The plan was simple: they would go to the nursery, drag a chair, climb it and finally hold that chubby baby. It was Robb's plan, so it would work, of course. He was going to watch if any adults would come and catch them in the act, but Jon was mesmerized by the sight of that little red-head. He didn't hear when Lady Stark opened the door, but he definitely heard her when she started to yell.
Both boys were startled by her screams and Robb dropped his little sister face down on the crib, making her wake up and start wailing loudly. Jon was terrified of the woman Robb called his mother. He still didn't understand much about the world, but it puzzled him that they were brothers, that both of them called Ned Stark Father, but he wasn't allowed to call Lady Stark Mother. He learned quickly that he couldn't even try, for the looks she gave him made him want to cry.
Jon remembered she had a fat belly and his Father insisted that they would have a new brother or sister soon. He didn't believe it at first, because Old Nan had told them that babies came from lettuce farms, not bellies from scary women. However, a few weeks later, he heard Lady Stark screaming and cursing one night and suddenly a baby sister appeared. He was not allowed to meet her the same day that Robb did, but he met her later one day and he noticed that Robb's mother didn't have a fat belly anymore. That was when he found out that his Father never lied.
Robb met her first, but he wasn't allowed to hold her either. His Father told him that her name was Sansa and she was his sister. Jon really wanted to hold her, though. She looked so soft and she smelled so good! Robb felt the same, which explained the plan. Jon, however, didn't follow through with his part and Robb's mother caught them.
Ned appeared on the door a few moments later and Lady Stark tried to calm Sansa down while she admonished Jon and Robb, but mainly Jon. Ned took both boys by the hand and led them to Robb's room. He told them that babies were very delicate and that was the reason they couldn't hold her yet, but they would one day. Jon noticed that his Father looked at Robb as he spoke, which bothered him a bit, because he wanted to hold her so much. More than Robb did, he was certain.
But Ned looked at him deep in the eyes and said "She is your little sister. She will always be your little sister. You must protect her. That is your duty." And Jon was so proud of himself. He knew that Robb had many duties. He knew that Robb was the heir of Winterfell, although he had no idea what that meant. He only knew that Robb was expected to do many things because of that. But not him, no. No one expected anything of him and this bothered him to no end. He had no duties. Up until today, that is.
It was his duty to take care of his little sister. His little sister Sansa.
That night he couldn't sleep. His chest was full of juvenile responsibility. He knew everyone in the Keep was sleeping at that hour, so he put on his shoes and walked to his little sister's nursery.
Jon opened the door very slowly, as quietly as he could manage. It was dark, but the hearth was lit, so he could very well see the form of Septa Mordane sleeping with her mouth open and snoring a little. He passed by her silently and sat down on the chair next to Sansa's crib. It was the first time he could openly watch her like this, without the scary stare of her Mother.
She was very small. She breathed softly and her belly motioned up and down. Her hair was as red and curly as Robb's, but he heard Lady Stark saying that it could change. Her cheeks were chubby, her hands twitched randomly and Jon had never seen anything as beautiful as his sister Sansa. He looked at her and promised that he would always protect her.
Jon didn't know why he was back. He had no more to do in the Night's Watch after the betrayal that took his life. His family was scattered and Winterfell taken by the people who killed his brother. What else he had to do? Why did they bring him back? He wanted to help, he saw the White Walkers marching down and he did what he thought was right, what he still believes that is right. His former brothers didn't agree and the only solution was to kill him? No. This isn't right. He wanted to believe that the Brotherhood was more than a glorified prison, but he was wrong. There were only bandits, rapists and cutthroats there.
There is nothing else to do, he fought and he lost. The Others were their problem now.
That was what he thought before they heard someone at the Castle Black's gates. He saw the horses trotting in the courtyard and his eyes went impossibly wide when he recognized the girl in a grey cloak. His sister Sansa. Suddenly he knew why he was back. His duty was not yet complete. She was here and she needed him as much as he needed her. They embraced then and there for everyone to see.
She was so cold, so dirty and he thought she would faint in his arms. Her legs faltered and he took her in his arms, as a groom takes a bride, to lead her to his chambers, she needed a bath, food and most of all she needed rest. Jon dropped her on his bed, so he could prepare her a bath. She still hasn't said anything, even though he kept asking her questions. She looked in shock and Jon couldn't help but feel like he had disappointed their Father, he should have never left her.
