn told him. He reached out and ruffled Jon's hair, and Jon did his best not to react, to not wince or flinch or tell the Hand of the King that really, he was too old for those gestures. He was a man grown in every way there was, and the father of two children besides.

The first night back on Dragonstone, he wore himself out with his wife, and his hand slipped when he bled himself over the eggs. He nearly passed out, would have, had Margaery not found him a beat before his sight blackened. Maester Cressen and the young maester who had arrived to prepare to replace him when he could no longer carry out his duties put him in bed. Maester Cressen must have said something or other about Jon's long lasting habit of harming himself, because no one mentioned it in front of him, only told him he must keep to his bed for a sennight at least. He asked for Dany.

Her small hands were anxious enough to border on harsh on his arms when she entered the sick chambers. "What is it?" she asked. "Jaehaerys, please."

He mustered up a smile for her, tried for as long as he could to be Jaehaerys, her nephew, her whole family. That smile alone took so much out of him he thought he might just pass out. "There are three eggs in the firepit," he told her. "I gave them too much blood, but they will need more soon enough. I will have to return to King's Landing. I need to be free of them, and I will not be unless they hatch."

She looked at him with those wide, purple eyes of hers. Made an aborted motion towards the fireplace. He recognised the way her gaze flickered and tried to draw towards them all too well. She heard them too, and for a moment he felt sick with guilt at the knowledge that he had included her, had brought this curse down upon her as well. Her eyes caught his again, steady and determined now, and Jon pushed away his guilt. What was done could not be undone. "What would you have me do?"

Jon let out a dry chuckle. "Nothing, preferably, but I fear we do not have a choice. If they call to you, you must feed them. And when the time comes, you must feed them to the Dragonmont. You will be the Mother of Dragons."

She flashed him a quick smile, almost wistful. "Thank you," she said, and her voice was so sincere it pained him. She had no idea what she was thanking him for, what she was taking upon herself. All he could do was remind himself that she was much, much stronger than she looked.

Jon shrugged, and by the Gods he wished he had clearer instructions to give her. "You will know what to do," he told her. Fire and Blood, he knew by now, were more than mere House words. "Take them to your chambers. I would see my wife and children."

She nodded. When she picked up the eggs, he noted, they burnt her dress but not her skin. He fell back asleep, and when he woke once more, Margaery was there and their children as well. Duncan was balancing precariously on Jon's feather bed, his dark purple eyes lit up with joy as he wobbled around, incapable, it seemed, of staying still. "Papa," he called him, and Jon barely bit back the lump in his throat at the sound of that word, which he had not heard for much too long, and never spoken so clearly.

Margaery settled into the bed at his side and handed over Lyarra, who looked at him with curious eyes. She seemed near twice the size she had been when Jon had last seen her, seemed far more conscious of the world around her. The downy baby hair on the top of her head had acquired a curl to it, the longest bits threatening to corkscrew like his own did, like Duncan's, only as inky as that of the Starks of old. The sight of it made Jon's chest clench with some emotion he still did not know how to name. There was no recognition in her eyes when she looked at him, but then Jon was not sure she was old enough to recognise anything, let alone the father who had been absent for several moons' turn. Margaery leaned into him, her weight warm and comfortable and familiar, and Gods, he had missed this so much, the closeness, the sense of family, of belonging. He wrapped an arm around her, held her as closely as he could while their babes were in the chamber with them. "What is King's Landing like?" she asked him.

Jon grimaced. "It stinks," he said. "The Red Keep is beautiful, but the city itself is a cesspool. I do not know how no one has ever thought to do something to clean it up. The politics make my head hurt. King Robert is a kind-hearted fool, but his son is... he is horrible. I believe he thinks me a friend because I am only a few namedays older, but he makes me want to-- Gods, I do not even know."

She gave a small nod. "It is a relief, in a way, is it not?" she asked softly. "If King Robert's heir had been someone you could admire, everything might be that much more difficult."

Jon sucked in a breath, nodded. Duncan seemed to have grown weary of his acrobatic exploits and threw himself into his mother's arms a mere moment later, his silver-blond hair a stark contrast to the black and pale blue of her gown. His damson eyes were attentive as he watched them both, far more intelligent than Jon would have ever expected of a lad that young. And Gods, when had Duncan grown so big? His body was that of a small child now, rather than that of a babe. Most of the fat on him seemed to have vanished since the last time Jon had seen him, melting into longer, straighter limbs and that disturbingly discerning gaze.

"Let him keep thinking you a friend," Margaery said. "Even if it means you have to hear things, even say things, that disturb you. It will not do to make an enemy of the princeling before we have to."

Jon gave a nod, looking down at Lyarra as she wrapped her tiny fingers around his much larger, rougher one. He took a moment to study her before looking back up at Margaery. "I need you there with me," he said. "I do not know how to navigate any of it. It confounds me, why people would do the things they do. Lord Varys confuses me, and Lord Baelish spends his free time running brothels. Pycelle is despicable, and so much a Lannister man I am not sure why no one has done anything yet. And Ser Barristan looks like he wants to cry every time I meet his--"

"Jon," Margaery said, voice very soft and very gentle. She lifted the hand that was not brushing through Duncan's curls and rested it against his cheek. "I would come with you if I could. But even if I wished to leave our babes, I could not. There is another one in my belly. Has been since you first left for King's Landing, and Maester Cressen tells me I cannot do something as strenuous as travelling, not when this one is coming so soon after Lyarra." Her thumb stroked over his cheekbone once before covering his lips, stopping all the words threatening to tumble out of his mouth, apologies and pleas and everything else. "There is need of a new Master of Laws, is there not?"

Jon nodded, tried to clamp down on the roiling mess his belly had become, tried to be brave, be fearless, to believe that this would not hurt them, that Margaery would be fine just as she had been both times before. Bran and Rickon had been born within a year of each other, Jon recalled, even if he had had to leave a mere few moons' turn after Rickon's birth. Lady Catelyn had been perfectly all right, even if both births had been difficult. Rickon and Bran had been just fine as well. And Margaery was past those years where childbirth was as like to kill as not. She was strong and brave, and she was not Lyanna Stark. Just because Jon's mother had died birthing him did not mean his Lady Wife would die the same way, and he could not let that fear incapacitate him each and every time.

"Recommend Willas," Margaery said. "He is not needed in the Reach for the moment. He has a better head for politics than Loras. And thanks to you, King Robert no longer hates us all. My brother is kind and just. He will honour the position, and he will help you stay safe. If I cannot be with you, I would send as many of my brothers to your side as I could."

Jon felt a smile tug on his lips, turned more firmly towards her and pressed a brief, weighty kiss to the corner of her mouth. "I will," he said. "I promise."

"Good," she said. Her hand had migrated to frame his jaw instead. Her thumb brushed over his bottom lip. "Listen to him," she instructed. "Trust him. Send for him, even if you cannot have him appointed. He may not be a fighter anymore, but he has a brilliant mind, and he would never see either of us hurt if he can help it. He is your brother too, remember."

Jon swallowed and nodded, leaned in to press another kiss to her lips, this time more firmly, more directly. He pulled back sooner than he would have preferred when Duncan made an attempt to eat his jerkin. "Will you look after Daenerys?" he asked. "What I went through to hatch those dragons... I would not wish it on anyone, and yet I have asked it of her. She might need a maester at times. She may even just need a friend who will not judge her, even when she fails to hide her scars." He let out a long breath, felt like a monster all of a sudden. "Gods, how could I have asked it of her? I know what it is like, and--"

"She is a Targaryen," Margaery said softly. "Just like they would not with you, I doubt these eggs will ever let her rest. I will be there for her. I will help her and support her, as I know she will me and our babes. But I will not suffer your guilt. Do you hear me? No guilt, Jon. You have no cause to feel it."

Jon gave a shaky, uncertain nod and leaned in, pressed his forehead against hers in that old almost ritualistic move of theirs. As much as he often cursed his own height, part of him was grateful they were still close enough together in size to be able to do this. He tightened his arm around Lyarra and reached his free hand down to brush over Margaery's still flat belly, let himself imagine he could feel their babe growing somewhere underneath.

She leaned in closer, kissed the hinge of his jaw, and then Duncan interrupted, rediscovering his previous energy enough to jump all over them with a youthful enthusiasm that made Margaery laugh. And Jon, at the sight of their son's antics and the sound of his wife's joy, could not help but join their delight.

"I do not want to go back," he told her, even as they all followed their hungry stomachs down towards the castle kitchens, Jon still staggering from blood loss and praying to the Gods Maester Cressen would not catch him out of bed. "All I want is to stay here with you and the babes."

She reached out, grasped hold of a handful of his loose curls. "We will join you there," she said. "When the time is right. Until then... Dragonstone kept Daenerys and Viserys safe for much longer than anywhere else could have. Mayhap it is for the best that I am forced to stay here, no matter how much I wish I could join you. In the meantime, spend time with the smallfolk. Visit the orphanages. Take care of those people, Jon. Whether we want it or not, something will happen, and when it does, I want the smallfolk to love you."

Jon nodded, did not think on those last few sentences of hers except to make a note to follow her advice. He resolved to ask his father to send Sansa to join her, at least for a while. The two of them got along well, far better than Jon himself ever had with his eldest sister-cousin, and much of Daenerys' time and energy would go to the dragon eggs now. Margaery could do with a companion, and their children with some more time spent with that gentle aunt of theirs.

***

With his wife pregnant, more allowances were made for Jon than he thought might have been there otherwise. King Robert was quick with a jovial punch to his shoulder, and useless advice about how childbirth was a woman's prerogative. Had it been left to only Robert, Jon thought, there would have been no understanding, just the advice to leave his Lady Wife in peace. Thankfully, there was Jon Arryn as well, who was quick to reassure Robert that since Jon had wed Margaery so young, they would cling more closely to one another than most Lords and Ladies within the realm. Jon did not claim to know what that meant, and had to swallow some indignity at the words, but he was grateful for the intervention that allowed him to return to Dragonstone for a few days every moon's turn.

He watched as Margaery's belly quickened with child once more, kissed the swell of it, and lower, in the dark of their chambers where no one would see. He leant his blood to Daenerys', reopening old wounds and splattering crimson drops over dragons' eggs the way he had learnt to years ago. He held Lyarra and played with Duncan, and every single time he had to return to King's Landing, it was all he could do to stop himself from bolting right back off the ship. Every time he saw his babes, they were larger and he had not been there to see them grow. It hurt in a way he could not even begin to describe.

And the babes were not the only ones growing. The dragons were far larger than horses by now. By night, they would roam Dragonstone and the surrounding oceans, seeking out prey and claiming it for their own, no matter how terrified he was that someday someone might see.

Sansa arrived soon enough, and it brought Jon a strange sort of peace to see one of his babes in her arms while the other was shielded within Margaery's. They could so very easily have been left on their own, but instead Ned Stark, Jon's Uncle-Father, had done nothing but assure them of his support, and Sansa was the living embodiment of that. Even if he never learnt how to get along with his sister-cousin, he would be forever grateful for what her presence meant.

"Why do you always look so sad?" Sansa asked once as he prepared to board the boat back to King's Landing. "You're going to the place where dreams are made. You should be happy."

Jon could not find it within himself to reply. Sansa was still so young, and she had always been a dreamer. He might have confided in Arya, had she been the one to ask - she might be younger, but she was far more cynical, far more aware of the world as it was. "I always miss the babes," he said in the end, and she accepted that easily. After all, Ned Stark had never strayed far from his trueborn children.

"They are beautiful babes. Stark and Dayne. Those are two of the oldest, most gloried Houses of Westeros," Sansa said, with so many dreams on her lips Jon wanted to shout at her, to scream at her to wake up and see the real world they lived in, the one where they all walked a knife's edge between mere fragile safety and mortal danger. He could not, though, would not take that sweet innocence away ahead of time. He only hoped he would be able to shield her if things went badly. "We will take good care of them, I promise you."

Jon looked upon her, looked, perhaps wrongfully, for the sister who had never failed to call him 'bastard' and 'half-brother', never failed to remind him of what he was. He was not sure what it meant that she no longer even tried. "Take care of them," he instructed at last. "Margaery underestimates the dangers of childbirth. The babes do not know the danger. Please."

She nodded. If nothing else, she was Northern enough to know what childbirth might lead to, even if her Lady Mother had always been lucky. "They are Starks, My Lord," she said then. "They will not fall as easily as all that. Starks endure."

Jon could not help but smile back at her, even as the ship took him away from the people who needed him most.

Chapter Text

299 AC

Ser Oswell Whent

Ser Oswell did his very best to keep his cool. It should have been much easier than this; he had spent years serving Mad King Aerys, had stood and watched, to his shame, as Aerys burnt people alive, as he took gentle Rhaella against her will, as he turned up his nose at his own granddaughter. Ser Oswell should be used to it all by now. But it had been a decade and a half. He had been away from all that, had been his own man and made his own fortune, even if he had done it all in the name of the boy he hoped could truly be a king. He was no longer content to follow the whims of madmen. And looking at the raging lunatic before him right now, all he could do was curse the fact that he was the king's uncle, that Oswell, after everything, was still sworn to do no harm to Jaehaerys' kin. Even so, his fist inched with the need to smack some sense into the boy. For two years now, Prince Viserys had been shuttled back and forth between himself and Gerold in the hopes that he could one day be sent to Dragonstone to join his sister and nephew and the rest of the family.

In front of Oswell, Viserys raged on, and Oswell shut his eyes tight for long moments, breathed in deep. He reminded himself of the word he had had from Arthur and Gerold. Daenerys, as they had hoped, was kind and gentle, with a fierce core of Valyrian steel. Jaehaerys was honourable and just, brave and strong and wise beyond his years, a proper king if ever there had been one. His children were strong and thriving, and a third one would be along in a few moons' turn. It was everything they had hoped for when Jaehaerys had first been born in the midst of the ashes of all that tragedy. Everything they had hoped for and more. Jaehaerys was a better man than even his father, with no trace of the Targaryen madness. He had an heir already, and dragons. For the first time in nearly two centuries, the true king had dragons at his disposal. All they had to do was wait for the day to finally arrive when it was time to take back the Iron Throne. And hope they had figured out what to do with the king's mad uncle before he could become a problem again.

"My Prince," Ser Oswell said at last, managing to push his voice out through gritted teeth. "We have explained this time and again, but it is time for you to listen. The only reason we have kept you alive in spite of all your talk of treason is the fact that you are a Prince of the Blood. But you are no king, nor will you ever be. The true King is of age, and his son and heir is thriving. You have no claim. You will never sit the Throne. Your nephew, when the time comes, will have at least four of the Seven Kingdoms behind him. And four dragons as well. Ser Gerold and I are already moving our men into place in the Crownlands, the Reach and Dorne. We will take over, and there will be a Targaryen on the Throne once more. But it will not be you. No one will declare for you, not even your own sister. Give up this hopeless quest for power and stand behind your nephew, and he will welcome you. By all accounts, he is a kind and gracious young man, to the point where he might be an idiot about you. But if you will not, you will be cast out and you will never lay your own eyes on your House's restoration."

Viserys had tried to talk over him several times, but for the last few sentences, he had been silent, staring at Oswell with those wide, mad eyes of his. His mouth contorted into something of a snarl. "My mother, the queen, crowned me," he spat, then. "Me. Not my brother's upstart bastard. I am the king, and they will take the Throne for me. It is mine." His eyes narrowed. "Do not wake the dragon, Ser Oswell."

Oswell sighed. Gods, what had he ever done to Arthur and Gerold to deserve getting stuck with this idiot? "Had your mother known a trueborn son of Rhaegar's lived, she would have been the first to support his claim," he said. "She was a grieving, desperate woman at the end, or she would never have put her crown on the head of a boy she knew to be as mad as her husband. Trust me," he added, before Viserys could go on another rant. "I knew the queen longer than you did. She was a smart woman. She would have been the first to tell you to step aside."

"My mother the queen crowned me king," Viserys screamed, and Oswell sighed and left the room, locking the door behind him rather than listen to the mad prince any longer. There were rooms in Dragonstone as well as the Red Keep, he knew, where the Targaryens of old had kept their less than stable relations in comfort and safety, where they were close at hand and could not be used against them, even as they were unable to make a move of their own while they lived out their lives in comfort. He hoped no one had redecorated so much that those chambers no longer existed. That, or that the Kingslayer might do the job for them once more. Viserys, who should have been an asset, should have been someone Jaehaerys could count on, lean on, was fit for nothing else.

Oswell could only hope and pray that the Targaryens had learnt their lesson and took action to prevent more of this madness from entering into their House again.

***


Lord Jon Arryn

Jon Arryn could still hardly believe what he was beginning to figure out, but as he viewed the fifth of Robert's bastards - the ones Varys had been able to track down anyway - he felt the cold shivers begin to run down his back. They all had the Baratheon look, the black hair and the piercing storm blue eyes. The Baratheon seed was strong indeed, stronger than that of any House he had encountered. The Targaryen blood had bent to different colourings many times throughout the generations - to the Baratheons, most notably, only a few generations back. The Starks' First Men blood, which Jon had always thought to be stronger than most, had still given way to the Tully colouring in Ned's children, with only Jon and Arya Stark still looking like Northerners. The fact that so many other Houses' ancestral looks had crumbled beneath outside influence might have persuaded him that this was just the natural way of things, that a House's looks changed over time. But that had not ever proven true with the Baratheons. No matter what blood came in from the outside, the Baratheons had always carried the look of Orys Baratheon, and unlike the Starks they had not been near pure First Men with the First Men look. Robert's bastards, with their mothers as diverse as they were, were strong evidence, even if the genealogies had not done it on their own. Black of hair, blue eyes. Black of hair, blue eyes. Black of hair, blue eyes. Black of hair, blue eyes. Again and again and again. It was starting to seem to Jon that one could not be a Baratheon and look otherwise. So how could Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen possibly be explained?

The thing was, Jon was fairly certain he knew already. He was less certain that he wanted to believe. What evidence did he have? Duncan Stark was already a perfect, existing example of a child born who looked nothing like what anyone would have expected. Jon Stark's mother's blood was thought to have been snuffed out by his own strong Northern heritage, and then a child emerged with the rarest of the Dayne colourings. Jon did not pretend to know for sure how it all worked. All he knew was that he could not ignore it. Perhaps Prince Joffrey's children would be born with black hair and blue eyes. Perhaps, had Prince Joffrey been good and just and intelligent, Jon would have let sleeping dogs lie. But Joffrey was a butcher clad in silks, with no conscience or sense of honour. Jon, quite frankly, wished he had noticed sooner. The signs had been there for all to see, but Jon had watched the boy grow up, and the disturbing signs had accumulated so slowly that Jon might have dismissed them altogether, had he not seen Robert's boy next to Ned's boy.

Jon Stark, for all that he feigned friendliness - probably for the sake of his own safety and that of his family - was disgusted by Joffrey Baratheon. It did not take much of a trained eye to see that. As clever as Jon Stark was, as much of an asset as he was on the Small Council, he was not very good at keeping his feelings hidden. However impassive and stern his face was, Jon Arryn had watched Ned Stark grow up, and those dark wildling eyes gave Jon Stark away. Jon was grateful Robert had allowed Willas Tyrell to take up the post of Master of Laws, however risky it was. While Lord Willas made good suggestions and decisions of his own, his primary role on the council had become, more or less, strengthening and supporting Jon Stark's policies and shielding him from outside attacks. Together - and often with the support of Ser Barristan and even Varys - they created a sensible power block that worked for the betterment of the realm rather than any overt personal advantage. Jon Stark had needed the support, but he had always had the ideas, and their combined presence on the Small Council made Jon grateful he had not fought harder against Robert's ideas all those years ago. The Reach was back in the fold, guided by Ned's very own pup, and it all worked to strengthen the realm.

Still, he was getting away from his own trail of thought, and as much as he appreciated Ned's son, he could not allow that gratitude and the relief of his presence to distract him now. Jon Stark had his father's heart and honour. He was a good man, a better man than Jon had met in King's Landing for years. So what did it say when the best man Jon had met here for years turned away from the King's heir in weakly concealed disgust? No, Jon might have been able to ignore his findings, had Joffrey Baratheon been more like Jon Stark. But as it was, Robert needed to be told the truth so he could cast aside his false, poisonous heir and father a better one. It was all the more important now that Robert was the last trueborn Baratheon alive. Jon had to make sure he knew, that he cast Cersei and her children aside. But first, he needed to gather evidence hard enough that even Robert's pride could not overcome it. For a moment, he considered bringing Jon Stark in on the investigation - Robert would surely believe the word of Ned's son - but he discarded the idea almost as quickly as it had occurred to him. What Jon was doing was dangerous, and until Jon Stark learned how to mask his own emotions behind more than just that passive Northern face of his, Jon could not put him in a situation that would be dangerous. He could not find it within himself to do that to any of Ned's children, let alone the boy named for him, the one Jon had always believed to be Ned's firstborn.

***


Lord Eddard Stark

"That is the only time you can be brave," Ned was telling Bran who, at eight namedays, still might not quite understand all the details of why Ned had had no choice but to execute the deserter. Let alone why Robb and Arya - who had followed them unnoticed for long enough that Ned had not been able to send her back - had argued about the manner of the way the former man of the Night's Watch had received his death.

