"All I'm asking for is the chance to try."
"Nynaeve," Alanna said patiently, cautiously, "Stepin had… problems before Kerene found him."
Nynaeve wanted to think that Alanna was being condescending. She wanted to be furious. But a month's acquaintance with the Green had taught her better. Alanna was passionate and playful most of the time - this was what it sounded like when she was being serious, and that meant she wasn't dismissing the idea out of hand.
"Would it work?"
"Did you know, Kerene was almost 200 years old? He wasn't her first Warder."
"Will it at least help?" Nynaeve couldn't entirely keep the frustration out of her voice. If Alanna knew of a reason not to do this, beyond the obvious, she should come out and say it rather than hinting as though she hoped Nynaeve would withdraw the request.
Alanna sighed, and dropped her voice almost to a whisper. "You may lose him anyway. And if you do… There's no way to describe it."
"Like, like him?" Nynaeve jerked her head in the direction of the Warders' quarters.
Alanna hesitated. "No... Most Aes Sedai survive the death of their Warders."
"Well then." Nynaeve crossed her arms, waiting.
"I shouldn't do it."
"But you will?"
"Yes. But Nynaeve… You mustn't let anyone know where you learned it. This weave is only taught to full sisters."
"I'm not one of your Novices. Tower law doesn't apply to me."
"It applies to me. I won't ask you to lie, but if you can, let Moiraine and Liandrin think you did it by accident."
That rankled, but Nynaeve could see the sense in it, and she didn't like to leave a patient in delicate condition alone this long. "Fine."
Nynaeve wasn't used to following what other people were doing when they channeled, so Alanna had to show her a few times before she was sure she had it. It didn't help that with every additional attempt, she became more anxious that one of the other Aes Sedai would sense channeling and come to see what was going on. The weave didn't need a lot of power, but it was intricate, and she couldn't afford mistakes.
"Thank you," she said, when she'd been able to replicate it twice in a row. "There isn't… I haven't been able to do anything else for him. Thank you."
"I hope it works. For both your sakes. And Nynaeve," the Aes Sedai took a step towards her, tilting her head up slightly to maintain eye contact. "This must be done willingly . If I find out that you forced him, then Dragon Reborn or no I will still you myself."
Nynaeve stepped back, startled by the sudden intensity. "I won't. Of course I won't."
Alanna smiled suddenly, seriousness gone as quickly as it had appeared. "He likes blueberries," she said, pressing a small basket into Nynaeve's hands.
Lan wasn’t anywhere in sight when Nynaeve returned to the Warders’ quarters. She had hoped he wouldn’t be - she didn’t want to tell him about this until it was done and couldn’t be taken back, didn’t want to know what he thought of the idea. On the other hand, she’d hoped he would be here, that he might have taken it upon himself to keep an eye on Stepin, since no one else was likely to do it. They knew . Every single person she’d traveled with to Tar Valon had known that Warders who outlived their Aes Sedai didn’t usually do so for long, everyone except her. She’d had to put it together through sideways questions and vague hints that this was normal , to be expected. Well, if he was with Stepin, they'd be in the other Warder's room, not standing out here in the hall. And if he wasn't… Nynaeve quickened her pace as much as she could without spilling the blueberries.
Stepin was alone, but he hadn't hurt himself in the hour or so that Nynaeve had left him alone. As far as she could tell, he'd gone straight there after getting the goatstongue from her, sat down on the floor at the foot of his bed, and not moved since. He was still clutching the packet of herbs in one hand and that bottle in the other, and if the level in it was lower than it had been when he'd let Nynaeve see it - and he had let her see, she was almost sure - well, in its way that was a good thing. It was good that he was doing something to try and manage the pain.
"What?" The Warder jumped, his expression going from blank misery to startlement to something Nynaeve couldn't place before settling into slightly more engaged blank misery, the 'I am vaguely aware that there is another person in the room' face.
"It's me," said Nynaeve. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"Oh, you didn't, really. It's just, for… for a split second there, I thought you were Kerene."
"Did you need something? Accidentally handed me gray fennel instead of goatstongue?" He tried another one of those painful half-smiles.
"I don't keep gray fennel in my bag."
"Ah, well. A man can hope."
It's a good sign. It has to be a good sign. "Actually, I had an idea."
He looked up, meeting her eyes for the first time since she'd come in. The mixture of skepticism and despair on his face was almost physically painful to see. "An idea?"
