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Between Armor and Skin

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It'd been months since she'd left Meridian in search of Elisabet's final resting place, and Aloy sat on her makeshift cot and paused her nightly meal of dried jerky to watch the sunset. Carrion birds swarmed in the near distance. Everything seemed to dry up in the sun here. It reminded her of Meridian as the sky blended oranges and deep purples. The sparse shrubbery that remained cast what seemed like mile long shadows on the cracked earth. Their shadows waved in the haze of heat, giving them the illusion of movement. In the distance the round figures of Tramplers tore up the earth for new life. It was almost time for her to do her dusk delivery to the closest settlement; it was her sole source of socializing to trade for food and disappear back into the night. The high temperatures were too risky to chance hunting or even wandering the times between dawn and dusk.

With what little water she managed to well up from the ground, she stored in a repurposed chillwater container she’d built during the oppressive temperatures of the day. She modeled it after an ancient tech used to prevent the spoilage of edibles. The cold leaked from it and fortuitously cooled her home, for that she was immensely grateful. Even so, she was running dangerously low on the essentials, having almost lost consciousness from dehydration before she'd established her watering hole.

It wasn’t the only thing she’d done in her time in chosen solitude. The ranch also hosted a plethora of repairs itself, no longer the skeleton of a house, she’d cut down the surrounding trees to build herself a home. Aloy sighed upon remembering her reason for coming to the Sobeck Ranch, eyes drawing to Elisabet’s untouched resting place and lost her appetite. Logically, she knew it was beyond unreasonable to hope for anything but a body, but in her heart of hearts she’d wished that somehow some way there’d be a person waiting for her at the end of the trail. Somehow, by choosing to stay, she hoped to feel closer to Elisabet. To live where she once lived and died, perhaps it was the proximity. She’d have buried her as Rost was, but felt that the vines that ran through her and the flowers that surrounded her would die. To Aloy, they were a symbol that death was not the end, that and that it was too picturesque to tarnish. She’d ended up barricading the sight from the elements for her own sake.

Staying at the Ranch only served to make her restless, but she also didn’t want to return to the idolatry that haunted her after the final battle with the Eclipse and HADES. Since the battle and Sylen’s betrayal she had limited her usage of her focus. She missed her friends dearly of course, but also felt exhausted by the prospect of their expectations upon her return. She had wanted to aid in rebuilding after the attack, but Avad insisted on a celebration and she wasn’t one for such gatherings thanks to her outcast upbringing. He hadn’t taken no as an answer. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts only proved to dig them in deeper, much to her displeasure. She hadn’t said goodbye to anyone and there was another reason she stayed. Packing away the remaining strips of jerky, she collected her weaponry and headed out.


The last time she’d seen Erend, she’d lied that she was heading in for the night. He’d thrown his arm around her and whined that the party was just beginning. He smelled of drink and swayed. He told her that she couldn’t leave before the best part until she absolutely insisted that she was exhausted. At least that wasn’t a lie.  He spilled a bit of firewhiskey on her shoe before patting her on the back and sending her on her way, ruffling her hair all the while. Talanah had given her a toast in her honor, one she didn’t want. All eyes were on her and she felt each one. Needless to say it made her skin crawl. The glory didn’t sit well with her. She hadn’t done it to gloat, but out of necessity and no one was willing to hear it in the aftermath.

After Erend had sent her on her way she’d made her way back to her temporary abode gifted to her by The Sun-King. It belonged to the Oseram Olin that had an unwilling hand in Rost’s death. She had not only spared him but had also went out of her way to save his family. It made her grief more bearable to at least be able to reunite one family, but also sharpened the ache of her own loss. Unlike Olin, Rost wasn’t coming back. The night was young but it had quickly grown old. She felt unusually drained as if she'd been fighting all evening. The door shutting behind her caused her to almost immediately release the tension in her shoulders; the whoops and hollers of celebration muffled by the thick wood.

Vanasha had insisted upon being her personal stylist for the occasion, dressing her in drapes of fine silk that felt like she was wearing nothing. When she’d looked in the mirror, the sheer amount of visible skin had her wanting to cover herself. Though Vanasha told her it was customary, the comforting weight of her armor was nonexistent. Aloy climbed the stairs toward the bedroom on autopilot and immediately began to lift the shifty top over her head.