Bran held his eyes for long moments, seeming to drink his expression at least as much as his words. Then he nodded. "Jon wrote that you told him the same thing," he said. "He had to behead a raper for House Crabb, did he not? He would have sent him to the Watch, except the rapist killed the woman he dishonoured."

Ned winced. He wished Jon did not have to deal with things like that, that he did not have to carry out executions of his own, let alone at an age when Ned had still been no more than a ward at the Eyrie. But Jon had been a Lord of his own Keep and a man grown for close to a year now, and the Lords of Crackclaw Point, according to the letters first from Benjen and then from Jon himself, did not answer to any Lord who did not carry out his own justice. Even for the Targaryens of old, they had only bent to the New Ways on the pain of dragons. Jon had those, but could not expose himself thusly even to subjects who might have guessed at least half of his true name, and so had to rely on First Man to First Man justice. As much as Ned ached for his son, he could not help but feel proud of him in the same breath. "You should not be reading Jon's letters to Robb," he told his middle son after several long beats. "Your brother takes no more pleasure in the act than I do, but half his subjects expect the Old Way, and Jon has the blood of the First Men running through his veins, just as you do."

Bran flushed at the knowledge that he had been found out. "I know he writes letters for all of us," he said. "But they are so vague. They are all about Lady Margaery and the babes." His eyes darted to Ned's for a moment. "I enjoy hearing about them, I promise," he added. "They are my niece and nephew, and I would love to meet them. But he only writes to you and Robb and Arya about the important things."

Ned swallowed, and he could not help but wish that Jon could have stayed home a few years longer. He wished Bran could have had the chance to know Jon, might have known the kind and honourable man, rather than just the lordly older brother to look up to. He wished Rickon had any memory of Jon at all. But he could not change the past, could not bring Jon home now. And he would not, even if he had had the chance. Jon, without being confined to Winterfell and the whispers and murmurs that had surrounded his early years, had become more than Ned could have ever imagined, and Ned would not wish to stunt his growth any further, even to keep him safe or to let his youngest brothers know him better. "I could send you to visit with him for a while, if you wish," he said at last. "Jon could teach you things about the Seven Kingdoms at large that I cannot, and if you prove yourself, Ser Arthur might take you on as a squire. I know he misses you, and that he wishes to know you, but Jon has fewer hours in the day than he wishes, I believe."

Bran, at least, smiled at that. "I would like that, some day," he said at last, eyes shining at the promise that he might be able to earn himself a knighthood, at the promise of getting to know the South and the brother he idolised. Still, if Ned let Bran go, he would have to let Arya leave as well. Sansa had already gone. What would he and Catelyn do if only Robb and Rickon were left to them? He choked back a laugh, then. Catelyn would want another babe, never mind that Ned was a grandfather twice over with a third on the way. She would demand it and never let it go, at least if he insisted on sending their children South.

"I will see what I can do," Ned promised. "Your mother may want to keep you close for a few years yet, and Ser Arthur is still busy training up his Dayne nephew."

"Maybe I could be Jon's squire," Bran suggested, eyes shining.

Ned could not help but laugh. "Jon is no knight," he said. "Nor will he ever be one. He has not wished for it for many years. Jon worships the Old Gods alone, not like you who worship the Old and the New alike. You could be his squire, but he could never knight you."

Bran shrugged. "I can be Jon's squire, and Ser Arthur can knight me once I prove myself," he said.

Before Ned could answer, he heard a cry from up ahead. "Come on, lad," he said. "Let us see what has all their hearts pounding now."

Bran grinned, and followed right behind as Ned pushed his heels into the flanks of his horse.

Ned's own heart damned near stopped when he took in the sight of the direwolf in front of him. He slid off his horse, barely keeping on his feet, and drank in the view of the great beast. She was exhausted, that much was clear, and very close to death. As if from far away, he heard the speculations of his and his children's companions. Something seemed to hold him immobile as he heard Arya and Robb explain everything they knew about direwolves, watched as they held the pups close to them. All along, most of Ned's attention was on the mother wolf. Dread set into him as he watched the way her flanks puffed out and deflated, far too fast and desperate, as though the birthing of her pups weighed on her so much that going on was nearly too much to ask. He breathed in the fetid stench of infection. That sounded fantastical to his own ears, but then so were direwolves south of the Wall. He was only half aware of what he was doing when he gave Theon and Ser Rodrik permission to kill the beasts.

"Father," Arya said, stepping up in front of him with those fierce wolf eyes of hers. She was so like Lyanna, painfully so, more even than Jon, whose wolf and dragon blood seemed to have balanced one another out and tamed both beasts within him. It hurt, and it made him shudder in fear sometimes, when he wondered at just how much of his sister was in his daughter, even if her colouring was subtly different and she was shorter of stature. "There are six pups. Five grey, like the banner of Winterfell, and one white, like the banner of Dragonstone." Ned had not even noticed the white one, but he saw it now, where its mother held it close by the scruff of its neck, nearly camouflaged by the snow around them. Its deep red eyes had opened, where those of its brothers and sisters had not, and while it was not the largest of the litter, it somehow seemed the most developed, the most independent and ready to live by itself. "One for each of your children," Arya added.

"We were meant to have these wolves, Father," Robb interjected, holding the grey one in his own arms close. Ned could already tell how unwilling his eldest son would be to part from the beast. He reached out, picked up the white pup as well. "Jon needs this," he said. "He is in King's Landing most of the time. Let us help him remember he is a Stark and a wolf, that he is part of a pack."

That, more than anything else, was what wore Ned down. He gave a sharp nod. "Fashion a sled for the she-wolf," he instructed the men-at-arms. He looked up at Robb. "You will train them yourselves, care for them yourselves, and if they die, you will bury them yourselves. You and Arya will be in charge of Jon and Sansa's wolves until they can be given to them."

Robb gave a solemn nod that reminded Ned all too much of the way he himself had accepted responsibility for his nephew all those years ago. "Yes, Father," he said.

***


Lord Jon Arryn

Jon Arryn sucked in a harsh breath that rattled through his whole body. Was it his imagination, or did it seem even harder to get this one in than the one before? He was not at all certain how he had suddenly become so ill. He was well up there in his years, he knew, but he had rarely ever been sick in his life. Now, suddenly, it had hit him, and so hard it had struck him down within the span of a few days.

He wished he had had the time to find the true evidence, the hard kind that could not be disputed. He wished he had had a chance to even tell his suspicions to Robert, but Robert was not here. Robert was off hunting. Again. And Jon, to his chagrin, was not certain he would live long enough to see him return.

It was a difficult thing to be faced with, the knowledge of his own mortality. Jon would not have thought he would have died with any regrets. He had lived a long life, full of joy and tragedy alike. He had done everything he could to leave the Seven Kingdoms a better place than he had been born into. Now, at the very end of things, he feared he had failed. Robert was a good man, a great warrior, but he had no interest in managing the realm. And he had no true heir to follow him. None. Now, when Jon should have been pleased with his legacy, he could not help but fear what he might be leaving behind. He would have seen Ned and Robert reunited, so he could at least have been certain Robert would have one loyal Lord Paramount behind him. So that Robert might finally know some kind of happiness once more. He was--- He should have pushed it more. He would not have had these regrets then.

He wished he could say he regretted nothing. It would have been a lie. He even regretted how he had let his Lady Wife raise his own heir.

His breath hitched again, and for a moment he feared his lungs had stopped working entirely. The fever wracked through him, made him cry out with pain even as he pulled blankets and furs all around him, trying in vain to keep warm even when he knew the temperature was just fine. "Jon Stark," he told one of his attendants. He was not certain what he wanted to tell Ned's boy. He was not sure what he was thinking at all. He knew nothing, anymore, with the fever tearing through his mind and body.

Jon blinked out of consciousness. When he opened his eyes once more, Jon Stark was looking down at him with those near-black Northern Mountain Clans eyes he shared with his uncles and aunt but never with Ned himself. "You wanted to see me, My Lord Hand," Jon Stark said, his solemn voice startlingly deep to Jon's ears, just as Ned's had when his voice had appeared to deepen and mature between one day and the next. Jon blinked up at the boy - no, man now, was he not? He tried to form words, attempted to explain everything, but nothing left his lips. "The seed is strong," he said at last. "The seed is strong." Then, without his permission, his eyes were closing.

As if from far away, he heard Jon Stark shouting for a maester. None appeared in time, and all Jon could do was hope that in death he might find the peace that had eluded him in life.

Chapter Text

Part of Jon wished so badly it nearly hurt that he could go North with the King and see Winterfell once more. However, the greater part of him was grateful he was left behind along with the rest of the Small Council. Margaery was scheduled to give birth within a moon's turn, and the last thing Jon wanted was to be somewhere along the King's Road when that happened. Instead, he installed Aurane Waters as his proxy in King's Landing and returned to Dragonstone to be home until after his third child had been born. He knew people laughed at him for his decision, that there were still whispers about how marrying too young had shackled him and his Lady Wife together in unhealthy ways, but Jon did not care. All he knew was that he needed to be there when his babe was born. He could not understand why that seemed so unreasonable to others. Did they not care for their wives and children? In the end, he gave up his ponderings and was simply grateful that no one truly contested his choice to leave King's Landing behind in these tumultuous times.

Margaery was waiting on the docks when his ship landed, belly swollen with their newest babe while their son toddled at her side and their daughter stayed propped on her hip. Jon's chest clenched at the sight of them. He had to blink a few times to get out the sting. He wondered, for a moment, if everyone was right and he was somewhat too emotional about his family. Then he shook off the doubts. Better too warm than too cold. He got off the ship as soon as the gangplank lowered, and when Duncan came running, Jon swept him off the ground and held him close, warmed through at the sensation of that small, strong body in his arms. He took a moment just to soak in that feeling before taking the final few steps to press a kiss to Margaery's lips and then to Lyarra's dark curls.

"'The seed is strong,' he told me," Jon said hours later as he pulled off his doublet, preparing for bed. "Lord Arryn, I mean." He glanced over his shoulder at Margaery, who was brushing out her hair, her eyes meeting his through the looking glass. "Just before he died." He took a breath, reached up to push a stubborn curl out of his face. "Do you think he knew?"

She stayed reassuringly calm as her slender shoulders rose and fell in a delicate shrug. Her night shift stretched to accommodate her belly, and despite the seriousness of the discussion, Jon felt the long-familiar urge to run his hands over all the stretched skin, feel their babe move within her. "Mayhap he did," she said. "If he did, he cannot have told anyone else, or we would have known by now. So it matters not." She put down the brush, and Jon made his way across the floor to help her back to her feet. "Regardless, I do not think it will be long now before everything changes. Daenerys says the dragons are growing so large they are difficult to control, and the smallfolk speak of monsters flying over the seas at night. Soon, we will not have a choice."

War, or certain death for all of them. Jon, as much as he hated the thought of war, knew chances were she was right and there would be no choice for them. He certainly would not stand aside as his babes were slaughtered the way his brother and sister had been. Silently, he helped her lower herself into bed before he finished changing into his own night clothes and followed her, pulling up the covers and wrapping her in his arms. He splayed his hand over her stomach, let out a small sigh as she relaxed into him.

"How long are you here for?" she asked, her face so close to his on the pillows that he could barely make out her features, only the individual details: her pointed nose and full, crooked mouth, her sharp eyes and the soft golden-brown waves framing her face.

"It should be at least three moons, unless I am called back for some emergency or other," he said. "The king plans to stay a moon's turn or more at Winterfell."

She gave a slow nod, reaching down and entwining her fingers with his. "When you return I will come with you," she said.

"But the babe--"

Margaery reached up with her free hand and pressed her finger to his lips, soundlessly shushing him. "I will bring the babe," she said. "Duncan and Lyarra can stay here with Daenerys and Sansa. They will watch over them for us. It will be easy enough to put the babe on a ship back here if things go wrong in King's Landing. But I cannot shake the feeling that everything is going to change, and you are going to need me there with you. I know you already have Willas, and Loras, and Ser Arthur, and I know you are far from incapable. But none of you learned statecraft at my Lady Grandmother's knee, not even my brothers. And women play their own games besides. You will need me there with you."

Jon fought down the temptation to make another objection, and simply nodded. He had wanted her there with him since the start, after all. Besides, she was as clever as any man he knew, and he was never going to object to the idea that there were some things she was much better at than he. Aside from all that, he did not want to ever be the kind of man who ordered his Lady Wife to bow to his will. If she thought this was for the best, he would trust her, and then get her and the babe on the first ship back to Dragonstone if the situation were to become dangerous.

Her hand moved away from his lips and stroked along his cheek. "You need to shave," she said. "If you insist on a beard, at least wait until it is thick enough to grow out." She only grinned in response to his huff. "Did you make sure to make time for the smallfolk like I asked?" she asked then. Jon was glad to let himself be diverted into discussions about the absolutely horrible conditions most of the inhabitant of King's Landing suffered, the ways much of it could be improved and how frustrating it was that no one had ever done it.

***

It ended up taking the better part of four moons' turns before they received the letter saying the king's retinue had returned to the Crownlands, joined by a Northern party. Jon had only been recalled to King's Landing twice in all that time, and only for a few days at a time. Now he looked forward to seeing his father again, so much that the anticipation swooped through him at the thought. And he could not help the amusement he felt when imagining all the contortions King Robert must have gone through to convince Jon's father into his service in the first place.

Maybe he should have felt betrayed that his father had accepted the position as Hand of the King - Daenerys certainly seemed to think so. But Jon could sympathise with the position he was in. Like Jon himself, he had sworn an oath, and while Jon was sure Eddard Stark would rise up if he needed to, in the meantime all any of them could do was what was best for the realm. With a king who mostly refused to rule, Jon's father had not had much of a choice if he had not wanted to see the realm fall apart, or some self-serving prat like Petyr Baelish wrecking everything for his own advantage. Jon knew - had his own life as evidence - that the secrets that must be kept, his father would keep, regardless of his service as Hand. And Jon doubted his father desired to rise up against King Robert any more than he did. Unless, again, it became necessary. Joffrey was a different story. Once Ned Stark made his acquaintance, Jon doubted he would ever let the little monster near the Throne. Jon certainly would not, even if it had to mean taking it himself.

Still, for all that he longed to see his father again, along with any of Jon's siblings he might be bringing with him, he was no happier to be leaving Dragonstone than any of the other times he had had to step onto that ship and wave his home goodbye. Margaery, from what Jon could tell, was even less enthused. Her eyes had been too wet and her face too tight back in the castle itself when she hugged their two eldest goodbye before passing them off to Sansa and their nurses. Even now, as they watched the island grow smaller in the distance, her hand held his too tightly and her shoulders shook ever so slightly.

Jon's own throat felt too tight. He did not like this. Not just leaving Duncan and Lyarra behind, away from their mother for the first time in their short lives. He could not help but worry about Daenerys. For four moons' turn, he had been able to lend his blood to hers when it came to feeding the eggs, along with and his strength and authority when it came to controlling the hatchlings. While not yet quite large enough to ride, were certainly not small anymore. They did listen to him better, even though she spoke Old Valyrian, and all he did was think at them. He had instructed Ser Gerold to keep an eye on her, but still... Gods, he wished they could just have stayed and let the world go on around them. He took a deep breath and steeled himself. He knew his duty better than that. To get a better hold of himself, he glanced down at the babe resting in the crook of his arm. Aemon, at three moons old, had the Tyrell face, even down to a slight crookedness to his wide infant smiles, but with the pale complexion of the North, a headful of downy black curls and wide indigo eyes. Jon loved the fact that Margaery's features were clear in their youngest’ s face, when she was near impossible to find in Duncan and Lyarra.

The babe scrunched up his little face and started smacking his lips, and Jon could not help but let out a small laugh, feeling suddenly lighter. "I think he is hungry," he said, handing him over to Margaery, who seemed to calm and straighten bit by bit with the weight of their second son in her arms.

They arrived in King's Landing a few days ahead of the Royal party, with enough time for Aurane Waters to catch Jon up on affairs - Willas, he guessed, was probably doing the same for Margaery - before returning to his duties on Dragonstone. The whole of the Red Keep was abustle with preparations for the return of the Royal family and the tasks involved in getting the Tower of the Hand ready for a new Hand of the King.

"You were right," Margaery said on their third day in Maegor's Holdfast on their way back from the Red Keep's small sept, where she had insisted he accompany her. Jon knew better than to think there was not some kind of political reasoning behind the outing, but he was not inclined to turn her down when she asked for time he could actually give to her. Besides, the Godswood of King's Landing never managed anything other than to make him fight back tears at his longing for home. It lacked even a faceless weirwood tree. "King's Landing stinks."

Jon just barely bit back a laugh at that. "I am not sure whether there is a sewer system that simply does not work, or whether no one ever built one in the first place."

She shrugged. "That would help some," she said. "So many people pressed into such a small space will always smell, though. Better to build a new set of walls so the city could actually expand."

Jon grimaced. "Sounds expensive," he said.

She gave another shrug. "I am having food sent in from the Reach," she informed him then. "I will be going out to distribute it soon. I will be bringing Loras with me, if you can spare him."

Jon nodded, but could not quite help a wince. "You should bring Arthur as well," he said. "Fleabottom is not a safe place."

She shook her head. "Keep Arthur near at all times," she told him. "At least until we understand what the situation here is going to be."

Jon would have objected, pointed out that he had a sword and knew how to use it, even if Blackfyre had to be left on Dragonstone out of caution, but he knew it would do him no good, so kept his mouth shut.

"I will bring some of Willas' Reach knights," she promised. "And I will leave Aemon here. You need to worry less."

Jon was about to remind her of her own tendency to worry, but a page came running towards them, panting and inadvertently interrupting the conversation. "The King is returning," the boy managed. Jon gave a quick nod and looked at Margaery, who nodded before he even had a chance to say anything, and then they were both rushing back towards Maegor's Holdfast.

***

It was not until much later that evening that Jon got the chance to properly greet his father and little sister in the Tower of the Hand. Margaery and Aemon came with him, and Loras as well, even though he had to station himself inside the doors rather than outside them, so as to not call unwanted attention to himself. Jon, honestly, preferred it that way. Loras might be in the Kingsguard now, as foreign a concept as that still seemed, but he was also family, one of the first people to have held each of Jon's children, his goodbrother and his best friend to boot. Still, he stood silent and sombre and watched as Jon's father took Aemon out of Margaery's arms and cooed at the babe, seeming completely absorbed for a moment. Arya only cared to pay attention to the infant for a moment before she was pestering Loras about his sword and fighting and where Ser Arthur, who she had always idolised, was hiding.

"Aemon," Jon's father said. "Is that wise?"

Arya, with her perfect selective hearing, looked up with a grin at that. "Aemon the Dragonknight was good and honourable and the best knight ever," she declared. "And Robb says Jon always wanted to be him when they played in Winterfell."

Jon could not help the twinge of tenderness in his chest as he looked at his sister-cousin. Gods, she was getting big. "I guess I just have to make sure to bring her when I present him to the king," he told his Lord Father with a grin. He doubted Arya knew the truth. Somehow, though, he had to believe his dearest sister would defend him either way, and the thought of that was more precious to him than most things in the world.

Ned Stark actually gave a small smile at that before his face fell into seriousness again. And then he was telling them about Bran and his fall, and Jon felt something inside himself break at the telling. He had never got the chance to know his middle brother half as well as he had wished to, but he knew Bran had wanted to grow up to be a knight, that he had wanted to fight and be honourable and protect those who could not protect themselves. The world needed more men like he would have been, and now Bran was broken and caged in back at Winterfell. Alive, yes, but with his legs, his mobility, all his dreams lost to him. As if from far away, he felt Margaery grip his hand and squeeze it tight before she looked at Jon's father. "I will speak with Willas," she said. "Ask him to write a letter to your boy. It might do little Bran some good. I know he has lost more than Willas, but my brother had to give up much as well, and had to learn how to enjoy the things he could still do."

Jon's father gave her a grateful smile, and held the babe in his arms more tightly for a moment. "Thank you, my Lady," he said. "I think you might be right." He looked like he might have wanted to say more, but strange noises in the chambers above them, higher in the Tower, interrupted him.

Arya lit up. "I completely forgot," she said, and then she was off in the space of a breath. Barely a moment later, she returned. This time, what Jon thought at first were three dogs followed at her heels. It took a moment before he realised those were wolves. Their limbs were slender and gangly, pup-like, but they were the size of the smaller grown hounds Jon remembered from Winterfell's kennels. Direwolves, he realised suddenly. As impossible as it sounded, as fantastical and utterly unrealistic, he was near certain his instincts were not leading him astray. Then one of them, a pure white male with eyes shining red as embers, bounded towards him, and Jon felt something snap into place within himself that he had not even realised had been in disarray.

Arya was speaking, but Jon did not hear. All he could seem to focus on was the pup in front of him, the way it silently smelled his hands and clothes, darting away to have a whiff of Margaery and Aemon before returning to Jon, tongue out and eager. It almost hurt, this realisation. For what felt like years now, everyone who properly knew him had been pushing him to be a dragon. And while some of the most honourable men Jon had ever known of had been Targaryens, some of the worst had been too. The way this wolf looked at him, the way it rested its muzzle on his knees, the way its gaze said mine, it balanced him, when he had never even realised he had been out of balance. He may be a dragon, and that side of him and his lineage may be what everyone would one day need to see. But he was a wolf too, and he would hold that part of his roots close to his heart, even if it one day came to be that no one would call him Stark anymore outside his own head and the tongues of his closest family. Without thinking, feeling suddenly much younger than his years, Jon leaned down and wrapped his arms around the albino wolf's neck. Different from the others, he noted absently. And yet very much the same.

