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The Choices We Make

Chapter Text

The fire sputtered and hissed as he poked at it from the large bundle of furs he'd become.

The air had been the fresh, soft cold of new snow just an hour before, something he'd been grateful for as he made camp, as it had allowed for the fire to be reluctantly brought to life. But the sun had set and the clouds had cleared, the calm, empty sky making the air thin and sharp. He was mildly surprised he'd managed to keep the flames alive this long. 

He was further North then anyone had ever been as far as he was aware. Not that he hadn't seen anyone in his travels, but once he had passed the Claim's most Northern territory the settlements had vanished, and the last small band of Oseram delvers he'd crossed had been two weeks before.

After his meeting with them he had found himself a shallow cave overlooking a glen to shelter in. Everything here was frozen, always. But there was small game, here and there. It took hours to find a meager meal, but he was at home in the hunt, and the goddess had yet to shun him from her favor. 

The harshness of this place did not bother him. He had survived far worse and found a sort of peaceful comfort in it. In being the only thing keeping himself alive, of conquering a death that would be so easy to give into. It busied him, kept his mind sharp and focused. Kept it from wandering... The solitude didn't bother him either. He'd long ago accepted silence as a part of his life, and this was no different. Though if he were honest he would still prefer to be within sight of All Mother. That he missed. But he consoled himself with the thought that even though he was no longer graced by the goddess, she was... and that was what all of this was for. 

At least....he hoped she was....

He had stayed here in this cave as long as he had because for the first time since he'd left the Embrace almost two years prior, he felt unsure. 

He had been resolute, even before her proving, he'd known. If she was to ever really be one of the tribe, she would need to let go of her relationship with him. It was law. And more then that it was her. She'd never open herself to them, never allow herself to find a home there if he remained. She'd have a family in her mind, she'd have a home, and that was not the life she deserved. Nor the life the Nora deserved from her. She was stronger then any of them and he knew they would need her. He'd been resolute and the plan that unfolded ended up being fairly similar to the original,  even after.....what happened. So he'd considered it the goddesses will. 

Shifting, he felt his bones and muscles flair with pain at the movement. He hadn't died...but he almost felt like he had some days. He'd been thrown, similar to how he had thrown her... but the blast had propelled him further, landing him in a deep embankment of snow. He had tumbled down this before coming to rest at the base of a tree. He didn't know how long he'd lain there, the waking world wasn't real. It had been the same surreal half death he'd faced before he'd been allowed to be outcast instead of exiled. He'd been found by a young brave at some point, one who recognized him. The boy had run, he remembered that, without a word and with fear in his face. He'd assumed he'd die, and slipped back into delirium, but his next coherent moment came in his cabin, being looked after by High Matriarch Teersa herself. Aloy lived she had said, and he had been brought home, with as little knowledge of that fact spread as possible. From what he knew only Teersa, the boy and one other brave knew, and she forbad them to speak of it. She knew he'd planned to accept exile to allow Aloy the space she'd need to become whole, and she'd allowed for that option to remain open to him if he lived. 

He'd taken it.

Coming back to life as quickly as possible and when he was able (and sure Aloy was healing properly under the Matriarch's care within the mountain) he left. He'd gone North, collecting resources as he went. It had taken him some months of travel to leave the sundom. Moving slower then he ever had while the still healing burns on his back and head ached in the heat of those cursed lands. He subconsciously ran a hand over his now bald head as he thought of this. His beard was still there, which helped with the cold, but the long burn scars snaking up his neck to his scalp made proper hair growth impossible. So he'd given up and just shaved what little grew. 

No, he'd been sure and he'd moved with a steady determination. Confident that Aloy was happy in the Embrace, helping her people become whole again after the tragedy at the proving. But now....

The Oseram he'd come across had been a small party of five, delvers who had teamed up to face the hardships of this place so far from their homes. They'd been kind and happy to speak to someone other then themselves. He'd needed supplies, not much, but he'd needed salvebrush to heal a wound he'd managed to acquire and there was none here. They'd traded him happily when he'd offered to hunt them up something to eat. 

As they'd eaten together they'd chatted, well mostly they had chatted and he had half listened, but he had enjoyed the company and hearing the news from further South. At least he had initially. 

"I'm just glad our asses are up here and not down there in the rusting Sundom anymore, nothing but featherhead whack jobs down there and just a bunch of stubborn old fools yelling about it before that" a man by the name of Ogdan was saying "Especially, after that insanity with that magical savage woman and that cult!" He choked, realizing his company, "Aaah shit, excuse my mouth, I tend to bluster harder then an overworked forge, magical Nora woman I mean" he said, inclining his head to Rost. 

He finished chewing as he let this wash over him "magical Nora woman?" 

"You don't know?! How can you not know? they say the whole rusting world damn near ended!" A rather thin young woman was saying. "and that girl was in the center of it! I swear on my family's forge!" 

"Oh hush, Franda, you don't swear nothin! What are ya, seventeen? Eighteen?" 

"I do, you bung I was there!" Franda all but yelled "that girl rides machines! She tames them! Rode right up to the city looking like she herself was on fire and fought like a demon once she was there! Just cause they kept the junior Vanguard within the city walls doesn't mean I didn't see plenty!" 

Now he was listening intently, a sense of dread unfurling from his core that he prayed was unfounded. He needed to know. "I had not heard any of this news, would you tell me what you know? I'd be willing to barter for all the information you have." 

"Barter? HA! the day you need to bribe an Oseram to talk will be the day the world actually does go to ash!" Ogdan boomed, laughing heartily and slapping Franda on the back so hard she almost fell off her rock "tell 'im girl! Can't get you to shut up about it usually! All flame hair this and flame hair that!" 

She glowered at Ogdan as she righted herself but set about telling Rost everything. About the Eclipse and the Spire and the battle that could have ended it all. About the rumors that swirled for almost a year prior to that of a flame haired woman from the east who left in her path a wake of tame machines and slaughtered bandits. She had helped people in so many ways and in so many places that merchants began trading stories of her heroism when they'd meet. Every story more unbelievable then the last, though they all swore every detail true. 

Rost's sense of dread had developed into a feeling of full on panic that he was not at all accustomed to as Franda rounded off her story in the dying fire light. 

"Now mind you I was only in Meridian as part of the guard for a few months, my brother and I put gravel under our boots not long after the battle, but for those few months she was all anyone could talk about and by the forge it was obvious why. I mean she and our Captain saved the city and the rusting king himself just a few months before I got there! I heard that's why Avad went and set her up as his ambassador now. I'd have done the same if she'd saved my ass twice over. Never got to meet her though, which was a shame, I heard she was damn cute on top of it all" 

"Auch! You're such a sleaze Fran! Like she'd have had you!" Laughed another woman to their left. Franda turned to punch her in the arm and Rost had made a rather hasty thank you and farewell. 

His fire was now nothing more than a pile of faintly glowing embers. He stared at this for a long while, pulling on the tip of his thick beard, rolling over the news he'd learned of Aloy yet again, for as unsure as he now was about his current path he was just as sure that this magical Nora was in fact Aloy. How could it not be?

He didn't know if all of what the Oseram had said was true. Didn't need to know. He knew enough to guess she was not living in the Embrace, that she was not safe within All Mother's loving gaze and not, as it sounded, with her people. She had traveled far and done extraordinary things...and she'd done it alone...

He felt a pull in his soul and he knew what he wanted to do, he wanted to go and find out. Go track down the information until he knew for sure. That part wasn't hard, it would just take some travel. He wanted to find her. Hear from her lips what had happened. Hear why she had made the choices she had. He wasn't unsure of any of that.

He was unsure of how.

How does one come back from a death they chose? 

Chapter Text

She was accustomed to making split second decisions. Considered herself something of an expert at it infact. Why wouldn't she? It almost always ended up just as she'd intended if not better. Always ended up working somehow.

This was not one of those times.

Her sides were burning, chest heaving as she pelted full force through a now empty bandit camp. Bodies were scattered everywhere, her personal handiwork, and the bandits were no longer a problem.  

The Ravager however, was.

It lunged, screaming it's frustration as she quickly altered her course, doubling back and rolling out of it's reach. It pitched it's huge sparking body sideways trying to redirect its trajectory, the forward momentum slamming it into the side of the spiked wooden rampart she was now scrambling up. She hadn't seen the beast coming, she'd been busy dispatching the last of the bandits, but it had seen her. It had managed to get right up on her before she'd realized, and the tight confines of the camp, which was set up and within a high butte, had made it impossible to get any distance from the thing. 

"Shit!" she cursed as she threw herself around a corner of the cliff face the top of the wall ran against, the ravager scrabbling along right behind her, swiping, snarling and attempting to keep its metallic footing on the roughly hewn logs.

She'd managed to rip its cannon off with a well placed tearblast arrow, but that was the other problem... all she had were tearblast arrows.

She'd been traveling back from her second trip to the Embrace as an ambassador for Avad and had been just outside Lone Light when she'd seen the smoke. Yeah, she'd been low on ammo, but she could avoid having to double back from the outpost if she was careful with her aim and made the most of her spear and stealth. So she'd gone and now she had to figure out how to not get mauled. 

She swung around another corner, the Ravager's claws racking against the rock as she ducked, showering her in sparks, and found herself looking out across the Gatelands. The rampart continued on straight and then sharply angled back, leaving a wide, raised opening in the parapet where the gaurds could survey the area from. This seemed to overlook a cliff but as she was huffing for air and sprinting she couldn't tell how high. 

It'd have to do.

She ran, the Ravager a breath behind, notching one of her last tearblast arrows in her bow as she went. She'd need to time this right or she was dead. The world slowed as she leapt, catapulting herself into the air off the edge of one of the outer wall spikes, twisting to bring her bow around to face the machine. It had leapt as well, its front paws extending on either side of her, gleaming claws inches from her body, and all she could think as she loosed the arrow into it's chest was how badly this was gonna hurt.

The arrow connected and with a loud, reverberating groan it exploded, sending the world careening back to full speed. 

She was thrown clear of the camp and over a, thankfully small, cliff. She rolled end over end, tumbling like a ragdoll down a dirt embankment till she slid to a stop in a patch of tall grass. For a moment she just lay there stunned, ears ringing and earth spining. Then the Ravager came barreling back to the forefront of her mind and she sat straight up, looking back towards the camp and feeling for her bow, adrenaline pounding through her veins.

It was dead.

The blast had thrown it in the opposite direction, as she'd hoped. What she hadn't counted on though was it being thrown into one of the weird spiked monuments the bandits seemed fond of making and impaling itself. It's sparking corpse sprawled and pinned almost as it it were rearing up to strike, but it was definitely dead. 

She threw her arms up and let out an exuberant "whoop!" flinching as the movement made her whole self ache. That had worked out, but she was battered and feeling it. She laid back for a moment, still breathing hard, and did an internal assessment of her injuries. She would be bruised probably, but everything seemed to still be where it belonged and in working order. She blew out a long breath of air, staring up through the gently swaying blades of grass.

Yeah she'd made better choices before, she thought as she finally dragged herself up, searching the area for her bow. Once she'd found it she wasted no time clearing the camp of resources and stripping the Ravager.

As much as she hurt and would rather just get back on the road, she couldn't waste what was here. 

Aloy then headed for Lone Light to trade the machine parts and loot she'd scavenged, grateful as always that a merchant had finally taken up a more permanent residence there. When she had rested a bit and resupplied she headed out. She should have rested longer probably, but she missed home and if she left before sundown she could put a few more hours travel under her boots. Or hooves rather, as she was riding the Broadhead she'd tamed. 

Home...

It was still surreal calling it that. Feeling that way so strongly about a place.

Though it really wasn't Meridian that made her feel that way if she was honest...

A now familiar warmth spread from her core as her mind turned to the Vanguard Captain, his handsome face and cheesy grin bright and clear in her mind. She smiled, pink spreading across her cheeks, she couldn't help it. She didn't know why he affected her so strongly but he did, and had for a very long time. Just the thought of his sweet kisses and the gentle way he had with her, when he was so brazen and rough as a whole, made her insides flutter and had heat dripping through her veins. She shook herself and urged her mount to move faster, flying across the Gatelands at top speed.

Erend was going to be pissed about how hurt she'd gotten. Not at her....well, maybe a bit over being careless, which to be fair she sort of deserved in this instance. But at anyone within a 100 miles of Lone Light who'd gone and allowed bandits and a Ravager to exist where Aloy could be....and that was ridiculous.

He was a warrior, and he swung into the red about some topics pretty quickly and she'd discovered right away that she herself topped that list of topics. If anything or anyone dared to harm her in any way, he flew immediately into a protective rage. Something that had caused a few fairly spectacular fights between them. It was one of the only things about their relationship she could say she didn't enjoy, but she also didn't understand it.

Aloy sighed deeply, shifting slightly on the back of the machine. She was far from weak, and after all she had done and was still doing, she just couldn't understand this need he had to keep her completely from harm. A goal that was absolutely impossible even if she wasn't who she was. It made no sense and that made it bother her more. She sighed again, pulling her mount to a halt near a large outcropping of boulders that would serve as good cover for her camp. 

The moon was already high when she finished setting up, having rode well into the night. If she traveled at the same pace tomorrow she'd be at the city gates just before sunset. Perfect timing for the change of guard she realized as she laid herself out on her bedroll, having eaten some boar jerky as she'd worked. It wasn't cold enough here to need a fire and she hadn't bothered with it tonight, her mind distracted. 

She curled up on her side, her head resting on her arm, fiery locks fanned out over the fur of her bedding, once again filling with warmth at the thought of seeing Erend after two weeks of being gone.

She missed him badly...was almost ashamed to admit how badly. She couldn't pin point exactly when he'd gone from being a comforting presence to what felt like something as necessary as breathing but he had. She'd know back in Pitchcliff that she genuinely cared for the man, knew by the time she'd had to say goodbye on the terrace that she definitely felt something more then friendship, but not till he'd kissed her so soundly after the battle, his hand in her hair and the exhilarating joy of knowing that the other was alive flowing between them, that she'd known she wanted to love him. Wanted him to be hers. To be by her side always. It was a blaze hot, possessive feeling she'd never experienced before and still felt overwhelmed and a bit embarrassed by sometimes. She'd never felt any of this, and wondered sometimes if it was normal. It didn't seem normal to desperately want to be touching someone constantly or to have that need push to drown out everything else. She hadn't even wanted to go on this trip once she'd realized how long she'd be going without him and it was a planned task she'd whole heartedly agreed to. 

But it felt normal. Felt right. The way he kissed and loved her when either of them would return from a mission, like a starved man being fed his first meal, proved it. Everything about him said he felt the same. The thought lit a fire in her belly and she let out a groan,trying to push away the warm, languid images flooding her mind from the morning she'd left. 

she needed sleep, she wanted to make an early start and it was very late judging by the sky. 

Rolling over she focused on her breathing, on the sound of the breeze, the crickets. Soon she was dreaming of blue eyes, rough hands and the feeling of home she so badly craved. 

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The hustle and bustle of midday Meridian was stifling. The people, the smells, the noise. This is why she only came by the markets in the early morning or late evening, she thought dryly as she elbowed her way through an assortment of Carja blocking the path. They scoffed at her but she didn't care. 

Her only reason for being here was finding Erend. His shift should have him making rounds near here she knew, she just needed to find him.

She had hit her fastest speed yet on the Broadhead and she'd reached the city far earlier then she'd expected, but despite the fact she knew they'd have no privacy and not much time she needed to see him before sundown. 

Find Erend, go see Avad, go home, take a bath, and wait for his shift to end so they can say hello properly she thought, ticking the tasks off in her head and turning pink at the last bit. 

She was just walking through an archway past her favorite armor merchant, heading towards where the Vanguardsmen on patrol in this area would usually be and where Erend would hopefully also be, when she felt it. 

Eyes. Eyes on the back of her neck. 

She spun around. Sure there were lots of people here and yeah they almost all stared at her at varying degrees, but this was different. This was intent. She scanned the crowed, letting her eyes roam the spaces between stalls and pillars and people. There wasn't anything she could see, but the feeling was still there....

What bothered her is she'd had the same feeling on the road back the day before her adventure with the Ravager. Just as she'd located the heard of Broadheads she'd commandeered her's from. 

She thought about using her focus, but there were to many people for it to be much use discerning one from another....she went ahead and activated it anyway. Yeah... just a bunch of blue. She stiffly clicked it off and began to slowly turn, still tense and watching. 

She paused, thinking she might have seen something but it was gone and she suddenly heard her name. 

"Aloy!" He boomed from the other side of a railing that separated the landing he and his man stood on from where she was. He had walked up to this, his Vanguard dutifully turning to busy himself with something as Erend stood grinning ear to ear and leaning forward to place his strong hands on the stone. He looked her up and down, his eyes sparkling "Bless the forge you're back!" 

Grinning just as foolishly she closed the space between them in an instant, heart in her throat,  coming up to lean forward, her face close to his, her hands on the railing just inside of where his rested. She could feel the warmth of his body at this distance and the urge to touch him was unbearable.

"Yes I am, you feel like doing something about that Captain?" She said, falling easily into their intimate rhythms. Her head tilted up slightly and a mischievous smirk played at her lips as she shot him a playful look. 

His gorgeous eyes flashed as he looked down at her "Oh my beautiful huntress...you have no idea." He growled in a low voice that sent her shivering, his hand coming up, fingers sliding into her hair. She melted into the touch, waves of yearning coursing through her. Unable to resist any longer she slide her hands up to his broad chest, pressing against him and cursing his thick armor "I'm so glad to see you Aloy. I'm not gonna lie I was gettin' worried." he was saying, bringing his other hand to her waist to wrap around her as best as he could over the balustrade between them, staring into her face, the heat in his eyes replaced with a look of soft adoration.

"I'm glad to see you too" she sighed as his lips found her's, warm and inviting. She reached up to his face, running her fingers through the coarse hair on his jaw and reveling in the little sound he made at the back of his throat in response. He deepened the kiss, the hand in her hair tightening it's grip ever so slightly as her fingers trailed along his neck to rest on his shoulders. They were forgetting that he was on duty and that they were surrounded by people but they didn't care. 

At least not until his Vanguardsmen, who was staring off in the other direction, cleared his throat pointedly and brought them back to reality. 

She smiled sheepishly and felt her cheeks go pink again. "I guess I should stop interfering with rounds huh?" 

He chuckled, reluctantly allowing her to step back from the railing a bit, but keeping her hands in his. "Yeah I s'pos." He brought her knuckles to his lips, kissing them while looking into her eyes, making her shiver again "you'll be at the apartment when I get off right?" It sounded like a sincere question, which was odd.   

"Of course I will, where else would I be?" She said "I intend to go home and bathe until you get home." She shook her hands out in a fairly disgusted manner, indicating her dust and mud covered self. 

His eyes flashed again as he retreated, walking backwards towards the other end of the landing and his duties. "I'll warn you now. If you're still in that bath when I get there I'm joining you." 

"Pretty sure you're threatening me with a good time Erend" she teased, biting her lip "I may just stay in a bit longer if that's the case" she sashayed a bit as she began to retreat in the direction of the palace, just to emphasize her point. 

He just about tripped over himself at this and it was her turn to laugh. He gave her a half hearted glare that quickly turned into a serious one as he rounded on his sniggering underling. 

She made her way towards the palace to debrief the king on the results of her trip to speak to the Matriarchs, intent on getting it over with quickly and going back to Erend's...no... their apartment.

She smiled again at this, that odd feeling of being watched far from her mind, replaced entirely by the warm, intensely new sensation of being exactly where she belonged. 

Chapter Text

His blood was too hot for his body.

He felt like an overworked forge, and it had hit so suddenly and remained so constant that he registered almost nothing the remainder of his shift. 

She was home. Aloy was home. She'd called his apartment home. That still thrilled him as much as it did the first time she'd said it while they'd traveled to the Embrace to rebuild all those months ago. And that kiss... He ran a hand through his strip of hair, breathing out a frustrated breath through his nose. She was home, probably naked and glorious in a hot bath and he was stuck in this forsaken command post trying to argue his pain in the ass "subordinates" into doing as he said. 

"Look!" He damn near shouted, making the guardsmen scattered about the room jump. He stood up to his full height from where he'd been leaning on the table that held patrol routes, uncrossing his arms and glowering at them all. "I don't give a damn who want's what or who's done what or nothin! This isn't a fucking social event, not for you lot! You're VANGAURD and your JOBS are to make sure the city and royal family are SAFE. AT. ALL. TIMES." He punctuated these last words by jabbing his finger accusingly at them. 

This only succeeded in producing more muttered arguments though, as they had all recovered from the initial shock of his threatening demeanor. By the forge what was happening today? He felt wrong footed. Getting them to listen to even the worst orders was usually no issue as his men both respected him (now), loved him and knew he would kick their assess into line, happily, any day. So this resistance to the set routes baffled and frustrated him and he was in no mood to be further frustrated today. 

"You don't have to be on duty!" Said Brin, "Sir!" She added quickly. He eyed her, she was the daughter of one of the older Freebooters he knew and he considered the man a friend, he'd also known her when she was basically a kid hanging with her Da and she was brand new in the guard, so he could mostly forgive the informal slip in rank this time...especially since she had a point and the others were now nodding and mumbling agreements. 

"Watch yourself Brin." He growled, reminding her of her place. Though she seemed to know she'd slipped. "You're right, I'm not, not officially, but I don't have a choice in that. The King requested I join the party at his side so I am, but you can bet shards I'll be watching every rusting thing that happens and keeping my guard up. This is the biggest event to happen in the Sundom in years and if the celebration of the kings engagement isn't enough to draw out the crazies I don't know what is"  

This was actually something he was genuinely concerned about. Since he'd taken up Ersa's mantel, well, after everything with Dervahl anyway, he'd put his every effort into being the Captain this city and Avad needed. He'd even gotten his drinking rangled down to a minimum. He was still a forgeborn Oseram so he didn't swear it off completely...but he wasn't drowning in it like he'd been.

He'd done his best to grow up, and felt he'd done a pretty damn good job as his life had now begun to feel whole and like it made sense. He'd began to feel confident in his role as Captain, proud. 

But ever since Avad announced his engagement and impending feast he'd been nervous, more then nervous. This was huge. He hadn't exaggerated, this was the largest gathering of peoples to congregate in the city since the liberation, and then there had still been so much bad blood from the raids that he fully expected this to be twice the turn out....

He was afraid to fail, and this seemingly futile conversation to get these louts to do their damn jobs was to much for him right now. 

His speech had done nothing to dissuade their stubborn stances on the matter it seemed, if their postures were any guess, but he didn't care anymore. His anger was quickly fizzling under the ever present image of Aloy's soft skin in steamy bathwater and he just couldn't revive the indignant irritation he'd felt a moment ago. 

Pinching the bridge of his nose and sighing he sat back against the table again. "You don't have a choice in this, but accept it and move on and I'll throw an extra day off in the mix for each of you. AFTER the feast." 

Roan grinned, cocking his bearded head to the side and giving Erend a knowing look "you got somewhere to be or something Captain? You never back down from an argument."

"And I'm not backing down from this one" he snapped, his second getting under his skin worse then the taunt warranted, "I'm requesting we call this a truce and get on with our evenings. Take it or leave it cause the other tactics I have in mind to end this conversation are far less beneficial for you." 

They took it, and Erend was out the door before they could goad him any further. 

He had to make one quick stop and he'd be heading home. His pulse quickened and he increased his pace, a fire he hadn't felt in weeks burning desperately in his core. 

‐----------

He fumbled the door to his apartment open, just about dropping the package he carried. Kicking the door shut behind him he set the brown paper wrapped bundle on the kitchen counter a few paces past the door. Discarding his gloves in the same fashion, he shouldered off his warmaul, hanging it hastily on its mount. 

Aloy wasn't down here and he couldn't hear any movement from the washroom off the bottom of the stairs, so that left the bedroom. 

Fine with him. 

Ditching his boots at the base of the steps he ascended the staircase as quickly as he could, attempting to undo his armor as he went. He'd gotten the belt that held his heavy, studded leather tassets on and unceremoniously threw it aside as he topped the landing. 

The door was open and Aloy was standing with her back to him, crimson hair undone from its braids and falling over her freckled shoulders, digging in the uppermost dresser drawer by the bed. A towel clung to her toned body, barely covering her most intimate parts and highlighting her curves. He paused for half a breath, undoing the laces on his breastplate, watching little droplets of water drip off the end of her wild, forgefire mane and onto the towel where it curved over her ass.

Damn was he glad to see her. 

His eyes strayed lower as he crossed the space between them, casting aside his breastplate. A rivet of water traveled down the back of her thigh from under the hem of the towel, making his dick jump as he watched its progress down her pale skin. 

She hadn't acknowledged his presence in the least.

Obviously she was aware he was there, but she pretended she didn't. He craved her attention, knew she knew it too, and he didn't know quit what this little game she was playing was but it was driving him wild. 

He came up behind her, down to the linen undershirt and pants he wore beneath his armor, which were failing miserably to disguise his growing want for her, his pants already feeling tight. 

Pressing his body up close to her's and wrapping his large hands around her waist over the soft towel, he leaned his mouth down to the delicate skin of her neck, kissing her lightly, savoring the feel of her warm, damp skin against his lips.

"I thought all that metal made me easy to hear?" He breathed against her skin, loosing himself a bit in her delicious scent. She smelled like the wild, with a flowery hint from the Carja oils she'd started using in her hair mingling with her own feminine, woodsy smell. He let his lips drift softly up to her ear, barely brushing against her at all and making her shiver in his hands. "Don't pretend you don't know I'm here warmaid." 

She looked back at him over her shoulder, bracing herself against the dresser as she shut the drawer with a snap. She pushed back against him a bit, desire and mischief glittering in those copper ore eyes he loved."I don't think you have the authority to tell me what to do, Captain" she said matter of factly. 

He growled, sinking his teeth into her shoulder and squeezing her with his hands, making her gasp. Repositioning so that his erection, now hard as steel, was trapped between them, pressing against her ass hard through the cloth.

She was such a tease!

It drove him mad and she knew it. As with everything, Aloy had turned out to be a natural at sex. An enthusiastic natural he was happy to confirm. The heat and passion between them was thick enough to drown in, all inhibitions lost when it was just them. 

She ground herself back against him, letting one of her sinful little moans slip. He was almost seeing stars. His hands gripping her tighter, eliciting another gasp.

He needed to be inside of her badly and all of her movements and sounds told him she wanted the same. Their bodies were so intune at this point they didn't need words, but she was tight and he wasn't ashamed to say his steel was formidable. He needed her ready for her to really enjoy this. 

He dropped his hands and hitched the towel up over her ass, fingers gropping the soft flesh as she moaned and writhed against him. 

He chuckled darkly, leaning back slightly at the waist, keeping her hips pinned against his, her arms braced against the dresser "I don't know Aloy, I think you like when I tell you what to do. Think it turns you on."

She looked back at him again, her hair trailing against his hands as she did. He smiled wickedly as he locked eyes with her, pulling his hand back and spanking her. 

"Erend!" She cried, jumping, eyes burning with a defiant lust, lips partially open. He couldn't resist, he spanked her one more time, massaging the skin after and turning her yelp into a strangled moan. 

He brought a hand to her throat, gently tilting her head back and finding her lips with his. Kissing her with all the pent up emotion missing her for two long weeks had caused. She kissed him back hard, their tongues dancing as she arched herself back, allowing his other hand to travel up over her body, stopping to grab one of her perfect breasts through the towel. She moaned into his mouth, twisting against him. 

He broke away, but didn't go far. The hand that had been teasing her drifted into her wet hair, tangling there and grabbing a fistful at her nape, as rough as he pleased, like he'd wanted to do when she'd arrived. Letting his other hand fall below the towel he slipped a finger through her curls and down to her heat. She let out a choking sound that turned into a moan as he explored her.

By the forge, she was so wet! And they'd barely started! He couldn't take it.

"Kneel on the bed." He growled, the sound low in his throat, his lips pressed against her temple. She wriggled against him, letting out her own low growl and fixing him again with that defiant, haughty glare he brought out of her when they played this way.

He jerked back abruptly, pulling his hand from her body but keeping his grip on her hair, tilting her head back as he shot her another cocky grin. He pulled his hand back, her eyes widening. 

"Eren--AH!!" She yelled, his name cut off by the spanking he was now inflicting on her.

He slapped her twice, hard, sending her flesh jiggling deliciously, her cries punctuated by the hits and making him feel as if he was about to cum right there. 

He leaned back in close to her, pulling her head back a bit more and sucking on her neck, knowing he'd leave a mark and not caring at all. Mine, he thought, as a heady wave of possessive heat rolled over him. He kissed back up, stopping to repeat himself at her jawline, this time the growl a low whisper. "Kneel on the bed Aloy" 

He felt her surrender, the moment her rigid body relaxed back into his and she stopped struggling against the hand in her hair. Her eyes had lost their fight, her pupils blown wide with lust and need and he knew. He loosened his grip on her, shaking with anticipation. He shimmied out of his remaining clothes as he watched her move. She pushed off the dresser, turning to her left and sinking onto the edge of the bed on her hands and knees, the towel hitched up but still determinedly clinging to her. She moved at a deliberately slow pace, flipping her hair over her shoulder as she looked back at him, her eyes lingering on his length hungerly, knowing full well the show she was putting on but managing to maintain a wonderfully innocent tone. "Okay Captain, you win." she chuckled at him. He realized his mouth was hanging open and snapped it shut "Now what?" She purred. 

He was on her in a flash, his composure lost to the bellows. He didn't even bother removing the towel. Gripping her hips just beneath it he yanked her back, bringing her knees to the very edge of the mattress. "This is now what." He gripped his throbbing dick, rubbing his tip along her slit, spreading her wetness and making them both moan loudly. She bucked her hips back and he waisted no more time, lining himself up and sinking into her. 

"Fuuuucck... Aloy" he groaned out, her tightness almost making him let go. He buried himself to the hilt, looking down and watching his manhood slowly disappear into her body. Once there he held, breathing hard and trying to pull himself back from his edge, his hands rubbing and squeezing every part of her that he could reach. 

"Erend, please..." she panted, arching her back and causing her walls to constrict and pull at him in the most wonderful way. "You feel so good. I need moooorrrreeeeooooohhhhhh!" 

He had thrust into her, starting up a rhythm, closing his eyes and letting himself get lost in her warmth, her sounds. He didn't understand how something could feel this good. Everything they did together felt amazing. He tried to maintain a semblance of restraint but when Aloy dropped her hands, letting her arms slide out in front of her to grab the silks, her chest pressed to the bed, hips still held firmly in his grasp and speared on his dick, his resolve melted and with an animalistic cry he let loose. 

Moaning and gasping they rutted against each other wildly. Lost in a world of pleasure. He fell forward, his forearms braced on either side of her. She threw her head back, pushing her shoulders up off the mattress just a bit, the back of her head falling against his shoulder as he ducked down to lick and nip at her neck, her skin salty on his lips. 

"Right there!" She cried, as he hit one of her favorite angles "Right there Erend, don't stop!" She writhed and bucked beneath him, her orgasm so close he could feel her starting to quiver. 

"Thats it baby, cum for me!" He huffed. Shifting his weight to one arm and reaching his other down underneath them to where her hips arched up to meet his thrusts. He found her heat, rubbing her clit with his rough fingers in time to his movements. She came undone, screaming out her pleasure, clenching around him over and over and pushing him to his own limits. "F-fuck Erend!" She sobbed desperately, her eyes closed, her face contorted in bliss. "I love y-you!" And it was over for him. Those words were his undoing everytime. 

He grabbed her, his muscular forearm wrapped across her chest. holding her trembling body against him as he spent himself deep inside of her, smashing his open mouth to hers and making a sound like he was dying as she sucked his tongue while he came. 

He collapsed onto the bed next to her, keeping his arm around her so they remained joined and rolled together onto their sides so he could tuck himself up behind her body. They stayed like this a long time, letting their sweat cool and their breathing slow. When he'd softened enough that he'd slipped from her he leaned up over her a bit, reaching down to tuck her hair behind her ear, he kissed her pretty face, planting one soft kiss after another anywhere he could, making her laugh a little breathy laugh he knew only he got to hear, the thought making his heart ache.  

"I love you too Aloy, more then I know how to say" he said, suddenly feeling a bit overwhelmed. He had missed her so much... he loved her so much

"You do a pretty good job of showing it" she said, smiling up at him fondly, rolling over so she could reach up and play with his facial hair like she always did, something else he just loved. 

"I'll do a better job when you haven't left me to my own devices for two weeks. Sorry to say that was not my most impressive run" he chuckled, fully aware he was picking himself apart for no reason. She was dead on her feet, so tired her eyes were barely open even now. She didn't have their usual marathon in her either. 

She shoved at his chest, pushing him to lay back. Bringing the blanket with her she snuggled herself into what she'd declared her spot, resting her head in the crook of his shoulder and slinging an arm and the covers across him. "You can give me another run or two in the morning, that's about all I have in me tonight anyway" she yawned, mirroring his thoughts. 

He chuckled, running his hand up her back in long slow sweeps like she liked, her towel lost to the sheets. He could feel her already drifting off, her breath evening out, her body relaxing. 

He loved her so fucking much, he thought, kissing the top of her head, nuzzling his face into her hair and breathing deep. She sighed contentedly, her breath ghosting over his bare chest, squeezing him a bit with the arm resting across his middle. 

He knew he couldn't keep her in the city, couldn't stop her from trying to fix the whole rusting world, and that was the hardest thing everytime she went. But this, having the warm weight of her on his chest, safe and loved. This made all the anxiety he felt in her absence worth it. 

He let himself drift off with her, feeling for the first time in so many days like he would sleep a dreamless, peaceful sleep. 

Chapter Text

He'd forgotten how much he hated sand.

The wind whipped and howled through the rock arches carved into the red dirt cliffs of the Gatelands, carrying with it a wall of grit that cut through the air like knives. His sand crusted beard flew back into his face, grinding more silt into his eyes and mouth. 

He sputtered, retreating back further into the small alcove between the rocks he'd wedged himself into, attempting to find relief from the fierce storm that had come out of nowhere.

Grit rubbed painfully against his skin as he shifted, having crawled its way up under the leather, short sleeve tunic he wore. Sand seemed to be crusted everywhere. His eyes, his beard, his clothes. He spit more grit, grimacing and again cursing these infernal lands. He almost wished he still had his feathered cloak and thick boar hide armor for protection, but the heat of this place had made the continued use of those items impossible.

He had finally made his way South, cutting through the Claim and picking up information as he'd gone. He'd learned much, finding all the information he felt he'd need to find her with little effort. Her name, or the knowledge of who she was, was know to everyone it seemed.

The things Aloy had done.....

Some of what he had heard had the ring of untruth to it, the details changing and crossing, but most of the stories he'd heard were repeated, details fleshing out and becoming more and more astounding but staying consistent. 

She'd brought the cultists who'd attacked the proving to their knees, personally putting an end to the man who led them. She'd been involved in the absconding of a young princess, influencing the course of a Civil War and destroying the Sun Ring itself in the process. Had saved the world and somehow brought the Nora and other tribes from their homelands to help her, all while having some mysterious power over machines no one could explain properly. All he knew was that the machines did her will, a trick he suspected had something to do with that plaything of the old ones she was so fond of.

His frown deepened as he scrubbed at his face, attempting to wipe away the silt with the fur on the back of his vambrace and accomplishing nothing. 

She'd done impossible things and what made the least sense to Rost was that she'd done it all with the Matriarch's blessing. Granted the rights of Seeker, both a boon and a curse. She was now worshiped by the tribe, the chosen of the goddess herself, but was not a part of it for some reason. Had chosen not to stay. Traveled far and wide in pursuit of revenge and found it. She'd found it and in the process had saved the world. Saved lives over and over again all across the Sundom, and seemed to still be doing so. 

He couldn't work through his feelings on this.

Intense pride on one hand, deep sadness and a bit of disappointment, maybe even fear, on the other. He wanted so badly for her to be held within the Goddesses embrace. To be safe and loved and a leader in the tribe. But from what he had gleaned she was now working for the Carja capitol, traveling between the tribes and building alliances. She'd spent some months in the Embrace rebuilding, as it had suffered severe damage during yet another vicious attack from the Eclipse, but had moved on, returning seldomly from what he could uncover. 

He'd decided without a doubt he'd need to find her. Needed to speak to her and hear her reasons. He'd left to ensure her smooth transition into being a proper Nora but she wasn't with them, and if she wasn't with them he needed to either ensure she returned, solving whatever issue it was she had with doing so, or ensure that in this heathen land she was, at the very least, safe. 

He sighed. He was also being selfish, he chastised himself. He missed her dearly. Missed her wit, her stubborn, driven energy. The image of her practicing in the yard with her first bow, so strong and focused and yet so small, always seemed to float to the forefront of his mind, right along with the image of Alana and Eisa playing in the snow.

Closing his eyes he savored both memories for a moment before letting them go, refocusing on the screaming wind and task at hand, hunkering down a bit more.

Dwelling on the past was a slippery slope he almost always avoided.

He had started to head for the tainted city, knowing he would likely find her there, but he'd found a trader near Pitchcliff who'd come from there a few days before. As it happened Aloy was currently in the Embrace, apparently on her way to deliver some invitation to the Matriarchs. Being within All Mother's gaze may help put clarity on her situation, so instead of heading for Meridian he'd made his way Southeast from there, hoping to catch her in their homelands.

He made rather good time. His limp was eased by the heat now, the burns that had once bothered him here were gone, replaced by still slightly tender scar tissue. 

That was how he'd found himself stuck in this forsaken storm. Though as he thought this the winds began to ebb, going as fast as they'd come. 

He stood and shook himself, an ochre cloud of dust flying from him as he attempted to brush the sand away. He surveyed the area, cast in evening light, before making any moves to carry on. The machines here were numerous and dangerous in a variety of ways, he needed to move carefully, as stealth was almost his only option now. 

He listened, hearing only the dying wind at first, but then he heard it. The sound of metallic hooves. The gait was slow, the beast sounding unbothered, so he moved slowly around the rock, trying to gain a visual so he could plan his next move. 

He came round the stone face and saw the herd milling about a few yards away and down the bluff from where he crouched, roughly a dozen machines in total. He relaxed, they were off and away enough that he could make his way unnoticed through the large expanse of grass to their right and be gone without incident. 

He was just starting to creep towards his destination when he spotted it.

There was movement in the tall grass.

The slight disturbance he'd noticed moved with a deliberate stealth, not seeming to be any animal, and its destination looked to be a Broadhead that stood near the edge of the herd, just outside the grass. 

He scrabbled back as quickly and quietly as he could. Despite the wound it inflicted on his pride to admit it he could not easily best another hunter now. He needed to wait, he couldn't risk being seen by a possible threat. 

But then the disturbance turned into a glowing blue light, small and right at the side of the machine. He caught sight of someone moving there, the flash of a spear as it was spun, and held his breath, sensing, dreading, that he'd found what he sought. 

In a flash of red hair and Carja silks she sprang up.

Up out of safety.

Up onto the machine

His blood froze in his veins. 

Yet the machine she rode remained calm, its lense blue, almost seeming to turn its wide head and listen to her as she laid herself low against its back. It began to slowly wend its way away from the others, but then one of it's fellows looked up and jumped to alert, the rest following suit, Aloy and her tamed Broadhead still far too close to far too many angry machines.

She was dead. 

He was going to watch her be stomped to death and he could do nothing. He could take out a few but not before they got to her. 

He would try.

He made to stand, readying his bow, adrenaline pounding. The missing, broken muscles along the back of his body flaring in protest, but then she sat up and spun her mount around. Letting out an exuberant "Time to go!" she kicked her mount, urging it straight into it's brethren. It bucked and kicked as it barreled through, making the remaining machines startle and dodge. 

She cried out again, her voice triumphant on the wind as she sped away, the sound of hooves rapidly fading as she careened across the open, dry expanse in front of them, red hair catching the sun like a banner.

She was headed west. 

He breathed for a moment, centering himself. Then turned, making his way back the other way around the rock, shaken, his mind white. He didn't know what he'd just seen, but by the Goddess he knew he needed to change course and make for Meridian, needed to get to her now, before she got herself killed.

‐----------

He'd picked up and followed her trail, thanking All Mother as he went for the lack of additional wind storms. He lost it around Lone Light, the path seeming to meander and fade, but if the information he'd found held true he knew where she was going. 

So he kept west, as quickly as possible. Quicker then possible actually, he thought bitterly, as his body ached and groaned in disapproval, the explosion had claimed what felt like half of his body. 

Finally he crested the rise that led to the elaborate terraced walkways, bridges extending out across huge expanses of lush greenery, connecting the Mesa to the land. He stopped, momentarily dazzled just as he'd been the first time he'd seen the City of the Sun. 

Early morning light glinted off the gilded towers, the ornate balustrades, the gates and guards, making everything shine as if the walls themselves were emitting sunlight. Weather kites flew delicately in the morning breeze, like birds gliding aloft.  

It was breathtaking. Breathtaking and alluring, beautiful in its ugliness, like the grace a stalker carried as it's lithe body tore through the underbrush.

This place was dangerous.

Everything was excessive or needlessly elaborate, ornate for the sake of it and nothing else. It radiated excess so badly that the shine stung his eyes the more he looked at it. 

Averting his gaze and wasting no more time in his search for Aloy he crossed over the threshold of the first bridge. The feathered Carja tamping their spears down as he passed. He was nervous. More nervous then he'd been when he'd killed his first machine. He knew this new king had opened the city, but the last time he'd come through the reception had been much.....different. Getting in certainly hadn't been as easy as walking up to the gates the way he was now. 

But no one gave him much thought, not the guards or the passing citizens and merchants. Just the occasional look, which was usually followed by a nod or smile if he made eye contact. 

This was bizarre...

He pulled up short at the city's entrance, the smell of Carja spices and the noise of the market overwhelming him. He needed to find her but needed to be smart about it too. He'd originally planned on roaming about till he located her, but he'd realized that surprising her with this seemed like a cruel thing to do in public. Plus he was afraid she'd bolt and he'd never find her in this mass of people. So he redirected, heading for the market. 

He sought out supplies, asking questions as he traded for things he'd long gone without, rolling over what he would say to her. How he could get her to understand, both what he'd done and why her place was with her kin. He also needed to find her, then find a way to get her somewhere they could speak. 

At one point he selected an Oseram merchant, a large, heavily tattooed man wearing a leather apron, still inwardly preferring any tribe to the Carja. The man had a large, busy storefront, clearly a local and clearly a fairly popular trading post. 

As he handed him shards for his goods the man asked "So what brings you to the city? Bit early for the feast and you Nora still don't seem to get out much even with that open border thing." He scratched his beard, openly staring at the paint Rost wore on his face.

"I'm actually here looking for someone. Another Nora, like myself, but a young woman." He met the mans eyes with his own piercing grey stare, "she should have arrived here recently, or will soon" 

"Far as my soot clogged head recalls, Aloy's the only Nora girl who's been through here in a long time, can't remember hearing of another." 

Rost's pulse quickened, this might be what he needed. "Aloy is who I seek. Do you know where I can find her?" 

"No shit!" He boomed, grinning "Well unfortunately that little spark don't know how to sit still, she trades here but usually on her way out the gates for the day. She keeps a place round here somewhere though I'm told." 

Rost frowned. He didn't like hearing she had a home here, not when it should be held much further east...but it would hopefully make having a private discussion easier and give him a place he'd know she'd be. "Do you know where? I know her well, and its important I speak to her." 

"Aye, I hear that friend but I don't. All I know is that she's shacked up with the Captain somewhere over off the city center, the lucky bastard." He guffawed at his jab but his words had made Rost freeze. 

The Captain? Had Aloy really gone and chosen some Carja man? Was that why she'd chosen to remain here? He shook his head, a rather intense wave of aggression unfurling in his chest. This was getting more and more convoluted. More questions then answers everywhere he turned. 

"Thank you" he said, realizing he'd been standing there silently as the shopkeep stared at him, an amused smirk curling the corner of his mouth. "That information is helpful, I'll continue to ask around." 

"Uh huh" he said to Rost's back, laughing as he turned back to his business. "Yer welcome, and uh, good luck findin' her!"  

This conversation he wanted to have, this reunion, was becoming more and more complex in his mind. He needed to focus. Center and work on the task at hand.

Find Aloy. 

With a deep breath he continued his mission, asking more merchants and vendors after Aloy and coming away empty handed. Empty handed and with the fact that his charge was living with some soldier continually repeated to him, just with no direction to exactly where. 

He had stopped to rest. His left leg had long, deep, indentions running along the back of it, over lapped with heavy burn scars, the calf being almost nothing but a knotted mess of burned away muscle. The thing barely bent, and it hurt so constantly he almost didn't notice it anymore. Almost...

It was just past midday, the air sweltering in the late summer heat, the crisp of autumn not yet on the wind. Rost wiped sweat from his brow, now eyeing a pair of guards who were speaking with a Carja man who was gesturing wildly and looking frustrated. 

He had so far avoided asking the guards. He knew that was probably the best place to find answers, but he also knew any of these men could personally report to this Captain, and he didn't want word getting back to the man that someone by his description was looking for Aloy before he spoke to her himself. He didn't know what to expect, and didn't trust any of these outlanders in the least.

He was just about to approach one of them, the man having gone off, deciding he didn't have much choice if he wanted to get this done, when he saw the familiar flash of red hair through an archway to his left. He jumped up and limped to the opening, catching sight of her as she walked quickly up the side street she was on, looking this way and that as if searching for something. 

She was dust covered and clearly fresh from the road, her Carja armor still flashing as she went. He let out the breath he'd been holding and made to follow. 

She had entered an open market space, packed with people, and was headed straight through and out towards more archways, the area past this less busy by far. Maybe a good place to give this a try he thought, moving forward slowly to avoid being seen to soon, focused. 

But she suddenly froze, alert as a startled grazer, spinning around to face him. He all but threw himself behind the nearest stone wall, just behind a large stall full of machine plating. 

She was so sharp, he admired privately, her instincts so keen. He moved away around the wall to where it opened up again further down, hoping she'd still be in sight, but trying to avoid being found just yet.

He found a spot he felt was removed enough from where he'd been and gave it several breaths before attempting to gain a visual. 

The sound of a man calling out her name stopped him. 

"Bless the forge you're back!" He heard, the voice deep and booming, his tone far to fond for Rost's comfort. He chanced a look round the corner. The sound was coming from somewhere just outside the market and surrounding wall of archways opposite him, roughly where she'd been heading originally, though he couldn't see the owner of the voice. 

Aloy had turned and was now striding towards where the speaker was, her face relaxing into a bright smile, so Rost did the same but from around the far side. 

He honestly didn't want to see what was happening on the other side of the wall, had a fairly good idea of what he'd find and was dreading the confirmation. But he also felt a need to know, If only to find out what this suitor of her's looked like so he could identify him in future. 

He came round a pillar in the arched wall far enough away from where she'd gone that he felt sure he wouldn't be spotted, but would be able to see her, and almost choked. 

Aloy was leaned forward over one of the city's ornate railings, a tall, heavily built Oseram man with a Mohawk doing the same on the opposite side, their bodies close, smiling into each others faces as he spoke to her and brushed his large armored hand into her hair, bringing his other up to her hip, a look of sheer delight on her face. 

He paused where he was, ducked behind another merchant stall, watching, feeling a mix of emotions coursing through him as he tried to commit important details to memory so he could work through them. He was just taking in the man's leather Vanguard armor, his heavy warmaul and odd facial hair, when he saw him dip his head, bringing his face down to Aloy's, her hands now on his neck. 

Rost reared back like he'd been slapped, feeling almost like he had. Moving quickly back behind the wall and out of sight he leaned back against the stone, breathing a steadying breath through his nose, trying to expel the angry bubble of agitation that had flared back into being within his chest and failing. 

Well..... he tried to console himself, at least he wasn't Carja...

One thing at a time..

One task, then the next. 

Okay...he needed to think about how to do this correctly, and clearly Aloy wasn't going anywhere.... so now that he knew where she was, he could take a moment to regroup and sort through all he'd learned and seen in the last few days. 

Pushing off the wall he made to leave the city, he could find clarity better away from the gilded confines of this place.

Chapter Text

Hot baths, Aloy had decided, were the single greatest achievement of the Carjan Empire. 

The elevators were trivial and the soaring towers were common place compared to the bliss that was bathing in hot water. Never had she enjoyed something in the same way. It was like sinking into the feeling of a warm fire after hunting in the snow. The relief it brought to her muscles after a long trip was exquisite, and being able to be clean on demand had never occurred to her as being this wonderful, but she found herself missing it terribly when away. 

And then there were the oils... the Carja used the oils of different plants to make a soap for hair that made detangling her mane and taming it into braids easy. Something she had never before considered possible, she mused as she watched her long red strands floating amidst the steam, submerged up to her nose and soaking placidly. She hadn't really meant to fall into this routine, but she'd found herself starting her days with a hot soak every morning, something she knew wasn't necessary. Especially when you considered the fact that she also sometimes took one in the evenings as well...she knew it was silly but it was soooo nice..

She snorted and sat up, reaching for her soap and working sudsy fingers from root to tip, feeling the small tingle of guilt she sometimes...usually...felt when wasting time or fooling around. 

There wasn't anything she could do past what she was, she chided, scrubbing hard. Gaia's files had repaired nothing so far that led towards anything involving a rebuild, and at the rate the files were going trying to repair themselves on her little focus, she may be to damn old to do anything about the information by the time they finished. She had been investigating ways to speed the process up, but had so far been unsuccessful in locating anything within any cauldron, old ruin, zero dawn facility or even Eluthia-9 that might help make that happen. 

So, while she worked on what to do and spent countless hours searching and re-searching her data logs, she'd been helping in other ways. Helping the tribes become closer. If there was anything she'd learned about her world, it was that it was full of too many good people and too much beauty to not be whole, and part of its wholeness was its people. 

Unity made them stronger, better, it was something she'd seen. Something she'd been taught...And that unity needed to strengthen and she knew she could help. So when Avad had made the offer of ambassador she'd accepted. Sort of. 

She wrinkled her nose at the thought of the monarch. She respected him deeply as a king but he had a way of making her a bit uncomfortable. She'd had to negotiate her position as ambassador down from a role that kept her very much at his side a good majority of the time, which was unnecessary, to one that allowed her to do what she needed to in the role but also gave her the freedom to follow leads for her own missions, only reporting to the throne before and after her assignments. He had eventually accepted her conditions, but had seemed slightly put out over the outcome, something Erend had tried very hard to not seemed thrilled over. 

Regardless of Avad's uncomfortable neediness, the position had been so far successful. Initially she'd simply gone and brought tidings of new things with more thanks for help at the Spire, and she'd been well received and seemed to be heard. People still weren't her best topic, but she was getting better, and was well known for her actions, people seemed to want to listen overall.

She toweled off before padding up the stairs and over to her drawers, dragging her light blazon armor out. She was hunting today, but only grazers, so she could go with her light kit.

Shimmying into the under silks first she paused to tackle her hair. A smile pulled at her lips, a bubble of pride blossoming in her chest as she reflected on her latest journeys, combing fingers smoothly through wet knots.

This last round of trips had been an offer of new starts. Avad's engagement feast, something Erend was becoming increasingly obsessed over, was looming, and he'd seen it as an opportunity to build bridges. They'd invited a leader (or more, if they liked) from each tribe and she'd so far gone to all but the Ealdorman. Planning on heading there now that she'd gotten the Embrace and the Cut out of the way, having successfully talked both the Nora and a few werak leaders she knew into coming. 

Inwardly she was still surprised that Teersa had agreed to come... part of her had just gone to check the facility again, as she was sure the Nora would never agree, but she'd been wrong.

Teersa'd had to argue her headdress off but had eventually convinced Jezza and overrode Lansra. Agreeing that a leader of their people should at the very least see this city they now tentatively called friend, to express gratitude for all Erend and his men and by extension Avad had helped make happen while in the ruined corpse that had been the Embrace.

So they would be camping outside the city, where Teersa would meet with Avad and the soon to be Queen, but could avoid completely entering the tainted city itself. 

She was proud, she knew this was important and as odd as it still felt being known, seen, she was glad she could be part of making it happen. 

Next the Ealdorman. Which was a bit daunting, as she had only met them once and had lost her temper at their constant yelling and interrupting..not that they'd seemed to mind.... she'd just need to figure out a better way of convincing them this time so she could avoid the three day headache the last visit had been..

But that could wait, today was for her.

She finished her braids, throwing on her plated armor and lacing up her boots. She bounced down the stairs, stopping in the kitchen to fill her waterskin for the day. She had lost so many of the weapons and armor she'd accumulated over her years, having stored them at Olin's apartment, which was then destroyed in Eclipse's attack. So she'd spent a good majority of her free time hunting down shards and resources to replace it all. She would hunt what she could all day, returning home at sundown to spend time with Erend when he got off duty. 

As she slung her bow across her back and locked the door to their home behind her, pocketing her key, she felt at ease. 

Sometimes she felt that guilty twinge. Felt like she should focus all her efforts on her purpose, stay sharp and alert, and for the most part she was, this was far to important not to, but in the absence of information and direction she had settled into a life she'd never envisioned but now couldn't imagine going without. 

She was happy. 

She had Erend, who brought out such strong feelings of love and home in her she sometimes couldn't process it, who loved her equally and made her feel more accepted and comfortable in her skin then anyone ever had. She knew who she was with him. Not what she was, but who. Felt free to be weak and let down her guard, or to talk till her voice hurt about things she knew he only half understood. It was a domestic feeling she had originally been unsure of but had found that, coupled with his unwavering determination to support her wanderlust, she loved. He never hindered her freedoms, aside from his over protective streak he hardly even allowed it to show how hard it was for him to watch her leave. She felt bad about that sometimes...but knew he understood. 

She also had her friends. She'd gotten closer to a few of the Vanguard during her outings with Erend, often meeting to spare with them if they happened to be off. She spent time with Talanah at the lodge, swapping stories and sometimes teaming up to hunt. She'd stop to chat with Nakoa, collecting things she needed for the way house of sorts she'd set up for people in need. Even visited with Elida on occasion when she happened to be in Brightmarket. 

She was even starting to be able to walk through Nora settlements without feeling the strong sick urge to flee. Had been learning better techniques to stitch and tan hide from Teb and the man he apprenticed under, Dain, when she visited, occasionally hunting with the Braves. 

In the absence of the singular, obsessive purpose she'd lived her last fourteen years focusing on, she'd found a life she actually felt suited her. 

She felt like she belonged. 

While lost in thought she'd managed to get all the way to the Southern gates, striding across the threshold and waving to the Vanguard who had called hello as she passed, she couldn't recall the man's name but made a mental note to learn it.

She headed down the road toward the lush green treeline, breathing deep and letting the sun warm her face as she went, turning her mind to her task, momentarily preoccupied with nothing more important than Grazer lenses.  

‐----------

The fire arrow whizzed through the air. Connecting with the blaze canister on the Grazer's back. 

From her vantage point up the hill, behind a dense mass of vines in the treeline of the clearing, Aloy watched as the beast reared it's antlered head up, whipping around to look at the small plume of fire now whistling from its punctured canister, the herd of it's fellows jumping to attention and turning to look as well. 

The one closest to the injured machine leaned in, as if investigating the arrow when..

BOOM!! 

The canister went off, rocking the earth and leveling everything around it, including the three grazers near her mark. The others screamed their high pitched whines and bolted, running up and off through the clearing to the dense jungle on the other side. 

She chuckled to herself, standing and making her way down to strip her kills. She loved hunting Grazer. They were so simple, one shot and boom! Bye bye grazer. 

Pulling the knife from her boot she began prying the first lense off. By the looks of it she'd only get two from this batch, the others looking like they were smashed in the explosion. That was fine though, she only needed another four and there were three more at least waiting over the ridge they'd just fled across. 

Aloy glanced up from her task. Judging by the sun she still had more then half the day left. After hunting down those Grazer she could lap back, take down those Longlegs she'd seen guarding some Striders, snag their echo shells, then still have time to go round up one more grazer lense. She knew another heard hung out by a lake east of her current location so she could....

She froze.

The eyes were back. 

Her blood ran hot, her brows knitting together. Unclenching her white knuckled grip on her knife she slowly sheathed it, reaching casually for her spear, she stood, keeping her posture purposefully relaxed. 

Whoever this was, she was done with this nonsense. 

She was not the person to stalk, not if she had a damn thing to say about it and by the Goddess she was tired of being watched.

She moved off towards the trees, away from the feeling coming from her left, making as if to follow the remaining Grazers. Once she hit the trees she fell into a crouch, disappearing into the greenery and backtracking around the clearing. Activating her focus briefly. Yup, someone was crouched farther through the treeline, unfortunately for them they were alone.

Her heart was pounding as she moved forward, switching off her scanner. Why was she being followed like this? Spear at the ready she silently crept along, moving as quickly as possible without alerting her pursuer. 

Suddenly she heard it, the rustle of cloth on leaves, faint but there just ahead. She continued that direction, eyes sharp, this person knew how to hunt she thought, but so did she. 

She caught sight of something. A small movement up ahead behind a dilapidated stone wall covered in overgrown vines and gnarled tree roots. Her pursuer was tucked into the tiny, hidden alcove there, almost completely hidden, but her trained eyes had seen. 

Holding her breath, she ducked lower, circling around. Whoever this was had made a mistake. 

She got up close to the area, it was a man. She could see the back of his bald, scarred head now and part of his bow but nothing else, there was something familiar about him she couldn't place. He was well hidden, looking out towards where she had originally disappeared into the trees, probably waiting to make sure she was far enough away before following.

He shifted and she heard movement, as she'd thought this he'd made to abandon his hiding place and follow where she had gone. 

She had no idea who he was or what he wanted, but this ended now.

She moved quickly, closing the small space and utilizing the mans own movements to mask the small sounds she made through the underbrush, he heard her at the last second but it was to late, she was behind him, spear to his back. 

The man froze, slowly raising his hands in surrender. 

That wave of familiarity hit Aloy like a slap, making her stomach flip and adding a worried edge to her nervous adrenaline, who was this.....