The bath was ready and when he turned back to her, she had her eyes closed and Jon noticed that she slept. He had to wake her up, though, otherwise the bath would turn cold again. He rocked her softly and she woke up with a start, her eyes fluttered open as if she was scared and once again Jon thought that he failed her.
"I'll be right outside. There is a clean dress on the chair." It was one of the few clothes Gilly left behind. She could only nod.
Silently, he left the room, but he was scared that she could drown in the bathtub. Would it be terribly inappropriate to wash her? She was his sister, after all.
But he decided against it. He called the woman Knight that brought her back to help her out. She roughly told him what happened to her and Jon could only close his eyes, urging her to help Sansa quickly.
He brought her some soup and she still couldn't speak. He never pressed.
At night, she was lying down in his bed, almost asleep. Jon sat at the foot of the bed, his right hand was firmly on her leg, just to let her know that he was there. When he noticed that her breathing evened in, he got up to leave and find a room for himself, but he was startled when she grasped his hand firmly, stopping him.
"Stay, please." She spoke for the first time. "Please, Jon." Tears threatened to run down her cheeks and he could do nothing but sit back down.
"I'm staying, don't worry." He spoke softly. She dragged him down so he was lying next to her.
Jon couldn't sleep. It's been such a long time since he hasn't thought about his sister. His duty to his Father. He observed the way she grew up, how the chubby cheeks she had always had were not there anymore. Instead, an elegant cheekbone appeared, as graceful as the curve of her neck, which he never noticed how long it was. Her jaw was as sharp as her nose and her hair was just like he remembered. Kissed by fire. That auburn hair haunted him, he was reminded of her Lady Mother.
She changed so much. She's a woman now, a very beautiful one. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what she had been through, he knew what pretty girls suffered when there wasn't anyone to protect them. He knew men. His blood boiled in anger and he put a hand on her face, he promised that no harm would befall her ever again.
Jon leaned down and kissed her face softly. Her cheek, her temper, her nose. He buried his face on the crook of her neck and kissed her there as well. Strangely, he felt a sudden shiver on her skin and he pulled back. She seemed asleep still.
He woke up with her head buried in chest, their legs intertwined. He knew it wasn't appropriate to siblings sleep together like this, but he couldn't care less. He felt nothing but joy to wake up with her in his arms, safe and sound. He would never let her go again.
The small cot was not suitable to his toss and turn as he thought about his latest argument with Sansa. He looked at the improvised ceiling of his tent and wondered why she tortured him so much with the number of men they had. Of course it wasn't enough, he knew it wasn't, but he tried so hard to gather these many men. They overestimated the loyalty of the Northern Houses greatly and he could only imagine how disappointed Sansa must be.
Jon sighed and finally decided to go to her tent. They could not go to battle cross with each other, not when he wasn't confident at all that they could win.
He wore only a thin tunic and breeches, all covered with the cloak she made him. The night was cold and the small tents weren't enough to get the troops warm. If they didn't go to battle this soon, they would lose not to the Boltons, but to the snow. He knew it was the right call. They had the Free Folk amongst their numbers, he knew for a fact that they were more violent and more war-frenzied than Ramsey's men. This was a small comfort, considering everything.
"Sansa." He called quietly from outside her tent.
"Jon? Come in." He heard her saying.
She wore only a thin, white shift. He often forgot that she was a daughter of the North, that the cold didn't bother her too much. The furs in her cot kept her warm.
"I didn't come here to fight some more." Jon explained as he entered, she didn't say anything, only nodded and reached for his hands. Her cold hands almost surprised him.
He had to keep his eyes from wandering, her shift was all but transparent and he had been having urges lately. The growing attraction that he was feeling towards Sansa shamed him, made him feel worthless of her fondness, her trust. It wasn't right, but he darkly took pleasure of the way she leaned on him for support, how much she touched him, taking his hands, sometimes fixing his hair out of his face when it was loose.
She led him to her equally small cot and he protested weakly. "I don't think I can fit, Sansa." It was meant to be a light jest, but she looked at him fiercely, daring him to doubt it.