***

Jon, for all that he held his breath, was somehow not surprised at all when Arya, direwolf at her feet, repeated the exact same sentiments she had shared with their father about Aemon's name, completely undaunted by the fact that it was the king in front of her now. She lauded Aemon the Dragonknight's qualities and Jon's childish fascination with his legend, and King Robert just wound up laughing for what felt like half an eternity as he cradled Jon's confused-looking babe in his arms. Even as fear wound its way through Jon's body and it was all he could do to keep himself from shaking with it, all he could do was nod his head when King Robert agreed that Aemon Targaryen had indeed been brave and loyal, and that any King or Lord could admire a knight honourable enough to give his life for that of his liege.

Still, Jon could not help but feel oddly dirty afterwards. He had abused his little sister and her faith in him, and just thinking of it made him so disgusted with himself his stomach threatened to turn. What would she even think when she finally learnt what he really was, what he kept hidden in the catacombs and lava tunnels of Dragonstone? She would remain loyal, that much he did not doubt. But she would hate him. How could she not? Jon's mere existence, everything that had led to it, had caused a war. His parents had caused the deaths of his and Arya's shared uncle and grandfather. And by the Old Gods, how could he possibly hope to have this much of her respect and loyalty if the truth ever came to light?

"She loves you," Margaery said when they were back in their chambers, all but reading his mind in the way she always seemed to. "You're her big brother, regardless of blood. She will always love and support you." Her long fingers carded through his hair. "Do not fret, Jon. Of all people, I know the regard a sister has for her older brothers. You are her hero. You are who she wants to be, and who she always wants there to rescue her, should she need it. Nothing will make her love you less."

Jon had his own doubts about that. The bond between Arya and himself was different from what they had with the rest of their siblings, even though they had had so few years together. They were mirrors to one another. Alike in appearance - the only two of them who truly looked like Starks, even if their features and the details of their colourings differed - and somehow always opposites and parallels, all at once, in personality. Jon thought, sometimes, that maybe he had more of the wolfsblood than he had ever been allowed to express, that had he been a second trueborn son from the start, he might have been wilder than even his wild little sister. Arya had freedoms he had never been afforded, and vice versa. They were the same and opposites all at once, mirrors to show what each of them could have been, in different circumstances. He could not truly explain the bond to anyone who was not part of it; it had existed ever since he first saw her dark hair and grey eyes, and she had grabbed his still small hand and gummed at his finger all those years ago. Still, somehow, in that uncanny way of hers, Margaery seemed to understand, even without him providing any words.

"I promise," she said. "That girl is as much your sister as Loras is my brother. Nothing could ever change her regard for you."

Jon, for all the trouble and conflict he foresaw in their future, decided at least for that one moment, to believe her. He would always be caught between two Houses, he suspected. He could only do his best to honour both, emulate what was best of both, and hope neither would hate him in the end.

Chapter Text

300 AC

Queen Cersei Lannister

Cersei had never liked Jon Sand. For the longest time, that had been all hypothetical, of course. For the first few years of the boy's life, she had only been very vaguely aware he even existed. But then Robert had legitimised him with a stroke of Jon Arryn's pen and given him one of the most important seats in the Crownlands. And that-- as much as Cersei hated to admit it, that struck fear in her. Robert seemed to have thought nothing of legitimising Eddard Stark's bastard, and Cersei knew all too well that Robert had plenty of bastards of his own.

What would happen if he got one of his strange political ideas about one of them, or simply decided he liked one of them and wanted to pass on his name to them?

Her husband the King set a dangerous precedent with Jon Sand, one that made her fear for her own children's position. Oh, she doubted Robert would truly be stupid enough to pull even a legitimised bastard of his own into the line of succession - he owed her father too much. But with the name Baratheon and a minor lordship in their grasp, any of his male bastards was in a much better position to grasp for power.

The Blackfyre Rebellions should have taught Robert better, have taught the realm better. It should not be possible for any bastard to ever become more than a bastard. And so she hated the boy, even if it had only been in the abstract. She refused to be there for his wedding, refused to witness the tourney Robert threw for Sand's whelp's nameday. She had no wish to look upon him, or to dignify his empty legitimization with her presence.

Then he came to court.

Cersei had always been taught that Northmen were little better than savages, no matter their birth. They scorned chivalry and knighthoods, spoke to trees, disdained the septas and septons of the Faith and were little more than wild beasts on the battlefield. She had never spent enough time with any Northman to believe differently. She knew Robert held Eddard Stark in high regard, but then Robert was little more than a savage himself. But Jon Sand was no savage. He was courteous and polite, even as he held himself apart, and he and his goodbrother, or so Littlefinger said, were voices of reason in a Small Council that had been running amok for years, much to their shared annoyance. Jon Stark and Willas Tyrell, apparently, were utterly incorruptible. Even her dear, sweet Joffrey seemed to hold the boy in some regard, if only for the fact that he was close to his age and already rumoured to be one of the best swordsmen the Seven Kingdoms had ever seen.

Jon Sand, while he did and said nothing overt to make it clear, did not return her son's regard, and that was her first truly personal grievance against him. Stack that on top of everything else she had ever felt about the boy, and she felt more than justified in loathing him. Who was he, a mere legitimised bastard, to hold such scorn for the crowned prince? Who was he to despise a lion? She tried bring it up with Robert, who just laughed and said that if Joffrey would shape up and prove himself to be half the man Jon 'Stark' had been at his age, the respect she felt he deserved would follow. She brought it up with Jaime, who gave her an uncharacteristically sullen look and reminded her that the boy had been brought up, by and large, by Ser Arthur Dayne, and that really, it was Dayne's scorn for Jaime that Jon Sand was taking out, however silently, on Joffrey.

At least Dayne's presence in his life explained why Jon Sand, for all his mad, tree worshipping ways, was not a complete savage.

For the time, however much she despised it, she had come to terms with the fact that Robert could not be moved, not on the boy's legitimacy - and the Tyrells would doubtless take up arms if he found himself with the name Sand once more - and not on his position on the Small Council. Even when Cersei had pointed out that the boy was weak, and would barely let a moon's turn pass before he fled back to Dragonstone to hide in his wife's skirts, all Robert had done was laugh. He laughed far too much when Jon Sand was brought up - and repeat the lines everyone else spoke: that it was natural for them to be so attached, given how young they wed, and that it was damn near sweet to see a young Lord so in love with his Lady Wife.

What vexed her the most, however, was the fact that she did not understand the boy. He did not have any ambitions that she could piece together - aside from regularly returning to his wife's skirts. He was on the Small Council from the day he came of age. He was Lord of a large portion of the Crownlands, and he was tied by blood or marriage to five of the Seven Kingdoms. He was clever enough on his own, and he had his banners' apparent absolute loyalty, as well as two older good-brothers constantly flanking him as though he were something precious, and not a glorified bastard while they were sons of a House Paramount. He was even pretty, aggravatingly so. All that power at the tips of his fingers, and he seemed not to care to wield it much at all. He was not playing the Game of Thrones, at least not in any way she recognised. For that, she might on bad days admit, he scared her more than a little. Honourable men were predictable, her Lord Father had often told her, but she found it was the opposite. Men without honour were easy to predict. Men with it... they were the most unpredictable of them all, and she hated not knowing what a man was like to do, yet knowing that what was between her legs held no sway.

Her Joffrey wished for the boy's friendship. Tommen idolised him. Myrcella - whose existence he seemed mostly oblivious to - sighed after him the same way Cersei had once sighed after the silver prince. Cersei was not sure what angered her the most: the fact that he inspired her little girl's fancies, or the fact that he was largely unaware.

Jon Sand confused her, and Cersei hated that more than anything. She hated the fact that she would see him out of the corner of her eye sometimes, and swear he was familiar for more than just his dark Northern looks. She could not place him, and the uncertainty, again, made her want to claw out those pretty, dark eyes of his.

In that too long, wretched stay of theirs in the North, Cersei had seen how Eddard Stark treated his Lady Wife, the warmth and affection, the soft smiles he gave her, and the way his eyes never strayed. She had hated them both, and Robert, in equal measure. And Elia Martell, for wedding the prince that should have been Cersei's king, and Lyanna Stark for catching the silver prince's eye when Cersei could not, and even Rhaegar himself, for daring to run off with someone who was not her. She could not help the perverse pleasure she felt when Jaime pushed the wolf boy out that tower window, at seeing him broken on that too large bed. It was sweet, she had to admit, to see one of those perfect children from that perfect, loving family brought low.

She had returned to the Red Keep, only to catch glimpse after glimpse of Jon Sand with his Lady Wife - a woman whose birth made her far more suited to one of Cersei's own sons than to being wasted on a jumped up bastard. And it had been like she had never left the perfection of Winterfell behind. He was gentle and affectionate, his entire focus diverted by Margaery Stark and their babe, laughing and speaking with her, treating her as an equal and showering their babe with such affection it was utterly strange to look upon.

In nature, Cersei knew, wolves made better mates than stags. Better mates, even, than lions. She hated both Eddard and Jon for making her wonder if she should regret hiding away the letter, long ago, that had proposed marriage between herself and a Stark of Winterfell. Her father probably would have turned it down either way, but perhaps she would have been better served... She ended that thought right there. She would not have been. She would not have had her children, would not have had her crown, and she could never regret that.

But more than anything, she hated Jon Sand for showing her that Eddard Stark was not a singularity, not some freak of nature. That two men could be so different, yet so alike in the ways that mattered to the women in their lives, and it could be utterly natural. And yet, for all that they existed, she had never got to experience a love like that, warm and gentle, and nor would her poor, darling daughter.

***


Lord Eddard Stark

"'The seed is strong'," Jon said. "Those were his last words. I swear it. I have no idea why he chose me to share them with, but that is what he said as he breathed his last." He sucked in a sharp breath, and the sight of his wary eyes rested heavy on Ned's heart. Gods, who was this grown man in front of him, and why did he seem so much older than Robb? Then again, this was what they had doomed him to, was it not? He and Robert and Jon Arryn, together they had sealed Jon's fate and decreed that he would grow up long before his time. When Ned was Jon's age, he was still a lad in the Vale, and meanwhile Jon was grown and serious and far wiser than Ned could have ever imagined, in his own solemn, quiet way. He had a wife of several years and three babes to his name. This, he reminded himself, was no child in front of him. No longer his small, frail nephew-son, Jon was a man in his own right, strong and gentle and just, even as his eyes flashed briefly with fear. "Do you think he guessed?" Jon asked, pulling Ned sharply out of his contemplations.

Ned shook his head. "He did not," he said. "If he did, we would both be sitting in the Black Cells right now, at the very best." He let out a breath, let his own relief at the fact that Jon was here, free, and not captured and named dragonspawn, wash over him. He had been nervous ever since he had first realised Robert and Jon Arryn were serious about putting Jon on the Small Council, convinced nothing good could come of placing Jon in King's Landing, that it would be only a matter of time until everything, somehow, came to light for everyone to see. He was beyond grateful it had not, that war had not struck them all down just yet.

Jon nodded. "That is more or less what Margaery said," he said.

Ned could not help but chuckle at that. "She is a clever one, is she not? Be sure to keep her council; women have a way of understanding things we never even consider. Be grateful you were blessed with a good one. I know I am every day."

Jon suppressed a flinch, the way he seemed to do every time Cat was mentioned. Somewhere in the back of his head, Ned might have hoped that Jon would soften towards Catelyn once he learnt the truth of his own identity, but it seemed to have changed nothing, nor had all the years that had passed since last the two had to share the same roof. Then again, perhaps it had always been Cat who had needed to soften towards Jon, not the other way around. Jon... he had always been such a sweet lad. Ned, for all that it hurt to think on it, knew very well that if Cat had given Jon a single kind word, Jon would have loved her to the end of his days. But with Ned's lie in effect, Cat had not been able to see past her own pride, and rather than take her anger out on Ned, she had chosen Jon as her victim. At this point, not much could remedy it all. As much as Ned hated it, he had no choice but to acknowledge that while Jon was not the kind of man to hold a grudge, he would always bear the wounds of Catelyn's tongue and actions, bastard or no. "As you say, Father," Jon said, voice subdued now, confirming Ned's thoughts even when he might have preferred to have been contradicted.

Ned sighed, reached out and squeezed the lad's shoulder. "I am sorry, Jon," he said. "I have a lot of my mind. For all that you and Lord Willas have been trying to mend things, the Crown is deep in debt, and still Robert insists on throwing a tourney of all things, at the price of nearly a hundred thousand gold dragons. The Kingdoms are a mess, and Jon Arryn's death is more than suspect. The Lannisters..."

Jon gave a sharp nod. "I understand," he said. He paused for a moment. Then, "I am glad to see you again, Father."

Ned smiled, reached out and ruffled Jon's curls the way he had when the lad had been nothing more than a small, skinny child, and not this wise, kind man, as tall and at least as strong as Ned himself. "Likewise, Jon. Do not ever doubt it."

***

Why, by all the Gods in Westeros, would Jon Arryn have spent his last hours reading through a genealogy? The question stumped him, even as the knowledge, though weeks old by now, of Bran's awakening, and the deadening of his legs, made Ned rejoice and despair all at once. Gods, his poor, brave son who had wanted so badly to be a knight. Ned did not want to even imagine how much it must all be crushing his little boy.

Catelyn's brief presence and departure weighed on him as well. It pained him as he loved her so, missed her so much. For all her faults, she was a good woman, and mother of all the children of his loins. The Valyrian steel dagger and its mysterious owner made him wary, as did the mystery of Ser Hugh and his sudden fortune.

Despite his better judgement, despite his wish to keep his boy out of all this, Ned knew, by now, that Jon had more experience and more of a talent for navigating King's Landing and its politics, probably, than he ever would. And so he included the lad. The pack survives, he reminded himself, and prayed to all the Gods that Lyanna would not spurn him for putting her child in danger once again. As such, Jon was at his shoulder, exactly of a height with him, when Ned went to see the smith and his apprentice.

The smith’s boy came out, and Jon let out a stunned gasp as he quickly put the pieces together, faster than even Ned, despite the fact that Ned was the one who had known Robert when he was that exact age. Both of them watched as the blacksmith commanded young Gendry to show an example of his talent and the boy refused to sell it, humble, yet possessive of his own work. Ned questioned the boy, certain who he was and absolutely uncertain of what it might mean. Jon stayed a silent pillar at his back.

***


Arya Stark

Arya did not much care for King's Landing. It was crowded and smelly and much of the time she was required to wear dresses and act ladylike. It was stifling, like a second skin tightening around her body and holding her captive. It would have been truly unbearable if not for the good things King's Landing held. Namely, her brother and her nephew. Jon was nearly as busy as Father, and Arya did not get to see nearly as much of him as she would like, but then those few glances were still more than she had had for years and years. Even a glimpse of him, of his dark curls, pale skin and grey eyes, made her feel more at ease, like she was less alone in the world. In her very earliest memories, Jon had been her mirror and her closest companion, and if glimpses of him were all she could get now, it was still more than she had had for ages.

Aemon was painfully boring, in that way all babes were. All he knew was how to cry and shit and eat. But Arya still loved him from the first moment she saw him. As much as she still could not wrap her head around the fact that her brother had children of his own, the eldest no more than a few years younger than Rickon, she loved Aemon in an immediate, instinctive way she had rarely ever experienced before. While the babe had his mother's face, his dark curls and long silences were all Jon, and for that alone, Arya wanted nothing more than to keep the babe happy and safe. Jon was a lot more fun than a mere babe, but he was also a lot more busy, and Lady Margaery seemed at least as content to entrust Arya with little Aemon as Arya's mother had been when it came to Rickon. For some reason that made Arya puff out her chest in pride and promise to do whatever she could to take care of the babe. She did not ever want babes of her own, but perhaps loving her little nephew was not so bad at all.

As for Margaery, she was a prissy lady of the kind Arya never wanted to be, but it was clear to all that she loved Jon and that Jon loved her back, and that was enough for Arya to mind her manners. A little. Somewhat. Well, she was not cruel anyway, which was probably more than could be said about her behaviour around most of these Southron fools.

Two weeks or so into her stay, Jon had a day off and took her into the city itself, through the markets and inns. He had her taste the local dishes and let her drink out of his cups of wine and ale, and Arya was happier than she had been in several moons' turns. To be truthful, she could not remember laughing so much in one day since her brother had first left Winterfell, and Jon seemed just as happy, his dark eyes bright and his mouth, for once, tucking up at the corners. She was ever so slightly uncomfortable with the fact that Ser Arthur Dayne and Jon's Dayne cousin seemed to be shadowing them, but Arthur Dayne was a great knight and she was grateful someone was looking out for her stupid brother when she could not. Still, it was curious to note how Jon did not seem to even notice someone following them, as though a shadow guard had become so commonplace to him it was no longer to be noted. Perhaps it was. Arya was not sure she had seen Jon without Ser Arthur or Ser Loras since she had arrived at King's Landing. And while she did not understand it, she was grateful other people treasured her dumb brother as much as she did and strived to keep him safe.

They found themselves back in the marketplace soon enough, Jon's large, rough hand gripping hers as though they were still babes in the nursery at Winterfell. "They say you are the best swordsman in the Seven Kingdoms," she told him.

Jon rolled his eyes. "Clearly 'they' have never seen Uncle Arthur hand me my arse in the training yard," he said. "People tend to exaggerate my skill because I have no intention of showcasing it."

Arya gave him a shrug. "I wish I were as good as you," she said. "We used to train together," she added. "Ser Arthur let us. He said that was the way of things in Dorne, that he had sparred with your mother often, growing up. We sparred together too. Now you are a knight in all but name, and I am supposed to be some silly maiden who does not know the pointy end from the pommel." She could not help the bitterness in her own laugh. She had no doubt that if Lady Margaery had desired to wield a weapon, Jon would have let her carry a greatsword on her back. What was the chance Arya would have a husband like that? Who, aside from her father and Ser Arthur, raised boys to view girls like that anymore? Gods, she wished she had been born a Mormont of Bear Island.

Jon let out a snort. "I am no more a knight than you are," he said. "The Sept still gives me creeps. It does not matter how often Margaery takes me there, I always feel like an outsider." He paused, dark eyes focusing on her for long moments, and Arya had craved this since her earliest childhood, the power that his full attention seemed to convey, to distribute, as though his belief in her made her stronger in and of herself. "You really want to fight?" Jon asked. His eyes were imploring, but they did not seem to want to sway her to one side or the other, only to ask her for her true and honest opinion.

"Yes," she said.

Jon gave her a sharp nod, and used his grip on her hand to pull her along to another part of the market, and then further, into the established, if not exactly luxurious parts of King's Landing. He led her into a smithy, returned the master smith's greeting with a few courteous words and that smile of his that had always been enough to make everyone around him, Arya included and her Lady Mother the sole exception to the rule, smile right back.

Arya still was not sure how it came to be when she felt her skinny, perfectly balanced blade a few hours later, the strength in it and its weight at her side. It was the greatest gift she had ever received, and she had no idea how to tell Jon, this grown man who was her dearest brother and some stranger all at once. Still, she would treasure that blade for the rest of her days, and she would raise it in his defence without question, should she ever see a need to do so.

"Maybe you should ride," Arya suggested as she sat next to Jon in their father's box at the Hand's Tourney. "You could take them all out in a minute."

Jon let out a laugh that sounded more Northern than his speech ever did these days. "These things are all empty pomp and pride, little sister," he told her. "They are playing at war. It serves no true purpose, for all that Loras would tell you otherwise."

Arya snorted. "At this point, you could not live up to your own legend if you wanted to anyway," she told her brother, more at ease with teasing him now that she had been able to spend more time with him. She watched her brother roll his eyes before he clasped his wife's hand and turned his attention to his goodbrother's joust against the Mountain. Arya followed his gaze, took in the stances of the jousters, the angles at which they held their lances. The Mountain, Arya could already tell, depended on his brute strength and ruthless reputation, while Ser Loras, ever Jon and Ser Arthur's man, was a mix of true skill and a kind of cunning Arya could not help but admire. It took no more than a few rounds for Ser Loras to unhorse the Mountain, and Arya hollered and cheered with the rest of them, caught up in the grin on her brother's face.

And then the Mountain was drawing his monstrous greatsword and slaughtering his own stallion before he advanced upon Ser Loras, and despite herself, Arya felt her breath catch in her throat, because for all that it was permitted for a knight to resume the battle on foot, she knew it was unheard of and more than a little honourless. Ser Loras, Arya was fairly certain, did not even have a sword on him, choosing to bear as light a weight as possible to make the joust easier on his horse. And it was not so much that which bothered her as much as the fact that she was not sure Ser Loras would hold up in that fight with only a broken lance, and she knew her brother would be gravely injured by the loss of his goodbrother.