"Who are you!" She demanded. "Why have you been following me." 

No one moved. No one spoke. 

She felt off, her insides where churning, something was wrong...

He spoke and her mind went white "Aloy... you've improved your hunting skills, I'm impressed" he said, turning slowly, her blood going to ice as his face finally came into view, a face she had seen consumed in fire over and over in her dreams..

Rost....

It was Rost....

It can't be Rost!

Her lungs wouldn't take in enough air, there was no air, no air and no sound but the high pitched ring in her ears. Shaking so badly she could barley hold her spear, she tried to move, tried to think

Rost was standing here. He was right here. Rost...

Suddenly a single, powerful urge overcame her short circuited senses. 

Run.

She bolted.

He wasn't there! He was dead! Dead! She'd watched him die.

Her eyes watered as she ran, breath heaving from her lungs in erratic, strangled gasps, a hot fist of panic clenching at her insides. Crashing through the jungle at top speed, branches whipping her face, cutting her arms and legs. 

Home, go home. She was hit by a Grazer, hit by the explosion, been concussed. She was hallucinating, having visions from the injury.

This isn't real.

This. Isn't. Real.

Chapter Text

Something was wrong. 

Erend could see it written all over Aloy and she'd now been weird for two days straight.

The day after she got back he'd come home to find her in bed, totally buried under the blankets and looking at the wall.

She'd said her head was bothering her, thought it was from some Grazer hunt she'd done, but wouldn't say much else, just continued her wide eyed staring contest with the wall. When he'd come back up to try to coax some food or tea into her later that evening she'd refused both. Eventually he had given up and just curled up behind her, pulling her close and running his fingers over her arm in long, soothing strokes, his face buried in her hair. 

She'd fallen asleep finally, well after dark, her breathing evening out, and he had allowed himself to drift off, hoping she'd feel better when she woke. 

But by the next morning nothing had changed. She was out of bed and in the bath when he'd gotten up, and still wouldn't talk to him except for the most minimal response when she emerged from the washroom, her eyes far away. Before he'd left to report in he had hugged her, again asking what was wrong and all but begging her to tell him, but she had shaken her head, saying again she thought she was mildly concussed, brushing him off with a quick peck and telling him she'd rest and be okay. 

Instead she had picked at her dinner and gone to bed early, pretending to be asleep when he came up himself. He'd fallen into a restless sleep, waking up again this morning to the faint sound of water in the bath downstairs. 

He sighed, crossing his sunlit kitchen and pulling two cups from a cabinet, retrieving a canister of tea from another. He could hear Aloy getting out of the tub and had no intention of letting her not talk to him today. He was figuring this out, something else was up and he couldn't understand why she wouldn't open up to him. Part of him worried it was his fault, but she still seemed okay with him, just....not here....

The door to the bath clicked and she appeared, wearing a light blue Carja silk top and matching pants. She glanced up and gave him a faint smile that didn't reach her eyes as she made to head back up the stairs.

"Oh no you dont" he said setting down the cup of tea leaves and intercepting her, guiding her to the table with a gentle hand on her back. "You need to drink this with me"

"Erend, I.." she started

"No" he interjected, earning himself the most Aloy like glare he'd seen in days.

"Sorry, Aloy, but no. I may not be the sharpest ax to have ever been forged but I'm not completely stupid." He gave her shoulders a squeeze, leaning down over her where he'd sat her and kissing her head. "You aren't yourself, and I need my feisty, pain in the ass huntress back" she made an indignant sound and went to slap at him "that's a start!" He laughed, dodging her and heading back to the kitchen for the kettle of hot water. 

He poured them both cups and sat them down, pulling the other chair up from around the table so he could sit close to her, their knees touching as he leaned over to brush a loose strand behind her ear. She was holding her mug, staring into the contents, her eyes still so far away. 

"Aloy talk to me, what's wrong?" He implored. 

"I told you Erend, I hurt my head. It's just some stupid concussion" she said dismissively, sipping at her tea. 

"Uh huh, I've been knocked around a thousand times and never had a concussion disconnect me from reality for days on end." 

"I'm not...disconnected" she growled, scowling as he raised his eyebrows at her. "I'm not!" 

"Then what do you call it?" She was so difficult sometimes, not that he could talk but still. 

"Resting. From a concussion" she set her tea down with a snap, still staring a hole through it. 

He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his tunic clad chest, sighing heavily and eyeing her. She was doing that outcast thing she did. Throwing up walls to protect herself and going all sharp and defensive. He wanted to pick and pry till she caved but he knew he wouldn't win that battle, so he tried something else. 

"Look, how are you feeling? Are you maybe up to take a walk with me round the city or something? Get some air?" He said imploringly.

She looked up at him finally, her copper eyes flat as they met his, not speaking for a long time. He chanced an exaggerated eyebrow wiggle and it had the desired affect, her expression softened a bit and the corner of her lip twitched like it did when she was mad and didn't want to think he was funny....by the forge was she cute.

Finally she relented, "Alright. I probably do need to get out" 

He relaxed, watching her drink the last of her tea before she headed up to get her shoes. He was off duty, so he could spend the day getting to the bottom of this, he just needed to be patient and get her out of this mood first. 

She returned and they headed out, taking a street from the apartment out to the edge of the city, where they could walk the walls and look out over the Maizelands as the farmers went about their morning routines. She didn't talk, but as they walked she took his hand, squeezing it as he looked over at her. 

He squeezed back "are you okay?" He asked, worry heavy in his voice. 

"No." She finally said. 

"Can you tell me why Aloy, please?" She stopped, still holding his hand, he watched her face, a mix of emotions flashing by. Then she let his hand fall and turned away, leaning her elbows against the stone railing and looking out across the fields. He tentatively joined her, stealing sidelong glances at her face as they watched the scenery in silence for awhile.

"I thought I saw something...." she started, "in the forest when I was hunting. But it...it wasn't possible, what I saw" she was twisting her fingers, suddenly tense, her brows knitted. "What I saw couldn't have been real Erend. It couldn't. I had to have been hurt from the Grazer hunt, must have been knocked back by the blaze explosion and not realized..." 

She was talking like she was convincing herself more then him. What had she seen? He wanted to ask but knew she wasn't going to tell him, didn't know how he knew but did. So he just listened and waited, hoping she'd say more. 

"Do you feel hurt anywhere?" He asked when she didn't. 

"No.... but. There isn't any other explanation Erend, there just can't be!" She said this last part so vehemently it startled him a bit. She was extremely shaken over whatever she had seen, that was obvious. 

"Okay, well, have you seen anything since?" He tried, but she shook her head. "That's good then, right? If this was some concussion, then you should be okay now. No more seeing things, you've slept, eaten. All signs point to you being healed. Now we just gotta get you out of the mood this hallucination or whatever it was put you in, that's all" he didn't really believe this, privately he still thought there was more to it, but he really wanted Aloy back to herself, so he let it go. 

She was nodding, sighing and pushing back from the wall. 

"Good, then I happen to have a great idea on how to make that happen, come on" he offered her his hand again, and she gave him another faint smile as she took it, allowing him to lead her back towards the city center.

---------

This had been one of his better ideas for sure, he thought smugly as he opened the door and held it so Aloy could pass him through. 

He'd taken her to the market, knowing full well she'd been meaning to go there for her new weapons and armor once she had collected the parts to trade. He also knew one of those weapons she most needed was a sharpshot bow, her's having been damaged during the deal with Hades, and he intended to get it for her.

He knew from experience that she very much preferred to get things for herself, but this was a special circumstance. 

Sure trading the extra shards to cover the parts he wasn't trading was gonna put a dent in his savings but he didn't really care. He'd saved more in recent years then in his entire life having cut out so much of his drinking and if it worked like he hoped he'd get his girl back to herself and that was worth a whole rusting lifetime worth of shards.

She'd just about stormed off when he told her his plan but he'd talked her down, and now she was sitting on their couch as she ran reverent fingers over the new bow, glancing up when she felt him staring and flashing him a warm smile, a real smile. "You really didn't have to do this Erend" she said, sounding so normal it melted his heart in relief. 

"Sure I did! The hell I work so much for if I can't spoil my girl when she needs it." He laughed, enjoying the pink that always spread across her freckles when he called her that. "Besides I'll feel better knowing you're fully armed while out taming machines and tracking bandits, so it was sort of for me too." He went into the kitchen, placing the bags he carried on the counter. It was still fairly early, bout half past midday, but they'd gone ahead and stopped for what they'd need for dinner and some other things while out. That and lunch, which had been phase two of his plan. 

He pulled the brown paper wrapped bundle containing the sandwiches she was obsessed with out and waved it over his shoulder at her. "Want one?" He sing songed.

She sat her bow down and came over to him, wrapping her arms around his middle from behind and burying her face in the gap between his shoulder blades "yes" he heard her say, the sound muffled in his shirt. He gave her hands a squeeze before she released him, chuckling lightly when she kissed his back, warmth spreading through him. She moved to grab them cups and plates, and he just watched her for a moment. 

She was so damn pretty, with her freckles and her forgefire hair and perfect curves. He was so glad to have her back, to feel that beautiful energy of her's again. 

His eyes lingering on the strip of skin her top exposed at her midriff, he turned to plate the food. 

The sound of knocking stopped him and her both. They looked at each other. "You expecting anyone?" He asked, heading for the door, she shook her head, looking baffled.

"Must be a runner then, wonder what Avad wants, the man knows I'm off" he grumbled, Aloy chuckling and turning back to filling their tea cups.

He yanked the door open, but instead of the little Carja runner he'd expected he was now face to face with a Nora.

Well almost face to face, the man was almost a head shorter then himself, but just as stocky. He was probably twice Erend's age, with a grey flecked beard that was braided down to where it fell past the collar of his green leather tunic. He had blue paint on his face, grey eyes sharp and staring back into his own with a fairly cold regard, which was surprising as he was pretty sure he'd never met this guy before. 

Cocking an eyebrow he took the man in for a second, mostly because the stranger seemed to be doing the same to him "Can I help you?" He finally asked.

The man stared a moment longer, then took a deep breath, looking like he was steadying himself, his voice gravely when he spoke "Yes, I'm looking for Aloy." 

Suddenly the sound of a glass smashing came from the kitchen. Erend whipped around, looking back past the door to Aloy, who had dropped a mug and was now visibly shaking, her eyes wide as moons, a look on her face he'd never seen. 

"Aloy! You okay?" He said, tension shooting through him, glancing back at the man at the door, making sure he stayed put. The manxs face was concerned suddenly...who was he? He wasn't sure what was up but for some reason this guy was upsetting Aloy and that wasn't okay.  

She ignored his question, moving sideways into the room so that she could see out the door, keeping Erend and a good amount of space between her and the situation. Once her eyes met the stranger's she stared trembling harder, taking in a gasping breath and falling back even more, shaking her head as if trying to banish this away. 

He was extremely worried now, something like panic and a powerful wave of protectiveness uncoiling in his chest. He had no idea what was going on but he had never seen Aloy like this and he had no idea what to do. Not until she spoke that is..

"Rost.....?" she choked, her voice cracking, tears now streaming down her face. 

Rost? Rost Rost? But... he just stood there, looking between the two of them. He wanted to go to Aloy but didn't want to leave the door open to the stranger....but if it was her Da.... but he had seen the guy's grave so how could it be?

"I can explain, Aloy, if you'll listen" the man said, not moving but for the almost reflexive reach of his hands towards her, he stopped himself, dropping his hands back down to his sides. 

Aloy snapped.

She reared back like a watcher about to strike, her breathing increasing rapidly and coming out in hard puffs. She was angrier then he'd ever seen her and If she ever looked at him that way he'd run but the man didn't move a muscle.  

"Explain! You can EXPLAIN!!!" she snarled "Explain why I mourned you for YEARS! Why I see you die in my dreams!! How....You cant..!!" She was spinning off kilter wildly and she needed to center, he had never seen her like this and it was upsetting him in a way he couldn't explain. He needed to fix this. Fix it now. 

He turned and held a finger up to Aloy's possibly no longer dead Da, indicating he needed a minute and hoping that would be respectful enough, and then slammed the door. Turning back to Aloy, who was now staring at him, looking murderous and yet somehow so fragile and scared it broke his heart. 

"Aloy, go." he said

"What?" She snapped

"Go I said. Get out of here, go shoot something or climb something or spare someone, whatever but just go breath for a minute." She looked like she was about to argue but he cut her off, holding his hands out palm up, trying to show he wanted to help but not daring to get closer as mad as she was. "This is huge, go think on it. Let me handle this here, okay? I'd put shards your Da's not going anywhere, Aloy. So please....trust me on this, you need to regroup."

She just stared, still breathing hard through her nose and looking like a cornered animal. 

But then she nodded. "You're right....Okay" and without further comment she hurried up the stairs, reappearing moments later, having thrown on her light carja plate armor. She all but ran across the room, more a roiling wave of tangled emotions then a person, grabbing her bow and shouldering it. 

"Aloy..baby just....please be careful" he said as he went to open the door for her. She locked eyes with him and nodded, reaching out to touch his arm as she passed him. She plowed through the doorway, almost shoulder checking Rost as she went, but he had moved as he had seen the door open and her furious self appear. 

She ran, gone in a flash of crimson hair, both men staring after her for a moment.  

Erend looked over, taking in the twisting scars on the back of the man's head, and arms. This was gonna be interesting he thought, a nervous bubble developing in his stomach as his need to protect Aloy subsided a bit. 

He cleared his throat, Rost turning his stoic face to him. "So, you uh, wanna come in?" 

Chapter Text

"So, you uh, wanna come in?" The Oseram asked, looking like he wouldn't mind at all if Rost declined the offer. 

He met the man's grey eyes for a moment, thinking on it. He didn't particularly feel like talking to this man, but he knew he was also the closet person to Aloy at this point, and he needed to get through to her. This may be an avenue to that goal. 

He nodded, and the Captain stepped back, pulling the door open a bit more, "Well alright then" he rumbled "Yeah, just uh, make yourself comfortable. Here, let me get you some tea." He turned to the kitchen, he wasn't in armor today, just brown slacks and a striped tunic that seemed common amongst the Vanguard, the sleeves of which were rolled up, exposing two black ink rings encircling his left forearm, just below where his sleeve cuffed his elbow. 

"Thank you." He said stiffly, at least this suitor of her's seemed to know basic courtesies, something he generally didn't expect from Oseram. Rost made his way into the room, feeling strange in the space. It was a fairly large living area, with a wide couch and what looked like a work bench in it, this connected to the small eating nook and the kitchen, a staircase with a door at its base lead up over that to what he assumed were sleeping quarters, typical of the few other Carjan homes he'd seen. 

It was clean and well kept, the work bench being the only cluttered space, covered in arrow shafts and machine parts....so it was Aloy's work bench then, he thought dryly, remembering the cluttered state of her little dresser at the cabin. There were weapon mounts by the door, the warmaul he'd seen strapped to the Captain hanging next to a hook where Aloy's shortbow was hung. The decorations were sparse overall but what was there seemed to be Oseram, all except for a long rope of beads that hung by the door. He recognized these as Nora blessing beads. This touched him a bit, he had kept the same beads near their cabin door, to ward against evil and welcome the Goddess. He reached out and touched them. They may actually be the same beads he thought, rubbing calloused fingers over the faded blue surface. 

"So I'm not real sure when Aloy will be back, seemed like she uh, needed a minute." The Captain said, his broad back turned as he worked on clearing the glass and pouring out more tea. "But you're welcome as long as you like"

"I appreciate that." Rost said. He paused, not sure how much he wanted to discuss now that he was here... but, he had come to speak. Even if he had originally been steeling himself to speak to Aloy, maybe if he spoke to this man, he could help facilitate that, as she clearly didn't want to speak to him on her own "I'm aware you're the Captain of the Vanguard, but I still do not know your name."

"Ah! I'm sorry!" he said, turning and extending his large hand, which Rost looked at for a moment before shaking briefly, noting that he had a firm grip. "Erend Vanguardsmen, sir" 

"Rost is fine" he said, "Aloy has told you who I am?" 

Erend was setting a cup at the table in the eating nook, offering Rost a seat and moving back to the kitchen. "I know some, its uh... its a fairly painful topic for her usually, you know?" He glanced at Rost as he said this, who was taking a seat, feeling almost reluctant to do so. "I know you're basically her Da. That you taught her what she knows and raised her. I know how you....you know, "died"." he had leaned himself back against the counter, crossing his arms over his chest and facing Rost from there. He seemed to also feel that sitting across the small table would have put them far to close to each other in the current situation. 

They didn't speak for a moment, just regarded each other. He had a steady gaze, didn't waiver despite clearly being nervous. It was a good sign among others. He'd be lying to himself if he said he hadn't wondered if Aloy had chosen poorly. He'd prefer her be with the tribe, to take a proper mate, but if she had chosen this Oseram instead he needed to at least be sure the man was worth choosing, even if it wasn't his place to challenge her choice. 

"I did not die." He said, watching as Erend's eyebrows shot up and his face pulled as if this were obvious, which it was, he supposed. "I was injured, and thought it best once healed to let the news of my death stand." 

"Because of the whole 'Aloy joining the tribe but still wanting to talk to you' thing, right?" his body language said he was relaxed, but for the first time Rost caught something in the man's tone that gave away how he felt about the topic. There was an undercurrent of anger there.

He wasn't sure how he felt about that or how he'd like to respond. He doubted an outlander could understand enough to have an opinion about tribal matters or what he'd done...but as Aloy's mate he supposed he had a right to be angry on her behalf if nothing else. He decided to simply answer honestly and see where it went. 

"Yes, I thought it best at the time. Having learned what transpired after my leaving though...I've realized that may not have been the wisest choice." 

More silence followed this, Erend now staring at a spot just short of the table, his face passive.

Rost watched him, gauging his reactions and responses. He had the air about him of someone who was accustomed to being rash and was reeling himself in, disciplining himself into a more thought out response. 

Finally he let out a deep sigh, reaching up to run his hand through his thick, short cropped Mohawk, "Look, maybe it's not my place to say this but.... don't you think..." He was gesturing with his hands now, looking around as if to find the words he needed in the air. "I mean you can see why she's pissed right?" He said, landing Rost with an earnest expression. 

It was his turn to sigh and avert his gaze. "I can." He looked back to Erend "but I would like to fix that. That's why I agreed to speak with you, I was hoping for your help" 

He looked surprised at this "You think I can help? I mean, I'm certainly willing to try, regardless of what happened she deserves her Da, but I don't know how much use I'll be. You've managed to get her more wound up then I've ever seen her...no offense" he added lamely. 

"You are the one she's chosen to be her mate, are you not? I would think you the best to convince her to speak" He said matter of factly, not expecting Erend to choke and spill his tea, spluttering and turning away to grab a rag. "Was I mistaken in that assumption?" 

He coughed a bit more "Uuhh no, no you're not mistaken, shit, I mean.." he took a deep breath, turning back around to face Rost, resting the heal of his palms back against the edge of the counter where he leaned, looking as if he were bracing himself. Rost just watched him, his eyebrows raised. He knew the Oseram and Nora had very different union practices but he hadn't expected the topic to make the man so uncomfortable. It was Aloy's choice, after all, and clearly he'd accepted. 

He ran a hand through his hair again, something Rost was beginning to think was a nervous tic of sorts "Look about that...in my defense...I did try to do this thing right." He said imploringly "Seeing as you've been dead the last few years I went ahead and made my intentions with your daughter known at your gravestone instead. Even spoke to one of your Matriarchs about it to make sure I was being respectful of the Nora way of doing things."

This amused him, as he imagined the large Oseram going to the Matriarchs for a blessing "You asked the Matriarchs? Who?" 

"Well not that Lansra woman I can tell ya," he laughed a bit, the sound warm and easy "She still thinks I'm a dirty heathen, but Teersa likes me, and I think the other one, Jezza? Is warming up. She waved when we left anyway" 

He felt himself relax a bit. If the Matriarchs had approved of him, there must be a reason. "It surprises me that Teersa gave her approval. She is certainly the most open minded, but I do not recall another instance of an outlander receiving any blessing from a Matriarch." 

"Yeah she said that, said really the only reason she did was cause of Aloy being anointed and me having helped in the Embrace those first few months after the battle, and even then she thought about it for a bit. Aloy was pretty irritated about that, wanted a quick answer and to be done." 

"She never was very patient" he looked at Erend, regarding him again, then it struck him suddenly. He'd seen him before, well before he'd followed Aloy to the city. Back when he had sat hidden, proudly watching as she had participated in her lantern ceremony. "You were at her proving" he said simply. 

"Aye I was, that's where I met her, actually." He smiled fondly, remembering back and scratching at his beard "she'd asked me just about every question she could." 

"That surprises me little." He could cleary see Aloy taking her first opportunity meeting outlanders and using it to bludgeon her way through all the questions she had of the world, determined to find the answers she'd always been denied. A pang of sadness spread through his chest at this image. Her thirst for the world never belonged behind borders and part of him knew it despite his hopes for her. 

"She was probably the most curious little spark I'd ever met." He said warmly, pulling Rost from his revere, then suddenly becoming somber, his expressive face turning down into a deep frown "when that attack at her proving happened.... it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen... in or out of the war." He shifted "I honestly thought she hadn't made it either, and they had us leave not long after, so it wasn't till she showed up months later at the gates that I knew she was alive, then she went and helped me with some real important things and thoroughly knocked my ass back in line, she became my friend, things went from there and yeah.. here we are." He finished, clearing his throat and looking uncomfortable again, crossing his arms. 

They'd known each other for some time then, that was also good, it confirmed that this was the best path. If he could get Erend to help calm her and ease her into speaking to him, maybe he could actually get her to listen to what he needed to say.  

"You said you helped in the Embrace?" He'd leaned back, the damaged muscles in his back burning, taking another sip of tea. It had some Carja spice in it he didn't prefer but was mixed with willow, which was helping to ease the aches he constantly felt. Erend ran his hand through his Mohawk yet again, looking like he was thinking on his words. 

"Eclipse tore through it pretty badly before the Spire... it was..." he struggled for the words "bad" he landed on. "Better now! But....yeah.. there wasn't much left when we got there." 

Rost felt like ice water had dropped into his stomach at these words. He knew his homeland had suffered damage but in his focus on finding Aloy he had not asked what had happened to the Embrace, and as he'd crossed no Nora no one would have known anyway. His voice was tight when he asked "Better how?" 

His shock must have been easy to read, as Erend's face became concerned and his voice softened when he spoke "Almost completely back to normal better" he reassured "The Sun King Avad sent me and my men back along with Aloy and the Nora war party who had come out to help. We got the machines and burned out buildings cleared, rebuilt it all, starting at the Gates, we put hammer to steel and had it looking almost brand new by the time we'd left. Things are even good enough now that Aloy convinced Teersa and some other Nora to come out for the King's Feast here coming up." 

This news startled him from his worried thoughts. A Matriarch was leaving the sacred lands? Could that even be done? Clearly it could, but the idea of it felt.... wrong. He had heard a rumor that the Nora had opened their borders, that those exiled for leaving were no longer so, but he'd assumed it untrue. Assumed it a frivolous tale as the Nora would never break taboo in that way. But...he glanced up, realizing he had been lost in his thoughts again, silent and staring, to used to his own company. "That is...news." 

"I'm not surprised you're surprised" Erend laughed, "so was Aloy, but she's better at talking to people then she gives herself credit for. They might not always like it but she gets her point across and she convinced em." There was pride in his voice when he spoke of her. It was clear he thought highly of Aloy and her skills, another good quality for her in a mate.

His feeling of disapproval over her choice having dissipated considerably since he'd arrived, he decided it was time to get to the point. 

Getting Aloy to speak to him was still his most pressing concern, and he had satiated his curiosity about the man she was living with, so he redirected the conversation there "As good as she may be at conversing it helps not at all if she refuses to speak to me." 

"Well, see, so I may have an idea on that" The Captain said "I'm thinking you give me a day or two to warm her up to the idea, and then come round again, maybe for dinner or something." 

He considered this. Personally he doubted that it would be that easy, given the past two attempts had resulted in her running away, but he was willing to try. Maybe this would work. 

"That is as good a plan as any if she'll agree. I don't know how likely that will be, frankly I think you will need the two days, at least." He said as he stood. He wanted to return to the camp he'd made and rest, process what he'd learned and how he felt about it.  "You are sure you can convince her?" 

Erend had stood as well, pushing off the counter and moving towards the door as Rost had done the same, reaching out and pulling the handle to hold it open for him. 

"Oh sure!" He boomed as he swung the door open "She doesn't like to admit it but she's a sucker for my charms" he chuckled and Rost felt the corner of his lip twitch despite himself. This Erend wasn't what he had expected, he didn't fully know if he felt him right for Aloy, but his willingness to help despite his feelings on it had promise and he seemed genuine and good natured. 

He turned as he crossed the threshold, appraising the Oseram "I appreciate you speaking with me, and for your help." He said. 

Erend looked pleased with himself at this "I'm generally better at messing things up but I'm tryin here, and as I said she needs you, no matter how she feels about it now, and if she needs it she gets it so long as I'm around so" he shrugged, bracing a forearm on the doorframe, leaning on it and grinning "we'll figure this out. She can only be so stubborn" 

Rost laughed now, a quick bark of mirth as he turned to go "you say that." He said and heard Erend chuckle again. Then he was leaving Aloy's home and heading back towards the city gates, the dampened feeling these past failed attempts had caused drying up as a new spark of hope for their next encounter blossomed in his chest. 

Chapter Text

"You invited him to dinner...... That's you handling things? Really?"

Irritated didn't cover how she was feeling as she paced the floor. 

"Aloy he's your Da!" Erend insisted, leaning forward on the couch and setting his elbows on his knees, gesturing out to her, his palms up. "What would you have had me do, tell him to get lost?" 

"Would of been better then inviting him to dinner." she snapped, spinning on her heal and heading back across the room, Erend's exasperated face following her movements. 

She knew deep down she wasn't being fair, but she was to angry and to.....she didn't even know....she didn't know but she knew she didn't like this. 

She had ran, as fast as she could, trying to focus her frantic mind on one task, get away. Just like if she were out in the wild and had been seen by something, just get away.

Her insides boiling and tears stinging her eyes as she had cleared the corner of their street, she hadn't stopped until she had reached the trees. She didn't even really recall where she'd gone originally, she'd just ran and when she couldn't run she had walked, never stopping, only focused on moving through the brush. Over this rock. Around those roots. Hand over hand. Watch that footing. Until she'd found herself up one of the tall red mesas that towered above the jungle, tucked into the rocks at the very top and looking out over the Vista. 

She didn't remember much till then, she just remembers the breeze bringing her back. The coolness of it on her sweaty, tear streaked face as her breathing slowed, then looking out over the jungle. 

And then she was crying. 

Hard, ugly sobs, sounds she'd never made, tore from her lungs and she couldn't have turned it off if she'd tried. Hot tears spilling down her face.

She was so angry! She was hurt! 

How could he have done this? Leaving. Leaving she had not been surprised by. She had feared that, as she had formed her plans to keep in contact, feared he would just choose exile. But this.... to let her think he had died.

She had sat at his grave and mourned him! Spoke to him of her travels and fears. She had cried herself to sleep with the memory of his voice ringing in her ears and screamed herself awake to the image of his death! How many nights had Erend held her as she silently sobbed because the fire had felt so real? The loss so fresh? How many nights before him had she done the same, alone and curled in on her pain?

She had cried until her body was to tired to shake and her tears had run out, her voice hoarse and painful, her eyes so raw they burned when she blinked up at the now inky black sky.

She'd been calmer then she had been when she finally climbed down from her perch, but was still lost and furious. She hadn't known what she would find when she'd come home well past nightfall. 

But Erend sitting up waiting to tell her she'd now be having dinner with the man who'd abandoned her so callously in two days time was NOT it. 

She shot him a searing look at this thought, completing what felt like her thousandth circuit across the room. He didn't even react to it, just kept looking at her with the imploring face he made when she was unhappy. This just irritated her more, why was he always so reasonable when she was mad? He wasn't this reasonable when he was mad! 

She'd been staring at the floor again as she'd been fuming and had missed him coming up to block her path. She collided with him, having not noticed and almost fell back, feeling like she'd hit a wall. She shot another angry look straight up into his face as he caught her by her upper arms so she didn't fall and this time he did react, releasing her and holding out his hands palm up again in that stupid pacifying motion he did and succeeding in pissing her off further.

She growled and slapped at his hands, attempting to side step him, but he grabbed her from behind and hugged her to him, pinning her in a strong hug and pressing his face into her hair. 

"Erend.." she said menacingly.

"I know you're mad, love, but just breath with me for a minute alright" he said, as she squirmed and snarled his name again "Please" he rumbled into her neck, she could feel the bass in his voice against her back and she hated that he knew she loved that. He began to sway her slowly, continuing to speak into her skin, his facial hair tickling her gently. "You're not mad at me afterall" 

"I am absolutely mad at you Vanguardsmen" she growled, slapping at his arm where she could reach it as it wrapped her. 

"Naahh. You're mad at the situation." He said sagely,  planting a kiss on her temple "And I don't blame you. I'd be pissed too, but running away from it won't help." 

"Excuse me but I'm pretty sure you're the one who encouraged me to run away earlier" she was relaxing into the sturdy warmth of him despite her best efforts. Damn this man! she thought as he chuckled.

"Only because disemboweling the problem wasn't gonna help either." He let her go, running his hands up her arms to her shoulders and turning her to face him. She crossed her arms, not at all interested in letting him talk her down further. This was wrong. Rost was wrong and her anger was holding her up. Holding her away from other emotions she wasn't ready to face. "Aloy, you should be mad, but you also have a chance to get part of your family back, even if he did make a really bad decision." He looked sad as he said this and the realization of why successfully popped her bubble of rage. 

She looked at him for a moment. She knew what he'd give to have the same chance with Ersa. They'd shared that pain,  the pain of loosing the person closest to them, she couldn't squander this...and she was lucky he was alive... but...

"Erend....I just...I'm not just angry....I" she didn't know. She didn't want to know. She shook her head. The emotions she had surging through her were to hot to touch. To big to really look at and figure out. But now she was supposed to talk about them in just a few days and she didn't think she could. "I can't do this." She said faintly. 

"Can't do this?! Cant? Savior of the world and chosen one of the Nora and she says she can't have dinner with her undead pops!" He laughed, giving her shoulders a shake before releasing her and jumping back as she swung a solid right at his diaphragm. 

"I mean it Erend! You ass!" She snarled. 

"Okay hey! Be nice!" He said, allowing her to sweep past him to flop on the couch, taking the seat he'd vacated and leaning back into the cushions. She let her head fall back and stared up at the ceiling, following the knotted lines in the wood with her eyes for a moment, breathing. The less angry she became the deeper she sank into a feeling akin to despair. She didn't understand why she'd feel that way when she should just be happy he was back but thinking about it made it worse so she pushed it down. 

Erend had come over to crouch in front of her, taking her hands where they lay in her lap and running his rough thumbs over her knuckles. She rolled her head forward to look him in his eyes. "Why are you being so calm about this? He hurt me, isn't that a trigger for you or something" She said shrewdly. 

"He did but he did it because he loves you" he said, "He does!" He added when she snorted derisively, "Plus he's your Da and from the stories you've told I'm half ass afraid he'll put an arrow in me, so, ya know"

She felt her lip twitch and he pointed at her, suddenly smiling that ridiculous crooked smile of his, "Ah! You smile I win!" 

She made a sound somewhere between a snort and a snarl and pushed at his face with her hand, making him loose his balance and fall back on his heels as he laughed.

He let himself fall back the rest of the way , sitting with his knees bent and feet planted in front of him as she sat up, both of them now leaning forward, elbows on knees.

"Erend I really don't know if I can do this. I don't know how to do this!" She said, feeling more tired and aimless then anything now. "What the hell do I even say to him? 'Oh hey glad you're not dead anymore but what the fuck'?" 

He thought for a second, running a hand over his Mohawk "Maybe don't worry about that." He said frankly "YOU aren't the one with explaining to do in my book."

She snorted again "You don't know Rost. He'll want all kinds of explanations and if he asks me why I did anything the way I did when he let me think he was DEAD while I had to make my choices I'll lose my mind."  

He mulled this over, sighing finally and standing up, offering her his hand. "I think you might be surprised Aloy, sounded to me like he just wanted to make things right." 

Allowing her self to be pulled to her feet and led up the stairs, she considered this. Stopping in the doorway of the bedroom she said sourly "it's gonna take more then one dinner to make this right." 

"Yeah, but it's a start" he said softly, reaching over to undo the laces of her armor. She sighed and looked at him, reaching up and tugging on his beard a bit, making him smile, which made her smile despite herself. 

"I never said I was done being mad at you" she said 

"Yea, but you smiled...so you can't be mad." He laughed as she slapped at him again, this time half heartedly, moving away to pick up undoing her armor where he'd left off as he went to change into sleep clothes, still chuckling. 

Least he seemed to be feeling good about this.... she let out a heavy breath. Erend wasn't completely wrong she supposed... this was something she had prayed to a Goddess she didn't even believe in for in her moments of mourning....she needed to see past her anger. At least give it a chance.

...what other choice was there?

She slept fitfully, her dreams broken and shifting with shapeless fire.

-----------

This was gonna be a long two days she thought bitterly as she soaked. 

The next morning Erend had risen before her, being almost out the door by the time she woke and insisting he could tell Avad he needed the day off if she wanted him to. She'd declined and kissed him goodbye, but now as she sat in the lukewarm water she wasn't sure sending him off had been best. 

She was miserable.... feelings of betrayal and insecurity kept bubbling up. She'd already felt stung by his refusal to see past the tribes ridiculous laws to still be able to see her anyway and now he'd chosen to leave her, when she'd been on her death bed, when he knew she thought him, the closest thing to a parent she had, dead and gone. Knowing the pain she must have been in, alone and injured in a place she'd feared her whole life with people who had hated her and he'd walked away!

She had cried a good bit more this morning after she'd sank into the tub, feeling even more weak and miserable because of it. 

She didn't know how he could possibly fix this...

She glanced up to the little half window above the bath, it was barely midmorning by the looks of it. How was she supposed to make it through the rest of today and all of tomorrow like this?

She scowled at her pale knees, floating at the surface. 

Well she couldn't just fucking cry, that was for sure. 

Dragging herself out of the tub and kicking the stopper as she went to drain the water she mentally kicked herself too. 

She wasn't sure what she was going do but she was going to get out and do anything she could to keep her mind straight till this damn dinner. 

Least she was going to try. 

Chapter Text

This was gonna be a fun night, he thought, making another pass along his cheek with the razor, the smell of pine from the oil he used to shave with burning his nose. 

He glanced in the steamy mirror at the little bit of Aloy he could see bobbing in the water behind him. "So you still planning on just sayin' nothin' when he gets here?" He asked the tangled mass of red hair he could see over the copper siding of the tub. 

All he got back initially was a snort.

Erend shook his head before making another pass with his razor, finishing up the left side of his face and moving to start on the right. She was so damn difficult. 

"I thought your part in all this was to convince me to listen." She said tersely sitting up and looking over at him as she ran fingers through her wet strands, trying to tame them back. 

"Actually" he said lightly, rinsing his razor and face before toweling off and turning to face her. "What I said, huntress, was that my part was to convince you to speak to him." He grinned and crossed his arms over his damp chest, watching her haughty face as she went to work on oiling her hair, ignoring what he'd said.

He'd sit there and watch her till the last forge died if he could so this thing she did where she ignored him in hopes he'd drop a topic she didn't like always amused him. 

She let his staring go on for a good minute or so before she broke and shot him a sidelong look. Snorting again as he ducked his head to lock eyes better, his smile widening. "Well you convinced me to listen." She said stubbornly. 

By the forge. 

Sighing he pushed off the sink and went to finish getting ready, leaving Aloy to her determinedly silent scrubbing.

There was still a whole day of Captains duties to get on with before he had to come home to Rost's visit, and as he was apparently looking at a night of Aloy being a wall of silence while Rost spoke at her, he wasn't looking forward to it. Hell he almost hoped he'd be asked to leave and let them have a heart to heart alone but he doubted that would happen. Plus, if he was real honest, he was scared of not being included also. 

There was a sizable part of him that was afraid that Rost coming back would mean Aloy would leave. He knew Rost was a pretty traditional Nora and he was her only family, more then that, her whole childhood he was the only person in her life at all. What if he convinced her going back to the Embrace was best? What if she just wanted to go? 

He shook his head, he couldn't let himself think on that or he'd drown in his own insecurities. He knew that from experience.

She loved him, he knew this. She'd chosen him when she could have had anyone, even the king! She'd chosen him even though she had a world to save.

They'd figure this out, he told himself, trying to make the words feel real. 

He heard Aloy padding softly up the stairs as he was swapping his sleep pants for the brown slacks he wore beneath his armor. He was buttoning the last fastening on them when he felt her soft hands slide across his ribs. He turned to her, folding her into his arms and hugging her close. The feel of her skin on his sending sparks through him despite his mood. He breathed in her beloved scent and let it steady him as he tried to steady her.

"I'll try." She murmured, her head tucked under his chin as she traced her fingers lightly across the tattooed patterns on his left bicep, relaxing and letting him hold her to him. "But he needs to explain first." 

"That's fair." He said, kissing her head before letting her go. He pulled his striped Vanguard tunic on and was tucking it in as he added "Just don't let me be the only one talking. You know what happens when I try to fill a silence. I can't shut the fuck up and I can not go and make an ass of myself in front of your Da this early on!" 

This earned him an eyeroll and a smirk so he continued. "Especially since I think I may have him warming up to me. Dare I say he may even like me." 

"You realize him liking you ultimately affects nothing, right?" She said, raising an eyebrow at him as she adjusted the red silk sash she had tied about her waist over her silken blue pants. 

"Are you insane! It affects everything!" He sputtered, not believing his ears "He's your Da Aloy! I know Nora do stuff different but surely you can see why I'd need him to approve of me here right?" 

"I don't see why, actually, but if that's what makes you happy by all means." She came up and started fastening the ties on the breastplate he'd slipped on. He smiled down at her, watching her nimble fingers work. "But I'm telling you now, this need for his approval is just going to confuse him." 

"Yeah well I think I may have accomplished that already. Still gonna try though" He laughed, pulling on the thick leather belt that sat across his midriff and supported his leather tassets, patiently waiting for her to fasten that as well. He wasn't real sure why she liked helping him with his armor in the mornings but she did, and it just about melted his heart every time so he just let her do it. 

"Done." She said looking up at him as he reached his still bare hands up to her face, running his thumbs across her freckled skin before leaning down to kiss her, reveling in the soft warmth of her lips. 

She kissed him back with more eagerness then she'd shown in days, her tongue slipping out and flicking across his lips, lighting a fire in his loins almost instantly and making him moan softly as he deepened the kiss.

Having been so caught up in what was going on they'd been fairly chaste, but that wasn't their normal way, and it was probably contributing more to the nervous agitation coursing through him today then anything. 

He wanted her badly, his body responding instantly to the delicious taste of her mouth. He'd just come to the conclusion that it was worth being late, his hand sliding along the warm skin of her naval, making his way up under her crop top, when she pulled away.

A disappointed groan escaped his throat as he rested his forehead against hers, giving her his most pathetically pleading face. 

"You'll be late, Erend." She reprimanded, though she was smiling and playing with his beard, setting more blaze to his fire. 

"So" he said, dropping his head and kissing at her neck, his facial hair tickling her skin and making her chuckle. He truly didn't care at this point even if she was right. 

"SO you can't be late because you are trying to leave early to get ready for this dinner you set up, remember?" She wasn't giving into his wiles he realized, now gently pushing him away with her palms on his chest, so he sighed and darted in to steal one last kiss before allowing her to move away completely. 

"Fine." He growled, pulling a face at her and making her laugh. "But I'd wager that what we could be getting up to here is a whole lot more interesting then anything that's gonna happen on shift today." He said, bouncing his eyebrows at her while he pulled on his boots, his mind temporarily distracted from his worries.

‐------------

He'd been wrong, as usual. 

Well not completely wrong. He'd still rather be at home doing salacious things with the woman he loved, but no. 

The change of guard was a mess this morning. 

So he was here trying to figure out why three of the day guard hadn't shown up to relieve the night guard. The men who were stuck at their posts after sun up were not pleased when he'd shown up during his morning gate check. So after making hasty promises to figure out what was up he made his way to the barracks and in through to the command room. 

What greeted him were three extremely battered and bruised Vanguard who had clearly just dragged their asses in. 

Really? Today! Today they had to show up a mess from whatever they'd gotten up to the night before? Not one of them were on duty yesterday and they were Vanguard! The ones who broke up the drunken brawls not caused them! His nostrils flared as anger coarsed through him, pulling himself up to his full height and advancing on them like a pissed off thunderjaw.

"You all better have a damn good reason for sitting in here looking like slag while the night watch covers the gates for your lazy asses!" He barked, glaring down at them where they sat around one of the small tables. "The hell happened!" 

"Cut us some slack Cap, it's your woman's fault we could barely walk this morning!" Brin complained, rubbing at her neck as she spoke. "The hell did you do to piss her off?" 

He'd been looking at the rather impressive shinner Delorn was sporting on his melancholy face when she said this and he felt his anger stutter. "Aloy beat you all senseless?" He asked, his eyebrows shooting up. 

Delorn had leaned back, reaching behind him and tightening the tie he kept his blonde hair back with, wincing at the movement. "She wanted to spar." He said in a defeated tone. 

Erend laughed outright at this, his anger fizzling out. "Well luckily this time its not my fault." He said, heading over to his desk to deposit the rolls of routes and reports he'd been toting under one arm.

"I am gonna suggest not letting her talk you into another sparing match anytime soon though." He said.

"You don't have to worry about that!" Delorn spat "I'm never letting that flame headed demon near me again! Tell her she needs to find a new drinking buddy." 

"Shit Delorn" chimed in Kerent, Erend noticed he was sporting an equally impressive bruise at his temple. "I don't know any other Oseram that taps after half an ale, she's gonna have to look to the rusting featherheads for another match!" That got them all going "Please don't tell her I said that." He added to his Captain, who just shook his head. 

As funny as this was he'd need to tell Aloy to play nice...He couldn't have his men beaten half to death and barely standing for this feast.

Yet another addition to the list of things he wasn't looking forward to doing. 

He eyed them, they didn't look THAT bad, and if they could sit and laugh at each other they could get their asses in gear. "Well since you all seem to be in such good spirits now may I suggest you hurry up and get to your posts? NOW!" He bellowed the last word, making them scramble. 

Well, scramble as fast as they could looking like they'd been run over by a trampler he thought, trying not to crack a grin as they tripped over themselves. "You owe the men you're relieving a drink by the way!" He called as they disappeared round the corner, hearing a wave of grumbling in response. 

He sighed, next was his morning debrief with Avad. 

He trudged out of the barracks and back out and around to the staircase that would take him to the palace. His heavy steel plated boots clanging as he ascended, armor clinking. He was already hot under the collar, feeling sweat bead on the back of his neck as he climbed. Autumn had barely started and the heat of the day was quickly building, the crisp cool of the dawn already gone. It would be sweltering by noon. 

Erend looked out over the Maizelands briefly as he hit one of the top terraces and the last set of stairs, his nerves coming back at full force.  

There were only two months till the feast and he had a hundred things left to do, and now with everything going on in his personal life those tasks felt even more insurmountable then before.

He was being stupid, he told himself. He'd helped save the world, he'd become the Captain his men and king needed, he could do this. His fear of failing was worse for him then anything and he knew it, so he pushed it aside as he came up to Avad's balcony, hoping the monarch wasn't in the mood to chit chat today. 

The Sun King was sitting on the silken chase he usually occupied, leaned back into the cushions, one ankle crossed over the opposite knee, gazing out at the horizon. He looked around at the sound of Erend approaching, smiling serenely "Good morning Erend, how are things today?" 

"Morning your Radiance" he said briskly, stopping short of the little table that sat in front of Avad and falling into the typical posture of a soldier, hand clasping wrist, back straight. "Busy, gettin the junior guard we recruited prepped and ready in time for the feast and all that. Had a bit of a snag with the change of guard but its handled, nothing to report other than that." 

Avad was nodding, turning his eyes back out to the view "That is all good to hear." He paused for a beat, and Erend thought he might be off the hook for a lengthy bout of pleasantries he wasn't in the mood for, but then Avad continued. "Are you and Aloy looking forward to the celebration? You both will still be attending, yes?" 

He found this question odd. Clearly the king wasn't asking if he was attending, as he was essentially required to even if he was being forced to go as a guest, so he must be asking after Aloy. This irritated him more than it usually did. He wasn't in the mood for Avad's weird neediness over Aloy today, it grated on him at the best of times. "Course we will." He said, trying to keep his face straight and not sure he was doing a great job. "We're both looking forward to celebrating you and your new Queen. How is she by the way"

Avads face rearranged a bit, not seeming to know what emotion to land on "Yes, this union will benefit the Sundom greatly." His tone was dismissive as he added "And she's well, I'm sure, seems to be settling into life in the palace anyway." 

Erend said nothing, just nodded and hummed his acknowledgement. He didn't dislike the man, he probably understood him better then most. But after Avad's several month bought of...whatever he'd been doing to cope after Dervahl, Erend hadn't really been able to get close to the monarch again. He had trouble getting over how blatantly he'd pursued Aloy back then with Ersa barely gone... especially as Avad had known something was going on between them at the time, his spies following them everywhere. But now the guy nursed a barely concealed crush on her and used Erend as a touch point for information on a woman he clearly felt deprived of having. 

It didn't make Avad his favorite person. 

He just wanted to go get on with the rest of his day, but Avad's next words dropped his stomach into his boots like a hot coal, all jealous ire forgotten. 

"I would expect you to both be heading to Mainspring soon should you not? I was a bit surprised not to have heard anything from her yet actually. " He said, sitting up finally and leaning forward, sounding a bit petulant. 

By the forge! He had completely forgotten about their assignment in the Claim! And he'd bet shards that so had Aloy....but she needed to deliver that invitation to the Ealdorman and needed to do it soon or they'd be getting there last second. He hadn't even selected the men he'd need or briefed them!

Shit!

"Yes sir" he said in what he hoped was a nonchalant tone "We should be good to go in a few days time." This was a bold faced lie but its not like they could just not go. This was a job they'd both agreed to do and it had to happen. 

Last time he and two other Vanguard had accompanied her to Mainspring, seeing as how the Claim wasn't the most open and welcoming place for a petite redheaded Nora girl, regardless of how wrathful she could be. It had worked great. They'd cleared the way through the politics and bravado that stood between her and the Ealdorman, and she'd shouted herself hoarse once there, easy. But now...

there were cold tendrils of dread clutching at his insides at the prospect of getting Aloy to agree to holding up her end of this bargain... 

Yeah, she was usually driven and dedicated to her responsibilities but...Rost. This was huge and he wasn't sure she'd see merit in a weeks long trip that him and his men would have to go on anyway. 

He very much thought he was about to get ditched and he wasn't looking forward to it. 

Marad thankfully chose this moment to appear, inclining his head to Erend "Captain" he said simply, then turning to the king he just stared, clearly there to remind Avad of some timeline he needed to adhere to. 

Avad made eye contact with him briefly and nodded, sighing and standing up, his gold slippers clicking on the tile. "I must take my leave unfortunately. Please do remind Aloy she is expected to brief us in person before you leave." He said evenly as he crossed the floor to the doorway Marad had disappeared through. "Good day Captain." 

Noting he once again wasn't invited to the briefing despite being part of the mission he gave a half bow  as Avad went by "Will do sir, g'day." Like he was gonna go home and encourage her to come see Avad. Ha!

He backtracked down the stairs, heading to the royal armory to pick a fight with the quartermaster who'd been giving his men grief over repairs. He needed to handle this anyway and Avad on top of everything else had him burning hot and ready to bang some heads together. 

As he headed down the corridor, his blood thrumming and his nerves shot, he hoped against hope that the rest of the day went smoother then the morning had. 

Chapter Text

For the second time in as many days he found himself staring at the ornately carved wooden door of Aloy's apartment, trying to will himself to knock. 

He was anxious. 

What he wanted to to do was simply demand she return to the Embrace, where they could talk and deal with this further. They needed All Mother's grace to heal from this, to clear Aloy's head of the fog this heathen land had cast on her. Even if she kept this Oseram of her's, she needed to be home, among her tribesmen. 

He was well aware if he approached her that way, he'd get no results. She'd push him further away, she was to tied to this place, these people. 

So he'd explain himself, calm her and earn back her trust. If he could manage that, he'd then work on convincing her to return. 

He'd been thinking on what he would say to her for weeks, yet standing here he wasn't sure if any of it would be right. He generally wasn't troubled when it came to explaining his choices, he made them all assuredly. But....

The look of betrayal in her eyes had made his reasons feel flimsy and false, just as they had the day he'd told her he would not see her again, except this was worse.. 

He knew why he had done as he had, knew his actions were sound when looking at the facts, but his intentions hadn't led to the future he'd wanted for her, and now she was more hurt then he had ever seen her and it was his fault. It tore at him more than it should. He tried to master the feeling of guilt her pain brought out of him as he did with most emotions, but he wasn't very successful. 

Rost sighed, shifting in the heat, the temperature still far to high despite the sun having set. He needed to just knock and get it over with, he was delaying for nothing.

Yet still he stood, watching as a small Carja man went about lighting the torches that lined the stone paved streets. He heard the faint sound of Erend's booming laugh from behind the thick door.

Hopefully that was a good sign...

If this Oseram had truly managed to talk Aloy down enough to have a conversation he may just reconsider his merit as her mate entirely. 

Steeling his resolve with one last deep breath he reached out his scarred hand and rapped on the door, the machine plating on his vambrace catching the torches orange glow. 

The door was yanked open almost immediately and he was greeted by Erend. He looked a bit harassed, his hair a mess, but he had put on a welcoming air and a wide grin "Rost! Welcome!" He moved out of the way as Rost entered, once again he was wearing the brown pants and striped Vanguard shirt, his armored boots scrapping as he moved. He also had a rag slung over his shoulder. "Make yourself at home! I was just getting dinner going and Aloy's over there trying to stare a hole through the rug." He said this casually with a wave of his hand, turning back to the kitchen and what Rost could now see was a chopping block with meat and vegetables of some sort on it. 

Hesitantly he turned to face Aloy. 

She was indeed staring at the floor with a stubborn intensity he hadn't seen her use since she was small and pouting, to young yet to do anything about her rage, her glare so intense he was actually surprised to not see a hole in the rug where she was focused. She didn't acknowledge him, just sat cross-legged on the couch, her arms clamped tight across her chest. She was wearing another Carja outfit, blue and red silks that didn't suit her. Though he supposed she was more comfortable then he was in the heat. 

"You thirsty or anything?" Erend asked over his shoulder, still focused on what he was doing in the kitchen. "Hope you don't mind me cooking. I'm not the greatest but I won't poison us like someone." He added this with a significant look over at Aloy. She refused to look up but she snorted in response.  

"I'm fine, thank you." He said, not taking his eyes off of Aloy's tense features, moving to take the seat he'd occupied the last time he'd come. This put him closer to her, turning the chair so he could face her where she sat. "And I can appreciate that, I always did the cooking myself." Though he didn't think it possible her scowl deepened, that being the only indication that she'd heard him. 

Erend had laughed but had not added anything, the sound of chopping resuming. He wanted to say more to her but figure out how to start. This is the first time they had sat together in years and he wanted so badly to hear her speak, to see her smile and watch her as she moved about. He had missed her terribly and it was hitting him harder then he'd expected. 

"Aloy.." he said softly, his words failing him. 

She closed her eyes and let out a long breath through her nose, as stiff and tightly wound as a new bow. He thought for a moment she'd speak but she didn't. Just looked around the room as if looking for something to say. 

"I..." she started, still not looking at him, then she shook her head, her braids bouncing, returning to staring at the carpet. 

He sighed, contemplating his options. Maybe he should just start talking, just explain his side of things? He wasn't sure, he didn't want to overwhelm her or make her more upset, he knew she felt deeply wronged, knew she may shut him out completely if he wasn't careful. 

He could see Erend in his peripherals now, the man having moved to the small cook stove the Carja kept in their homes, clanking a pan onto the grate. Aloy was back to looking about the room, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Erend make an odd movement as he threw the ingredients he'd chopped on to cook. 

He turned his head slightly to see him better and was immediately amused as he caught on to what was happening. She hadn't been looking around the room for something to say, she'd been exchanging looks with the Oseram, who was currently raising his eyebrows at her and jerking his head toward where Rost sat, a meaningful look on his face, clearly attempting to be subtle. 

She shot first Erend and then Rost a quick glare before dropping her gaze once again. Shifting uncomfortably in her seat, she heaved an agitated sigh, shooting her mate another seething look before fixing her fiery gaze on Rost. 

He'd met Sawtooth who'd looked happier to see him...

He held his breath, the intensity of her hurt and anger hitting him in a wave as her mossy gaze locked on to him. He was struck by how much older she looked suddenly, it was in her eyes, the look of someone who's been through to much, in to short a time. For a moment she just looked at him, her jaw working like she was trying to force whatever she wanted to say from her throat but couldn't. She took a steadying breath and looked him over again, eyes lingering in his scalp. 

"You're bald." She said finally 

A humorless bark of a laugh had ripped itself from him before he could stop himself. 

"By the forge Aloy!" Erend said from behind him, his tone exasperated, shaking his head at her as he turned his attention back to his task. 

"I said I would try Erend! This is me trying!" She snarled at the Captain's back, who was now laughing himself. "You're, bald." She said again to Rost, punctuating her words with another solid glare before turning her eyes back to the floor. 

"You're not wrong. The hair does not grow with the scars." He said simply. Watching her. 

She seemed to gain momentum, now that words were being exchanged, "Where...." she struggled with what to say, twisting the end of the silk sash she wore between her fingers. "How are you here?" Her tone was still dripping in venom but he could hear a bit of herself in her voice now. 

"The blast threw me from the cliff. I assume I survived because I landed in snow, which chilled the wounds and softened my fall." He paused here, unsure of how much to tell her. He decided against sharing the whole truth. "Another outcast found me. He set my bones and tended to my burns until I was healthy enough to survive on my own." 

She was watching him out of the corner of her eye, her face the unreadable mask it was when she was working something through in her mind. This was good, he thought as he waited to see what she'd do next. He was aware that Erend seemed to have finished cooking but had wisely waited to say anything. Letting the food simmer in the pan and turning instead to watch the scene unfolding in his living room, his arms crossed. 

Her demeanor was softening, she was still tense but he could see the shift. 

"Where did you go?" She finally asked, a slight tremor in her voice the only show of emotion. 

"North. Through the Sundom and up past the Claim." He paused, weighing his words "When I chose exile and to make the journey I did, I... thought you safe within the Sacred Lands." 

"Safe?" She spit the word out like a curse "I'd been blown off a mountain by extremists too, remember? How could you think I was safe?" She was looking at him now with disbelief and something like disdain etched on her face. 

"I was told the war party had been sent to kill the murderers, and that you were healing within All Mother." He said honestly, his gaze steady "I believed you to be in the best place possible." 

She looked furious now, her softening edges suddenly sharper then ever. She sat breathing hard, deep breaths for a moment before she started to calm, though her voice was still angry as she spoke "Do you even know what I went through? What it was like waking up injured in that ruin with people who'd shunned me, knowing you were dead and the people who'd killed you and all the others were out there somewhere? Do you know how that felt?" 

Images of the days he'd lost Eisa and Alana flashed through his mind, painful and bright. Blood on a wooden floor, fire, the silhouettes of the murderers as they passed out of sight across the Gatelands, the bodies of their loved ones and his daughter crumpled just outside the border, just out of reach. 

It suddenly hit him what she'd been feeling, he'd felt it too. The feeling of having lost everything important, that burning need for revenge that consumed your whole being, demanding to take action, to do something. 

That feeling had propelled him across many lands in pursuit of blood, of retribution. Never waning. Not once in the years it had taken to kill them all had the feeling gone away, not till it was done. He felt foolish not realizing that Aloy would do the same, as tenacious and dedicated to doing what was right as she was, how could he not have seen? He had been so intent on her joining the tribe that he'd made himself believe she would deal with her grief and settle into being a Nora. That she would have the tribe there to help her cope, and that she would move on and grow. He hadn't stopped to consider that she'd give up that place in the Embrace just to find him, just to find the ones she thought had killed him. He had assumed that to be the line she wouldn't cross, assumed that deep down she felt connected to the Nora enough to never choose to be banished, no matter what. 

He supposed he should just be grateful that she had been given the rights of seeker, so that she could return. 

She was staring at him, waiting for him to answer. "I do know, Aloy." He said sadly, "I'm sorry things happened as they did." 

"Yeah but being sorry about it now doesn't really change anything." She said sardonically, "I mourned you. I brought Erend to your grave to meet you. You were..." her eyes were glassy now and she'd sat forward, now perched on the edge of the cushion, like a bird about to take flight, "You were everything to me and you left me!" 

He had. He knew that. He knew it would hurt her when he'd done it but part of him still felt the choice was correct...just not the circumstances that followed. He knew he couldn't change any of that, but the Goddess had brought him news of her and sent him back here for a reason. She needed to go home. She'd found revenge, found the truth, now she could rejoin the tribe and thrive. They would thrive because of her. 

"I cannot change what happened, you are correct.." he started, his tone calm "But I am sorry, Aloy. I wished for you to be accepted into the tribe, wished for you to accept them, and I thought my leaving the only means to that end. I said as much when I said goodbye, before your proving." 

This had been the wrong thing to say. She straightened, her chest swelling, the rage in her glare so hot it was palpable. "OH! About that!" She growled, her voice rising as she slowly stood "Even if you hadn't allowed me to think you dead and gone, I wouldn't have stayed in that place! I'd have gone to find you! I'd already decided I was basically an exile my whole life anyway, so why not!" She was pacing now, taking long thundering strides, fury rolling off her "I just don't understand! I don't understand how you could leave me that way! I couldn't have left you! I loved you!" She was yelling now, tears boiling over as she spun around to face him, "I loved you and you left me like I was nothing!" 