The last time they shared a bed was on her first night on Castle Black. He didn't think it was appropriate and he had to protect her honor. Jon also could not trust his body with her so close, but tonight he had no strength to deny it. He wanted to feel his body pressed with hers, the size of the cot gave him that pass, but at the same time the last thing he wanted was to take advantage of his sister, who had suffered enough in the hands of the men who were supposed to protect her.
Before he could refuse, however, she pulled him down with his chest pressed against hers, their faces were so close that he would only have to lean a few centimeters if he wanted to kiss her. But Jon was scared of what he saw in her eyes in that moment. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, the longing making him see things.
He put one of his hands lightly on her hips and looked at her eyes, searching for validation, but she only closed her eyes with a small sigh coming from her lips. Those pink, full lips that gave him nightmares. At that moment, he knew that she would let him kiss her, if he tried.
But he wouldn't. He couldn't.
"I will not let you die tomorrow." She said. He felt the warm air coming from her mouth when she spoke. He never responded, because it was not in their hands anymore.
He wouldn't kiss her. Not in the mouth, at least. He buried his face in her neck and she shivered much like she did in that first night. Jon kissed her there, as if they were lovers, not siblings, but he didn't care then. It was their last night together, probably. He kept his face in her neck and he felt her hands loosening her hold on him, her breathing softening. She slept and he took his time in memorizing her face. Such a sweet torture, to have her so close.
She warned him that Ramsey was dangerous, but would she find him dangerous as well if she knew what he thought when they were pressed against each other like this? Would she share her bed with him ever again? Darkly, he thought that maybe she had the same sinful yearnings, because her hands roamed on his chest earlier and she shivered.
He wanted to found out. He wanted to live to found out.
Jon left the bathtub with this limbs still aching from the battle. His legs hurt from strain and his shoulders were sore for swinging his bastard sword into the battlefield. His hands and face were no longer covered in mud and blood, but he could still see the dirt underneath his fingernails. He was exhausted. He saw the luxurious bed in his bedroom, but couldn't lie down there yet. There was something else that he still needed to do.
He needed to see his sister Sansa, needed to see her soon and desperately. He needed to see her because she was alive, and he was alive, and it could be a curse or a blessing. He needed to see her because he needed to decide which one it was. He walked the cold corridors of Winterfell until he found the very bedroom that he was never allowed in when he was a child. Jon remembered the times that Robb and Sansa went to their parents' bed when they had a nightmare or when the thunder was too loud in a stormy night, but he, a bastard, had to endure the fear alone. He was such a lonely child.
"Sansa." He said to her door.
"Come in." He heard Sansa saying.
When he opened the door, he saw her wearing a robe to hide the thin, white shift she always wore to sleep. She was brushing her hair and Jon couldn't help but to be fascinated by its color and the way it cascaded on her back. He was always mesmerized by her beauty. His throat constricted and he gulped to swallow down the desire he felt for that woman, his sister.
"Jon." She called his attention. He watched the way her hips swung as she walked towards him. "How are you feeling?"
Her voice was icy. He was used to the way she spoke by now, but it would always surprise him to notice how it changed from the mellow and childish voice he grew up hearing. She was undeniably a woman now, hardened by life. As he is.
"I'm alright." He told her simply, even though his head was a mess and his limbs trembled. She nodded and continued walking around her chambers until she sat on her bed and looked at him expectantly. He didn't understand at first, but she was silently telling him to turn around, he gathered. He did just that until she told him he could turn back to her. She was already under the heavy furs on her bed and she petted the empty space on her bed, telling him to come closer.
"Lie down with me. Just for a little while." She didn't really ask. It was more a command and he obeyed like a humble servant.
She was under the furs and he was atop, but Jon couldn't help himself in thinking that it was hypocrite of them to care about propriety after they spent the night holding each other for dear life in a narrow cot.
"I killed him." She said suddenly and he didn't have to ask of whom she was speaking of. There was a dark grin plastered on her face and Jon felt strangely aroused by her confession. All he wanted to do was kiss that grin away.
"How?" His voice was rough.
"Hounds." She said simply, with a shrug.
"I hope it hurt." And he meant it.
"It did." She answered proudly.
He nodded and he watched as she moved her arm to touch him. Her hand traced the sore muscles on his arm, his neck and finally landed on his jaw. Her thumb was making soft circles on his bearded chin. Jon could do little besides closing his eyes and sigh.
"What are we doing?" He whispered to her. She was closer now.