The Mountain advanced on Ser Loras, and Arya, for all that she hated how she was acting like a swooning lady, could not help the way her breath was catching in her throat. Then, before the Mountain could truly do anything, Arya felt a rush of displaced air to her side, and she turned her head to where Jon had been moments ago. Now, he was gone. Eyes wide, she glanced back at the tiltyard, and there was her brother, standing bravely in the Mountain's path, sword in hand. The Mountain growled at him, seemed merely to want to get around him, as though he was nothing more than a random obstacle. Jon, it seemed, was having none of it. He parried the Mountain's attack with a grimace. Arya gritted her teeth when she saw just how hard Jon was working to keep his legs dug into the ground behind him. The Mountain roared and struck at him. Jon blocked, and changed sword hands. Arya had seen him do that plenty often as a child in Winterfell, so she was not surprised, but she still heard gasps all around her. Only stupid Southrons would truly be surprised. Any true Northman, like her brother, knew to take his advantages where he might, even if those useless Seven who were One might find offense.

Arya's brother met swords with the Mountain once again, and Arya felt all the muscles within her own body clench up. Her hand gripped the pommel of her own skinny sword. She might not have the training or the weaponry of her brother or the Clegane brute, but she would not think twice about jumping into the fray should Jon start to lose. For now, however, her brother had no need of her. And, incredibly, he did not ever seem like he would need help at all.

Somewhere in the background, she had heard the King call for an end of the hostilities time and again. And Gods, from her earliest childhood she remembered Jon as the most obedient of them all, the one who had been desperate for attention and recognition. Now, for whatever reason, he was pretending not to hear the words of his king, parrying attacks from the Mountain with open grimaces when he could not sidestep the strikes. Arya, who had never before felt like a smarter sibling, wanted to shout at him to let it go. But Jon, by the Gods... She barely recognised his face, and the grimace his features were drawn into was so entirely foreign it scared her. He held his sword like she imagined Theon Stark might have, when he had thrown back the Andals. The look on his face, she thought, belonged to Harlon and Karlon, the brothers Stark who had been forced to cleanse the Winter Realm of the rot in their own blood.

Jon was quick on his feet, as he had always been, and he reached Ser Loras before the Mountain did, seemed to stand guard over his goodbrother the way Loras did for him more often than not. The Mountain struck down, and Arya held her breath along with everyone else. For all that Jon was strong and lean and well trained, he was short and small, compared to most knights of the Kingdoms. It was only natural to be worried for him, going up against a veritable giant like this. Somehow, Jon parried with enough muscle to push the Mountain off him.

And then Jon went into action, claiming his own major advantage with ease. Jon was quick, always had been. Swift on his feet, and cleverer than most warriors. For long, breathless moments, he avoided the Mountain's attacks. Then, somehow - Arya was sure she had paid attention, but she must not have, since the decisive moment did not exist in her memory - Jon got an opening, and the next thing anyone knew, his sword was buried in the Mountain's armpit. Jon kicked the lump of meat off his blade, cleaned it on his own tunic. He gave a bow to the king before jumping back over the barrier and throwing himself back into the seat next to Arya. He looked, oddly, as though some weight greater than any one man, however cruel, had been lifted from his back.

Jon was panting next to her, wincing from aches and pains Arya could understand but had no recollection of him gathering. Still, Margaery was right there and she was far better at fussing than Arya would ever be, and so Arya simply got to her feet and hollered and clapped. After a while the eerie quiet that had settled over the tourney grounds lifted, and more and more people followed her example, rose to their feet, clapping and crying out for her brother. Arya could not remember the last time she had smiled so widely.

The King himself was on his feet, his cheeks red as flame as he shouted. Arya thought he was probably dead drunk, but that did not matter. What mattered was that his cheering meant no one could doubt that Jon had been right to step in, and that he could not be punished for it. And as she watched, her brother exchanged a grin with Ser Loras, who seemed grateful, cheerful and as scolding as his sister all at once. Arya understood, she did. She did not like it when Jon was in danger either. But he was a hero now. How could anyone ever object to that?

Chapter Text

300 AC

Lord Eddard Stark

"Ser Loras does not blame you?" Ned could not help but ask. Although the young knight had won the joust, there had to have been some humiliation involved in then having to be saved, especially by the man he was sworn to protect.

Jon shrugged. "I am told Clegane behaved deplorably, for a knight. Loras was not prepared for that. Perhaps, if I were a knight, I would not have stepped in. But I am still a Northman, Father." He paused a moment. "Before anything else, Loras is my dearest friend, and my wife's brother at that. I could not bear to see him die, let alone at the hand of..." He trailed off, but Ned still heard the words he had not said. 'At the hand of the man who killed my own brother.' "I am no knight," Jon reiterated. "I have freedoms they do not. And King Robert has not seen fit to punish me, regardless of what the Lannisters have to say. Besides, how can I expect anyone to fight for me if I am not willing to fight for them?" Jon paused a moment. "Loras' pride was wounded, but he was not. And after he got done scolding me for risking myself, and won a bout against me in the training yard, I think we got to the point of calling it even."

Ned swallowed tightly even as he could not help but smile at that mental picture. He carefully buried the panic he had felt when he had seen his boy take the field, the panic he still felt every moment he thought of Jon's precarious position. It was all tempered with pride. Regardless of everything else, there was something that had been utterly right about seeing Jon end Gregor Clegane, the way Ned himself had wanted to all those years ago. Jon was owed the vengeance of it, the justice of it, more than Ned was, as much as the Martells, who had brayed for blood for the better part of two decades. "You are a good man, lad," he said. "And his life was yours, ever since..." He let the words trail off, and like Jon chose not to complete the sentence. "Please do not risk yourself like that again," he said then. "I made a promise to your mother. I would hate it if you broke it for me."

Jon gave a brief little smile at that. He made no promises, Ned could not help but note. He bit back a sigh. Truthfully, it was nothing more than he had expected. Jon, like Ned himself, would always be all too willing to risk his life for others. "Ser Hugh is dead," Ned said. "Clegane killed him before he could answer any questions. And I still have no idea how he came into that kind of wealth."

Jon shrugged. "He served Lord Arryn well. It might just be an inheritance we do not know of. And even if it was not, many people here would have had the means to fund him. We cannot possibly draw any conclusions from it, Father. I do not know who gave him the money. I know it was not me or you or the Tyrells, and I sincerely doubt it was the king. That still leaves too many ends open for us to follow this lead right now."

Ned sighed, but nodded. Jon was right. However much Ned wanted to pursue this, wanted to blame the Lannisters, who certainly had the gold, it was better to be cautious. He still believed the Lannisters were at the core of all this, but Jon Arryn would have counselled the same thing his namesake did; wait and see, and follow other leads in the meantime. Just because Ned believed he already knew the answers he sought, he was not excused from looking in other directions. "I do not know how I would have done this without you," he said.

Jon flashed him a quick grin. "Have dinner with us tomorrow," he said then. "I may not be the quickest mind here, but Margaery will be there, and we will invite Willas as well. Between the four of us, perhaps we can come up with something new."

Ned resisted the urge to reach out and squeeze the lad's shoulder. He was a man grown now, and as much as Ned missed the easy physical closeness he had had with his nephew's childhood counterpart, he needed to respect the man in front of him and get himself used to treating him as such. "That was Robert's greatest service to you, was it not?" he asked. "The Tyrells?"

Jon shrugged. "The Tyrells are family," he said. "Margaery means everything to me. But Robert's gifts to me are not the best ones I have received." Another small smile, this one more than passing strange, passed over his lips. "I may never have had a mother," he said at last. "But I have the two finest fathers any man could ever ask for. Without you and Uncle Arthur, I do not know who I would have been, if I were even still alive. And I have you thank you for that."

This time, Ned did not even try to hold himself back, simply drew the lad into his arms and held him tight for a long moment, marvelled at the lean muscle and strong, slender bones beneath Jon's skin, so different from the tiny, soft babe he had first held. Jon held him back just as tightly.

***

Dinner with the Tyrell siblings did not uncover anything. In fact, Ned's next clue came from the most unlikely source, just after Ned mentioned to Arya that Robert had suggested she wed Joffrey. His little wolf pup snorted. "What?" she asked. "I would rather go to Dorne instead of Sansa than spend my life giving the golden-haired twat more golden-haired twats. I am a wolf, Father. Even if I wanted babes, they would not be lion kittens."

Ned was about to correct her, that the babes of lions were not called kittens, when he realised how much older than her years her words were. And then the rest of it caught up with him as well.

Lion cubs. Lions, not stags.

He left her alone and rushed back to the genealogy book, reading through the passage on House Baratheon once more. Black of hair, blue eyes. Black of hair, blue eyes. Over and over, all the way back to Orys Baratheon. Up until Joffrey Baratheon, 'Golden-haired, green eyes'. His brother and sister were the same. Robert's own father had been born with black hair and blue eyes regardless of his silver-haired Targaryen mother, as had Robert and both his brothers. And it was true that the Targaryen colouring had a history of quickly yielding when outside blood was introduced. Jon himself was a perfect example of that, as had his sister been. And the Stark colouring did not hold as much dominance as the Baratheon one, Ned's own children were the perfect example of that. Bring in Andal blood, and the babes no longer looked like they were of the North. Jon's own colouring had succumbed as well, leaving Duncan with the look of a Targaryen and Aemon with purple eyes. Not, Ned noted, with Margaery's Tyrell colouring, not one of them. If Robert's children were not black of hair and blue eyed, if the Baratheon colouring had finally succumbed, should they not have shown some Targaryen traits? 'The seed is strong', Jon Arryn had claimed. Ned felt unease wash over him.

The unease only grew when he met more and more of Robert's bastard children. They all looked just the way he remembered Mya Stone had when he had last seen her. Black of hair and blue-eyed. Every single one of them, regardless of their mothers' colouring. So why did none of Robert's trueborn children look like that? The Lannister seed was not all that strong; Ned could name several half-Lannisters who did not have the golden hair and green eyes. For the Baratheons, he could not say the same.

It was not until after Robert had left for that ridiculous hunt of his that Ned shared those thoughts with Jon and Lord Willas and Willas finally fit the pieces together. The first thing Ned did, then, was find Jon and send for Robert's eldest bastard son. "Send Margaery and Aemon back to Dragonstone," he instructed. "Arya as well, and send that boy with them."

Jon did not stop to ask questions. He gave a sharp nod, and within a few hours, the ship was leaving the harbour. Ned wished he could have sent Jon off along with them. Jon's eldest son had not yet reached his third nameday, and his youngest was a babe at the breast. Without Jon, they would be vulnerable. The whole line would be, and that was a terrible position to leave them in while asking Jon to risk himself just as Ned would. Still, they had protectors. And they had Margaery, who, if the worst were to pass, would be a good regent for Duncan, whether here or on Dragonstone. Ned swallowed. He would never let that happen. He would keep Jon safe, even if it cost him his life. Just as he had promised Lyanna, all those years ago. Ned glanced at Jon, but the boy was standing with a straight back and a determined face; Ned would never talk him out of staying, not in a million years. He sighed his defeat, turned to his nephew. "How many men do you have in the City?" he asked.

"I have a hundred, as does Willas. By last count, Ser Oswell has about three thousand men infiltrated here," Jon said. "They are blending in just fine, but with the right signal..."

Ned nodded. "What is the signal?" he asked.

Jon grimaced. "The dragon banner on one of the towers of the Red Keep," he said.

Ned nodded. "We will make it happen, if need be," he said. "It might be more prudent simply to speak with Robert, tell him what we have learnt. He can still remarry, have trueborn children of his own."

There was a strange longing in Jon's eyes. "You know," he said. "All I have wanted is to go back to Dragonstone, live out the rest of my days there with Margaery and the children. I do not want the Throne. I do not know that I am even suited for it, and I know the damned thing will never give me a moment's peace." The apple of his throat bobbed on a swallow. "But I am hiding four dragons at my seat, two of them near large enough to carry a grown man. Dany is working to hatch another three. If we are discovered..." Another swallow, this one audible to Ned's ears. "I am not sure I will ever know peace. I am not sure the Gods made me for it."

And Ned could understand that sentiment. Jon was deadly. Ever since the moment he had first toddled into the training yard in Winterfell at Ser Arthur's heels, he had shown more promise than anyone so young should have. The wooden sword, even when Jon had been no more than a toddler, had been like an extension of his arm. Jon, however much he desired peace and to be left alone, had not been built for it. He had the build of Aegon the Conqueror, lithe but so, so strong. Like Aegon, he might not find peace until he had brought the Kingdoms low before him. "You may have the strength of the Conqueror," Ned said. "But you have the mind of the Conciliator, and the wisdom of Cregan and Torrhen. Never forget that."

Jon nodded, leaning his long, slender hands on the balustrades in front of him. His eyes had a faraway look as he gazed out over Blackwater Bay. Ned wondered if he was trying to pinpoint the exact point on the horizon where his wife and son had vanished. His white knuckles lent credence to that thought. "I do not want to be King," Jon hissed. "Let Robert and his get have it, so long as they leave me alone."

Ned swallowed. That was the thing, was it not? The moment those dragons could no longer remain hidden, the moment the wrong person learnt the truth of Jon's origins, no one would ever leave him in peace, and the safest place for him really would, as Arthur had always said, be upon the Iron Throne. "Jon Arryn used to tell me that some of the best lords he knew were the ones who, while educated, did not wish for it, the ones who had not expected it and did not want it."

Jon cocked a strong, black eyebrow. "Like you?"

Ned grimaced, and did not answer that. "I was shocked when I learnt Robert meant to be king," he said. "That was not what I fought for; that was not why I called my banners. I called my banners because my father and brother had been slaughtered, because my sister had vanished. All that remained of the Starks were myself, Benjen and a childless aunt off in the Stormlands I did not know, and who no longer carried the name Stark. And the Mad King had called for my head. Benjen was just a boy, and bound to Winterfell. If I wanted us to survive, I had no choice but to fight. I meant to dispatch Aerys, and Rhaegar, if need be. If Rhaegar turned out to be mad, I wanted Aegon on the Throne, with good, strong regents at his side. I did not realise Robert meant to take the Throne for himself until it was much too late. He wanted it, badly. He has squandered it ever since." Ned squeezed his eyes shut, then quickly opened them again when he realised all he could see with his eyes shut were the dead bodies of Princess Elia and her children. Jon's brother and sister and stepmother. "After I found you and your mother, all I wanted was peace. Robert and Jon... They wanted something different. But Robert was never suited for the Throne. I should have been stronger, braver. I should have put you on that Throne the moment I learnt of your existence."

Jon winced. "I am glad you did not," he said. "I would not have wanted to grow up under that weight. I still do not want it. But Robert..." He trailed off, did not have to say anything else for Ned to follow. Like Ned, Jon held more than a little affection for Robert Baratheon, but neither one of them was blind to his faults. "And Joffrey," Jon continued. "He is the cruellest man I have ever met, and not even a man grown yet. I doubt he will ever grow out of it. Tommen is a good child, but he is soft and weak. And if neither is trueborn... It will be chaos again, no matter what we do. Will it not?"

Ned nodded slowly, hating the prospects here. He had not wanted to come South to be Hand. He had never wanted to come South for anything but seeing Jon and his children. If he could have stayed North and believed the rest of the realm would be fine without his interference, that Jon would, that was exactly what he would have done.

"Maybe we should not tell him," Jon said. He was quiet for long moments, his face contemplative, and for all that Ned's instincts screamed, he said nothing, waited for Jon to carry on instead. "I cannot keep my secrets forever," he said then. "It would be much easier with no Baratheon heir to the Throne. A Great Council, and the Throne would pass back to the main Targaryen line after Robert, without any need for a right of conquest. If Robert has a trueborn son, it all gets much worse." He glanced at Ned, his solemn, dark eyes frightened. "I do not want this, but I know I have to take it if I want to keep my family safe. If I do not have to kill anyone for it, so much the better."

Ned swallowed, shook his head. "Robert is still my liege lord," he said. "I am honour bound to tell him." Like he had been honour bound to tell Robert about Jon, a faraway voice in the back of his mind screamed. He had broken his oaths of fealty even as he had spoken them. Why should he keep them now? Honour. Ned could only break his own honour so many times before he himself broke with it. "And without right of conquest, several of the lords will not accept you. None of the Westerlands lords will."

Jon winced. "But if it comes down to it..."

"You are still a wolf," Ned said. "The Starks protect their own."

Jon nodded, even if his shoulders looked more burdened than they had since he realised Robert was not going to lay any charges on him for killing Gregor Clegane.

Ned's honour still screamed at him, that he must tell Robert, must make all this known to him. But his son and grandchildren came first. They must.

***

Princess Daenerys Targaryen

Jaehaerys dreamt of flying, Dany knew. He had told her that. But his descriptions did not sound much like her own dragon dreams. Jaehaerys did not have much of a way with words, but he could still name every scent and sensation and sound of flying, not on dragonback like Dany did when she slept, but as if he were a dragon himself. He had not had those dreams before the dragons were old enough to fly outside the catacombs, he had told her, while hers had been the same all her life. She was not sure what that meant, or if their different dreams were why Jaehaerys had such an easier time controlling the dragons than she did. Or if that was simply because he had been the one to hatch them. Then again, Jaehaerys had a strangely easy time with nearly all animals she had ever seen him interact with. She had seen him call his horse to himself with barely a wriggle of his fingers when the beast had been occupied eating a good meal of oats. She wished she could say she was not jealous, but right now, staring down the dragons that were certainly not prepared to wait for nightfall before flying out, she wished to the Gods she had his hold over them.

Four sets of lizard eyes stared back at her, and she gritted her teeth. "You will stay," she spat at them in High Valyrian. Ice shrieked at her, Dawn not far behind. Dany gritted her teeth, set her feet and refused to be intimidated. No matter how much she hated the way Jaehaerys' orders seemed to lose weight with the dragons the longer he was away, he had left her this task, and even if she would prefer he come back and reinforce his hold on them himself, she would do this. Aside from her nephew, she was the only one in any position to do so. Dawn averted his great purple head and shrunk back into the shadows even as Longclaw let out a hiss. Blackfyre, at least, seemed content with the goats she had herded down for them earlier, if only to tide them over until they could fly out over the Narrow Sea and catch their own food again. Then again, Blackfyre heeded her better than any of his brothers. "You will stay," she said again, and finally Ice and Longclaw gave up as well, slinking back into the shadows. "When the light goes out, you may fly," she told them. Then she turned and walked back out of the catacombs, panting with effort despite the fact that she had barely done anything, really, to justify her exhaustion.

When she was back in the castle proper, everything was all abustle, servants racing to and fro. She caught one up, and only the fact that she was known as the children's nursemaid warranted her the respect it took to get answers to her questions. "Lady Stark and little Lord Aemon have returned," the page whose arm she had gripped informed her. "They bring guests. Lady Sansa wants chambers prepared, and a proper dinner to welcome her goodsister home."

Dany nodded and let the page go, felt a swoop of excitement go through her. Margaery had not meant to return so soon, she knew, and guests... Did that mean Jaehaerys finally meant to make a move? She felt almost giddy at the thought. As much as she loved being here, being home, as much as she did not even mind having to be a mummer's servant, even towards her nephew's sister-cousin, she had never stopped burning for the day her House could finally retake what should always have been theirs. She ached to see Jaehaerys sit the Iron Throne, ached to see their enemies brought low, and for people to finally see her for the princess she was. More than anything, she longed for them all to be safe, as they never would be with the Usurper in power. She had to find Margaery, find out what was going on. For a moment, she considered making for Margaery's chambers, where she might be having a bath after her journey, then veered off towards the nursery instead, certain there was no other place her goodniece could be right now.

Dany stopped short in the door of the nursery, allowed the scene inside to play out without her interference. Margaery was kneeling on the floor, the skirts of her travel gown spread out around her, holding both of her eldest children close, her face buried in Duncan's silvery hair while Lyarra's dark curls nestled under her chin. Dany felt a momentary pang of loss for the mother she had lost too soon, but just as much gratitude that Jaehaerys' children had what neither she nor her nephew ever did. After several long moments, the children seemed to tire of the embrace, and Duncan took Lyarra's hand, toddling off with her towards their toys in the corner. Margaery dropped down onto her rump, undignified and seemingly uncaring about that fact, seeming to drink in the sight of her children at play. Finally, she turned her head back and acknowledged Dany with a wide, genuine smile, eyes wet. "I never realised how difficult it must be for Jon, having to leave so often," she said. "You must tell me all about how they have been doing."

Dany smiled, sat down next to her and began to regale her with tales of the children's little adventures, kept going until she was out of breath several times over. "And how is Jon?" she asked at last, knowing that her nephew's true name should be spoken aloud as rarely as possible. "What is happening in the capital?"

Margaery reached out and squeezed Dany's wrist. "Later," she said. "I need a bath, and I believe Sansa means to feast us. Tonight, we will have our women's council."

***

It was upon Margaery's insistence that, before anything else could be discussed, the Stark sisters must learn the truth. "Jon never meant to lie to you," she finished her tale. "Truly. But the last thing he ever wanted was to put either one of you in danger, and this is a dangerous truth while Robert Baratheon sits the Throne."