"Yes." Nynaeve smoothed her skirt. Light, this was harder than she'd expected.
"Sit down. You're looming."
It took Nynaeve a moment to figure out where there was to sit, but she settled herself as best she could on the smaller rug, where she could face Stepin without sitting right in front of him. She set the basket down between them.
"You're not planning to accept Alanna Sedai's offer, are you?"
He looked at the blueberries without any sign of knowing what they were.
"No. Even if I was, uh, looking for a replacement, Ihvon doesn't actually like the idea. I'd rather… I'd rather be alone than push in where I'm not wanted."
There was no easy way into this. "Are you planning to kill yourself?"
"First chance I get." He exhaled in a way that might have been meant as a laugh. "It's uh, it's what's expected, now that I've returned Kerene's ring. Only you and Lan haven't, haven't left me alone long enough to, uh, work myself up to it. Did you want to help me sneak out of here so I can die doing something useful?"
Nynaeve smiled a little and shook her head. "Actually, I wanted to bond you."
Stepin stared at her, incomprehension gradually transforming into wariness. "Are you serious?"
"I know I can't replace Kerene, and I wouldn't try." She put her hand on his arm. "I want to help you."
He looked at her hand, then back up at her face. "You helped me stay alive long enough to get here, and to deliver Kerene's ring. That's more than enough."
"It isn't. Have the Aes Sedai really convinced you that it should be?"
"The room where they melt the rings down is way up high in the Tower. The whole back wall is open, so you can see half the city. I could have jumped, but I, uh, I didn't want to do it in front of Lan and the others. They would have blamed themselves. Warders are supposed to be able to protect the people we love."
"They'll blame themselves whether they see it happen or not."
He picked up a blueberry, looked at it, and dropped it back into the basket. "It's the best I can do."
Nynaeve had thought Alanna's warning about bonding Stepin against his will was unnecessary, even a little insulting, but as anger, frustration, and the desire to do something swirled together in her chest, the urge to just reach out, bond him, and sort the details out later was stronger than she would have thought possible. "Please, let me help you."
"Alanna won't like you going behind her back. Poaching is frowned upon, you know."
Nynaeve met his shadow of a smile with her own faintly mischievous smirk. "Who do you think taught me the weaves for the Warder bond?"
"Really?" The smile became more genuine for a moment, then collapsed. "I'm surprised."
Nynaeve tilted her head to the side, waiting for him to continue.
"I'm not going to last another month. There's no sense in you bonding me only to carry the weight of my death."
"I don't accept that."
Stepin took a drink, the first time he'd done so since Nynaeve came in. "You're a healer. Haven't you ever seen a hopeless case before?"
He raised an eyebrow. "What happened?"
Stepin made a noise that was something closer to a real laugh. "I can see why Lan likes you. He's never seen a lost cause he didn't want to fight for either."
"He doesn't- Oh, no, I am not letting you distract me." Her expression turned serious again. "Let me bond you, Stepin. Even if you… Even if it isn't enough, at least you won't be alone."
He held the bottle up as though checking how much was left, drank from it. "Ordinarily, Warders are, uh, supposed to help bear their Aes Sedai's burdens, not the other way around."
"I'm not an Aes Sedai, and I don't mean to be."
"They may not give you a choice. Even if the Amyrlin Seat would let the Dragon Reborn slip through her fingers, Moiraine Sedai won't."
Nynaeve lifted her chin. "I'm just a village Wisdom. And if I am the Dragon Reborn, I don't see that they can stop me from doing whatever I please."
As she spoke, something changed subtly in Stepin's expression, some of the slackness leaving the muscles in the sides of his face, making him look more fully alive than he had since he'd failed to kill Logain.
"Fine. I'll let you bond me. On, uh, two conditions." He paused. "Three."
Nynaeve tried not to let her own sense of triumph show too strongly. "Let's hear these conditions then."
"First, we keep it a secret, at least until you know where you stand with the Amyrlin Seat. She's a formidable woman, and it's, it's not unheard of for Novices or Accepted who take a Warder to be forced to pass the bond to another. I won't be pushed off on some random Green Sister for safekeeping. They have, uh, methods for trying to preserve Warders like me, which I'd rather not describe. I'll die first, and that seems to be what you're trying to avoid."
Nynaeve nodded. "I won't tell anyone until I find my friends and we get out of here."
