Egwene Kindleaf doesn’t have fucking nightmares, and when she wakes up alone in her room in the temporary housing in Gladeholm and her heart is racing and her sheets are soaked in sweat, she doesn’t fucking reach out for her dweeb kid brother. And she especially doesn’t panic when he’s not next to her. She especially doesn’t have to take a second to process that they’re not on the SS Stormborn anymore and they’re not sharing a room so it’s fine that he’s not with her and it doesn’t mean he’s…dead, or whatever. She knows all that. She’s not stupid.
Her heart feels like it’s going to burst out of her chest and she tries the breathing exercises that she got from Alanis, but what Alanis maybe failed to mention is that breathing exercises are more helpful when you’re already high as shit. Egwene isn’t panicked, doesn’t panic, but if she did (if she is), it would feel the same as it does when she’s angry – overwhelming, fast, like she’s going to vibrate out of her skin. People think she’s angry all the time, and they’re not wrong, but, if she panicked about stupid shit, which she doesn’t, she might say that it would be more accurate to say she’s always just on the verge of tipping over into the world ending.
She knows Erlin is fine. It’s not – she would have heard something if there was something wrong. There are Alarms set around the house, and outside both her and Erlin’s doors. And Erlin can take care of himself. That feels wrong, will always feel wrong, but he’s so much stronger now than he used to be. She knows he’s fine.
Shakily, she gets up. She doesn’t need the support of the desk by her bed, but it’s nice that it’s there, nonetheless. Her bow hangs on the back of the door, along with her quiver, and she stares at it. In the dark, she can’t make out the green of the fletching. In the dark, they almost look like toys. Hands at her sides, her fingers itch, and she flexes them, clenches them, flexes them again. The war is over. She is safe. She does not need to bring her weapons to her brother’s room.
The war had been over when her parents died, too, and then there was another war. She leaves the bow, but she brings her knife.
Egwene is silent as she moves through the house. She is usually silent, when she’s not speaking, but she doesn’t want to wake Erlin, just wants to check in on him. He doesn’t need to know she’s worried. Which she’s not. But if she was, he wouldn’t need to know.
His door is closed, and she pauses outside of it. It creaks when it’s opened, sometimes, she knows, and she considers casting Silence on it for a second. Considers. Doesn’t. The war is fucking over, Egwene. The war is over, Lady Snake. She hates when people call her that – only does it in her own head to mock herself. It feels like a joke. She’s not a Lady anything, she’s fucking 19. She opens Erlin’s door, ignoring the alert the set Alarm gives her. She just needs to get a glimpse of him, to see he’s alive and she hasn’t let him get kidnaped again, and then she’ll go.
There is a soft glow coming from the center of the room, where Erlin’s bed is, and when her eyes adjust, she can see that Erlin is sitting up, hunched over a small orb of light that he’s holding in his hand. He jumps when the door opens, looks over and moves to extinguish the light before he realizes it’s her. Fuck. This is stupid, she shouldn’t have fucking come.
“Egwene?” he asks, just a hair above a whisper.
“Yeah,” she responds, because she’s stuck here now. “What’s up?”
“Wanna come in?”
She considers saying no. She should, probably, say no, because she knows he’s fine now and she can go to bed and stop worrying about stupid bullshit that isn’t real. But –
“Okay.” She steps inside, closes the door behind her, and then, self-conscious, “Whatever.”
Erlin scoots over on the bed and suddenly there’s a lump in her throat that she forces herself to swallow. Before the War Against Asmodeus, before she’d joined the fucking Green Teens, their parents had used to read to them before bed. She and Erlin had always fought over space, shoved each other to make room, even though there’d always been plenty. Now – his bed is small, but he moves over for her.
After a moment of blinking at him, she sits down next to him. They’re not close enough to touch, but she can feel his warmth. “Why’re you up?”
“Nightmare,” Erlin responds, turning back to looking at his ball of light. She can’t help but look at it, too, and see the way that it moves in his hands. Ripples seem to almost form people, flashes of red, swords against axes. “How ‘bout you?”
She glares at him, but he can’t see her, of course. Probably good. She’s not really mad (Anger and panic, anger and fear – what’s the difference?). “Nothing. Thought I’d check up on you.”
“You know I’m fine, right?” He doesn’t look away from his light.
“I’m okay. Nothing’s going to hurt me.”
“Yeah. I know. Obviously.” Over and over again, she relives that fucking dwarf teleporting away with him, she relives standing there and not being able to do anything about it, she relives shoving down her panic and telling Beverly not to sacrifice himself for him, even though she would have done it in an instant. She doesn’t have anyone else left.
There’s a long silence. Egwene is okay with that. She doesn’t want to have this conversation, especially not with Erlin. He’s got enough stupid guilt, he doesn’t need to shoulder hers, too.
Eventually, he looks up at her. “Do you miss them?”
She’s about to ask who he means, because there’s so many people he could be talking about, but in the orb of light flashes brief images of a rat and a bear, laughing together, and the lump in her throat comes back. “Of course. What kind of question is that?”
“I don’t know. It seems like they got forgotten, kind of. During everything.”
“Everyone gets forgotten. You don’t hear people talking about mom and dad, do you?”
“Why? Because it’s not a war you fought in? I was done training in time to see the end, and I can tell you, it wasn’t different at all.”
Silence, again. Egwene knows some siblings who have an easy relationship, who always know how to talk to each other. Siblings who aren’t separated by this – by this responsibility, this ball of fear she carries with her wherever she goes. She doesn’t even know what Erlin carries with him. She doesn’t know how to ask.
“If this time wasn’t different, how do we know it won’t happen again?”
Erlin’s smart. She’d never admit it out loud, but he’s smarter than he gets credit for. She wishes he wasn’t. It would be so much easier if he wasn’t. “We don’t.”
The light spins, and Red and Gunther appear again, and then Cran and Derlin as kids, and then their parents, and then the ruins of Galaderon, ash blowing in the wind. “So what’s the point?”
Egwene doesn’t know. She’s fucking 19 and she’s not some trained therapist, she’s a child soldier who isn’t a child anymore and doesn’t have another war on the horizon to fight in. “Well, we’re stronger now. More prepared. Next time we’ll know what’s coming.” This is a lie. She’d fought against Asmodeus. Nothing about that war could have prepared her for this one. Nothing about this war could prepare her for another.
“I don’t think that’s true.” Erlin leans against her and he’s not small anymore. He’s almost an inch taller than she is, and the top of his head bumps against her chin.
“So what?” she asks, to prevent herself from crying over something as stupid as the natural passage of time.
“Maybe this time there won’t be a next time,” he says, which doesn’t answer the question, but her eyes are once again drawn to his spell, which shows the Crick, rebuilding, and the Divine Heart that is now Melora and Telaine, and the Ruby Dawn seeking redemption.
“Maybe,” Egwene lets herself say.
Eventually, the Kindleaf children fall asleep together. The sun rises on them pressed against each other, and, for one more day, there is not another war.