For a long while, neither girl said anything. Sansa was white-faced and Arya wore the same intense expression Jaehaerys did when he was deep in thought. To Dany's surprise, it was Sansa who spoke first. Then again, Sansa lived in a world of songs, and this had the makings of a grand one, did it not? Within less than an hour, her Aunt Lyanna's song had gone from horrific to darkly, sorrowfully romantic, and her brother the lucky bastard had become a prince in disguise. In a world like Sansa's, that made beautiful sense. Arya, Dany knew after only a few hours' acquaintance, lived more in the real world, and that meant a whole different set of things to work through. "When Jon first left," Sansa said softly. "I was glad. I thought my Lady Mother might be happier. That with Father's dishonour so far away, everyone might forget it. But then I saw the look on my brother Robb's face when he looked over his shoulder and found no one there. I looked at my sister." She glanced at Arya now. "And saw how alone she felt. I did not love Jon as I should have until after I saw the hole he left in our family. He did not become a brother of my heart until after he had gone South. But now that he is, he always will be, regardless of who sired him. He is my brother, and my king if he so wishes." Somehow, Dany could do nothing more than smile at that. Perhaps a spine of steel hid somewhere beneath all those songs of Sansa's.

Arya took several long moments more. Then she grimaced. "My stupid brother should have told me himself," she said at last. "He is stupid, but he is mine." She flashed a grin then, and it made her eyes crinkle in a way that was so much like Jaehaerys Dany could not help but love the girl. "Maybe now I will get to be a Kingsguard."

Margaery let out a laugh. "I doubt it," she said. "Jon loves you and he would do most anything for you, but if you were a Kingsguard, he would be the Kingsguard's guard even more than he has already proved himself to be."

Arya narrowed her eyes. "Stupid," she reiterated. "Tell your brother to wear a sword the next time he jousts, and I will sit on mine so he does not join in," she added, and this time she flashed a genuine grin at Margaery.

Margaery reached out a ruffled Arya's hair in a way that made Arya's smile grow more peaceful and less impish. Dany could not shake the feeling that the move had belonged to Jaehaerys first. "If anyone is going to sit on your brother, it is me," Margaery said, and Arya laughed and Sansa flushed, and Dany could not help but adore these sisters of her nephew's heart. She could not help but wish they might feel like true family to her as well some day.

"So," Lady Olenna said, and immediately the mood turned to something less joyful and more determined, less to do with securing the past and more to do with safeguarding the future. "The Usurper is the only trueborn Baratheon left."

Margaery nodded. "I believe that is why Lord Eddard made us bring Gendry Waters here," she said. "As far as we can tell, he is Robert Baratheon's eldest male bastard. We will keep him safe from the Lannisters, as Lord Eddard wanted. But he also gives us a foothold into the Stormlands."

Lady Olenna gave a sharp nod, and that look came over her face that meant that she was looking ten steps ahead and making calculations to get there safely in that way of hers that made Dany's head hurt to think on. She looked at Margaery then. "We can have him wed to one of your cousins," she said. "Once Jon takes the Throne, he can legitimise the boy. If this Gendry is willing to swear fealty, we at least know we will not have all the Stormlands against us." She paused, rolling her eyes. "Some of them will probably still believe the Lannister lies regarding the queen's bastards, but more yet will look at that boy and see his father in his face and choose to follow him, especially if we find him a strong wife."

Margaery cocked an eyebrow. "I thought you just mentioned my cousins," she said. "They are fools, the lot of them. Not a single 'strong wife' among them."

Dany must have spent too long around Lady Olenna, because she was almost certain she knew what would come next. "I would meet the boy," she said, before they could even make any suggestions. Part of her cringed away at the thought of spending a moment of time with the Usurper's bastard, but she forced herself to push on through, to see the advantages they would no doubt point out to her. Being Lady of Storm's End was certainly better than being the King's spinster aunt. The Stormlands were close enough that she could see her family often, and she would be in a position to guard Jaehaerys' back. And she knew her history. She knew about Orys Baratheon. She knew House Baratheon had been founded by a Targaryen bastard. Why not let it be reborn by a Targaryen and a bastard? Something inside her still cringed at the notion. She had not given any thought to marriage, at least not so soon. But the alliance with the Stormlands would leave the Westerlands utterly isolated. And Jaehaerys was less than a year her senior, yet had been wed four years, to a woman he, at the time, had not known, for a political alliance he had not chosen.

She would meet the boy, Dany decided, and see if it was anything she could stomach at all. If it was... She would do what had to be done for her House, and unlike how it had been for Jaehaerys and Margaery, it would be her own choice. She knew they would not deny her that.

Chapter Text

300 AC

Lord Jon Stark

"Still," Jon said, looking at his father. "Even colouring is not clear evidence. It cannot be, even if we both know the truth. So how do we convince anyone when our own children look the way they do?" He hoped and prayed Ned Stark had better answers than his own. They needed answers, and before Robert returned from the hunt, or they would have little idea how to proceed with any of this. Honestly, Jon was still torn. He did not want to be king, not in a thousand years, but if he was not, he had no idea how he would ever manage to keep his children safe, and that would always be the most important thing to him. Even discounting the dragons, too many people knew the truth, and King's Landing, whoever took the Throne, would never leave him be no matter how many promises he made. Besides, he did not think his conscience would stand for ever letting Joffrey take the Iron Throne. The realm would descend into madness if he did.

His Lord Father grunted. "Our lines cannot be used as evidence. There are so few genealogies that describe what happens to First Men blood when Andal blood is introduced. Most of that mixing happened thousands of years ago. The only well-known newer examples are the Blackwoods and the Royces, but even they do not parallel; they have been mixed for too long. What we do know is that Orys Baratheon's children had their mother's look from the start, and discounting the Queen-Who-Never-Was, that is what has held through nearly three hundred years, until now."

Jon gritted his teeth. "It is not enough," he said. "The Stormlands will not accept it. The Westerlands certainly will not."

Ned Stark sighed. "The Westerlands will not accept anything less than Joffrey on the Throne," he said. "Regardless of evidence. It will be war no matter what we do."

"But with a Great Council..." Jon trailed off. He hated the thought of war. He was a child of war, he knew, and he had been raised a warrior, by warriors, but the notion of it still horrified him. Sweet summer child, Old Nan would have called him, even as she stroked his hair out of his face and smiled her gummy smile at him. Still, he could not help but want the legitimacy that would come from a Great Council choosing him. Perhaps it was the years he had spent believing himself a bastard, but he refused to thrust himself upon a realm that did not want him.

His father-uncle nodded. "With a Great Council at your back, you would be in the right and they would be rebels," he said. "That much is--" A knock on the door interrupted him, and the both of them turned immediately to look that way. "Yes?" Jon's father finally called, as was his due since they were in the Tower of the Hand, the most secure building in the Red Keep, given that only Northern men-at-arms and Jon's Kingsguard were allowed to patrol here.

The door opened, and Varys stepped inside, draped in purple robes and smelling faintly of some flowery perfume. "Lord Stark," he said with a bow of his neck at Jon's father before he turned to Jon. "Lord Stark," he repeated with another bow of his head, this one slightly deeper. He waved his hand at the door, and a young girl scurried inside. "I present to you Queen Cersei's handmaiden," he said. "Oh, the songs this girl could sing."

Jon narrowed his eyes. "You knew?" she asked.

"Of course I did," Varys said. "But instability cannot be introduced until you have a stable alternative. And I have only known the truth of you for so long. I needed to know your character as well."

Jon gritted the teeth, beyond fed up with the man's vagueness. "So you would have let Joffrey--"

"Joffrey Waters is not Aerys Targaryen's grandson," Varys interrupted, and his eyes narrowed for a moment, voice deepening the way it had the last time Jon met him outside the Small Council chambers, when he had brought the eggs. "Do you blame me for testing you when you know what your grandfather was?"

Jon gritted his teeth. "My grandfather was Rickard Stark," he said at long last. "Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, a good, just man who died at the hands of a man much like Joffrey Baratheon."

An almost approving smile fell over Varys' face. "That should be the grandfather for you to emulate," he said. "I am glad you agree." He turned to Jon's father. "My Lord Hand," he said. "What do you wish me to do with the girl and her tales of Queens and Kingslayers?"

"Leave her here," Jon's father said. "Vayon," he called. "Make up a guestroom." Jon heard a vague reply of 'Yes, My Lord,' and still could not help but feel like this whole situation was utterly surreal.

"How did you know?" he asked Varys. "How did you know this is what we needed?"

"As I said," Varys said. "I have taken the time to learn your character. You wish to take power at a Great Council, and for that you will need the girl. However, I do have one piece of advice for you. Take King's Landing. Do not let the Lannisters keep their footholds here. Too many people will suffer. Take King's Landing, and put the Lannisters and their get in chains. Or cast them out, if you must be so honourable. But do not let them hold it." He gave a bow, and then he was gone, leaving only the girl behind.

"Father?" Jon asked, glancing at Ned Stark and feeling suddenly utterly uncertain, the way he always did when Varys interfered. At least he had not been left with the cry of unhatched dragon eggs this time.

"Well," his father said. "We wanted evidence, did we not?" He turned towards the handmaiden. "Tell us what you know, girl."

The handmaiden curtsied, and sang like a bird.

***

King Robert returned from the hunt on the back of a wagon, and when Jon's Lord Father got to Pycelle hours later, the prognosis was final. Whether it happened an hour from now, or a fortnight, Robert Baratheon might as well already be dead. Jon felt a thrum through his entire body when he heard. There was an edge of something strangely like anticipation, of hope that the mist of fear that had lain over him ever since he had learnt the truth might be about to lift. But more than that, a new fear was weighing heavy on him. For so long, all of this, everything, had been theoretical. Even with dragons, with his aunt on Dragonstone and Duncan's Targaryen looks, everything had still felt distant, unreal. Now it was all crashing into him, and it was all he could do to keep his fingers from shaking, his stomach from turning in on itself. He kept his back straight, though. Now, more than ever before, he needed to be brave.

"Get Lord Willas to put his men on high alert," Jon's Lord Father instructed. "We may need them at any moment. Get your own men-at-arms ready as well. And I hope to the Gods you have that dragon banner ready."

Jon nodded. "Ned Dayne has it under his doublet," he said. "He is ready to go at any moment. A squire can pass unnoticed better than a man grown."

Lord Eddard nodded, then started. "Ned Dayne knows?" he asked.

Jon drew in a breath, tried to push away the surreality of it all. "I think all the Daynes do," he said. "I think they always did." He shrugged. "They must have known Ashara was not my mother, after all. And they kept themselves safe and distant until Uncle Arthur could assure them that I knew the truth, but remained..." He paused a moment, grimaced. Good words about himself were still hard to grasp at, harder yet to speak. "That I am a good man."

Jon's Lord Father took a moment to reach out and squeeze his shoulder. "You are, lad. Never doubt that." He took a deep breath, then seemed to steel himself. "Now get things ready on your end. I will take care of things on mine." With that, he turned around and walked off. Jon took a moment to steel himself, then did the same.

***

"I am frightened," Jon told Loras that night. He clutched a cup of wine in his hand, but drank sparingly. He could not afford to lose his wits. "I have nightmares about sitting down on that throne, of cutting myself on it. Of making the wrong decision and watching thousands pay for it."

Loras looked at him in silence for several long moments. Then he sighed. "Well, you would not really be you if you were not worried," he said at last. "And it is true that the realm has just lived through two kings who were not worthy of the title." He cracked a grin. "It would be difficult for you to do worse than your predecessors." He was silent for a moment, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, hands folded in front of him. "You are a good Lord and a better man," he said at last. "Dragonstone has flourished with you there. Willas says you have helped turn the Small Council around as well, and reduced the crown's debt to the Iron Bank. Even the smallfolk know your name."

Jon rolled his eyes. "That last is all Margaery. You know it is. And the food your father gave us to distribute. Me alone? I am just..." He paused, sucked in a shuddering breath. The bastard of Winterfell, his mind whispered. The disgrace, utterly unworthy of everything he had been given. No matter how much time had passed, how much he had learnt, somehow that still rang painfully true somewhere in the back of his mind.

"You," Loras said. "Jon Sand. Jon Stark. Jaehaerys Targaryen. It does not make a difference. You are still you, and you are the best man I know." He reached out at last and grasped Jon's hand, held it tight within his own. "It is not going to be easy. It never will be. But nothing that is worth it ever is. I can tell you this, though: That Throne will not cut you. It has only ever cut those who were unworthy."

Jon managed a shaky smile at that, at least, managed to find some confidence in Loras' unwavering faith in him. "You know I will probably end up making your grandmother Hand of the King, right?"

Loras flashed a grin that was utterly reminiscent of Margaery for a moment, and Jon's chest gave a pang. For all that he was grateful Margaery was away at Dragonstone, safe, he wished, more than almost anything, that she could be here right now, helping him when he felt like he was about to plunge off a mountain with nothing there to catch him. "It would be the most fun she has ever had in her life," Loras said.

Jon allowed himself to spend a moment imagining it, Lady Olenna cracking her cane over the hands of the members of the Small Council when they were being stupid, like she had with him and Loras when they were younger. "She would be frighteningly good at it too," he said. "Whip Westeros right into shape."

"When things go down," Loras said. "Can you promise me one thing? Stay out of the fighting." He paused, but shook his head when Jon was about to protest. "A confused fight in a small space, Jon... I do not doubt your abilities with a sword, but it would be so easy for something to go wrong. Duncan barely has three namedays. He would be too vulnerable without you, whether he is on the Throne or off it. Do not risk him, or any of them. Please." His eyes were imploring, and Jon could not help but fear what he spoke of. Jon's son, whether as a child king or a pretender, would be in more danger than Jon could imagine. He would be a political tool for anyone to grasp and use far more deplorably than Jon had ever been used, and that was the best case scenario. Worse... Jon tried not to imagine how his brother and sister had died, before he was even born. He swallowed down his own nausea at the thought.

"I promise," he said.

Loras gave a soft smile. Then he reached out, caught a curl Jon had not even realised had been obstructing his view. He tucked it behind Jon's ear, movements careful. "You should tie it back," Loras said. "Makes you look older."

Jon gave a quick nod, squeezed Loras' hand and got to his feet. "Good night, Loras," Jon said, flashing a brief smile.

Loras nodded, grimacing. "I am sorry," he said.

Jon shrugged. "You are right," he said. "I should tie it back." Then he walked off to get some sleep.

***

Robert Baratheon died just past noon on his third day back from the hunt. Jon's father had been with him, and no one had got nearly enough sleep in the intervening time. Ned Dayne had been keeping watch, waiting for Jon's father to emerge from the king's chambers, and even now Jon knew he must be scampering up the White Sword Tower to hang the banner. Jon swallowed down his worry for the boy who, in another life, might have been his cousin in truth and not just their hearts.

The bells began to toll even as Jon followed his Lord Father into the Throne room, announcing the death of a King. Some part of Jon panged at the sound. King Robert, however foolish he had been, however many bad decisions he had made or not bothered preventing, had given Jon so much, so many of the tools he had needed to become the man he needed to be. Still, whatever sadness he felt had to be saved for later. He walked with Uncle Arthur and Loras at his shoulders, with the men-at-arms of Winterfell, Dragonstone and Highgarden behind him, and he could not afford to show anything other than confidence right now.

They entered just in time to hear Joffrey be declared king and Cersei Lannister be declared Queen Regent. All their steps hurried as they entered the great room. Joffrey was sitting on the Iron Throne, and he actually smiled at the sight of them, that small curl of his lip that always made Jon's fists itch. "Good, you are here," he said. "I command the Council to make all necessary arrangements for my coronation. I wish to be crowned within the fortnight." The smile left then, and something menacingly haughty took over his face. "Today I shall accept oaths of fealty from my loyal friends and councillors."

Jon's stomach churned and he let his hands curl into fists to keep them from trembling. "Ser Barristan," Jon's Lord Father called, taking a deep breath. "I believe no man here could ever question your honour." With that, he held out the rolled up piece of parchment he had been clutching since he had first left the king's chambers.

The queen pulled a disdainful face.

Ser Barristan, a man Jon still did not know how to feel about, stepped forward and took the parchment from Jon's father's hand. He took a moment to inspect it before turning back to Joffrey and Cersei. "King Robert's seal," he observed. "Unbroken." He broke the seal, unrolled the piece of parchment carefully and read it over. "Lord Eddard Stark is herein named Protector of the Realm, to rule as regent, until a trueborn heir is of age and able to ascend the throne."

Joffrey turned wide eyes to his mother. Somehow, despite the tension thrumming through Jon's whole body, it was difficult to hold back a grin. Joffrey was not yet five-and-ten, let alone six-and-ten and of an age to rule without a regent. How in the world had the little shit thought to get around that? How could he have even wanted to? Jon still remembered his ten and sixth nameday and Uncle Benjen and Aunt Dacey's departure as one of the most frightening days of his life.

Cersei rose from her chair. "May I see that letter, Ser Barristan?" She walked forward to stand in front of the Throne, and Ser Barristan walked forward to meet her there, handed over the letter. She skimmed through it before looking at Jon's Lord Father, something almost mocking in her eyes. "Protector of the Realm?" She glanced down for a moment before looking up again. "Is this meant to be your shield, Lord Stark?" With that, she ripped it down the middle. "A piece of paper?" She ripped it once more and threw the pieces on the floor.

"Those were the King's words," Ser Barristan said, sounding more than a little outraged.

Cersei gave a tiny, mocking smile. "We have a new King now," she said, and for a moment, silence fell.

Jon's father broke it by taking a step forward. "That piece of paper was not my shield, My Lady," he said. "It was your children's. It obligated me to keep your son safe until he reached his majority." He turned his back to her in a manner Jon might have thought foolish if not for the combined number of men-at-arms they had here. Jon spied both Petyr Baelish and Lord Varys among the throng of noblemen gathered at the sides of the throne room. "As Hand of the King, in the absence of a new one being crowned," Eddard Stark said. "I declare the Queen an adultress and her children bastards, and call for a Great Council to decide the line of succession."

"You cannot-- Mother!" Joffrey was shouting.

"Guards, seize him!" Cersei was shouting, but Stark and Tyrell men-at-arms were already drawing their swords and drawing tight around Jon and his father and goodbrother, keeping them shielded and safe. And then the doors burst open and men dressed in black and red streamed into the Throne Room, hundreds of them. Jon breathed a subconscious sigh of relief. Ser Oswell's men, they had to be. Jon did his best to watch without flinching as red-cloaks and gold-cloaks were cut down or taken captive. It would be easier, he thought, if he were given leave to fight himself, but he remembered Loras' words and kept as calm as he knew how.

For long, breathless moments, all he could see were the men guarding him, hemming him in. All he could hear was everyone's too-anxious breathing, the beat of his own pulse as it hammered in his ears. And the clash of steel on steel, deafening, and the screams of men as they were cut down, each one so like a wound to his own being that he wondered how he would ever get through the war they no doubt faced now.

Just when the anxiety got to be so much he thought he would draw his sword and charge regardless of sense and promises, the sounds died down. The men around him loosened their stances, giving him room to breathe for what felt like the first time in much too long. Enough parted for his Lord Father to step forward and make his way to the Throne where he sat down gingerly on the edge. Jon, regardless of the situation, could not help but find his father's apprehension oddly amusing; Ned Stark was the last person he could see the Iron Throne cutting. "As Lord Protector of the Realm," Jon's father reiterated, his voice seeming to boom uncharacteristically. "I call for a Great Council to determine the line of successions. Two moons' turn from now, every Lord who wishes to have a say must be at Harrenhal where all claims will be laid forth and put to a vote. Lord Willas, if you would ensure the ravens are sent?"

Willas gave a nod of his head. Leaning on his cane, he made his way towards the door, flanked by several dozen men-at-arms.

The sudden noise made Jon flinch, even if it was chatter, this time, from the assembled Lords and Ladies who, for whatever reason, had not even bothered to get out. He sucked in a sharp breath, pulled himself together and stepped forwards enough that he could take in the situation in the hall. Several corpses lay on the fine tile flooring. Blood splattered over the white and pale red of it. Off to the side, several people were being held prisoner, a mix of red-cloaks and gold-cloaks along with Cersei, Joffrey, Sers Jaime and Barristan and the younger Clegane brother.

Jon breathed a sigh of relief. For all that he hated the amount of blood that had been spilled, for all he knew they still had several sweeps of the city to do, for now it seemed King's Landing was theirs. There was still so much to do, so much they would have to overcome, but this first, all-important step was finally over and done with. It was a relief, but was also so, so frightening. Everything was becoming more real by the moment, and suddenly Jon understood all too well why his father had sat down so gingerly; the Iron Throne would probably be giving them both nightmares for a fortnight or more. More, he realised. Gods Old and New, now that the wheel was spinning, too many people would never let him walk away. He would never be free of that Throne again for as long as he lived, and somehow that was supposed to be the ideal outcome.

Chapter Text

301 AC

Princess Daenerys Targaryen

"Come on, Dunc," Dany said, reached out and ruffling the small boy's pale curls before lifting him up and placing him on her hip. He had spent what felt like hours running himself ragged under her supervision, playing in Aegon's Garden with Sansa and Arya's direwolves. Dany had been nervous for him at first, she could admit. The wolves, though little more than pups, were unnaturally large, and Duncan was on the smaller side for three name days. Thankfully, the wolves seemed to not only realise this, but to also have taken a great liking to the little boy, and so the roughhousing had not got out of hand. The wolves had run off now to find their mistresses, leaving behind a small, happy child who needed a nap rather badly.