She was standing there shaking with anger, her fists clenched and trembling, red faced, all her pent up feelings spilling out. 

"Aloy...I left because I loved you. I wanted you to find happiness amongst your people." He said, standing as well.

She advanced on him like an angry Sawtooth, storming into his personal space and all but screaming into his face "YOU were my people! YOU!" 

"Aloy.." he made to reach for her, instinctively needing to hold her like he had when she was little and so mad at the whole world that it sometimes broke her little spirit. 

She knocked his hands aside, jumping back. Turning to make her way quickly up the stairs "Erend I'm sorry I can't do this!" 

The door slammed and she was gone.

All he could hear was the creak of the floorboards as she moved across the room above, followed by a thud and then silence. 

The air in the room felt as if it were ringing. Rost just stood, staring up to where he had last heard her make a sound, wishing he could go to her but knowing it would only serve to make things worse. 

He was at a loss on what to do next... clearly Aloy was done talking tonight... but what if she wasn't? What if he left and she came back down and took his absence as another affront?

"Well.... To be honest that went better then I thought it would." Erend suddenly said, his deep voice startling him a bit as he had almost forgotten he was here. "Least she spoke to you."

"Do you think it likely she will return?" He asked, not really needing an answer from Erend on the matter but feeling a need to say something. 

"Uh....." Rost looked at him, he was running his hand through his hair again "No. No I don't. Least I've never managed to get her to talk to me once she storms off like that. Maybe there's some trick to it but, I haven't figured it out yet." 

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, his head now pounding from the constant flux in adrenaline and emotion this conversation had so far produced, from the memories it had dug up. He was finding it hard to keep images of the past from his mind, images that plucked at the long idle strings of his heart he worked so hard to leave untouched. 

He took another deep breath, turning to look at Erend again, his eyes falling past him to the pan. He wasn't hungry in the least but felt bad about making a hasty exit, that and he was still unsure of how to handle Aloy. He felt mired in the things she'd said, like they clung to him, weighing down his tired body. 

Erend seemed to catch on to this "You're not obligated to stay and eat, this was all more of a conduit to your reunion." He said in a kind tone,  gesturing to the kitchen vaguely then adding quickly, looking suddenly worried "I mean you're welcome to stay if you like! I'm in no way kicking you out, you just.....don't look like you're up to it." 

He assessed the man in front of him for a moment. He kept glancing up to the ceiling as well, shifting his weight, he wanted to go to her too, Rost realized, he was simply staying for his sake. He seemed a decent man, seemed to genuinely care for Aloy. He had thought him the reason for her staying in these lands, but perhaps not. If he could get him to see that her place was with her people, maybe he could assist in convincing her of that as well. 

But for now he needed to go, the headache that always proceeded an onslaught of remembrance throbbing in his temples and the whirlwind in his mind becoming too strong. 

"I think I should give her space for tonight, and take my leave." A thought suddenly occurred to him as he moved to do so "Would you be willing to ask her to hunt with me? To meet me at the Eastern village gates at sunrise the day after tomorrow?" 

"Course!" Erend said, smiling encouragingly, thumping his fist to his chest "Not a bad idea to bond over some hunting, steel to my bones I've never met a girl who enjoyed shooting things more then Aloy, can't see her saying no to that!" He straightened in a hurry and made to follow Rost, seemingly anxious to end the evening as much as he himself was, despite his still courteous demeanor. 

"Again, I appreciate your help." Rost said, heading through the door Erend had held open for him, He paused before stepping over the threshold entirely "Please look after her." 

"I was heading up to check on her after seeing you off, don't worry." He said, inclining his head to Rost as he made to shut the door behind him, he himself having turned and headed out into the warm night air. 

He felt both lighter and heavier all at once as he made for his camp.

-‐---‐----

Laying out on his bedroll later that night sleep eluded him. 

Aloy's final words rang in his ears. 

He tried to push the sound away, but when he did the memories he kept locked tight leaked through, staining his mind. 

He couldn't stop it, it happened occasionally, not often anymore...but sometimes...

He rolled onto his side and groaned as his entire body screamed at the movement, breathing through it as his tattered joints settled into a semblance of comfort. 

He couldn't stop the flood of memories that made him blind from their intensity...but he could control which ones he allowed himself to drown in. When the image of the knife hilt in Eisa's side came to mind, threatening to rip his heart to shreds all over again at her loss, he turned his mind to her eyes. How bright they'd been when she'd looked at him when they were young, shinning and blue like the clearest water on the warmest day. Turned to the way she looked when she worked with her hands, making arrows or caring for Alana, how quick and nimble she was, how smart. He'd remember her soft touch and her warm gentle voice as she'd whisper to him in the dark. Turned to the feeling of Alana's little fingers on his face.

He couldn't stop the memories and he couldn't stop the tears and the longing they brought with them, so he just focused on the sweet sound of Alana laughing, chattering away about a bird she'd seen.

Focused on his mates beautiful face and his daughters smile that was so much like her mother's.

Focused and curled in on himself until dreams of blood and fear claimed him.   

Chapter Text

Her head was pounding. Her eyes stinging. 

She was tired.

Not just physically....her soul was tired. This had all been too much to process. Too much to know that while she'd been running against Hades, running for her life and everyone else's, he'd just been traveling, just meandering away from her, not looking back long enough to even see what was happening until it was all said and done.  

Her eyes blurred while staring up at the early morning light streaming through the window, making the light shimmer and dance, tears threatening to fall yet again. She thought she had meant more to him than that.... 

When he'd told her he was leaving before the proving she had assumed she'd find him, that they'd figure it out. He was leaving because it was law and even though she thought him wrong she knew why he did what he did. At the time it had just seemed a matter of showing him it could work.... but then he was gone gone and that was too painful to process...to painful to deal with.

Then finding out he wasn't dead just as she'd started to heal from the fact that he was! Finding out he had left the entire Sundom while she'd been more injured and afraid then she'd ever been in her entire life, laying broken in that stupid, stifling mountain? It was too much. 

Too much and she didn't know how to move on from it. Or how to make it right.

She had handled the weight of saving the whole damn world, why did this crush her so badly? She couldn't push these emotions away like she could the fear of charging headfirst into danger or being the only thing between that danger and the deaths of many.

She couldn't find her center here, couldn't steady. 

She heard Erend coming back up the stairs from the washroom. Quickly wiping her eyes as she rolled over, pulling the silks further up her naked body as she tucked the pillow under her head, watching as he came into view. She smiled a watery smile despite herself when he locked his soft grey eyes on her's, the corner of his mouth pulling up in a fond smile. He crested the steps and went immediately to the dresser to fumble for clean kit.

Aloy just watched him from her tangle of bedding, feeling like if she moved all the turmoil she felt over Rost would sneak out and grab hold of her again. For as smothered as she still felt by the feelings of betrayal and anger it was nothing compared to the night before. 

last night the emotions had been a flood, and once again she'd found herself crying her eyes out, having buried herself in the pillows and blankets, powerful waves of emotion tearing out of her chest and making her feel all the more pathetic. She knew this was solving nothing, knew yelling at Rost didn't make anything better, but she wasn't sure she wanted to make it better. Seeing him made her upset. Hearing him. Speaking to him. Anything to do with him at all. How do you make that better?

She'd heard him leave, both infuriated and grateful that he'd chosen not to stay longer. Then Erend had been there and she'd been sobbing into his shirt, held tight in his strong embrace as he'd rocked her and whispered soothing things into her ear until she'd fallen asleep, to exhausted to keep her eyes open.

Startling awake some hours later in the pre-dawn light, she'd been unable to quiet her mind, snuggling herself closer to Erend where he lay and breathing him in, looking for the solid comfort he brought. Instead she'd found heat. Her body lighting up like a beacon at the scent of leather mixed with the masculine smell of his skin. She wanted to drown in the feeling of him, and did, letting passion consume her senses and dull the pain in her heart. His love like a balm, pushing away the things she couldn't handle better then anything else had.

Their love making had also had the affect of making him very late, as Aloy had kept him in bed till well after sunrise. Which was why he was now dressing at top speed as she watched him, unapologetic and still a tangled, brooding mass of sheets.

"He wants you to go hunting with him" Erend was saying as he pulled his tunic over his head. He looked exhausted, with dark rings under his eyes and his hair and beard a ruffled mess. "And I think you should go." 

The affection she'd been feeling while watching his shirt slide down the hard planes of his body evaporated, she grabbed her pillow out from under her head and put it over her instead, pinning it in place with her arm. Of course he wanted her to go, "I know you think that, you're all team Rost these days." She grumbled into the pillowcase.

She heard him cross the room, the mattress sinking under his weight as he sat beside her. He tried to pull the pillow away but she kept it pinned, not wanting to have this discussion. "Aren't you late?" She hissed.

"Aloy," his muffled voice said. She didn't move, hoping he'd just go get his armor on. Instead, she felt his beard on the delicate skin of her side, tickling her lightly and making her twitch as his lips grazed her body, warm breath ghosting down her back.

He started kissing down her ribs, coarse hair scratching at her, making her jerk and wiggle at the sensation. Damn him! "Erend!" She gasped, letting her pillow go to drop her arms tight against herself in defense.  

He took the opportunity to yank the pillow away, leaning over her and kissing her face. "For the record" he said "I'm team you, my spark" he dropped the pillow back on her face, which she threw off immediately, now staring up at him indignantly "and I'm playing messenger boy for Rost only because I think you two need to make amends. He's your family, Aloy, that's important." He gave her a significant look as he stood, heading for his armor where it hung in the corner and starting to throw it on as quickly as possible.  

He was right. She knew that. Knew that he more then anyone knew what this meant.....Didn't make it easier to deal with though...

She pressed her palms to her eyes, rubbing hard and groaning before letting her arms fall out to her sides with a thump. 

"When" she said flatly. 

"Tomorrow morning at sunrise, wants to meet at the East village gate." He intoned, attention on his task.

She didn't want to go, wasn't ready for more talking,  but she couldn't avoid things forever either. A tiny, ridiculous part of her just wanted to ignore him, let him stay dead as he'd chosen, continue as if it hadn't happened.The rest of her simultaneously wanted to tell him of all she'd seen and done, while also giving him a peice of her mind, wanted to just be near him, but she wasn't sure she could speak to him without screaming again. She hadn't meant to yesterday, it had just....come out. That's why she'd run away again, but she couldn't keep doing that...

She sighed, hunting would leave to much quiet, to many opportunities for him to try to continue their conversation. 

There was a small camp of bandits in the East though... she knew the guard planned to handle them but... maybe that would be a good way to get her energies out while also being distracting enough that she could avoid much conversation. 

Might work. 

She was rolling this over when out of the corner of her eye she saw Erend suddenly freeze halfway through pulling on his boots, stumbling and almost falling over. Looking over as he recovered himself she cocked her eyebrow at him, his face looking nervous all of a sudden. 

"What happened?" She asked, honestly not understanding. 

He cleared his throat, pulling on his other boot and standing, just looking at her, clearly thinking hard if his face was any indication. She propped herself up on her elbows and waited, but he huffed a breath and turned away, still nervous and now avoiding her eye as he pulled his gloves on. 

Finally he couldn't find anything else he needed to do and turned to her again, sighing defeatedly, "So with Rost and everything.." he started, running his hand through his hair and messing it up even more, "I mean.... you remember the feast and everything right?" 

She frowned, having absolutely no clue what he was worked up over the feast for. She knew he was worried about it but he had months... "Erend what are you talking about? What's the feast have to do with anything?" 

Somehow he looked even more distraught at her answer, walking over and sitting on the bed again. "Shit I knew you'd forgot" He said, stress in his voice as he scrubbed his armored hands over his face.

Forgot? Now she was getting frustrated, she wasn't in the mood for this. "I still don't know what you mean, will you speak plainly." 

"Plainly...okay. I can do plain." He took a breath, turning to her where she lay propped up, staring at him "We need to be in Mainspring. Like, today." 

Shit! 

Her stomach plummeted as she sat straight up, the blanket falling off her, returning his worried expression. She had forgotten! She still had to deliver Avad's invitation to the Ealdorman and she had completely forgotten

Erend's eyes flicked briefly to her breasts before jerking back up to her face. "Yeah...so. Not sure what you wanna do about that. I let Roan and Kerent know to be ready, but last night didn't feel like the right time to bring it up and I only remembered yesterday myself so.." 

How could she leave with things such a mess? The idea of arguing with the Ealdorman again was even less appealing then going hunting with Rost, and the trip would take at minimum three weeks. It was slow going through the Claim with all the various clans they had to pass through and then getting in to see the Ealdorman and getting them to listen was a whole week by itself. Least it had been before. There was a chance things might be faster now that they had a rapport but...

Then it hit her, maybe this was a good thing. She didn't want to deal with her present personal issues anyway. If she could leave for awhile, go with Erend and his men and go finish her assignment, she could get clarity. Space. Be able to think on things and come back, free from her duties and able to focus on her problems with Rost.

Erend was watching her face, his concerned expression deepening as she relaxed and smiled at him. "This is good, let your men know we can be ready to set out the morning after next." 

He was looking at her like he wasn't sure who she was. "Really." He said dubiously.

"Yes really, we need to get this done." She shimmied out from under the blankets, crawling around Erend so she could go grab her cloths and get a move on. "I'll start preparing here while you're gone, go get us what we'll need in the market, let Rost know we're leaving tomorrow when I see him and then brief Avad when I get back that afternoon. Can't see why we would need more time." 

She felt good about this. This was a plan and it would work. It was a course of action and she could just follow the steps.

This she could do. 

Erend was still looking at her like he wasn't sure if she was going to explode or not. "You're honestly okay with going? With everything going on?" 

Aloy was just pulling her hair out of the neck of her blazon armor, "Of course, it's our job, and like you said we should have already left" 

"Yeah...but...." he paused, eyeing her, then shook himself, holding his hands up in surrender, "you know what? Nevermind, that plan works for me, I'll talk to the men." 

"Good" she said, buckling her quiver in place and crossing the space between them, leaning up on her toes to kiss him lightly. "You need to go." She reminded him, fixing his beard.

He kissed her forehead, "I'm already so rusting late they probably think I'm not comin'." he turned and headed for the stairs despite his words. "I love you. I'll see you tonight." He called back to her. 

She heard the scrape of his warmaul on its mount and then the door shutting as she laced her boots. First she needed to take an assessment of what they needed to stock up on, then hit the market.

Easy day. 

‐-----‐----

Dawn was cresting the Mesa, soft orange light slowly moving out across the tile roofs and dirt roads of Meridian village in front of her as she walked.

Rost came into view when she rounded the bend, her stomach clenching at the sight of him. He seemed so strange to her, a wraith of his former self. He still looked mostly like she remembered, the only notable changes his lack of hair and the gnarled scar tissue that seemed to cover every inch of skin along the back of his body. No, it was the way he moved.... he was always so strong in her mind, so agile. Seeing him limp when he'd walk, grimace in pain as he moved...

It unnerved her for some reason. 

He was standing by the gate with his arms crossed, looking out across to the jungle as the sun hit it. At the sound of her foot falls he turned, smiling at her weakly as their eyes met. 

Okay she couldn't do that...

Averting her gaze out she continued towards him, adjusting her bow and taking a deep breath. Kill bandits, tell him that they can speak when she's back from the Claim, then go brief the king. That's all she had to do today. This was just step one, no problem. 

"You came." He said simply. 

"Yes." She said, coming to a stop a fair distance away and checking her supplies despite knowing exactly what she had. "And I told the guard we'd handle a small bandit camp, so I hope you came prepared." 

"I'll manage." He was watching her closely, she could feel it, but she just couldn't make herself look at him. 

She cleared her throat, starting across the bridge, "Good. Follow." 

She didn't bother to check her pace, marching along in the direction the report had said the bandits were. She couldn't hear him following her initially but as they made the tree line the sound of his footsteps became louder and suddenly he had placed a hand on her shoulder, urging her to stop. 

He retracted his hand as if he'd been burned at the look she shot him. "What?" She asked, her voice low, she knew better then to disturb anything in these jungles unnecessarily. 

"We must be cautious in these woods, your pace is to quick." He chastised, his voice even lower than her's as his eyes scanned the area, missing the disbelieving look she was giving him. 

We need to be cautious? My pace is to quick? Really? He was going to tell her to be careful? Did he have no idea at all the things she had done, the dangers she'd faced? Alone?! In these very jungles? 

She felt her blood boil, taking the words as a jab straight to her pride. Okay, he wants her to be cautious? She'll show him cautious.

"Actually I have to make a quick stop." She whispered suddenly, "go due East till you hit a stream, then go Southeast from there, you can't miss them. I'll meet you there." 

He looked like he was going to argue, a frown creasing his brows, but she pinned him with a direct look, challenging him with her every fiber, until finally he nodded, looking irritated. 

He was about to be a whole lot more irritated and that was just to bad. 

He'd wanted caution. 

‐------------

The camp was small, just a bunch of tents and fires at this point. It wasn't even well hidden, she thought as she crept along the fern lined ridge towards where she could see Rost crouched, watching the camp across the small clearing.

She reached his shoulder and he turned to her, looking concerned. "Aloy, there are at least 30 well armed bandits in this camp. How do you think it possible you and I deal with them all at close range like this?" 

His questions kept hitting her like little insults, "I've handled bandit camps twice this size by myself, Rost" she whispered scathingly. "Besides, you wanted me to be cautious, right?" 

She moved around him, adding as she passed "So I brought back up. I'll be fine, but don't move or they will kill you." She headed towards the bottom of the ridge where it met with the rough dirt path the bandits had hewn for themselves before he could respond, though she'd heard him shift once and then stop. 

Her boots hit earth and she paused for a moment, looking at the tree line on either side, making sure they were watching, waiting for the slightest sign of trouble. She saw the telltale glimmer and smiled. Good boys, she thought to herself, walking her way confidently up the path. 

She could almost feel Rost's panic as he watched her, she glanced back once and caught his eye. 

Yep, panic. Good, watch this and tell me to be cautious in lands I learned without you, she thought savagely.

She gave him a nod, turning her attention back to her task and unslinging her bow as she walked closer to the bandits, notching an arrow and pulling it taught as she came closer to the top of the rise the path followed. 

She felt the thrill of battle course through her blood, she knew this would work but had never attempted it on a camp this size, this was going to be interesting. 

She came up the path enough to see the closest bandits head clearly in her line of sights and then he was dead, a feathered ridge-wood shaft now protruding from what used to be his eye. Everyone in the vicinity turned as his body hit the dirt, first looking at him, then up to where Aloy stood on the road. 

She smiled and shrugged "Oops." She said casually.

They all started yelling and scrambling for their weapons at once, the closest man choosing a club of some sort and charging her. 

This was a mistake. 

He hadn't made it more then a few paces, a battle cry thundering from his lungs and the club raised high, when suddenly white hot bullets whizzed through the bandits chest, dropping him flat as an unearthly, screeching howl came from the trees behind her. 

She felt the Stalkers she'd overridden whip past her on either side, felt the heat radiating from their lithe metal bodies, the slight shine off their stealth coating and the little puffs of dirt where their clawed feet landed as they charged the hapless bandits the only visible sign they were there at all. 

They were on them in seconds, ripping through the camp like it was nothing. The bandits panicking and attempting to flee or defend themselves against what they could not see.

She had chosen this method to make a point and to get this over with quickly, but she didn't get any pleasure from her handy work, so she turned back. The air filled with the sounds of screaming and frantic yelling, Stalker howls and that awful sound their razor sharp tails made as they sliced through the air. 

When she reached Rost he looked livid. "By the Goddess Aloy! What were you doing?." He wasn't bothering to keep his voice down, apparently realizing that it wasn't necessary at this point. He was almost shaking with anger, and she shouldn't have been as pleased by this as she was but she couldn't help herself. 

She perched on the decrepit stone wall he hid behind, turning back to the bloody field of chaos that was the camp, watching as one of her machines made an impressive leap to capture a fleeing bandit, impaling him with its tail where it pinned him. "I was being cautious, as you asked. I only had to use one arrow and never had to fight. Cautious." She said cooly.

"You would risk your life to prove something to me? That is not caution Aloy." He stood, his sharp grey eyes on her instead of the massacre. 

She felt her face flush, anger seething through her again at his criticism. "You don't get to tell me how to survive anymore....Rost." She said slowly, her voice dripping venom. "I know what I'm doing. I know the machines and things about this world you can't imagine. Things I couldn't imagine."

The Stalkers had made short work of the camp, making their way back up the hill towards her, their gaits relaxed. She was almost fond of the machines she tamed, when they were calm and close they were, different, almost as if they were fond of her back. Like they heard what she said and understood. 

She felt Rost's attention shift from her to them and saw him reach for his bow. "I would not do that." She said flatly over her shoulder to him as one of her machines came up level, it's metal joints creaking as it snaked its way over to where she sat. Rost had wisely frozen and was watching, his face pale as the beast hoped up and over the wall next to her, brushing against her lightly as it passed, settling itself down under where she sat. The thing leaned back against the wall and sprawled itself out like a fox, it's lenses clicking and blue as it surveyed the area.

Its fellow now paced in front of them, occasionally turning its head to make odd little humming sounds at Aloy as it passed her. She watched Rost watching the machines, enjoying the look on his face more than she probably should have. It wasn't kind, taunting him with all of this like she was, she knew it terrified him both as a person and as a Nora, but what he'd done had not been kind and she didn't care.

"This is unnatural." He said, still not moving at all, his voice hushed as if trying not to startle the machines. 

She sighed, her adrenaline taking her anger away with it as it ebbed. "Honestly Rost, this is probably more natural than anything. Especially for me." Reaching out her hand the Stalker in front of her turned, walking to her and sitting, letting her run her fingers over the plates on its head, still alert and looking about, ever watching as it was programmed to do. 

"I don't understand what you mean Aloy." She could barely hear him his gravely voice was so low now, the fear evident, but there was something else too. 

She looked him in his eyes, seeing him. He sounded like he genuinely wanted to know what she meant, she could see it in his face as well. He was afraid but he was trying to understand. She hadn't expected that. Part of her had thought this might push him away, as superstitious as the Nora were of the machines.

She didn't know what to do with this willingness to listen.

A cold spike if ice dropped into her stomach at the idea of explaining the machines and her ties to them, she still wasn't ready for this. Luckily she didn't have to be. 

She stood with a sigh, her charges jumping to attention and standing as well, making Rost flinch. "It doesn't matter, what matters is I can tame them and once I do they are mine, at least while I'm near" turning to the machines she added "Go now." with a dismissive wave of her hand. 

They both made similar humming sounds before vanishing. Aloy stared after the sound of them running off through the underbrush for a moment, then sighed another deep sigh.

Now step two. 

"I have to travel to Mainspring in the morning, I'll be gone for about three weeks, give or take." She said indifferently, turning around to head back towards the city and her meeting with Avad. "You're welcome to whatever's left at the camp, just don't linger to long in case the Stalkers come back while not tame... I'm heading back, I still have preparations to make and I need to update the king." 

She stopped, turning her head to see him over her shoulder, he had made to follow but had stopped when she had, listening "We can speak again when I'm back." She added, not able to look at his face as she said it and glancing down, he looked so sad, worried. He so rarely displayed emotion and the feeling was raw in his eyes. It faltered her resolve, and that wouldn't do.

On to step three, she'd get back to this soon enough.

He made a noise that could have been acknowledgement or could have been him getting ready to say more, but she took it for an answer and continued through the trees, just turned and headed home. Leaving Rost where he stood. 

One step at a time, she reminded herself again, one step at a time. 

She could do this. 

Chapter Text

"First thing I'm doing is hittin' Lorduf's place for a fresh bottle of scrappersap or two." Roan was saying, standing to Erend's left and scratching at his auburn beard, looking off across the training grounds with a dreamy look on his face. "And theeeenn I'm findin' me a proper Oseram gal to share em with." 

"What you'll do is keep your head clear and stay on your best behavior, seeing as you're going on this trip to represent Avad, not to muck around with tavern girls." Erend growled at him, arms crossed over his armored chest. 

He'd stopped by to check in with Roan to make sure he and Kerent were ready for the morning and to see how his second was doing with training up the junior recruits, who were currently paired off and practicing their hand to hand combat. They were doing good, all six of the them had joined not long after the battle and still had a few more months of proving their metal before they were fully Vanguardsmen, but so far it looked like he and Roan and chosen good ore. 

"Easy for you to say, you'll have your woman with you." Roan grumbled, he shot Erend an amused look as he added "And last trip it wasnt me or Kerent forgetting our duties to go muck around if I remember correctly." 

Erend felt himself flush. He wasn't wrong..... but they'd been discreet...mostly. Besides they'd just started being intimate only a week before that trip and at the time didn't have much mind for anything else. This time they'd be more focused, or at least subtle enough so his men didn't catch on. 

He cleared his throat, "We didn't forget our duties at any point and Aloy and I's relationship isn't a factor here, she's representing Avad more then any of us." 

Roan laughed outright at this "Is that what you want me to tell Kerent when you and her go disappearing?" His face was suddenly stern as his eyes caught one of the recruits repeatedly take a shot straight to the face from Brin "Put your rusting hands up Dagad or she's gonna break your nose! Defend yourself!!" He shouted at the now bleeding man. 

"Look, just behave alright?" Erend told him, he knew they would do fine, that's why he'd picked them. Roan would usually have stayed back as he would fill Erend's shoes being his second in command, but as he was a close clansmen of one of the Ealdorman it payed to have him along. His third, Delorn, was more then capable of handling things, even if he was easier on the men then either he or Roan were. Kerent had been a freebooter with him and Ersa and had become a Vanguard after the liberation, he was a good man, not the sharpest blade but he could take direction and he was honest as they came. 

"Yeah yeah Captain we will." Roan said dismissively, his brown eyes full of suspicion as he frowned at Erend "Why do you seem worked up over this? Can't be any different then the last trip and that went fine." 

He wasn't sure actually. He'd been anxious since he woke, Aloy having left to hunt with Rost already, and hadn't been able to shake the feeling all through his morning rounds. "I just have a feeling." Is all he could think to say. 

Roan cocked an eyebrow at him, but before he could say whatever he was going to they were both distracted as Brin ducked Dagad's sloppy right jab and countered with one of her own, hitting him square in the throat where he'd left himself open yet again, sending him to his knees, a whine like a dyeing Grazer escaping him. 

His second shook his head "I like Dagad fine but if I see him get his ass handed to him again I'm taking him back to the Claim with us and leaving him there." 

"We don't have time for that, you'll just have to keep him and tell Brin to be nice for now." He was only half kidding, the guy did get his butt whooped more often then he probably should in training. "The two of you are ready to go for the morning?" He had turned to face Roan now. There were a few more things before he was off and he needed to get moving. 

"No we both decided to ignore your orders and hold everything up." He said flatly.

"I should have known when I made you second that  the jump in rank would go straight to your thick head." He said, authority leaking into his amused tone "Keep being such a smartass and I'll remind you right here in this sparing ring that you only out rank them." 

Roan guffawed at him, "Alright Captain I hear you. I have one last question for you though sir." He said with the weakest attempt at innocents Erend had ever heard. "Are you ready to leave tomorrow?" 

Having your friend as your direct underling was more of a pain in the ass then he'd imagined, Roan knew him to damn well. "I am." He said defiantly, being absolutely not ready. "Stopping in to make sure you were doing your job was one of the last things I needed to get done today in fact." 

He had started making his way towards the entrance to the grounds, next needing to stop in with the Carja Captain to make sure their patrol schedules didn't overlap while also covering all points of entry to the city. 

"Just be there in the morning, just after sunrise and don't be any later then that or Aloy will scorch us both to dust." He said over his shoulder.

Roan chuckled "Yes sir!" He heard him say before turning to berate another recruit. 

See, so far so good, he thought, his boots hitting stone steps, clanging as he went.

Everything was coming together fine, nothing to worry about. 

----------

Aloy was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of her work bench when he got home that evening, looking up at him from the pile of arrows she was crafting and stacking in front of her. Shards and bits if wire were scattered all around her, wood shavings clinging to her clothes and hair were it swept down over her shoulders. 

She gave him a fond smile, watching him come through the door before returning her attention to her work. "I have about 100 arrows done, probably gonna do about 100 more for the road, figure we can split them between our quivers and be fully stocked." She said by way of greeting, then she pointed at a pile of supplies on the table with the little knife she had in her hand "I also picked up stuff for you to refill your supply kit, I've already stocked mine." 

"That was sweet of you" he said, and lucky... as he had forgotten to do that particular task himself.. Unshouldering his weapon and hanging it up, he rolled his shoulders and neck, joints cracking as the extra weight was lifted. "Everything on my ends done too, looks like we're all set. Now I just need to bathe before you decide to leave without my smelly ass." 

She chuckled, grabbing another stick and taking her knife to it while he headed up stairs to doff his armor. He'd made it down to his brown slacks and was on his way to the bath when they heard knocking. 

Nerves spiked up from his gut. Just breath, its probably nothing, he told himself, glancing at Aloy as she popped her head up, giving him a quizzical look as he crossed to the door and yanked it open, half expecting to see Rost, but this time it was a palace runner. 

"His Radiance requests an immediate audience with you, sir as well as Aloy of the Nora." Said the man, inclining his cloth covered head. 

An immediate audience? For what? That nervous feeling flared like blaze. He couldn't think of any reason for Avad to summon them at this hour the night before a mission, which meant something must be wrong. 

"Alright." He said as the runner walked away, trying not to let his nerves creep into his voice when he turned to face her "Guess I'll go put my shirt back on." 

"To bad." Aloy said as she got up, dusting herself off and shooting him a mischievous look, her hair cascading around her face like fire as she shook it out. 

"Hey now, save looks like that for when we get back from the palace." He laughed, quickly heading upstairs and throwing his striped tunic and boots back on, hoping with everything he had that he was wrong and this was nothing.

"Wonder what Avad wants. Its odd he's calling us both to him like this isn't it?" She called up to him, her voice curious but unconcerned. 

That sense of dread he was feeling was getting worse and worse. "I honestly don't know." He came down, meeting her at the door where she stood waiting, "Hopefully it's nothing." It needs to be nothing. 

They made their way through the darkening streets, torches already lit in this part of town and casting a warm orange light upon the stone walls and catching like ember in Aloy's hair. He watched her as they walked, trying to waylay his nameless anxiety. Watched the way her hips swayed, the way the fires light danced across the swaths of skin he could see, the way it caught on the small scars that crisscrossed her body.... this needed to be nothing, he thought again, willing it to be, trying to breath away the anxiety. 

This helped, for the most part, at least he was feeling calmer when they reached the palace gates, the Carja tamping their spears. The closer they got the more it came back however. He couldn't shake it, something was wrong, his instincts knew it, had known it all day. 

The minute they crested the last staircase to the King's terrace he knew he was right, knew this was going to be bad news. 

Marad sat across from Avad's usual spot looking tense, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his fingers steepled in front of his worried face. Avad was standing at a railing behind the sitting area, his hands clasped behind his back, staring out across the city. 

Marad spotted them first, standing to give a small bow, "Aloy, Erend, thank you for joining us so quickly." His formalities were flatter then usual, his tone morose. 

"Ah! Good, I am glad you are here." Avad said as he turned to them, crossing the balcony as he spoke. He came to a stop behind his lounge, placing his hands on the wood frame, his expression grave. "We have received some unexpected news." 

"Not good news I'm guessing." Erend said, trying for a light tone. 

They had stopped just shy of the half circle the seating made, Avad not once having looked at anyone but Aloy since they'd arrived. He watched as first she noticed this, leaning in a bit closer to him then she usually did, half hiding herself behind his arm, then Avad, his eyes finally flicking to Erend for the first time, giving him that blank look he always got when he saw them interact. He looked back down to her and noticed she was now staring at something laid out on the table in front of Marad, reaching up and giving her focus a little click. 

"No, not good unfortunately." Marad had taken his seat again, oblivious to the awkward stare down his king was having with the room at large, pointing to the scroll Aloy was looking at, "We just received word from Daytower. The Nora have closed their borders, to everyone." 

Silence fell over the room and he felt Aloy tense next to him as this information hit him like an avalanche and left him feeling smothered by it. How is that possible? They had just agreed to come to a celebration in Meridian, Teersa had just agreed! 

"That doesn't make sense." Aloy was saying, shaking her head "They had agreed to come, things have been good, why would they do that?" 

"We have no answers. The Nora have violently turned away anyone who dares to approach the borders. Captain Balahn himself tried to speak to them, to no avail." Marad made a sour face as he continued. "We also have no intel, as the Nora refuse to allow anyone in the Embrace to leave either." He sounded extremely displeased to be cut off from his informants and left in the dark. 

Oh no. 

This was it, this was the thing and it was exactly what he'd been afraid of. The only person who'd be allowed anywhere near a closed Nora border was Aloy.

Avad had come round his chair, coming to stand before the two of them, his eyes still intent on Aloys face. "Aloy, as much as I do not wish to ask more of you, I must ask this. Please look into what has happened. The Nora are our allies and we must understand." 

And there it was, of course she had to go, it was the only thing that made sense. He glanced down at her again. She was so frustrated, it was written plainly on her face and he was suddenly angry at the Nora all over again. He'd mostly gotten over that feeling, spending time there and seeing them treating her better, it had dulled the resentful disdain he had towards them in regards to how they had treated the woman he loved, but seeing her face now those feelings came back. Why did they have to do such ridiculous things? Those blue painted bungs did nothing but cause her heartache and he hated that they were her tribe, she deserved so much better then what they'd given her and were still forcing her to deal with. 

Aloy was nodding. "Of course. I can leave in the morning to the Embrace instead." She looked up at Erend, her eyes softening a bit "I'm sorry Erend, you and the men will have to cover for me with the Ealdorman." 

Despite how bad he felt about all this he knew it was affecting her ten fold and he was not about to be another source of stress for her, "We can handle that, you just go talk down the Nora and we'll go yell at the Ealdorman." He gave her as much of a grin as he could muster and put an encouraging arm around her shoulders, giving her a reassuring squeeze. "Things will be fine, you know how the Nora get, they probably interpreted some rock formation as a sign from the goddess of impending doom or something. You just need to sort em out." 

By some miracle he'd once again managed to say the right thing, the corner of her lip curling up just a bit, giving a small nod and looking up into his face. 

Avad's eyes had hung up on Erend's arm where it rested on her shoulders, the blank look back as he took a step back, Erend made eye contact with him and the king cleared his throat. "I appreciate you both more then you know." His eyes flicked back to her, pausing as if thinking over his next words "Aloy I would prefer you to travel with a guard as well...we do not know what you are facing and I personally would worry less if you had help" his eyebrows creased and he frowned "but I dare say you will refuse?"

There was a hint of annoyance in his tone and the fact that he'd put on any kind of attitude at all with Aloy being a ticking time bomb of aggression like she was impressed the hell out of Erend. The monarch periodically pulled the wrong stance with Aloy and it made him happier then it should to see her get tired of him like she did.  

She hadn't missed the tone either and she was now crossing her arms and looking defiant "You're correct." She said flatly "I'm faster alone." 

Avad sighed and eyed her, looking like he was going to say something else but changing his mind, and giving her a slight nod. "Well, then I wish you both safe travels." 

Marad suddenly stood. "Aloy, if you would, send back word as soon as you can? Balahn can send a runner to let us know of your findings. Time is essential in this."

She nodded, her eyes far away like they got when she was thinking. "I will." She turned to go but he hesitated for half a breath, Avad's last words gnawing at him. What if he had a point? He nodded to Marad, the king having already turned away, looking dejected, and headed down after Aloy. 

He wasn't thrilled she was going in a different direction then him. He was going to miss her dearly and worry about her constantly but it could be done. She'd gone alone last time... 

But Avad had been right.. something about this was different... they had no idea why the Nora had closed the border but they clearly did it for a reason. What if she was walking into danger? What if she needed help when she got there? He looked at the back of her head as they rounded the last bend to their home, trying to figure out a way to say this to her, to get her to understand what he was afraid of, but he couldn't word it. 

He sighed to himself, looking out across the little bit of the maizelands he could see from the apartment door as she unlocked and got it open. Still brooding and lost in thought as they went in. 

She glanced back at him, "You okay?" She asked, her face a tangle of emotion now that she was home and unguarded. 

"Course." He said gruffly, "Just worried, and wondering what the Nora are up to." 

She let out a frustrated grumble and ran her fingers through the hair on her scalp, mussing it up. "I just don't understand!" She turned and looked at him, "Without a word as to why they just shut the gates? I was just there! People were happy and starting to thrive again, this doesn't make sense." 

It didn't, and he didn't have any answers. All he knew was that he now desperately didn't want her to go alone. Something was horribly off and she was running in unawares and with no backup and he couldn't get past that. The worry was burning in his stomach like coal. She wouldn't take anyone but him with her, she'd only let him and his men come to the Claim because he'd reasoned her into it, convincing her it would make the process smoother, which it did. 

But now he couldn't go with her, he needed to hold up his side of the job and he was sure she wouldn't take another guard. The only other option would be...."Aloy will you take Rost with you?" He blurted out, almost wishing he could pull the words back at the look on her face. 

"No." She said tersely and turned away, stomping off up the stairs as he stared after her.

Well that didn't work. 

When he got to the bedroom she was already yanking on her light sleep pants, turning to grab the top from the bed. He watched her shimmy into her shirt, following her freckles across her body as he went to get changed as well.

When they had settled into bed, her head resting on his shoulder and soft hair fanned out over his arm he tried again, "Will you at least hear me out?" 

Her breath ghosted over his skin as she sighed. 

He took this as a yes, stroking his fingers along her arm where it rested across him as he spoke, "We don't know what's going on, but we now it can't be good. What if you get there and need backup?" He felt her body tense and he quickly added "I mean what if you want backup! What if an extra set of hands could help out? An extra pair of eyes on your side...just in case."

She was quiet for a long time, running her fingers in little circles through the hair on his chest, "Why Rost? I would think you'd suggest a Vanguard." She didn't sound as mad anymore, maybe he could talk her into this, bolstered he went on. 

"Because he knows the Embrace and the Nora better then anyone according to you and he'd be the best to have on your side if you need to make a speedy, unseen exit in a pinch." He said earnestly, "Also I figured you'd never agree to take one of the men."

She gave him one of her snorts, quiet and thinking again. Then she picked her head up and looked at him, her hair falling around them, "How would you even have me ask him to come along? Hmm? I have no idea where he's camped." 

Now he snorted. "Like you couldn't find him! Besides I would bet shards he'll be at the gates when we head out in the morning, seeing as you told him when we were leaving." he wasn't positive but he was fairly certain he was right and he was also fairly certain he'd just managed to talk Aloy into this. 

She was looking at him with a doubtful expression. "Look if you wont take him for your safety will you take him for my sanity? I'll worry less this way." That had done it, she cocked her head, her eyes turning fond. 

Leaning down she kissed him, her soft lips warm and gentle before she said "I'll make you a deal, if he's at the gates, I'll ask him along, if not I head out alone." 

"To be honest I'm surprised you agreed to this at all so deal." He said against her mouth. 

She leaned back "I'm agreeing because I think you're wrong about him being there." Moving her agile body back, she swung her leg across him and settled herself onto his lap, smiling down at him and watching as he slide his hands up her thighs to her hips, now smiling himself. "Also, I'm tired of arguing about this, seeing as we'll be away from one another for awhile I have other things I'd like to get to before the morning." 

He sat up, wrapping his arms around her, moving his hands up along her body. "I can't argue with that." He growled as he pulled her into a bruising kiss, doing his best to absorb her warmth and taste, to pull in as much of her love as he could before he had to let her go for who knew how long. 

He'd worry about that more tomorrow. 

Chapter Text

The sun priests dawn chants echoed out over the jungle, strange and somber.

He could see the Northern most gate of Meridian village from where he sat, having found a fairly comfortable spot on a downed palm, knowing they would likely leave from here and also knowing she likely would not want to see him, he'd chosen to be discreet and remain in the treeline out of sight as he saw her off.

Rost's sense of dread over her leaving was intense.

What he had seen.... she trusted the machines with her life, controlled them, had them doing her bidding like pets. There was something so wrong about it, so against the Goddess. The old ones had met their end over their lack of respect and humility in the face of the metal beasts.... and what he had seen with the Stalkers had been far from humble.

It was reckless, and tainted. 

And now she was off on a week's long journey through foreign lands full of machines she was all to willing to trust....He didn't like any of this. 

By some grace of the Goddess she had agreed to speak to him again when she returned, and that alone was enough for him to keep from causing her further ire, but he had half decided to follow her regardless. More then half decided, actually, as he had made sure to pack his camp and resupply, just in case... but he would have to make sure he wasn't spotted. She would surely be on the lookout for him, knowing him better then most did, but as he would be moving slower then they would anyway, hopefully lagging far enough behind to remain unnoticed wouldn't be difficult. 

He listened to the birds chatter in the crisp morning air, taking a deep breath, relaxing as much as possible and waiting, watching the shop owners beyond the gate's stone arches begin to set up their stalls. Everything looked newly constructed here in the village, the tool marks on the ornately carved wooden architecture not yet worn away with time, the paint and metal bright and new. He knew there had been a battle, perhaps this area had been rebuilt, he thought idly.

Eventually a flash of red alerted him to Aloy's arrival. She wore the Carja armor he'd seen her in before, the gold stitching along the dark blue panels catching the light as much as her hair and making her shine. Erend was with her, also in his full armor, carrying what appeared to be both of their travel packs as she carried a large leather satchel. 

They deposited their bags by the archway, Aloy standing and stretching as Erend said something to her Rost was to far to hear. She always stretched the same, had since she was very little, the same pattern of movements.

He felt a warmth spread through him as he watched her, despite the fear and irritation he felt over her choices. She always seemed so small to him, though he knew how fierce she was.

She had turned now to Erend, clearly having a debate over something, her fists planted on her hips. He shrugged and gave her a wave of his hand, as if telling her to get on with something, before turning to someone who had shouted to him from within the city, waving at whomever it was as they approached. 

To his surprise Aloy turned on her heal and strode down the path a few paces, leaving Erend and her things, before stopping to bring her hand to her temple.To late he realized she was using her trinket of the old ones to survey the area the way she somehow did. 

He waited, there was no point in hiding, he knew that from years of experience with her and that plaything. 

When she found him, she pulled a face, looking to the sky for a moment before shaking her head and marching over. She looked more determined then angry and he wasn't sure how to react when she came to an abrupt stop short of the trees and said flatly "You're here."

From this distance she could see him clearly, so he didn't bother standing "I am. I am sorry if that was a poor choice." 

She huffed, "I don't know if it was a poor choice on your part but I made a poor deal for sure." At first she had been avoiding his eyes, but after a steadying breath she continued, turning to pin him with a direct look. "The Nora have closed their borders. I'm going to investigate, while Erend and his men continue to the Claim." She stopped here, her jaw clenched as she studied his face before turning and looking back at the gate. 

Erend was now watching her from where he stood with two other men who were digging through the satchel Aloy had carried. When she looked back his eyebrows shot up, giving her a questioning look, a grin slowly forming on his face. 

"Ugh!" She growled, turning back to Rost, and taking another hard breath through her nose, "I'm going to the Embrace and some people think it prudent I not go alone, given the 'circumstances'....SO...." 

"I'll go." He said immediately, holding a pacifying palm up at her indignant look "whether you ask it of me or not. If there is some trouble in the Embrace and that is were you will be then that is where I will be." He smiled faintly at her, his voice softening, "I would be honored to travel with you, though, if you'll allow me." 

She glared at him for a long while, chewing the inside of her cheek. All Mother be blessed she was stubborn, though it had served her well enough, he supposed. Finally she nodded. "What will you need to do to prepare? I'd prefer to leave now." She said curtly.

His heart was lightening rapidly. He had expected her to figure him out, but had not at all expected to end up traveling with her to their homelands. Maybe the Goddess was shining her favor on them still after all. He was hard pressed to be concerned over the border closing, as it being open in the first place had never stuck in his mind as true, but regardless of the reason they were returning and that was good. Him being by her side to help protect and guide her, if she'd listen, was even better. 

"Nothing, I can leave from here." He said calmly, trying not to let his elation at this turn of events seep through. He doubted seeing him so eager would do much for her dour mood.

She looked at him for a moment, her green eyes narrow and suspicious, then she shook her head and jerked it towards the gate, turning to walk back up the road to where the men stood. He followed, making eye contact with Erend as he exited the jungle, the Oseram giving him a wide grin that he met with a small smile of his own. This man was proving a greater ally in his quest to mend ties with Aloy then he'd imagined and he was grateful for that. 

"Why Rost!" He boomed as they approached, turning his grin on Aloy "Whatever are you doing here? Not joining Aloy in her travels to the Embrace are you?" His words seemed to be more jabs at Aloy then they were questions for him, so he simply nodded, smile broadening as Erend beamed and chuckled, Aloy slapping at his arm as she came to stand beside him. 

The closest of the two Vanguard, a typically stocky Oseram with close cut auburn hair and beard, straightened at Erend's words, turning a scrutinizing glare on Aloy and stepping over the satchel to approach her. 

Rost immediately bristled, his hand itching to reach for his spear and step between them, not at all accustomed yet to seeing Aloy interact with foreigners much less large imposing soldiers. But she and Erend's postures were relaxed so he took a breath and reminded himself to do the same. 

"Fire and spit! Did I just hear him say 'her travels to the Embrace'?" He poked her in the shoulder, an accusing note to his gravely voice. "Are you ditching us Aloy?"

"Sorry Roan, figured you'd have more fun without me." She said casually, shrugging. 

"Not with me there they wont!" Erend growled, resting a hand on Aloy's back as she smirked up at him, pointing at Roan with his other hand. "I already told you this wasn't a vacation"

"Well it certainly won't be with you being all sullen and burned out the way you are when she's gone." Roan said sourly, giving his superior a withering look, his face became more serious as he turned back to Aloy, "Really though, what's going on?" 

"Hopefully nothing," she said lightly, leaning against Erend a bit where he stood. "But the border is closed, so I'll need to go snoop around to find out why." 

The Vanguardsmen crossed his arms, pinning Aloy with a contemplative look. "So you're gonna go off and snoop......alone?" His concerned eyes flicked to his Captain for a moment then back to Aloy, "Seems a bit unwise, doesn't it?" 

Erend was practically beaming now, "Luckily!" He said, moving his hands to her shoulders, one arm still around her back, giving her a gentle shake as she glared at him "She's not going alone!" He straightened and indicated Rost with a sweep of his hand, "This is Rost, he'll be accompanying her."

"Still seems like a slagged out deal her getting to go off to her homelands and us getting stuck with the Captain's rotten mood for three weeks." A black haired Oseram with a crooked nose was saying as he stood and slung his pack back over his armored shoulders. He fixed Aloy with a sour look, scrunching his face up and making her laugh. 

Standing back a bit and watching, a mix of feelings ran through him yet again as he tried to process this new Aloy in her new life. She was so at ease with these men. Clearly knew them well, or well enough to consider them friends in some regard. Even her level of comfort with Erend's easy displays of affection threw him. Though he had hoped she would join the Nora and interact with them in this manner, seeing her in the setting was both heartwarming and difficult. He felt like protecting her, though clearly that wasn't necessary.

Perhaps that was normal, having spent 18 years keeping her safe and away from people who may harm her. 

He also wished dearly for her to have this level of familiarity with her own people. He didn't like the idea of her accepting other clans, wanted her to remain true to the Nora way of life, but... seeing Erend and his men treat her as one of their own, seeing her welcome that acceptance with open arms and a smiling face, it was something he couldn't be angry with.

He just prayed that he would see the same amongst the tribe. 

----------

They had not spoken for hours....

Sweat dripped down his neck, moving as quickly as he could over the well packed earth as Aloy was clearly keen on moving fast and frustrated at their current pace. 

Part of him was hurt by her irritation, the rest was glad that the trip would take time no matter how she felt on the matter. The longer he could keep her heading home and lingering there, the more chance he had of convincing her to stay and integrate. 

He glanced at her where she plodded on ahead, still a bit irritated himself from their departure...He grumbled under his breath, shaking his head, rallying his damaged body and pushing on. He had no right to be bothered, was well aware Erend was her mate, he was even growing on him a bit if he was honest...but...seeing them interact romantically still produced a deep urge to put a stop to it that he couldn't shake. 

They had been preparing to leave, the vanguard having supplied themselves with the arrows Aloy had carried in her satchel and the banter having died, when Erend had suddenly held up two fingers to Aloy, "Think I could steal two minutes of your time?" He'd asked her softly, his expression warm.

She'd halted in shouldering her pack, turning her face to him, giving him a bright smile and a look so fond Rost had felt uncomfortable seeing it. "Well I did promise you that much." She'd replied as she allowed him to take her hand and lead her away towards a less crowded area. 

Realizing this was a private interaction he'd done his best to give them their moment, tried to respect her relationship, her choice. But he'd been unable to keep from glancing up from the light pack he traveled with, having busied himself rechecking it unnecessarily. The first time he'd done this they'd been standing in each other's arms, Aloy adjusting the yellow scarf about his neck as she spoke to him. The second time they'd been kissing, looking very much like they'd forgotten their audience entirely. He'd averted his eyes as fast as possible, choking back the surge of irritation that had hit him suddenly, sharp as an arrow. 

Abandoning his pack he'd turned to look out across the road to wait, trying to wrangle his overprotective emotions, hearing the Oseram named Kerent call out "You two done yet? By the forge, you'd think you were never gonna see each other again." He laughed, Roan joining him. 

He had chanced another look over his shoulder at that, seeing her blushing but defiant face come into view as she turned from Erend, following his lead as he made to return to them, still holding his hand. "You get first watch the whole way there just for that." He said gruffly, though he'd been grinning. 

They'd left from there.

The men heading off North, Aloy standing and watching as they went, Erend occasionally glancing back to smile or wave at her until they disappeared around a bend. Then without a word she had turned, heading back through the village, making towards the Eastern gates and heading off from there. Him still unable to shake that protective, irrationally agitated feeling that had hit him. 

He shook his head once again, taking another clearing breath he turned his face to the sky, feeling the light breeze on his skin and focusing his mind on one thing. 

They were going home. 

He managed to occupy his mind with this thought for another hour or so, watching as the thick jungle gave way to red cliffs.

They had just crossed a small river, leaving the last of the palms behind, and had been coming around a bend that would lead up through a wide canyon towards Lone Light when he heard it, the creak of machine joints. Aloy had heard it too, ducking into the nearest patch of grass, Rost following suit. 

From where they hid they couldn't see the beasts, but there were at least two of them and they were big by the sounds of it. Aloy surveyed their surroundings, spotting a patch of grass further up the dirt embankment that lined the cliff walls and heading for it. 

The Sawtooth came into view from there, both patrolling in wide arcs across the floor of the canyon, making passage impossible without confrontation. 

Aloy seemed to have realized this at the same time he had. "Damn, no way through, and hardly any cover." She breathed, reaching up to touch the trinket at her temple before staring off at the nearest Sawtooth for a moment. She sighed "We can't go around, the canyon is the only way up and through for another few miles."

She couldn't be serious "Aloy, we can't take down two Sawtooth at the same time, not in these close quarters with no where to hide." 

She turned a knowing eye on him "No, but they can take down each other." 

He knew what that meant. That meant she was going to use that tainted magic of hers and he wasn't interested in watching her do such a thing again. "No, I don't know what you do to the machines, but it cannot be the goddesses will." 

Snorting derisively she turned to study the Sawtooth again "You think that because you don't understand Rost. It's absolutely the goddesses wish, believe me, I'm the "Anointed", or weren't you told?" She said this disdainfully, as if the honor was an unwanted burden.

"I had been told, but I do not know why." He said directly. He knew the Nora called her such, knew they had left the Sacred Lands to help fight Eclipse because of her being the Anointed, but why they had chosen to worship her he couldn't fathom. The only thing he could think was that it related to her origins. 

"Well, watch and see." She made to pick up a rock then paused before throwing it, "Stay low, I'm gonna call it over." And before he could stop her she'd lobbed the stone towards the machine, landing it about halfway between them and it, lense spinning to yellow as it whipped around to face the sound.

Blood freezing as the beast lumbered closer, his focus entirely on the spinning saws within its fangs, when he heard Aloy slap her spearhead once against a rock directly in front of them.

Rost stopped breathing, tense and finding it extremely difficult to remain stationary as the creature made its way up the embankment, it's hulking mass just feet away now. He could see the sparkling fluid running through its synthetic muscles, fizzing and popping as it moved. Finally the thing was right on top of them, it's head turning side to side, searching. Aloy was close enough to touch the thing, which is exactly what he feared was about to happen.

He braced himself, but she didn't reach her hand towards the creature's snarling maw as he thought she would, instead she flipped her spear around in a fluid motion, the Sawtooth reacting immediately and looking down, both it and he equally alarmed, but before it could do anything further she had jammed the spear handle into the fibrous cables at its neck, a metal device she had affixed to it lighting up the color of her trinket and glowing from the upper edge, sending the same blue glow coursing through the exposed wiring of the machine. 

He gasped, not meaning to but realizing it didn't matter, as Aloy had finished swiping at the air around the connection and was now slinging her spear back onto her back. The Sawtooth had relaxed, turning it's large metallic head towards where she crouched, it's growls dropping in pitch, becoming more of a pur then anything. 

Now she did touch it's head, almost stopping his heart along with his lungs though he knew it wouldn't attack. Leaning up on her toes from her crouched position and placing her hands on the metal plating at the sides of it's face she told it softly "Good, now go there." Pointing towards the other machine. 

It turned and followed her arm, it's sights falling on it's fellow, lense suddenly flaring back to yellow then straight to red. 

With a resounding roar it dug it's front legs into the loose earth and launched itself back down and across the path, the other Sawtooth coming to alert and turning as it charged, looking as if it wasn't sure what to make of it's companions sudden aggression. It's hesitation was it's undoing, as Aloy's machine reared and slammed it's clawed paws into the other's side, sending it crashing to the ground, snarling and flailing to right itself. 

As they battled, sending up clouds of dust and sparks, Aloy calmly turned to him, drawing his attention "I use this" she said, as if nothing was happening behind her, pointing to her spear and the contraption that was fastened to it. "It's a piece from a Corruptor, it let's me change the machine's codes, makes them mine." She gave him a significant look, clearly feeling this was a sufficient explanation though it still seemed like tainted tinkering to Rost. 

Before he could say this however she had turned back to the fighting, which was wrapping up as her Sawtooth gave another vicious swipe and knocked the hostile machines jaw clean off, the light flickering in its lense as it loosed a sputtering, disjointed roar, taking one last blow to the head before collapsing into a sparking pile. "Looks like we're clear." She said and stood, walking casually back to the path and leaving Rost still crouched and feeling very much as if they were not 'all clear'.

Trying to even out his breathing, he watched her stroll over, running her hand along the Sawtooth's neck as it came to meet her, turning and following along as she headed to strip the downed machine. 

After a few minutes of eyeing the machine his heart rate was mostly back to normal, so he stood as well, Aloy now pulling pieces from 'her' kill. The thing was pacing about the area, stopping to see what she was doing when it passed, sticking it's fanged head in close to curiously nudge at her before continuing on.

She didn't even acknowledge it...how she could allow it to breath down her neck like that and not even flinch he did not know...watching it happen was certainly affecting him. 

After everything he'd seen and done....this girl just may be the thing that ends him, he thought wanly.

Chapter Text

This had been the longest trip of her life and it had only been one day, she grumbled miserablely, field dressing the rabbits she'd shot for their dinner. 

She wasn't far from the camp and could have done this there, would have been easier by the light of the fire probably, seeing as clouds had crept across the moon tonight, but....there was Rost.

Sighing for what felt like the thousandth time today, she set aside one rabbit to start on the next, glancing back over her shoulder as she did. She could just see the faint glow from the campfire he'd gotten going reflected on the canyon wall opposite their camp. As she turned back to her knife work she thought of going back to more tense silence, her skin crawling. 

She yanked the pelt clean with a savage pull.

This was Erend's fault! He always had to worry so much, couldn't just accept that she was perfectly fine on her own. She never should have taken that damn deal. Now she was making half the time she usually would and was stuck with her problems to boot. 

This all just felt so.....messy... 

She couldn't land squarely on any one feeling. She'd be righteous in her anger one minute, then she'd look at him and remember him teaching her to fish or hunt, his steady hands and never ending patience, and she'd suddenly feel tears prickling her eyelids, choking on both the desire to hug him and scream at him all at once. 

She wanted to tame a couple of Striders and get them going so she could get this trip over with, though she very much doubted she could talk Rost into riding one...she wasn't even sure how he intended to handle being suddenly not dead with the Nora, but she didn't really care either. They just needed to get in, get it handled and get out. 

As much as she'd rather not be coming back so soon she also knew she'd be mobbed by welcomers when they got there and could get away from Rost in the chaos to focus on other issues. Hopefully she'd be done with whatever was happening with the Embrace and back home by the time Erend was and she could get back to feeling like she knew what was going on in her life to some degree.

They were still half a day at least from Lone Light though, and that was if they didn't have to divert around the Thunderjaw that hung out along that part of the way of broken stones. 

The last rabbit gutted, she was out of reasons to stay away. Standing and dusting herself off she wiped her knife on the discarded rabit fur, tucking it back into it's sheath and retrieving her kills from the stone they were laid on, trudging her way back through the still night air. 

They were in a fairly well concealed spot she'd used before, tucked into an alcove which served perfectly to hide firelight. She came around the small outcropping that created the alcove and spotted Rost sitting facing out, his back to the fire and his eyes on the night. He turned when she approached, his expression hesitant. 

Dropping her gaze as he did this she moved round the fire, not wanting to encourage conversation, heading for the ridge-wood shafts he'd left out to spit the meat on. 

He was silent for a time, staring out again as she set the rabbits to cook, but as she sat back against the canyon wall, the sun warmed stone relaxing the muscles in her back, he spoke. "You seem very familiar with these lands." His tone was light, obviously attempting to spark some non-confrontational dialog. 

