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Stepin is underwater and he doesn't really know how he came to be there and it doesn't matter right now because Kerene is in the water too and he cannot see her. The Alguenya is deep, even this close to Cairhien, and still very cold this time of year. He doesn't have much time. 

He kicks his boots off without thinking about it. This isn't his first unexpected dip in a river. Through the bond, he feels that she is conscious and hasn't panicked, yet. It is dark, and he doesn't know which way the surface is, but he knows which way Kerene is, and he has to get to her. 

Upstream. She is upstream, and the current isn't fast here, but it seems inexorable. Stepin grew up playing on the banks of the Erinin, and he is a strong swimmer. He can do this. Suddenly there is light. Kerene has channeled a small ball of light, showing Stepin exactly where she is and why she hasn't gotten herself out of the river yet. Her skirts are slashed to ribbons where she cut herself free from an underwater tree branch, but one of her boots is stuck somehow and she can't reach it. 

Stepin dives, draws his belt knife, cuts the laces, thanking the Light that he was sharpening it when… what happened? Not important yet. 

Kerene has wriggled out now and is making for the surface, and Stepin follows her. The air isn't as cold as he feared, and the banks aren't steep - they scramble out with a new layer of mud but no real difficulty. 

"I'm sorry about your boot." He says. 

Even with the bond, he can't quite believe that she's all right until he can get her to laugh. But she's not looking at him. She's not listening, and when she finally turns around all she says is "Karile."

"Burn me!" He starts running, downstream, scanning the surface as best he can without Kerene's little ball of light, hoping for a glimpse of Karile's golden hair. Surely it will stand out, even in the dark. Stepin isn't close with Karile the way some Warders shared by a Green Sister are with each other, but he's a friend, and Stepin nearly forgot about him. 

Kerene is somewhere behind him, more hampered by her one boot than he is by his bare feet. He's walking slower now, though. As cluttered as this river is, there's no knowing how far Karile might have gone before catching on something, and it won't help anything to go straight past him in the dark. He's so intent on his search that he almost doesn't hear it when Kerene falls to her knees, but no one could miss the burst of anguish he feels from her a second later. 

"Stepin, stop."

He already has. He knows what happened, just as he knows she needs to say it out loud.

"Stop. We're too late." 

He makes his way back to her, stops a few paces away. Kerene doesn't like to be touched when she's upset, especially in the throes of some new, strong emotion. Says she needs to be alone in her own body with it first. He'll go to her when she asks for him, and until then he'll stand guard, creating a space where she can fall apart safely.

He's looking out over the river again, internally cursing the lack of moonlight, when Kerene makes a choking noise. 

He turns around in time to see the blood trickling from the corner of her mouth and… What? No, this isn't right. 

She falls onto her back, still choking, bleeding from somewhere he can't see. No. He feels her die, and the world fractures around him. 


Nynaeve knew as soon as Stepin was awake. She'd known he was about to wake up, as soon as she felt his distress and confusion - an ordinary dream suddenly turning into a nightmare. The bond was incredibly useful for monitoring a patient's health, and she wondered if there might be a variation, something shorter term that wouldn't do so much damage when one of the participants died, which could be used for that specific purpose, but she had no idea how to go about such a thing. 

"How long was I asleep?"

Nynaeve glanced out the window. "An hour, maybe two." She could feel his headache more clearly now, and stood up to pour some of the tea she'd prepared. 


"Don't be. It's good that you got some rest."

Stepin sat up slowly, looking around the room as though trying to orient himself. Nynaeve handed him a small cup of the dark red liquid, taking the opportunity to assess the swelling around his eyes, the pace and sound of his breathing. She would not rely exclusively on the bond for this - there were too many details it didn't give her. He wasn't in good condition, but neither was he any worse than she expected. 

"No, I meant I'm sorry about, uh, the dreams. You may want to mask the bond if, if you want to get any real sleep." He took the cup and studied its contents. 

"Mask the bond?"