Duncan cuddled himself into her side, putting his head on her shoulder and gripping onto the fabric of her dress as he let out a tired snuffle. Dany smiled and took a moment to just hold him close and breathe him in. He did not quite smell like a babe anymore, and his short little limbs had grown skinny and awkward as he transitioned into a child. Dany had no idea where the time had gone, how she had barely noticed three years passing her by. She regretted none of it, though. Being here for Jaehaerys and Margaery, the dragons and her great nephews and niece was better than life had ever been with Viserys across the Narrow Sea. She had family now, and a hope that felt real. And a purple-eyed little boy who called her 'Aunt Dany' and smiled like the sun for her. Letting a smile settle on her face, despite all the tension she knew she should be feeling with everything going on, Dany began to make her way back to the castle.

Duncan, never a restive sleeper, began to squirm and hum in his sleep a few moments later, and it was all Dany could do not to laugh at his wriggling little limbs even as she struggled to hold his sleeping form secure. "You are going to make some woman an insomniac one day, sweetling," she told him, shifting him in her arms and blowing a silvery corkscrew curl out of his face before it could hit his nose and make him sneeze. She shifted him again to hold his legs firmly in place before he could kick out as he was wont to do, and-- walked straight into what felt for a moment like a solid wall. She took a step back, eyes wide as she looked straight up at a pair of clear, blue eyes. "Sorry 'bout that," she said, pulling on a small smile even as she quickly shifted her own speech patterns into what would be expected of a servant of Dragonstone. "The little Lord is a menace even in his sleep."

The man she had walked into - no, she realised, he was a boy, despite his height and powerful frame, probably a year her junior - gave her a strangely abashed smile and reached up to run a large hand through his thick, black hair. "I should be the one apologising, m'lady," he said. "I confess I am not entirely certain where I am."

She narrowed her eyes, coming to a sudden realisation. "Gendry," she said. "Is it not?"

He nodded. And when Duncan squirmed so mightily Dany nearly dropped him, the boy - Gendry - reached out to help her keep hold of the child. "Yes, m'lady," he said, taking a quick step back once Duncan was once more secure in her arms. He cleared his throat. "Sorry to inconvenience you, but--" He paused, flushing. "Is there a smithy around here? Might they need help?"

She shifted Duncan around until she could free a hand and hold it out for him to shake. "I am Dany," she said, and felt a moment's shame at neglecting to tell him the rest of it. But really, if she wanted to get to know this boy, it would not do to try to communicate with him through their gap in birth. "This is Lord Duncan Stark. I am one of his carers." She made sure to flash a sweet little smile. "If you help me get him to the nursery unscathed, I will help you find the smithy afterwards."

He gave an awkward smile back, but nodded, seemingly reassured by the fact that she had offered up no family name. "Certainly, Dany," he said. "Would you like me to carry him for you?"

Dany considered it for a moment. While Duncan did not weigh much, his squirming did make him difficult to carry, and her arms were feeling the strain. But this was her great nephew, Jaehaerys' eldest son and the heir to the Seven Kingdoms. She could not possibly trust his safety to someone she had just met, could she? Yet, looking at Gendry's earnest eyes, she could not bring herself to believe he would ever hurt a small child. Mentally, she shook herself. This man-child's father had endorsed and rewarded the slaughter of Dany's niece and nephew, Jaehaerys' own brother and sister. How could she ever possibly trust Gendry? "Forgive me, Gendry," she said. "But we here at Dragonstone have lived through the deaths of many of our lieges through the years. We do not find it easy to trust outsiders."

Gendry winced. "Nothing to forgive," he said. "Even in Fleabottom, you will hear the tale of Princess Elia and her children. It is horrible, what happened to them. I assume your parents knew them?"

Dany nodded. That, at least, was not a lie. And while her father probably did not care all that much about what happened to Elia, Rhaenys and Aegon according to what she had heard, she knew her mother must have mourned them deeply. "So," she said instead. "You want to see the smithy. May I ask why?"

Gendry shrugged. "I trained with Tobho Mott on the Street of Steel in King's Landing," he said. "It is the only thing I know how to do. I have stayed here for nothing, doing nothing, for more than a sennight already, and I do not even know why the Lords Stark brought me here. I want..." He stopped, frowned. "I do not like sitting around doing nothing," he said at last. "And I do not like eating food I have neither worked nor paid for, nor sleeping in a bed I have not earned."

Dany could not help but smile at that. She had grown up begging alms from anyone who would listen, living off her brother's name and meagre connections. And it had rankled, always feeling in someone's debt, always being in Viserys' debt, even back when she had believed they would be wed one day. When she had arrived on Dragonstone and found her family, she had done everything she could to find a place for herself, to carve out tasks, to be useful, to be valued for what she could do rather than beg alms once again. She appreciated seeing that same pride and tenacity, even if it came from a different type of heart and experience, in someone else. "I admit I have not heard of Tobho Mott," she said. "But I am sure that if you have skill, the smith will welcome you."

He gave her a grin, and if the Usurper had looked like this in the youth, Dany could almost understand the songs that had been written about him. "Tobho Mott is a master smith," he said. "The finest weapons smith in King's Landing. He can take a lump of steel and turn it into the finest sword or plate you have ever seen." There was fervour in his eyes now, as though he had struck on some subject that touched him deeply. His whole body seemed to come alive with the words. It was ever so slightly amusing to watch, but on the other hand his passion for his craft did not make her confident he would ever take to being a lord, let alone a Lord Paramount. Then again, Dany did not mind that as much as she maybe should. She did not mind being the Lady, the deciding force, the one in charge of a domain, so long as she could get along with her Lord Husband and he, if he would or could not work with her at least did not work against her.

"You know," she heard herself say. "After you have settled in with the smiths, seek out young Maester Pylos. He does not have too many duties yet, so he has taken it upon himself, at Lady Stark's urging, to provide some education for the servants of the castle and the nearby smallfolk. You could learn how to read and write and do your sums with him."

And there was the same eagerness she had seen in the faces of so many servants and smallfolk since that endeavour began. "Truly?" he asked, eyes shining. He truly was handsome when he smiled.

"Truly," she answered with a smile of her own. And though they did not speak of anything of importance before she got him to the smithy, she felt more confident in planning for when she would seek him out next.

***

Ser Oswell Whent

"Where are you taking me?" Prince Viserys said, voice shrill. "I demand to know where you are taking me! Have you finally given up this stupid venture of yours? Are we returning to Westeros?"

Ser Oswell let out a tired breath and barely refrained from rolling his eyes. "We are going to Westeros," he confirmed. "Going to a very special place, in fact. Balerion showed his might there. The Conciliator's Heir was chosen there. A fateful tourney was held there. The greatest knight of the Kingsguard the realm has ever seen was born there." He allowed a smile to shine through, knowing all too well that Viserys was unlikely to make heads or tails of anything he had heard.

"Do not mock me, Ser," Viserys spat.

Oswell cocked an eyebrow. "I would never, My Prince," he reassured, keeping a straight face with some difficulty. Truthfully, keeping a straight face at all had been difficult for the past few fortnights. Everything was so close to being set back to rights, everything he had worked for for nearly two decades seeming just about to come true. He had scared several of his captains since they set out from Pentos, solely for being unable to hold back his own grin. "The Usurper has died. There is to be a Great Council to determine the line of succession."

Viserys' eyes grew to the size of dessert plates, and Gods, what Oswell would not give for the permission to smack this ridiculous child over the head. When he first met Jaehaerys after they all left the Tower of Joy, the boy had been four-and-ten and far more a man than this fool. "This is my chance," the idiot crowed. "Finally, they will give me my rightful throne, and I will have your head."

"I am sure you will," Oswell said. This time he did allow himself the indulgence of rolling his eyes. "On a more realistic note, endorsing your nephew might be the better move. Present a united front and all that. Most of Westeros is behind him." He took in the sight of the demented prince and sighed. "Or, I suppose you can keep charging towards a locked room in the Maidenvault, or the Wall, whichever one sounds better to the King. I shall miss you dearly, My Prince."

Viserys stared at him as though he were the most confounding creature the Prince had ever met, for all the time they had spent together. "I confess I shan't miss you at all, Ser," he said, sounding strangely bewildered.

Oswell sighed, and barely refrained from indulging in yet another eye roll. The King owed him the best rooms in the White Sword Tower for putting up with this lackwit, truly.

***

Arya Stark

Arya had thought it was bad enough to see Jon with Margaery and one babe back in King's Landing. Now, on Dragonstone, with both Margaery and three whole babes, it was utterly ridiculous. Here Jon was supposed to be her fun brother, and yet he was acting just like their Lord Father. Worse, even. Arya was fairly certain she had never seen Father happily allow Rickon to drool all over him, and yet all Jon did was laugh as Lyarra did just that. "I am never having children," she told Sansa.

Sansa gave a ridiculous, breathy sigh, eyes never wavering from their brother - and that was what he was, no matter who his parents were - and his Lady Wife.

Arya rolled her eyes. "If you ask really nicely, maybe Jon will betroth you to Duncan. He is a blond prince, after all."

Sansa huffed and tried to cuff her over the head the same way Septa Mordane did when Arya had displeased her. Arya ducked under her hand with a laugh before settling into her chair at the high table and piling food onto her plate. She stole another glance at Jon and snorted. He was not going to be eating a bite, not with three babes crawling all over him. Ridiculous.

Arya glanced over at Dany, shared an amused look. Jon's aunt was fun. She was a bit too ladylike for Arya's tastes, but she had also showed Arya Jon's dragons, and she knew all kinds of stories about the Free Cities in Essos, and she did not sew very well either. And she loved Jon and his babes, even if she did insist on calling Jon Jaehaerys and spent too much time making googly eyes at the blacksmith's apprentice they had brought with them from King's Landing. All in all, though, she was all right in Arya's book. And Arya honestly did not think she had ever seen anyone enjoy sitting at the High Table so much in her life. She had been so young when Jon was legitimised that she barely remembered anything of his reaction, but that day, sennights ago, when Margaery had called Dany to the High Table and told her there was no reason to hide anymore, Dany had lit up like the fireflies Arya had seen at night in the Riverlands. Arya enjoyed that memory. She enjoyed seeing the people she liked happy.

After a while, when everyone who was not being slobbered on by three excitable children was almost done eating, Dany cleared her throat, put her utensils down. Jon blew one of Duncan's curls out of his own face and looked at his aunt with more attention than he had shown anyone who was not his wife or child since he had left the ship hours ago. "Jaehaerys," Dany said then. "As Head of my House and my eldest male relative--"

"Viserys," Jon started, only to be cut off by Daenerys' wince.

"My eldest sane male relative," Dany corrected. She paused a moment, tugged on the ends of her long, silvery hair, almost as though she were nervous. That was odd. Arya did not think she had seen Dany truly nervous before. "Jae," she said then, voice imploring. "I wanted to ask your blessing to wed Gendry Waters."

"Should he not be asking that?" Ser Loras asked. Arya was still astounded by how much more outspoken and relaxed both he and Ser Arthur were here on Dragonstone. And more than a little bit angry with herself for not realising that they had been extremely formal in the Red Keep, and not just stupid Southrons. They had been acting Kingsguard knights, and somehow she had not noticed. Stupid. And she even knew Ser Arthur, or had, when she was little and he and Jon still lived in Winterfell.

Dany shrugged, but judging by the look she flashed Ser Loras, she knew him too well to be too offended. "I thought since I was the one to ask Gendry to marry me, it was only fitting I was the one to ask my nephew for his blessing as well."

"Besides," Arya could not help but add. "She showed him Jon's dragons. Gendry is dead scared of them."

Jon's face tucked into one of those rare bright grins of his that seemed to light up the entire room. "If you want to wed him, wed him," he said, gently depositing Duncan with Margaery and Aemon with Sansa. Lyarra took the chance to reach up and try to find out how long his hair actually was when you stretched out the curls. Arya could sympathise. She had been curious about that a time or two herself. "He is to be Lord Paramount of the Stormlands, if we want to keep it from descending into another succession crisis. It is a good match, and if you care for him, so much the better." Arya did not understand what it was with people who were already wed and their utter pragmatism on the subject. She knew, of course, that both Father and Mother and Jon and Margaery's marriages had been wholly political and that they had not known each other before their weddings. The fact that they had found love anyway made them insufferably optimistic about the concept, as though everyone else would be just as lucky as them, and that was what dissolved into this practicality that would one day see her wed to some Dornish buffoon, since apparently that betrothal was hers and not Sansa's. Stupid shits.

Dany's eyes widened. "I thought you could not legitimise him until you take the Throne," she said.

Jon shifted Lyarra on his lap and carefully disentangled her grubby hands from his hair. "I cannot," he agreed. There was a bit of food stuck in his curls. "My father can. And he has signed the document." He took a breath, grimaced when Lyarra's waving hand smacked right into his face. Arya bit back a snicker. For as quiet and careful as Jon had always been, his children seemed a surprisingly rambunctious lot. Arya loved all three of them to them bottom of her heart.

"Is that wise?" Ser Arthur asked. "Legitimising the Usurper's bastard gives him a claim to the Throne."

Lady Olenna let out a long laugh. "I see Willas' hand in this," she said. "You forget, Ser Arthur, that the Usurper claimed the Throne by conquest and blood. If he had not, Arryn and Stark, even Lannister, would have had as much claim to it as he did. The Baratheons sit the Throne as a cadet branch of House Targaryen rather than as themselves. Through conquest, their branch became the first in line for succession, but with no trueborn Baratheons left, the Throne passes back to the main Targaryen line. With everyone who has died, Jaehaerys is essentially the Usurper's heir as much as he was Rhaegar's. So, we legitimise the bastard and promise to support his claim to Storm's End and the Stormlands in return for him and his line forever abdicating from the line of succession." She paused for a moment. "Of course, it would make things easier if he does not take the Baratheon name."

Jon nodded. "That is part of the document," he said. "He is free to reclaim the name Durrandon. But letting him use Baratheon makes things less stable." He turned, cocked an eyebrow at Dany. "Do you think he will agree?"

Dany snorted. "When I spoke to him about it, he mostly just wanted to know whether Storm's End has a smithy," she said. "He is a sweet boy, but utterly unambitious. Except when it comes to metalworking." A smile slowly grew on her face. "I would hate having to bear the name Baratheon," she said. "I have always been Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen. Why not Daenerys Targaryen of House Stormborn? It seems oddly fitting, does it not?"

Jon flashed her another grin. "I will get the papers to you later," he said. "If you could talk to him?"

***

Princess Daenerys Targaryen

Dany's whole body felt tight and tingly with nerves. Her hand shook as she rested it in the crook of her nephew's arm. She had not expected to be so nervous. This was her own choice, after all, and she knew the former Gendry Waters, now Stormborn, was a good, kind man with a surprising wit, who would be content to leave her to rule the Stormlands so long as he had a forge to work and perhaps a horse to ride. They had gone on rides daily for more than a fortnight now, and though he had not known how to sit a horse at first, he seemed to quite enjoy it now. She knew the boy, and she knew she was making the right choice, for herself, for her House and the whole of the realm. She should not be nervous.

Jaehaerys reached out and squeezed her hand gently, loosening her fingers ever so slightly. She winced when she realised she had been digging her nails into the flesh of his arm through his tunic. He glanced up at the Sept looming ahead of them for a moment before looking at her with those warm, dark eyes of his. "You know," he said. "The night before I wed Margaery, I passed out in my father's arms and slept maybe two hours. I just barely managed to eat three spoonfuls of porridge when I broke my fast, and then I spent an hour throwing up in the privy. I remember that all too well, and I have barely any memory of the wedding itself, either here or before the Heart tree. All I remember is being so scared I thought I would die from it."

Dany could not quite help but smile at that. "You were three-and-ten. That is to be expected. And you did not know her."

Jaehaerys shrugged. "Later on, I spoke with my father and my Uncle Benjen. They both felt that same way before they wed. Even Benjen, who had known Aunt Dacey his whole life, said that he did not even remember the moment when he decided he was not going to run away and join the Night's Watch." He gave her a small smile. "You are nervous, and no one will blame you for it. I am certain Gendry is sweating in there and struggling to keep down whatever food he has managed to eat. Even with someone you know and care for, this must still be frightening. It is an enormous step, and there will be no going back." He gave a small shrug. "If you want, we can go get the dragons now, get to Harrenhal a bit early. Afterwards, you can make him court you for years, until you are surer than sure this is what you want. You know I would never make you do this."

"I know you would not," Dany said. She reached out and brushed a curl of hair out of his face. Jaehaerys rolled his eyes at her, and Dany could not help but give a small laugh. He was always so bewildered at the way his hair seemed to attract everyone's fingers. At least right now there were no bits of food or dirt left from his children tugging on it with grubby fingers. "But we need the Stormlands. And we need more children with the Blood of Old Valyria in their veins, or there would not be so many dragons and eggs. And I would have to wed someday. I know Gendry is a good man."

Jaehaerys shrugged. "If you want to be a spinster, I will not stop you," he said. Then he let out a breath. "But nothing in my life has or will make me happier than Margaery and our babes. I wish the same for you, and if you think you can have that with Gendry..."

Dany swallowed down a sudden lump in her throat. She still missed Viserys sometimes. Enough that it hurt, every once on a blue moon. But she was glad it was Jaehaerys here with her, her kind, gentle nephew who would give her the right to her own choice while wishing the biggest happiness he knew of on her. "I hope I can be half the parent that you are," she said softly. "And half the wife Margaery is." Somewhere along the way, her nerves had fallen away. She felt something almost like a smile tug on her face. "What are you waiting for, sweet nephew? You are supposed to lead me to my Lord Husband."

Jon flashed her a rare, wide grin, gave her hand another squeeze and led her inside.

***

Lord Eddard Stark

"Lord Stark!" a page boy shouted. "Lord Stark, come and see. They say dragons are coming!"

Ned sucked in a sharp breath, something that tasted of both anticipation and fear shuddering through him. Ned had never mourned the demise of the dragons. They were a weapon like no other, and something so unnatural that they should not exist at all in this age of reason. But he also remembered being a young boy in the Vale, struck with awe at the tale of the ruthless Visenya Targaryen taking the young King of the Vale and eventual Lord Arryn riding on dragonback, showing him the world from above, rather than hurting him like she could have. Even as part of him had scoffed, had whispered that he was of the North, of ice, had no use for fire, and that Visenya had only been threatening the boy's mother, he had not quite been able to stop himself from imagining, for a few moments, what it must be like to fly. He wondered if any child had not.

For a moment, Ned wondered if choosing Harrenhal as the site of the Great Council was the wrong decision. It was central, easy for most to reach, it was large enough to host thousands, and it had been used for such purposes before. But it was also the single greatest reminder in the realm of the terrible destruction dragons were capable of. Ned caught himself. That was not all it stood for, though, was it? Ned might be of the North, but his Lady Wife was a daughter of the Riverlands, and he knew well enough that to her the ruined Harrenhal was a symbol of freedom, that to many Riverlanders, the Targaryens and their dragons had meant delivery from centuries of cruel Ironborn rule. To the North, the arrival of House Targaryen had meant an end to the independence of a largely stable Kingdom that preferred to keep itself to itself. For many of the other Kingdoms, it might have meant a loss of independence, but it had also meant greater security, a new stability, and while the wars the Targaryens waged had been horrible, they had been less frequent and less devastating than what had come before. There had been a reason Ned was the only Lord Paramount in the Rebellion who had called his banners and received resistance from none of them. Out of all the Kingdoms, perhaps only the North and Dorne owed nothing to the Targaryens.

Ned trusted Jon with dragons, and he trusted Jon to raise his children to believe in honour and justice, but dragons could live for centuries, and neither Ned nor Jon would have any influence on Jon's many times great grandchildren. He would have to speak on it with Jon, put limitations into place so that no more Mad Kings would sit the Throne in the future. For now, he allowed himself to put aside those concerns and followed the page outside. Then he allowed himself to gape in awe and wonder and a deep-set fear that told him he was, for the first time in his life, pure and utter prey. Even so, the two dragons were beautiful as they circled down, scales shimmering in the autumn sun, one green and black, the other mottled black and white. Just barely, Ned could make out the riders on their backs, both dressed in red and black, one with a banner of silvery hair waving behind. For Jon's sake, he felt a sliver of relief. His son had worried none of the dragons would be large enough to ride in time and that, given the time he had chosen to spend on Dragonstone before coming here, he might have trouble making it here for the Great Council if the dragons could not serve.

With some difficulty, Ned wrenched his eyes away from the spectacle in the air to chance a look at the people around him. Everyone's gaze was turned up, and it was silent enough that the only sounds that could be heard were the flapping of the dragons' wings as they descended. The expressions on everyone's faces differed, between awe and joy and fear and horror. Then the dragons landed, their movements almost simultaneous, and the earth trembled at the impact. Jon slid off the back of the large green and black before walking to the other and helping the pale haired young female rider down. Daenerys, Ned surmised, Jon's paternal aunt.