"I am." She said, unsure of whether she'd like to add more. Guess it was better then silence..."I've traveled across the Sundom every which way the past year or so." Her chest felt tight when she addressed him directly. Looking up she studied his profile as he continued to gaze out, his strong face thoughtful, weighing his words. The fire light caught on his scars, casting small shadows over the knarled skin. She could see now that they covered the back of his head and neck entirely, snaking forward over his scalp and around over his throat....a sickening pang of guilt hit her like a charger, his burns had been so severe....and he'd gotten them for her.. 

"Do you travel to the Embrace often?" His question was casual but it startled her from her realization and sufficiently shoved her guilt away, only to be replaced with a building irritation. She knew this conversation was coming. Knew it was the only reason he'd returned at all. She wasn't with the tribe and he didn't like it, so here he was. 

Well to bad. She'd helped them, continued to do so, but she would not allow them to hold her captive within their politics and superstitions and couldn't get past the feeling that the Embrace was anything but home..

..Even if the only thing that had ever made it feel like it was had now come back to life.

"I do, when it's necessary." She said tightly as she turned the meat where it sizzled and popped, fat dripping into the fire, making it hiss. "Avad sent the Vanguard along with me and the Nora war party after the spire, we rebuilt, left about three months after, and this will be my second time back since." 

He didn't say anything initially and she had started to hope he had decided to drop the banter when his determinedly level voice asked "And what of the Embrace? The tribe? What happened there?" 

She looked at the fire, her throat tightening, not sure how to answer. She hadn't expected to be the one to recount the devastation... she'd figured he'd learned of it while trying to find her. But knowing what the tribe and the Sacred Lands meant to him, her words felt flat trying to describe what was lost. 

She cleared her throat, feeling his eyes turn to her but continuing to watch the dancing flames, not knowing how to start. "Well.... it wasn't good." She said carefully, "Eclipse tore through, looking for me... they leveled....everything, Rost." Telling him this was causing her more grief then she'd expected, but she couldn't stop talking now that she'd started. "When I got there after leaving the Sunring, it was all fire, all death, just huge corrupted machines and cultists until Mothers Watch. The Matriarchs allowed the tribe to take shelter within the mountain. It saved their lives. When I arrived the braves rallied and we fought them back."

She glanced at him, his face a blank mask behind his braided beard as he took in what she said. Her voice heavy, she pushed on "After that the warchief and most of the remaining braves came to the spire to help in the battle, and Meridian helped them rebuild after. Things are... better. The dead still weigh on the tribe, but people were happy when I was last there." She felt that bitterness come back at the idea of that happy open border being unceremoniously closed. "It's strange they've done what they have now." 

He didn't speak for awhile, just sat, his face thoughtful and sad. She couldn't think of anything else to add either so she left him to it, unspoken sadness heavy between them. 

She passed the rabbit to him when it was done and they ate quickly. She wanted to say something now, the weight of having to break the news of the Embrace's devastation to him too heavy on her heart, but she still couldn't think of anything and the questions she wanted to ask made her angry. 

Finally it was Rost who broke the silence as she was banking the fire, the heat still too high to warrant keeping it lit, "Why did you choose to go back to Meridian, after you had done what you set out to do?" He was watching her, she realized and caught her posture stiffen, agitation flickering onto her face, he added "I'm not challenging your decision girl, I just want to understand why." 

His expression was earnest, his tone gentle, but the question rankled her nerves. She didn't know why she felt so defensive over it, she'd made her choices to save the world, to save everything she knew. Yes, she'd also chosen not to stay for her own reasons, but wasn't she entitled to that? Her whole life was choices made for her, this was her's and she feared he wouldn't accept that. That he'd still side with the tribe, insist she return. 

She wouldn't....and she wasn't at all sure how that choice would affect their already fragile relationship.

She finished her task, thinking it over as she moved to lay atop her bedroll, spreading out and folding her arms under her head, fanning out her hair on the stone behind her. Rost was now sitting on his furs but was still staring at her, waiting. 

"I chose Meridian because of Erend." She said finally, pausing to let out a tired sigh "But I chose to leave the Embrace for many reasons... the most important being that I have only finished part of what I set out to do. Hades was only a piece to a larger problem." 

"Hades" he said, his tone flat.

"What the metal devil that came for the spire called itself. There are more, and they need me to..to.." she wasn't sure how to explain without revealing to much. Rost was deeply religious as most Nora were and she wasn't quiet ready to shatter his faith into pieces. "They need control, balance...the...Goddess was once in control, but lost it for some reason." This all sounded far fetched and made up to her but she was hoping it would fly. "She...chose me to figure it out, gave me access to old knowledge, doors, so I can try to get her back the control she needs to fix things." 

He studied her face, "How do you know she chose you?" He asked simply.

"Because when Teersa took me to the doo...the womb of the mountain after I didn't die it..she recognized me." She said, gesturing out to the sky, moving her hand down in a scanning motion. "At first she said there was a problem, it's why they made me seeker. After I found out how to fix it the Goddess let me into the mountain and spoke to me, then I was made Annointed." 

Insects chirping in the grasses were all she could hear for a long time, the stars slowly shifting overhead. She felt his eyes on her for a time but he said nothing. Her eyes had just begun to feel heavy  when the sound of him settling into his bedroll reached her, then he spoke, his question cautious and softly said. "Aloy, did you find your mother?" 

Tears did come now, blurrying the stars as they silently leaked from the corners of her eyes down into her hair. With Erend's help she had come to terms with her parentage....or lack there of. She'd come to think of both Gaia and Elizabet as her mothers in a sense, and had completely come to accept Rost as playing the roll of both mother and father in her life. It didn't make sense to her why talking to him about something she'd spent her whole life training with him for made her this choked up but it did...

"I....yes." she said. "But...she's, it's." It was a lot of things. Wiping her eyes and taking a breath she tried again. "It's complicated. Very complicated....and it doesn't matter anyway, one way or another "she's" gone." 

He said nothing for a very long time, so long she thought he might be asleep, her mind slowly drifting off as well. 

"I'm sorry, Aloy. I wish you'd found better." His voice sad and strained in the darkness. 

She didn't respond, just watched the stars, eventually giving into the exhaustion of the day and drifting off into a thankfully dreamless sleep. 

‐----------

They had finally reached Lone Light. 

It had taken over half a day though and her temper was short. 

She knew it wasn't his fault he was slower now, knew it also wasn't really his fault he had vehemently rebuffed her suggestion of riding a machine either. If she was honest it was more her fault he was hurt then anyone's and riding machines wasn't normal... but none of this was dampening the irritation welling up in her chest. 

She did her best not to show it. Tried really hard, but as Erend always told her she wore her emotions on her sleeve and Rost had clearly noticed she wasn't happy. 

He'd made attempts at light conversation several times, something she'd repaid with one word answers. They rested briefly at the settlement, one of the only bright spots being chatting with the guard, especially an older gentleman by the name of Raveed she had come to like. Personally she thought he and Rost would get on wonderfully, but as she had gone to speak to the man Rost had made himself scarce, so she wished him well and headed off, spotting him further out towards the edge of town. 

"What was that?" She asked, coming up beside him and continuing on, Rost falling into step with her. 

"What?" 

"You seemed real reluctant to talk to anyone in Lone Light." She said flatly. She didn't really care, but part of her wanted to pick a fight and she'd assumed he'd be better with people then she. He had traveled beyond the Sacred Lands before after all, she knew that much about his deathseeking. 

"I do not prefer the company of outlanders, you know this." He looked a bit irritated now, his voice taking on the tone it did when he was done talking, the same tone that subsequently made her want to ask more questions. 

He wanted to know so much about her.... so why not find out more herself? Hadn't she spent years and years asking and wondering? Being told "it was forbidden to speak of" and getting to know nothing about the man who raised her? 

"Yes, but you've been out of the Sacred Lands more then I have right? Where did you go when you were a deathseeker? Now that I'm the Goddess's chosen you can tell me, I'm sure." She was pushing buttons, she could see it on his face, in the set of his jaw, but she didn't care. He had pushed her buttons and went and died on her, so why couldn't she finally ask the things of him she had always wanted to know?

"I have traveled many places, girl, but I do not wish to speak on it further." 

She was worked up good and strong now and wasn't having it, she got in front of him, cutting him off and making him stop and look at her, a warning written plainly on his face. "Well I didn't want to mourn you and I don't want to answer all of your questions either but so far I have. The least you can do is answer mine." 

He was angry, she could see it in his eyes. Angry and....Sad? Scared? Something, but definitely angry when he spoke, his tone one of forced calm. "Aloy. I will not speak on this." 

"Really? Why not? You expect me to." Her anger had come from nowhere, matching his own, the unfairness of all of it swirling through her "Why were you a deathseeker Rost? Why.." 

"No! Aloy!" He shouted, shocking her silent. He so rarely yelled, and now had been the wrong time to start, as she was now so angry she wanted to scream right back.

He realized he'd done the wrong thing immediately it seemed, his face regretful "Aloy I..."

"Nope! That's okay! You keep your secrets Rost." She was shaking, could feel herself losing her cool and all she wanted to do was run. "I'm gonna check the path ahead, Snapmaws hang out around the Great Run and I can get them handled before you get there."

And she was gone, storming off yet again and angrier then ever. 

There were no Snapmaws when she reached the river. Not even a Watcher to shoot and this bothered her as well. 

She decided on fishing, they'd need dinner later anyway and it was hot, plus if she used her spear she could work off some steam while she waited for him to catch up.

She'd managed three trout before calling it. She'd hooked them to wire and laid them out in the rivers shallow shore to keep the meat fresh and had sat out on a large rock to dry and wait, skipping rocks across the rivers calm surface, or trying to anyway, when he arrived. She had heard him from up the path, as he made no effort to be quiet, but she ignored him. Tossing another stone, knowing it would take forever to get where they were going no matter what at this point. 

"I'm sorry." He said, surprising her as she had honestly expected nothing to be said about it. "You are right, Aloy, and you deserve...some answers." 

Noting how he used the word "some" she glanced at him where he stood beside her rock, his eyes gentle but determined. Deciding some was better then nothing she scooted over, allowing more space on the warm stone. 

He sat, less gracefully then he usually would have, now shoulder to shoulder with her and closer then he'd been since he....since the proving. She was hyper aware of his presence and the proximity was making her tense. 

He took a deep breath, rubbing a thumb over the wire holding the plating onto his armored wrist. "I once lived in Mother's Vigil." He started, his deep voice barely a rumble, ice going through her at the name. That was the forsaken village, the one that had been destroyed and abandoned long before she came to be. "It was attacked by Outlanders, many were killed, including my mate. They took captives, one of whom was my daughter, when they crossed our borders, they killed them and fled." He took another deep breath, the exhale trembling as it exited his lungs, though he kept his voice even. "That is why I chose to be a deathseeker. When I did what I'd set out to, I was wounded. I came back to die within sight of All Mother, a brave broke taboo to bring me across, she having lost a child and mate as well, or so I was told. They granted me the gift of being outcast, instead of exiled." He looked at her, his grey eyes glassy "and then they gave me you." 

She looked at him, quiet for a long time, eventually turning to look out over the river again. It was as if a strange heaviness had lifted from her... she had known he lost his family, but having him tell her, finally tell her instead of hiding behind the Matriarchs wishes felt...good. it was sad, she hurt for him terribly, but it was the first time he'd shared part of himself like that, part of his life. 

He picked up a stone and tossed it, managing more skips then she ever did. Watching the ripples on the surface she said "You always were better at that then me." 

"Hmmm" he acknowledged "because you have no patience." His lip curled up in a faint smile as he turned his eyes to her. 

She gave him a brief smile back, for the first time since his return thinking that they may be able to salvage a relationship afterall. "Thank you for telling me....and I'm sorry." She added sadly. 

"I know." He said, clearing his throat and getting back to his feet, he offered her his hand to help her up. "We should go, we move slow enough due to me as is." 

She looked at his hand for a moment, took in the thick scars, then she took it, his grip firm and warm and such a solid confirmation that he was alive that it almost made her cry yet again. 

But she didn't. Just let him help her up and let him go, letting her emotions fall and trying for levity, and also seeing if perhaps this new found openess would make him easier to convince. "You know I don't blame you for being slower, but if you really feel that way we could try the Strid.." 

"No." He said, his tone matter of fact as he made to snag her fish wire from the rock it was tied to and attaching it to the back of his pack so the fish could hang out and away. 

"Yeah I thought that'd be your answer" She sighed, glancing back at him again, their eyes catching for a brief moment and another small understanding smile sent her way.  

Maybe this arrangement hadn't been such a bad deal after all.

Chapter Text

This time of year the rains came down hard. Slick and oily from the constant forge fog and colder then a Snapmaw's spit. 

He never did love the Claim, hadn't had a whole lot of reason to outside Ersa and a few hard drinking cousins he saw occasionally. It wasn't the place itself. The Claim was rough and as blunt as they came, the clang of hammers and choking smell of woodsmoke and steel fit him like a well worn pair of boots, but it never felt like home. 

It felt familiar. It's what he'd grown up with....but he'd also grown up with a less then ideal home life, something this place directly influenced. The realization that this place was full of people willing to share a pint with someone then turn a blind eye to the drunken anger they took home to their family, simply because of the idea that that family was theirs, was something that had hit him as an adult, once he'd left with the freebooters. And it was wrong. He didn't give the Carja much stock but one thing he'd seen is that something like what he'd grown up with would be talked about, even if it was just gossip, they'd acknowledge that something was wrong at the very least. 

Every Oseram he and Ersa had known as children had ignored what was happening completely. Once his mother died it had only gotten worse and the people he'd known more scarce... 

Yeah, he didn't like this place. 

They had taken rooms at an inn in Mainspring, the same one they'd stayed at before. This did little for his mood as last time he'd had Aloy here with him, and they had done some very memorable things that still got his fires going when he thought about them.

Fire and spit did he miss her.

It was almost a physical ache. He knew this was silly but it didn't matter, being away from her was torture and he spent more time then he'd admit focused on hoping she'd be home when he got back, or not far behind, trying to will his hopes into being. He'd never had another person feel like such an essential element to his being before. Well, maybe aside from Ersa, but even that...there would always be a huge hole in him where his sister had been, a missing piece of his heart, but Aloy felt as necessary as the blood in his veins, the idea of loosing her.... 

He shook his head, he couldn't let himself think on that. He spent enough nights waking up with the image of blood and crimson hair on snow burned into his eyes and his mood was already in the ash heap. 

He sighed, exiting the room and heading back up the long stone corridor, looking up as he heard a door latch click from one of the rooms ahead. It was Kerent, looking shorter then usual having doffed his armor in his chambers as well.

"Hey Cap." He said spotting Erend. The younger man eyed him as he approached "You look cheerful" 

"Bout as cheerful as I ever am being here." He said testily. He shouldn't be snappy with his men, they didn't deserve that. 

Luckily they didn't care most times either. "Uh huh, I'm sure that's why." Kerent said brightly, having fallen into step beside him, heading out into the large round room that made up the reception area of the inn and out into the chilly drizzle. The smell of mud and wet stone mixed with the ever present tang of coal washed over them as their boots hit muck. 

They were making for the nearby tavern, Roan having headed straight there when they'd arrived. It had taken them the better part of four days to reach the capitol and they were all three ready for a hot meal and cold ale. 

Hopefully it wouldn't be more then another day or two and they could pack up and head back. The Ealdorman themselves weren't always present, but all clans kept a figure head here in Mainspring to represent the territories when their leaders were home or away somewhere, lest someone try to make a decision without their input.This usually made the whole process a nightmare of runners and waiting for long drawn out, rarely helpful responses, but seeing as all they had to do was deliver the invite that wouldn't be an issue here. The non present Ealdorman could send messengers to the border with their answers, and the Carja runners could handle it from there. 

They spotted Roan's rust colored head sitting at a table across the crowded tavern, chatting amicably with one of the tavern girls, who looked rather unimpressed by whatever he was saying. She had rolled her eyes and moved off as they came near, shaking her head and giving her long plaited hair a flip as she went. 

"Man, shot down again?" Kerent said, cuffing Roan on the shoulder and taking the seat opposite him. "You ever gonna leave Renda alone?" 

"Never!" Roan said, slapping the table and eyeing the barmaid in question as she went about filling a glass. "She'll come round. She likes me, she just don't know it yet." He winked at her as she glanced up and received another exasperated eye roll. 

"I dunno Roan, she looks a bit burned out to me." Erend said to his friend, taking a seat himself to his other side. The man had been chasing this girl since his voice was cracking, way before their freebooter days, and Erend felt pretty damn sorry for him. Especially since he was pretty sure Renda had absolutely no interest in the Vanguard, not any he could see anyway. Couldn't let him mope though. "Plus you constantly getting shot down is making all us Vanguard who can actually get a girl look bad." He said, laughing and massaging his arm where Roan had punched him. 

"Don't throw slag at me just cause your lady isn't here." He said, taking hold of his mug as it was dropped at the table beside two others "least I can take my broken heart and go get laid elsewhere." He laughed into his foam. 

"Yeah yeah, just be work ready by sunrise hear?" He said imploringly to his second. Roan was usually reliable but it felt like the thing a captain should say and he was still trying to master that fine line of being everyone's superior and not just their comrade. "I'd like to get the Ealdorman out of the way and get back to said lady as soon as I can." 

"Think she'll be back by then?" Kerent asked. 

"I sure as hell hope so." He said, taking a swig from his own brew, the amber liquid cold and bitter. He found the longer he went without drinking consistently the more he enjoyed the one or two drinks he did have, which was a nice change.

"Who was that she left with anyway, I kept meaning to ask." Roan had turned his attentions back to the conversation at hand, Renda no longer in sight. 

He took another long drag from his mug, thinking over his answer. On the one hand, in Erend's book Rost was her Da, plain and simple. On the other, he knew from what Aloy had said that they had a bit of an odd relationship and at the moment it was so damaged he wasn't real sure what Aloy would want him to say on the matter. He decide vague was the way to go. "He's a relative of her's, he'd been on his way back to the Embrace anyway." 

The bowls of stew Roan had ordered arrived and they were all immediately distracted, which was good as Roan had looked about to ask another question and Erned wasn't much in the mood to talk about anything, much less he or Aloy or their personal lives. 

He was stressed out enough over it as is. That part of him that had been afraid she'd leave back to the Embrace permanently now that Rost was back had intensified ten fold since she'd disappeared from sight as they'd left the Northern gates of Meridian, the sun catching in her hair, setting her on fire. He wasn't sure what he'd do if that happened. Wasn't even entirely sure she'd allow him to follow her even if he did figure out how to do so. He knew that doubt was part of his own fear, knew she loved him, but that thought still clawed at the corners of his mind. 

He finished his meal and tossed enough shards on the table to cover the food and first round, making his excuses to leave as both of them harassed him over being no fun anymore. He didn't care, he was tired and his mind preoccupied. 

Back in his room he changed and threw himself face down on his bed, wishing more than ever that Aloy was there. He never slept well, hadn't his whole life. When he finally found sleep it was heavy but restless, full of nightmares, but when she was by his side that eased. Her warm, lithe frame tucked up against him was like healing ember for his mind, he could focus on her smell, the soft tangle of her hair against his face, and sleep would come easily, sometimes even dreamless and restful, and when it wasn't she was right there to dispel the horrible images still floating past his half awake eyes. 

He made an unhappy grunt and dragged a pillow under his head, focusing hard on her pretty face and that smile he'd die a hundred times over for and willing his mind to sleep. 

‐----------

"This is slag. Slag!" Kerent grumbled loudly, large droplets of water dripping off his nose. "Can't we just try again tomorrow?" 

"Because the rains stop this time of year." He said sarcastically, shaking his head and doing nothing to alleviate the level of wet he was. They were queued up outside the Ealdorman's lodge in an outright downpour. The fact that there was a line at all was a testament to the stubbornness naturally born to the Oseram. "Besides we need to get this done." 

"Roan can't you talk to your uncle or something?" Kerent pleaded, turning to the second, his whole being so wet and desperate you'd think someone had tried to drown him. 

Roan was standing stoic and sodden, face resigned, his arms crossed over his barrel chest. "My uncle isn't even here this time, he's back in Ironwood to oversee my cousin's marriage to some delver. Even if he were though it only benefits us as far as having a listening ear on the council, it won't get us through any quicker." 

Erend couldn't blame them for hating this miserable soggy situation, he was half tempted to do as Kerent had suggested and go back to the inn, but wasting more time then was necessary was absolutely not an option as far as he was concerned, and unfortunately for them he was the boss. 

"You owe us so much time off for this." Kerent hissed, as they moved up one space in line, still to far away from the front to see the entrance. 

"Quit crying, we've been through worse." He said, giving him an appraising look and making the man glower at him. "You sound like the featherheads. Besides we have an engagement feast to prep for and then deal with when we're back so you can just suck it up." 

"Speaking of engagement feasts and marriages.." Roan started but Erend cut him off.

"No! Don't even go there." He warned his friend. "It's to damn wretched out here for your pestering." 

"I just don't understand what your hold up is." He said stubbornly, "If I had me a woman like Aloy you'd bet I'd have put metal on her well before now." He was insufferable. All the men enjoyed picking fun at Erend over Aloy, always had. They all knew how gone he was on her from the start, but Roan was his closest friend and had suddenly become extremely concerned over his marital statues since she'd come into the picture.

Part of him was flattered. Roan had explained once that he cared so much because of how good they were together, how happy he saw her making his friend, but the other part was torn on what to do over the issue at all and didn't want to discuss it. He couldn't just explain that she was an outcast her whole life who was now busy trying to save the world, that was her story and she'd been almost killed for simply existing, he wasn't going to spread more information then was required in regard to that, even to his friend.

"Mind your own, I'll ask when I ask." He said shortly. 

He wanted to, fire and spit he did. He had meant it when he'd told Rost he'd made his intentions at his grave, he had. Had asked the man he thought he'd never meet for her hand so that he could try. 

But then he kept not doing it, kept chickening out, not finding the right moment, and then her Da wasn't dead anymore and things were up ended. The process of asking now felt more complex then ever... 

If she was anyone else he'd have drug her to the Ealdorman to petition their union months ago, but she wasn't, she was her, and her life and therefore his life were tied to something bigger than any claim he could make on her.

He wasn't even sure why it was such a big deal to him. Marriage and family hadn't been high on his radar...ever, and they were together anyway. Shared a home and their lives with one another. Plus her leaders had granted them their blessing, so in her people's eyes they were bound..... least mostly. They had to technically have a kid for that to be really binding but that was a whole other thing....

Part of him wanted that too, but he couldn't look right at that newly formed desire, not really, not yet. 

Obviously they'd talked about...about the herbs she took because they both agreed that regardless of what they wanted to do, they couldn't do that. Not now. The world wasn't even sure to be around, and until it was they couldn't even consider bringing little ones into the mix, plus neither of them had any experience with kids or healthy families and a baby wasn't exactly conducive to the things Aloy still had to do. Hell even he had only been stable and in one place for just a few of his twenty-eight years, it wouldn't be fair....

Still though....

Thunder clapped overhead, a resounding noise followed by a flash of light. He looked up, the rain flowing over his face in rivers. This was more like standing under a waterfall then anything, he thought morosely. 

They moved up a few paces more, Erend thinking he was in the clear when Roan decided he wasn't done nosing in. "You know what lovely little establishment happens to be in Mainspring?" He said out of nowhere, not looking at Erend.

He groaned, knowing Roan was going somewhere he didn't want to with this. "Which one?" 

"Bagdah's metal shop." He said casually, making Erend chuckle humorlessly and shake his head, he knew it. "Just pick up a nice ingot is all I'm saying. Have it on hand. That way if you ever get up the balls to actually ask he...Aye!" 

Erend had socked him a solid one to his right arm. "I'll consider it, now drop it cause I'm also starting to consider the merits of handing you your ass." 

"We could do with the entertainment." Kerent added in, watching Roan rub his arm with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. "Bet we could get the line to toss some shards in on winner even." 

He gave a real chuckle at this "Watch it Kerent, you almost sounded like you weren't moping there for a second." 

"Well I can see the main doors now and I'm feeling a bit less mutinous." He gave his superiors a sidelong look. "A bit." He added ominously. 

Another move up in line, accompanied by another thunder crack, did indeed bring the main entryway into Erend's line of sight, though through the deluge it was little more then a blurry, flickering half circle at this distance. They still had another few hours of this at least and that was only if the opinionated clans folk ahead of them got in and out. 

He took a deep breath, squinting away the stream of water that had dropped into his eye from his mohawk, listening as Kerent and Roan bickered over who'd best who in this supposed bet. 

He looked out down the muddy road to his left, the one that led through a more residential area to the main market. This trip had been lousy so far and he'd been meaning to do something similar anyway before the whole Rost thing....

Maybe Roan had a point. 

Chapter Text

Just outside Daytower it finally happened.

The end of the delicate peace he and Aloy had managed to find. 

Speaking on the tribe, they made their way up the last stretch of road. In the distance the lowest watchtower of the Carjan outpost loomed over the the end of their path, the rooftops and battlements of the settlement itself blending with the craggy peaks high above, tucked back within the pass of the mountain. 

She had been telling him of a stitcher friend she'd made amongst the tribe, the first Nora she'd spoke of as a friend in fact, at least the first who was also still within the tribe and not living like an exile. She had apprenticed with the man who taught him even, working with them to improve her skills. 

"I can't do the intricate work he and Dain do, not yet, but some of the tricks I picked up have improved my wound stitching. I can make a clean line, with almost no scar now." She was saying, a note of pride in her determinedly casual tone. She'd been talking for almost an hour, his heart warm listening to her excitedly babble away. "I really think you and Dain will like each other." 

He slowed a bit, the warmth in his chest becoming a knot. He had worried this would come up, she had said something yesterday that had brought the fear to light, and now he wasn't sure how to explain it to her. 

"Aloy..." he started. 

"We'll obviously need to figure out whatever the issue is first but hopefully once that's out of the way we.."

"Aloy." He said firmly, getting her to quiet and turn her attention on him, eyebrows raised. How could he say this? Probably didn't matter, she wasn't going to be happy with his decision. "I will not be returning to the Nora...not to their knowledge." 

She stopped dead, her face contorted in confusion and just stared at him. Looking back at her he tried to think of a way to navigate the outrage he could see forming behind her moss colored eyes. "What do you mean Rost." She said, her voice taking on a caustic edge. 

He didn't want to lose the kinship they'd started to reform. The quiet understanding that had slowly been developing as they'd traveled and shared their stories.

But he also wouldn't budge on this. He was an outcast, should have been an exile, and it was the will of the Goddess and the Matriarchs for it to be so. He would not challenge that. Why would he? The tribe did not need a brave who was half of himself, yet another mouth to feed and life to protect. No. The tribe needed Aloy. They needed her strength and leadership to grow and become what they had been. He would be a hindrance to that, and he knew his lot. 

"The tribe will not know that I am alive. There is no reason. It will only serve to cause more tumult in an already difficult time for our people." He watched something that looked like hurt flicker across her face. 

She was shaking her head, confusion sliding into anger. "That doesn't make any sense. Why? You deserve more than..."

"I deserve to carry out my exile, as I chose when I left. I knew I could not come back. All Mother guided me back to you because you belong with the tribe, they deserve you. Not me." She made to respond but he turned away, feeling a surge of some emotion he couldn't identify flaring from his gut. "It is my life Aloy, my choice, let us continue, we are almost there."

He kept walking, keen ears listening but not turning around. He didn't hear her follow for a long time, not until she was storming up, breezing past him without a word, plumes of aggression rolling off in her wake. 

Picking up his pace to keep up he huffed, his left knee screaming as their course began to incline. It took another two hours of tense silence and a breakneck pace that kept her well ahead of him to reach the top of the path that jack knifed back and forth up the mountain. 

She paused as she made the outer arch that would lead through to Daytower, glancing back and waiting for him to get within earshot. "We are staying here tonight." She said, making it apparent this wasn't up for debate, then turned on her heels, nodding to the soldier standing to the right of the stone pillar as she passed. 

That didn't thrill him.

"Aloy!" Greeted the deep voice of a dark haired soldier as they came around the last bend in the rock. He was standing with another guard at the main gates of Daytower, his heavy Carja armor glinting in the last of the days light. "Good to see you, as always, maybe more so in these confusing times."

"Hello Balahn." Aloy said easily, coming up to grasp his proffered hand and giving him a small smile that quickly flickered away at her next words. "Still no word from the border?"

"No, nothing, and any attempts to communicate are firmly rebuffed." He turned his gaze on Rost, acknowledging him with a nod. He was distrustful of the Carja as a whole, but the man had an honest look, an air of calm, and apparently he was yet another name on the list of strange friendships Aloy had made. "Welcome, it's not often we see Aloy travel with anyone aside from Erend and his Vanguard."

"Sorry, this is Rost." Aloy put in, sounding dismissive. He highly doubted this would be the last he heard of his decision...."So there was nothing odd that happened... no tension or fights between the Nora and outsiders, accusations of theft...nothing? No clue as to why they closed the border off?"

Balahn turned back to her, giving her a steady look, "Three days prior to the border closure we received word from a group of merchants that the tribe had found an outcast dead. Murder was suspected but we do not know for sure. We questioned them on it, but they didn't know much else."

"I can't see the Nora closing the border over one outcast." She said bitterly, crossing her arms over her chest. "Even if they were murdered." 

"My thinking as well." Balahn conceded "Come, you both look road weary, join me for a meal and we can discuss it further." He turned, motioning with an armored hand to usher them forward into the interior of the outpost. To the other guard he added sternly. "Keep the watch Hehnan, we'll discuss the terms of your reprimand tomorrow." 

The guard nodded his head, the feathers on his helmet swaying as he bent at the waist, one fist behind his back, the other across his chest, before moving off towards the exterior wall, the three of them heading through the sunset drenched archways, the stone and Aloy's hair alight with the same red fire. This early in fall the snow had not yet reached this post, but the frigid Eastern winds said that was about to change. 

"Trouble in paradise?" She asked, smirking at Balahn, who was leading them through the central circle of the outpost and up to a wooden platform that had a roof and two closed walls, a large brazier was sitting on the open corner of the "room", tables and chairs arranged in the remaining space. 

This place had served a horrid purpose during the raids... he didn't much prefer to be here, certainly didn't prefer to sleep here...but before they're conversation on his mortality, Aloy had explained the changes the new Sun King had implemented, the people he'd put here who cared. She'd clearly been referencing this Carja and his men, and though they seemed welcoming enough he still felt alert, his guard up for the both of them. 

The man sighed as he pulled a chair out for he and Aloy before taking a third seat opposite, "Unfortunately yes, even with the problems at hand. Regardless, it's nothing as pressing as the matter with your people." He said, removing his gauntlets and making a gesture towards a small group milling around the fire, Rost realizing now there was meat cooking above the flames. "I'm guessing you'll be attempting to speak with the Matriarchs?" 

"You say that like you think they won't let me in." She said as they sat, sounding almost amused. 

The man had fixed Aloy with an unhappy look, "It's tense, Aloy. Whatever has happened is bad." 

"Yeah, but I'm their Anointed, I can't see them turning me away." She said, still sounding dismissive of his concerns. Hearing them discuss the Nora as if she were part of his tribe and not theirs was unraveling his nerves further and he found himself wishing to be done with this and move on to the Sacred Lands even if his muscles did feel on the verge of collapse. 

A woman with a cloth wrapped about her head came forward to deliver plates of bread and meat, Aloy nodded to her before tearing into her food, her manner seeming unaffected by her time living amongst other people. 

Balahn was watching her with an amused eye as well, his tone still severe when he spoke "I hope you're correct, but I am unconvinced." He paused. "Did they detail to you what occurred when I attempted to speak to the Warchief?" 

That stopped her, "They said you were turned away." 

"I was, with an arrow." He frowned, crossing his arms. "Sona's arrow to be more specific. I was within earshot, but she chose to turn me back with weapons instead of words." 

At this news Aloy had leaned back, her face shocked. He didn't understand why this was off, it seemed normal for the warchief to rebuff foreigners at the gates, but he supposed with the new openness between tribes the norms had shifted. Still, he had trouble finding any upset within himself in regards to this or the closure itself. 

"She shot you?" She said, sounding startled. "But....why?"

"Shot at me, thankfully, and I do not know, we had been on speaking terms days prior." He studied her, turning to look at Rost once again and studying him as well. "I would advice against approaching at night."

"Agreed, I was hoping we could room here." She said bluntly, resuming her attack on her food.  

"Of course" The Carja nodded, "You are both welcome to resupply as well." 

"I appreciate that, the food and rest is all we'll need though, and thank you." She added,  then for the first time actively including Rost in the conversation. "We can head for the Border in the morning, should make it by sunset at the latest." 

He nodded his agreement and she immediately turned her attention back to Balahn. Frowning, he watched her, eating slowly.

They passed the remainder of the meal with Aloy grilling a patient Balahn for any and all information. The only pertinent bit to Rost being that the tribe had pulled back to the Embrace itself, leaving any settlements behind and fortifying from there, which had been the first thing so far to strike him as odd. After this Balahn made his farewells, directing one of his soldiers to escort them to what must serve as a small inn of sorts. The rooms they were given were small, not much bigger than the small bed that was in it, but he didn't care about that at all. It was private and he could think on things and rest. 

Despite his usual avoidance of towns or settlements, he couldn't deny he was looking forward to sleeping in a bed. He had grown accustomed to the cabin he and Aloy had shared and as he'd aged hadn't realized what a difference it made. The last few years, with the addition of his injuries, had been uncomfortable to say the least. He accepted that as his lot, but still, if he was forced to stay here at least he'd be mildly comfortable. 

Having wished a determinedly silent Aloy goodnight he shut his door, nerves easing now that he was alone. 

As grateful as he was to the Goddess for bringing him back into her life, as much as he'd loved being back on speaking terms, he was also exhausted. He'd found that her need for answers matched her unwillingness to discuss herself or her reasons, where as he needed her to speak and was unwilling to do so himself. 

To solve this stalemate he'd had to piece out parts of his life to her in exchange for answers, parts that he usually avoided thinking of at all. The floods of remembrance, the blinding episodes, were more frequent because of this and he'd had a hard time keeping her from noticing. It had only been three days since they left the tainted city, and it had now happened twice more since the first night they'd had dinner at Erend's. 

Three times if he counted tonight, as he could feel the deluge coming, stretching out on the bed in his armor, still ready just in case. 

Curling up he consoled himself through the memories, they would be home tomorrow. 

‐-----------

It took another half day of sullen silence before Aloy brought it up again. 

"We'll be at Mother's Crown soon, I want to have a look." She said, taking large gulps from her waterskin. She shot him a sharp look as she added "You may want to stay scarce, Goddess forbid another Nora be there and recognize you." 

He grimaced where he sat, having perched on a boulder as they stopped to rest. As wonderful as it felt to be in the Sacred Lands, he was tired and sore, his patience gone with this mood she'd developed over this. "Why does it bother you so that I choose to not reveal myself? I am an outcast regardless, girl, it does not matter." 

"It does matter. You shouldn't even be outcast." She started vehemently but he stood, holding up his hand. 

"But I am and it is my choice not to challenge that, It is the Goddess's will Aloy." 

She scoffed, "Says who?" She hiked her bag back up on her shoulders. "The Matriarchs? A bunch of old woman who managed to live long enough to have lots of grandkids?"

"Aloy!" He chastised. "You cannot speak.." but she cut him off, this seeming to be her new method of ending their conversations. 

"No no, you're right. I should never question or speak ill of the Matriarchs, they are who the Goddess speaks through, right?" She said spitefully, walking away from him. He made to follow but she stopped as suddenly as she'd taken off. 

Turning to look at him, her expression alight with some emotion he couldn't place, her voice was almost rueful, mixed with a distinct bitterness "You know the Goddess could care less about tribal law?" She shrugged for emphasis, giving her head a quick shake "Doesn't care at all. That's aaaalll the Matriarchs doing. But what do I know? You've made your decision on it right?"

He stared at her for a moment. Some of the things she said made no sense, yet she had spoken to the Goddess, so it had to make sense, didn't it? He didn't know, and part of him was to tired to find out. 

He had never considered returning to the Sacred Lands. His only goal had been to keep her safe, to get her home and put her on the correct path, but she wanted him to rejoin the tribe and that wasn't possible or wise.  

He heaved an exhausted sigh. "Aloy, I do not wish.." but yet again she cut him off, testing his patience further.

"If you do not wish to speak about it further then go." She said sharply. "The living have things to do and I'd hate to blow your cover." Her back was to him as she said this, already moving off up the path that would take her where she intended to go. "Make camp outside of Mother's Rise, Balahn said it was abandoned as well, I'll find you, just remember that dead men don't start fires... might draw attention." 

He watched her go, his brow creased and breathing heavier then he meant it to be. He understood her anger now, he did, but this disrespectful, aggressive attitude she'd decided to use with him every time she disliked something was getting old. 

A large part of him wanted to march after her and say this, the smaller, more cautious part said this was a terrible idea. 

Perhaps they needed the space, he thought, turning to head down another path. He looked out from the rise, out across the river valley with it's still green grasses, to the tall pines jutting up the jagged mountain faces, the grey stone slowly vanishing under bright white snow at the peaks. He could just see All Mother in the distance, the curves of the metal devil arching high above the crest. 

A deep inhale filled his lungs with the cold snapping air of his home... it had been so long, and despite the anger he still held over their conversation, he couldn't help but smile. 

He was home.

Chapter Text

The huge purple thunderhead had rolled up and over the mountain peaks surrounding the valley so fast she hadn't even seen it initially, having been busy poking around the very much abandoned Mother's Crown. Though it could have also been because she was fuming...

How could he possibly think this was the best option? How? He was the most skilled Nora she'd ever met, even injured his knowledge alone was unsurpassed. He'd traveled farther and survived more than any one of them and yet he somehow couldn't see that they would benefit to no end having him back among them. There was no reason he shouldn't be allowed back. The idea that he was exiled because he had chased down a pack of murders who had killed not only his family but so many others was outrageous and she was fully prepared to fight it out with the Matriarchs should they have anything to say about him returning. His outcasting was wrong from the start, they owed him this. 

Hell she'd go into the mountain to "consult the Goddess" on the matter if she had to, play up their religious fervor. 

But he wouldn't even hear it...wouldn't consider or talk about it at all and that was wrong to. He loved the Nora, had kept their ways better as an outcast then half of them did within the tribe. He would do so much for them, and they needed his wisdom more then ever as almost all of the current braves were kids who were to young to run the proving the year she had, some younger, having lost almost all of their older braves during the hunting party massacre and then as Eclipse had invaded, the remaining spread thin to cover the gaps their junior's inexperience left. 

Plus she knew his long term plan here.

He hadn't come out and said it yet, but she was well aware he was angling to get her to rejoin the tribe. Throughout their travels he'd slipped subtle hints into their conversations, tiny mentions of things they could do in the spring, little suggestions about hunting there in summer, about a festival in a months time they usually held he thought she'd like, all things to prolong her stay or return her here. She knew his goal whether he was aware of it yet or not and he was going to be sorely disappointed.

They might need her the same, sure, she could help as he could, but she couldn't stay here, even if she wanted to, she didn't love them as he did. Most of her dedication to them came from guilt and the fact that it would have been what he'd wanted. As he was no longer dead however she was losing the second reason rapidly. Yeah she'd grown to like some of them, but not enough to ever outweigh her distrust of the people as a whole, something she couldn't shake no matter how hard she had tried. 

Him and the Nora would thrive together though and she was going to get him to see that. Get them to see it too if need be, though if they were smart they would be grateful to have him. 

More than that, they'd be lucky to have him and she would make everyone, him included, see that too. 

The low rumble of thunder brought her from her grumbling. She'd been essentially looking around the camp to cool off, as it was clear Marea had efficiently cleared, tidied and locked down the place before leaving. It was basically just bones, all resources and living essentials taken away. 

Now looking up she caught sight of those clouds, blowing in fast from the South, covering her trajectory in shadow and the far off mist of falling rain. Something felt ominous about it...or maybe that was just the fact that she'd be walking through rain soon hitting her already bad mood. 

Figuring she might as well cover as much dry ground as possible she headed back out of the gates, making sure to avoid the traps her focus had seen set throughout the perimeters. The wind was picking up as another low rumble came, followed by a flash of lightning over the mountain, the sky darkening fast though it was hardly midday. Her braids whipped about her, the air wet and cold and stinging her face, feeling grateful she'd had the forethought to change into her Nora kit at the camp, her leathers keeping her much warmer then she'd been, though she was about to be very soggy regardless she bemoaned. 

Rost couldn't be far ahead. She was well aware she could out pace him easily at this point, which was part of why she'd sent him ahead. Though the other reason, her just wanting to get away and process the ridiculous thing he'd decided to do, still stood and she wasn't at all excited to be rejoining him so soon. 

That stung a bit, as she had genuinely been enjoying their time there for a moment.... it had almost felt like before, except that he was actually telling her things now, sharing his experiences and tales. It was exciting... like hearing him tell her of hunting large machines when she was small, his stories so grand beside their hearth in the cabin. He'd been to so many places. All the way East to the land of the Utaru, Plainsong as he said they called it. Even into parts of the Forbidden West.

The things he'd seen and done, the little she'd managed to get him to tell of, were incredible, more so as she had never really imagined him doing such things. He was so.....Nora....  but his travels were far from that image she had of her stoic, reserved and ever devout guardian. 

She spotted him up the path, averting her eyes as she watched him limp, agitation bubbling up. She wasn't ready for this discussion she wanted to have. Wasn't sure how to get him to see that it was him the Nora needed, that he deserved to have what he wanted and they both knew that was being here. 

She caught him as the rains caught them both, avoiding his grey eyes and adjusting her speed to better suit him. The rain was coming down in spits, cold little ice flecks peppering their skin, but it was picking up steam quickly. 

"Let's keep on to Mother's Rise as planned and camp there, we can use that cave off the path for shelter." She half shouted through the gusting winds, the sound of rain pelting the stones and trees around them becoming defending. 

He gave a curt nod and they continued on, the rain only growing heavier, the sky darker, but they weren't far.

She was so singularly focused on getting somewhere dry that she almost missed it, the faint smudge of a person on the same path they walked, but further down at the bottom of their rise. She threw out her arm, catching Rost in his chest and earning her an irritated grunt, then she felt him retreat, clearly having seen what she had, backing down the path and turning to her. She glanced at him then clicked her focus, backing up so as not to be seen. Two figures moved slowly, neither actually on the path, she realized, but snaking their way through the brush, seeming to be searching their surroundings, spears out. They moved like Nora but with no idea who they were and the way they were acting caution was probably best. 

"There are two, look to be searching for something." She said over her shoulder. Clicking off her focus she crouched, thinking for a moment, if they were outcasts or bandits she should probably avoid them, but if they were braves they might have some answers. "I'm going to have a closer look, if you don't want to be seen I'd go that way," she advised, pointing off to her left.

"If you are going to approach I will cover you." He said steadily, fixing her with a firm look and nodding outwards with his bearded chin, encouraging her to go "I will not be far." 

This should have been a reassuring notion but instead him staying out of sight but following along anyway made her agitation worse. Least she wouldn't have to update him on what happened. She sighed, moving forward slowly, reactivating her focus to verify their positions. 

They had come closer and fanned right, still turning and looking about as if trying to find something. She crouched low and made her way through the brush, losing track of Rost as she went. She'd need to get fairly close to make any kind of identification, and luckily her targets were moving round the side of a  massive rock outcropping. She made her way there, looping around so she came up towards it out of sight, but halfway between her patch of grass and the rock she turned her head and caught sight of Rost out of the corner of her eye, barely visible and far behind her, but she'd caught the flash of him nonetheless.

It caused such a sudden explosion of confusion she almost didn't know what happened. That tiny part of her brain that had accepted his death had jumped back to life, sending a red alert through her mind as it registered the familiar sight of his face through their homelands trees. 

She didn't recover herself quick enough, missing the branch and stepping right on it. Even through the rain the crack it made was resounding in the alcoved area she was in. Her hand shot to her focus and yep, they'd heard, or one had, the closest, now moving with deliberate stealth around the rock face to crouch, a short whistle drawing the attention of their fellow. 

So they were hunters for sure, their hearing to keen to be anything else, she thought as she ducked behind the nearest tree trunk, not entirely concealed but hopefully enough...hopefully they were friendly and it wouldn't matter. Dropping her pack she drew her bow taught just in case, but deciding she needed to make herself known to not be shot by angry tribesmen she made to call through the rain. 

Before she could get a word out though she heard a commanding, angry voice she very much recognized shout out "Reveal yourself or you die hiding." 

"Sona?" She called through the deluge, easing the tension on her bow and squinting around her tree. 

"Anointed." The warchief called back in confirmation, her tone not changing in the least but her posture relaxing as much as she ever did, stepping around the boulder and coming into focus through the heavy rain. Her ever present scowl deeper then usual. "This is not the time to go sneaking through the Sacred Lands unannounced." 

Aloy, who'd abandoned her cover and was making her way over, pulled up short at the warning in her voice. "I wasn't aware I needed to announce my comings and goings." She didn't know why she felt defensive but she did, she may not claim this place as her home but she damn well earned the right to go where she liked without the tribes permission. 

"Again, not the time." Sona growled, turning and walking back down the way towards the border, signaling her fellow brave, who nodded to Aloy before moving off, looking like he was being sent to resume his search. Hope Rost had the sense to hide she thought, snagging the pack she'd set down when she'd grabbed her bow and jogging after the warchief's fading form, boots squelching in the mud. "What does that mean. What's happened?"

"We are out here in this forsaken storm because of what's happened. What keeps happening." The older woman said over her shoulder. "Follow." 

They walked for what felt like ages, the ice cold sleet soaking them to the bone. Finally Sona pulled up short, Aloy almost colliding with the woman. Looking up she shielded her eyes with her arm, Sona turning her face to Aloy, her eyes troubled. "That is why." 

Her sights landed on what Sona was pointing at, barely visible, her insides twisting, a cold more biting than the rain clenching tight in her chest. 

There were bodies in the trees....

She could just see them through the downpour, the large pine they dangled from looming high above...their ghostly silhouettes looking as if they were simply hanging onto the branch, about to drop down...if it weren't for how limp they hung..

Heart hammering against her ribs she edged forward, the horrid scene becoming slowly more detailed. There was blood everywhere.... even in the rain... the mud beneath the corpses was a sickly wash of dark red, the bark of the tree stained black up the side opposite the storm, droplets of red dripping from their bare feet.

There were two of them, their arms tied to the branches at the wrist, bodies dangling. They were Nora, men by the looks of their leathers, the fronts entirely soaked with blood from what looked like a slit throat, but they were wearing helmets...Carja helmets, adorning the victims heads, metal shining in the rain, the red feathers hanging limp and dripping, making them look like strange grotesque birds....

She had seen death, lots of it... but this was....sick..

Thunder cracked, lightning illuminating the murder scene, casting stark, grisly shadows across the ground. She didn't want to keep looking at this, but couldn't take her eyes away from the horror in front of her, bile rising in her throat. 

"There's more." Sona said at her elbow, making her flinch and breaking the macabre spell over her senses. Aloy turned to her, realizing she was inclining her head towards an outcropping of rocks where a younger brave she couldn't remember the name of stood, finding small shelter from the rain. 

The brave straightened as he caught on to the fact that he was being approached, his face looking nervous as he looked from his warchief to Aloy. They made their way in between the stones, still wet but not as bad, the young brave looking like he'd like to vanish. Sona held out her hand to him, making him jump and fumble for what turned out to be a scroll tucked into his pelts. 

Eyeing the bloodstained thing she looked back to Sona, who was turning to her, offering out the document. "This was pinned to one of them." She sounded steely as ever, but Aloy hadn't heard her voice this angry since the first time she'd met her, after the proving.

"Do you know who they were?" She asked, her voice more steady then she felt. Unrolling the parchment she grimaced, it was written in blood as well..."Now you look like us too." She read aloud, dread iron heavy in her stomach. She looked back to Sona, frowning. 

"Yes, we do." She started, stopping suddenly, snapping her jaw shut with an audible click and giving Aloy an appraising look. "The Matriarchs will speak further on it." 

"Wait...Really?" She was really going to shut up and make her go all the way to see the Matriarchs to find out what was happening?

But Sona wasn't deterred "Yes." Turning away from Aloy's disbelieving stare she addressed the brave "Keep watch until Sern and the others return. Tell them I have gone to escort the Anointed." 

"Yes warchief." He squeaked. Looking terrified at the prospect of being left alone yet again with the chilling sight. 

Looking over at the scene she gave the area a scan with her focus, not expecting to find much in the rain and not being disappointed. Then she turned, that sick feeling stronger than ever as she followed the warchief, her mind deeply troubled. 

Sona had said that this kept happening....she couldn't imagine finding more bodies like these ones, but Balahn had said the tribe had found someone dead just after she'd left, could it have been like this too? How many more had there been and why? This was too...stylized for bandits, and that note... "Now you look like us too.".... what did that mean? 

She needed more info and if the Matriarchs were the only option so be it. It was early, they'd make the gates and then the village by late afternoon at worst. 

Least she'd have answers soon.

------------

"You're serious." She said, not believing her ears. 

"Yes. They are attending the hymns of the dead through the night." A somber faced lesser Matriarch intoned. She was standing in front of All Mother, the Matriarchs having chosen to remain there instead of returning to their lodge in Mothers Heart, and she was being turned away till morning. 

"This is important." This was ridiculous.

"So is the hymn of the dead child." She said placidly, her robed arms crossed over the layered beads and ropes that hung from her neck. She wasn't budging... fine, she was to soggy and pissed off to stand here arguing.

With an exasperated snort she turned, heading back down through the village. Mothers watch had not been the main settlement of the tribe before, but since had been rebuilt to be larger. More defensivable but also more livable, with the majority of the tribe now keeping their homes here. 

Still she never stayed within the village, it was too stifling, she could never get comfortable and rest in the lodges. So she made her way out, thinking of the cabin and hanging her soggy clothes to dry by the hearth. Thankful she'd had the forethought to keep the place up and not let it fall to ruin so she'd always be able to stay. 

She moved off to where the path forked and headed up, focusing her mind away from the speculations it was trying to form. She didn't know enough, needed to get all the facts before trying to unravel things as this was now more of a mystery then she'd expected. Luckily, this turned out to be fairly easy to do as she was having trouble finding footing in what was essentially a stream where the path had been, water flowing freely down the rocks, forcing her to pay attention so she didn't backslide. 

Huffing and mud covered, her hair a matted mess on her neck and face, she made the rise, the entrance to the homestead coming into view. She hesitated for half a breath, eyes locked on Rost's grave marker, still decorated with beads and talismans, breath catching in her throat. It was so strange being here and knowing...

That didn't matter, she told herself, shaking her head. It was too wet and too cold. Get inside. Change. Rest and figure this out, then get home. 

One thing at a time. 

Chapter Text

"Why is it always rusting Glinthawks?!" Roan yelled, loosing another fire arrow and catching the bird that was belching frost at Erend as he ran square in the face.

Huffing in the humidity, almost grateful for the chilling gusts of air hitting him as he ducked and weaved the things assault, he skidded, catching himself and using his weight to redirect his momentum, charging towards where the thing was falling, screeching and engulfed in flames. Switching his grip on his warmaul, his muscles tense and straining, he grunted and gave a powerful overhead swing, bringing his hammer down on the machines neck. The snapping beaked head fell away, the light dying from its lense, sparks now coming from the flaming remains. 

Backing up he wiped his brow, panting and dropping the head of his hammer to the ground, leaning on it as he looked at the back of his glove. It was now smeared with red... so he'd just wiped a bunch of blood across his face from the slit at his eyebrow. Great. Wasn't bad enough his eyes stung from the ridiculous amount of sweat dripping off of him. He glanced at Roan, trotting over and leaning forward, his hands on his knees. "Fuck I hate Glinthawks." He panted. "Its the... the rusting flying, makes em hard to hit." He added this last bit as he stood, looking at Erend and grinning immediately, chest still heaving. "Cap, you got something..." He gestured at his own face with his whole hand. 

Spitting he straightened, "Yeah I know." He tried to wipe his face the other direction with his sleeve, the striped fabric coming away soaked in red.  

They'd made Carja territory yesterday, making decent time through the arid desert valleys despite the miserable conditions. Getting lucky and managing to dodge all machine threats, they'd hit jungle by this morning and had been drowning in the pre-storm heat and humidity ever since. The air no easier to breath than soup, and of course, as always, their luck had run out and Glinthawks had roosted right along their path, high in the trees, catching the heat exhausted men unawares. 

"Where's Kerent?" He grunted, turning and spotting the guard further away, doing what looked like a half hearted jog walk to get to them up the densely overgrown jungle floor, his face red as he huffed and wheezed. "Nevermind, I found him." 

Roan rounded on his underling, laughing openly at the sight of him. 

"I don't know... what you think... is so rusting...funny." Kerent gasped, glaring daggers at Roan as he came to a stop, leaning on a tree for support as he tried not to die. "But in this heat..after five Glinthawks?... I'm not laughing." 

"That's only cause you can't see yourself." Roan retorted, sounding amused but annoyed. Erend shook his head, unhooking his waterskin and taking a huge swig, the tepid water doing nothing to cool him off. These two had been in a bad way since the night they'd left and hadn't stopped trying to have a go since, cept he couldn't get them to say why. Every time he'd tried to ask they went all tight lipped and right now he just didn't care.

Kerent straightened, smiling but pointing his finger at Roan, whatever snappy comeback he might have Erend wasn't interested in hearing. It was too damn hot for this... they were exhausted and he didn't blame them but he didn't have the patience. "Alright enough, don't let the heat temper you, let's just get the hell back to the road and get home."

They held eye contact a bit longer, then grumbling they both went to retrieve their packs and do as he said, despite the fight he could still see in them they couldn't just ignore a direct order, especially on duty, but clearly this was more then the heat. He made to find his own gear, shouldering it, the added weight making his sweat soaked undershirt slide against his skin beneath his armor.

Pulling a face he headed for the path. They were so close, and if he had any luck at all Aloy would be home and he could just breath and relax. He felt starved for everything about her, starved for her presence, her sweet voice, the love she gave and the sense of home being around her brought him. They'd only seen each other for maybe a week out of what was going on a month and a half since she'd first left to the Embrace, and it was wearing on him like he hadn't expected. 

He'd made long journeys before, marches that had been made under less then ideal circumstances. Been sleep deprived, half starved, battered and broken the whole rusting way, but this trip had felt like the worst...maybe it was having Aloy now, maybe he was just getting old, or his body couldn't bounce back from things like it used to, after years of battle and abuse had taken their tolls. Whatever the reason he ached. His body ached, his spirit ached, and he hadn't been in a worse mood in a long time. 

The single, tiny ember of good he could find was that they'd been fairly successful with the Ealdorman. The Claim had been frigid and wet the entire time and they'd spent another miserable day queued up, having not made the door in time the day prior, but once inside the Ealdorman had seemed as put out by the weather as everyone else and hadn't been in the mood for their usual round of inane questions. Several of them agreeing out right to accept the invitation and a few more taking time to consider when they'd left.

The rest could get slagged in his book. He didn't care for the more "traditional" Clans or their leaders and those had been the ones to spit at their feet on the matter, so no loss. 

It had been late when they'd gotten done and they'd decided to leave at first light, which had meant another night of laying awake pining over Aloy... Then another few days hiking through sleeting rain over craggy, soot clogged hills and they'd hit Pitchcliff. Sodden, dirty and exhausted they'd chosen to stay the night, if only to dry off properly before continuing. The stop still feeling like more time waisted to Erend... but then they'd hit the base of the mountain and the cold thin air had become hot. Hot and dry, gritty winds blowing into their faces the whole way. Now this? This hazy, wet fog trying to play itself off as air, so hot the birds weren't even out making noise? 

No, he didn't blame their mood, his mood was equally sour and he would pay good shards, all of his shards, to be left the hell alone with his girl and a cold ale for the next month.

But he still had another days hike to make Meridian and part of him wanted to drink, bad. The other part wanted to pick that fight his men were after...but...he was the Captain, and whatever was bothering them was clearly a big enough issue to make them both act out of line, and beyond that they were friends among the Vanguard, family, unrest messed with that so he should figure it out...right? 

He tried to put himself in Ersa's shoes, something he did when the more Erend part of him contradicted the Captain part and he lost sight of what to do. As sure as spit, the Ersa in his head did as she always did and shouted him down till he gave the reigns back to Captain Erend, making him accept the inevitable. 

He needed to talk to his men, and with a whole day of walking ahead of him he could find nothing to stop that from happening. 

He spent another hour or so shooting death looks at the both of them, resenting that they had chosen this miserable mission to act up and trying to will himself to do as Captain Ersa would have and get to the bottom of their problem...or if that failed knock their heads together and demand they straighten themselves out. Finally he forced himself to speed up a bit, catching up to Roan where he trudged along, staring resolutely at the ground as Kerent marched ahead, deliberately keeping several paces ahead of them. 

He dropped his voice a bit to be sure Kerent wouldn't hear, figuring it best to ask them one at a time "You ever gonna tell me what's burning the two of you up? I'm gettin tired of askin'." 

"Then stop askin'." Roan growled under his breath, not taking his eyes off the road. "It's nothin'." 

"Doesn't look like nothin'. Looks like you've had some issue with each other for days and it's making you both act stupid." He was a lot more irritated then he should be but it was taking every effort not to try to manhandle the answer out of his friend like he would have before, knowing as a Captain he couldn't do that. He preferred to be brute force, and now more then usual his diplomacy was failing him. Roan shot him a look so he pressed on. "You are. The both of you, if you hadn't been bickering when those things got at us I wouldn't have a bleeding face and you wouldn't have had to damn near break your neck getting out of the way of that bird!" 

Roan let out a heavy breath through his nose, making an indignant sound and shaking his head, glaring at the road again. 

"I'm burned out too, but you are my second." He reminded the man, cuffing him on the shoulder "So act like it." 

