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With work done for the night, Erend was more than content to take his time with his last patrol before a meal, a bath, and sleep. The docks are lit with the torches perched on poles. There’s a few people left milling around in their last minute nightly deeds. Of course, it isn’t shock he feels when he finds her. It’s more a pleasant surprise, and one he had eagerly been hoping for. She’s been gone for so long, he wonders what new things she’s seen, what places she’s been to. The past few years have moved quickly for them both, him settling in his position as Captain, and her being constantly on the move, only stopping in Meridian when she was between Cauldrons. Her feet are dangling over the end of the dock while she leans against a pole at her side. She has one hand curled in her lap, the other up by her neck, fingers moving over something.

“Mind if I sit here?”

She jumps, turning her head to look up at him. He notices her eyes looked a little too shiny, too wet. She nods, using her hands to wipe at her cheeks. The pendant hangs from her neck, smooth as bone, and one hand returns to it. His hand moves to rest on her arm, and he says nothing as he watches her. She takes in a shuddering breath.

“I’ve been so busy, I didn’t have time to just… let it all sink in. See what all is different.” Her voice is low, barely above the sound the water makes in the breeze.

“He’s still dead. There’s no home without him, and I’m...alone. I’m not going back to the Embrace, not if I can avoid it. His grave is there, near our home, but--but he’s not there. There..there wasn’t enough of him--” she chokes on a sob and hurries to cover her mouth. He watches her in pained silence, only moving to remove his gloves before his hand is on her arm again. His thumb rubs soothing circles near her elbow. She takes a steadying breath, starts to watch the water past her feet again.

“I learned who my mother was. Or rather, what she was. I’m barely a person, I think. I wasn’t brought into this world lovingly, or with anyone who actually cared. I was made. By a machine, and my purpose was to defeat the Derangement. In the image of a woman who died ages ago.” Her breathing is rough, chest shuddering with the force. A hiccup almost makes its way out of her mouth.

Her hand lifts to scrub at her tears, and she clears her throat. “I found her by the way. I found her body. She made it home, and I like to think she went peacefully. I guess in a way I could call her my other mother. If it weren’t for her making the machine, I wouldn’t be here.”

He finds his brain running in circles as he listens. Not a person? A machine for a parent? An ancient one planned on Aloy coming centuries before she would exist? She’s watching him now, very carefully. He clears his throat, trying to think of something to say.

“Erend?” She’s whispering again, and it sounds like her throat is clogged. “Please say something. Please.”

He can’t stand to hear her begging him, as if she would even need to. His fingers tighten around her arm gently. Erend knows what he’s good at. Brute force, and a laugh. He can’t push his way through this, can’t use his fists to pummel the ones who made her cry. He settles for humor with a side of sincerity that he knows she’ll catch. She catches everything.

“So there were two brilliant, pretty red heads that didn’t exist at the same time. Kinda thankful to be honest. Can you imagine the havoc you’d both cause if you’d been here at the same time? I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself. I already stick my foot in my mouth enough with just you around.”

She seems startled with his reaction, so much so that her hand automatically raises to swat his chest.

“I’m being serious, Erend!”

“So am I!”

She huffs, and turns away, frustrated. He sighs, scooting closer to her. With large hands held out in silent offering, he waits to speak until she settles again.

“Aloy, listen,” he begins, voice quiet and meant just for her. “ It doesn’t matter where you came from. Believe me, I understand not liking your origins. But you’re not her. You’re not a machine. You were brought to the world with a purpose, but you did more than defeat HADES. You brought people from all walks of life together. To fight for one common purpose. People that had been at each other’s throats for years. You saved lives along the way that had nothing to do with that purpose. kicked my ass into gear when I couldn’t be bothered to do it for myself.”

She rolls her eyes, turning her face only just enough to let him see how frustrated she looks.

“Only because Ersa wanted you to be better. She knew you could be better. So did I.”

“But do you see, Aloy? She wasn’t here to do that. That woman from long ago. You’re not her, and you’re not a machine. You’re a person who’s been sitting here crying, mourning someone that had nothing to do with her. He did have nothing to do with her, right?”

She nods, sniffles, and turns away again to watch the water. He gives the side of her face a small smile.

“So there. You lived a life she never did. You still are. I mean, did she have a handsome guy like me around to make her look even smarter than she was?”

He hears a wet chuckle.

“I wish she had had someone like you around. Sometimes I think you’re loyal to a fault.”

“Hey, me being willing to follow you to the end of the world worked out in both our favors.”

The small smile she gives is answer enough, and he watches as she thinks quietly. He turns to press his side against hers, knee knocking against hers when moves to let his feet hang over the dock as well. Her shoulder presses against him as she leans into him, and he lets the back of his hand rest against her thigh. They breathe together in the quiet for a while, listening to rustling ferns and the water lapping at the stones. Their hands move every now and then, hers to push her hair back when the breeze hits her just right, his to flick a bug off her knee. The people of the village finish their nightly concerns, and most have gone home. The dock is silent between the two of them. He looks down to see the firelight play across her face.