Around him, most people still seemed frozen, staring in disbelief. Ned took a deep breath, then stepped forward and held out his hand for Jon to shake. Ned caught his gaze, gave his nephew - his son - a smile. "Lord Targaryen," he said, and felt a shiver race down his back. He forced it away. If anyone had the strength to be Jaehaerys Targaryen while remaining Jon Stark, King in the North and King of the Seven Kingdoms, it was the man in front of him. "Quite a few people have awaited your arrival." He turned to Jon's aunt. "Lady Daenerys," he greeted.

She shook her head. "Lady Stormborn," she said. "Lady of Storm's End and Lady Wife of Gendry Stormborn, Lord Paramount of the Stormlands. I speak on his behalf here." She spoke in what felt at first like a soft voice, but it took Ned only a moment to realise it was the kind that carried. Everyone within near vicinity heard her words. "Well met, Lord Stark. Our nephew has had only good things to say about you." Ned gave a single blink before bending to kiss her knuckles as per Southron custom. That was well played, he conceded. It had the Queen of Thorns written all over it, this match. It was not what Ned had sent young Gendry to Dragonstone for, but it might provide stability to a part of the realm that could have been left without leadership after Robert's death and the arrest of his supposed sons. At least young Daenerys did not look unhappy. Ned would have to check up on Gendry at some point, make sure he had gone into this out of his own free will. Regardless of everything, he still owed Robert that much. Not that he really thought Jon would have allowed anything else. But still.

Ned nodded and left, walking back towards the tower rooms he had taken for his own for the duration of the stay. In his capacity as Lord Protector, he could not be seen to show favouritism, even - or perhaps especially - towards his own nephew, the man the realm knew he had raised as a son. Tomorrow, when the Great Council began, things would be different. Oh, how he longed to simply be Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell again. From his window, he saw the way people all but descended on Jon and Daenerys, countless Lords and Ladies finally able to speak the words they had dutifully kept quiet for years.

Chapter Text

301 AC

Jon's head rang. Somehow that was all he could focus on. He had a headache like nothing he had ever felt before. It throbbed behind his eyes and in his temples, made his skull ache and pulse. It was easier to think about that than it was to think about the chants that still resounded in his ears, the Lords and Ladies of the realm calling out a name that still felt only halfway his own. Easier to think about than his father's astounded assurance that the victory was almost as resounding as Viserys the First's had been all the way back in the first Great Council. It was easier than thinking about cleaning all the dirt out of King's Landing. Much easier to contemplate than the fact that Tywin Lannister threatened war if his children and grandchildren were not released. It was a war Jon's allies would win, with six kingdoms and two territories united against the Westerlands, but not one Jon particularly wanted to fight.

"What do you plan to do with the prisoners, Your Grace?" Jon's father asked. It was all Jon could do to bite back a groan. Gods, his head hurt. He reached up and rubbed at his temples for long moments. How was it that he felt shackled now, when he should be feeling happy, should be feeling triumphant?

"My name is Jon," he said. "At least to you. I will not have my family bowing and scraping, especially my Lord Father." He paused, let out a long breath. "And Tommen and Joffrey will have to take the Black," Jon said at last. "Cersei and Jaime... I will have to execute them. Invalidating Robert's reign will only throw everything into chaos, which means their actions need to be treated like high treason. Do you know any loyal minor lord or knight who would be willing to be betrothed to Myrcella, and eventually wed her, without trying to push for a claim? Someone who would treat her well, regardless of everything?"

"She always struck me as a sweet girl," Jon's father said. "And she is the only one we can get out of this unscathed. I would keep her in the North, if I were you. As far away from the Iron Throne as possible, and among people who would never betray the son of Lyanna Stark. I will speak to Lord Reed about wedding her to his son Jojen, and if he is not willing..." He let out a sigh. "There is always Bran. He is only two years younger than her. He is a sweet boy; he would treat her well. And there is no one we can trust more than family. I could give them a holdfast, perhaps even let them start a cadet branch, if only to appease the Westerlands." He shut his eyes for a moment, as though this whole business wearied him as much as it did Jon. "Leave her to me. I will make sure she and her titles are taken care of before I resign as Hand." He paused for a moment, cocked an eyebrow. "What do you mean to do about your uncle Viserys?"

This time, Jon did let out a groan. Viserys had presented his own claim while Ser Oswell sighed and rolled his eyes in the background. Amazingly, Viserys did manage to get a few minor lords to vote for him, but not enough to make anything even resembling a difference. "Once Cersei's sons have taken the oath, Viserys would be the perfect tool, ripe for Tywin to pluck. And I doubt Viserys would resist." He let out a sigh. "Would it be bad luck starting my reign by sending my own uncle to the Wall?"

Jon's father actually let out a short, hoarse laugh at that. "Your great great grandfather started his rule with sending both his brother and his father's Hand of the King, another kinsman, to the Wall. True enough, Aemon Targaryen went of his own accord, so he could never be used against his younger brother, but the point still stands." Ned Stark sighed. "Perhaps it is not right, to put all other claimants away. But the realm needs stability now more than ever, especially if we are to war with the Westerlands. Your uncle will be more than detrimental to that. And he refused to bend the knee, did he not? Besides, if anyone can straighten that boy out, it would be the Old Bear and Maester Aemon working in tandem."

Jon almost managed a smile at that. He was not sure why he was so exhausted when he had done absolutely nothing, or what exactly it was that made his head hurt like this. On the other hand, maybe he did know. If he shut his eyes, he could imagine war raging around him. He could imagine sitting on that horrid Throne for the rest of his life. He could imagine the weight of the crown on his head. He did not look forward to any of it, not in the least. He would plant a weirwood in King's Landing, he decided. A proper Heart tree. He would get his Northern family to come help him carve the face once it had grown beyond a sapling. Right at the moment, that seemed the biggest possible decision he could bring himself to make, after all the others.

"I will send for Margaery and your children," Jon's father said. "Have them meet you in King's Landing once we have finished here. And I will write the High Septon, have him ready everything for your coronation. Do you want the crown alone, or would you prefer to have your Lady Wife coroneted alongside you?"

Jon nearly vomited at the thought of carrying all this alone. Margaery was much better suited, and he knew, all the way down to his bones, that he could not do this without her. "Yes," he said, and perhaps he sounded a tad too desperate, but right now he did not care, and he knew his father would never hold it against him. "Alongside me. Definitely."

Ned Stark reached out and ruffled his hair gently. "It is understandable if you are scared, Your Grace--"

"Jon," Jon choked out. "Call me Jon, Father. Please."

His father gave him a gentle smile. "I understand it if you are scared. I was frightened when I realised I was to be Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. I had not the training, nor the wish, to take my brother's place. You, however, do have the training. You have the right character. You have everything you need in order to be a great Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and you have good people around you to help carry the burden."

Jon sucked in a shuddering breath. "Does it make me craven that I still wish I could have just stayed the Lord of Dragonstone and trusted the rest of the Seven Kingdoms to leave me and mine alone?"

Ned shook his head. "Not at all. It makes you a better, humbler, man than most. And after Aerys and Robert, that is perhaps the only thing that could hold these Seven Kingdoms together."

"That," Jon agreed, "And Dany and I flying our dragons to Casterly Rock as soon as we can."

"Tywin will have already called his banners," Ned said. "You must be careful."

"I always try to be," Jon said, and let it remain at that. Or that was what he wanted to, at least. He was not given the chance to rest, though, since apparently Barristan Selmy of all people wanted an audience. And Gods, Jon still had not the first clue what he was supposed to do with the man.

"Let me take the Black, Your Grace," Ser Barristan said after falling to his knees. "I beg of you. I failed your father. I failed both your grandfathers. I failed your brother and your sister, and I even failed the king I never should have sworn myself to in the first place. I have shamed myself many times over, and I do not deserve the White Cloak. Please let me take the Black, and I promise I will live out the rest of my life trying to make up for my failings by doing what I can to shield the realm."

Jon felt a weight he had not realised he had carried fall off his shoulders. "You have my leave, Ser Barristan," he said. "And I would be grateful if you would act as guard for Joffrey and Tommen Waters and my uncle, Prince Viserys, see to it that they make it there unharmed."

"I will see them there, Your Grace," Ser Barristan said. "And I will see them take their vows. That, I promise you."

Jon did not say anything about what little he thought the old knight's promises might be worth at this point. He simply nodded. "I thank you, Ser," he said. Hopefully, Ser Barristan was capable of this one, simple thing.

***

"You are certain it is time?" Jon asked, standing still and allowing Dany to pile the three dragon eggs into his arms. The feeling of his tunic sleeves smouldering away was all too familiar, and brought him far too close to that night years ago, when his world had been turned on its head and he had almost lost his closest friend to his own blindness.

Dany cocked one of those dark, overly expressive eyebrows of hers. "I dare you to even try to tell me you have not felt them too," she said. And Jon, quite frankly, could not deny it. It was why he had come when she asked, got on Longclaw's back and followed her to Dragonstone when, by all rights, he should be asleep in his and Margaery's quarters in Maegor's Holdfast, doing his best to get some proper rest before the pomp and ceremony he would have to endure the following day. Sleep, it seemed, would not be in the cards for now. "Besides," his aunt added. "It is fitting, is it not? To bring three more dragons into the world, just when we are finally taking back Westeros."

Jon shrugged. He still did not relish the thought of bearing the weight of a crown. Truth be told, he had half a mind of give it to Dany much of the time. No doubt she would enjoy it far more. But it was not his to give away, even when he desperately wanted to, not when most of the lords of the realm had been united in giving it to him. Instead of answering, he led the way to the catacombs. As always, his feet required no direction from his conscious mind to find the path. They carried him, without trouble, down into the heart of the island. "Tell me if you have trouble breathing," he told her, Loras' coughs and rattling breaths as clear in his mind as if he had heard it all just yesterday.

He heard Dany's smile in her voice. "You are not the only dragon here," she said, staying right on his heels as though these catacombs were as familiar to her as they were to him. Then again, he supposed they were. She must have spent endless hours and days down here, trying to keep the dragons in check.

It was strange to reach the heart of the Dragonmont and stare into its faintly bubbling pool of molten rock with very little of the fear and shock and utter desperation he had felt last time. It was still otherworldly, utterly impressive, still made him feel so hot that the fat droplets of sweat dripping down his face seemed the only thing cooling him down. Daenerys' torch had gone out at some point; Jon had barely noticed. "I am not sure I can do it," he said when she took the first egg from his arm.

She frowned, fingers tightening on the sharp scales of the petrified egg. The smear of blood remained on the rocky surface without being absorbed, another sign that the egg was ready to hatch. "We have to," she said. "You know they will not leave us in peace if we--"

Jon shook his head. "I am not talking about the eggs," he said. He sucked in a sharp breath, felt it burn his throat without doing any damage. "I am-- Everything else." He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "The crown. The Iron Throne. The last Targaryen King people remember is Aerys. They may like me now, but that is all alliances and knowing that the alternative is Lannister rule. And there is madness in our blood. You know that. Those first four eggs nearly drove me mad. I am not immune to it. I am not--"

"Jae," she interjected, reaching out and putting a hand on his arm. "You have been a king for as long as I have known you. Even that first time we met in your solar, when Margaery was birthing Duncan. I know you must have been frightened and agitated. But you made me feel safe, feel real hope for the first time in my life." She paused a moment. "My father was a blemish on our House. My brothers were not sound of mind either. We have many ancestors who were not worthy of the responsibility they carried. But you are not them. You are as good as the best kings that came before you. I believe in you. I have for as long as I have known you." A strange smile tugged on her lips. "Whenever a Targaryen is born, the Gods toss a coin. Yours landed solidly on greatness. The fact that you cannot see it only makes it clearer for everyone else. The dragons have come again, and we will be different this time over. We will be better." With that, she tossed the egg she held over the ledge and down, down, down into the sea of lava below.

Jon sucked in another sharp breath, and let go of the remaining two eggs. For now, at least, he would choose to believe her.

The squeak of the first of the hatchlings emerging from the volcano, moments or hours later, seemed, oddly, to confirm it all. Dany crouched down and held out her hand, let it crawl onto her palm. It was a tiny, squalling thing, cream and gold and magnificent, even if it was still barely a babe of a beast. "Let them stand for something good now," she said softly, reaching up and placing the hatchling on his shoulder. "Viserion," she said. The other two followed, one green and bronze and the other red and black. "Rhaegal," Dany continued, stroking a careful finger along the green one's neck. "And Aerian." She looked at him for long moments, as though daring him to gainsay her. He did not. She was right. It was time for those names to mean something good again. Jon only hoped that was how it would all turn out.

"Come on," he said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and turning her towards the exit. "We need to go if we wish to make it back in time." His heart thudded too hard in his chest at the thought, but that did not change what needed to happen, and so he steeled himself and made for the surface.

***

"Wait," Jon said. "So Loreza and and Dorea convinced your barely three-namedays-old son to put a scorpion in your bed?"

Garlan shrugged, a grin playing on his lips. "Olyvar is not quite old enough to understand the history of Tyrells and scorpions in Dorne. At least it was not venomous. It might have been, if they had played that trick when I first got there. Your Dornish cousins are brutal, Your Grace."

Jon could not quite bite back a laugh. "Step cousins," he managed to correct. "And I have no doubt they are." He took a moment, got his breathing back under control. "I am glad you are happy there. I may not have realised back then why you were made to wed Arianne Martell, but I would still hate it if you were unhappy in Sunspear."

Garlan shrugged, still smiling. He was broader of shoulder than either of his brothers, and almost olive skinned, though Jon supposed that could be the years he had spent living in Dorne rather than any hue he was born with. He also seemed lighter of heart than Loras, who had carried a strange seriousness with him since he had almost died in the Dragonmont, and Willas, who was constantly thinking and planning half a dozen steps ahead, as though working himself to the bone would make up for his lame leg in the eyes of the world. At the same time, Garlan was an utterly serious warrior, and probably one the best swordsmen Jon had ever met, second only to Uncle Arthur, more Jon's match than anyone he had met in a long time. It was just as though Garlan was capable of switching between seriousness and laughter more easily than the other two, more like Margaery in that way, and Jon wished it were an ability he knew how to emulate.

Garlan was one of the few things about this whole dratted Westerlands campaign he enjoyed. He had met his middle goodbrother less than a handful of times before, and all in passing. It was good to finally get to know him, even if it was on the battlefield and in command tents and captured castles.

In hindsight he should not have been surprised, he supposed, that Dorne had been among the first to answer the call to arms against the Westerlands and join his Dragonstone forces and Sers Oswell and Gerold's Essosi soldiers and knights. He certainly had not been surprised by the eager ferocity in the eyes of Oberyn Martell. He was just grateful Prince Doran had sent Garlan as well; he had an oddly calming influence over his gooduncle Jon had not imagined anyone could possibly have wielded. But so far, it had kept the Dornishmen in line and following the agreed-upon strategies.

Garlan picked up his cup of Arbour Gold and took a long drink with clear enjoyment on his face. "I have missed this," he declared. "The Dornishmen are so proud of their own sour that this is near impossible to get there. Tastes like home." He flashed Jon another smile. He was silent for a moment, eyes far away, and Jon kept his mouth shut as well, allowed his goodbrother that moment of nostalgia before his gaze sharpened again, focusing in the direction of the Rock. "You think the old lion's getting nervous up there?"

Jon shrugged. Truth be told, at this point he wanted nothing more than to climb onto Longclaw's back, fly up and burn the damn thing down so he could go back home and put this behind him. But while Longclaw was large enough to carry him easily by now, he was not invulnerable, especially considering the amount of scorpions he had no doubt he would encounter at the top of the battlements of Casterly Rock. There might have been some chance of taking the Rock with dragons if he had not been alone, but Dany was somewhere in either the Red Keep, Dragonstone or Storm's End, firmly grounded for the next five or so moons' turn until she gave birth to the heir of the Stormlands. "Possibly," he said. He let out a groan. "I really do not want another siege," he said. "Especially against the Rock. I have no doubt they have enough provisions to last for years. And then it becomes a question of whether they run out of food before the dragons are large enough to risk in an outright attack. Either way, it will take much longer than I even care to think on, and I sincerely doubt you and I are the only men here with wives and children we would like to see before winter comes."

Garlan snorted. "We will not be allowed to stay here that long," he said. "Trust me, I know my wife and I know yours even better. Play at war for too long, and we will both be dragged home by our ears." His face stretched into a fond smile.

Jon could not help but laugh at that, swallowing down the pang of longing. He might be good at all this, the war, the fighting, even the strategy, and sometimes, when he was in the middle of it, he found he liked it more than he would prefer to admit, but that took nothing away from the fact that there was somewhere else he would much rather be. He swallowed down a sudden lump in his throat. "Margaery wrote," he said. "She said Aemon is walking everywhere now, getting underfoot and vanishing all over the place. He had barely taken his first unassisted step when I left. Lyarra is speaking in full sentences. My little sister has taken to training Duncan in the yard. And I am sitting here wondering how I am supposed to get into a castle that has never fallen except to treason and trickery."

Garlan did not reply, but by the look in his eyes, Jon knew his goodbrother understood all too well.

A sudden commotion outside the command tent broke up the quiet moment and prevented Jon from lingering on the ache for too long. "Your Grace!" someone was shouting. "Your Grace, please, I must talk to you!"

Jon glanced at Garlan, who raised an eyebrow. Almost simultaneously, they let their hands drop to their swords. Jon got to his feet, walked to the tent entrance and looked at the knight standing guard. "Ser Oswell," he said. "What is going on?" He followed Ser Oswell's gaze down to a very small form shrouded in a rough spun cloak, hood covering all distinguishing features. For a moment, Jon thought he was looking at a child. Then he remembered the voice he had heard speaking. Definitely not a child's voice. Jon looked more closely, but the hood shadowed everything. He floundered for a moment, uncertain how to address the stranger, and turned to Ser Oswell again. "Who is this?"

The stranger pushed back his hood, revealing the face of a fully grown, if rather grotesque man. Mismatched eyes stared up at Jon for a moment, seemed to see right through him. Then the little man bent the knee, bowing his head low. "Your Grace," he said. "I am Tyrion Lannister, son of Tywin Lannister, by rights heir apparent to Casterly Rock and the West. And I have come to give you passage to the Rock."

Jon did his best not to gape and stare, the way far too many people around him were. He had heard of the Imp, of course. Everyone had. Tywin Lannister's second son, malformed and poisonous, had by all accounts been hidden away within Casterly Rock for years at his sister's demand, after he had openly threatened to kill her like he had killed their mother. Those comments had come even before the Greyjoy Rebellion, when he had barely been a man grown. Jon reminded himself of that, and reminded himself of the things he had sometimes, as a boy, wished he had the courage to scream at Lady Catelyn. He took a deep breath, and prayed he was doing the right thing. "Ser Oswell," he said. "Please search Lord Tyrion and escort him inside the command tent." Then he ducked back inside.

He heard the momentary silence even as he returned to his chair. He heard the drawn in breaths as Garlan and Ser Oswell and who knows who else got ready to protest. Jon dropped into the chair and leaned back, one hand still on Blackfyre. Somehow, Jon must have 'mastered his presence', as Margaery called it, quite a bit more than he thought he had, because in the end, there were no questions or objections, and Jon steeled himself with a mouthful of wine while Ser Oswell searched the Imp for weapons before the little Lordling was finally brought to Jon. "Lord Tyrion," Jon greeted, setting his cup of wine back down on the table and gesturing to the chair Garlan had used moments ago. "Have a seat."

The Imp spent a moment manoeuvring into a chair that was easily too large for him. He wriggled once or twice to get comfortable before looking at Jon with those disconcertingly intelligent eyes of his. He reached out, picked up Garlan's wine cup and drank deep, all but emptying it in one gulp. The fact that his hand had trembled minutely made Jon relax just enough to pick his own cup back up, take another sip. "Your Grace," Lord Tyrion said a moment later, putting his cup back down. "Thank you for giving me a moment of your time. After what my family has done, you would have been well within your rights to cut me down where I stood."

Part of Jon wanted to agree, but he held it back. How could he condemn someone else for the actions of their kin when his own life had been a series of unearned mercies? "My Lord," he said. "One of my grandfathers burnt the other alive. My father dishonoured his wife, dooming her and their children. My mother broke a sacred betrothal, dooming her father and brother. They led the whole of the realm to war. If we are judged by the actions of our families, Lord Stark should have left me out to die as a babe, my aunt should never have accepted me at all, Gendry Stormborn should have hated me, and the Martells should have demanded my head. Instead, they all call me kin. Of anyone in this world, I know that you cannot judge a man for the actions of his House." He coughed, took another sip of wine, suddenly unaccountably embarrassed for just how much he had revealed in a few short words. The part of politics where you kept your mouth shut still eluded him, Margaery would say. "You said you would grant us passage to the Rock?"