“Bored of the festivities already, Aloy?” She scrambled to put the top back to how it was before her breasts were completely bare to the intruder and reared her head toward the voice. She was on alert and quickly drew a dagger she’d managed to hide into her outfit.

His hair was short on the sides and longer on the top, she’d never seen him without the ridiculous headdress, his Carja soldier armor nowhere to be seen. He sported a fresh red wound below his collarbone, the stitches uneven as if he'd done it himself. She relaxed minutely, yet her stomach tickled something fierce instead to confirm he'd survived. The silver eyes that always unflinchingly bored into hers had the tips of her ears burning. She'd nearly forgotten how much more his characteristically odd confession before the fight had effected her. After taking a few steadying breaths, she spoke and lowered her weapon.

“Is it your habit to sneak into the homes of women in the night, Nil?” She feigned indifference, unsure of his intentions as usual but not at all averse to his presence, however disconcerting it was. The man in question spared a glance at her choice of outfit with little to no change in expression beside a single raised eyebrow. His eyes on her exposed skin made her tingle and out of sheer stubbornness she combated the need to cover herself. As much as she wanted to distance herself from her tribe, she couldn't brandish her skin like a weapon as Vanasha did. The master spy had teased her about it, calling her a prude during the primping. She'd rushed to correct her verbal misstep and Aloy had told her not to worry, but as the memory flashed through her mind so did the rush of self-consciousness. She puffed out her chest and found herself daring him to say something about it. She knew her form was not as full as the Carja women, that her breasts were not as plump. The silks she wore did little to accentuate her boyish build. She nearly held her breath as she waited for him to speak.

“You insult me, Aloy. I believe I've always been a gentleman in our partnership.” He purred in that laissez-faire way of his. Her brow rose at the statement. She thought on it and realized that with her he hadn't ever been untoward, save for a few unsavory murder analogies and that damn duel he’d proposed, and for some reason unbeknownst to her it set her on edge. “And I assure you my intentions are innocent, or at least by conventional standards.” He intimated, leaving his seat on the windowsill and looking around as if he hadn't broken in as he took a few slow steps into her bedroom. Aloy swallowed with brows drawn and struggled not to fidget as she watched him. His eyes caught hers once more. He’d truly thrown her by being there, but she would not be cowed regardless of how obviously flustered she felt.

“That is not a word I would use to describe you, Nil, and I thought you didn’t like entering settlements.” She goaded and stuck out her chin obstinately. He just shrugged. It wasn’t hard to recall the handful of times she’d encountered the beguiling man, each time he’d unsettled her and made her chest clench. After she'd rejected his challenge to a duel he'd seemingly dropped off the face of the planet. The last time they’d spoken, before the battle, he’d said some weird things to her.

“Fine, then tell me what you meant when you'd said I'd hurt you because I don't have a clue.” She blurted artlessly, curiosity getting the better of her. When he broke eye contact and invited himself to sit on her bed, Aloy tensed, panicking that she’d said the wrong thing. Her palms sweat and she flexed her fingers out.

“Exactly what I said.” He looked up at her from beneath his dark lashes after traces of confusion left his face. Aloy huffed and clenched her jaw to keep from pouting like a petulant child at his non-answer. “You wounded me. Your last arrow the cruelest.” He repeated sounding hurt, leaning back on his elbows on the bed with his typically high-waisted pants riding low without the plated armor. His whole ensemble seemed more relaxed than she expected from him. She wanted to berate him for making himself so at home but with her throat so suddenly dry, she opened her mouth to speak and no words came out. She had to avert her eyes. She chose to busy herself with packing up her things for the journey.

“When I'd heard you'd survived I knew you'd want to get away from it all. Afterall, you've done your part. I thought you’d try to sneak away before the feast, but I'm only human.” Nil drawled unhurried, getting everything but the last bit correct. She scoffed and paused her ministrations to interject.

“I am not running.” Silence, so she dared a glance. He simply stared, unconvinced and nonplussed by her proclamation.