“You hungry?” She asks, voice steadier than it had been before.

He snorts. “Always.”

She tosses him a grin before moving to stand, using his shoulder as leverage, then holding a hand out to him. He grabs his gloves in one hand, her hand in the other, and she helps pull, and once he’s standing, he grips her fingers tighter. She moves to pull away, but he doesn’t relent. He waits to speak until she meets his eyes.

“We’re okay,” he whispers, leaning in close, “We made it, and you’re here. You. Not her. Not that machine. You. I wouldn’t have followed a machine to my death. I don’t know her, and honestly, with you here, how could she even compare?”

“You didn’t see what she did, Erend.”

“And I don’t have to. She helped make a lot of things to help the world. But I still say the best thing to come out of all that was you.”

“But I was only able to do all that because I’m...her.”

He frowns at her and tugs her around so he can grab her other hand as well. He pulls them to him, and starts pointing at the scars he sees on her skin.

“You can tell me where each of these came from, can’t you?”

“Of course, but--”

“And the calluses on your hands?”

“Well, yeah--”

“And where you learned to braid your hair?”

“Rost did it when--”

“What about when we pushed that blaze out of the shop? Scar on your cheek came from the rocks we hit on the way out. I know because I helped you patch it up to keep dust out.”

She watches him, hazel eyes watery. She gives a small sniffle.

“She’s never met me. She never will. Which, honestly, such a tragedy, because I’m a great guy to know.”

She chuckles, headbutting his armor lightly. Before she has a chance to pull away, he wraps an arm around her shoulders.

The most forward he’s been in a while, and he regrets nothing.

His other hand still holds hers, thumb running over her knuckles. He rests his chin on her hair.

“Everything you’ve done up to now put you here. Not a machine. Not some ancient woman. It may have started because of them, but everything else? That’s all you.”

He feels an arm move around his middle. He gives her time to let his words settle as he sways them gently. It crosses his mind that this is the most at peace he’s felt in months, what with the reconstruction of Meridian, and running security for tense diplomatic meetings.

Her shoulders shake with a quiet giggle.

“You think I’m pretty?”

He groans, and rolls his eyes.

“I give heartfelt speeches, and she focuses on the one thing I’ve been telling her since the moment I saw her. Yes Aloy, I think you’re pretty. Holy hell.”

She pulls away from him with a small laugh.

“Since you met me? You didn’t tell me I was pretty then.”

“Oh, like shit I didn’t. I did. You just ducked and weaved through that conversation, and missed all the fun bits. You know, all the bits that made me embarrassed to face you after all that with Dervahl.”

She shoves him playfully. “You weren’t embarrassed.”

“No, I just admitted you were better than a few cheap lines.”

He crosses his arms and turns toward the elevators in the distance. Of course, she didn’t get it. She didn’t know he’d been saying she was too smart, too pretty for the Nora. He’d realized it before, but it seemed to really settle in his bones just how separated she was from the world. His mind recalls her not knowing about the Red Raids, and while he feels angry that they cast her out, he also feels relief. If she had been a part of the village when the raids were happening, there’s a very big possibility she’d have been taken.

Then where would he be? Drunk and miserable, without certainty just what had happened to his sister.

He feels her step to his side, turning to face the elevators with him. When he turns his head to look at her, she has her arms crossed as well. There’s a stern set to her face, almost a derisive pout. She is mocking him. He scoffs and bats her arms down while she laughs. The back of her hand hits his shoulder as she steps past him.

“Come on, Captain. I’ll buy.”

“Oooh. You didn’t even ask me for a date first. Bad social etiquette, Aloy.”

He hears her snort as he walks behind her, watching her hair move on her back.

Of course, she doesn’t know she need only say the word, and he’s hers. Not that he isn’t already, but it’s a different feeling for him, imagining that she knows she has him; Has him in the way he keeps joking about. Has him in the way he means to his very soul when he says to her “Be careful” or “Don’t forget about me”.

Every few steps, she tosses a look over her shoulder, a grin stretching her lips. Sometimes, he wonders if she doesn’t know already, and is just biding her time until she knows what to do with that information. He could give her lists if she wanted them. He’s already got it planned out, just what he would do for her, and the answer is: A Lot.

He’s already followed her to what could have very easily been his death. He can’t imagine there’s much beyond that. Everything else just feels so blase compared to “I need you to help me save the world, and we might not live to tell the tale” or “Help me push this pallet of blaze barrels out a window, but also we might not live to tell the tale”.

In fact, a lot of their interactions between meeting again in Meridian and HADES involved helping people with a side of highly probable death.

He can’t think of anyone else he’d rather have at his side when he goes out in a bout of flames and righteous fury (because he’s near certain old age will not take him; that would require a higher intelligence than he has, given his profession).

And as he watches her choke on the heat of spices she’s unfamiliar with, tears falling down her cheeks, hands fanning her face, he can’t stop the thought that he really hopes she feels the same.