Roan didn't respond and that was fine, he didn't need nor want him too. If he wasn't gonna let him in on what was going on he could just suck it up. 

He waited for the incline they'd been heading up to dip, swinging deeper into the dense jungle and heading out towards home, before trying to catch up to Kerent. The kid was lighter and had a head full of steam but once the downgrade hit Erend utilized his heft and caught him quick enough, managing to not put much extra effort into doing so and yet still feeling as if he was sweating twice as hard. 

"If you don't slow down and let me have a word we're both going to die of heat exhaustion before we get anywhere near Meridian." He told the Vanguard, not quite level yet but close enough he didn't have to raise his voice. "There's more cool air in a furnace." 

Kerent slowed but didn't stop, turning his glowering expression on Erend, his tone a forced neutral "Sorry Cap, what's up?" 

"You know damn well what." He growled, wanting to get to the point. Kerent was a good guy and had become his friend while he was Ersa's second, but he hadn't known him prior as he had Roan, who had been his friend before rank was even a concept. They had a different rapport, plus he was the lower ranking officer and had been out of line with Roan. "You and Roan been at it and I can't figure out why, but I'm tired of it." 

He was silent, dropping his eyes and grabbing the straps on his pack as he walked. Erend gave him a moment but as he continued to look contemplative and worried, saying nothing, he let his tone relax, adding "You gonna tell me what happened? Cause he won't." 

"He wouldn't tell you?" He asked, sounding doubtful and annoyed. 

"No. So I told him to knock it off, just like I'm gonna tell you regardless of what you say. You're both acting like bungs and making mistakes because of it." He gave Kerent an appraising look, raising his eyebrows at him. "But I'd still like to know what's going on."

More silence, the only sounds being their boots scuffing the earth and the occasional grumble from the Snapmaws that lounged on the rocks further down the valley and to their right, well away down the ridge. He'd almost given up hope he'd communicate at all when he said in a low voice "I'm sorry, Cap. You're right and I was out of line. I'll say the same to Roan." His expression clouded again, "When we're back, if that's alright." He added, glancing to Erend, who nodded. 

"I appreciate that. I assume that means you aren't gonna talk about it either?" He asked.

"I'd rather not..." And the way he said it made the last of his irritation over not being filled in disappear. It was to wretched out to prod them any further, as long as they'd get along well enough to keep everyone alive till they hit the gates he was happy.

Or as happy as he could be, he thought miserably, turning his face to the sky. The haze of the day was making the sun look like a poorly hammered chunk of gold, faded and distorted, more sweat running into his eye from his hair as his head tilted. He rubbed it away, grumbling inwardly. 

Hoping he had even the tiniest sliver of luck left and he'd find warm green eyes and a welcoming freckled face when he got home. 

-------------

He apparently had no luck left as Aloy was not home when he returned. Walking into a dark, empty apartment weighed on him metal heavy, but it was nothing compared to the intense wave of dread that slammed into his heart, realizing she was still gone. He tried to reminded himself that they had made better time in the Claim then expected, that she would probably be here any day, and even if she wasn't she was Aloy and she'd be fine. Tried to master his fears, feeling like he'd rather turn around right then and there to demand Avad send him to her aid immediately. 

He busied himself hanging his warmaul, opening up the windows on the bottom level to allow a cross breeze to cool the place before heading up. He may not have been the best at calming his own mind but being home was helping. Being in his own space, the familiar smell of the apartment, bathing in his own bath and changing into something that wasn't packed and travel worn for the first time in going on two weeks were all good things. Grounding things.

He made for the wash, having hung his armor in the bedroom after throwing those windows wide too, the room stifling. Filling the tub with cool water and forgoing the burner, he reached back and yanked the disgusting excuse for a shirt off his back, giving himself a once over. He wore his heavy armor almost constantly while gone, and his body showed it with angry red indentations at his collar and on his chest, the skin along the curve of his hip rubbed raw where the wet leather had chafed in the unending rains. 

Looking up he caught sight of himself in the mirror, taking in the several days worth of overgrown beard and hair and grimacing. Maybe he was glad Aloy wasn't home yet.... He pulled his shaving kit out and set to work, feeling calmer and more like himself when he was done, bathing quickly and heading back upstairs, passing a perfunctory towel over himself as he went.

Permanently damp in the humid air, he threw on clean linens, leaving his armor where it hung. He didn't much care for formality on his best day and if Avad expected him to put heavy Vanguard steel on again today he was crazy as his Da. 

Since their run in with the machines the humidity of the day had doubled, the late evening sun a heavy orange contrast to the purple thunderclouds now visible to the East, the winds blowing in through his open windows providing the only relief as he sat on the bed, willing himself to get moving and finish the days duties. 

He didn't want to go see Avad, but it was his job to debrief him on the mission. It wasn't late enough to make the excuse of not wanting to disturb the king, and he really didn't have anything better to do aside from sulk over Aloy's absence anyway, as the majority of the Vanguard wouldn't be at the tavern till later, so he braced himself, pulling his boots back on and heading out his front door. 

The breeze was stronger out here and felt good on his sweaty face. Breathing deeply, he took his time getting to the palace, the smell of rain strong on the wind, ruffling his hair as he meandered along the outer edge of the city towards the palace. 

Avad was alone when he arrived, well, alone as he ever was with the feathered guard every few lengths, standing again at the railing of his terrace, his hands clasped behind his silk clad back, staring off to the Eastern storm with a strange, disconnected look on his face. 

He didn't hear Erend approaching, still gazing wistfully out at the vista, so he came up to his post just shy of the sitting area and cleared his throat. "Hello your Radiance." 

Avad jumped, his face rearranging quickly as he cleared his throat as well, looking awkward as he turned. He met Erend's eye briefly and gave him a practiced smile before turning his gaze back out. "Erend! Good to see you back so soon! Just in time for the rains." He gestured to the clouds, his bangles clinking and flashing.

"Oh believe you me, sir, I've had enough rain for a lifetime." He grumbled, recognizing by Avad's stance that he was meant to join him at the railing, doing so reluctantly. "Rained bout the whole rusting time we were in the Claim." 

Avad gave a small sound of acknowledgment, resting his hand on the railing and leaning forward "And the Ealdorman? Did any of them choose to accept the invitation?' He asked placidly.

"Fair few. The Mainspring, Steelforge, Forestfell, and Ironwood Ealdorman will all attend. A good handful outright refused, but several others were still mulling it over when we left." He was actually pretty hopeful those undecided would end up coming, they had asked a few questions, not as many as usual but they'd seemed intrigued, and a curious Oseram couldn't usually be deterred. "They'll come." He said, nodding his head and glancing at Avad, gauging his reaction. Since the weird little maneuver he'd pulled when Erend arrived the king had worn an oddly masked expression. He didn't much like when Avad did things like that, felt like dishonesty, like he was hiding something, and as that something seemed to generally be uncomfortable questions about Aloy he tended to try to avoid him in these moods, but he couldn't leave till he was dismissed.  

As it was the monarch just nodded. "I'm glad to hear that. Any and all alliances we make are bridges well built. Now we must hope Aloy can soothe whatever ill has befallen her homelands in time to allow that very important bridge to be formed with the Nora." He paused here, still staring off at the distant flashes of light amid the blackening sky and he felt it coming."You have not heard anything from her as of yet, have you?" He asked carefully, glancing at Erend finally. 

"Don't know how I could've, only been gone a day short of two weeks." This had come out far sharper then he'd meant it to. His uncouth in regards to Aloy aside he was still the king. "Though I'll let you now should I hear anything." He added, shooting for polite but managing something more like indifferent. Good enough, right? 

Avad had raised an eyebrow at him but otherwise remained unaffected, "I suppose you are correct, forgive me if I seem.. impatient. I am simply eager for our Nora friend to return, as I am sure you are as well. I rest easier when she is within the walls of the city." He made it sound as if Erend being eager for his woman to be home was some afterthought compared to Avad's feelings, that he was some how unconcerned over her safety, and that was slag. Slag that was hitting a nerve. "Besides I would hate for her to miss the festivities she's worked so hard to make happen." He added diplomatically.

He shifted in his boots, now feeling heated in a way that had nothing to do with the weather. Avad had a way about him when he spoke on Aloy that made Erend's jaw clench, and after the Sunking had behaved so poorly towards them at the start, before attempting to make amends, he'd expected better.

Initially he'd thought that this poorly veiled interest was just Avad being a spoon fed royal who couldn't hide what he wanted. The longer it went on though the more he had decided that Avad just wasn't trying real hard to do anything about it...possibly even doing it on purpose in some jealousy fueled, passive aggressive attempt to dig at him. He almost seemed to want to pretend they weren't together and that was fine, as long as he kept it to himself, which as of late he'd done less and less. In Fact since his proposal to Shalay, despite Erend's hopes that taking a bride would dissuade his obsession with Aloy, he'd become intolerable, acting strangely every time they spoke, being even stranger when Aloy had to speak to him. There wasn't much he could do though except hope the wedding itself would finally put an end to the behavior.

Though he'd been sorely tempted to say something directly.... steel to his bones he wanted to pick that fight more than ever right now, he could feel himself getting worked up, but he he couldn't do that here without getting a couple dozen spears pointed at him, and the opportunity to speak openly rarely came up with Avad, so he took a breath and simply grunted in acknowledgement. 

Avad turned and regarded him for a moment, looking as if he might say something else, but thinking better of it when he caught sight of Erend's face, which he was working very hard to keep expressionless but was apparently failing at.

The tension between them was making his mood turn for the worst again. There shouldn't even be tension! The man should have been his brother-in-law by all rights, though his behavior made him question whether he'd ever deserved his sister to begin with. At the very least he should have remained a friend, but here they were staring at each other, both trying very hard to keep their faces neutral by the looks of it. 

He watched Avad's face shift into placid monarch, giving him a wane smile and inclining his head. "Forgive me, you must be weary from your travels my friend, please, go and rest. The news you bring is well received and Marad can ask any questions he may have of you in the morning." 

He didn't trust himself to open his mouth, not sure what would come spilling out at the moment, so with a curt bow he retreated, knowing full well courtesy required more of a farewell and not giving a damn. He was choosing the most tactful root in his current state. 

He came round a parapet and found himself stepping onto the landing he'd first said goodbye to her on, after Dervahl. Slowing he made his way to the railing, leaning on it and looking out to the Eastern storm himself, an ominous felling creeping from his gut. What if something was wrong? No, she was fine. She was Aloy and she needed him to be strong, to hold down the fort. Needed him to be her safe place to be when she came back, a place of comfort. Something he couldn't do if he was driving himself mad with worry. 

He took a deep inhale, the damp air filling his lungs, she needed him to trust she could handle things as she always did. 

Looking out at the almost black clouds his heart sank. She just needed to come home.

Chapter Text

He saw the slip, saw her loss of focus for just that fraction of a second that their eyes had met. Looking like a startled Grazer before blinking and regaining her composure, but not in time. He'd heard the snap of the branch echo loudly off the stones and he knew her position would be compromised. 

Rost dropped his pack, pulling his bow and notching an arrow as he crept to a better range to defend her, disappearing into the grass.

Aloy had know too and was now crouched behind a tree, her own bow at the ready and her focus intent on the corner of the rock face. Assuming she could see the people he could not he kept his aim true to the point of her gaze, tracing the rock line with his eyes instinctively. 

He heard a shout, though through the downpour he couldn't make out what was said or identifying the speaker. The tone of Aloy's voice hit his ears and then she was relaxing, abandoning her cover as the blurred outline of a brave came from around the outcropping, closing the gap between itself and Aloy. 

Long twisted hair and a dark scowl came into view and he recognized Sona, relaxing himself and moving deeper into the grasses to avoid the warchief's sharp eye. Watching closely he noted her signal, telling someone he could not see to continue with whatever they were doing and he knew it was time to go.

Aloy was trotting towards the border, following Sona's retreating form. She was in good hands, but he was in a predicament. If Sona and her braves were out searching for something she'd have fanned them out from the source of the problem. He couldn't see what that might be, but he knew they had headed for the border, so more than likely the issue was there or near there. If they were looking for someone he needed to avoid the hunters and the hunted, and his only viable option in this weather was to track all the way back to a small, almost entirely hidden climbing path that was nestled about a mile north of Mothers Rise. This path wasn't well known, in fact he wasn't entirely sure it was known at all, so he could be sure to avoid any braves that way, bypassing the border gates entirely. 

Heading North he inwardly thanked the Goddess. From the moment he had come back to die at the border, and been blessed to be outcast instead, he'd been aware his path was since graced. Little blessings at the time now linking together as he looked back, allowing him to be here now. He wouldn't even know of this path if it weren't for the Goddess's will, and then he'd be stuck unable to access the Embrace to help Aloy. 

When he'd become an outcast, the Matriarchs had granted him the rights to build his homestead, something unheard of for someone of his statues. He suspected Teersa had more to do with that than anyone and he was eternally grateful to her for her foresight and kindness, as they had then given him Aloy, a child who would need a home. He felt she more than any had an ear for the Goddess's will because of this. 

She had even been the one to suggest the spot he'd chosen, a spot that would be high and away, safe and ideal. Almost perfect, except for one thing, the lack of exit routes. The fact that it backed up to the range that marked the furthest western edge of the embrace meant that he, and then they, had limited options if they needed to, for any reason, escape. As high up as they were they could be boxed in by disaster or foe, and even if that was an unlikely occurrence, he couldn't let that weakness pick at his nerves. 

So he'd learned the land above his homeland. Climbed and explored the peaks that marked the end of the Goddess's Embrace, then explored further down the otherside, still technically within the Sacred Lands, but definitely not on any approved hunting or brave trail. These peaks were seldom guarded or even acknowledged. The climb to difficult for a machine or anyone besides a Nora or maybe a Banuk to attempt, certainty not attacking bandits or Kestrels. So it had become a favored path of his when he wanted to move over the border unbothered. 

When he'd discovered the route he hadn't anticipated needing to use it to essentially breach that border, but it would take him straight to the cabin, where he could hopefully regroup with Aloy and hear of what she's learned. 

The thought of the cabin was a driving force, as miserable as his body ached in the cold rain. If felt like an enormous effort to make the trek and then the climb, but he could rest at the end. He couldn't light the fire till she arrived, if she arrived, but he could still get comfortable and dry and that was what he set his mind on to distract him from his burning muscles as he hiked over the mud covered hills, the storm thankfully at his back now. 

He was about halfway there, coming over a rock cliff face that he could follow to bypass the harder part of the ascent, when he heard someone speaking, the voice coming from far bellow the ridge, echoing up along the chasm from what must be a small alcove in the wall. The path leading through down there connected to the main gates of the Embrace, so the chances that this was someone who was part of what was going on was high, and friend or foe he may glean something from what they were saying, so he edged closer, careful not to disturb the muddy earth at the lip of the drop off. 

As he approached the speakers words became clearer. "Let's go back, the warchief will have our skins if she thinks we were slacking off on a search" A woman was saying, sounding young and extremely worried. So they were braves then.

"Liah it's fine, we aren't slacking, we're trying not to drown, we'll tell Sona we got turned around." Came the reply from a slightly deeper voice, sounding just as young though much less concerned. 

"Yeah because she'll love hearing that" the girl chirped. "We'll be out in every rain storm from now till harvest "improving our navigation skills"." 

The boy made a disbelieving noise, though his voice was a bit more concerned now. "You worry to much, and about the wrong things." He said.

"How do you mean?" She asked, her anxious voice taking on a defensive tone. 

"I mean if you're going to be worried be worried about whoever keeps butchering these poor, tainted fools." The kid sounded callous, and his words struck Rost sharply. What did he mean, butchering? 

"Fen! Do not speak ill of the dead that way, All Mother would be ashamed!" She hissed, now sounding distinctly afraid. He wanted to see them, put a face to these names for future reference but he couldn't, the cliff face angled to sharply and the rain was heavy in his eyes anytime he attempted to gain a visual, so he sat back on his heals, listening intently.  

"Fine, but I'm right!" He spat back, "That's why those forsaken heathens keep killing them and dragging them back, because they crossed the border, took on the taint of those lands and brought it back. They're being punished!" He sounded like a child repeating words that had been said to him. His false confidence obvious in his voice as he spoke, well obvious to Rost anyway. 

His companion seemed to be listening. "You really think that's true?" She asked after a moment.

"I know it's true, you now my uncle and Sona are friends, she told him and he told me." Who could his uncle be? Now Rost really wanted to see the kids face, but before he could figure out how to do so a crack of thunder snapped loudly overhead, causing both of the kids to startle and yelp. 

"Maybe we should just go" she implored, "We went as far as she'd asked and haven't found a thing. Let's go back." 

"Yeah okay, you know braves are supposed to be brave though right?" The boy teased, chuckling to himself as the sound of his voice began to fade at the end, clearly moving off after the girl, the sound of their footfalls masked by damp earth and the thunder of raindrops on the land. 

He wasn't sure what to do with the information he'd just been handed yet, but it was important and very likely the reason they were here. It had been the Goddess's doing, obviously, he thought as he made a small thank you to her, but he would need to regroup with Aloy to find out what she has learned for it to make any real sense outside what was plain. 

Clearly there had been murders, and by the sound of it they had been carried out by outlanders on Nora who had utilized the open border. This troubled him. More because of Aloys involvement in the opening of the border than anything. If someone was targeting people for crossing, it would seem to Rost the person who opened it to begin with would be high on their list of future victims. He knew she could handle herself, but whomever was responsible had been successful several times so far...she would need to use caution at all times outside of the Embrace. 

He moved on, intent more then ever on reaching his destination quickly. 

----------

It took the better part of the day to reach the other side of the crest and wind his way down the sharp, snaking trail to the cabin. 

Huffing he turned the last rock, relief surging through him as the homesteads fence came into view, barely visible as the clouds obscured the afternoon sun and the rain continued its barrage. His left leg was his worst and it was an unending scream of pain at this point, the razor sharp jolts it shot up his spin as he walked spiking all the way up to the base of his skull. 

During the climb he'd managed to shift funny, not quite catching his footing and pulling some barely existent muscle and at this moment he had never been so grateful to see a cold, dark cabin. 

He could tell from here that Aloy wasn't there. No smoke, no movement, but that didn't trouble him much. Infact, despite his curiosity to know what was happening and his worry over her safety, he was glad for her absence. He was well aware she was with the tribe somewhere, and the more time she spent with them the better, he'd even be pleased if she chose to stay in the village tonight. He needed to see her want to be here, needed to see that same easy regard she had for the Oseram with her own people. So the more time she was there the better. He hoped.

He picked his way carefully towards home, his muscles somehow hurting even more with the effort of keeping his balance on the slick rock. Slowly he made the flat stretch of earth leading to his fence. Limping by he ran his hand over the roughly hewn timbers, smiling to himself, a fondness blooming in his chest. He hadn't expected to ever be back here... He would not have chosen his fate...but given what it was, given the joy he found raising Aloy here and the years of memories it held... it felt good to be back.

The warmth of home flooding his senses, he made his way around the exterior towards the front, keeping a careful eye out for any traps Aloy may have set in her absence. 

He found none, but as he rounded the corner, the entry coming into view, he looked to his right, down the path, and felt as if he'd walked straight into an electric tripwire, a powerful jolt of...something hitting him and making him feel as if all thought and emotion had been wiped clean, his insides left buzzing and blank, the rain suddenly muted and distant. 

He wasn't really sure why seeing a rock made him feel this way. He couldn't even really put a name to it. He just felt....wrong... and cautious, for some reason. 

Letting out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding he moved slowly, coming down the path to stand before his grave marker.

It was a large, carved stone, the symbol for All Mothers light engraved into the stone, as was custom. Trinkets and small offerings had been laid about, some older and worn with time, some that looked rather new.

He wasn't particularly afraid of his own mortality, at all, really, but standing at his own graveside was having a rather profound affect on him. Reaching out he hesitated, his calloused hand slowly making contact with the cold, wet stone. He could feel his pulse quickening, palm slowly sliding over the rocks surface. 

By all rights he should be under this stone...twice now...

He remembered that day sometimes, the images of Aloy fighting for her life, of her falling, coming to him the way his memories of Eisa and Alana did, but not as often, not as strong. He'd always attributed this to the fact that Aloy had lived, where his family had not. He hadn't ever really let himself think on her pain at losing him, didn't really want to accept that it would affect her as badly as it had. It would have made leaving to hard..

Yet he knew that pain...he'd spent more time at the graves of his mate and daughter then anyone knew, both mourning and just...being, and in their travels she had told him of her visits, told him of the nightmares, but he still hadn't allowed himself to really connect that she had hurt over him the way he still hurt over them. Didn't want to see it.

But now standing before his own grave the gravity of what she had felt hit him, guilt twisting his stomach into queasy knots as he pictured her sitting in front of this lifeless rock, alone in her grief. He knew the crushing weight of that loneliness, and the idea of her feeling that despair for him felt like a physical wound. 

Closing his eyes against the hot prickling of tears he took a deep breath, focusing on the sounds of the storm around him, the feeling of raindrops pelting his skin, bringing himself crashing back from the precipice of his revelation and into the present moment, before turning to head resolutely back towards the cabin.

He had realized something, standing there. He'd realized that he had made a mistake in leaving, he should have tried something else, but he should have remained, maybe he would have anchored her to her home, rather then keeping her from it. He'd realized that because he had, he'd caused her to leave as well.

He'd also realized that no matter what she chose now. No matter if she decided to stay here or travel to the farthest reaches of the world.

He would never leave her again. 

Chapter Text

"Damn it!" she growled through clenched teeth, shaking her sodden hair from her eyes and trying to yank her boot from the mud where it had sank in past the ankle. She was so close, literally a foot away from the bottom step of the cabin and now this on top of everything else! 

She was about to reach down to unstrap the thing and leave it when she heard the cabin door being yanked open. She snapped her head up, her heart just about stopping as she wasn't expecting anyone to be here, then she saw who it was and her surprise flipped right back to annoyed.

"How the hell did you get past the border?" She asked, still frozen in her soggy half crouch, leaned forward to try to free herself. He came down the steps, looking just as wet as she was and offered his hand. Reaching out to him he gripped her wrist and tugged, surprising her with how strong he still was as her foot popped free easily. He helped her balance as she staggered forward, not letting go of her arm as she righted herself on the steps. 

"I have my ways girl." He said. Then surprised her all over again, pulling her in and wrapping his arms around her in a firm embrace. 

She froze, going stiff as a board, her face pressed into the fur on his shoulder guard and his solid, reassuring warmth surrounding her. She had no idea what to do with this entirely unheard of display of affection, her hands hovering awkwardly at her sides as she tried to remember how to breath and process what was happening. 

But it didn't matter because he let go almost immediately. Holding her out at arms length for a moment, his expression intense but unreadable. "I'm sorry, Aloy" He said, so adamantly it was clear he wasn't apologizing for the hug. Then he turned and just walked back into the cabin, leaving her shocked and standing in the mud puddle she'd made on the porch. 

"Okay..." she said slowly, what had just happened... she stared at him as he went directly to the hearth to light the wood he had clearly already stacked, but he said nothing else. This had been such a long, strange day and she didn't have anymore room for anything else in her troubled mind, but clearly something was up. 

"It was wise of you to keep wood stored inside" he said approvingly from where he crouched, his voice soundly a bit choked and forced. What was going on with him? He never acted emotional and certainly never expressed affection. He went on "You should change, you'll take ill." 

"Is everything alright Rost?" She asked, yanking her muddy boots off at the door before approaching him. 

He blew on the new flames, one hand holding back his braided beard as he leaned into the hearth. Sitting back on his heals, he cleared his throat, saying in a more normal tone. "Yes. Now change and dry your things, we can discuss the day after" 

She stared at him for a moment, knowing it bothered him when she hovered, trying to get him to turn and acknowledge her, but when he'd gotten the fire lit and moved off, removing the larger bits of his armor to hang but still determinedly not looking at her, she gave up, heading for the ladder that led to her loft feeling more done with the day than ever. 

Throwing her gear down rather harder then she'd meant to she started to dig out her things from her sodden pack, arranging the smaller wet items to dry and grabbing up the larger things to hang down below. There was too much going on in her head and she relished the simplicity of the task, taking her time and listening to Rost as he moved about the cabin. The familiarity comforting, helping to ease the severe irritation she was feeling.

She hadn't expected that. She'd expected being back here with Rost to feel strange, but it didn't. Despite his odd behavior and their tensions she felt herself relaxing into the feeling only home could provide. A feeling that had felt distant and unreachable when she'd been here last trip, and worse before that... She'd barely even been able to make herself go inside when she and Erend had been back the first time. 

But now as she changed into her spare leathers, she could feel the warmth from the fire radiating from the hearth, smell the damp wood of the cabin and hear Rost humming to himself as he organized his own gear, and she felt herself relaxing, her mind finally quieting some. 

Yet as nice as it was and as much as she would rather just slide into her furs and sleep right then and there, she did still need to fill him in on what was happening, plus she was starving, so she grabbed her bundle of wet material and headed back down. He had laid out some dried provisions on the small table, so she snagged a piece of dried boar as she went by, nodding a thank you at him as she began hanging her things. 

She still didn't know how he'd managed to get here and she wanted to know "So seriously though, how did you get over the border? And how did you duck the braves?" She asked through a mouthful of jerky, shaking out her tunic and showering herself with water droplets.  

"There is a path, I will show you someday." His deep voice grumbled from somewhere to her left, the sound of a chair scrapping and then a grunt as he sat reaching her "As for the braves, I only came across two, and they were more concerned with the rain then with me." 

That didn't surprise her in the least, almost all the braves were so young they could hardly be called adults at all. Them being ineffective seemed correct after the things she'd seen on the hunts she'd attended. "They're careless, too many are too young and far too inexperienced." She said.

He chuckled, "You sound like Sona." 

"She might have said that ," She said, smiling, it actually was, she had said it on the way to the border, but it was true. Thinking of it reminded her of her lack of information however "Unfortunately that was just about the only thing she said, seeing as she refused to discuss what's been going on." She said bitterly, her humor ebbing as she turned her mind back to what she had seen, "She insisted I speak to the Matriarchs but they are tied up till tomorrow." 

There was a pause, while she hung the last piece of clothing, then he said calmly "That was probably wise of her." 

She whipped around and scoffed at him, giving him an unbelieving look that he raised an eyebrow at. "Really? It wouldn't be wiser to just tell me right there what she knew?"

"Perhaps she does not know everything, you do not know, so trust her judgment." He said, eyeing her before adding "So you have not learned anything yet?"

"I was shown a murder scene but wasn't told anything at all besides that it kept happening." She came to sit in front of the fire, leaning her back against a chest that sat near the edge of the hearth and crossing her legs. 

"I overheard the braves I came across mention that tribesmen are being murdered."  He said, leaning forward, his chair creaking loudly. His face looked worried in the light of the fire as he asked "What did you see?" 

The image of the grotesque scene flashed back into her mind, making her stomach turn, "It was really sick Rost. They had their throats slit, and were hung up in the trees wearing Carja guard helmets. Two of them. Sona said she knew who they were but never said and I never saw." He was watching his hands as she spoke, his grey eyes unfocused. "There was a note too, pinned to one of them. It said "Now you look like us too."" 

"That is... worrisome." He said slowly, "The braves also said that the victims were Nora who had utilized the open border..." he fixed her with a direct look, worry still evident on his lined features "You must be cautious Aloy, at all times." 

She hadn't really expected to hear that, she was more troubled by the news than his warning but it was still a weird thing to say. "Why? I mean why me specifically?" 

"You are the reason the border was open, are you not?" He said this as if it were obvious and she could feel herself getting defensive, before she could get out her waspish reply however he went on "You might be a target as well, and I worry, especially as I will not be able to be with you at all times." 

She snorted "Well you could, but you dont..."

"Aloy, don't." He said, his voice even but the look he shot her full of warning.

Closing her eyes she took a breath, the argument she wanted to have right there on the tip of her tongue, but she could feel sleep clawing at her and her mind was exhausted. He wanted to remain a ghost? Fine. 

She stood, "I'm going to bed, it's been too long of a day. I'll head to All Mother in the morning and get some answers." He was looking at her with a somber expression, but nodded as she made her way past. 

She reached the ladder, getting about halfway up before he said softly "Goodnight Aloy" 

"Goodnight Rost." She said back, that familiarity enveloping her all over again as she cleared the edge and shimmied into her bed. 

---------------

"Aloy!" Came an excited cry from down the otherside of the muddy path. She smiled, recognizing the sticher's voice as she turned, his grinning face greeting her as he jogged over to where she'd stopped on her way to see the Matriarchs. "It's so good to see you, especially with everything happening."

"Hi Teb." She said warmly, "I was just on my way to see the Matriarchs about that actually." 

"Ah well, they've been having a hard time with all of this." He said sadly, his soft features concerned as he reached a hand forward, gesturing up the path, "Come, I will walk with you." 

She was glad he'd decided to come along, she enjoyed his company. He was probably her closest friend aside from Erend and possibly Talanah, and he always had a way of putting big things into perspective so she valued his insight. "What do you mean?" 

He hesitated as they fell into stride "They...." he started, rolling his hands as if trying to spin the words from the still damp air. "They should probably explain..." he ended up landing on.

"Really? You too?" She said, giving her friend an exasperated shove with her arm, "Why will no one tell me what's going on?" 

He made an apologetic grimace, "It's..complicated.. they've just said that they would prefer to speak to you themselves." 

"Wait, why me specifically? You all can speak amongst yourselves but only they can speak to me? Is that what you're saying?" She couldn't believe this. This was exactly like the tribe. Suspicious to the end and hindering her at every turn with their ridiculous tribal law nonsense. 

He turned to her, and he really did look so pitifully sorry that she couldn't muster up much irritation at him, "Aloy I'm sorry, you know if they hadn't asked that I would.." 

"I know, Teb" She said softly, cutting him off and giving him a small smile "Thank you and it's fine, I mean it's not fine, but it isn't your fault." 

They passed up the last stretch to where the flag lined path to the mountain started and had stopped. She turned to him and gave a half hearted shrug. "Guess I'll go see what they have to say then." 

He gave her an apologetic smile and a small wave, adding hopefully "will you be in the village later?" 

"Maybe, depends on what happens here I think." She said, adding over her shoulder as she started up the rise "I promise I'll come find you if I am." 

This seemed to make him feel better as his smile became a bit warmer "Deal!" He said, turning to head back the way he'd come. 

As happy as she was to see Teb again the wrongness of all this was chewing at her as she turned her focus back to the Matriarchs. What was happening? Why all this secrecy?

Deciding she'd rather find out then wonder she picked up the pace. Cresting the carved out stairs and making her way to the door of the mountain, noticing the armed braves at either side. The one on the left, a brave a bit older than herself named Cairn, whistled through the entryway when she spotted her.  

By the time she reached the entrance, nodding as they made little half bows to her, Teersa was sweeping through the decorative hangings that lined the entrance, her arms thrown open and a wide, crooked grin adoring her wrinkled face. "Aloy! Child, you are back! And just in time." Wrapping an arm around her the woman ushered her in "We have much to discuss and sort out I'm afraid." 

"So I've been told. What is going on Teersa, and why has everyone been banned from speaking to me about it?" She demanded, trying hard to keep her tone in check and failing miserablely. She honestly liked Teersa, the woman was the closest thing she'd ever had to a what she imagined a grandmother would be like, and she'd been terribly kind and helpful during her visits...but she needed answers. She missed Erend, she was tired of the tension with Rost, and she just wanted to find the culprits and go home.  

"I am sorry about that Aloy, it was not my choice, unfortunately Jezza did not agree with me and Lansra has been making a huff again." The old woman was marching along quicker then she looked capable of, her tone exasperated, their voices now echoing off the vast cavern as they decended deeper into the mountain. 

She should have known. That crazy old bat had made things hard in any way she could, it was almost like a reflex. Just naturally hateful and bitter, not that she was the only one who still treated Aloy with disdain, but there weren't many and she was the worst, maybe with exception to Resh.

Since becoming Annointed though Lansra had toned it down, preferring to be more passive aggressive in her hindering, but knowing her, she should have seen  a bunch of murders triggering one of her deranged panics, especially once she heard she'd been black listed. 

"Doesn't surprise me much." She said scathingly, "but it bothers me that Jezza bought into whatever she's been saying". It really did. She didn't like her like she did Teersa but she was alright. 

"Well she isn't really, she just isn't sure, you know how wishy washy she can be." She said dismissively, she indicated Aloy should enter a room to their left so she did, coming into one of the heavily decorated corridors that led to a larger room with a fire pit. 

The other two Matriarchs where gathered here, along with a younger woman who was serving them tea. All three looked up as they entered, Aloy slowing in the walkway as Teersa breezed past her. "Sisters the Annointed has arrived, let us speak." She shot Lansra a venomous look "Civily." She added sternly, the older Matriarch scoffing and turning her sour face away. 

The table they occupied had several seats, and Aloy came up to the one that would put her facing Teersa where she had sat,  and as far as possible from Lansra. She hesitated, but Teersa turned to her "Sit girl." Then turning to the younger woman, "Tea, if you would dear." 

The woman jumped, having been staring at Aloy, but poured out another two mugs of tea, passing them over before departing with a bow. 

Neither Jezza nor Lansra would meet her eye and Teersa was placidly sipping her tea. 

She sat for another moment longer, tapping her finger on the wood surface of the table and trying her damndest to be polite, but her patience was gone and clearly no one else was going to get things going so "Alright, so what's happening, and what new problem do you have with me?" She asked, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms. 

Lansra made a disgusted noise, "You bringing death and despair on us is no new problem!" She spat, pointing a withered, trembling finger at her "You are a curse! No matter what my sisters say!" 

The other two made to say something to her but Aloy just laughed, making the indignant elder puff and swell even more. "That's not what the Goddess thinks." She said knowingly, her voice sharp, anger rising as she stood once more, planting her hands on the table. "The Goddess says I'm chosen, and I came all the way back here to help. To figure out why you've once again shut yourself off to the world, despite the Goddess's guidance to unite." 

They all shifted in their seats, Lansra refusing to look at anyone as she fumed. 

"Annointed you must understand. These murders have all pointed to the outsiders wanting us to remain here.....perhaps the Goddess's will was misinterpreted." Jezza said plaintively.

"The Goddess said directly that the healing of this world happened when it's people worked together, that's not up for interpretation" she said fiercely, though not entirely true it served her purposes and kept things peaceful.

Sitting back down she added "But I need to know all the details of these murders to figure out why someone is making it seem as if that were the case." 

"That is fair." Teersa said approvingly, her calm demeanor sliding smoothly back into place. "What do you know so far?" She asked.

"I know this last round involved a cryptic note, Carja armor and two dead tribesmen that may or may not be known." She ticked off on her fingers, recrossing her arms across herself.

She nodded, sipping her tea, setting her mug back down she began "Well, they were known. They were members of the tribe, the first to be killed who had never before left the sacred lands, not prior to the border opening. They had just returned the night before and then that morning braves patrolling found them.." she sighed deeply, wiping at the corner of her eye. "They were also not the first."

She sighed, "I knew that, Sona did mention it had been happening." She was trying to be courteous of the Matriarchs obvious sorrow over the deaths but was also burning for answers. Whomever was doing this needed to be stopped immediately. 

"It has happened three previous times." Teersa said solemnly "Just one day after you'd left us we found the first, an outcast, one known to have made full use of the border opening. He was found with his throat cut in the road, just outside the gates. The next was a pair of former exiles... they had chosen to return, their crimes being only that they had left, and we welcomed them. They were traders, and came and went for a few months before they went missing two days after the first death." She paused here again to sniff and dab at her eyes, Jezza patting her arm. "Forgive me, they were known to me and I cherished their return." 

Giving her sister a grieved look Jezza continued in her stead, "They were found with throats cut as well, again in the road, but with a note that read "stay out", we decided then to close the borders temporarily, intending to send word to the Carja, but we found the third victim only a day later. She was like the two before, an exile who'd returned. She crossed the border once, just for the day, but she didn't come back and we found her a day later." She gave Aloy a severe look, obviously trying to convey the intensity of what this meant.

"Okay but why turn back Avad's men, they could have helped catch these people, you could use the extra eyes." She said, still not understanding that part. Even if outlanders were to blame cutting off your only allies seemed stupid. 

"There was another note attached to the last exile killed, Aloy, it read "Savages are not welcome here.". Whoever is doing this is not of the tribe and we must protect ourselves. We cannot trust the Carja until we know. None of them." Teersa added, her voice firm on the last sentiment. 

Aloy rolled her eyes, pinching her temple. "Just because you can't trust the odd outlander until this is resolved doesn't mean you can't trust your allies. The tribe is so few, we need the help, and nothing you've said or anything I've seen so far makes me think different. Avad is a good ally and Balahn an honest Captain, it was wrong to turn them away."

"Cautious Aloy, not wrong." Jezza reprimanded.

Before she could say anything back Teersa placed a hand on her arm "it was, and now that the only trusted link we have to these allies has returned." She said, ignoring Lansra's disbelieving snort "We can open some communication safely, I think." 

Lansra sputtered indignantly but Jezza was looking thoughtful, considering. "I agree." She said finally. 

"Well I do not! And I do not agree that this thing is any more chosen than the metal devil itself!" She snarled, banging the table as she stood, her ropes and beads clicking and swinging madly. "Allowing her aid will bring more death! Goddess mark my word!" 

"Lansra!" Teersa said loudly, standing up as well. 

But the woman had stormed off, rambling to herself and gesturing as she went. 

"Good, let her go, you both out rule her anyway." Aloy said, her lip curling at the woman's back. "Is there anything else that happened? Any other suspicious disappearances, any more notes? anything like that?" She truly wasn't bothered by Lansra's insanity. She was as deranged as the machines and made no sense half the time anyway. 

"No. So far we have turned up nothing else." Teersa said sadly, still looking after Lansra with disgust in her eyes. She sighed, resuming her seat. 

"Alright, then I'm going to go speak to Sona, then head to Daytower to fill in Balahn." Jezza took in a small sharp breath and Aloy rounded on her. "They need to know. Just because whoever is doing this has so far kept to tribesmen doesn't mean they will stick to that, and you need to communicate with your allies. That's how allies work" she added sardonicly. Ignoring the tight lipped look the two elders exchanged. 

"Just be cautious," Teersa advised. 

"I don't need caution, they're friends, but sure, will do." She said defiantly. Standing and making her way out of the mountain. It wasnt polite to just run off but considering the majority thought her an untrustworthy devil she didn't much care.

She needed air. That place was stifling enough without the weight of their need to come to a consensus with a crazy woman. She couldn't take it, it was so ludicrous and after all the help Avad had given it seemed blatantly rude and unthinking to cut ties with the Sundom as they were. 

The cool air hitting her face she suddenly felt a pang of guilt. She had mostly intend on seeing Teb again today, but the trip to Daytower and back would bring her home after dark, even if she really pushed her strider. 

She sighed, heading down and asking for Sona, only to find out she was stationed along the border. Which was fine, she'd ask for her when she got there. She needed more answers, as much as she would never admit it to the Matriarchs, she knew there had been treachery in Balahn's ranks before, what if this was more of that? She needed to figure it out. 

She'd also need to make it up to Teb, but that would have to wait, she thought, heading out the gates and off towards a heard of striders. 

-----------

Sona hadn't been there, just a stone faced, determinedly silent Varl and another, younger brave who'd stuttered as he'd relayed that the warcheif was out surveying for clues. 

Not wanting to waste more time and knowing she probably didn't have much more insight than the Matriarchs she went ahead and moved on. Making Daytower by late afternoon. 

The guard had seen her coming, recognizing her and opening the gate as she approached, allowing her to pull her mount up to mill about in the open area before the border. The gate guard hailed her, waving as she approached. 

He came up as she dismounted, keeping a leary eye on the machine. "Good evening ma'am, Captain Balahn has been expecting your return, please." He gave a respectful little bow and indicated she follow, which she did. He led her through the settlement to the long wooden walkway that overlooked the Gatelands beyond. 

She could see Balahn standing at the end of this, looking out towards the west. He turned at the sound of her foot steps on the creaky wood planks. "Ah' you're back, with news I hope." 

"Of course" she said dryly, coming up to stand next to him and leaning on the wooden railing. "They shut the border because Nora who have been crossing it are turning up murdered with notes that sound like they were written by outlanders," she paused, scratching her chin, "This last batch were even sporting your guards helmets Balahn. You dont happen to now how they could have gotten those do you?"

He looked surprised "Unfortunately I do." He said, her surprise reflecting his own, she honestly hadn't expected him to know,  or at least not to know the answer so quickly. He went on, sounding troubled "The guard I was reprimanding the day you arrived was being punished for allowing our store house to be robbed while on duty." 

"Let me guess, the theif made off with a bunch of helmets." She said, this actually made a lot of sense. 

"They did, among many other things." He replied. 

"I'll need to speak to the guard, and have a look at the store house." She said distractedly, already planning. With the rain she might be out of luck but maybe her focus could pick up a trail or a clue or something they had missed. Something that might point her towards the culprit. 

"The man on duty is young but I trust him." He said, crossing his arms infront of his chest. "As for the store house you are welcome to do as you see fit." 

She couldn't believe him "okay, Captain, but you trusted prefect Zaid as well, did you not? I'd like to talk to the man in question regardless." She didn't really care what he said, she would do as she wanted, but his assistance made things easier. 

"I had no reason not to trust the Crowns assessment of Zaid, Aloy, this man I trust myself." He gave her a piercing look, "But I daresay you'll do as you please, so I will arrange for him to meet with you."

"He's not here?" 

"No, he is on assignment with a few of my other guard to clear machine threats along the road between here and Lone Light. I'll have you informed when he returns." He inclined his head as he spoke, but gave her a serious look. "As for the Nora?" 

"Until I figure out more they won't trust any outsiders, at all, but are open to communication as long as it's done through me." She gestured to herself as she spoke, pulling an unhappy half smirk.

Balahn didn't have much else to add, but gave her a spare key to the storehouse itself and let her on her way. 

As she made her way there she couldn't help the ominous feeling that hit her, this seemed far too similar to before, and she had insisted so firmly that it wasn't Avad's people at fault....

....if this guard was involved it could permanently shut the Nora off from trusting the Carja ever again. 

Chapter Text

Rain clattered against his windows as he woke, the panes rattling in the wind. There was no telling what time it was but the light had increased a bit from the pitch dark of the night so it must be daylight out. 

He hadn't slept well, but he'd slept hard, the ale he'd had the night before with the Vanguard paving the way for a dreamless sleep. The drink was also making the room more muddled and fuzzy than usual and he wasn't quick to wake on his best days, so he lay sprawled in the warm blankets, listening to the rain while his blurry surroundings slowly came into focus. 

Thunder rumbled and cracked outside, the boom effectively shaking his brain awake the rest if the way. Yawning he rubbed at his face, seriously debating just staying where he was. Laying here and dozing to the sound of the rain and letting another day without Aloy just slide on by. 

Rolling over he snuggled into the soft pillows, taking a deep breath, the faint scent of forest and flowers lingering on the bedding and filling his lungs. It was almost possible to imagine she was here in his half awake state, and he didn't technically have to go in today... 

Plus it was raining...

But the feast was coming up... and they had six new recruits...Erend groaned loudly, rolling back over to flop onto his back and pulling into a stretch, his spine popping in several places. He couldn't stay in bed, he'd been gone, and he trusted Delorn to hold down the fort but he needed to check on things himself and it was better just to get it done rather than waste the day.....least that's what Ersa would have said...and probably Aloy too...

He sighed deeply at his ceiling, swinging his legs out of bed and scratching at his hairline as he sat up and made his way downstairs to the bath.

Besides if he was being straight with himself laying there wallowing in their bedding was just going to lead to more missing her and more worry. He needed to distract himself. He'd already been way too anxious over her being gone and he'd only gotten back yesterday, he was fussing like some old crone.

He wasn't entirely sure why he couldn't relax either, or at least relax as much as he usually did when she was away and it felt like half of his heart had left his body.... but still.. this time he couldn't even do that. He kept trying to, but that fear that everything was about to change and he was going to lose her to the Nora scratched at him like a persistent itch, and so far nothing, including crying to his friend...had made it stop. 

Washing he grimaced, splashing the warm water over his face and rinsing himself off. He'd went and spilled his guts to Roan last night, telling him his fears over her Da's return and what that might mean for them. He hadnt meant to, he wasn't usually one for vocalizing emotions, least not to his men... but four ales in his dear old friend had slapped him on the back and asked him straight to his face what was bothering him as he'd stared a hole through his mug, missing her so bad it hurt, and the words had just...come out. 

Not that Roan had minded, and he'd done a fairly good job of reasoning with him and calming those fears, at least while the ale had been in him...but now just seeing her things around the washroom was kicking his over-worried brain into high gear. He had to do something with himself or he'd wind up at the bar again, and once in a while was fine but he'd had to many last night and didn't intend to pick that habit back up. He needed to stay straight and keep doing his best to be the kind of man who was worthy of walking his sister's path, the kind of man who was worthy of standing at Aloy's side, the kind who hopefully would also be worthy of her hand...

He couldn't stop stressing about that either, yet another persistent little itch at the back of his mind. It shouldn't even matter but he'd worked himself up about it...Rost coming back had worked him up about it... and than what if she moved back? 

Back in the bedroom he dressed quickly and donned his armor, doing his best to shut those thoughts out and combing his Mohawk back with his fingers as he headed down the stairs. He wasn't thrilled to be heading out in this weather but he'd survive, he wasn't doing patrols today anyway, just hitting the command post and handling whatever was happening from there. 

Shouldering his weapon he glanced across the room and stopped, a flash of blue on top of Aloy's workbench catching his eye. Crossing the room he grabbed one of the little beads and pocketed it, turning back around to head out before he could look at her things any closer and start to pine. 

The minute he opened his door he was smacked by about a thousand raindrops and his previous woes were forgotten, the door being thrown in as soon as the latch had unhooked. This was a worse downpour then the Claim! He hesitated, the allure of his warm bed becoming stronger the longer he stared out into the dreary wet chaos. Least it wasn't as cold as the Claim...

Though it was still pretty fucking close, he thought miserably after bracing himself and stepping out of the apartment, shivering as the cold water ran down his scalp. He yanked the door closed behind him and turned, the howling wind whipping the sharp little droplets every which way. Tucking himself up close to the surrounding buildings as he walked he found a tiny bit of relief, the numerous overhangs and awnings providing some cover, but he was still soaked down to his underthings when he finally arrived at Vanguard command. 

No one was here, which was fine as his head was starting to pound from the mild hangover he was nursing, but the place was also a mess...

He shook himself off as best he could, tossing aside his wet gauntlets on a nearby table as he eyed the messy stacks of parchment that were strewn haphazardly across his desk and the patrol table, the miscellaneous items stacked or thrown around the room and the disarray of chairs and tables. 

He was sorely tempted to leave it and just go home, let them straighten up or make them straighten up when he was officially back on duty and not just coming in on his rest day. But all that was waiting for him at home was an apartment with no Aloy and chores that also needed doing. 

So instead he made his way around the room, tossing things where they belonged and kicking chairs back under tables. Cleanliness wasn't exactly a well known Oseram trait, in fact it was rather the opposite. So he couldn't really be too pissed about this, plus Delorn had been alone, but he himself had always had Ersa, who had a habit of keeping things tidy and in order, something she'd hammered into his steel when they were young. He felt his mood shift a bit at the memory, straightening up and laying the fallen scrolls he'd retrieved on the desk as bitter sweet nostalgia cut at him.

He caught a decent amount of flack from the men when the mess would build up and his mood would turn sharp over it, but it reminded him so strongly of his sister he really didn't care. Plus Ersa had run a tight ship, they had an image to uphold she'd said, told them it was important to be more than where they were from and that being organized was smart, which it was. Besides it scored him points with Aloy, as his place had always been clean and organized in the beginning and she had seemed to approve of that, despite now being the messiest person in their home....

He smiled to himself, warmth flooding him at the thought of her haphazardly strewn clothes in the bedroom, of her little workbench she refused to let him near, the catastrophe of machine parts and knick knacks across the top going straight to his nerves, yet somehow when she was gone it became his favorite spot in the whole house. 

He sat down at his desk with a grunt, the room as orderly as it was gonna get, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the little blue bead he'd snagged from that very workbench earlier, rolling the dyed wood slowly between his fingers. It helped, carrying something of her's like this, so he'd taken to keeping one on him when she was away. He'd catch himself rolling the bead around absentmindedly and it always made him feel closer to her, reminded him that she was coming back, that this was her home. He kept having to take more, as he would worry them till they broke, splintering between his fingers. There started to be more and more left out when she'd go, and even though he hadn't told her about it, he was starting to think she was leaving them out specifically for him and it served as another reminder of where her heart was. 

Glancing up to the mountain of reports he huffed another sigh, feeling his motivation waning. He needed to get this shit done already, and better now than later. Straightening in his chair he slipped the bead back into his pocket and reached for the nearest pile, dragging it towards himself. 

If he was lucky this would take all day. 

--------------

He ended up going through the lot by early afternoon.. the rains having become a light, steady drizzle, the sounds of the market now loud and clear through the open windows. 

None of the other Vanguard had come through, which didn't surprise him much with the weather, but as he stood and stretched Roan came barging into the room, his ruddy face irritated, soaking wet and leaving a stream of water in his wake. 

"Fire and spit!" He cursed, shaking himself and spraying water everywhere "Why are you here today?" 

"Paperwork" he grunted, pointing at the desk. "And I was gonna ask you the same thing." 

The man was in full armor, and had clearly been out for a good while. He knew why he was in but couldn't understand why his second had bothered, as they'd returned yesterday all three were owed a day off and the other two had been tanked at the tavern last night, he'd have placed shards that neither would even be out of bed right now. 

"I ended up having to break up a brawl in the village center this morning." He said, his gruff voice full of false cheer "Some bung remembered where I lived and came bangin' on my door first thing, instead of grabbing one of the featherheads mind, to tell me a pair of crazy merchants were having it out. In this rain!" He added spitefully.

Erend laughed, coming up to Roan as he passed him and clapping him on the shoulder, "I'm going for food, join me? You look like you could use it." He had decided about an hour ago to head to a nearby tavern for a bowl of stew and an ale when he was done with his desk work and wouldn't mind the company. 

They made their way there, the place full of people trying to warm up on this chilly wet day. Pushing their way through the crush of bodies they found a table and sat, the food and his friend recounting his morning of wrangling unruly shop keeps chasing his problems from his mind for a good hour or so, but by the time they departed, Roan heading home to dry off properly and go back to sleep, Erend still had at least four hours of cloud covered daylight and then some hours before bed. 

The hell was he going to do with himself? He wasn't inclined to return to work, and was less inclined to return to the bar. Those two things being what he filled his time with mainly when Aloy was away. But without the option of throwing himself into his work or having a drink with his men, he didn't really know where to head. He could go spar with someone at the training grounds, even in the rain there was always guard of some sort there, but it would be a mud pit, and he didn't feel like dealing with that. The rain even made just walking about the city unappealing, plus she was usually with him when they went on walks...

His heart panged, aching in his chest. He missed her so bad.. when she was here they did almost everything together, all their free time being spent with one another. Something they hadn't agreed to do but that had just sort of happened, this mutual need to be near each other as much as possible. He'd never had a problem occupying himself before her, but now that he had her he couldn't seem to manage it, everything just made him think of her and worry. 

Before her he'd have filled his time with drink and acting a fool at the bar with the other Vanguard, but now... Looking out over the city he spotted the smoke, steady and black despite the weather and at the far side of the village, down below the edge of the mesa and out of sight. The village forges...that could work...

Turning that way he made for the elevators, taking long purposeful strides. He hadn't been to the forges in a long time but he knew the work like the back of his hand and they always needed help. Always needed a pair of hands to mend armor or replace axe heads and broken hilts. Things that needed to be done, that would help the city while also helping him feel useful. Plus It was hard work that left him exhausted, the heat of the fires clearing his head like nothing else. clearing it and keeping it blank and focused on what he was making or fixing. 

When he'd first settled here, after the liberation, he'd gone more often. Mostly for vanities sake as the work kept him in shape while doing mundane patrols, but also because it was a reminder of more familiar things. The Claim not a place he loved but still the closest thing he'd had to home at the time, before he'd met her. 

He had come to love this city, had always been proud of taking it from Jiran, but the Carja and their ways grated on him sometimes, especially in the beginning. With their poetic diplomacy and veiled agendas, their pomp and civility and general snottyness. It wore on him in a way his own people didn't. That's part of what he loved so much about Aloy. She was so...blunt, bulldozing through the pretentiousness like a pissed off Trampler. Uncultured and untempered and purely, unapologetically herself. Too ill mannered for the Carja but exactly the breath of honest, clean air he needed living in this place. She kept him grounded, gave him the push to stay driven and do his best when the weight of being the Captain of the Vanguard in a city of snobby nobles got to him. 

He'd made the elevators, his boots clanking on the shiny wet metal, and was flipping the switch as he felt that ominous stab in his chest again, the feeling stronger than ever. He closed his eyes as the clang of the doors reached his ears, the cart shuddering and a breeze picking up through the grates as he descended, focusing on the steady flow of air and trying to push the feeling away. 

It was hard though, when he was absolutely terrified that he was losing her. He wanted more than anything for her to be happy, and if going home to Rost and reentering the tribe that way would do it he'd support her to no end, even if that meant stepping aside. His heart shattered at the idea, but he knew he would. Before he knew she wouldn't be happy there, had seen it, heard it from her lips, but now he wasn't sure. As much as he supported the reunion and wanted Rost's approval, the longer she was gone the more he was sure she'd not come back. 

He was heading for a treacherous downslide into unwanted thoughts and he knew it. He shook himself, opening his eyes again and watching as the ground came closer. This is why he needed to stay busy, his mind was his own worst enemy and he knew it. He also knew her, knew that she was still Aloy even with Rost alive. Still a wild, world saving huntress who was too stubborn and too sure of herself to do anything other than exactly as she pleased. He needed to remember her words, her love and the trust she'd given him that he cherished more than anything. She'd come back, and even if she spent more time there, she'd still be his, still be here. 

Things would be fine. 

His cart came to a stop and he headed out and around to the South. The town's forges sat at the edge of the village, small but enough to provide for the city and it's needs, and enough to get him through the rest of his day without losing his mind and packing his bags to head for the Embrace that instant.

Pulling his mind away from his troubles with the practiced skill years of being a soldier had lent him, he trained his eye on the smoke and focused on getting where he was going. 

Luckily for him today the place was empty aside from the forgemaster, so he took up the nearest leather apron and set to work the minute he hit the doorway, the fire's heat blasting him in the face, the sharp smell of coal and steel biting at his senses and making his eyes sting as they adjusted. 

He worked till he couldn't anymore, hammering away his worries and making a substantial dent in the stack of items in need of repair. When he finally stopped night had settled in deep, the moon high in the sky, and his whole body feeling shaky and weak, half dead but his mind at ease and entirely blank. 

By the time he'd made his way home bathing was the last thing he wanted to do, but the bed was soft and clean and he was anything but... so he unceremoniously tossed his armor onto the couch, promising himself he'd put it away properly later, and headed to the bath. 

After splashing some water on himself he'd gone up to pull on sleep cloths and made it as far as the bed before falling into the blankets in his towel, asleep almost the second the soft cloth hit his skin, warmth and her lovely smell wrapping him up and pulling him under. 

Chapter Text

Being home on his land, in the cabin he'd built, with Aloy safe and asleep in her bed, brought him a sense of peace he couldn't describe. 

It was a deeper feeling than it had been, on mornings like this when his dreams woke him before the dawns light touched the land. This peace had the weight of almost never having been, a layer of gratefulness for where he currently sat, wrapped in his furs on his dark patio, pink creeping up the dark starry sky from the Eastern horizon. He felt calm, the constant ache of his body seeming lessened by his current situation, even if his favorite part of being here was still avoiding him. 

He watched his breath cloud in the cold, crisp air, the rains having passed days ago only to be followed by sporadic snow flurries, small drifts of white starting to build up in the places the sun couldn't reach. 

She'd come back that first day well after dark, his heart unlodging from his throat as he spotted her coming up the dark path, having spent his day resting his injured muscles and doing any upkeep that needed to be done at the cabin. He'd asked what she'd learned, but she'd been frustrated and irritable, unwilling to discuss anything that night, simply saying it was a long story they could talk about in the morning as she disappeared up to her loft. 

But the next day she'd woken up early, silently gathering her things for the day and leaving before he'd risen. This had bothered him, but he'd decided to use the day to check on Grata, and been glad he had. The old woman had been weak and malnourished, living off far less substantial meals then she had when he and Aloy had lived here. This had hit him with a sharp sting of guilt. She was outcast, and by law on her own, but he'd taken up a kind of stewardship over her, and he felt like he'd failed that. As he'd hunted for her and gathered some necessary herbs, he'd sent yet another prayer to the Goddess for staying his path and calling him back to her embrace in time to help not only Aloy but poor Grata. 

Though he wasn't feeling of much use to Aloy currently.....aside from making sure there was something to eat when she returned from her investigating.

He was trying, but she rebuffed any offers he made and told him the bare minimum. She hadn't even told him what the Matriarchs had said until she'd returned that second day, once again well after dark and saying she'd been out looking at the murder scenes and speaking to the Carja at Daytower. The news of what was happening had troubled him, badly, but she had turned quiet and resentful as soon as the information was relayed and refused to speak or speculate further, going to bed after and then once again rising with the sun and sweeping silently from the cabin. 

His left leg spasmed, so Rost stretched it out infront of him, resting his boot heal on the wood stack in front of where he sat, groaning as it stretched painfully, tiny needle pricks running along his nerves. The muscles relaxed into the stretch, the painful sensation subsiding a bit as he sighed, both in relief and frustration. It wasnt as if he didn't know why she was behaving this way, it just wasn't a conversation he wanted to have.