"We're not doing anything." She said with her hand still caressing his face. "We're brother and sister."
"Sansa…" He whispered roughly. "This is not right."
"No, it isn't."
He waited for more, for rejection, for a sign from the Gods, but nothing came and the silence seemed even worse. She took his hand and put it on what seemed to be her waist on top of the furs. He clutched there firmly until he could feel her body on his palm.
Sansa was still looking at him and her blue eyes were so dark that there was barely blue at all. Jon knew right then that she wanted him. The knowledge did nothing to alleviate the ache in his heart and he decided that being alive was a curse wrapped up as a blessing. What could he do knowing this? They were still siblings, undeniably so. He moved his hand out of her waist and found a way to tangle his fingers in her copper-colored hair.
"Sleep, Sansa." He told her and she simply nodded her head, taking her hand to herself. She closed her eyes feeling the heavy stare of her brother lulling her to a dreamless slumber.
He could get used to this, he thought, watching her falling asleep. She could be so fierce with those steely eyes. But as she slept, she was nothing but that little girl that sang to him in his name-day after everyone went to sleep.
He mustered all the courage he had to leave her bed. It was never as difficult as that night, knowing how willing to sin she was. He shamefully noticed for the first time how hard he was under his breeches.
He all but ran back to his own chambers and stripped down bare. He looked himself in the mirror and there was a sob in his throat that threated to meet air as he took himself in hand. He stroked himself in honest, hard and fast pushes and pulls until his hand was wet with his seed, brought up by his desire to have his own sister.
Panting softly, he laid on the bed as a few tears left his eyes, born out of shame and frustration.
He could barely remember those walls. It had been only a few months, but everything seemed to have changed. His favorite sister was back, but she seemed to be another person altogether, his brother was also back, but wasn't? There was nothing he wanted more, though, than to settle an argument he had with Sansa. She thought that he loved Daenerys? Impossible. She should know better.
Jon didn't bother to knock. He barged into her bedroom with a familiarity that he thought he was owed by now. He found her in the bed, under the furs with her back to the door, so when she turned to him, he was surprised to see the red circles around her eyes and the heavy tears wetting her face.
He climbed on her bed, his knees pressed on each side of her body as he cupped her head in his hands. "You can't ask me that again!" He said and her eyes grew wide with the way he spoke. "You know, Sansa, you know!" his hands roamed on her body, pulling her to him, their bodies pressed against each other as his face rested on her right shoulder. "You know." He repeated softly this time.
Jon felt her hands pulling the leather that secured his hair in a bun and freed the black, curly locks on the side of his head. "I know." She responded, sighing softly when he started to kiss her neck. They weren't lovemaking kisses, as he wished they were, but they made her shiver all the same. He knew they were on dangerous territory now, but he couldn't help himself, they were apart for such a long time and she seemed even more hardened than before.
When he was way in Dragonstone all he could think of was her, he would take himself in hand nearly every night thinking about Sansa. He was always ashamed afterwards, but it didn't last too long. It was like an addiction for him, he couldn't help himself. He thought of her soft and pink lips, how delicious they would feel around his cock; he thought about leaving purple marks on her elegant neck; he thought about pulling her hair as he fucked her from behind and before he knew it, he peaked in his hand and there was nothing but loneliness in that foreign castle.
He was back, however, and she was so close, so willing. He wanted to kiss her lips badly, but there was something that kept him from taking what he wanted. His damned Stark honor. He wasn't a Stark, but he was raised as one and this was Ned Stark's daughter. Jon knew he couldn't take her for himself like he's yearned for so long, so he dropped her back on the bed and got off her, lying next to her, watching as she settled herself back underneath the furs. Her eyes were still red and he wanted to ask if she believed for a minute that he could ever love someone else.
But he didn't ask. He put his hand on her face and watched the way her breathing hitched, it was like she was going to break down any minute now. He didn't want that, so he put her head on his chest and felt with a hiss when she tangled their legs.
"We need her, Sansa." He said feeling the way she pressed her fingers on his back. "She's going to be a good queen."
"She loves you." She whispered.
"She doesn't." He lied. Daenerys was infatuated, he knew, but her feelings were completely unrequited.
Sansa made a noncommittal hum against his chest and sighed, settling herself to sleep.