“I sensed your exhaustion, Aloy. You're so restless and craving the dirt on your cheek, ready as a notched arrow. People like us abhor the opulence of these sheep who barely lived a day in their short lives and so easily culled. We live for the fight for the peace is unbearable and what better for trouble than good company.” Saying more than she'd heard him speak, she’d let him ramble on as she finished up. Aloy set her things down roughly, inwardly cursing herself for being so readable. She turned her head to glare at him having heard him rise from the bed to take slow, meandering steps toward her. Out of instinct and the new writhing sensation he seemed to elicit in her gut in close proximity, she made for the other side of the room and busied herself with collecting her things there to seem as if she hadn’t been running away from him. She heard him chuckle under his breath. “As you've pointed out, I am averse to the complacency of settlements, yet here I am in your bedroom in the heart of Meridian. How cruel, Aloy. I entered this paltry trap after tending to this,” gesturing to his shoddy stitching job, “to find you and you won’t even look at me.” Aloy’s cheeks warmed against her will and she took a fortifying breath before whirling on him.

“Then why are you here, Nil?” She narrowed her eyes upon closing the distance and looked up at him. His face betrayed nothing, much to her internal agony.

“Well, Seeker of the Nora, The Voice of Our Teeth has missed sharing the blood of the worthy with a partner. I’ve tried to forget what it was like to slay scum by your side, but I remember and to remember is an open wound, Aloy. To think of spilling the sweet nectar of life from foes without your tenacity to match my artistry causes the wound you gifted me to bleed and bleed.” His voice gaining color.

“Nil, you’re really making me want to kick you out. Can we continue this conversation in a minute because I really want to get out of...these.” She held up a hand to stop him from whatever it was he was getting at, face completely as red as her hair. Her interruption only caused him to once again admire her immodest clothing. That brow lifted again. “Nil! Do you mind!?” She chirped, covering herself.

“A Nora in Carja garb. No wonder you’re so testy. With my tenuous grasp of Nora customs, you’re basically nude.” Yes, she'd gotten that badly wanted comment, but not like that. Aloy blanched and kicked him out of the room with little resistance. “Don’t go running off without me now!” She heard him holler from beyond the door. With no time wasted in removing the offending garments and replacing them with something much more comfortable, she opened the door and gestured for him to come back in. He’d been leaning up against the wall entirely too casual. He flashed her a feral smile that sent a shiver down her back that settled in her stomach and made her swallow an invisible lump.

“So what were you trying to say?” She cleared her throat. He opened his mouth to speak but she interrupted. “And please speak plainly for once.” She hadn’t planned on sounding like she was pleading with him and wished she’d been brusque.

“Well since the Savior of Meridian asked so nicely... I know you’re planning on running somewhere. I want to join you.” He said the title like it was a curse and for once his silver eyes had some life to them as he spoke softly. His request was earnest and not one she would indulge even on the best of days. He must have seen the answer on her face because he continued. “Of course, I know you want to say no, so how about we make a deal?” The mischief in his eyes was similar to the fervor before a kill. Aloy couldn't outright say she wasn’t intrigued.

“What are you proposing, then?” She sighed when he didn't go on. Nil straightened his back and she could almost swear his eyes looked almost soft. Instead of cold hard unflinching steel, they crinkled at the edges and gave him an almost kind countenance.

“A race of sorts. I’ll give you a day’s head start and you take your Strider and you go . Go where you’ve decided you need to be so urgently that you must leave under the cover of night and I will try to track you.” He seemed awfully proud of himself for creating such a self-sabotaging game. His lips upturned at the corners when he heard no immediate rejection.

“And if you don’t?”

“Then I will brandish your mark on what remains of my heart like an aching scar that never heals.” Nil’s brows knit together at the thought as if he hadn’t considered it an option before softening back to his usual indecipherable expression. Aloy felt a throb behind her sternum replace the uneasy fluttering of her stomach as well.