She had tried to bring up the issue once again, twice actually, over the past few days, and he had gently but firmly reasserted his choice both times, not interested in allowing her to continue to burden herself with worry over something that was decided. There was more she needed to focus on, like helping the tribe. And the topic itself prickled through his insides, making him uneasy, he didn't want to discuss it further, the choice of his outcasting was made, and he had no interest in challenging the knowledge of his death in light of that. A sizable part of him couldn't even look at the idea of rejoining, not after over twenty years of forcefully accepting his place, not when he knew it couldn't be.

The problem was that instead of accepting his answer and unwillingness to delve into the conversation further, she shut down, going angry and rigid at his responses, then moving off to go up to her loft without another word, laying awake well into the night if the faint glow of her trinket was any indication. She had stopped bringing it up after his second rebuffement, but she'd also stopped bringing up anything at all in the last few days of vanishing at first light to do whatever she was doing, coming home well after dark brooding and introverted with dark rings slowly forming beneath her eyes. 

He needed to speak to her, he knew at this point that it would be necessary to do this, to help her understand, for her to find peace with it and move on if nothing else. He just needed to do it carefully..

Before returning at all he had weighed the choice heavily, knowing it was against tribal law for them to speak but needing to find her and correct or protect her on her path. He had decided it was the Goddess's will but he hadn't thought past that, and now he knew he wouldn't leave her, so perhaps she'd agree once again to her original plan, or something similar. He didn't want to be known again to the tribe necessarily, but if allowing the knowledge of his existence would serve as a compromise in getting back in her good graces, he could accept it. 

Even with the tribe knowing of his return, with her statues as Anointed, it was possible that their continued relationship would never become an issue for her. Plus at this point he'd realized that he'd gotten it wrong, that he had been her anchor here, not what would keep her from the tribe. Perhaps he could ground her here again, and live once again in his homeland, openly.

He would offer that first, start with that, potentially avoid any more arguments over him rejoining...

Nerves were creeping into his peace and he tucked them back, shifting his leg again and re-centering himself. 

He'd risen early for a reason, no need to worry. She'd be up soon enough and they'd figure this out before she left. 

-------------

But she didn't rise with the sun today. She didn't rise as it made its way slowly across the sky either, which was almost unheard of for her, even back before her proving. 

He was felling anxious. He had prepared himself to confront her this morning, to sit her down and talk this out, find a way to work together in this and heal their bond, but he'd prepared to speak to her at sunrise, when she usually woke. The longer the day went on the less convinced he was she'd accept his compromise and the more nervous he got, an edge of worry slowly building the longer she slept. 

The last time she'd done this she'd been ill. Catching a fever from an injury on her foot she'd stitched herself as a child, and she'd been sick for over a week...

The image of her small, sweaty face, twisted as she rode out the affects of the fever, stuck behind his eyes. Going up to her space to check on her or wake her felt invasive in their current state.....but if she was ill... she'd been pushing herself to her limits, working herself to exhaustion to find the culprits and stop the murders...what if she was being careless with her health because of it? 

He spent another half hour or so shuffling about the living space, eventually heading outside to busy himself with something there but ending up turning at the base of the stairs and heading back in, the fear of her waking and needing him and him not being close enough to hear jumping to the forefront of his anxieties. 

Finally he couldn't take it anymore, the concern burning at him as brightly as the late morning sun through the window. 

Pausing at the base of the ladder he took a breath, bracing his energies. Reaching out he pulled himself up hand over hand, his joints creaking as much as the rungs of the ladder as they took on his weight. He peaked over the top as he reached it, she was definitely asleep, no more than a large mound of furs in the dark shadows of the loft, steadily rising and falling. 

Should he wake her? Maybe not...she seemed to be sleeping soundly, perhaps she simply needed the sleep. That thought and the sight of her had eased his mind, so he began to descend, but he hadn't gone one step down before stopping. She'd looked peaceful from afar when she'd been sick before too....

He had to check, at least see her face and make sure she was just sleeping in. 

He crept as quietly as he could over the top of the ladder and towards the pile of furs that was Aloy. She mumbled in her sleep, making him freeze, but she only shifted a bit and slept on. He came up alongside her bed and felt his heart swell in his chest, both bittersweet sadness and love suddenly pushing at the back of his eyes, threatening to spill over. 

She looked so young..so soft and small, as she'd always looked to him as a child. Her face relaxed, mouth hanging slightly open as she snored softly, hair a sprawled mess around her. Before he could think better of it he'd reached out and gently brushed a lock of red hair from her face, his fingers grazing her cheek. He pulled back his hand as she stirred, but she simply rolled onto her side, facing him now and mumbling again. He smiled softy as he watched her face settle back into sleep.

She was definitely exhausted, as it was clear she wasn't fevered, but he couldn't stop looking at her face either.. he missed her so much. Missed this Aloy, relaxed and calm, at ease. Missed being a welcome facat of her life.

He sat crouched for another few minutes, watching her dream, before he noticed a swath of yellow tucked up under her chin. Yellow wasn't exactly a color the Nora dyed with, and his curiosity got the better of him. Moving slowly he softy pulled back the bit of her furs that draped over her front, smile widening as he shook his head and huffed a small sigh, feeling a warm amusement mix in with the fondness he was already drowning in. Amusement and maybe just the tiniest bit of exasperation. 

She had brought one of the striped shirts the Vanguard wore with her and had it hugged to herself. The white and yellow fabric bunched up against her chest and under her face. She moved again, turning her head into the pillow so he slowly replaced her blanket, laying a gentle hand on her fur covered shoulder before moving away, quietly heading back down and out onto the porch, breathing in the crisp air, his nerves significantly reduced.

He'd suspected part of her bad mood had been in regards to the absence of the Oseram, despite her having not mentioned him much. That was yet another layer to her return to the Embrace he needed to figure out... He knew that her relationship to the outlander made her return less likely, had hoped maybe she'd not mentioned him because it wasn't bothering her, but knew that probably wasn't the case then and knew for sure now. 

If he was honest he didn't mind Erend either, wasn't fond of the fact that he was Oseram or that he was a seasoned soldier where she had barely ran her proving, but still. He seemed to genuinely care for Aloy, had obviously won her trust, and held a position that would indicate he's well trained and reliable. He'd also shown promise as an ally in getting Aloy to accept Rost back into her life, and that was key. 

Perhaps it would still be as simple as convincing the man it was best for her to be here. Either way it was a worry he could shelve for another day, getting her to see the merit of staying here was his first goal and he needed her to come to a compromise on his choice and stop ignoring him first. 

Heading down the front steps he made his way round the side of the house, intent on occupying his mind until she woke and they could speak. 

But he'd barely began going through the mess of supplies at the rear of the cabin when he heard noise from within. Coming round the side quickly so as not to miss her he opened the front door and almost collided with Aloy. 

"Rost!" She yelped. Recovering quickly and attempting to side step him, "I have to go, i should not have slept this late." 

"Aloy wait, please sit. I have something to speak to you about." He said gently, indicating she move back and receiving a frustrated look in return. 

She let out a sigh, looking disheveled and pinching the bridge of her nose "Rost, I'm not in the mood, and I've wasted so much of the day already, can we just..."

"Aloy, please, just hear what I have to say." He implored. She could run off after, he only needed her to listen for a moment. 

She sighed again but turned, heading back into the cabin, spinning around to lean against the small table to look at him, her face masked behind forced indifference "What is it then?" She asked flatly.

He took a steadying breath himself and came towards her, stopping a few feet away, "I know that you are angry with my outcasting," he started, as she huffed and looked to the floor, crossing her arms "I know, but I want to fix my wrong with you, and be able to help you now and in the future." She looked back up to him, a glimmer of hope in her eyes, that was good. Heartend he continued "I cannot change that I am outcast, but as you have the tribe and the Goddess's favor, I can accept remaining here, and allowing the tribe to know of my survival." 

She frowned at his words, but her face still shown hopefully as she said "if you're willing to be alive again maybe I can do something about your outcasting too." It was his turn to frown, but she pushed on, uncrossing her arms and gesturing towards herself "Really! You said yourself that I had both the tribe and the Goddess's favor..."

"Aloy," he said gently, realizing she was gaining a head of steam and wanting to cut it off before she went to far. But she waved him off.

"Surely that gives me the right to petition on your behalf. After all you've done for them and the ridiculous reason you were cast out... that never should have happened! And now they need you more than ever.."

"Aloy!" He said more firmly, he could feel he calm he'd established waning. He'd hoped to avoid this. 

"They do! They need help Rost! Someone to help train these new braves in our ways. Another hunter, another defender who knows what they are doing! You have so many skills they need now that they are so few" she was walking towards him, both her face and voice so hopeful it broke his heart. She didn't know what she spoke of..

"Aloy they do not need me, I am an injured outcast and they would not see my return as anything but a burden and..."

"You're wrong!" She said vehemently, shaking her head, a pleading look now sliding onto her face. "You haven't been there, haven't seen them! And aside from that.."

He couldn't do this. He could feel his pulse quickening as the idea of returning to his people was pushed closer and closer, forcing him to look at it. 

"No!" He cut in loudly "You must allow some things to remain as they are Aloy, it is law. It has been law for as long as you have lived, you need to accept that and let it be."

"I'm not accepting a damn thing until you do more than make your mind up off of ideals!" She said scathingly, hurt and anger rolling off of her in waves now, all hope long gone from her stare. 

Ideals? He could feel his own anger rising at her words but he didn't understand what she meant, "speak plainly girl " he growled, doing his best to keep his tone even. "You want me to hear your reasoning than speak it clearly."

She swelled, her green eyes flashing "I'm saying that you have this ideal image of what you think the tribe is, and based off of that, you've decided that your ever strong, ever law abiding Nora don't need you. But they aren't strong, and their lack of trained tribesmen has them mired in poor habits and they need your knowledge, your skills!" 

"I have no skill that could be an asset to the tribe. They are trained as I am, they know what I do." He said stubbornly, backing away from her words. 

"That may have been true before but it isn't now..not when so many have died." She said sadly, turning and pacing as she continued "the majority of the surviving tribe are not braves Rost...not hunters. They don't have the old knowledge, and the ones who do are spread too thin to properly train the youth, especially now." She ran frustrated fingers through her hair as she walked "But you, who adheres to the tribes ways better than most of the Nora themselves, refuse to look past what you knew to see what is, and I can't accept that."

She had turned, fixing him with a cold regard. He didn't know what to say to her. He didn't know what to feel. Hed spent so many years pushing aside the longing he had for his people that trying to look at the idea of returning didn't feel possible. It wasn't something that could happen, he'd had over twenty years to accept that. Something cold dropped into his stomach. He'd had twenty years to accept it and twenty years of being nothing more than an outcast to the good majority of the tribe, they weren't his anymore. Weren't his to be a part of, it wasn't the Goddess's will for him to be with them, hadn't been for almost half of his life. This was his place. 

Wasn't it? 

Shaking his head he fixed her with a fierce stare. Even if they did, by law he was outcast, nothing she said changed that. "Even if what you say is true, I am an outcast, not an exile, they will not allow my return."

"That's not true Rost! You haven't been there, you don't know, things are different." She said desperately, "Let me speak to the Matriarchs, see what they..." 

He could feel his anger shaking through his nerves now, he couldn't process the idea of going back, of living as one of them again. Couldn't open himself back up to the pain missing that connection brought, and in lieu of having a proper emotion for his overwhelming feelings to land on they had landed on angry. Frustrated, defensive anger he couldn't explain any better than he could stop. 

"No!" He said, his voice reflecting his ire more then he'd intended "You will not speak to them. Stop with this insistence and accept what is, Aloy, this is helping nothing." 

"No, Rost, you're helping nothing!" She said, her anger matching his own, adding resentfully "I knew your injuries had damaged your body but I didn't realize they'd turned you into someone who doesn't even try to do what is needed." 

Her words cut. Cut and in his current state threw more timber into his angry fire. It wasn't fair to be angry at her, she was lashing out as she was for a reason, and he'd earned her ire. But he saw that glimmer of hope was back in her eyes, the plea for him to be in her new world, to give her idea a chance, but he couldn't entertain her hope anymore than he could his own. Even if he wanted badly to hear her out, to reason himself into believing her words....but he knew she was wrong, knew it would never happen and the prospect of crushing the tiny flame of hope in not only himself but in her terrified him. 

"Watch your words girl." He growled.

She'd paced herself level with him as he'd said this and gave him a look so furious he almost recoiled, this was failing miserably, again. He wanted to correct the course of the conversation somehow but he was so angry now himself that he couldn't formulate how.

She saved him the trouble of figuring it out, shaking her head and scoffing at him. "Why even bother being alive if you won't do anything to try to help?" She walked round him, heading for the door. "I have to meet with Sona. I'm going." 

He almost stopped her but thought better of it. He was too frustrated to communicate and he knew it. Turning as she went he had intended to sit and breath for a moment but she held on the threshold, the floor creaking as she shifted her weight, making him look back to her. She didn't turn as she said "you once told me the tribe needed me, whether I needed them or not and I owed them that, but now that they need you and you need them, you refuse to even consider it and that disappointments me more than anything." 

And she was gone, leaving him standing there in angry, confused silence. 

What if she was right....

Chapter Text

"Shake it off, just let it go, it's not why you're here, it's his choice and not your problem. Figure this out and go home." She muttered to herself, angrily stomping and sliding her way down the mountain towards Mother's Watch. 

She'd kept this mantra up in her head over the past few days of fruitless searching when her thoughts would turn back to him and her hurt at his refusal to return would flare up, and now was repeating it aloud, trying to breath away the argument she'd just had with Rost and the groggy fog lingering in her skull from over sleeping. 

How could she have let herself do that? She thought, kicking a rock, the stone ricocheting off a nearby tree. She never slept in like that, not on her laziest day but especially not when she had things to do!

She glanced up at the sun, almost at the top of the sky now, and groaned, picking up her pace. She was beyond late meeting Sona, and if she missed her chance to maybe, finally find some thread to follow because of Rost and her own mistake she didn't know what she'd do. She already didn't want to be here, certainly didn't want anyone else hurt now that she was, and time was a factor in both of those issues. 

Plus there was Rost, lingering in the foreground of her day and refusing to come out of hiding...

It didn't make sense! She had spent every day previous with a constant headache from dealing with the disorganized, untrained braves. They were either too cocky or too scared or whatever it was and if they could use anything right now it was more experienced tribesman, and Rost was one of the best. The best brave, tracker and Nora as a whole. Plus...she was hurt by his choice. He came all the way back, suddenly reappearing in her life, and just as she'd started to think that maybe this was fixable, that she'd get her D...get Rost back...really back, as part of her life on this insane mission she'd been born into, and he tells her that's not happening. Won't even try. 

"Aaugh" she growled, shaking her head again as she came into view of the village. She had to stop letting this get to her. At least for now. She'd pushed aside heartbreak over him before she could do it again, least till she was home and could deal with it without also dealing with some crazy person slaughtering tribesmen. 

Everything about him being back and not wanting to be back also was so difficult to process. It was confusing and more than anything she wanted to talk it over with Erend. Maybe even Talanah. Speak to the people she trusted and see what they thought. 

She'd tried to catch Teb for this purpose, but his little sister was ill and he had been busy caring for her. She had considered Teersa but she wasn't sure she felt like opening up to the Matriarch about this. Plus she'd have to lie through her teeth to not give away Rost in his hiding to either of them....

She'd made the gates and gave herself another shake. Get the to the evidence and find a lead, that's all she had to do. 

That and find Sona.

She was supposed to be at the gates, but as their meeting time had been much earlier... she was long gone. Of course. 

"Do you know where I can find the Warchief?" Aloy asked the young brave guarding the gate. 

He stumbled over himself, almost dropping his spear as he tried to bow to her, sputtering "S-she said she would be in the village, at the main lodge Anointed." 

"Thank you" she said offhandedly, already making her way in. The main lodge sat at the back of the settlement, and it was busy out, Nora of all variety going about their midday tasks. Bracing herself she ducked her head and rushed through, attempting to dodge as many fawning "Anointed" welcomes as possible. 

When she'd made her way past most of the village the large carved beams adorning the top of the lodge came into view. The door was propped open, the only people visible being a Nora mother tending to her child near the front, but otherwise the place looked empty, the tribe having risen to start their days long ago.  

Grateful for this she hurried in, spotting Sona sitting near the fire towards the back of the large, elongated room as her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light within. 

"You are late" The Warchief said by way of greeting, "and you look troubled." She added with a stern look, standing and striding over to meet Aloy at the door. 

"It's nothing." She said, her tone sharper than she'd meant it to be, earning a more severe version of Sona's previous scowl "I'm sorry to have kept you. Is the evidence here or...?" 

She wanted to be more patient, more polite. She really did. She'd kept Sona waiting and she knew that she was twice as busy as any of the other Nora, but frustration was still rolling around inside of her like the recent storms and she was just so done with all of this.

She'd had to wait almost a week just to access the recovered evidence, as the Warchief had been out doing an intensive sweep of the valley with a few others, and no other brave had access to where they were kept aside from Resh. She'd gave asking him half a seconds worth of consideration before deciding she was better off waiting for Sona and avoiding that additional headache all together. 

The older woman was regarding her with a look that said she was about as over this whole situation as Aloy, her voice harsher than usual when she barked out a stark "Follow" sweeping past Aloy and heading back out into the crisp air. 

They made their way back through the village, Nora once again calling out greetings as they walked. They didn't speak, the unease hanging in the air fueling their mutual frustration further. Which was fine, she wasn't feeling real chatty anyway. Sona led her to a rather sturdy looking lodge, not nearly as ornate as the usual Nora building, with a heavy door, leading in to a dark, windowless space. 

Aloy waited on the porch, listening to Sona move about the musty room, finally emerging with a rather large chest in her arms. She dropped it with a huff, unlocking it before straightening and pointing at the lid. "There is your evidence Anointed, what little we have found that is." 

She sounded disdainful and bitter and Aloy didn't blame her. Since her conversation with the Matriarchs the second day here she'd seen what a toll these grisly events had taken on the tribe. They were tense and worried. Without clarity on what was happening speculation was running rampant and people were afraid and now more than ever the Warchief was spread far too thin, the wear showing in the tired, angry lines of her face.

Aloy knelt to lift the lid, her throat tight. There had to be something here, something that could give her the tiniest lead. She'd been here almost a week with nothing, nothing at all. Not even anything for her focus to find. 

But as she gave the items within a cursory once over her heart sank. This didn't look hopeful... but maybe...

She pawed through the jumble, the contents turning out to be no more than the blood soaked notes, the two helmets, some personal effects of the victims and an arrow shaft that had been snapped in the middle. 

Pretty much what she'd initially thought, not hopeful...

Sighing she clicked her focus, scanning the items as she rolled them over and inspected them in detail. The helmets were just helmets, a little worse for wear but otherwise fine, and she knew they were stolen just not yet by who, as she still needed to speak to that guard.

The personal effects were just that, a few sets of blood stained kit and other adornments, the notes she scanned over quickly just to have as reference, but the arrow.. that was a bit odd. 

"Where did this come from?" She asked Sona, squinting up at the woman's silhouette against the sun's rays. "I thought all the victims had their throats slit." 

"It lay at the base of the tree we found the most recent bodies in, the rain took away any tracks but we think it belonged to the killers, no other arrows were found on the deceased." 

"Bit odd that the fletching is of Nora design isn't it?" Aloy asked incredulously. The shaft, arrow head and binding wire were all Carja make, but the feathers were definitely Nora, the short sharp points tipped in blue. The amalgamation was something she'd done herself, while making arrows on the go and mixing material, but hadn't seen it done by anyone else, especially when it was military issue material on the Carja end, not the standard fare you'd see from a citizen or bandit. 

"Is it? With the borders open these devils had access to trade with us." Her tone dismissive. 

"I suppose." This bugged her, but as all she got when scanning the thing was the word "arrow" she couldn't do much more about the odd feeling it gave her. She'd been up and down and all across the murder scenes several times, spoken to anyone currently at Daytower and scanned every surface while waiting for Balahn's man to return. 

But nothing. 

Nothing and still more nothing. 

She gave another exasperated sigh, trying to breath her irritation out through her nose as she snapped the lid closed on the chest. No leads, no clues, no closer to stopping these assholes, and no closer to going home. 

She stood and dusted herself off as Sona replaced the chest and resecured the door, "So that's really it. We know nothing else. Nothing at all." She said flatly. 

They turned to make their way back up from the back path they'd taken to get there, the main lodges and work spaces of the villages coming into view.

"Nothing." Sona growled bitterly, spitting after she said the word like it was a curse. "But, with the border closed, we expect the Nora currently here to be safe. None currently in the Embrace have traveled outside our borders, save for the battle in the tainted lands, but then we moved with the Matriarch's blessing." 

That sounded like poor reasoning "Right, but the borders were open with the Matriarch's blessing as well....we probably shouldn't let our guards down, especially those who fought in Meridian." 

Sona barked out a mirthless laugh as she stopped shy of heading into the thick of things "You will not find any of the tribe letting their guard down these days Anointed." Her attention shifted and she grimaced, eyeing a very young brave who was doing his best to get the attention of a young tanner working nearby and adding ruefully. "Least not my warriors who are old enough to hold a spear..."

The sight of the Warchief staring the boy down like an angry Ravager, attempting to correct him with her glare before launching her assault, should have been amusing, but it pulled on her heartstrings. Reminding her how much good Rost could accomplish here. He could train these kids, teach them to be better than their seniors. He knew the Nora better than most and he knew the lands beyond better than any one of them, there was no better place for him than here teaching not just how to be Nora but how to deal with the outside world. 

But he refused to hear that reasoning. 

The brave was still acting a fool and Sona'd had enough, she made an exasperated sound in her throat and said tiredly "I must go." Turning her dark face to Aloy she added "Be cautious, and good luck. Goddess knows we need to find the ones responsible." Then she was off, a raging Behemoth of a person barreling towards her unassuming target. Unassuming until she barked out "Sernan!!" and all the color drained from his face as he tripped over himself turning to face her wrath. 

That did get her chuckling. Poor kid. 

She turned and all but collided with Cairn, standing right behind her, quiet as a stalker, a large grin plastered across her tan face as she watched Aloy startle out of her skin.

"Well aren't you elusive." She said happily. "I tried to catch you a couple times the past few days huntress." 

"Well you caught me now." Aloy said shakely, recovering herself and shoving at the braves shoulder "You scared the hell out of me." 

"Oh, go on!" She laughed, her short, dusty blonde dreads bouncing as she shook her head. Then she seemed to catch a better look at Aloy's face and her expression clouded. "Are you alright Aloy?" that amused glint in her eyes returning, despite her mask of concern as she added "You look more exhausted than usual."

"Gee, thanks!" She replied sarcastically, chuckling with the woman. She liked Cairn a lot. They rarely got to see each other, as she was an experienced brave who was usually posted with Marea and her warriors and when here she was worked to the bone by Sona,  but she was energetic and open and had a good eye for things, plus she respected her wishes in regards to being called Anointed. Unfortunately she still didn't feel close enough to her to really talk about what was happening. "I'm alright, just this mess." She gestured vaguely.

"I hear that, All-Mother has set us a difficult path for sure." She gave Aloy a sidelong look and a shrug, "But worrying yourself to death helps no one. Come hunt with us? Put that frustrated brain to work killing some machines?" 

Cairn was looking at her imploringly, her hopeful grin infectious and her brown eyes sparkling. Maybe she was right. "Who's us, and what are we hunting?" 

"Scrappers!" She said, sounding thrilled. Reaching out she swept Aloy up, guiding her to follow along as the brave turned them towards the gates, adding brightly "And us is me, you and three other braves who are old enough to know what they're doing and won't get us all killed." 

Aloy chuckled again at this, following along as Cairn launched into a description of the encroaching scrapper dilemma. 

She didn't have anything better to do, she'd searched and re-searched and her brain was fried from frustration. She missed home, missed Erend...missed Rost. 

A good hunt might actually be perfect.

------------

"So I didn't actually know you two were still fighting, or I would have mentioned him coming." Cairn said under her breath, scrunching her face up in apology. "Sorry..."

"To be clear, we aren't fighting. He acted like a fool and refuses to apologize, so we don't speak." Aloy said out of the corner of her mouth, glancing ahead at Varl, his shoulders tense, irritation billowing off of him as he maintained a good long distance between them. 

The day was beautiful, dappled light falling gently through the trees they walked beneath, but the mood of the group couldn't have been more frigid. He refused to look at her, hadn't even acknowledged her aside from becoming sullen and aggressive as a whole the moment she and Cairn had come into view and with the week having been what it was, Aloy had zero patience for his childish attitude "He may be angry at me for whatever reason he thinks he has." She added, gesturing at him as she spoke. "But I have bigger issues and wasn't ever really mad at him to begin with." 

"Makes sense...you know he never did say what happened exactly..." She said in a tone that almost didn't drip with blatant curiosity. 

Aloy rolled her eyes, remembering the ridiculous conversation he'd insisted on having the night before she and the Vanguard left the embrace."He got his feelings hurt then got drunk and tried to tell me what I needed to do." She said cooly. 

Cairn laughed and was shot a resentful look from Varl, the two other braves they'd come with were walking up ahead with him, clearly trying to talk him into a better mood and not being very successful. "Probably wasn't smart of him." She chuckled. "I certainly wouldn't try to tell you what to do."

She rolled her eyes again, an exasperated snort escaping her. "Better not sound like you're having fun, looks like you're upsetting him." Which just made Cairn snicker harder. 

Taking a deep breath of cold mountain air, she let it smooth away the edge of irritation she was feeling. They were enroute to a rather popular hunting area for Boar that had been occupied by at least six scrappers and Aloy was enjoying going out to handle a task that was simple and clear to completion. The last thing she was going to do was let Varl mess up the first moment of calm she'd had since arriving. 

Cairn was still chuckling when she spoke "Oh well, I'd dare him to tell me something. Let me guess he's mad you won't settle in the Embrace?" She said this casually enough but Aloy noted something about her tone that made it sound as if she might know more then she let on. 

Raising her eyebrow at her she said "Partially, thought he didn't say what happened?" 

"He didn't, but that doesn't mean he doesn't complain about you when his mother isn't around to tell him he needs to get over it." She said, not missing a beat as she added. "You said partially though, what else happened?" 

Aloy shook her head "Nothing happened, he's just mad about Erend." 

Cairn's eyes lit up "ooh I knew it! I even asked him  directly if he was sulking because of you and the Oseram and he denied it." She was looking at Varl with a victorious and slightly malicious glint in her eyes, clearly gearing up to confront him about it once again.

At first this hit her as odd, then she reminded herself  that they were probably close, least Cairn seemed to mention Vala often and Sona treated her with slightly more warmth then most of the others. Sometimes she almost forgot people had extended family and family friends, forgot they all grew up with each other. The longer she was around the Nora though the more connections she found, it was both uncomfortable and fascinating. 

The Scrapper's yips reached the three in front first, the groups attention shifting and their pace slowing. They caught up and she moved to walk as far from Varl as possible, mostly for his benefit as he was still looking tense. 

The beasts came into view as they came to the top of a gentle downgrade. Aloy reached up and activated her focus, there were seven total by her count, none that weren't clearly visible so she didn't bother mentioning this. They were spaced out, all of them working away at scattered chunks of something that used to be very large, but had since been torn apart and strewn across the little valley. 

"We should flank them" One of the braves whose name she couldn't remember said, pointing along the edges of their view at the grasses that sat near a few of the machines. "Take out the five, one each, nice and clean." 

"Then deal with the last two, I like it." Cairn whispered, nodding her head and reaching behind her to unhook her spear. "Everyone agree?" She threw in, glancing at them all as they nodded. "Great, we'll take right you all take left." 

The plan worked smooth enough, the first five going down with no incident, their fellows jumping to alert and spinning around to see what had befallen the others and immediately spotting the braves, letting out screeching roars before charging forward. They'd both locked on to Varl and his companions, so Cairn and Aloy swapped for their bows, taking aim at the power units of the machines back.

Aloy's made contact and sent one of them flipping end over end, one of the braves rushing forward to finish the thing with his spear. The other took the shot to one of its plates, the machine losing none of its momentum as it barreled towards the others, metal teeth spinning. The two men dove out of the way, turning to launch their own assault. They killed the thing quickly, but not before it managed to take a small chunk out of Varl's leg. 

Deciding she'd rather strip the kills then get closer to Varl as he cursed and angrily tended his wound she turned, heading to the machine she'd killed with her spear. When she'd finished, now carrying a large loop of wire, some shards and a perfectly intact scrapper lens, she looked about for the others feeling light and in her element, wiping the machine oil from her hands. 

Cairn was standing up from her first kill, moving over to the next and yelling something across to one of the others as she did. The brave who'd taken down the sixth Scrapper when she'd downed it was still elbow deep in that kill, but it seemed the other two were gone. She couldn't see them anyway, maybe they went to deal with the injury. Didn't matter, but she wouldn't mind if that were the case either. She was rather enjoying herself, and when the other two suggested she join them in the village for dinner she agreed.

They'd eaten and chatted, and despite it being too loud and too crowded it was the warmest she'd felt since arriving. 

But as she'd left, saying her goodbyes to her companions, she'd spotted Teersa, looking as if she were also preparing to leave. She hesitated, that conversation she'd been wanting to have still perverting her good mood.

It was just barely past sunset...Rost was probably at the cabin and definitely still awake... 

"Teersa!" She called, making up her mind and jogging over to the old woman as she looked up and smiled warmly. "Can I walk with you?" 

Chapter Text

It took him a minute to figure out what had woken him up, his mind still caught in the hazy tendrils of sleep. He cracked an eye, the room so dim it couldn't be sunrise yet, the only sound his own breathing and a cold breeze whistling through the shutters.

The chill touched his skin, making him shiver. Realizing he was still clad in just his towel he decided that must have been what had woke him. Rolling over he reached for the blankets, burying himself in the warm fabric and settling in to get a few hours sleep before his shift. 

Then he heard the knocking, urgent and loud and he launched himself out of bed, barely remembering to pull on pants before taking the stairs two at a time and flinging the door open, the palace runner waiting outside jumping back with a yelp of surprise, his fist still raised.

"What is it, what's happened?" He demanded, his heart hammering a bruise into his ribs. There was no reason he'd be sent for this early unless it was important and with Aloy not home..

"The king requests your presence immediately, it is not for me to know why, sir." He gave him a haughty look as he recovered himself and straightened. "He simply requires you report." 

"Fine." He said, slamming the door and hauling himself up the stairs and into a clean shirt and boots as quickly as he could. Everything had to be fine, she was fine, she had just sent back word. He was half awake and over reacting.....

But his senses were still sitting on a level close to panic no matter what he told himself, and the only fix was to get there and find out. 

He was out his door and at the palace before the sun had fully crested the horizon, stomach in knots, his pulse pounding as hard as has his boots on the stone paving, both seeming to echo in the empty, quiet streets. 

Aside from the usual guards the first person he came across was Marad, standing near the top of the stairs he was ascending, his hands clasped behind his back and facing away. Erend couldn't really hear anything over the thumping sound in his ears, but Marad turned as he heard the clamor Erend's arrival must have been making, casting him a scrutinizing look before turning back and finishing what he'd been saying to the guard he was with. 

He'd stepped forward a bit and out of the way as Erend came level with him, returning a now impassive expression back to him as the guard bowed and left, saying "Good morning, Captain. The king..." 

"What's happened Marad, what's going on?" He blurted out, trying to catch his breath.

The man cocked an eyebrow at him "The runner can inform you of that, he and the king are waiting on the terrace." He said cooly, passing Erend and heading down the stairs without another word. 

"Where are you going then?" He asked, loosing his limited patience with Marad's vagueness, someone needed to tell him if she was alright and they needed to do it now. 

"I have a matter that needs my attention, Captain, as do you." He called back over his shoulder. 

Fine! Lousy, tight lipped Carja. 

Whipping around he hurried on, the knots in his stomach turning to bile when he finally reached his destination and spotted the runner Marad had mentioned. 

The guy looked beat...bandages wrapped around his head and shoulder, his arm tied up in a sling and bruises on his face and arms, sitting on the chase across from where Avad sat, the monarch himself looking tense and worried in his straight backed chair. 

Just cause the runner got himself hurt didn't mean anything, certainly didn't mean there was anything wrong with her..

Letting out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding he forced his feet forward, feeling like his boots had been filled with lead. Both of the men looked over when they heard him approaching, Avad standing and looking as if he were about to intone some greeting he wasn't interested in. "What's happened? What's wrong?" He demanded gruffly for what felt like the millionth time since he woke twenty minutes ago, advancing on the runner where he sat, now nervously glancing between the king and the Captain and sinking back into the cushions. 

Avad's mouth had been open and he snapped it shut, resuming his seat and gesturing towards the injured man, saying simply "This, Captain, is Janir. He has been through quit the ordeal trying to bring us news from Daytower and our dear huntress." 

That should probably matter, he should at least feel sympathy for the man and whatever ordeal he'd suffered. But as it was he was resisting the urge to pick him up and shake the answers out of him, so instead he asked again, in what he hoped was a calm, captain like tone "What news?" And then because he couldn't help himself any longer "Is Aloy alright?" 

Janir was still glancing nervously at Avad, looking like he was asking for permission to speak or for a rescue, either or. The king, who'd been giving Erend a steady look, yanked his eyes away to give the man a single nod and a small gesture with his hand.

The hammer struck Carja shifted in his seat, flinching at the movement before clearing his throat, his voice wavering as he looked up at Erend, still towering over him. "I did not speak to any of the Nora sir, my message came from Captain Balahn on Aloy of the Nora's behalf. She sends word that the tribe have experienced multiple, violent killings that seem to have been carried out by outside person's. They are working to find the culprits, but informed the outpost that their Matriarchs will not be swayed to open the borders at present." 

So she was okay then.... stuck there... dealing with a violent murderer or set of murderers..but alive and well.. plus she had Rost, and the whole tribe, and even if he didn't trust any one of them to help her Da to properly protect her he also knew she probably didn't need protecting. She'd handled murderous fanatics before... 

He'd been zoned out, processing the information and trying to find a balance between his initial panic and the knowledge that she was fine, not realizing he'd been blankly staring at the runner, who was looking more and more nervous, having gone back to glancing at Avad for a sign of what to do and looking very much like he'd like to be dismissed. 

Avad had been staring at his steepled fingers, but met his eyes when Erend looked over. "Unfortunately Aloy's information is not the only issue. Janir, please tell the Captain what happened to you outside of Daytower." He said graciously to the man. 

He nodded, gaining a bit of his confidence back "I was attacked. They set upon my camp as I stopped to rest briefly just a day out from the border. Three assailants, their faces wrapped so I couldn't see who they were or from what tribe they hailed in the darkness" 

"So we think this attack is related..why? Bandits are common along that route." He growled. Bandits attacked people along the way of broken stones all the time, despite the patrols. He was more concerned over Aloy and the troubles in the Embrace and was finding it hard to give a damn about this little runners ordeal.  

"Because" Avad said steadily, eyeing him "They were not bandits." 

"And we know that how?" 

"They tried to take me captive, instead of killing me" Janir chimed in. "Two of them got into a disagreement about it while the other bound my hands, which was when I managed to break free and outrun them, but before I did I heard one saying they needed to use me to "Send a message to the tribe.""

Okay now he was extremely concerned about the little runners ordeal. 

He turned and sat, scrubbing a hand over his face and thinking. "So we're thinking these people were targeting you, knowing you were delivering a message on behalf of the Nora." He said aloud, running the idea around. 

"That's the general agreement yes," Avad said tiredly. 

"So what are we going to do about it then?" He asked, leaning forward and staring at the king expectantly "I'm gonna assume Janir here didn't manage to take the lot of them down on his way out,  so that means at least three of these loons are still out plotting who knows what." 

What needed to happen is he and his men needed to be sent as back up immediately. Even if they were only allowed as far as Daytower. The Nora barely numbered enough to even be called a tribe anymore and Aloy was there trying to fix everything. He needed to be there too, just incase. He knew how they worked, how bad off they were with the new braves back when he'd been there and now had heard Aloy grump about them enough to know it was still pretty not great. He wasn't about to let those Nora be her only backup. 

Avad didn't say anything initially, staring once again at his fingertips, which wasn't a good sign. Eventually he sighed, standing, his gold inlaid silks making little clinking sounds as he moved to pace behind the chases. He wasn't looking at him and Erend got the distinct impression he was avoiding his gaze on purpose. 

When he spoke he knew why "I know what you will ask me to do, but I cannot. We cannot move military from the Sundom to the border without risking angering the Nora further... If they were to take our fortifying the border as a sign of aggression we nor I fear Aloy would be able to convince them otherwise. It would not be wise." 

"That's a load of slag Avad and you know it!" He said angrily, standing himself. He was out of line but he didn't much care. "We need to help!"

Avad stopped and whipped around, sounding angry and defensive in return "Captain!"

"Well it is!" He said, walking around the sitting area and towards the king, gesturing to him imploringly. "Avad, they might not want a bunch of Carja there, but they know us, the Matriarchs know me and my men personally, hell I have two of their blessings. Send us. Me and a handful of Vanguard." He was trying to coax Avad into this. He'd let his anger get away from him but he knew what the king was really doing here. He'd been advised.. by Marad more than likely. Just like he'd been advised to trade that scumbag Dervahl to the highest bidder back in the Claim. And right now he had no rusting time for political pandering. Not with Aloy there. 

Avad was looking unhappy, but concerned, his defensiveness cracking slowly, his brow furrowed. Then he shook his head his voice stern "No Erend, I have spoken on this. Until we receive word that we are required, we will not send unwanted aid. We can not, it is too risky." 

He scoffed "By the forge Avad you know the aid is only unwanted because the Nora are to damn stubborn to want anything from anyone, especially a Carja. We could help though, I know it, they don't have the man power for this." He could see the words working their magic on Avad's resolve, so he pushed on. "That's why you sent me there now twice over isn't it? To build bridges, to build trust? Let me utilize it now. If they will allow us to just be there, even if they won't let us help,, it will be a step towards reopening the border, with Aloy's help we can make that happen." 

Avad was thinking it over, hesitantly saying "We will need to consult Marad, but.." 

He almost had him, but they couldn't wait for that nonsense. He needed an answer and he knew what would do it, if Avad was going to have a crush on his girlfriend he might as well put it to use. "If these people knew Janir was carrying a message from Aloy... that means she's in danger, what if she needs help?" 

Avad looked at him and he could see the arguments half forming on his lips before falling away, his face tight. "Erend I cannot simply send men without forethought, there are things to consider that.... even if...." 

"Even what Avad? Even if it could mean the difference between her catching these psychopaths or them catching her?" He said coldly. "Who knows when they may try to go after her directly." His words even bothered him but he needed to get there, and he needed the kings go ahead. 

At least he'd prefer to be sent with men and supplies and a job when he returned, but he'd go nonetheless. 

It looked like he'd be getting his way though, as his words had a very obvious affect on the monarch, a stricken expression cracking the veneer he was fighting to keep. He turned and walked to the stone railing, sighing deeply and taking a very long time to answer. Finally he said "You may take ten men, plus yourself, and some supplies. Prepare to leave by morning." 

A burst of elated energy suddenly shot through his veins, driving him to immediate action. He was going. Going to be able to see Aloy and make sure she was safe in person, to help her if he could.

Trying not to sound to excited he said "Yes sir! We'll leave at sunrise." He hadn't exactly been dismissed but was hovering on his toes, ready to bolt and prep the minute he was untethered from this meeting. 

Avad sighed another sigh that felt like it went on forever, taking his dear sweet time in saying whatever it was he needed to say. Fire and spit how these Carja could drag out a conversation and somehow say nothing he didn't know.

He was practically vibrating with the need to be off and moving when the Sunking finally turned and fixed him with a pathetically pitiful expression "Erend... please make sure she returns safely." 

It took every fiber of self control he had in his body to not roll his eyes so hard he'd have made Aloy proud, but he managed it. Saying something along the lines of "Of course." before bowing his way out of the area and heading off at top speed. 

As he hit the top of the stairs he heard the tiny squeak of the all but forgotten Janir as he asked "Your Radiance....may I leave?"

Oops, poor little runner. 

He made a mental note to try and buy the guy an ale when he saw him next as he hurtled down the stairs. 

‐-------------

His day flew by, a wash of tracking down the men he'd need, rearranging their shift coverages and snagging supplies he couldn't get in the general supply pool the garrisons were offered. 

"So you really think the Nora are gonna just let us in cause we hung around months and months ago?" Roan asked, setting the bag of supplies he'd been packing down on the table at the far end of the room. He'd come back around the command post towards the end of the day to help Erend go through and double check the communal supplies and kit they'd be taking. 

"No. But we did more than hang around. We rebuilt their homes, and people remember that sort of thing. There are connections there the Carja don't have." He said brusquely, any pretense of a good mood long gone as the need to just hurry up and leave consumed him. He needed to see her face to get rid of this persistent, nagging worry and the sooner that happened the better. He tied up the last of the satchels on his end, giving the leather a slap as he stood. 

"I hope you're right about that, I certainly think you're right about them needing the help." He said after a moment, turning to follow Erend as he made his way for the door, killing the lantern as he went. The sun wasn't quite set but the room had been dark enough to warrant it. 

"We need to get there to figure it out. No sense forging with no hammers. We won't know what they'll say till we get there and say hello." He said as they walked, heading for the tavern to have a last round and chat with the guardsmen who'd be joining them. 

He'd managed to keep the surging fear over her being there with at least three murders possibly out gunning for her head under control throughout the day, but as things wound down he was losing his cool, little gusts of worry hitting him out of nowhere. 

Roan clapped him on the shoulder, giving him a reassuring smile as he turned to look at him. "She'll be all right brother, and we'll get our hands on these scumbags and wring em out nice and easy like." He said, chuckling to himself and adding "Unless that little spark of your's gets to them first and then I'm sure she'll handle all the wringing." 

He smiled, trying to let the words and the night air calm him. His friend was right after all...she was Aloy.

And even if he wasn't right, if for some reason she wasn't okay to take this one alone... 

He would be there to help her soon.

Chapter Text

By the Goddess where was she?  

It was well past sunrise..the birds were chirping, the breeze starting to blow through the pines, sending the freshly fallen snow on the branches dancing through the air. The lively sounds of morning and bright, shinning daylight were everywhere... yet Aloy still had not returned after storming off yesterday.

He'd not waited up for her, as he had expected her to do as she usually did and hurry in and up to bed well after dark, but as the night had waned and he'd laid awake thinking on their argument his hope she would creep home faded. Dozing fitfully and awakening only to realize she still wasn't back, his nerves unraveling a bit more every time this happened, leaving him a panicked wreck by morning.

He shouldn't worry. She was grown, she could do as she pleased, and he had raised her to be able to take care of herself.. but then, she had never not checked in... but that had also been before he'd.. left. Now he didn't know what to expect from her... 

Pacing the porch he growled a curse under his breath, his limp more pronounced than usual as he'd now been at this for hours, unable to stay still when he attempted to sit. 

Why did she have to be so stubborn? So single-minded and rigid in her ways? Completely unwilling to compromise over anything. She believed herself right the moment her mind was set and he had yet to figure a way around that, a way to get her to listen when she'd gone and hastily made a decision. 

He threw himself into the wooden chair he kept outside with a grunt, unable to ignore the screaming needle pricks of pain in his leg any longer. Breathing out sharply he tried to focus his frustrated emotions. He was worried...with everything going on what if something had happened to her? But if she was just staying away purely because of their fight then she was putting herself at risk for no reason. Unless she was with the tribe...in which case he was glad? He didn't know.  

Rost shook his head, scratching at his beard and bouncing the knee on his not throbbing leg, knocking out a rhythm on the wood planking with his heal. 

He was so tired of assessing emotions... he just wanted to help Aloy find her way and be done. Maybe settle back into life as an outcast here. Shutter back the mess of feelings he'd become recently and just live peacefully within the Goddess's embrace once more... that was enough for him.

But this? This campaign she was on to push him upon the tribe when he knew he couldn't, knew he'd be nothing but an unwelcome burden? It was too much. It triggered so many memories and the episodes those elicited and he couldn't keep pushing them away with this argument constantly looming. It felt like he was drowning under waves of emotion and it wasn't a state he was used to existing in. He'd grown so accustomed to locking things away.... almost anything to do with his family...his want for his tribe...the ache he'd felt for home once he'd left, the ache he'd felt to see Aloy...

Leaning forward he rubbed at his tired eyes, listening to the sounds of the forest rustling and twittering around him, the sound of his breathing, of gravel shifting on the path..

He jerked his head up, staring at the entrance to the homestead, his ears straining...and heard it again, a single pair of foot steps on dirt, barely perceptible.

His heart slammed into his throat, lodging there as he was swept first with relief at her being alright, then anger at her having not come back. How could she just not return? People were being killed, she was linked to it all and she'd chosen not to come back? He knew he had no right to tell her what to do but he'd expected better. No matter her anger, they'd come to work together.

His leg was screaming as he stood but he hardly noticed, adrenaline thick in his veins. A small part of him was sorely tempted to turn this into a fight, but knew it would ultimately be wrong and accomplish nothing. The rest of him just needed to see her, to make sure she was alright. He limped his way down the steps and had just cleared the small rise at the base of that area when he caught movement ahead. 

Looking up he staggered to a stop, freezing in place, suddenly feeling as if all of the air had been forcibly squeezed from his lungs. 

He'd expected red hair framing defiant, flashing green eyes. Instead he was greeted with a kind smile and a very familiar, very wrinkled face. 

It was Teersa...

"Why hello Rost. It is good to see you well." She said mildly, as if they came across each other all the time. 

a choking sound escaped him as he dropped to one knee, averting his eyes and saying nothing. 

Why was she here? What if something had happened to Aloy? His heart racing he chanced a glance at the Matriarch as she picked her way up the path towards him. There was no urgency to her movements, no upset in her voice when she'd spoken, which would suggest there was nothing wrong... so there was that. But that did little to calm his quaking nerves. If it was not to tell him of some fate that had befallen Aloy then why was she here? Even being one of the few to know he lived he was still outcast, still not permitted to speak even if he did have anything of value to share with her. 

She'd come level with him, the bottom hem of her robes and her leather clad feet coming into view. He heard her sigh softly above him, flinching when he felt cold fingertips touch his jaw, gently urging him to look up.

He did as she wished, her smile still wide and warm as she gazed down at him, her tone casual. "Come now do you really think I came all this way to have you bite your tongue and stare at the ground?" She straightened, crossing her arms "Let us speak, dear Rost, over tea perhaps?" 

"I....of course" he said, rising and hurrying to do as she'd asked. He went into the cabin to retrieve the kettle and cups, throwing leaves into the second before returning to the door. He felt blindsided, looking up to see Teersa sitting serenely at the small cook fire by the house. the Matriarch being here waiting to have tea with him wasn't something his over tired mind wanted to process.

It was....unnerving.

The last time he had seen her he had been half dead, and he only remembered her being there briefly, as the fever had blurred much of the time he'd spent trying to heal. Now she was here, wanting to have a conversation with him... He hadn't conversed with any tribesmen aside from Aloy in so long.... only twice in over twenty years had he spoken to any other Nora.. and both times had been the Matriarch herself, this would make the count three. 

He scooped some fresh snow from the nearest drift into the kettle, making his way back to where she sat and setting to work on getting the fire lit. She watched him placidly for a moment before saying "You know, Rost, I don't know whether I'm surprised you're back or if I'm surprised that you didn't come back sooner." 

He didn't know what he was supposed to say to that really, he hadn't planned on any of this. This particular moment especially....he used striking the flint to give himself time to respond. Eventually getting the fire to catch and sitting back on his heals he said evenly "It seemed to me the Goddess's will."

"Hmmm, well, Goddess or not I'm certainly glad you've returned." She said briskly, giving him a steady look from beneath her headdress. "As is Aloy, I'm sure." 

He'd snorted before he could stop himself, trying to cover it by coughing and fusing with the logs. Unfortunately the old woman was as sharp as ever, picking up his reaction and running with it. Her tone almost amused when she continued "Oh she is, she's just...frustrated. and a bit stubborn" 

This time the snort was on purpose "A bit." He said, deciding he might as well cut to the quick of this. "I suppose she is the reason you've come?" 

He didn't like the idea that Aloy had completely disregarded his wishes. It stung to know she'd do such a thing when he'd expressly told her not to. 

"In a way you could say that." She said, sounding ever more amused. "Our dear Anointed came to me last night wanting to discuss some concerns she had over an exile friend of hers. She was extremely upset over the matter. So much so that she actually accepted my offer to stay within the mountain for the night" she added, giving him a pointed look. "Though where she went once I'd wished her a good evening I couldn't tell you." 

Two pieces of information that served to settle him some. She had stayed with the tribe last night, within All Mother no less..he couldn't be angry with her over that..she also hadn't entirely ignored his wishes...both good things. Still he wasn't sure what this conversation they'd had entailed but he could guess, and he didn't much like what that meant for this conversation. 

He didn't want to talk to anyone about this..much less a Matriarch. Being told he was right about his fate wasn't something he needed to hear...he already knew. But, if she came out and told him he was to remain outcast then perhaps Aloy would finally let this lie... 

Rost had managed to get the wood burning well enough. Setting the kettle to heat he straightened, a groan he couldn't entirely subdue escaping him. It caught her attention and she gave him a sympathetic look that grated on his pride, just as it did when he'd catch Aloy doing the same. Averting his eyes once more he sat on the bench opposite Teersa, trying to find his center. 

He didn't want to have this conversation but it was looking unavoidable and he'd rather have it done with than drag it out if that was the case, so bracing himself he asked. "If she did not ask you to come, then why have you?"

"Curiosity." She said thoughtfully, adjusting her heavy beads absentmindedly. "Her story would have meant nothing had I not known what I know, so once I suspected we were discussing her guardian, not some friend, I couldn't help but wonder, and as I suspected here you are." She leaned forward slightly, her face turning from casual to questioning "Now I just need to understand what has happened, what has brought you here? You've said the Goddess's will, but why? How?" 

He sat and watched the flames lick along the metal pot before replying "It is something of a long story." 

"Which is why I requested tea." She said, arching an eyebrow at him and squaring her frail shoulders as she spoke. 

Something suddenly occurred to him, watching the old woman move. The tribe would never have permitted her to travel this far alone..."You won't be missed? It surprises me the tribe let you come here alone." There were probably more tribesman near, the realization setting his senses at the ready. Regardless of what this discussion entailed he wasn't prepared to have being revealed forced on him.. 

She caught on to his shift in demeanor, flapping her hand at him as if shooing him "Stop! You have no reason to raise your guard. I left my escort at the base of the path, well and away. He knows I will be as long as I need to." 

He relaxed a bit, but not by much. Glancing at the house he considered offering to take their talk indoors, but she noticed this as well "Rost, enough, you will not be forced into anything. Please, tell me this long story of your's."

As if signaling the start of the tale the pot began to whistle, making him huff an amused sigh. She wasnt budging on this and he wasn't getting out of it, he realized.

Reaching out to pour out their tea he considered what she'd said, this too had to be the Goddess's doing..it had to be.. to much of this was simply rolling together. Aloy could have spoken to anyone, but she'd chosen Teersa..and now here she was. 

He handed her the mug of steaming liquid, returning her nod as it was offered. He palmed his own mug, the clay radiating heat into his hands, the smell of the leaves, all serving to ground him. 

Alright...

He told her what had transpired, from dragging his half healed scab of a body as far North as he could manage, to hearing of Aloy just as he'd been about to travel so far that he moved past any hope of hearing of her ever again. She listened patiently as he told of his decision to help amend her path or at the very least help her on it. Listened to his return, of finding her and the unrest between them since. She'd nodded and made the occasional, small reaction to his words, but otherwise her expression had remained passive. But as he spoke of their current quarl, of Aloy's insistence on things that could not be she'd frowned, causing him to stumble over his words as he watched her deeply lined face. Yet she said nothing so he simply waited, the two of them regarding each other.

Finally she spoke, sounding as if she were speaking carefully "Your path does seem to have been divined by the Goddess, I cannot disagree with that. And as I said before, I'm glad for it.... but, you don't seem to be glad, and that I can't understand. Do you not wish to be back within the Embrace?" 

Of course he was glad, but..."I was meant to be exiled, and then meant to be outcast so that I could raise Aloy, I see that. But that is done. I left not intending to return, and now that I am back my only task is to help Aloy, not to try to further my debt to the Goddess's favor" 

"You didn't actually answer my question." She said astutely, giving him a piercing look "I asked if you wanted to be here, not why you came." 

This seemed like a benign enough question, but he couldn't form an answer for some reason. Of course he wanted to be here...this was his home. Why couldn't he simply say that? She was staring at him, clearly expecting an answer. 

Just answer her. "I...." 

Teersa sighed, her voice sad but kind, like she was consoling a child "Oh Rost.. Aloy was right you now, you really have become your own worst enemy." 

This made no sense to him, so he didn't reply right away. Sipping his tea and trying but failing to return her regard, he settled for watching the steam twirl from his cup instead. Eventually, voice quiet, he said "I don't understand what you mean, Teersa." 

"What I mean is that you are still trying to live in the past Rost, convincing yourself that things are the same as they were, instead of seeing them as they are." She sighed. "Not that I can blame you, after having spent the better part of your life as you had to."

"I am an outcast, that is my place by the Goddess's design." He said steadily. What did she want from him in this? To admit that he wanted more than anything to live out the dreams he'd ignored for years? To go home, to be with his people again? He couldn't.. he knew that, he didn't need her to confirm it. 

"Well it was your place, this is true." She acknowledged "We would have had no home for Aloy had your story not become what it had, but just because something was doesn't mean that it is." 

What did she mean? He wanted to comprehend her words but they were no easier to grasp then water, trickling through his fingers before he could really grab hold. He could almost see it, almost see what she wanted him to, but the thought was undulating and unclear.

"If things are not as they were then what are they?" He asked quietly, still not able to look the elder in her face.

"Aloy has not told you? Hasn't told you of the loss the tribe has suffered? Or the struggles we now face? I find that odd." She said disbelievingly, her brows knitting together. 

"She has said but.."

"But you didn't believe her account?" 

"No, I believed her." He said carefully, feeling as if he were navigating stalker mines. "I know of the losses..but...she wishes to have me rejoin the tribe, which cannot be.." 

"Why not?" She said blithely, raising her eyebrows at him.

Why not? Why...

He couldn't breath under the weight of her gaze, of her question..his throat felt too tight, his mouth suddenly dry as the Gatelands. He set his cup at his feet, running his hands over his face and down the tangled scar tissue of his scalp. She was still watching him and he still needed to answer her, yet he couldn't. What was he to say? What was she saying? It had been she and the other Matriarchs who'd decreed he be outcast in the first place...

He opened his mouth but nothing came out, everything felt too intense suddenly..the bright sun and the heat from the fire, the cold air and the sounds of the birds..all of these sensations felt amplified to a point far past comfort. He couldn't get his thoughts to settle or cooperate with his words, to do anything but buzz incessantly around the words "why not?" 

A light pressure in his shoulder made him jump, looking up he was startled to see that Teersa had not only stood but come round the fire to stand beside him, her hand a gentle but firm weight.

He hadn't noticed her move at all.. 

"It's alright." She said gently, sitting beside him on the bench. "I understand why you feel as you do Rost. But I do not believe that the Goddess brought you home simply to help her Anointed. I think you and the tribe were also part of the plan." 

He watched her face, her kind eyes, the look of soft understanding she was giving him, but couldn't make his mouth form the words he wanted to ask. Couldn't get himself to really accept what she was saying to him. Swallowing hard he managed to choke out a raspy "What?" 

"Aloy was not exaggerating our plight, I'm afraid." She sounded tired, turning from him to look into the fire as well. "The tribe is in need.. there are barely enough braves to do the things that are required of their positions, much less to train the ones who still need to be trained and now with these horrid deaths..we need as many helping hands as we can get... Especially if those hands belong to a skilled former tribesman." 

"Teersa, how... even if that were true, it would not be your decision alone. The others.." he stammered

She snorted and looked at him again, "Lansra can feel as she pleases but I don't doubt for a moment Jezza won't welcome you home." 

He kept stammering out half formed replies, fumbling and unable to stop. What she was saying.... what that meant...her hand was back on his shoulder, squeezing lightly, the touch he was so unaccustomed to sending shock waves through his system, both comforting and somehow alarming as well. When he met her eyes he found a knowing warmth that he clung too, trying to focus his frantically shifting emotions.

Seeming to register his inability to register anything she said "You may think on this Rost, see where this stands with you, as I said before no one will force you into anything." 

All he could do was nod. 

Looking satisfied she let go of him, standing to retrieve the cup she'd abandoned on the log and resuming her previous seat, making him feel as if he had room to breath once more. 

He took several slow, deep breaths of crisp air before realizing she was watching him, smiling to herself. He cleared his throat again, shifting where he sat. Reaching for his drink he took a large gulp, the hot, bitter liquid a cleansing balm. When he set the cup down he tried again to speak and this time managed it, though his voice sounded strange to his own ears. "Teersa.. I don't know what to...thank you. I will think on what you've said..."

"Good" She said, her tone back to cavalier. "Then I should probably take my leave, I feel I have troubled you enough for one day." 

"You haven't.." he started but she held up her hand to hush him.

"I have, but it was necessary." She smiled at him as she stood, straightening her layers before crossing her arms, giving him a look that was almost fond. "There are still some left who remember you as one of our own, myself included. Do not forget that." 

That simple statement sent a tidal wave of emotion crashing through him, the corners of his eye burning, his chest constricted. He tried to swallow it back,  knowing if he let anything slip through it would all come pouring out. Breathing out hard through his nose he nodded again, not trusting his ability to open his mouth without laying himself bare. He didn't even know what he'd lay out.. but it was there, pressing against his eyes and lungs...

The Matriarch had apparently recognized that he needed space and decided to give it to him, as she had turned to make her way back out of the homestead. Though she hadn't gone far before she was speaking again while she walked. "Stay well Rost, consider what I have said." She turned and looked back at him over her shoulder as she took the first set of steps, her tone light and amused as she added "I do not doubt that we will speak again soon." 