The battle was over. Jon still couldn't believe that Arya was the one to strike the Night King, saving the world. The Keep was full of injured soldiers, dead corpses and crying wives. The most dutiful of Daenerys' men were building a big pyre of dead bodies to be burned the next morning.
Tonight, however, he needed to tell Sansa the truth. The political consequences of the reveal of his parentage were too big to be considered by him alone, he needed her to tell him what to do.
He sat on the bed next to her as he watched her with the same robe that she wears before sleeping, she was chewing the nail of her right thumb as she thought about what he had just told her. She was dumbfound at first, told him she was sorry and that he would always be a Stark, but he could practically see the gears in her head moving as she built up a plan to take advantage of that information.
"We don't have to do anything yet." He told her. "I don't wish to sit on that throne."
"Of course we have to do something and soon." She told him practically sending knives his way with the look she gave him.
"Sansa… I fought a war tonight. I don't want to discuss this right now." He was relieved when she seemed to sympathize. She got up the bed and stood in front of him, as he remained sitting. She unclasped his cloak and put it on the chair in front of her desk. Meaning to tell him to lie down, she pressed her hand on his chest and pushed him softly until his back was in his side of the bed.
She removed her robe and put it on foot of her bed so she could get under her furs. He watched her every movement with interested eyes, but it became a sort of routine for them. He slept often next to her and tonight was no different.
"You can't tell her." Sansa said.
"I must tell her. She has to know." Jon said, not understanding why Sansa insisted in antagonizing Daenerys.
"Jon!" She put a cold hand on his face. "If you tell her, she's going to kill you."
"She won't kill me." He was fairly certain of that.
"Because she loves you." Sansa said after a moment.
"Yes." Sansa only nodded.
"You can't rely on only that. Your claim is stronger, Jon." Sansa said. "She is not going to choose you if the other option is the Iron Throne."
"I don't want the Iron Throne." Jon said with his eyes already closing and Sansa let out a frustrated sigh, removing her hand from his face.
He opened his eyes after a moment and repeated "She's going to be a good queen."
"She won't." Sansa said softly.
"She helped us."
"She had to! Otherwise there wouldn't be a throne for her to sit."
"This is enough!" Jon said louder than he meant. "I don't want to talk about this tonight." Sansa looked at him defiantly, but never said anything. She simply turned her back to him, silently.
Jon rolled his eyes and settled a little closer, but they weren't touching. He was almost asleep when Sansa suddenly sat and turned her face to him. "You're not my brother." She said, as if the thought had just crossed her mind.
"No, I'm not." He said gulping. He had thought about it, of course. But she ignored it completely. Her first thoughts were about the political entanglements, as he thought they would be.
Before he could say anything else, however, she leaned down and kissed his mouth. Jon was surprised and for a moment he didn't know what to do, but soon his body responded to her lips on his and he buried his fingers in her loose hair, pressing her head closer to his.
Her lips were just as sweet as he imagined. She was not experienced, he didn't think so, but he wasn't either. The kiss was sloppy, their teeth bumped and their tongues, though present, didn't have much participation. Mostly, there were hands, everywhere. Sansa started to unbutton Jon's tunic with a desperation that was infectious.
Jon decided that it was time for him to take control of their embrace. It was all he wanted for so long and as a blessing from the Gods, it was possible. So he would not let his nerves ruin this night. He pressed her down on her back and kissed her lips again, this time a little less desperate, but deep, slow and arousing. Sansa sighed on his lips and she seemed to melt underneath him.
He left her lips and watched the deep red in her cheeks and could only smile. He decided to bring his lips to that very spot that made her shiver twice, this time, though, he would make her moan. He kissed, sucked, licked and Sansa indeed moaned under him, so sweetly that he felt his cock getting hard. He rocked his hips softly, testing the waters and was pleased to find that Sansa rocked back.
"Jon…" She whispered. He could barely recognize her voice, such was the roughness. "I've never… It was only him." She didn't say more, but he knew what she meant. "But I want… I do."
"I know." He whispered against her neck. "I'll be gentle. I won't hurt you, Sansa, I promise."
She nodded closing her eyes and it was all the consent he needed to remove the shift from her body. She helped pulling it up her head and soon she was completely bare for him to see and Jon felt like he was going to peak right there and then. Her breasts were soft and they fit so perfectly in his palm that he believed they were made for him alone.