Stepin took a sip of the tea and made a face. "Did you put… salt in this?"

Nynaeve laughed. "Yes. It will help, trust me."

"I trust you," Stepin said, with that almost unsettling earnestness. 

He did , she could feel it. But something was also bothering him, a sense of something out of place. 

"What's the matter?"

Stepin drank half of what was left in the little cup. "I'm supposed to, uh, take care of you."

She put her hand on his shoulder. "Tell you what. The next time I drink an entire bottle of brandy and then spend a quarter of an hour crying, you can make me all the tea you want."

"I'll hold you to that," he said, smiling. 

Nynaeve hated feeling the effort he was making every time he laughed or smiled now, even when it was sincere. She was struck by the memory of - Light, was it only a month ago. She felt about ten years older, and Stepin certainly looked it - sitting together at the Warders' fire, Stepin laughing at almost everything anyone said, chuckling softly to himself for almost a full minute over her confusion when she realized how Alanna and her Warders were involved. The other Green sisters had all come to collect their Warders, but Kerene didn't come for Stepin, and then Lan had gone as well, leaving them alone… Irritation suddenly kindled inside her. It hadn't occurred to her before that-

"What's wrong?"

Stepin had sensed the change in her emotions. Light, that was inconvenient. Unaccountably, Nynaeve felt herself blushing, and had to hope it didn't show in the dimming light. 

"I've changed my mind," she said. "I will be having a conversation with Lan, whether he likes it or not."

Stepin made a 'go on' gesture. 

She didn't want to explain. But he would know what she was feeling no matter how well she hid it. "That first night I sat with you all at the fire. He left us alone together. I think he was trying to…" she couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence. 

"Of course he was. He feels more for you than I've known him to for anyone - except Moiraine - and he'd rather see you safely settled with another man than, uh, let you face losing him to his 'endless war against the Shadow'."

Indignation mounted on top of irritation. "But," it had only just occurred to her, "that was before…" she trailed off. It felt indecent to bring up Kerene's death in the same conversation as… whatever was happening between her and Lan. Fortunately, Stepin guessed enough of her thoughts. "Kerene and I weren't together like that. Not for more than fifteen years now. We did for a while after Karile died, but that was just… two friends comforting each other." He swallowed. "It doesn't hurt any less."

Nynaeve nodded, encouraging him to continue as she stood up to light the lamps. 

"I was uh, afraid it would. Afraid that being bonded to you would… Fill in some of the empty space she left. Where are my daggers?"

He'd noticed. 

"Safe," said Nynaeve firmly. "Where you won't be able to find them."

"Along with…" he looked around the room, "every arrow, spear, and blade I had in here. Did you at least leave me my razor?"

"No." Nynaeve patted the pocket of her skirt. "But I'm keeping it with me. If you want to shave you can - with supervision."

A flash of combined admiration and annoyance that felt as strange through the bond as it looked on his face. "You thought of everything, didn't you?"

"I hope so." 

They let the conversation lapse for a while after that. Nynaeve poured Stepin another cup of tea, and he drank it, this time without complaining. Nyneave liked salted blueberry tea, but the important thing was that it helped people recover their strength when they'd been dried out by illness, weeping, or blood loss. 

Stepin's emotions gradually shifted as the physical discomfort faded, from a maelstrom of confusion, frustration, and grief all partly drowned out by a truly awful dehydration headache, to a despairing trapped feeling so pure and intense that Nynaeve found herself wanting to get out into some fresh air. 

"Do you want to go out to the gardens?" She stood up even as she asked the question, trying not to fidget with her braid. 

"I don't think they want either of us to leave," he said, but he was smiling. Sort of. 

"Then perhaps it's time we reminded the Aes Sedai that they aren't in charge of everyone they set eyes on."

Stepin shook his head very slightly, even as he was pulling his boots on. "It's a bad idea to make an Aes Sedai angry when you don't have to."

Nynaeve did tug at her braid then. "I just need to look at something alive and growing, and hear the wind. If Moiraine really wanted me to stay in my room, she should have given me a reason."