“Nil, I think you might have hit your head during the battle. You’re not making any sense--”

“I sustained this injury due to my muddled thoughts." He pointed to the gash on his chest. "I should thank the damned Longneck that threw me, for it made my indecision disappear as my sword pierced it's mechanical heart. My mind has never been clearer, Aloy, of this I assure you.” Slowly, allowing her time to move away, he raised a calloused hand to caress her jaw as if she were a distrustful animal and she supposed she certainly looked it. His fingers felt like drops of blaze where they touched and she had to tell herself to breath. “But if I manage to catch up to you, you won’t be able to keep me away, Little Nora.” Nothing could have prepared her for how much she wanted that as the outcome once the words poured from his mouth. Aloy’s eyes widened and she took a deep breath through her nose. She finally figured out the name of the feelings he gave her. It was unknown territory and for the first time the thought of exploring it terrified her.


 

And so she waits as well. For the first moon she had her eyes on the horizon, for bandits, for machines, for anyone, for Nil. The second, she couldn’t help but become cynical. Her only company the Strider she had tamed in the cover of that night. And now on the third moon, Aloy no longer looked to the horizon besides her expeditions and the rising and setting of the sun. No machines, no people lived within more than a few miles radius of the Ranch. She finally got her prized solitude, but it was a hollow victory. And so she loaded the handcrafted saddlebags of her Strider with some jugs of groundwater, mounted her Strider, her one companion, and set off for the nearest settlement.

About an hour ride away, the nearest settlement was only a few buildings carved into the side of a mountain. The people were not unkind to her since she only came to sell vital water and buy supplies. Despite how her bleeding heart certainly bled for these people, she knew she had to keep a low profile, hence why she came at night. It wouldn’t do to attract undue attention and end up spilling blood on Sobeck soil and potentially destroying Elisabet’s final resting place. Aloy dismounted her strider behind a boulder a bit aways from the settlement to not spook them, and although they already knew she was some sort of weird machine whisperer they spoke no ill of her. Jugs of water in tow, she made it to the inn where she usually traded water for food and other necessities when available.

“The water girl is back, da!” A now familiar young voice chimed upon her entry. She couldn’t hold back a smile at the child’s nickname for her. The spritely girl ran to her father and tugged his shirt sleeve to get his attention. Her parents owned the inn, her mother, Liga, ran the inn and her father, Zasha, ran the in-house bar.

“Is she now, Luva?” Zasha acknowledged her with a head nod which Aloy reciprocated and continued on her way to the inn half of the building. Announcing her presence, Liga sighed as if a weight lifted at the mere sight of her.

“Aloy! We were wondering when you’d stick your head back in these parts. We’ve got a new shipment of medical supplies and I saved you a box, don’t let Zasha know.” Liga winked playfully, her eyes crinkling with age. They had their daughter late in their years. The healer in town had declared Liga barren after many failed attempts. They called her their miracle child.

“Thank you. I actually have one more jug than usual so don’t worry about it.” Liga laid her weathered hand over her heart before clasping Aloy’s hand in both of hers.

“You are truly a blessing, Aloy. I know you hate it when I ask this, but why don’t you stop living out in the wastes and find a nice young man in town. Before you say no, I understand we are a small settlement but we make do. You’re strong, Aloy, and know that you are always welcome here.” Liga punctuated with a squeeze of her hands.

“I don’t think I’m cut out for romance, Liga.” Aloy smiled knowing her host wouldn’t be offended.

“You know, one of these days you have to tell us your story. You’re so mysterious.” She teased before helping carry the jugs to the storage room.

After tallying up the cost of the water to the cost of what Aloy requested, Liga still snuck her extra meats and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The two women sighed, realizing it was about time for Aloy to leave once more.

“Oh, Aloy, before you go. An Outlander checked in the other day. He said he was from a land called ‘Carja,’ quite a handsome young man I must say,” Aloy prepared herself for the rest, “but oh, Aloy. He was asking about you after, I guess, he overheard us talking about when abouts you’d come up from the wastes. He had such peculiar marks under his eyes. Do you know anyone like that? He said you knew each other quite intimately. We didn’t want to put you in any danger so we tried to keep all information about you close to heart, but he seemed to know more about you then we do. He described you to the freckle. I think he’s in the bar at the moment, do you want me to tell Zasha to send him over?” Liga chuckled uncomfortably, stopping only when she saw how pale Aloy had become. “Oh, sweetie, are you alright?”