Without asking, he put his mouth on one of them and licked the nipple in earnest devotion, feeling it harden into his mouth. Sansa gasped when she felt his teeth biting lightly the sensitive skin, and once again his cock made itself present.
"Let me kiss you, Sansa." He asked and she seemed to be confused for a moment. "Here. Let me kiss you here." He said pressing his fingers gently over her cunt.
"What? Jon…Why?" She asked breathless.
"Because it's good." He said feeling the wetness in his fingers. "Let me show you, Sansa." She nodded, still insecure.
"I'm never going to hurt you." He said once again and this time she nodded more confidently.
He kissed his way down her body until he found the red hair covering her sex and he could barely believe it wasn't a dream. He fantasized with tasting that sweet cunt for so long, stroked his cock until his peak with only the thought of licking her juices. It was reality now, though. He had to be present to make her feel good. He licked her like a thirsty man and he was barely aware of the way she grabbed the sheets and pressed her lips together to avoid making noises, he wanted her to forget any sense of propriety, so he decided to suck that little dot and smiled when she gasped his name loudly. "You're delicious, Sansa." he said into her and she said something that he couldn't understand.
Jon felt accomplished when Sansa started to rock her cunt into his mouth, reaching for her peak, out of instinct. He grabbed her hips to keep her on the bed, but he could do little as she started to tremble into him. He licked the extra wetness as if it was the ending of a favorite dessert.
He kissed his way up her neck again and this time Sansa felt so spent that her eyes were barely open at all. "Kiss me." She whispered and he eagerly put his cunt-smelling mouth into hers.
"I'm sorry." He said when she made a face after tasting herself in his lips.
"Jon, I thought you were a man of the Night's Watch." She said softly, not accusing.
"I was." He said with a smile.
"How did you… You know…" She said pointing to her southern parts.
"I dreamed about tasting you for so long." He admitted, making her blush a beet red.
"You didn't!" She said slapping his shoulder, a smile on her face. It was adorable, Jon thought. He had never seen her so carefree.
"I can taste your cunt for hours if you let me." He spoke the truth.
"Stop!" She could not be redder.
"I love you, Sansa." It was time for the confession. He never dared to say the words, even though they both knew it for so long.
"I love you too." She said with a soft smile. "Since Castle Black." He nodded.
"Let me have you, Sansa." He asked into her mouth.
He got up the bed to undress under her eyes. She watched him as if assessing his bare body, his scars, but never said anything.
"I'm not going to hurt you, I promise." He told her as he went back to her bed. He kissed her slowly, deeply, tasting every corner of her mouth. His fingers found her entrance and she gasped into his mouth, she was ready, he thought as he adjusted himself on top of her. She opened her legs to help him and Jon didn't think he could be more aroused, but he was wrong. Her willingness excited him, more than anything.
He pushed himself inside slowly, watching the way she closed her eyes, he could feel the way her walls stretched to fit his length and he had to concentrate not to peak so fast. He moved so slowly at first, letting her get used to him until he noticed the way she arched up to meet him. It was the sign he was waiting so he could move faster. His thrusts were deep and fast, pulling out almost completely before pushing inside deeply. Sansa writhed and squirmed under him, moaned and sighed and Jon though that he would love to feel her peak while inside of her, so he started to circle her nub. She gasped again as she felt her orgasm approaching, Jon was moving fast now, not being able to control his pace, desire taking control of his body.
He pushed inside one last time when she screamed his name while hugging his shoulders. He spent inside of her, with shallow thrusts and at that time he thought that he had never felt so good in his entire existence.
He panted shallow breaths and pulled out of her, feeling completely drained. His back was pressed on the bed while he looked at the ceiling, hoping to recuperate his breathing soon.
"We should have done this before." She said turning to see him next to her.
"We couldn't before." He told her smiling, she only shrugged.
They shared a silence for a moment before Jon pulled the furs that were abandoned on the floor and covered their bodies. He dragged her body so they could cuddle and then he whispered on her ear "But I thought about it every night." She shivered.
"Marry me, Jon." Sansa asked looking straight to his eyes.
"Sansa…" He did know what to say. "It is all I want."
"They need to know the truth." She told him very seriously.
"This will change everything."
"Yes, it will." She responded. "But I'll be with you every step of the way."