"Moiraine uh, doesn't give anyone reasons. Kerene says," he hesitated, swallowed, "it's hard to have a conversation with someone who won't say anything."

Nynaeve smiled grimly. "Yeah, that's Moiraine. Are you ready to go?"

They didn't talk as they navigated the corridors. Nynaeve didn't really know what would happen if they were caught, but she didn't see any reason to find out if they could avoid it. Stepin took the lead, his footsteps nearly silent even on the bare stone floor. Nynaeve made a little more noise - she'd learned stealth in the woods of the Two Rivers, and almost nothing of that translated to this flickering, lifeless place. Light, she needed to get outside. 

"You don't like it here, do you?" asked Stepin, when they finally came to a door that led outside. 

Nynaeve shrugged. "I've only seen about three rooms of this place. I don't like Aes Sedai, and I haven't spent a full day indoors since I was old enough to walk."

"Oh." Stepin reached up and picked a fruit off one of the trees. He examined it briefly and put it in his pocket. "Not ripe yet."

"I thought they kept everything ready to harvest all the time here, with the One Power."

They turned down a side path, into a grove of taller, slightly spindly trees, nearly dripping with round fruits that Nynaeve thought were orange, although it was hard to be sure in this light.

"They can't. It has something to do with the minerals in the soil." He adopted a conspiratorial tone. "I don't really understand it; I grew up in Southharbor, so I never had to learn about...trees."

"Plants need to rest," said a deep voice behind them. 

Nynaeve whirled around, hand going to her belt knife. The man - was it a man? - in front of her was taller than anyone she'd ever seen, with a wide nose and untidy reddish hair. He sighed and raised his hands in what was unmistakably a placating gesture. 

She almost looked around to see where Stepin was, then remembered that she didn't have to. He was just behind her and to her left and… he wasn't upset by the stranger. He'd been startled, the same as her, and he was still surprised, but he felt neither fear nor the mixture of relief and despair she would have expected if he thought he'd found a foe against whom he could break himself. 

She took her hand off her knife. 

Stepin, apparently deciding that she'd had long enough to take the initiative if she were going to, stepped up beside her and said, "Glory to the builders!" with genuine respect and a passable facsimile of enthusiasm. 

"Ah, glory to the builders," Nynaeve said awkwardly. "My name is Nynaeve al'Meara."

"Loial, son of Arent son of Halan. Your name sings in my ears, Nynaeve al'Meara. Do you come from the Two Rivers?"

"Yes," she said, surprised enough by the question that she answered before she'd had a chance to consider whether she should answer. "How did you know?"

"The braid is distinctive. Your friend Rand al'Thor is looking for you. But he did not tell me you were an Aes Sedai." He peered at her more closely.

"I'm not an Aes Sedai," she said automatically. "Wait, Rand's looking for me? Do you know where he is?"

Loial sighed again. "I should have known that you would get excited. Humans always do."

"Tell me where my friend is!" she snapped. Her vague sense of something ridiculous in making demands of an Ogier - and now that she'd had a moment to think, there was nothing else Loial could be - was not helped at all by the amusement she could feel through the bond. 

"I will take you to him, if you'd like," said Loial, unperturbed by her outburst.

"Ah, yes. Thank you."

"He is at an inn called The Queen's Blessing." The Ogier started back towards the path they'd turned off of. "But if you are not Aes Sedai, how is it that you have a Warder?"

Nynaeve glanced at Stepin. She considered the way the conversation she'd just had would look from the outside. He had known almost at once that Loial wasn't a threat, but he'd still positioned himself to back her up, however she chose to respond. He'd spoken once, when she was clearly at a loss, covering for her awkwardness, then stood back and let her do the talking. They'd barely been bonded for three hours, and they were already so much in sync. If it was this obvious to everyone, she was going to have to be a lot more careful around the Aes Sedai. 

"It's a long story," she said finally. 

"A long story? You will have to tell it to me as we walk."