"Second, if I'm to be your Warder, I'm going to be your Warder. To draw when you say 'draw' and sheathe when you say 'sheathe'. You don't leave me behind if you're going into danger. You have to let me protect you."
"I don't need protecting."
"Then you don't need a Warder."
Nynaeve ate a blueberry, giving herself a second to think. "All right. What's the third condition?"
"You have a real conversation with Lan."
Nynaeve shook her head. "He doesn't want to talk to me."
"He doesn't want to drag you into the mess he and Moiraine have made for themselves. And he's never known how to talk to women."
"He could try."
"He won't. Lan's as stubborn as you are. If you want to pick up where you left off before… before, you'll have to be the one to approach him."
"Who says I do?" Did she? Nynaeve hadn't taken much time to reflect on her feelings in the past month, and now didn't really feel like the time.
"Really?" Stepin raised his eyebrows. "This is going to be your sticking point?"
"Oh all right! I'll try to talk to him. I won't promise a conversation. If he keeps avoiding me, I'm not going to follow him around the Tower like a lost duckling."
"Good enough." He closed his eyes and leaned back against the foot of the bed, taking a deep breath that was a little shaky on the exhale. "Go ahead and do it then."
At first, Nynaeve couldn't reach the One Power. Stepin sat there, waiting, and she couldn't do anything. She tried to remember what, exactly, had happened when she'd Healed Lan and the Aes Sedai. She couldn't think of anything in particular that she'd done , just her anger, a hundred times more intense than the fury she'd felt when she realized that everyone knew what was happening to Stepin and none of them meant to do anything about it. She reached for that feeling, and with it came the light and warmth of Saidar. Not trusting it to last, she laid her fingers on Stepin's forehead, wove the delicate strands of spirit, and felt them settle into him.
She gasped. Her hold on the one power vanished in an instant. Tears prickled her eyes. Blindly, she reached for Stepin's hand, looking for any support against the tide of emotion. The pain, and the vast emptiness underneath it, were like nothing she'd ever felt.
"It's all right. Hey. It's all right. Just breathe. You'll adjust in a moment."
Even as he spoke, his emotions were forming into a small knot at the back of her mind, still within her awareness, but no longer overwhelming.
"You shouldn't be comforting me," she said. She thought she might be crying. She was definitely still holding his hand, but that was all right. He was her Warder now. "Oh, Light Stepin, how can you bear it?"
His grip tightened. "I can't. That's what I've been trying to tell you."
"Well," Nynaeve forced a smile. "We'll just have to see if we can do it together."
"I suppose we will." He started to stand up, and Nynaeve rose with him, irrationally afraid that if she broke the physical connection, this new emotional tie would break with it.
This turned out to be a good idea in any case, as Stepin was a little unsteady on his feet, lightheaded from the drink and weakened by grief.
"You can put that down now," she said, tapping the bottle with her free hand.
He smiled lopsidedly. "We'll see." But he set it on the side table behind where she had been sitting.
Through the bond, she sensed something like embarrassment? Embarrassment and relief. He had shown her the bottle deliberately, back in her room, she was sure of it now. The Warder bond only let her know his emotions, not his thoughts, but she could fill in the rest from experience. Stepin saw his drinking habits as a weakness, one he didn't want known. He didn't like that he needed help to manage it, but he did know , so he joked and hinted and hoped someone would notice without his having to come out and ask. Nynaeve supposed this was part of what Alanna had meant, about Stepin having "problems".
"Shall I make us some tea?" he asked.
"I'd love some tea,"
"I, uh, I'll need my hand back."
Nynaeve looked down. She'd almost forgotten that they were still holding onto each other. It took more effort than it should have to let go.
"If the bond only worked when we were touching, it wouldn't be much use in battle," he said, as though he'd read her thoughts. Which she supposed he almost had.
Nynaeve laughed. "I guess it wouldn't."
"Now, I think I still have some Tremalking Black that I - that-"
Even with the bond, Nynaeve couldn't have said what exactly caused it, but abruptly the Warder, her Warder, just broke , tears streaming down his face, nearly collapsing where he stood. She caught him, sort of, but he was bigger than her, and it was as much as she could do to maneuver him into the chair, rather than letting them both fall back to the floor.
He tried to say something, but she couldn't make out any words, so she just put her arms around him and stroked his hair, while he sobbed into her shirt.