Lord Tyrion spent several long, silent moments staring at him with those mismatched eyes of his. He reached out for the pitcher of wine on the table, filled Garlan's cup again and drank deeply. Jon could not help but wonder just how much such a small body could hold. "My father is a cruel man," he said after a long time. "That is not why I would betray him. A cruel man can be a good Lord, and I could have hated my father without betraying him. But he is leading my House to ruin. For as long as I can remember, he has spoken of the legacy he wishes to leave, for our House. But over these past few moons it has become clear that the legacy he wishes to leave is all his own. All my life, he has been so obsessed with my imperfections that he did not see my siblings' flaws, to all our detriment. Even now, he names Lord Stark a liar and you a usurper." He paused again, seeming to gather his words, almost in the way Maester Cressen would when imparting a lesson he found it difficult to express. "My father is a brilliant tactician, when he has the advantage, whatever that advantage may be. When he does not, he is delusional. Even now, he has musicians playing the Rains of Castamere in the Great Hall to bolster up the servants and men-at-arms, while sending out missives. He promises Lady Arryn to protect her son's claim to the Vale in return for her knights. He promises your aunt he will see her on the Iron Throne if she will wed Joffrey once he has freed him from the Night's Watch. He even promises--"

"He promises my Lady Wife that he would protect our babes, give her a worthy, trueborn husband and see her descendants on the Iron Throne if she betrays me," Jon spat. "He promises the Boltons the North if they betray the Starks. He even promises the Wildlings gold we know he is running out of if they will attack the North and distract me. As if Wildlings have any use for gold." He paused, reached up by habit to rake a hand through his hair only to stop halfway through the movement when he remembered that he wore his hair back these days; the unruly curls were too much a hindrance when he was at war. And Loras was right; it did make him look older. And all that was much easier to think of than his anger at those horrid promises of Tywin Lannister's. "As if we do not all remember the Sack of King's Landing, and what happened to Princess Elia, to my brother and sister. We have shot down the ravens, Lord Tyrion. Each was more ridiculous than the last."

"As I said," the Imp agreed. "When he is cornered, my Lord Father becomes delusional. Somehow, he still imagines he can re-enact the Rains of Castamere against all who would stand against him, even if it's all the rest of the realm. I would not see the people sworn to us suffer from his folly. There are so many passages and mineshafts in the hill below Casterly Rock, if you know your way you could get a few hundred men inside before my father knows what is even happening. Kill him, and his men-at-arms will back down."

"I suppose you know these passageways," Jon said.

The Imp nodded. "I do," he confirmed. "How else would I have found my way here?"

Jon nodded, took another sip of his wine. "And what do you want in return?" he asked.

"I want to be allowed to swear fealty to you," the Imp said. "I want you to recognise me as Lord of Casterly Rock and the Westerlands, and I want a chance to show you that you made no mistake in that choice. And I want your promise that my niece will be taken care of. I know there is nothing to be done for my nephews. Joffrey is mad and cruel, and people might still rally around Tommen. You were right to make them take the Black, even if Tommen would have done better in Oldtown. But my niece is sweet and innocent, and her threat is negligible."

Jon gave a nod. "The Maester at the Wall is ancient," he said. "My many times great uncle, according to Lord Stark. He will need a replacement someday soon. The Night's Watch governs itself, but I will send a missive to Lord Commander Jeor Mormont and recommend he send Tommen to Oldtown to forge his chain so he can become Maester Aemon's replacement," he promised. "Myrcella is a ward of Winterfell and betrothed to my younger brother. He is a cripple, but he is more than bright, and one of the gentlest boys I know. They will have their own holdfast in the North. So long as she is kind to Bran, she will never want for anything. And truth be told, there is little I want more than to have the fealty of the Westerlands as fast as possible, with as little bloodshed as possible."

The Imp nodded. "It is a good thing I have a fondness for cripples, bastards and broken things," he said. "We are in agreement, then." He held out his small, broad hand. Jon reached out and clasped it, giving it a firm shake. He was well aware that this could all be a trap, that the Imp could be lying through his teeth. But Jon's gut told him this was real, this would be the end of it. Another few sennights, and he would be back with Margaery and the children where he belonged. Hopefully, none of them had forgotten him.

***

"Gods," Jon breathed, staring slack-mouthed at Aemon, who had somehow gone from babe to child in the time he had been away, walking around on straight, chubby little legs, but with balance far beyond a babe's. He never wanted to go to war again, never wanted to have to spend so much time away from his family, not ever. No matter how much battle could make his blood boil, no matter how much his secret heart of hearts could admit to enjoying it, the rush of it and the knowledge he was doing something he was indisputably good at, it was not worth this, was not worth missing something so important. "How did he get so big?"

"That kind of thing tends to happen," Margaery said, sliding her arms around his waist. The top of her head came up to his temple now, which was barely more of a difference than there had been when he left. The two of them, at least, had stopped growing, it seemed. She still fit into his arms as well as she had when he left. "My grandmother is insisting you pick another Hand," she added. "It was fun while it lasted, but she has decided she prefers to be behind the scenes. She did appoint Aurane Waters as Master of Ships. She also had Petyr Baelish hanged for embezzlement, so we are short a master of coin and a Hand of the King."

Jon groaned. "I just got back," he told her. "All that can wait until tomorrow, surely?"

She smiled, pressed a kiss to the corner of the mouth. "All that is still simpler than dealing with the hellions," she said, still keeping her voice soft. Then, with that impish smile that still made his stomach do somersaults, she turned her gaze towards the children. "Pups," she called. "Papa is home, or did you not notice?"

As one, the three children turned towards them, eyes wide. Duncan was fastest, and Gods, when had his legs got so long? When had he grown so tall? And then Jon could waste no more time pondering the time he had wasted, because his eldest was in his arms, clutching at his shoulders. All Jon could do was clutch him back, kiss his hair, hope he was not suddenly too old for that - four, he reminded himself, Duncan only had four namedays, he could not possibly be too old for his father to kiss him yet - and try to hold back his own tears. A moment later, Lyarra slammed into his legs, and Jon picked her up as well, burying his face in her unruly black curls. His heart seemed to be tying knots on itself, and it hurt badly, but with a sweet sort of pain that Jon would bear forever if it meant he could keep his children in his arms. He crouched down, still holding his two eldest close against his side while he met Aemon's eyes.

"Papa?" Aemon asked, looking at him uncertainly. He did not yet speak properly, Margaery had told him, but when Jon had left he had still only babbled, managing barely a few words, and most of them only guesswork from Jon and Margaery's end. Jon had never heard that word out of his mouth before, and he had to blink back tears as his youngest watched him with dark, violet eyes set in his mother's face, wary for long moments before following his siblings' examples and closing the space that separated them, letting Jon wrap him up in his free arm. Jon let himself plop down to a seated position, helped all three of them scramble into his lap and held them close for as long as they would tolerate it before even their long absent father became boring and they returned to their play.

"I told them about you every day," Margaery told him, settling herself down next to him to observe their children, her movements effortlessly elegant. "So did your sisters. And Ghost has been here all along to look after them." He wrapped an arm around her slender shoulders, pulled her close. "Their favourite story is about the time you and Robb pretended to be ghosts in the crypts of Winterfell and scared the living daylights out of your sisters."

Jon swallowed down the sudden lump in his throat. "It was a few days before I was set to leave," he said. "Robb and I had wanted to do something like that for ages. It was our last chance. Our last big adventure before we had to split." He paused a moment, leaned his head against hers. He felt so heavy, all of a sudden, weighed down by something he could not name. He was not even wearing his crown. "Robb is going to wed in a few moons' turn," he said. "I will take Longclaw. Bringing the children is just... As much as I want them to know the North, they are not ready for that kind of a journey yet. Father said I nearly died several times over while he brought me to Winterfell." He paused, swallowed. "Alys Karstark is a good match politically. Robb needs to wed First Men blood, given how much Andal he has in him. And if the woman she is now is anything like the girl she was, he should count himself lucky. Our babes might have cousins soon. More of them, that is."

She smiled softly, pressing another kiss to his face. He wondered if she would prefer that he shave off the beard he had grown out of time constraints during the Westerlands campaign.

"I suppose it just really brings it home, how long ago it all was," Jon said. "Maybe I should have realised as much when we wed, or when Duncan was born at least. But to be honest, I still felt like a boy for most of that. I still could not wrap my head around it all. And Robb, even when I saw him again, was still at least halfway that same boy of ten namedays he was when I left."

"Jon," she said, voice so very soft and tender. "You are eight-and-ten. I am nine-and-ten. Stop making it seem like we are about to go grey. We are not. We have many good years ahead of us yet. We had to start earlier than most, perhaps. But perhaps that just means we get more of those best years of our lives my grandmother is so fond of speaking about."

He smiled, felt oddly as though some of that terrible weight had lifted. Letting out a breath he had not realised he had been holding, he turned his head towards her and pressed a kiss to her lips. She opened to him immediately, lips parting, arms wrapping around his neck, and suddenly Jon was painfully aware of the fact that it had been moons since he had last felt his wife's touch. He groaned against her, got to his feet and pulled her up with him. He broke the kiss for a moment. "Come on," he said. "This, at least, they are not old enough to see just yet."

She laughed against his jaw, arms wound tight around his neck, and let him guide her out of sight of the children before he swept her up into his arms and carried her towards their apartments. Somewhere behind them, Ser Oswell was probably grumbling to himself and rolling his eyes. Honestly, Jon did not care in the least.

Chapter Text

327 AC

King Dragonwolf

"It was just over a year after the Fall of the Rock when Lord Commander Selmy of the Night's Watch sent for help," Jon said. "The White Walkers, the 'Others' from the tales Old Nan, the woman who raised me, told me in my childhood, they were back, and they had an army of the dead behind them, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, Wildlings, Brothers of the Night's Watch and beasts among them. They were pale as snow and they rode dead horses and ice spiders larger than hounds into battle. That was what the missive said.

"I might have ignored it, except I am of the North. I grew up with tales of the First Long Night. And Ser Barristan's former sworn brothers were still knights of my Kingsguard. They assured me he was sane, and that if he was asking for help things were dire. Sers Oswell and Gerold's sellswords had been acting as the City Watch in King's Landing, after we found out how corrupt the gold cloaks truly were, and they had been patrolling the King's Road, keeping it truly safe for the first time in too long. They were easy to gather. I sent a letter to Lord Stark, my stepfather, to ask him of his view of the threat. He confirmed that it truly was dire, and I sent out the call to all of the realm. I marched North with an army of more than a hundred thousand men, with more still being mustered behind me. The day I reached the Wall, the sun set, and it did not rise for years."

Jon paused for long moments, drew in a sharp breath. This was still far more difficult to talk about than he might have wished, even if, to the children around him, this would likely seem no more real than the stories Old Nan had told him when he was still a child himself. "The Night King's army was terrible to behold," he said. "Half-rotten corpses of men, women, children and beasts. All of them would just stand there and stare at us with eyes colder and bluer than ice, but as soon as something living was within their range, they would strike, and they would tear the living limb from limb until they too rose up, another wight in the Night King's army. The Night's Watch told me that Valyrian steel and dragonglass would kill all, that fire would kill the wights as well. So I sent for dragonglass from Dragonstone. I had Oberyn Martell collect all the Valyrian steel weapons he could find, and I had my aunt Daenerys come to the Wall and bring Blackfyre the Dragon and Longclaw.

"We warred for years. At night, I longed for your grandmother, for our children. I tried not to think of everything I was missing, everything I did not see. Our fourth babe was born in darkness, and I did not meet him for years and years. Longclaw died..." He stopped, tried to think, tried to swallow past that wound, still barely scarred over. Measuring time in the War for the Dawn had been nearly impossible. Jon still remembered returning to Margaery and being simultaneously stunned that so many years had passed, and shocked that they had not all died of old age. Time had lost its meaning, with no days and nights to measure it by. "...about three years into the War. A White Walker threw a spear of ice into his eye and we crashed to the ground. He caught me on a wing, made sure I was unharmed even as he died, or I might have been crushed beneath him. I found myself behind enemy lines, with the Others closing in from all sides, with my dragon dying at my back. I was convinced this was it, this was the end of it. I met them in battle, and somehow their hands became wrapped around Blackfyre the sword. I am still not sure what happened; all I know is that she shattered. She fell in pieces to the ground. And I was alone and defenceless, and convinced I was about to die."

"What happened then, Grandpapa?" Jaehaera asked, clutching Jonquil's hand. Both their eyes were wide and attentive, and reminded him so much of himself and his siblings when they were children, listening to Old Nan's tales. Duncan's daughters, the eldest of his growing brood of grandbabes, were probably the only ones aside from Rhaenys, who did not quite count, who were quite old enough to understand the utter terror of it. Jon only hoped he would not have his son coming to complain tonight about children who would not sleep for fear of nightmares.

"Ice the Dragon," Jon answered. "He must have known Longclaw had died. Truly, he must have known ahead of time, because it takes longer than that to fly from Dragonstone to the Land of Always Winter. He swooped in. He burnt Longclaw to ashes, so the Others could not raise him back to fight on their side. And still he was too late. Even as he was swooping in, the Night King was moments away from stabbing me in the back. He would have succeeded, if not for Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning--"

"But you are the Sword of the Morning, Grandpapa," Lyanna Martell protested, staring at him with solemn grey eyes and the mane of unruly black curls they both shared with her mother. Both their mothers, truly.

"I was not born the Sword of the Morning, Sweetling," Jon said, pulling little Daeron, Duncan's thirdborn and heir into his lap and stroking his silvery tresses away from his grey eyes. "Arthur Dayne, my uncle in all but blood and one of the best, most loyal men I have known, had followed me into the Land of Always Winter, for all that he did not have a dragon to ride. He had nothing but his skill and his courage and loyalty and sword. Somehow, that was enough to get him to my side." Jon had to pause, and swallow down the lump in his throat. Uncle Arthur had been his father, just as much as Ned Stark, and the wound left by his death would always remain all too fresh. "He took the blow for me, and on his dying breath, he bequeathed Dawn, the Sword of Heroes, to me. Dyanna Dayne, he reminded me. I was blood of his blood still, and worthy of Dawn. I took Dawn from his dying hands and got on the back of Ice. Ice made sure to burn Uncle Arthur, so the Others could never use him against me, and then he flew me away." He had to stop again and suck in a sharp breath.

Rhaenys, Jon's own second daughter, named for his long-dead sister, burrowed further into his side. Her head of black curls dug into Jon's ribs, and Jon held her close, still wondering at this babe of his, older than his grandchildren and so, so gentle, conceived just a few days after the Return of the Dawn.

"For years, it went on, a stalemate. We burnt all wights we could find, but for every single man of ours that fell, another wight rose. I thought it would never end, that we would never stand a chance of winning. Even my aunt Dany and I working together could never cover enough ground to take out all the wights before new ones arose. Our men were brave. The best of them would sneak behind enemy lines, armed with dragonglass or Valyrian steel or both, and try to take out the Others. But it was never enough. There were so many of them, many more than we had ever thought possible. For what felt like an eternity, all we did was fight, and neither side was winning. All we knew was that if we did not start to win soon, we would begin to run out of living men. There had not been a harvest in years, even in Dorne, even across the Narrow Sea. If nothing changed, we would all still die. Time was on the White Walkers' side, and they made the best of it. I think they knew all too well that they need not try to move South yet, did not need to try to take the Wall. Eventually mankind would die out all on our own if they could only stall.

"In the seventh year of the War for the Dawn, there was a great battle. We knew we needed to make some difference, push the Others and their forces back. We hoped that if we pushed them back far enough, places like Dorne and Lys and Volantis, and the Ghiscari Cities of Slavers' Bay, at least, might see the sun for long enough to claim a harvest or two. We went all in, and we were on the verge of losing. Aunt Dany and I had to come too low to the ground, and we were very nearly slaughtered, along with our dragons. There were wights clinging onto the wings of Ice and Blackfyre, pulling them to their doom, when suddenly fire rained down on us. The wights burnt and we were free to escape. We got high enough to do some damage without exposing ourselves too much, and it was then that we realised another dragon had joined us."

"Father," Jonquil said. "It was Father on Dawn the Dragon, was it not?"

Jon smiled, and reached out to smooth her silvery curls out of her eyes. "Yes, Sweetling," he said. "It was. I did not recognise him at first. I had no concept of time remaining, and in my mind Duncan was a boy of five namedays. But in truth, he was two and ten, and tall and strong, a true knight even then. And there was nothing he wanted more than to serve the realm and keep her safe. He had been riding Dawn since he was eight, he told me later. He managed to keep it secret from his mother, somehow. And then one day, Dawn headed North on his own initiative, and Duncan just clung on.

"He arrived in the midst of battle, and Dawn was fresh and rested while Ice and Blackfyre had been exhausted for years. Together, the three of them turned the battle to our side. We won." Jon paused for a moment, remembering all too well the fear and pride warring within him when his own son, suddenly not that much shorter than him, suddenly half a man, had come in to turn it all around. "And in the sennights following, we realised that a third dragon made the whole difference. We did not have to just defend anymore. We could employ tactics we had only ever dreamt of." Jon paused a moment. "Rhaegar Targaryen, my birth father, was half mad," he said at last. "But his obsession with prophesy... He was right, in the end. 'The dragon must have three heads'. There had to be three dragons and three riders to win the War for the Dawn, even if he was wrong about the who and the how. It took not three siblings, but three generations of Targaryens. In the end, just a few moons' turn after Duncan joined the War, there were no more wights left, and most of the Others were slain. We were deep into the Land of Always Winter. We truly believed that somehow, against all odds, we had won the War. But it was an ambush, and we fell right into it. Blackfyre and Ice were slaughtered before Aunt Dany and I even knew what was happening. All we could feel, without the dragons there to sustain us, was the utter cold. It was beautiful there, in an unnatural, otherworldly way. I knew it would kill us in hours if nothing changed.

"Duncan swooped in on Dawn, he distracted them, and I somehow made my way to the Night King himself. I tried to stab him in the heart, but something was in my way. It was like striking steel against stone; the steel might be harder, but if you keep trying, you will damage your blade. But I had to keep going, or we would all be lost. I struck again, and chunks of star steel were falling off Dawn. But chunks of black dragonglass were falling from the Night King's chest as well, and I knew I had to keep going. So I did. I struck at him again and again. He was on his knees, and there was no honour left; just survival. I kept striking. Dawn, half broken, caught on something, and when I pulled it back, a black dragonglass dagger clung to its edge. Dawn was beyond damaged, but as that dragonglass dagger left the Night King's chest, he fell, and so did the rest of the Others, so did what few wights that remained. Duncan landed Dawn, and both Aunt Dany and I climbed onto his back.

"I do not remember much else. I was exhausted. They say I was wounded, though I do not remember the wounds. I remember waking up here, in the Red Keep, with my wife and children at my side. And I--"

"I hope you are not planning to pull an Aegon the Conqueror," a voice said from behind him, and Jon turned his head, felt his face fall into the smile that had been so difficult to find since the Long Night. "Dying while telling war stories to your grandchildren," Margaery continued. "Honestly, have you not had enough people, by now, tell you you may look like the Conqueror but you have more of the Conciliator in you? That means quite a few years more to see." She reached his side, bouncing the babe at her hip, their miracle babe, conceived after they both had thought it was long past their time. Jon gently took him from her arms, kissed the fuss of silvery baby curls while he prayed for those beautiful blue-gold eyes to show themselves.

After several long moments, Arthur blinked up at him, eyes distant and unfocused in that way babes had. "I am barely four and forty, My Queen," he said softly, directing a quick smile her way before returning it to the babe. He had missed so many years with their first three. He had not met Aegon until he was seven namedays old, and he had spent the first few years of Rhaenys' life fighting and struggling and begging and praying to rebuild the realm with what few resources they had left after the War for the Dawn. Arthur was his final chance, their last babe, the one whose first word he might be blessed enough to hear, whose first step he might be lucky enough to see. He swore, to the Old Gods and the New, that he would not miss a thing, not when they had seen fit to give him this last chance. For all that he loved all his children, watching one grow from babe to man without missing all the important bits was a dream that might finally be fulfilled. "I have no plans to expire just yet."

Margaery smiled. There were lines around her eyes he had not noticed before, and grey in her hair, from the strain of holding the Seven Kingdoms together while he fought a desperate war as much as from age. He knew he probably looked worse. He was not just greying and wrinkled, but scarred too, in probably every place a man could be scarred. But he was alive; they both were, and it was spring, the longest spring in millennia, and their last son flashed him a toothless grin, and no, Jon had absolutely no plans to expire just yet.

"If you have something more productive for me to do, you will have to actually speak the words," he told her.

She flashed him that impish grin of hers that seemed almost obscene given the amount of grandchildren in this room. "Oh, but you know I will," she told him, and kissed his temple before leaving the room, calling out for their grandchildren and reminding them that it was at least one story past bedtime. Jon held Arthur close, brushed those downy curls out of his tiny, long Stark face. "For as long as there have been Seven Kingdoms," he told his son, voice barely a whisper, "The Starks have been right. They always will be. But perhaps it can be just a reminder now, and not a prophecy." He pressed a kiss to the infant's brow. "You have no idea what I mean, do you?" he asked. He paused for a moment, looking into those beautiful eyes of his wife's and the way they glistened in their son's Stark face, and felt so utterly grateful for this last babe, this final chance, that it took his breath away. "It does not matter, anymore, does it? Winter will always come. Fire and blood is how you birth a dragon. But you, all I want for you is that you grow strong."

The babe let out a wordless gurgle, and for a moment Jon might have sworn he had grinned up at him, as intelligent as any maester, before all he was looking at, once again, was his babe's calm, peaceful gaze. Peace, he allowed himself to hope. Peace at long last, and Gods, but he needed that. Arthur reached out, gripped his nose and held it fast, refusing to let go, and all Jon could do was laugh and laugh and laugh.