He wasn't sure she was right. He wasn't sure what this meant yet...wasn't sure of anything at the moment..she couldn't be correct...this couldn't happen... 

Could it.... 

It suddenly struck him that Aloy was still gone, she hadn't been back during the day since they'd arrived but...if she showed up now he didn't know what he'd do... what if she wanted to speak on this?

He couldn't do that. Not right now. 

The urge to flee was taking over and, for the first time in recent memory, he gave into it willingly. Turning he kicked the fire out, heading inside for his bow, his mind set. He couldn't do this, but he could hunt. 

Hunt and maybe, maybe think over the words that were now ringing through his skull. 

Chapter Text

She was lost..

the echo of dripping water and her frantic footfalls hammering against her eardrums as she pelted down one long metal corridor after another. Ever present, flickering lights of blue and pink blurring at the corners of her vision, panting heavily and straining her ears, stopping briefly at each junction before picking a direction and rushing on. But no matter which way she turned it was just more old tunnels.

Everything looked the same! Why did nothing change!? Where was he? 

She stopped at the next turn, breath coming in erratic bursts and sweat beading on her forehead, trying to hear. 

"Aloy!" Echoed Erend's pained voice from... from where!? 

It was coming from everywhere!

A frustrated growl that was almost a cry escaped her, weaving her fingers into her hair and turning where she stood, desperately yelling out "Where are you!?" Her voice cracking, echoing off the metallic walls much louder than his voice had.

She ran, panic boiling through her bone marrow, sharp stabbing pains in her sides and lungs. 

But she couldn't stop..

She had to find him..

She pelted around the next corner, vision blurring as her eyes watered, her own name echoing in agonized whispers from every direction, reverberating through her body. She stepped forward onto what should have been metal, but instead was empty air, her foot finding no purchase.

She was falling...

Sick fear shot up from her stomach, choking the scream trying to rip it's way out of her throat, turning it into a strangled whimper as she twisted, reaching out for anything, fingers scrapping uselessly along the cold, moss covered walls as her body dropped into nothing..

Gasping Aloy sat straight up in bed, flailing her arms and still desperately grasping at anything, sweat soaking her sleep clothes, her breathing as frantic as it had been in her nightmare. She looked around desperately, hugging herself and groaning as she fell back onto her furs, realizing it had been a dream.

A vivid, horrible dream but still...

Residual panic was still tingling at the edges of her awareness, her half awake body shaking as it came off its adrenaline high, breathing slowly calming to a normal level. Sniffing she wiped her eyes, scrubbing at her face before letting her arms fall with a sigh, Erend's voice still haunting her. She squeezed her eyes shut again, the empty bedding to either side feeling as cold as her dream. 

Erend....

The thought of him was like an open wound... stinging and burning. Bleeding emptiness into her day as it hit her how very far away he was when she'd wake alone. How long would it be before she'd see him again? Before she could go back to waking up in his arms? It had already been too long, too many weeks with too few days spent together. She had chastised herself over and over again, trying to reprimand her heart into understanding that they"d see each other again soon enough, and mostly being successful, at least while she was busy and able to distract herself.. but when it was quiet her mind turned to him and her heart would sink. 

This was bound to happen she'd tell herself.. with his duty to both the throne and his men, with her mission...they were bound to spend months apart...right? They'd gone a week or two away and been alright.. so why was this so bad This? This was part of the deal. She had mentally prepared for this when she'd taken on a partner she new she'd have to leave sometimes, but it was what had to happen. Life didn't stop just because they loved each other, she knew that going into this. 

So why did she feel so desperate to get back to him? 

Aloy looked to her right, spotting the collar of his shirt and pulling it up from where it had tangled in the bedding, curling into a ball on her side and burying her face in the fabric, breathing deep. It didn't really smell like him anymore, but almost...especially right now with her fear still clinging to her ribs like sap. 

She missed him so much....

It wasn't just missing his voice, or his touch. She missed those things terribly...but what she really missed was him. Missed his steady presence at her side, she felt more and more wrong footed the longer she was away. Like she was off balance. She'd never had a problem being alone. Never needed company or someone by her side. But now that she had Erend it was like part of her was physically missing, her heart aching like a bruise.

She felt so lonely without him, and she wasn't even alone! Especially over the last few days, having spent her time questioning any Nora she could find. which had been fun...and pointless.. But with no leads and no other ideas on where to find any until Balahn's man returned she had little other choice if she wanted to figure this out and go home to her mate. 

But she hadn't found anything. No one knew anything. They were just afraid. Afraid and starting to think that if they just kept the borders shut and went back to ignoring the rest of the world things would be okay. That the Goddess would grant them peace. Which was a dangerous idea she needed to break them of. Needed to find these killers and get the border back open before the idea really took hold and a nervous whisper in the back of her mind kept saying she was running out of time. 

On top of that Rost was now avoiding her. Unable to decide whether this made her happy or more upset she'd settled on not thinking about it.. setting it out of her mind as much as possible, right along with her longing for Erend. But just like the latter it kept creeping back when she least expected it to.

Like right now...

"Rost?" She called, not moving from where she lay, watching dust motes float through the morning light that was shinning in through the lower windows, listening for any sound that might indicate he was around. 

She didn't hear a thing.

Fine. That was fine. He couldn't have a conversation like an adult? Fine.

It's not like she had done her best to understand him...she'd sought advice from Teersa, been discreet and kept his secret but still been able to work through some of her anger on the matter and come to a point where she could try to see his side, or at least where he was coming from. Yet he was gone when she came home the next afternoon, not returning until very late, then rising and vanishing before she herself rose at sunrise. Now this morning he had gone and done the same. Leaving her little opportunity to give their conversation another go and get it handled and off her plate.

And that was fine. 

She rolled over and stretched, letting the snapping of her joints and the deep inhale of air swirling through her be her focus. It didn't matter. What mattered was getting these bastards brought to justice, fixing tensions, and going home. 

And none of those things happened if she laid here wallowing. 

------------

Something had told her Daytower was the place to be today, and as she walked up the path in the late morning sun and the main plaza came into view she knew she'd made the right call. 

Balahn and another guard stood by a table not far to the left of where she'd entered, speaking to a dusty, tired looking man wearing the usual garb of a runner. A palace runner.

This probably meant nothing, as she was sure news or commands were passed back and forth this way frequently. But still, it was something different, maybe news that would pertain to the current situation. 

She waited, hovering off to the side to allow the men to finish their conversation. Anytime she was here, and it had become a frequent stop as she couldn't get word without showing up personally, she found Balahn and asked after his guard. The patrol seemed to be taking far longer than she thought it should but the Carja were unconcerned, repeating that they would be in any day. She had half a mind to go find the men herself and speak to Henahn there, but if he was guilty and managed to slip off into the wilds or fought she ran the risk of being unable to get answers. Here was better, where he could be held by the guard if need be. 

She glance over to see Balahn patting the messenger on his shoulder, then nodding to his guard before turning her direction.

"Aloy" he said simply, inclining his head as he approached, looking both amused and exasperated "I daresay Henahn has not returned." He held up a hand at the look on her face. "However, we do have news." 

"From Meridian?" She asked, not hopeful that this news would do anything to help the current situation but intrigued none the less.

"Yes, from the Sunking himself." He said, he'd come up to stand beside her, leaning back against the wooden rail she'd been standing against and crossing his arms, metal armor plates scrapping. "He has decided to send us reinforcements. " 

"Reinforcements." She repeated blankly. "Does it seem wise to you to bulk up a Carja border with more Carja when the tribe is so close to blaming this whole thing on you all anyway? Wouldn't that just make you look like you're preparing to defend yourselves, like you're guilty?" She wasn't a strategist and people weren't her best subject.. but more Carja soldiers seemed like a bad idea at the moment no matter how she spun it.  

"I would be inclined to agree, as sensitive as things are." He said evenly, casting a sidelong look at her as he continued "Luckily the king isn't sending Carja. He's sending Vanguard. Something about them having established ties that may serve to help calm tensions. The runner stated that they would be no more than a few days behind him, possibly less." 

Her pulse jumped, a bubble of anticipation building under her ribs. If the Vanguard were coming there was no way Erend wouldn't be with them. None. He would be here! Soon! 

"Oh." She said, shooting to sound like that information hadn't just run her over like a heard on Tramplers. "That's a bit different." 

"I'll bet it is." Balahn said, chuckling to himself and ignoring the look she shot him. "They will be bringing supplies to offer to the tribe I am told. The King believes Erend and his men the most likely to be well received, as they have thus far built the most bridges with the Nora. The hope is that your people will accept not only the offer of goods but of trusted hands." 

"I'm not sure that will happen, but I suppose I can bring it to the Matriarchs and see what they say." She was elated at the news Erend was on his way. More than elated, this was the lightest she'd felt since she'd arrived. But she highly doubted the tribe would let anyone within the Embrace. 

"I think that was what the King was intending you do." He said, unfolding his arms and holding out a rather ornate leather bound roll. "Though this may give more direct instruction, I'm not sure." 

It was a scroll she realized, bound in a well tanned, dark leather wrap. Turning it over she ran her fingers along the intricately stitched golden suns adorning the hide. She glanced back up at Balahn, "So is this a letter?" 

"That's what it looks like." He said flatly. 

She nodded a thank you, looking back down at the thick roll. Why on earth would Avad be sending her a letter when he'd just sent the majority of his message with a runner... wasn't that the runners job? To run information? 

She'd started picking at the leather cord, attempting to get the knot loose when a call for the Captain rang out across the stone courtyard. Balahn excused himself and went off to address whatever needed addressing, leaving her singularly focused on getting the scroll undone. 

But she had hardly unfurled the thing before she heard her name and looked up to see Balahn standing towards the opposite gates, waving her over. 

Curiosity peaking, she let the parchment snap back into a neat roll, wrapping it loosely in its leather and twining the cords, tucking it into her belt as she walked. The excitement she was bubbling with was slowly turning to the feeling she got right before making a kill, whatever Avad had to say firmly shoved out of her mind. She was pretty sure there was only one reason she'd be hailed like this but there was no way she was going to get that lucky today, not after the hellacious week she'd had. There was no way. 

But she absolutely was that lucky. By the Goddess it was Henahn, finally back and currently being pulled aside by his Captain. Never had she been so glad to see someone she was quite sure had a hand in a bunch of murders. 

Trying not to look overtly pleased with the situation as a whole she made her way forward. Henahn, who had removed his helmet and placed it under his arm as he listened to Balahn speak, caught sight of her coming. He didn't flinch, didn't start to shift his weight or look for an exit. Didn't even look that nervous, just mildly perplexed. That was a bit odd for someone who was guilty, especially if he thought she was on to him. She remained as humble as she could but she was well aware her reputation proceeded her, especially amongst the Carja, so if he didn't look upset at her coming over to question him then maybe she'd been wrong...or maybe he just didn't know what was going on yet. 

Following his lesser's gaze Balahn greeted her "Aloy, I spoke too soon earlier. This is Henahn. I've filled him in a bit on your intentions here." 

So he did know. Okay. "Hello Henahn, I'd like to speak to you about the break in that happened during your watch." 

"Yes ma'am, though I have already given as much as I know to Captain Balahn." He said evenly. Up close she could see he was young, probably not much older then herself, but her first impression was still holding true, he didn't appear to be uncomfortable in the least, just a bit road weary. 

"What happened that night. Tell me everything." 

He didn't hesitate, his manner shifting into that of a soldier giving a report, intoning his response. "It was just past midnight and I was patrolling along the western perimeter of my route, monitoring the storerooms and courtyard on that side. I heard the sound of something large hitting the wooden planking along the veranda. I moved several lengths East, making my way around the outer most building in the area to investigate. I found one of the braziers knocked asunder. I searched the area but found nothing, so I righted the fire grate and returned to my patrol."  

"So you saw nothing? When did you realize you had been robbed?" She asked, arching her eyebrow. 

"When I returned, I noticed the door to one of the storehouses was ajar. When I got closer I saw movement far off on the rocks beyond our boundary but I couldn't attest to who it was. At that point I noted a large sum of missing items and promptly raised the alarm." 

Her predatory surety was fading fast. This kid didn't seem guilty and her radar was usually spot on, yet she was getting nothing here. But he had to know something, even if he wasn't directly connected. So she pestered and wormed and asked every question she could think to ask, probably more than once if the tired look the men were giving her said anything. But in the end she once again came away with not a single scrap of information, knowing no more than when she'd started...

Eventually she had to conceded there was nothing else for her to learn and cut the guy loose. She watched him go, wondering if this would ever be solved. What if she never figured it out? What then? Just stay here till something else happened? Go home and wait for something to happen? She'd hunted down more than her fair share of murderers, seen countless crime scenes, and never had she just found nothing. It was as if these killers were ghosts...and she was at a loss. 

That heaviness she'd felt couldn't quiet settle into her bones like it had though, not with the news that the Vanguard would be here soon. Whatever happened at least she'd have Erend near.

They'd figure it out. 

Riding back she thought hard on what she would say to the Matriarchs. What would they accept? It didn't seem likely that they would allow the Vanguard into the Embrace, no matter how good things had been when they'd last parted ways with the tribe. She doubted they'd even accept the supplies, even if it would benefit them as much as the extra support.  

Maybe she could catch Teersa alone again, run the news by her and try to form a plan from there. She didn't usually try to drop the planning or handling of things on others but she trusted Teersa most, and knew she was more open then the others. If the Matriarch could tell her what she'd accept, that would give her a baseline of what to realistically expect from the others. Then they could work on convincing Jezza together and Lansra could do what she did best and throw a hysterical tantrum.

Kicking her strider to move a bit faster she let the wind flying through her hair pull her stress away with it. 

One way or another he'd be close, and that would make a world of difference here, even if only to her. 

-------------- 

Pinching the bridge of her nose she slumped in her chair, resting her elbow on the wooden arm and closing her eyes. This had all started out so well and yet here they were still arguing however many hours after she'd first arrived. 

"We are welcoming blight and inviting the downfall of the tribe! Do you not see that sisters!" Lansra was rambling, standing and waving her overbangled arms, looking like some oversized bat. "The Goddess has shown that if we keep from these heathens and their tainted ways we will not suffer! Heed her! Heed her and be done listening to this false prophet and her lust for all things tainted!" 

"Lansra be quiet! You spew nonsense!" Teersa barked, looking just as angry but far less insane. "You shame us all with your words. Listen to reason." This she said mostly to Jezza, who sat with her arms crossed, her expression closed and distant as she took in her peers words. "Before the killings our tribe was rebuilding, peace allowed us the resources we needed to retake our home and our ways, and at our weakest we cannot turn aside the aid of our allies if there is no solid reason to do so, that is foolish." 

Lansra cut in once more, saying something about heretics and devils. Back and forth and back and forth, and Jezza sitting there unable to make up her mind. For hours...Aloy sighed sharply, dropping her arm and watching the chaos. 

When she'd arrived she'd thought her luck had held out despite the roadblock she'd hit with Henahn. She'd found Teersa, gotten a word in alone before anything and been blown away when the Matriarch's first reaction was to suggest the guard camp outside the village as before. They both agreed it unlikely they'd be allowed within the villages, and frankly Aloy still doubted the other two would allow them past the border at all, but Teersa had seemed sure. Saying that they were being sent to help, so have them help by guarding the ways to and from the border, as well as the outer walls of the settlements, keeping eyes out for anything suspicious while they did. 

Then they'd walked in and layed their idea out and her reservoir of luck had unceremoniously run dry. 

Jezza suddenly held up her hand, catching Aloy's eyes and cutting off Lansra's tirade. Both of her sisters looked equally determined to win her agreement, watching her like Glinthawks when she spoke. "I am concerned, Teersa, not that these men can't be trusted, but that it may anger the tribe to have them within the Goddess's Embrace during a time of mourning. May even offend the Goddess herself. Allowing outsiders on sacred ground during a grieving period is...a difficult thing to agree to.." 

Lansra looked smug and Teersa thoughtful, crossing her arms and rubbing her chin with one hand "I can see where that may be an issue. I had not thought of that." 

More superstition and religious fervor to bar a perfectly sound tactical arrangement. Wonderful. And she couldn't have said that was her concern when they'd started this?

Clearing her throat Aloy leaned forward, all eyes snapping to her. "If the issue is outsiders messing up the tribe's mourning rituals then why not have them camp at the border. They can help keep an eye on things there, and be available if need be." 

This had been her original pitch anyway, having not expected even Teersa to allow anyone past the border. Honestly she didn't care either way, other than that it really would be nice to have more help. Erend being as close as Daytower would be enough for her, that was only a couple hour trip via strider. Either way she just wanted an answer. If it wasn't already too late she would ride back to Daytower after leaving, let them know of the Matriarchs decision.

Teersa was giving her a glowing look while Jezza just stared, nodding slowly and looking like she might actually agree to that arrangement. 

Before she could say anything however Lansra jumped in, fuming and spitting like a feral animal, her jowls shaking. "Jezza you cannot possibly agree to this! We did not need the Carja nor their blood stained alliance before and we do not need it now! We brought these hardships onto our own by allowing ourselves to be blinded by falsity and you are choosing to do so again!" 

Jezza gave her a look but said nothing, turning instead to Teersa. "I believe that is acceptable." 

Lansra howled like a wounded animal and turned from the table, "This will bring an end to all of us!" She cried, muttering curses as she left the room. 

Teersa ignored her, instead saying to Aloy "Well, there is your answer, I assume you intend to go off to tell the Carja?" 

She had already stood. Decision having been made the fire of purpose she'd felt today kicked up a notch. One thing off the list, and it had turned out better than she'd expected. Smiling she said "that's right, I'll stop at the border to let them know as well." 

"That would be wise, Sona too, if you would." 

She nodded and thanked them, making her farewells and exiting the village as quickly as she could. She may not be any closer to solving this but the guard arriving changed the atmosphere, it was indeed an offering of continued alliance as much as anything and they had not refused, which was about the best damn thing she'd had happen in weeks. Well...aside from finding out Erend would be arriving. 

She reached up and clicked her focus, summoning the mount she'd been using since she'd arrived, smiling as it came trotting over from around the bend. The machine slowed as it reached her, allowing her to pat its elongated metal head before swinging herself up and kicking the thing into gear. 

Still smiling she shot off towards the border, the strong arms she missed so much feeling a little less far away.

Chapter Text

No one looked surprised when they arrived to find their Captain waiting with the supply carts loaded and ready to go, even if every one of them was still bleary eyed and stumbling along. 

He'd managed to sleep some, forcing his brain to shut off finally by telling himself he could travel faster if he was well rested. But the second he'd woken, just before dawn, he was up, his blood thrumming with anticipation. They could make this trip in a few days time if they hustled and avoid machines. And he had absolutely every intention of doing both of the those things. He needed to see her, need to get to her and take her somewhere quiet and just be with her. Absorb her presence and feed his famished soul with the warmth of her fire. 

He was so starved for her love he was waxing poetic like a bleeding Carja, but he couldn't help it. All that flowery nonsense was starting to resonate with him, ever since that forgefire of a woman had shown up and melted him down to his base, forcing him to reforge who he was and wanted to be. 

He watched the horizon, waiting till the sun was about half way risen before losing his patience and calling it Sunrise. Looking around he did a quick head count, pleased that no one had decided to test their luck and make them late. He should give these men more credit, there was a reason they were chosen the first time and a reason they were chosen now, but his mood was teetering between thrilled to be leaving and pissed that they weren't already there, so he simply eyed them all as they slowly gathered up. 

The only one who looked as alert as himself was his second, who was making his way over to Erend, sounding amused as he said. "Morning Cap, I take it you're ready to go?" He nodded towards the carts.

"I was ready to leave yesterday." He said flatly, for once he wasn't in the mood for chit chat, he wanted to get the road under his boots. "Looks like everyone's here." 

"Just missing Orlund and Baelara." Roan said as he made his way over to inspect the supplies.

"Nah, they're there, coming up the street." 

Roan mumbled some acknowledgement as he yanked on the tie-down ropes. When Avad had told him to gather men he'd initially intended to leave Roan here to prep for the feast, but when he'd heard what was happening he all but insisted on coming. The man couldn't really make that call, but he was one of the few other guard who'd gone out of his way to make a good impression last endeavor, and frankly the longer he thought about it the more he wanted his second there to hold down the fort should he need to head off somewhere... Besides Delorn had done an excellent job when they'd gone to the Claim and even though the feast still weighed on him his anxieties over Aloy had all but shoved that aside. The other nine were all men and women who'd been there last time and done the most to help. More importantly they were the ones who had interacted most with the tribe and would hopefully be remembered. 

"Alright you lot, figure out who wants to pull carts first and let's get going." He'd take his shift at it too of course but he'd loaded the damn things, they could take first shift hauling and spread it amongst themselves. 

After a bit of shoving and grumbling they worked it out, getting themselves in order and setting off, Erend leading the way, setting a blistering pace for them all. He pushed them hard, as hard as he was pushing himself, and by the end of the first day, when they finally stopped to camp long after the sun had set, they were nearly halfway there. Personally he'd have kept on, but realistically he knew that both he and his men needed to stop and rest for a few hours, plus traveling at night along this route wasn't the wisest choice, not that he was particularly well known for making those. Regardless they were here for a while so might as well make the most of it. 

The night was clear and a bit chilly but otherwise comfortable so they set to getting a small fire going and laying out bedrolls, forgoing the tents they'd brought for now. After a quick meal of road rations he laid down, trying his best to relax. 

There was a steady energy flowing through him that made it hard to fall asleep. It was like a magnetic hum, stronger and stronger the closer he got to her. 

Blowing out a breath he stared up at the stars, willing his mind to turn off and the sun to rise as quickly as possible. 

---------------

Sweat was pouring down the back of his neck, the cool eastern breeze doing nothing to cool him down.

Squinting up he checked the sun. Only a few more hours before sundown and Daytower was a bit further away than that, even at this breakneck pace he'd been maintaining. They could push past nightfall a bit though, they'd have too.

It was taking a toll on him, the effort of hauling and marching as fast as they were, he could feel it. Knew it was affecting the men as well. But he couldn't slow, and thankfully his men were of the same mind, or at the very least they understood enough not to complain. 

He called a halt for a few minutes rest, chugging back a drink from his waterskin and breathing for a moment before taking up one of the carts and setting off once more. 

As the last of the suns light died Daytower finally came into view. The glow of the already lit braziers faint in the distance. It wasn't that far though, just a few miles, a couple hours. 

He looked around for Roan, spotting him off to his left and whistling to get his attention. He whipped his head around at the sound and made his way over. "What?" He huffed out, looking about as sweat soaked as Erend felt. 

"What do you think about pressing on to Daytower?" He asked, glancing around at the men. They were all clearly exhausted but still hadn't said a word. Initially they'd kept up a running banter, quietly so as not to undo their luck in avoiding the machines, but still jovial. The last few hours had been pretty quiet though and he could see they were all dragging lead. He felt bad about that, but there were proper beds waiting at the settlement, and he'd be as close to Aloy as he could hope to get at present. 

Roan was watching him, when he made eye contact the man sighed, giving him a slap on the back. "I think we can all manage a few more hours, especially if it means not having to camp." 

Grateful he pushed on. They managed to make the base of the trail that wound its way up the mountain to the border gates as the moon rose above the horizon, full and bright. The last leg was the worst but it didn't take long, and pretty soon he was dropping the handles of the cart, stretching his arms and rolling his sore shoulders. 

The featherheaded guard at the gate had come forward to assist in getting the carts the men pulled moved off to the side. He had gone to assist as well but caught sight of Balahn heading his way and redirected. Reaching out to the man and shaking his hand warmly as they came level. 

"Erend, good to see you." He greeted, gripping his forearm before letting go "You look well." 

"Well enough, how are things here? " As Carja went Balahn was one of the most respected on his list. He was honest, kept his word, and had been a steady comrade during the liberation, over all he genuinely liked the guy. 

"Things here are tense, to say the least." He nodded in the general direction of the Vanguard "You and your men are welcome to stay in the barracks. It may be a bit cramped but it should serve it's purpose for one night."

"One night?" He asked, holding his breath. Surely he couldn't mean..

"Aloy has arranged with her people to have you camp just outside the Nora border." He said idly "Something she managed in record time. She and the runner arrived almost in unison this morning and yet she was back with the Matriarchs verdict by late afternoon. And as usual her timing was impeccable, we weren't expecting you for another day or so." 

It would have been far more impeccable had she arrived closer to now... the thought that he had missed seeing her by just a few hours made his heart ache. 

She was so close...Aloy was so rusting close!

They could keep going? Right? Looking around at his men he knew they couldn't. He'd been pushing them hard to get here as quickly as they had, something they hadn't even grumbled about, not when they could see their Captain as worried as he was. Not to mention how much they liked and respected Aloy themselves. No, they probably wouldn't even grumble pushing on, but he couldn't ask that of them, they deserved the rest. Besides it wasn't like she'd be there hanging out at the border at this hour anyway... they could continue on in the morning. 

First thing in the morning...

Chapter Text

The boar he'd sliced thin popped and sizzled away in the pan as he flipped the slices.

It wasn't long past sunrise, and he expected she'd be up any minute, so he was glad that the food was just about done. He needed this to go well. He was struggling enough with his decision as it was... he couldn't handle another fight. Not that he expected her to fight with him about it seeing as she was getting her way, but he was nervous nonetheless. He wanted her to see that he meant well, that he wanted peace between them. 

Sighing he stabbed the last slice of meat on the end of his skewer. He was always nervous as of late, it felt like a jumping, twitching cable of distress ran from head to toe, constantly buzzing and throwing worried sparks into his day at random....and he was tired of it. Though he doubted it was about to get any better anytime soon.

Part of him was dreading this, and he couldn't truly figure out why.

The scrape of the front door swinging open drew his attention. Looking up he locked eyes with Aloy as she emerged from the cabin, fully dressed but not carrying her weapons. She looked cautious, like a weary fox, regarding him with her chin tilted up and her gaze low and suspicious. "You're here." She said as a greeting, eyeing the cook fire like it might be a trap. 

"I am. Will you join me? I would like to speak." He was trying to keep his voice even. Why was this so difficult? He'd spent days going over this. Weighing all of the options and insights he'd been offered. It had been.....hard. Worse than hard. Yet he'd made the right decision. He hoped.... At least it was what he told himself now to steady his resolve. This was what was best. A Matriarch had attested to it. 

She stared at him like he might suddenly turn into a Ravager and attack for almost a minute. Then she turned and made her way over, sitting upright and tense on the log opposite him, the air between them tight and ready to snap. She didn't say a word, just watched him and waited, clearly deciding to let him take lead on this conversation. 

He rubbed his palms together slowly, the movement helping to ground him before he spoke. "Aloy..." he faltered, all the ways he intended to start this conversation rushing forward at once and rendering him tongue tied. He ended up stalling "I'm aware you spoke to Teersa.." he started not having a firm idea of why he'd chosen that route.

"How?" She cut across suddenly, looking surprised and somehow even more suspicious. Crossing her arms over her chest.

"She came to speak with me, the morning after you stayed with her." He said, pulling the pan from the fire, plating the food and attempting to hand it across to her. She hadn't replied as he did this and when he glanced at her while holding out the food he realized that was because she'd been staring at him open mouthed.  

Their eyes met and she snapped her mouth shut. "How would she know to come speak with you?" She asked shrewdly. 

He'd messed that up...telling her that Teersa had been aware of him having lived and kept that secret from her didn't seem wise... backtracking and trying his best to sound truthful he said "She didn't, she came to see you and found me." He'd have to hope that Teersa had a good enough sense of self-preservation to keep that lie up when she and Aloy next spoke.

He gave the plate he was holding out a shake and she finally took it, looking like she was assessing that information for validity. Finally she nodded and he let out the breath he'd been holding. She took a bite of her food and thought for another length before asking "And what did she say?" 

"She said that she agreed with you." He said simply, not sure how else to say it. His insides were in knots. This felt like the last barrier between his life that he had known...the identity he'd built for so long, and a whole new life he couldn't even really invision. Once she was told that was it, there was no going back...even if he wanted to... Did he want to? 

Aloy was still just staring, a question forming on her face. Her voice low, she asked "So, she agrees you should rejoin the tribe.... and you?

He looked at her then, at her green eyes,  still so defensive, but with that little ray of hope shinning through again. At her stubborn face, so very defiant and so very, very loved. This was good, this would mean he was with her and that was the most important thing now. He wanted to offer her more, but all he could manage was a small nod of affirmation. 

He watched his response hit her. Watched the current of emotion she was trying to hide shudder just beneath her calm surface. Watched as she resolutely tucked it back, clearing her throat, her voice wavering a bit despite her calm tone. "I need to understand this Rost. Are you saying you'll rejoin the tribe?" 

The life he had longed for since his exile flashed before his minds eye. He could never picture how things would be now... he'd lost that years ago, but he knew how it had been. The faces he'd missed... He could never separate the tribe and his family, his heart just couldn't. In his mind they were part of that home he longed for, even though he knew they wouldn't be there should he return... he doubted there were many faces he'd know now, or that would know him.

Maybe that was a good thing....

He cleared his throat in turn, nodding again as he said "Yes...that is what I am saying Aloy." 

It felt as is the tension between them finally relaxed as he spoke, the shift in her energy palpable. He offered her a wane smile, the roiling mix of fear and anxiety pushing at the back of his eyes, the corners prickling. She took a deep breath in through her nose, straightening and shifting where she sat. "Okay...that's...okay." she said breathily, nodding and staring at the fire. She wanted to smile, he could see it, the corners of her mouth working hard to stay where they were and not betray how she felt. 

She still had something there though, some worry, he could see her measuring out her words before she spoke. "Rost.... do you truly mean what you're saying?" 

He needed to be solid here, she needed that from him. He'd made the choice, stated it. It was done, no more room for fear. Another deep breath and his voice felt stronger, even if the only word he could manage was "Yes." 

Her face relaxed, lighting up like a sunrise in spring and it melted away the cold fingers of dread still clinging to his heart, at least for now. 

When she spoke next her voice hummed with an excited energy "This is good Rost. This is the right choice, you'll see, I promise. So we need to let them know, right? Or did you already let Teersa know when you spoke? When did you want to do this?"  

Her enthusiasm was infectious but also overwhelming, despite the warmth he felt at her reaction it only masked the things he knew rejoining were bound to make him feel. This was going to be hard... but he was used to that. Couldn't be worse than leaving, could it? She was still shooting off suggestions and questions and he'd missed a good bit of it, so he held up his hand, asking she stop. 

She did, looking nervous again. He tried for calm as he said "Speak to Teersa first, I have not yet told her my intentions, so that will need to happen before anything else." 

She was practically shaking before, a ball of energy with no outlet, now with a set task she steadied. Breathing deep and nodding, her smile no longer hidden as she looked up at him, his chest cracking open at the happy, almost proud look she was giving him. 

"Okay, so then that's what I'll do today." She shoved another piece of boar into her mouth and jumped up, spinning on her heel and heading back up to the cabin without another word. 

He chuckled to himself as he watched her go, poking at the fire, his plate forgotten. He didn't feel much like eating...his insides were a strange mix of hope and panic again and he simply wanted to have this done with. Once she spoke to Teersa there would be a plan, he had no doubt about that. He also had no intention of fighting it. He couldn't chose when to do this, he'd never let it happen... he could feel it. So whatever they decided he'd do. Rip the arrow out and stitch up his wounds from there. 

When she returned she carried her bow in one hand and a roll of leather in the other. She threw herself down back where she'd been sitting, leaning her weapon against the wood and crossing her legs where she perched, the roll dropping into her lap. 

He nodded in its direction, curiosity piqued "What is that you have?" 

"Oh, its some letter from Avad, the runner who came yesterday brought it." She said dismissively, picking it up and going to work at the ties. "I forgot about it last night." 

He knew she technically worked with the king of the Carja, but it still struck him as strange to hear his charge received correspondence from the man. Last time they had been here she'd been struggling desperately to win the proving, existing on the outskirts of society, now she was sharing letters with nobles of far away kingdoms...

She'd gotten the roll undone, scanning the letter, her scowl darkening as she read. When she'd finished she gave the parchment an exasperated eyeroll and a snort, letting it snap back into form before tossing it aside. 

His eyebrow shooting up he asked "I assume you didn't approve of what he had to say?" 

She said nothing for a moment, shaking her head. Finally she gestured at the letter, saying "He's just...insufferable sometimes.. and I don't even think he means to be." 

She looked over at him when she said this like the statement was supposed to make some sort of sense. He found most Carja insufferable.... plus the man was a king and the sun of a madman so... 

She seemed to have caught his bafflement because she continued "I don't know how to explain it without going into all the things I've dealt with from the man, but you're welcome to read the letter if you like." 

It didn't seem to be anything important pertaining to her position in the Sundom or she'd have said..probably. but he wanted to know more anyway so he reached out a hand. Catching his meaning she scooped the thing up and tossed it to him. 

The leather was ornately stitched he found, with shiny gold thread weaving intricate suns. The letter itself however was rather short, and certainly not anything to do with her mission...

Dearest Aloy, 

I pray to the sun this message finds you well. The weight of worry on my heart since learning of what has happened is indescribable, it pains me to know you remain in such a dangerous situation. 

I could not however bear to have you remain there without helping in some way, so please, forgive me for sending guardsmen against your wishes. I do so only because I care and want to make sure my dearest ally remains safe. 

I cannot pretend that I do not miss your presence in Meridian. The shadows feel darker the longer you are away. 

Please take care. I understand you must be terribly busy, but I look forward to your reply more than I can say, and more than you'd be willing to hear.

Yours Always,

Avad

 

"Huh" was all he could think to say. Looking up at her as she watched him read "That is.." 

"A lot?" She added, giving him a look that said she clearly didn't appreciate the kings... fondness..

"A lot." He conceded. "But he is a Carja..I suppose knowing the whole story would help me understand why this bothers you so?" 

She scoffed "It doesn't bother me, its just... tiring, having to constantly rebuff the man. He seems incapable of understanding that an ally is all I am to him." 

"You make it sound as if the King of the Sundom fancies you, is that the case?" He said blankly. He didn't really have a feeling for that information, but the letter certainly seemed more than friendly. 

She scoffed again, unfolding one leg and kicking at the dirt, placing her palms on the log on either side of her and bracing her arms. "He asked me to marry him at one point ..after he had a pretty good idea I had already chosen Erend and after I'd already turned him down a few times, so yeah, he fancies me. Or thinks he does anyway..But after all the times I've turned him down I thought we had gotten to a place where he was getting past all that, but, apparently not." She made a disgusted noise in her throat, casting the roll in his hand a dark look.

Good. So not only did she work for the Carja but she'd become the object of affection for the king himself... that didn't increase his anxieties over her living in that tainted city at all.. especially seeing as his father had been insane... his sureness in the choice to rejoin was becoming ever firmer. He needed to get her to come home to where she belonged. 

"How does your mate feel about that?" He asked, enjoying the easy conversation they were now sharing more than really needing an answer. He could very well imagine how the Oseram felt about it. 

She laughed outright at that. "How do you think he feels? But Avad is his boss and the king, he can't really start a fight over it, and all three of us have already spoken and all it did was get Avad to keep his pestering to a minimum." She sighed again, "I'll have to talk to him again when I get back, set this straight." 

He didn't like the idea of her starting a confrontation with the Carja leader but he also didn't have a firm grasp on their relationship and she didn't seem worried, just annoyed, so his unease was probably misplaced.

She set to stringing her bow, saying offhandedly "I'm going to try to catch Teersa on her morning walk around the village, then maybe come back here. I haven't found a single shred of a clue in regards to the murders, and Balahn's man ended up being innocent so I'm at a loss." She got the bow looped, checking her tension she added "Oh and Avad has chosen to send the Vanguard to the border to help and bring supplies as a peace offering, and I managed to get Teersa and Jezza to agree to let them come as far as our border." 

"That is news." He said, surprised she hadn't mentioned that sooner, though he guessed in lue of the conversation they'd just had it wasn't the thing she was focused on. 

"Good news." She said, obviously looking forward to their arrival. "I don't know how much they'll be allowed to help but the acceptance of the Sundoms aid is promising and it will be good to have more eyes watching for anything off." 

He watched her face as she spoke, the faintest pink spreading across her freckles. Amused he added helpfully "And Erend will be there." 

Her face caught fire but she didn't look at him. "Yeah, that too." 

Chuckling again he was about to ask her another question, not realizing until now how thirsty he'd been for her company and trying to keep it going as long as possible before she left again, when he spotted something out of the corner of his eye. It turned out to be nothing more than a bird but it reminded him suddenly of something. He'd tried to tell her last night but hadn't been able to as she'd been asleep when he'd arrived and sleep had pushed it out of his mind. "Aloy I have something to say that may help." He gave a vague gesture with his hand "Possibly."

"Oh?" She asked, her mind still clearly on her task. 

"When I was returning home last night, from the mountain area that sits northwest of Mother's Watch, I saw someone amongst the rocks." He said. He'd seen the figure briefly, and as it had been moving with much more agility then he could now muster and away from him, he hadn't been able to investigate further. But the night had been deep and he knew no proper tribesman would be up on those trails at that hour. It may have simply been another outcast, but perhaps not. 

He had her attention now for sure, as she'd dropped her bow to her lap and straightened, her eyes sharp. "What did you see? Where exactly?" 

"Not much, it was a person though, that I am sure of. They made there way Southeast, lapping around the rear of the metal devil I'd guess." He relayed.

She was nodding, a determined fire burning in her eyes. "That is something.. I think I'll head there first, see if I can find a trail to follow. Then see Teersa." She jumped up, slinging her weapon onto her back alongside her spear. "I need to get moving, if that was someone related to all this I need to find them, now."

She made to turn but stopped, her expression softening as she looked down at him where he sat. "Rost I... thank you, for doing this. I understand that it's hard for you..but, it'll be worth it, you'll see." 

As he watched her leave all he could do was pray to the Goddess that she was right.

Chapter Text

The snow was already thick on the peaks behind Mother's watch, forcing her to trudge along, dragging her cold feet through the drifts and shivering as she went. She'd been so caught up in her excitement over Rost's decision and this lead that she'd completely forgotten to prepare for this amount of snow, and she was regretting it. 

One good thing though was that the night had been calm, the tracks she sought would still be there, and it made it so she picked up Rost's trial with little effort.  

She felt like this was it. It had to be. All these good things were lining up, Erend was coming, Rost was rejoining his people, the Carja, so far, were not to blame for the murders, this had to be the next good thing in the series.

She followed his trail back the way he'd come, making her way to round about where he'd seen the figure. It took a bit of poking around but soon she found the second set of tracks in the pristine snow. They looked like they came up from the walls surrounding the village, traveling back and away towards the large expanse of peaks tucked into the south of the Embrace. 

"Alright. Let's see where you were going." She said to the frosty air.

Pinging the trail on her focus just in case she set off, following the path for a few miles. She was shivering and wet by the time she reached the trails end, frustration drowning out the elation she'd held in her chest since speaking with Rost. She'd followed the tracks into a small valley that sat at the very edge of the range in that area, tucked into the slope of the mountain. The path led all the way up to a steep cliff, where it abruptly halted, just shy of the base. There was a ledge at the top, about a third of the way up the towering rock face the cliff ran against, and though she couldn't see any easy way up from where her trail ended she needed to get up there. 

Circling around she eventually found a place where she could work her way up. At the top the ledge was wide enough for two people to cross side by side and wound its way back out of sight. Aloy gave the area a quick scan but found nothing. Her frustration building she crept along, keeping a sharp eye. But her caution was wasted... there was nothing here. Just the craggy, cold rock and a bunch of icicles.

Sitting down she let her legs hang over the edge, her exasperation coming out in a misty cloud as she exhaled. Where could this person have gone? There was nothing here... not even for her focus.. how could that be? The trail led here, how could it just stop like that! She glanced up, trying to see anything further up but there wasn't a thing. The mountain angled to its peak high above her. What was going on? 

She didn't know...but she knew she was cold and wanted to get to Teersa. 

She repelled down, not interested in further freezing her finger tips off attempting to climb down those tiny handholds. When she hit the base she clicked her focus once more, giving the entire area a once over with her scanner and coming up with a whole lot of nothing. 

As she was leaving she felt a prickling on her neck and turned, surveying the valley behind her, eyes catching on the rock face once more.

Something wasn't right.... she could feel it. But what was it? 

The feeling fading she turned once more, putting it from her mind for now. Speaking to Teersa and getting Rost back in the tribe was the most pressing thing at this very moment. As she had no leads all she could do was fortify, and having him back where he belonged felt integral to that. 

--------------

She had just about made it to the gates, coming around the side from where she'd been tracking, when she heard her name being called from the path. Turning she tried to keep her face straight, the voice sounding very much like it belonged to.. 

"Aloy..." Varl said, looking defiant and nervous. "I, um..wanted to know if you would speak to me, for a minute. ."

It took everything she had not to groan out loud. this was the last thing she wanted to do right now. She wasn't necessarily mad at him, but he'd definitely dropped off the list of people she considered a friend, even if she did still respect him for helping at the spire. Plus she didn't owe him a damn thing. 

"I'm actually on my way to speak to Teersa, maybe another time." She said, trying to back away towards the village. 

He followed though, saying "I understand, but please? It will only take a moment and I...owe this to you." He looked sincere, even if he was still about as tense as a tripwire. 

Sighing she stopped, crossing her arms as she spoke. "Alright Varl, what is it you think you owe me?" 

"An apology, to start." He said, not looking her in the eye and adding more softly "and more respect then I have shown you." 

She waited, her edge softening just a bit. He was a good man, had been a good ally, and she understood now how tragedy and stress seemed to make good people act out... but she needed to hear him own up before she let it go. 

He caught on and kept going "I was jealous, I ...still am." He started, glancing at her as he said this as if she was going to say something hopeful to him here. She narrowed her eyes and he hurried on. "But that doesn't make how I behaved right, and it took me too long to come to terms with that... I'm sorry. I'd like for us to be able to be friends again." 

"Cairn talk to you or what?" She asked, she's seen him several times now and this is the first time he'd spoken to her since that night, now suddenly he wanted to make amends? 

"She did, and she was right. I was in the wrong." He said, looking like it pained him to say it. 

But he'd said it nonetheless, she could handle that. "Alright Varl, I accept your apology." 

He smiled at her but it faded quickly at the look on her face. She might forgive him but he still had to work his way back to friend, and her face conveyed that as she'd intended because he fell back, nodding and saying "Good, thank you. I'll see you around then?" 

This was feeling very much like her many conversations with Avad, something she didn't care to have the time for and she was anxious to get away. She made some vague sound and turned to make her way to the entrance of the village, trying hard not to jog the rest of the way to get his eyes off her back. That had been uncomfortable but at least it was over, and mending a bridge with a comrade was a good thing. 

Figuring the Matriarch would probably be back at All Mother by now she headed straight there. She found her sitting in one of the small rooms she generally occupied doing something to some alter. 

"Teersa?" She said, trying not to startle the woman and failing. She jumped and turned around, her face immediately shifting from startled to elated. 

"Aloy! You scared me child!" She came forward and put an arm around her, making her stiffen for half a breath, something Teersa didn't seem to notice or ignored as she walked her from the room, steering her towards the larger area with a fire and seating. "To what do I owe this lovely visit?" 

"Well, I'm aware you and Rost spoke." She said flatly. 

Teersa stopped dead, the statement catching her off guard. Slowly she said "Yes, we did. That was quite the conversation in fact." 

"I'll bet." She said, taking one of the seats, Teersa cautiously following suit. "But that's not really why I'm here. I'm here because he has agreed to become one of the tribe again." 

The Matriarchs face lit up, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she gave Aloy a broad grin "That is excellent news! I was hoping he'd wise up and do what was right." 

This struck a cord in her heart, irritation on his behalf twanging through her chest. It was still so unfair, to act as if it weren't always his right to be among them...like he wasn't deprived that just like she was, for no good reason. She let it slide by though. Now wasn't the time. They needed to figure this out. 

"Well he did." She said, her tone airy, "So now we just have to bring him back into the tribe. Which is why i came to you, how do we make that happen?"

The old woman sat back, crossing her arms and making the large wooden beads about her neck clack. "Well, I'd imagine he'd want as little fanfare as possible, knowing Rost...perhaps we simply speak to the tribe before he comes, and allow him to return at his own pace." That sounded like a pre thought out plan and her initial irritation faded completely. The old woman really did want him back, and that was what he deserved. 

"I think that would be best. But you will need to speak to Jezza first won't you?" Aloy asked, she couldn't just rush off of her own volition. 

"Oh of course! But I know her, this will not be something she resists. Then we tell Lansra and let her spew her profanities before we head off to gather the village." 

"You, you mean. I plan on returning home to let Rost know what will happen." She was trying to sound as grateful as possible but she had absolutely no intention of interacting with Lansra today. The Matriarchs kicked him out they could work to let everyone know he was returning. 

Teresa's lips thinned and she snorted, giving her an appraising look before shaking her head, a small smile pulling at the corner of her mouth. "Alright then, have it your way. Just be sure to let him know he is under no pressure, he looked as jumpy as a Grazer when we spoke, the poor man." 

Her words made her thaw the last bit. This, this care from those around him, this is what he needed. He needed that and a purpose again and this was going to give him both. 

This was going to bring him back to himself....back to her. The corners of her eyes prickled. She didn't let herself think about it often. But before he'd returned Erend had spent a good deal of effort getting her to accept her parentage, saying it was good for her, and it was... but now that he was here calling him her....father felt, foreign...but she wanted that back... the connection allowing herself to recognize him as such had made her feel, even when she thought him dead and gone. 

Maybe this would bring that back too.

Chapter Text

He wasn't real sure how, as he'd been sweating himself to death dragging the rusting cart that now lay broken by the road...but one of them had managed to get the attention of a Scrapper, who turned out to be part of a whole brigade of Scrappers, who were now doing their damndest to end them all.

Grinding metal sounded close behind him, the machines weird yips sending a shiver down his spine as he spun away, dodging the thing as it charged him.

Hooking the spiked end of his warmaul into the things undercarriage as it passed he pulled up with a tremendous yank, flipping it, its momentum sending it skidding though the dirt. He turned, running over to it and bringing down his hammer on its face, sending sparks flying as the blades in its maw spun against his hammer. He brought down one more solid blow with a yell as the thing kicked and writhed and the the blades ground to a stop, its light flickering out. 

Hauling himself around, his breathing heavy and puffing out in thick clouds, he assessed the mayhem. There were still five more of the rusting things! And they'd already killed about that many, by the forge. 

Cursing he readjusted the grip on his weapon, charging over to help one of his men who'd been pinned down by a Scrapper's rapid fire. It's focus was on the other guard so he had all the time he needed to line up a solid underhand swing that smashed into the beasts metal spine, exposed where plate had been knocked off by someone else. It killed it almost instantly, sparks flying from its tumbling corpse. 

He ran over and gave Dran his hand, yanking the man up and out of the ditch he'd thrown himself in to avoid being shot. "We need to kill the last four!" He shouted, turning to see Roan and Baelara run one of the machines through. "Last three." He corrected. 

This had been a disaster, one bad move after another, from everyone, the easy flow of battle they were all bred into eluding them today. Their swings sloppy, dodges slow. 

After what felt like another hour of chaos they had it down to one, the rusting thing zigzagging its way through the crags nearby and letting out little canon blasts as it went, keeping them on their toes as they dodged and those with bows tried to put an end to it.

"Someone hit the damn thing!" He bellowed, doing his best to get around to where he could hit it, frustration and anger boiling through him. 

This was taking too long, they weren't working together! They couldn't blame being tired, they'd just rested, fire and spit this was ridiculous! What was happening!

Then he heard the warbling chirps of a watcher and chillwater shot through his veins. Whipping around he looked up to see the large, round, very red lense staring right at them from where the thing perched, bobbing its head and honking, calling out to its buddies. 

Could today get any worse? 

"Fire and spit!" he snarled, spitting as he called to his men "We've got more company!" 

It turned out to be six Watchers total. Six! Swarming all over the forsaken, rocky terrain here and flanking them, that bastard Scrapper still running around yipping away, its radar dangling from a few wires as it ran. He had lost all patience with this long ago and it was affecting his ability to handle the situation. So he did what he knew best, he let the adrenaline of battle propel him through the motions that were second nature to him, tucking himself into the back of his mind and simply fighting, swinging his hammer and letting the clanging shock waves reverberate through him after each hammerfall, refocusing the energy and doing it again. 

Finally the last machine fell into a sparking heap, a half hearted, exhausted cheer rising from the Vanguardsmen before they all let their weapons fall to catch their breath. Usually he'd say they needed to move in case all this scrap drew something along, but it looked like they'd killed every machine in the area so....

"On my mother's forge" Roan said, shaking his head and dabbing at a large gash on his arm as Erend staggered over to him, on his way around checking on everyone. "The last time I fought that many machines at once was at the Alight... and then I'd been pretty certain I was about to die." 

"You weren't certain of that here?" he grumbled, his mood scorched. 

"If you think I'm getting killed by some wretched Scrapper after fighting those Death whatever's your heads gone to slag." He said darkly, making Erend chuckle despite himself. 

He'd managed to come out rather unscathed, suffering from nothing worse than shaking, over tired muscles and some bruises. But the same could not be said for several of the guard and one of the carts. Luckily the cart was the only severely injured of the party, the worse among the men was a few stitches here and there, but they'd survive. Erend's biggest grievance was that this was going to be at least another hour or two of patching up and gathering the tipped supplies, on top of the hour at least that it had taken to dispatch the machines. 

But that was how things had hammered out, and griping over it wasn't getting them there any faster. 

"Alright, well, let's get everyone fixed up then." He said, patting his friend and moving off to help with the cart. 

It took about as long as he'd expected and his fuse was short. Shorter still when he realized how much slower they were now that they were carrying the load off the downed cart. 

Positive thinking wasn't always his strong suit...and right now, as he hauled along the extra weight of the satchels he'd took on, he was wondering miserably if this wretched day would ever let up, or if he'd be stuck desperately trying to reach the woman he loved forever...

---------

It killed him to stop and camp, for the second night in a row being delayed from his goal. But they didn't have a choice... They weren't familiar enough with these lands to travel far on this dark night, the moon blocked by the clouds. Not to mention the fact that they'd be pushing their already bad luck after the Scrappers and Watchers disabled the blasted cart.. that alone had slowed them so badly that they were now still a few hours out from the border. Even if they did push on and get lucky, they wouldn't get there until the middle of the night and he doubted very much that the Nora would take to that. 

And, if he was honest, despite the driving fire he felt in his core to get to her, he was exhausted... this had been the longest day he'd had in a while, worse than the recent trip to the Claim, and his body ached. His men weren't much better either. Every single one of them had their fires burned out, he could see it. He may want to push on but it wasn't just about him and Aloy here, they were his too, so they stopped. 

The Nora wouldn't send anyone to let her know they'd arrived till morning anyway...

They were making use of their tents tonight, the cold now biting like Glinthawk frost, the men busy setting them up round the little fire they had got going. 

He took first watch, exhausted as he was he knew he was well past the point of being able to trick his mind to sleep. He'd keep an eye out and catch a few hours after he swapped with Orlund he figured. If he couldn't sleep then oh well, he knew seeing her would give him all the fuel he needed, once he got there.

He walked the perimeters while everyone settled in, then took his place up by the fire, leaning back and making himself comfortable. There was no sky to watch with the clouds so thick, so he watched the fire, the dancing flames only intensifying the thoughts of Aloy he already couldn't shake. The fire popped and he smiled. 

Campfires would now forever remind him of her... not just because of the flames that she embodied, but because she loved them. It was one of the first things she'd ever told him about herself. Not some truth about her "purpose" or the struggles she'd endured, but something that was her's, something that made her happy. they'd been camping together, on the road back from red ridge pass and he'd been lost in thought, his sister and what they had just found heavy on his mind. Then he'd looked over and she'd been smiling the prettiest smile he'd seen her use at that point, gazing into the fire, her eyes far off and fond. That small thing had sent something snapping in his chest, and he'd cleared his throat to ease the feeling away. She'd mistaken the sound for him trying to get her attention however and the whistleful, daydreaming look faded. She'd apologized for zoning out and before he could tell her it was beyond fine she continued, telling him how campfires made her feel at home, that she loved them, and suddenly he loved them too. 

Eventually the fire burned low and he sighed.Tomorrow. Not even tomorrow, today, as it was almost time to wake the second shift. Just a few more hours and he'd be able to see her. Not the ethereal imaginings he'd been dwelling on but her. Which was always so much better than anything he could dream up. 

Stretching, he yawned, figuring it was about time to get Orlund up, but then a very distinct feeling hit him and he froze.... the feeling of another presences, off in the dark..maybe an animal? The snap of a branch off to his left got him up and sent his senses into red alert, taking a few paces back to where he'd leaned his weapon. Something was out there, he could feel it in his metal. 

He was midreach, his fingers brushing the handle of his hammer, a warning to his men on his lips when he heard the thwip of the arrow, felt the thud and the push against his left shoulder and suddenly he was back on his ass, staring down at an arrow shaft protruding from his armored chest, just below his collarbone. 

A molten hot stab of pain shot from the wound as he tried to stand back up. Gritting his teeth he managed to yell out, reaching for his hammer once again. Gripping the handle he tried to use it to push himself up, his legs not wanting to do so of their own volition. The strain sent a radial pain through his body that made the world spin off kilter sickeningly, vision blurring at the edges. He could hear his men, hear them yelling, but the sound was muted, a ringing taking over everything else. 

He had to get up. Shake it off, get up. Get up! 

Then the second arrow hit him in the side and before he could even register any pain his vision slid to black. 

Chapter Text

Despite the quaking fear still settled deep in his heart, he felt good. Felt as close to himself as he had since before Aloy's proving. 

Things wouldn't remain this way, he knew that.. Aloy had returned yesterday saying Teersa intended to tell the tribe of his imminent return as soon as possible, may have already done so at this point... his life was about to change permanently and he had not the faintest clue what to expect. 

But it was not happening today. Today they hunt. 

Rost rolled his head slowly from side to side, attempting to loosen the always tight muscles in his neck and shoulders, the scarred skin pulling as he moved. The Goddess had blessed them with another beautiful day, likely the last for a while as fall truly settled in and the snows came in earnest. He thanked her as he soaked in the sun's rays, staring off at the spattering of fluffy white clouds casting shadows across the valley. 

Once they'd had their initial discussion the day before, and she'd come back to tell him what would be happening, her entire demeanor towards him had shifted. She was the curious, bright girl she'd been, sharing her first meal with him since they'd reunited that hadn't been fraught with tense silence. Instead they had chatted, a contentment he'd long gone without warming his bones as she'd gone on and on about the things she'd been dealing with. She had also taken the Matriarchs appraisal that he'd need time for this to heart, something he was as grateful for as he was the return of her company. Instead of insisting that he head for a village straight away she'd tentatively asked if they could spend the day in the woods, to hunt but also to simply be. Let a day pass for them both in ease before he thought more on his dilemma and she returned to her frustrated stand still with the murders. 

"You ready?" Aloy asked from somewhere up the slope behind him. 

"Always." He replied, smiling and turning from where he stood at the homesteads main gate. She was trotting her way over to him, her braids and beads bouncing about her shoulders, framing her smiling face in an array of red and blue.

"So, you care what we hunt?" The lightness in her voice making his smile widen. 

"Rations for Grata first I think, then for ourselves." He said, adjusting his bow. 

"Sounds good to me. I need more Ridgewood and herbs anyway, and the forest near the crazy old woman is a great place to get both." She said, coming level with him and patting him on the arm before passing him, calling back "Shall we?" 

Chuckling to himself, he set off after her, his limp and aching body as soothed as his shaken soul in this moment that felt so familiar, so like home. 

He was scared of what the future held, but this was well worth it...

Besides he'd never been one to give into fear.

‐----------

They hunted down a few rabbits for Grata, taking them to her and listening to her veiled thank yous. Then doubled back, deciding to head for the stream at the base to hunt geese. They managed two in short order, Aloy showing him a trick to hitting them clean that she'd learned from some Carja woman she knew, her eyes burning with pride as she taught him something new. When they'd finished the sun was not yet to it's highest point for the day, the morning only half gone, so before heading back they rested. 

Well, he rested. Letting his bad leg soak in the flow of the cold water, numbing the throbbing in his calf. She went about collecting the herbs and wood she'd mentioned needing, flitting about the reeds and reminding him so strongly of the little girl she used to be. Sitting back against the rocks he felt the breeze against his skin, the lively sounds of the forest mixing with the babbling of the water, autumn's rich, earthy scent in the air.

Here, with Aloy drifting about, collecting her plants and humming softly to herself, he felt truly hopeful for the first time since arriving, the weight of indecision he'd carried dropped from his shoulders. 

If this was what his ill-defined, uncertain future held he'd manage fine. 

She came back to him, sitting on the rock to his right, her foraging done. She'd gathered herself a fairly large bundle of Ridgewood and after returning his smile wordlessly set about tying it together with a thin scrap of leather from her pouch. He watched her work, nimble fingers flying, wondering if she'd be willing to stay here with him a while longer, or at least continue to spend time with him once they left. 

Luckily she seemed to be of the same mind. Setting her bundle off to the side she let out a satisfied huff, crossing her legs and looking at him. "Are you done for the day, or would you maybe be interested in coming with me to tackle prey that's a bit more... lively?" She asked, wiggling her fingers in the air as she said the last word, her expression concerned but hopeful. 

He was aching, his body falling easily into stiffness after just a few days of disuse, but he would be willing to tackle anything she wanted. No matter how lively, as long as he got more time with her as she was now. "I can handle lively, what did you have in mind?" 

Her face lit up, excitedly laying out her plan. There was a Sawtooth that had been spotted off near the Northeastern end of the Embrace, something that would need to be handled as quickly as possible. He didn't relish a machine fight but he also knew she didn't truly need his help. Something that made him equal parts proud and flattered. She'd asked him for help because she was enjoying their time, and he'd fight a hundred Sawtooths if she would just keep looking at him with that loving, open expression he hadn't seen since before he'd had to leave. 

