Perrin was most definitely exasperated.

"Aren't you ever serious?" he demanded to know, brushing flour out of his hair and righting the bucket than had, until very recently, resided on top of the slightly ajar smithy door.

"Not if I can help it."

"What if it had been Mistress Luhhan?" Perrin continued, more loudly. "Then what would you do?"

"Run for my life," came the quick, glib, and far too amused reply. Then came a laugh. "Oh, come on, Perrin, lighten up."

Perrin valiantly resisted the urge to strange his unseen friend, containing himself to a wearied sigh and continued trying to remove the spilled flour from his clothing until someone threw something small, round and hard at his head.

He yelped and whipped his head around, scowling and holding the sore spot where it had hit him. The doorway was still empty. "That hurt," he complained, bending down to pick up the culprit, a small, unripe apple.

"Oh please, I hardly even tried," came the voice from immediately behind him. Perrin turned around with a start, dropped the apple, and found himself staring into the upside down face of Mat Cauthon, dangling by his knees from the rafters. Perrin stared at him.

"How did you get up there?"

"Climbed," Mat said nonchalantly, taking a large bite out of an apple. "I had to stay and see it fall on you, y'know." He began to swing back and forth a little, much to Perrin's alarm.

"Mat!" Perrin said, more loudly than he meant to, then looked around quickly and lowered his voice. "Mat, what do you think you're doing? You're going to fall or something and break your neck and it'll be all my fault, just you wait. Just because you had some fool notion about dumping flour on my head -!"

"Actually," Mat said thoughtfully through a mouthful of apple. "You look a little like one of Mistress al'Vere's floured dumplings. Just noting."

Perrin felt a sudden and not entirely inexplicable urge to scream. "Mat," he said through gritted teeth. "Get. Down."

Mat grinned impishly. "Actually, I'm sort of stuck."

Perrin gaped at him. "You're kidding!"


After two blinks, Perrin changed the subject with an uncomfortable feeling he'd just made a fool of himself. "Where did you get that apple from?"

"Stole it."

Perrin gaped again. "Mat, you stole it? But that's – that's –!"

Mat grinned at him. "It's delicious is what it is. Mmm." He took another bite out of the apple, and Perrin flailed, a little.

"That's not – not right!" Of course, he'd always known that Mat had a grubby little thief's soul, but actually stealing something was altogether different. He grabbed the apple and began trying to tug it out of his friend's hands.

"Give it back!"

Mat clung to the apple, trying to tug back. "No! It's mine now!"

"Give it back!"

"What're you going to do, hand someone a half-eaten apple? You don't even know who I stole it from!"

"Mat you stupid foolish irresponsible – I'm going to tell your father, no, I'll tell your mother and she'll give you a tanning you won't forget and –!" Perrin tugged viciously at the apple, trying to punctuate his point. It punctuated something certainly. Or at least the loud crash did.

"Ow, Perrin," Mat said from the floor. "That wasn't necessary, was it?"

Perrin threw the apple out the back, as hard as he could, and didn't bother to respond to that.

"I mean, it was just an apple."

Perrin still stayed silent.

"Oh, come on."

"Mat," Perrin asked in a slightly pained voice. "Don't you ever think about doing something responsible? Just for once?"

Mat sat up, rubbing his head. "What for? It's no fun that way."

Perrin just looked at him, and finally Mat shrugged. "I figure I'll have plenty of time when I'm older to be responsible, right? What's the matter with having a little fun? Give me a hand, will you?"

Perrin sighed and helped tug Mat to his feet. "Maybe, but…stealing?"

Mat shrugged. "What can I say? It's exciting. It was only an apple, anyway."

"But what about next time?" Perrin wanted to know. "What if an apple isn't good enough?"

Mat looked up at Perrin and looked exasperated. "Perrin, don't you ever say anything other than 'what if?'"

"Not if I can help it," Perrin said, throwing Mat's words back at him.

Mat clapped Perrin on the shoulder. "You should try it sometime. I think it would do you good to relax a little, hmm?" Perrin felt a peculiar nervous lurch in his stomach and stared at Mat as the younger boy took his hand, turned it over, put something in it, then squeezed Perrin's shoulder once and set off toward the town. Probably going to flirt with some girl, Perrin thought darkly, snapping out of his reverie.

Finally, he looked down at what Mat had placed in his hand, and started, then stared, then started to laugh. It was another apple, the same as the other one Mat had stolen, with a single bite taken out of it.

He was still standing there laughing when Cenn Buie came to find out who'd been in his apple trees, the stolen apple in his hand. Despite the excuses, he couldn't quite convince Cenn that he hadn't done it. As he was dragged by one ear to Mistress Luhhan's house with the old codger bellowing the whole way, he thought he caught a glimpse of Mat sitting on the roof of Egwene's house, laughing his head off.

Somehow, through the whole scolding, Perrin found that he couldn't keep a silly, slightly foolish grin off his face.