disclaimer: disclaimed.
dedication: happy Christmas, Chloe. may you continue to drive me up the wall until both our bones turn to dust.
notes: this belongs to the same universe as spare me your judgements, so I suggest you go read that first as this will make NO SENSE without that background.

title: begin the decay
summary: These are the things nightmares are made of. — Joffrey/Sansa/Jon, Arya.






Jon Snow held onto the woman who had been his mother for the last time.

"Take care of the girls, Jon," she whispered. "They'll need you."

"Yes, Lady Stark," he said.

"Mother," Catelyn said sternly as she pulled away. She patted his cheeks, just as she had when he was young, and still shorter than she. All her children were growing up—Robb and Jon, and Theon, too. Her boys.

"Mother," Jon repeated, throat tight.

"There's my boy," she said. She stood tall, shoulders loose but spine hard as diamond. Her eyes were dry, chin held high. Jon thought The Queen has nothing on this woman. Nothing.

They would ride for the South on the King's Road at daybreak. They would leave his brothers and his home and the only mother he'd ever known.

Jon swallowed hard.

This was how it had to be.

The King's Road was dangerous, everyone said, and that was true—there were bandits in these parts, the wild men, killers all.

But the most dangerous person on this road, Jon knew, was the heir apparent. Joffrey hungered for the world, cruelty in his every movement. Arya watched him with angry grey eyes, and stayed close to Jon's side. There were other boys her age with the King's troupe, but she avoided them with her gaze hard. Jon's youngest sister had not wanted to leave Winterfell, still enamoured with her childhood, and was not prepared for the heat and the stinging gazes of the court in the South. King's Landing was Arya's worst nightmare, Jon had no doubt.

Sansa was a different story entirely.

She rode with the Queen, most often, starry-eyed over the woman's grace and beauty. Cersei Lannister humoured the girl, smiling with her mouth but not her eyes, but Jon could tell that the green-eyed Queen paid little attention to Sansa. Her mind was elsewhere, a cold calculating creature who would eat the world if she could.

The Queen watched the world, and Joffrey watched Sansa.

He watched her like a starving hungry thing, his eyes flickering up and down her, mouth twitching like he wanted to unhinge his jaw and swallow her whole. The Queen may have wanted to eat the world, but damn the world; Jon did not love the world.

Joffrey wanted to eat Sansa, and Jon did love Sansa.

"I don't like it," Jon told his father, one night when the moon was dark and the troupe had settled to camp for the night. It had not been a good day. Outside, the torches flickered, and the guards stood watch because even though there had not been an attack yet there was nothing to say there wouldn't be. Robert Baratheon slept in this camp, and the King was always a target.

In the flickering candlelight of House Stark's makeshift home, Jon's father looked at him with tired old eyes. There were deep dark creases there that he could not remember.

"We shouldn't have left," Jon said.

Ned heaved a quiet sigh from somewhere deep in his chest. His hand was heavy on Jon's shoulder, callused from long use of a sword. "We didn't have a choice."

"Joffrey is going to kill Sansa," Jon said quietly. "If they marry, she's going to die."

His father did not deny this; he merely frowned, the lines around his mouth and eyes deepening. "Keep watch, Jon. King's Landing is an unpleasant place, and the girls will need you."

"Mother said that, too," Jon said.

"It's true," Ned said, tiredly. "They will need you."

But he could tell that his father really only meant Sansa—Arya had Needle and Nymeria and her dance lessons, and she was already a terror in miniature. Sansa was the one who needed protection, because Sansa—sweet, naïve, lovely Sansa who did not believe in the cruelty of men and kept her direwolf calm with gentle hands and soft touches—was the one liable to get hurt. Arya was tough as the stone walls they'd grown up in; Arya was a Northern girl, inside and out.

Sansa was forgiving, and Sansa was tender, and sometimes Jon thought that perhaps she was the last good thing in the entire world.

And he could not allow Joffrey Baratheon to destroy that.

"Don't worry, father," Jon said grimly. "I will."

King's Landing was a putrid city.

There was no other word Jon knew to apply to the place that would describe it so aptly; it was a cesspool of liars and thieves, stinking sewers and the rank smell of too many unwashed people packed into too small an area.

Winterfell's cold clean air seemed very far away. Ghost kept close to Nymeria and Lady, raising his hackles whenever anyone not from Winterfell's hallowed halls got too close. Jon didn't do anything to stop it.

(He felt very much the same, honest to the Gods.)

"I want to go home," Arya whispered into his ear. She sounded small and miserable, staring around shiftily like the dragons this city had once housed might jump out at any moment and swallow her up. She was always so fearless that sometimes Jon forgot that she'd only seen nine summers.

"Me, too," he told her quietly.

"Sansa doesn't, though," she muttered under her breath with all the venom a younger sibling could muster. "She loves it here, and she loves that—that—" Arya paused to make a furious, animalistic sound, frustrated at her lack of a word vile enough for the boy she was trying to describe "—that prince, after what he wanted to do to Micah! And to Lady, even! How can she, Jon? How can she?!"

Jon didn't want to think about the sick glee on Joffrey's face when he'd tried to have the butcher's boy flayed. There'd been no telling what could have happened had he not intervened, quietly pulling Arya away from the prince to stop her from doing something that they all would have regretted forever.

And so it was that three direwolves entered King's Landing.

But there was no way to know how many would survive. After all, they were Northern creatures, and already Jon could tell that they would not do well in the mucky, murky heat of the capital

There was probably a metaphor in that, but Jon wasn't a poet, and letters were not his strong suit. That was Theon, silken words rolled off a silver tongue to raise up or cut down as he pleased. And if Theon was the letter, and Robb was the sword, then Jon was the shield.

It would make sense, then, that Lady Catelyn had wanted him to go with his father and his sisters. Jon ached for the North, but knew that he was of better use here. His father needed him. Arya needed him. And Sansa—sweet, naïve, good Sansa who still believed in heroes—she needed him, too.

(Though Jon was not a hero. But a bastard-born boy was better than a golden prince with an undeniably bloodlust in his eyes.)

The sun shot hot that day. Arya was a hardscrabble little thing who stayed in her father's shadow; if she hadn't, she likely would have gotten lost in the crush of people, Nymeria at her side. As it was, she'd curled her fingers in the fabric of Jon's shirtsleeve.

But she held onto Sansa, as well. Their fingers were interlocked—they held hands like little girls, fear masked on their faces. They were a coin, his sisters; Arya was shadow and Sansa was light, and he loved them both desperately.

Though Sansa would have walked with the Queen, if she could.

But there were rules to these things. Their father went first, then the girls, then Jon.

He smiled crookedly to himself. The bastard boy still had more status than he ought—flanked like this, they were a family; missing pieces they were, of course, and Jon felt them keenly. There was no Robb to crack terrible jokes, no Theon to snark about how badly dressed all these Southerners were, no Bran to stare avidly around at the world to question everything, no Rickon to toss in the air.

No Lady Catelyn to hold his hands in her hands and tell him to call her mother.

King's Landing was a putrid city, yes.

But Jon had a feeling he was going to watch it rot away into nothingness.

Winter is coming. Jon had grown up with that phrase under his tongue, a prayer to the Old Gods that the First Men had had, always.

But they were wrong.

Winter wasn't coming.

Winter was already here.