“I-- excuse me.” The fears and doubts she’d had over the past moons all came to the forefront of her mind. Nearly against her will her feet took her to the bar and her eyes scanned the room. Her breath caught in her throat as she easily picked him from the other patrons. His beard had grown and from where she stood he sported a few more scars, but his eyes were the same unflinching silver. It felt as if her feet didn't touch the ground as she weaved her way through the tables. Upon reaching the table she began to lose her nerve and stood stupidly in front of him. She almost felt as if she was losing her mind. They hadn’t broken eye contact until he gestured for her to take a seat. Dumbly, she gracelessly plopped down into the chair across from him at the little table at the low lit bar.

“How?” Was all she could voice in the face of her racing thoughts. As if she had asked him the meaning of life his brows drew together and a far off look came over his eyes as he seemingly mulled it over.

“With extreme difficulty, my dear Nora.” Her mouth opened minutely at the jarring turn of events. “But I believe I’ve found you, haven’t I? I’ve won.” The corner of his lips upturned as he fiddled with his empty mug of spirits. Closer now than across the bar, she could see the dark bags beneath his eyes and the hollowness of his cheeks. Perhaps he felt her eyes on him, for he threw down what he owed for his drink and made to leave. Without thinking she clasped her hand around his forearm as if he would disappear. He regarded her patiently for a moment before she collected her thoughts.

“I have a camp.” Aloy said with no preamble as she too rose from the table.  

“Good, I would like to set out as soon as possible, lead the way.” Nil grabbed his headdress from where he’d placed it below the table and held an arm out for her to lead the way. If it hadn’t been for Liga covertly watching them, Aloy would have left her supplies. The knowing look in her eyes made Aloy blush as they made their escape. As they approached her Strider she broke from her daze realizing they’d both have to ride it but also that Nil had never done so before. Breaking from her thoughts, she put them away to unpack later to help him onto it.

As the lights from the village faded in the distance the silence was finally broken.

“Well, well, well. Leave it to you, Aloy, to be so far away from where I would have expected.” Nil intoned, swiveling to see the last of the lights twinkle out of view. “Have you reached your destination?” He turned back and murmured into her ear. Hearing his low tones so close had her shiver and she rubbed her arm as if it was due to a chill. In order for them to ride he needed to hold on to her hips as an anchor, due to that she was the opposite of cold even as the temperature dropped as the night progressed.

“I did.” She offered, hoping he’d ask for more. When he didn’t she cleared her throat and continued. “It’s my mother’s home. Or rather, it was, once upon a time. It’s complicated.” Complicated being an understatement.

“Share only what you feel comfortable with. There is no rush.” Though his words should have placated her, they only served to frustrate her. She hadn’t told a soul where she was heading when she left nor the why. The idea of keeping everything to herself became more and more daunting, especially since the arrival of Nil. “We’re partners from here on out.” Nil said the one thing that had repeated in her head.

“Partners... never had one before.” She sighed wistfully. They were about halfway to her base. “You never explained how you found me.” Nil hummed behind her, squeezing her hips when the Strider crossed a small creek.

“‘Hair red as freshly spilled blood, astride a Strider.’ According to every Sun forsaken bandit camp turned settlement I had to check along the way, you’re pretty unforgettable. They recounted the ways you helped them before you went on your way. Even out of the Sundom, you’re still the same.” His voice had an inquisitive lilt to it as he recalled. His thumb unintentionally or perhaps purposely rubbed little circles into the dimple of her back on her one side.

“I had thought I was being discreet.” She said after a few minutes and pouted at the realization that others could follow their trail. “As much as I dislike the idea of leaving, I think it’s about time I moved on if you managed to trace my path, don’t you?”

“While I agree, I do look forward to beholding your hideout.”

“We’re almost there, hold on tight.” Aloy advised before getting the Strider to a quick gallop.

“By the sun, Aloy!” Nil exclaimed, unable to do anything but clutch his ridiculous headpiece and cling to her for dear life. Looking back at him she hollered a barking laugh as the Strider’s mechanical hooves carried them past grazing Broadheads and back to her homestead.