"We will need better kit I think." He said, gesturing to the simple shortbows they'd brought with them today. "We can hang the birds if we go back also. As early as it still is we have the time." 

In all honestly the kit was probably fine and the birds could wait, but it would mean more time spent on this perfect day and that he definitely needed. 

She raised an eyebrow at him, her face disbelieving but amused. Apparently she had realized those things as well. But she didn't protest, just smiled at him and dropped her gaze, watching her fingers as she played with the hem of her leathers. "Heading back first is fine. Look, Rost... I know I said I thought your choice was for the best but, it's more than that." She said slowly. "It's...I'm proud of you.. and it means, it means a lot more than I can express, having you back. I'm sorry I haven't said that until now.." 

They rarely expressed their care for each other, and her words cut straight into his heart. His own words caught in his throat as he tried to think of a way to convey what being back meant to him, so instead he nodded, dropping his gaze and fighting back the overwhelming wash of emotion he was feeling. 

When he looked back up she was watching him again, her green eyes locking on to his and a moment of understanding flowing easily between them. He'd tried to teach her to need no one, tried to need no one himself. But she was his, as much as Alana had been, and he understood now that they would always, at the very least, need each other. 

She dropped her gaze, wiping at her eyes suddenly and sniffing. Then, clearing her throat she stood, saying thickly "We um, we need to get going if we wanna catch this thing before it gets too late." 

Looking back down she offered her hand, her delicate fingers warm against his wrist as she helped pull him up. He wanted to hug her, almost did, but he felt like he might actually cry if he were to do so, and he couldn't do that, so he settled on placing his arm around her shoulders, giving her a light squeeze before letting go, gesturing for her to lead the way and returning her heartfelt smile as she did. 

But as they rounded the bend that marked the halfway point up to the cabin he heard the telltale sound of someone coming up the path from below. Whoever it was moving quickly by the sound of it. 

His heart was suddenly pounding and it wasn't until Aloy halted and turned, giving him a concerned look, that he realized he'd frozen in place. He wasn't ready to physically be seen by anyone just yet....even if they were informed of his existence. 

Before he could decide to duck out of sight however the young man who'd been running up the path came into view. He recognized the boy immediately, he was the young brave Aloy had saved as a child, but the lads worried focus was solely on Aloy and he did not even glance at Rost.  

"Teb?" Aloy called, her voice tense, moving to greet the brave as he approached and reached out to her. "What's wrong? Why do you look so upset?" 

He was gasping for air, clinging to Aloy's sleeves, having clearly run hard to get here. When he spoke his voice was tense and worried, "Aloy, it's the Vanguard, they were attacked." 

The words hit her hard, all the color draining from her face, her freckles suddenly stark on her pale cheeks. "What?" She gasped, shaking her head as if to throw off what he'd said "When? Where are they?" 

"I don't know, but Sona had the injured brought into the village." He said, his brows furrowed. "The healers are caring for them now." 

Without another second of hesitation she was off. Running as fast as he'd ever seen her. The young man moving to follow before hesitating and finally turning to look at him properly, recognition dawning on his thin face. 

"Rost?" 

Chapter Text

He had to be okay..

He had to be.

But it didn't matter how many times she said it, she could hardly hear the litany of affirmations in her own mind. Only the thudding of her pulse. The rasp of her breathing as it wheezed in and out of her lungs in great, rapid gasps. Sprinting as fast as her feet could fly, not hardly paying attention to her footing, relying only on muscle memory and adrenaline.

Hot tears pricked at the edges of her eyes. What if he'd come all this way for her and...what if...

No! He had to be okay...

Forcing back her choking fear she ran, finally making the village and speeding through the gates. The healers were in a large lodge behind the village center, but the area was packed with people, more packed than usual, most of them peering towards her destination, curious to see what was happening.

Anger shot through her panic, she didn't have time for their gawking, all these people ever did was gawk. Hardly slowing she slammed through the crowd, disregarding any semblance of manners, elbowing and shoving whomever didn't get out of the way quick enough. Through the crush of bodies she could see a group of braves standing on the large wooden porch to the cabin, Sona among them. 

Catching Aloy's eye her face tightened further, a frown pulling her scowl deeper. She detached herself from the braves, coming forward to head Aloy off at the foot of the steps, something she had no intention of letting happen. She was getting in there and she was getting in there now. She'd listen to whatever Sona had to say later. Speeding up she attempted to side step the woman but was unsuccessful, Sona catching her round the middle and holding her back with surprising force. 

"Aloy you must let the healers work." She said next to her head, still wrestling Aloy back as she tried to push through the Warchief. With an exasperated growl she relented, throwing off Sona's hands and backing up a step. There was a softness under her commanding tone as the woman added "They are doing what they can for him." 

"What they can?" She squeaked, her voice too high and cracking, instinctively renewing her efforts to get into the building. "What do you mean? Is he.." 

Sona grabbed her firmly by the upper arms, giving her a small, sharp shake, her dark brown eyes boring into her own, no bite in her voice as she said firmly "Stop! Breath. I have seen many live through worse, and he is strong. But you must not interrupt the healers or you will make things worse." 

She was right. She knew she was right. But Erend was just beyond that stupid door and he was hurt... maybe worse than hurt... shaking her head she tried to steady herself, small tremors shaking through her body from her core, if she had to wait she had to know "Sona what happened? How bad are his injuries?" 

She was still eyeing Aloy as if she wasn't sure it was safe to let her guard down, but she spoke gently when she replied. "He was shot, by two arrows." Her grip tightened on Aloy's arms to steady her as she reeled, the words feeling like sick jabs to her stomach. "It seems the assault was carried out at close range."

She felt dizzy, her thoughts not wanting to focus. "How do we know that" she asked, her hazy mind not able to connect the dots. "Do we know who attacked them?"

"Because the arrows pierced his armor." She said flatly. "And no, we do not. I have not had a chance to speak to the rest of the Vanguard. They remain at the border. I left Varl in charge there so I could ensure Erend and the others entry." 

"Others?" She asked, wiping her eye with the heal of her palm as Sona slowly let her go. She'd not even considered the others and she felt guilt seep into her fear. "Who else was wounded?" 

"I do not know those men, only your mate." She gave Aloy an aggrieved look "You must know that one of them may not live, Aloy. He was shot in the neck. There was... too much blood... the other suffered an injury to his leg." 

Her heart felt like it was being ripped in half. She had grown to know these people, and even if she hadn't, even if they weren't close to Erend, they were here to help, here for her. More good people coming to aid her and suffering for it... How could this happen? Who did this? She didn't know, and she couldn't get her mind to figure it out. Not right now. She could find out more when she knew Erend was safe, when she knew if he'd...

Sona's hand was back on her shoulder, making her look up into her stern face. "We must be patient. It will be as the Goddess wills." 

Whatever comfort that statement was supposed to provide fell flat. She wanted to scream...wanted to fight her way in but she knew she couldn't. So instead she nodded.

All she could concentrate on was the door, her whole being focused on that singular point and after a few minutes of mute staring she settled into pacing back and forth, the other braves backing off the porch to give her space. The group now standing at the bottom of the stairs speaking to their Warchief. She gave listening in half a thought, but she couldn't even comprehend what they were saying. Icy fear gripped her chest, but it was more than that... blazing hot fury was roiling through her beneath the fear, her panic the only thing keeping it down. She felt like a bomb with too many fuses and it felt like years had passed when one of the healers finally opened the door, even though it couldn't have been more than an hour, if that.

The old woman threw up her hands as Aloy practically barreled into her, looking startled but not moving out of the way.

A frustrated growl escaped her as she stared down into the woman's heavily painted face, willing her to get out of the way. The woman looked slightly taken aback but her voice was calm and firm when she spoke. "The wounded are resting, Anointed, I can not let you in." 

"I'd like to see you stop me." She said dangerously. She was done. She needed to see him now and she'd fight everyone here to do it if she had to. This woman had about five seconds to move before she made her move. "I need to get in there and you need to get out of my way." 

Sona suddenly appeared at her shoulder, giving her a reprimanding glare that Aloy met defiantly, but she spoke to the healer when she said. "Basha, one of the injured is her mate." 

"Ah." She said tersly, looking Aloy up and down as she stepped aside. "That explains her manner." 

But she hardly heard the woman, already rushing past her before stopping and looking around. The lodge was large and separated into two long halls by wood and leather barriers, creating smaller rooms of sorts down each row. 

"Far left child." Basha said from behind her "All three are on that side. Do not disturb them." 

She rushed off, eyes flicking into each little nook she passed, frustration building with each empty bed. 

Then she hit a room that had someone in it and she jerked back. "Erend?" She said, her voice feeling weak and distant as she entered. He didn't answer but it was him, that much was obvious. Her knees almost going out from under her as an involuntary sound escaped her throat, the tears that had been threatening to spill since she'd spoken to Teb streaming down her cheeks.

He was laying on a bed of furs, his skin pale and eyes closed, clearly unconscious or asleep...or more likely medicated... the sharp, tangy scent of dreamwillow and hintergold assaulting her senses, the smell getting stronger the closer she got. They'd removed his armor and shirt, thick bandages wrapping almost his whole torso, the heaviest padding on his left side and shoulder. His dark hair was so stark against his pallid skin....how much blood had he lost? His slacks had clearly been soaked, the entire left side stained black from hip to ankle, but thinking about it was making her feel sick again, so she didn't. He was right here and she just needed to touch him, everything would be fine if she could just do that. 

She came to perch on the side of the small bed, careful not to disturb him. His skin was hot under her shaking fingertips as she slide them gently through the scruff growing in along the side of his Mohawk, eventually resting her palm along the side of his head, running the pad of her thumb over his temple and leaning in close to look into his face. Touching him made her wildly careening mind slam back to the now as she'd hoped it would.

He was okay. He was hurt, but he was alive.  

She should feel fine now. 

But she didn't. She felt like she couldn't breath... Relief and joy and love and emotions she couldn't even identify converging all at once. Her fervor touching everything but a tiny, hard knot of fear that wouldn't budge. The same knot that grew every time he got hurt. They'd dealt with this...knew they had to accept that there was an inherent risk in loving someone who lived the lives they did. Usually she could fight through it, not letting it haunt her...but the image of him here like this was already branding itself onto her heart, she could feel it, promising to remind her always of what she could lose...Breathing sharply through her nose she tried to stem the flow of tears and failed, salty rivets flowing freely. 

Dipping her damp face she touched her cheek to the side of his head she wasn't holding, squeezing her eyes shut and taking a deep breath. The musky smell of his sweat just reached her from under the cloying, medicinal fog. That helped. That and the warmth of him, hotter than normal but alive and solid and here. His scruff scratching at her skin, the gentle sound of his breathing proof that he was alive.

She wanted desperately for him to wake up. There was a part of her that needed to hear him say he was alright to truly believe it. Needed to hear him shake this off by cracking a joke and shooting her a cheesy line with that easy bravado of his that she loved so much. Until he did she had no doubt this dreadful feeling so akin to terror would stay lodged in her chest. 

Leaning back she tried to dry her face, returning to looking at him and running her hand along his arm, tracing the lines down to his palm and back. It was so good to see his face, to touch him.... who had done this to him? The thought lent fire to her barely contained anger, making her jaw clench. This had to be connected to the murders.. it had to be.. When she found whoever had done this...

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Came from the doorway, no more than a whisper but still making her jump. Looking back over her shoulder she saw a young man with the markings of a healer "I didn't realize Shanda was letting anyone in." 

"I didn't give her much choice." She replied quietly. 

He carried what looked like clean cloth and a jar of something. "I was on my way to finish attending one of the other outlanders, and heard what I thought was him but was obviously you." He smiled at her, adding before he left. "If he needs anything come find us, someone will be here so long as there are wounded." 

She hadn't noticed it when she entered, as single sighted as she'd been, but with the extreme edge to her emotions abating she picked up the other sounds in the room. She could hear people talking in low tones. Actually it was mostly just one person, a man and probably an Oseram considering his whisper was hardly that. It occurred to her that she should probably check on the others... especially if they were awake. Erend would want to know what happened when he woke, and she herself was itching to know more but...

Looking back down at him the urge to stay exactly where she was hit hard. But she wasn't even leaving the room, technically...

Leaning forward she kissed his face, taking a moment to absorb his presence just a little before standing carefully and retreating from the space. The healer had headed off towards the back of the building so she did too. Finding him two nooks over. The patient turned out to be an older man named Dran. He'd clearly been the one Sona mentioned suffering an injury to his leg, as it was propped up for the healer to finish wrapping, a thin piece of cloth currently draped over the wound. 

His bearded head whipped around when she came up to the entry, smiling when he recognized her "Aloy! Fire and spit am I glad to see a friendly face!" He said in what he clearly thought was a low tone, turning to his attendant he added "No offense." 

The man just smiled and shook his head, continuing to dab whatever was in the jar over the first layer of bandage Dran had on, making it stick to the skin. 

"How are you?" She asked, nodding her head at his leg. 

"Ah been worse." His face dropped, suddenly worried "How bout the Captain though? How's he? And Orlund? That poor bastard how's he doin'?"  

"Erend is okay, he's resting. I haven't got to Orlund yet, just you." She said, adding sadly. "Our Warchief said there was a lot of blood lost." 

Sucking air through his teeth he dropped his sad eyes, shaking his head "That doesn't bode well.."

"Your friend is still alive. Goddess willing he will remain that way, but it is a near thing." Said the healer, not taking his eyes off his task "He is still being cared for, in a room at the far end of this row. Though I do not suggest visiting at the moment, the healers must have focus if he is to be saved." 

Her stomach flipped over at this. She knew the Nora weren't inept, but she also knew they trusted religion as a healing tool and that made her nervous...it sounded like this man may be hanging on by a thread and she needed him to live. If he died not only would it hurt Erenda and the other Vanguard but it would add another tally to the debt she owed this world. Another notch of guilt for a life lost on her behalf. 

Dran was looking like the words were hitting him hard, his scruffy face contorted with hurt and concern. Reaching out she touched his shoulder, giving it a squeeze and bringing his eyes to hers. "I'll keep checking, okay? When I know more I'll come back." 

He nodded, patting her hand, and heaving a great sigh. "I hope that bung lives....he's a good man." 

"Dran, do you know what happened?" She asked softly. 

"Of sorts. First thing I hear is the Captain shout, then everyone else shouting. I never did see who attacked us though." Giving her an apologetic look as he said it. "It was too dark, and I took the arrow not long after getting to my blasted feet. Cap was bad, I was hurt, and somewhere in there Orlund got shot, so some of the others fortified and got us out of there while Roan took a few men to defend our retreat." 

"How did the Nora find you?" She asked. 

"They didn't! We found them." He said, sounding proud. "We weren't that far off from the border when we stopped and our men hauled our asses the rest if the way there. Thank the forge that Warchief of your's decided to let us through, it looked like they weren't going to there for a minute.." 

This didn't really surprise her, as it had been something of a surprise that they'd brought them into the village at all, but it did piss her off. That they had even had to think about it at all..she'd bring that up to Sona later. If they had died because of their ridiculous tribal laws...

"Though they only let the wounded through in the end" He continued, "And as I am one of said wounded I didn't ever get to hear from Roan if they managed to hit or identify the attackers. Hopefully its hit, may they rot." 

"So they may have more information? That's good." She said her mind latching on to that vague hope and following it. If the guards at the border had managed to find out who'd done this she wouldn't know yet, but she would soon, and that gave her hope. 

Having found out as much as she could about how everyone was the urge to return to Erend was overtaking her. So she wished Dran and the healer farewell for the time being and returned to his side. 

He was still out, having not moved at all since she'd left. Walking over she ran her hand through his hair, reaffirming that he was here and safe. She didn't know what time it was as she couldn't see any outside light, but it had to be no later than midday if she had to guess, and she doubted very much that he'd come round anytime soon. Which meant a day wondering what was happening at the border, as she had no intention of leaving until he woke, if then. She wanted to go and investigate, badly... but the idea of him waking and her not being her wasn't something she could bear. 

So instead she busied herself with his things, which had been tossed into the corner of the nook. Picking up his heavy gambeson and holding it up to inspect it she pulled a face, glancing back over at him. He was not going to be happy about his armor.... she couldn't see how it could be salvaged... it was clear they'd had to cut him out of it in places, thought how they'd managed that she didn't know. Didn't matter, it was definitely cut, and he was definitely going to be pissed. 

Sighing she set the blood soaked leather aside, reaching down for the next item in the stack and almost retching as her fingers hit wet. His shirt was soaked in blood....the stripes on his sleeves and the white of the tunic indistinguishable in most places, an almost black stain on the wood beneath.

It was too much... too much blood where it shouldn't be...

Dropping the thing and quickly wiping her hand on her leather leggings she shoved his armored tunic back over the morbid sight with her free hand, rocking back to stand as she did and retreating back to his bedside. Her breathing was too fast, so she took up her original post on his right and buried her face in his neck, supporting most of her weight so she didn't lean on him too heavily but needing to be close to him. She could have lost him.... Gone... Forever. It had been such a close call and what could have been rocked her to her core. What would she have done? She didn't know, but even thinking about it made her throat constrict, tears back behind her eyes. 

Focus. He wasn't lost...thing's weren't worse... close calls happened. They happened to her all the time.. he was okay and that's the only thing that mattered. Still it took a long time for her to calm back down. Eventually the feel of his pulse against the bridge of her nose, strong and alive, made her own racing heart quiet. But the thought of his blood soaked shirt still blazed at the back of her mind, right next to his prone, pale figure. 

She had to distract herself...She couldn't just hover here until he woke up. Kissing the delicate skin on his throat she dropped herself down so she was sitting with her back against the wooden bed frame, clicking her focus and bringing up a blank data entry screen. Clicking here and there to create little brackets she set to work documenting everything that had happened. Hopefully if she laid it all out something would start making sense.

At the very least she hoped it would pass the time until Erend finally opened his eyes. 

-----------

But it wasn't until late in the night that he finally woke. 

She'd gone to one of the empty rooms and stolen the furs. Making herself a nest of sorts next to his low slung bed. She didn't really sleep, but she dozed, listening to his breathing, to the crackling of a fire she couldn't see. 

It was during one of these moments that he mumbled her name. The sound meandering into her subconscious but not connecting anywhere. Then he shifted, the bed creaking as he moved and she shot up, suddenly completely alert, heart racing.

Leaning forward she watched his face "Erend?"

He turned his head towards her voice, cracking a bleary eye, just a tiny sliver of grey visible. The corner of his mouth pulled up into a weak smile as his vision focused on her face. Lifting his hand to brush the back of his knuckles against her cheek, his already deep voice gravely and so low she almost couldn't hear it when he mumbled "Hey."  

"Oh Erend!" She gasped, pulling herself up off her knees and onto the bed with him, throwing herself as much into his arms as possible and burying her face in his stubble. Luckily she was on his right side as she'd forgotten to be careful, a strained "ow" escaping him and making her scramble back up "Sorry! I'm so sorry!" She whispered, not pulling back far, her hands hovering over his body, not sure where to touch. 

His right arm came up behind her, the flat if his hand warm against her back. Both eyes were open now, though having trouble staying that way, still trapped in the haze of the dreamwillow. "Aloy.." he murmured.

She choked out a small, watery laugh, the sound stuttering out through her utter relief. She reached out to palm the side of his head again, returning his smile and holding back her tears. He was okay. The word's truth finally hitting home. 

Then his body tensed as he took a deep breath through his teeth and groaned, his face strained as he shifted in the bed. Alarmed she yanked her hand back "What's wrong, what's happening?" Then she realized he seemed to be scooting over, as much as the little bed would allow. "Erend, what.." 

"C'mere" he managed, relaxing back into the bedding and returning his eyes to her face, his right hand back on her and gently pressing her to lay down. The little bit of space he'd created might be enough room for her... but it'd be tight and he needed to rest. Now that she was entirely certain he was going to be alright his recovery was her highest priority. 

"Erend I can't, there's not enough room, what if I hurt you?" She argued. 

He made a face that clearly said he very much doubted that would happen, still trying to guide her down with a lot more strength then she'd have thought him capable of in his present state. "Nah." He breathed, "this'll help." 

She snorted, shaking her head. "You're ridiculous." She told him and was rewarded with a hum of acknowledgment and something close to his usual grin. She bit her lip, dropping her eyes to his bandages. He didn't seem to be hurt on this side...and the weight of his touch felt wonderful... plus he was insisting...

Finally she gave in, the allure of curling up at his side winning out over her worry. Sighing, she readjusted, shifting around so she could tuck herself under his arm, careful not to bother his injuries as she brought the front of her body flush with his side. There wasn't much room, but she managed, his arm finding it's place along her back, broad hand holding the curve of her hip and securing her against him. 

It felt so good laying with him... she had missed this so badly, had been so scared she'd never get this back at all..

Now with her face laying against his skin, listening to the steady beating of his heart and his breathing slowing back into the rhythm of sleep she felt her own exhaustion take hold, a heady mix of calm and comfort lulling her under. 

-----------

She could hear voices, dim and far off. Someone moving about the room...

Someone moving about the room...

She snapped her eyes open, Erend's heavily bandaged chest and his hairy jawline the first thing she saw. There was a person standing on the opposite side of the bed, her eye focusing on them and realizing Immediately that it was the healer. Defensive tension leaving her, she sat up. Or tried to sit up.. twisting to set her feet on the ground so she didn't tip backwards onto the floor. 

Basha scoffed behind her "I'm fairly certain I told you my wards needed rest." She scolded, laying out fresh wrappings and the other items she carried on a small table on that side. 

"I was resting." Came Erend's casual reply, making her snap around, having not noticed he was up before. He looked awful, dark circles under his eyes and his skin still too pale, but he sounded so much like himself it almost made her start crying again. Instead she returned the bright smile he was giving her, his eyes on her's as he continued "She was making sure my bandages stayed in place." 

The old woman clicked her tongue at him, shooting them both a look. "Mmhmm, well if you don't mind, Anointed, I need to check those bandages." 

Catching her drift Aloy stood, his arm falling from her lap as he relaxed the determined grip he'd been keeping on her hip, a disappointed look crossing his face but his eyes never leaving hers, his grey irises soft and fond. 

Basha set to work checking his wounds, allowing Aloy to hover over her shoulder as she did, needing to see the wounds herself. The placement had been lucky, something she refused to dwell on, knowing full well how easy it was to get lost in the fear she held for his mortality. They were clean entry wounds, each about an inch wide, the flesh irritated around the fresh stitching...which was crooked..she shouldn't focus on that..but it was a lot harder than she'd expected not to criticize the woman's stitching... she absolutely could have done better...

Looking up she noticed Erend giving her an amused look, cocking his eyebrow at her and making her blush the way only he could. Last night seeing him had felt like a soothing balm, today it was like electric blaze, crackling between them. The looks he was giving her as Basha rewrapped his wounds were making her shiver. She wanted to be alone with him and was glad the old healer didn't dawdle. 

After securing the last piece of cloth she stood, gathering her things and shooting Aloy another look. "Rest." she said pointedly, jabbing her finger in Erend's direction. "Leave him be." 

And with that she shuffled from the room, Aloy watching her go. When she turned back to Erend he was giving her a roguish grin. 

"Do not leave me be." He said, reaching out the hand on his uninjured side. 

Chuckling she rushed over, resuming her seat and letting him wrap his arm around her once more. He ran his hand up her back, his eyes following its progress up her body hungrily, fingers tracing over her shoulder and into her hair as she leaned forward so he didn't have to reach too far. Smiling he pulled her down to him, saying softly "I have been waiting far too long to do this." 

His lips touched hers, gentle at first but building into a deep, passionate exchange, her hands coming up to frame his face, twining into his beard and making him hum. She was vaguely concerned about his injuries, but then his tongue was tracing along her bottom lip and she was lost in the taste of him. He kissed her desperately, his fingers fisting in her hair, sending heat shooting down through her, the fear of almost losing this clear in the demanding pull of his mouth, fueling her own need. She groaned into him and he reciprocated, the sound vibrating through her hands, sparking more heat.Then he tried to pick up his other arm and made a choking sound as his stitches pulled. 

Breaking the kiss immediately she leaned back a bit, gasping "Okay that's it, no more. You need to relax and heal." 

His handsome face was contorted with pain, wincing as he settled back into the pillows, shooting her a sideways look. "You sound like that healer." He gritted out, trying to give her a crooked smile that was still mostly just a wince "it's like you aren't even glad to see me." 

"Good. She's right." She said stubbornly, leaning down to lightly kiss his face, pressing her forehead against his and saying sweetly "and I am very glad to see you. Which is why I need you to get better, so that I can show you just how glad I am." 

He looked like he had some smart remark lined up, his eyes sparkling, but then a cough at the door made them both look over. It was Sona, with someone she couldn't make out lurking behind her. 

"Should we come back?" She asked impatiently, raising her eyebrow at them and making Aloy suddenly very aware of the fact that she was still practically laying on top of him. 

Sitting up fully and tucking her hair behind her ear she cleared her own throat "No, of course not Sona come in." 

"I must speak to you." The Warchief said flatly to Aloy, then looking to Erend she nodded "I'm glad you are recovering." 

"Thanks, me too." He said, his fingers tracing up her arm absentmindedly and sufficiently distracting her for a moment. Snapping back she looked up at Sona, intending to ask what she had to say but realizing the person with her had come forward, his hooded leather cape no longer obscuring his face. 

Catching her eye Rost pushed his hood back, giving her a tight smile. "Aloy." He greeted, then "Erend, how are you?" 

Chapter Text

 "Aloy." Rost greeted, then turned his gaze on him, nodding as the Warchief had, "Erend, how are you?"

He was floating is what he was. 

Floating and elated, still adrift in the residual euphoria of the dreamwillow. High on the plant, but also on Aloy's warm, wonderful self suddenly right here. That and that kiss... he needed more of that for sure....but he was just sober enough to know he shouldn't say any of that to her Da, so instead he said "Better, now that I'm here and not full of arrows." 

Rost smirked at that, but his eyes were back on Aloy. Who was staring opened mouth at him, looking shocked. Why she seemed so alarmed to see the guy she'd traveled here with he couldn't guess, but she clearly was.

His vague mind was formulating a question on that when the Warchief growled. "Aloy, a word." 

He felt her jump, snapping her eyes off of Rost and back to Sona. "Oh uh, yeah, of course." She glanced back down at him before rising, patting him on the right side of his chest as she did. He tried very hard not to look as forlorn as he felt at her leaving, but he must not have done a very good job because she gave him a pitying look before adding softly "I'll be back." 

He mustered a small smile and watched her go, very aware of Rost in his peripherals as he determinedly kept his eyes on her forgefire hair and not the sway of her hips. Something he struggled to do after not seeing her for so long. She looked beautiful...with her wild tangle of crimson hair and those spark dusted freckles, bright and fiery as always, somehow more so after he'd been so starved for her. Maybe when she came back they'd get to be alone again...

Rost sat on the edge of the small table that was off to one side, his low, blunt question yanking him unceremoniously from his day dream. "Do you remember the attack?"

The attack... no, he didn't "I don't. All I remember is an arrow shaft sticking out of me and the men scrambling, then another rusting arrow and black." Concern nettled its way into his lightness, trying to tug him back to reality. He needed to find out about his men, about what had happened. Come to think of it how long had it been? how long had he been out? He had little flashes of memory from the night they were ambushed. The Vanguard yelling, shadows of people he couldn't focus on, lifting him up, but not much else. His next solid memory was waking up to see Aloy's frightened eyes looking back at him over the edge of the bed, sparkling like emeralds in the dim light. But that had been like a dream, ethereal and hazy. If she hadn't been tucked under his arm this morning he'd have thought it a fever dream. "Tell you the truth Rost, I don't even know how I got here or how long it's been since they dragged me in."

"Sona and her braves brought you and two others yesterday morning, so it has not been long." He said quietly. 

"Two others? Who? What happened to the rest of the men?" He was slowly coming back to himself, slowly, and the more the fog receded the more he realized how much he didn't know. He wanted to sit up badly, both needing to go see his injured Vanguard and becoming very aware that he was laying here half dressed, injured and useless. But when he shifted his shoulder and side reminded him why he needed to stay put, sending the first real shocks of pain through him since he'd woke. He winced, relaxing back, bracing to give it another go. 

"Easy" Rost soothed, his hand making a lowering gesture. "They are alive, but resting. One if fine, the other less so, but they are hopeful for his survival. As for their names you will need to ask Aloy." 

Shit.

People had been injured, his people. On his watch. And he'd been the first to take a chest full of arrows and need saving... as usual, and he thought he'd been doing better with that.. Letting out a frustrated breath through his nose he asked "You said just two were brought in?" 

"Yes. The remaining Vanguard were required to remain at the border from what Sona has said." He sounded like that meant there were no dead, and that was a blessing and a half.. but who was hurt? How hurt was "less then fine"? He needed to go see them, but getting there was gonna hurt and he probably wouldn't be allowed to do so while Aloy was here....least he could ask her how they were...

"That doesn't surprise me. Honestly I'm surprised they even let us in at all." He said, more harshly than he'd meant. He needed to remember that this Nora was a lot more "of the tribe" then his Nora was and keep his tongue respectful. The injured were brought in, that's what mattered. 

But Rost didn't look offended when he answered. "That was the Warchief's doing." 

"Oh yeah?" He remembered Sona well. That woman's scowl could send a Thunderjaw running for the hills, he didn't doubt the sway she held here. "I'll have to thank her when I see her again. Did she tell you what happened?" 

Rost opened his mouth to reply but stopped, turning his head and looking out the entryway to his left, Aloy appearing not a breath later, looking angry. She stopped in the doorway, looking at Rost like she'd once again forgotten he was there, then she shook her head, fixing her eyes on him. She came to sit on his bed frame again, making his heart race a bit with her proximity, but she was looking at him with a pained expression. "Erend I need to go to the border. It will only take a few hours but I have to go. Now, before any leads are lost." 

That was the last thing he wanted to hear right now, he wanted her here. Wanted to sink his fingers into her soft hair and kiss her face and listen to her tell him about everything that had been happening. But.. he also wanted to check in with his men... which would be much easier without her trying to keep him laid up... and more than that, he wanted the bastards who'd attacked them caught. He couldn't go, he knew that, not today with his stitches still so fresh, and the next best option, or rather the better option, was for Aloy to go. 

It burned him up staying here, but it's what had to happen, and she looked so torn up about it... he hated when he was the thing she worried over. She worried about enough as is. A sad frown was sitting over the undercurrent of angry momentum he could see just beneath her surface and he needed to fix that before she left. "Well don't dawdle on my account. I won't be going anywhere for awhile." He said giving her a crooked grin and gesturing at himself. "I promise not to have too much fun while you're gone."

His humor had the desired affect of making her frown pull up a bit, but her eyes were still worried. Reaching up he tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, his heart melting as she leaned into the touch. "I'll be fine, go introduce the bungs who did this to the pointy end of your spear. Just, please, be careful. In fact, take some of the Vanguard with you to help. That's why they came." She made a face at this so he slapped on his most pathetically imploring voice "Please? So I don't have to worry about you as I lay here dying." 

She snorted at him, grabbing his wrist and playfully shoving his hand away. "You're not dying, stop." Sighing she looked down her nose at him, giving him an exasperated half smirk. "Fine, I need to check in with them anyway." 

She leaned down and kissed him on the nose, making him smile, the urge to pull her back in for more stronger than scrappersap. She looked over at Rost as she stood, giving him another scrutinizing stare. He had made to stand as well, but stopped short as she held up a hand to him  "I'm taking the Strider, so, unless you're willing to ride..." He said nothing but sat back down almost immediately. "Yeah I thought as much.. Look.. I'm not real sure what's happening here... but, maybe you can catch me up?..when I'm back or when I see you next or..whatever."

She said the whole thing as if she had no idea what to make of him being here and it was throwing Erend off. Obviously something was up with the two of them, he figured they'd have made up by now but, maybe not. 

He smiled at her and nodded his bearded head but said nothing. 

"Okay." She said, still sounding off. She glanced briefly between the two of them, looking like she expected Rost to follow. When he stayed put she shot Erend one last glance then added "I'll be back as soon as I can." Before wisping away around the barrier and heading off. 

He waited a moment to make sure she was gone, listening as intently as he could until he was sure she'd left. If she was gonna be gone anyway he was going to at least be upright and doing something, and if Rost was going to stay, for whatever reason he hadn't figured out, he was gonna get him to help. Turning back to the man he reached out his right hand, "Think you could help me up?" 

He raised a grizzled eyebrow at him, something that might be an amused look playing under the stare. He stared so long Erend started to think he wasn't going to help though so he threw in "Look I'm getting up to go see my men one way or another, but I certainly would prefer to not tear these stitches and that will be easier to avoid if you help me."

Rost gave him one last assessing look then made an amused sort of grumble, "Fair enough" he said, coming over to take his hand, his grip a lot stronger than he'd expected from the scarred up old man.

It hurt... A LOT.... little stars dancing at the corners of his vision as he grit his teeth and just went. Knowing he intended to be standing and forcing his body through the routine of doing so, ignoring the screaming shots of pain. The worst was always the first movements.. he'd relax and adjust and it would be fine. Just had to keep moving.

Once on his feet his vision started to clear, the sparking black edges fading back and the fuzziness leaving him. He gave his head a vigorous shake blowing out a sharp breath "Alright, not so bad." He clapped Rost on his upper arm, making his legs move and heading for the doorway, "Thank you." He added as he passed. 

"They are on your left." Rost said from behind him as he looked back and forth up the long, creepy hallway. He hadn't really looked around but he was clearly inside a huge version of the Nora's stuffy lodges, smaller rooms made from barriers that were all covered with the loopy carvings the tribe liked and, of course, beads. 

He needed to keep moving and get to one of his men, sit down for a moment... then check on whomever he came across. Not seeing any healers, he set off, missing the floaty feeling the dreamwillow provided. Didn't take long to find Dran though. Laying out with his leg hiked up and bandaged round the knee, staring at the ceiling. 

He lit up and propped himself up on his elbows when he entered, giving Erend a beaming regard "Captain! I thought I heard your voice and by the forge am I glad to see you, and up and walkin' no less!"

He spotted a wooden stool in the corner and snagged it with his foot, trying to avoid bending down for fear he'd fall into the lingering dizziness and not be able to keep from tipping over. Once he was sitting the sick feeling started to ebb a bit, but his throbbing left side and arm were not pleased. "Had to get up." He growled out, reaching over to give the man's forearm a squeeze. "Couldn't just lay around like you lot." 

"Have you seen Orlund?" He asked immediately, his face worried "They were saying it wasn't good.." 

He shook his head, the pit of his stomach churning "I haven't yet, stumbled on you first." He looked back at the doorway where Rost now stood. "You said he was alive though, right?" 

He nodded soberly "Yes." 

Orlund was a good man...and he had a family. Whoever shot them better pray to whatever they believed in real hard that he lived cause if he didn't...

Dran's hand on his shoulder made him return his eyes to the man's face, he was giving him a reassuring smile "He'll pull through, if it's been this long he'll make it." 

"Yeah." He said, his mood still dark "I sure as hell hope so." 

They sat for a moment in silence, the worry for their comrade heavy in the small space. He needed him to live, losing people was something that hit him hard, and he couldn't lose this one, not like this. He deserved better than to be taken out by some worthless slag licking bandit in the dead of the night..

Then Dran suddenly pointed at him, giving him a lopsided smirk and earning a confused stare in reply "Speaking of pulling through," he said out of no where, turning his attention for the first time on Rost. "You care to take wagers on how badly Aloy's gonna thrash the Captain here when she sees he popped his stitches? Cause I could stand to make some shards and I think it'll be something to see." 

Rost laughed out right at that. Glancing down he cursed under his breath. The bung was right... red was seeping through the thick pad of bandage at his side. Luckily though, at least so far.... that was the only bleed. Hopefully it wasn't to bad of a tear...

"Yeah she's gonna kick my ass." He acknowledged defeatedly, dropping his arm back down and sighing. The other two still chuckling. "Won't be the first time." 

"I didn't catch your name." Dran asked of Rost, always one to start a conversation and never one to miss a chance to bore someone new with his chatting. 

"Rost." He replied simply. "I am Aloy's guardian." 

"Her guardian? As in the guy who raised her?" He guffawed, "How in blazes did you manage that?" 

Rost chuckled again, smiling slightly as he replied "it was a challenge, to be sure." 

This got him chuckling too. He'd always wondered about Aloy as a child, how she'd been growing up. Her only relative having been previously deceased...he thought he'd never get to hear those stories. It hadn't occurred to him till now but suddenly he was very much looking forward to speaking with Rost more, now that the strain of his initial return was gone and they could just talk. 

The guy was still hanging around too, so maybe that was his intent here also. Good.

First though he needed to haul his ass back up and go see Orlund. See how bad he really was for himself and offer whatever comfort he could. Turning back to Dran he said "I'm going to try and see Orlund, I'll let you know how he is on my way back, alright?" 

"Please do, I've been drivin myself mad worryin'." He said sadly. 

He'd been about to try and stand when Rost held out his hand, offering to help him up once more. He looked at it for the briefest of breaths, a weird warmth in his gut, then smiled up at him and took the proffered assistance. 

Groaning and almost not feeling faint once his feet were solidly planted, he nodded once more to his guard and headed out and left. There were only two rooms left on this side and one had a cloth hung across the door. Heading straight there he peaked round the curtain, spotting his man and throwing the cloth aside to enter. 

He looked terrible.... pale, despite his dark complexion, his skin thin looking. He had heavy bandaging around his neck, so thick he doubted he'd be able to move much in the mass of wrappings. A neck wound... that was never good.. The smell of medicine and blood was unreal... hitting him and making his head spin worse than the times before, the dim space sliding across his vision like it did during his worst hangovers. Shaking his head he took as deep a breath as he could manage with the rooms sick scent, steeling himself. 

He made his way over as quietly as possible, a triangle of light casting itself across the room as Rost opened the drapery behind him. In the light he could see that he was more likely unconscious. His face too slack. That was probably best... least till he healed a bit... he placed a hand on the man's chest, letting the steady rise and fall of a breathing, very much alive comrade calm him down. His breathing was strong and that was a good sign. So he clung to that. Turning on his heel and heading back towards the door, Rost stepped aside, holding the cloth open for him to duck his head under. Once outside he stopped, resting his right hand against one of the barriers and leaning on it as much as he dared, breathing through his nose. 

It took him a second but eventually he steadied and looked at Rost, who was studiously looking up the hallway to allow him his moment. He appreciated that, and said so, but then Rost cocked an eyebrow at him, giving him an amused side glance and saying "I'm afraid you give me more credit than I deserve. I was watching the healer realizing you're not where you should be." 

Snapping his head up he saw the squat little healer woman advancing on him, her face darkening all the worse when she glanced down to the bright bloom of red at his side. "What are you doing?!" She snarled. "Does rest mean nothing to anyone anymore?" 

Puffing like a pissed off Longleg she ushered him back to his area, cursing him and Aloy and all the other people who'd apparently disobeyed her as they went, Rost vanishing somewhere along the way. 

The wrappings came off and the minute his four, ugly, broken stitches hit the air they both hissed. Him from pain and her in disapproval. She shot him a look so redolent of his angry old relatives that he thought for half a beat he was about to be cuffed upside the head. Instead she said in a venomous tone "Your chatty guardsman told me you were the Captain. If that is so act like it.. you can not lead if you welcome an infection and die." 

Ouch. "Okay, easy. I hear you... Spit to my word, I'll be more careful." She was being a tad dramatic by his measure but she was right about one thing, he didn't want an infection, so he laid back and let her do her work, mostly not grumbling when she told him she was going to dose him with more dreamwillow. The idea of floating away from the stinging ache in his body would be great, but he wanted to be alert... being sedated again felt like being held back from his task.

He was still mulling that over while he was being rewrapped when Rost reappeared, immediately becoming the target of Basha's protective outrage. "No! No one can leave my patients be, no one can stay. Out!" 

He held up his hands defensively, his voice calm but his face surprised "Okay, that is fine, I just wanted to let Erend know that I spoke to his friend." 

Gratitude hit him hard. Rost didn't need to do that, and the fact that he had meant a good deal to him. "Thank you, Rost, I appreciate that." He meant it, and was suddenly a little disappointed to have him leaving, this had been an oddly familiar interaction and it had been sort of nice. 

But then the the bottle of dreamwillow was being shoved at him and she was glaring a hole through Rost, her wrinkled hands on her hips. He made his farewells and as he went Erend realized he still hadn't gotten a clear idea of what had actually happened or what they knew... but the herb was doing it's thing... and soon the warm pull of the plant had him drifting. 

-------------

Aloy came back while he was dozing in the after fog of the last dose of dreamwillow, the healer having woken him for a dose of hintergold not long before and both rousing him and sending him down into another dream laced daze. So he'd been close enough to the surface of wakefulness to feel the weight of her settle in beside him where she sat, her fingers tracing his arm, cold from her travels, making his hair raise as the sensation prickled along his skin. 

He smiled, opening his eyes and drinking her in, leaning over him, her hair caging them in a shimmering curtain as the light from the lantern wavered through it. Her smile matching his, warm and fond and everything he'd been needing. "Fire and spit did I miss you." He told her, because it was true. 

"I missed you too, Erend Vanguardsmen.... but I also know you went and hurt yourself when I left." He could see now the warm and fond smile was still both of those things but was also that scary, fake sweet she got when she was pissed and trying to hold it back. 

"Busted" He grumbled "Who snitched?" 

She leaned back, eyeing him. "Everyone." crossing her leg and setting an elbow on her knee she used her fingers to tick off the traitors as she said their names "first Basha, who pounced on me the second she saw me walk in to threaten my life should I disturb you. Then from Dran, when I checked on him after seeing you were out cold. Then Rost, who I found back at the cabin when I went back for some things." She rounded this off with a pointed look at him, waiting for an explanation. 

"Well, see, I'm surrounded by watchful eyes... safe and sound." He said, trying to smooth this out and still rather high. 

That was the wrong tact though, as her humor cracked away and she just looked upset, her eyes too glassy. This alarmed him, so he reached out to grip her thigh, saying softly. "Hey, I'm sorry, alright? But I'm okay, really.. I just needed to see the men." 

"Erend I get that it's just..." she looked so frustrated. He knew she'd be a bit irritated over the stitches but this was different, something more was bothering her. 

"Just what, Aloy?" He asked gently, rubbing her leg slowly from knee to hip and back. He didn't like this, he was too cloudy to navigate this right but he wanted desperately for her to feel better, and to do that he needed to figure out what had her so upset. "Talk to me." 

She was chewing the inside of her cheek, looking far off, so he just watched her. Learning to wait for her to spit things out wasn't tedious like it was with the Carja. She took her time because she considered everything, she analyzed and processed and would get to her point when she was sure what she wanted to say. He respected that, even if it had been difficult initially. Now he watched her face relax a bit as he massaged her leg. The steady contact helping to ground her when whatever was in that super machine of a brain of her's got her thoughts twisted. 

Eventually she sighed, wiping at her eye with her hand and making his heart do the sick little squirm it did when she'd cry. "I was just afraid, when you were hurt, and it.... bothered me, Basha going on about the possibility of infection and all that." She pinned him with one of her fiery, indomitable stares, the desperate edge to her voice cutting straight through him "You have to be more careful." 

He reached up to touch her face, cradling the curve of her jaw in his wide palm "I'm sorry, Aloy. I'll be more careful, you have my word." He wanted to kiss that look off her face, reassure her he was here and okay,  to chase away that fear he understood too well..she didn't let him kiss her like he wanted, but she let him pull her down to gently kiss her forehead, running his fingers into her hair as she leaned her head against the shoulder of his good side. He held her there for a while, running a hand slowly up and down her back. 

Eventually she sniffed again, turning her soft face into his neck and kissing him, sending sparks dancing out from where her lips touched his skin. "I love you, Erend, I need you to take care of yourself." 

That did it, the words going straight to his heart, making it swell and ache all at once. He turned his face into her hair, kissing her on the head, holding her as tight as his one arm would allow and trying to convey the love he was feeling through his touch. He couldn't promise not to get hurt, he was a soldier, that was what happened. But he meant what he said, he'd do what he could not to make it worse.

Kissing him again she pulled back, her features not so pained. "You need sleep." She said simply. 

"Mmm, any chance I can convince you to curl up next to me again?" He asked hopefully, pretty sure he already knew the answer, the look she was now giving him confirming it. "Figured.. what are you gonna do?" 

"I brought my bedroll." She said, nodding at the floor on that side of the bed. 

"Guess that's better than nothing." He said sadly, chuckling sleepily as she gave him another exasperated look, smiling despite herself. 

He'd half expected her to lay down, but she didn't, she stayed sitting, looking at his face, having gone back to tracing feather light touches along his skin. He wanted to say more to her. Wanted to stay awake like they did some nights, just talking, but he could already feel himself slipping and before long he was gone into shifting dreams to the comforting caress of the herb and the woman he'd missed so dearly. 

Chapter Text

He'd been taking things....slowly.

Laying as low as possible, interacting with as few tribesmen as he was able and spending as little time in as few places as he could. Doing his best to remain invisible despite the fact he'd been thrown into coming to the village far sooner than he'd intended. 

He hadn't had much choice. When Aloy had run off to the healers, leaving him with Teb, he'd been speechless, his words jammed in his throat. But the young man had been kind, and more than happy to see him, to properly speak to him. Explaining himself to be Aloy's friend and glad of his return. The enthusiasm had been overwhelming... possibly more so due to him being so worried over Aloy. The look on her face... he needed to go to her. What if things hadn't worked out as they had? If she had arrived to the worst? Regardless of what he might think of her choosing a mate outside of the tribe he knew she cared for Erend, what if he hadn't survived? 

He couldn't let her go through that alone...

He'd found out from the stitcher that he had been announced first thing that morning, as he and Aloy had hunted. That Teersa had let the tribe know of the return, but to leave him be, which he appreciated... but he still very much feared going to the main village center. He'd decided to take the hooded, tanned leather cloak he seldom used, usually having his pelts. Now though the garment was exactly what he'd needed, concealing him from eyes he wasn't ready to have on him. 

Unfortunately, or so it had felt that day, he'd been unable to avoid everyone. The Warchief and a handful of braves had barred the healers when he'd arrived.

He'd hesitated then.... he knew Sona, knew she'd know him and more than likely let him through without fuss if he insisted, but... she was too familiar... the thought of speaking to her again, when the last time they'd spoken had been the day he'd set out as a Deathseeker, was kicking his panic into overdrive. He had almost retreated....unable to face such a close tie to Eisa just yet, but Aloy's terrified eyes kept burning at the forefront of his mind, rooting him to the spot. 

She needed him there. He had to do this. 

Bracing, he'd pulled his hood low and marched forward. He caught Sona's eye immediately, her shoulders squaring as she stepped forward to cut him off "None are allowed here. You must leave." She said harshly. 

Taking a deep breath he looked up, meeting her stern face and watching recognition snap across her features, halting her dead. Being Sona, she didn't falter long, taking a breath like she was going to speak but instead thought better, gesturing for him to move off to the side of the structure and away from the braves. He didn't want to do this. His nerves were tight as an over strung bow and he felt about to snap. This detour isn't what he wanted but he understood why she didn't simply let him pass when she spoke. "The healer will not allow anyone else in, she is barely tolerating Aloy." 

So then he was stuck now having to reacquaint himself with Eisa's childhood friend for nothing...wonderful. 

He shouldn't feel like that, that wasn't fair. He should be happy to see this woman. She had been his friend too, her and Kad. He should be glad to see her... but instead all the memories seeing her brought up just made his need to get away from this situation worse. She was watching him warily, her sharp senses picking up his tension, clearly waiting to see if he would speak. When he didn't, unable to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth, she said slowly. "Matriarch Teersa had said you'd come back, that you had lived, but I'll admit, I did not truly believe it until now." 

He needed to say something but he couldn't. He tried to, he did, taking a deep breath he'd tried hard to say absolutely anything but the words simply wouldn't leave his mouth. In his haste to follow Aloy he hadn't thought of what he would do if he were to run into anyone, hadn't prepared, and he felt stuck. 

Sona was catching on to his plight, her face changing from one that said she was seeing a ghost to one of understanding. "Aloy is fine, Basha has said her mates injuries will not take his life, but I doubt she will leave him anytime soon... You do not need to stay here, I will watch over her for now." 

Gratefulness hit him in the chest, hard, washing up and pressing at his eyes, making his throat feel further constricted. This was too hard.. He nodded, dropping his eyes and trying to choke out a thank you and failing. 

Her boots had shifted on the gravel, moving to return back to the front of the lodge but then she'd stopped. He looked up to see that she was watching him sadly, reaching out her hand, hesitantly, faltering several times before tentatively gripping his shoulder, letting go almost immediately as if she'd been shocked.

Then she was gone and he was left feeling completely shaken. He'd gone back to the cabin, overwhelmed beyond measure, unable to stop the flood of memory assaulting his senses. Spending the rest of the day and night drifting through the episodes he couldn't control. Visions of his life, his family, thrashing violently to the surface. By next morning he felt wrung out like an old rag...but better. Better because he truly was or better because he was too drained to be anything else he wasn't sure, but he felt more capable of facing things. 

He'd decided to give seeing Aloy another shot. He wanted to hear what had happened before she went rushing off into danger alone, something he hoped to prevent if he could. And he had been somewhat successful in that, making it there in time to see her off as she rushed into danger, at the very least...and even though he'd failed to learn what was happening from Aloy, he'd still managed to get caught up. Sona having waylayed him on the way in, having been on the way to speak to Aloy herself. By All Mothers mercy she had brought up nothing of his return, but had explained what they knew, which was almost nothing. He still wanted to discuss it with Aloy, see if she knew more, but for now, having established with his charge that he wanted to speak would have to be enough. 

Before leaving he'd spent some time with Erend, something he hadn't intended to do, but hadn't regretted. He'd learned a few things about the man. That he was careless and stubborn, for one.... but also that he was loyal, and a good Captain to his men. He'd also been grateful to him for talking Aloy into taking assistance with her at the border, even if they were Oseram instead of Nora. It made him feel better to know she wouldn't be going to investigate alone. Her choice still made little sense to him, he'd prefer she have chosen a Nora....but he saw merit in the man's character... at least he could see that Aloy very much cared for him, and there had to be a reason for that. 

Or so he hoped. 

He'd spoken to more people that morning than he had in a long time, and he felt as if it had winded him. But his need for seclusion to breath and recenter had worked out in his favor, as the surly, freckled girl he'd been hoping to see came marching through the homestead gates while he'd been reflecting. 

Rost leaned his ax on the stump, having been trying to clear his mind by willing his damaged muscles into the labor of chopping wood. Straightening, he groaned, his back spasming and almost dropping him to his knees as hot lightning shot up his spine. Gritting his teeth he rode out the pain, waiting for her to come near enough so he didn't need to shout. When she did he offered her a cautious smile, not sure what to make yet of the frustration radiating off of her.

"I'm surprised to see you. I'd assumed you'd return to the healers." He said, trying to keep things light as she was clearly irritated over something. 

"I did." She replied sharply, "Erend was given more dreamwillow and was out cold, so after I dropped off his travel pack I came here. But, Basha caught me when I got there to tell me that the reason he was dosed was that you two got him up so he could wander around and hurt himself." She shot him a scathing look as she marched past him, all but kicking the cabin door in. He sighed, unable to help feeling both slightly amused and put out in the face of her overreaction. He knew the man was fine, his injuries no worse. He'd made sure to wait and ask Basha before he'd gone home, just in case he saw Aloy before she got there. She knew it too, if she'd been there already, but he hadn't ever seen her so protective and it was a bit heartwarming, on top of being amusing purely due to her dramatics. He didn't want her mad at him though.

He could hear her shuffling around within, at the doorway he said "Erend wanted to check on his men, he would have done so had I stayed or not." His eyes adjusted so he could see her throwing items into a satchel up in her loft. He couldn't help noticing that she was irritated at him over a trait she very much possessed, and before he could think better of it he was pointing it out. "Him not having the patience to rest and heal seems an odd thing for you of all people to be angry over."  

She scoffed, shooting him a look over her shoulder. Shaking her head and returning to her rummaging, scoffing again. "It isn't the same...He's careless! He doesn't even consider how bad it could be if those injuries get worse! He acts like it doesn't even matter and it does." 

Again he was sorely tempted to point out how that was exactly the same, having spent countless days hunting through the forest after a half healed, redheaded child thinking those thoughts verbatim. But having spent years being spiteful and wary of every human she'd grown up anywhere near, aside from himself, It was too strange to see her so upset over another person. Because he could see now that she was truly upset, her cheeks were flushed, her movements unthinking. She wasn't being dramatic, she was scared. He wasn't enthusiastic about defending Erend, he agreed with Aloy for the most part, but he couldn't say he'd have done any different. "I think he knows it matters." 

She gave him an odd look, as if she hadn't heard him right. "Why are you defending him?" 

"I'm not, it was careless. But if you or I had been in the same place what would we have done?" He said simply.

She disappeared from view, grumbling something he couldn't hear. When she popped back up she said. "I don't know, I just know I want him to get better and this didn't help." 

She tossed the bag down, descending herself and looking around, running her fingers through her hair as she searched around the room for anything else she'd want to take. She spotted a smaller drawstring bag of hers and snagged it. "I'm going back, and probably staying, I haven't been able to speak to him really since I got there yesterday, he's been too out of it and now he's out of it again, so." She shot him another reproachful look at that. 

"Will you tell me what you learned at the border before you go?" He asked, gently trying to change the subject, wanting to prolong her stay as he had no intention of returning to the village today. Plus he wanted to see her calm, and nothing he'd said so far had helped, so maybe working through what she'd found would. 

"Pfft. That won't take long seeing as I found nothing." She spit out, sounding resentful and sharp. Digging through the chest of supplies they kept. "I don't even know what else to do, I keep running into dead ends!" 

Reaching out he placed a hand on her elbow, "Then sit, let me help you sort through what you do know. Fresh eyes can sometimes see what tired ones can not." 

She looked at him, her face tight with concern. It hurt to see her like this. She'd always had a focus, even when things had been hard for her. Now she was flailing and angry and afraid for someone she cared for, and he could see the wear on her soul. 

"Come. What do you know?" He asked again, giving her a gentle pull. 

Sighing heavily she finally turned to take a seat in one of the wooden chairs by the table, scowling at her knees. "I meant what I said. Nothing. I know nothing. We have a box full of stolen carja gear and dead people cloths, a single arrow I think is odd but no one else does, and even if they did it wouldn't matter because its still just some weird arrow. I have a path of someone, maybe related to this, maybe not, that leads no where and dissappears, and all I learned today was that there were two attackers, no one could see more than an indistinguishable figure in the dark, they retreated almost immediately after getting the shots they did in, and the path they left lapped around towards to Northeast and, guess what? It dissappears in the foothills! Just gone, no more path." Slumping in her chair she leaned her head back and pinched the bridge of her nose. "And who knows if they were even the murderers anyway... it seemes likely. There were three people who attacked the runner from Daytower, now two attacking the Vanguard on their way in? It has to be related. But even if those things are related, are we sure its related to the Nora murders?" 

He had taken a seat himself while she'd been speaking. Now leaning back he crossed his arms, considering what by all accounts matched her initial assessment, nothing. How could there be so little found with so many occurrences? But with that thing she wore.. Aloy was always confidant in the sight it lent her, if it was failing her now that was worrisome. Thinking on it he asked "You said your Carja messenger was attacked?" 

"That's what Roan said, he was jumped at night, just like the Vanguard but apparently the attackers tried to capture him." 

"If there have been attacks on parties coming and going I'd agree that the source would most likely be the same group of people, and considering the messages left for the tribe at the murders, I'd be inclined to say they are all connected." It didn't make sense to him that they would be beset by two, similarly stealthy enemies at once, not after the tribe had been existing with no issue under the peaceful alliance they'd formed with the Carja.

"Even if I can definitively prove that, it doesn't help me find whoevers at fault. It doesn't change that people came to help me figure this out and were almost killed." She said tiredly. "I've looked everywhere. Questioned everyone. And now I'm just worrying over Erend, waiting for anything at all to happen." 

"Aloy." He said. "Erend will be fine. And it sounds as if the tribe is safe with the border closed" 

"You don't know that!" She shot back, her voice too high. Then she stopped and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't snap at you, it isn't your fault. I'm just..." 

"Worried?" He offered. 

"And mad." She finished, deflating and leaning forward, slumped into her worry, "What if he gets an infection? The arrows went straight through, those wounds take time to really seal, what if they don't heal right? And the tribe, going back to shunning the outside world? Because of a handful of crazies? That's not a solution." 

He didn't know what to offer her, he couldn't give her answers and his hope that he could help her figure things out ran out quickly when the scope of what she didn't know hit him. He knew before he said it she wouldn't like what he said, having always been doubtful of the Goddesss graces, but she was the closest to the Goddess at this point, faith in All Mother may be her greatest tool now. "Take care of Erend for now, and trust the Goddess to tend to what should be, you were made Anointed for a reason, use that connection to help you find the answers here Aloy."

She took a breath, holding it and looking at him with an expression he couldn't identify. She looked like a bomb...  like there was something spinning behind her eyes like a whirlwind, the air around her suddenly tense. The look in her eye was so distant and shielded, what was wrong with her? He watched her realize she was holding that breath, letting it out in a sharp, frustrated sigh, dropping her eyes and shaking her head she said "Rost... you know what....." then she looked at him again, the hard edge leaving her moss colored eyes and she just looked sad, which almost shocked him more. When she spoke her voice was tired. "Maybe I'll ask the Goddess. For now I need to go, I want to be there when he wakes."

She stood, gather the things she'd just grabbed. He didn't want her to go, he still didn't know what to make of the strange reaction she'd just had. He wanted to understand. He wanted to keep talking to her and have her presence near to help belay the memories that had been haunting him so badly of late. But she needed different and he would never keep her from something she needed. 

At least she was in the village. That was what was best, even if she was only there for the Oseram. 

‐------------

After everything she'd gone and forgotten her satchel where she'd flung it down from the loft. He had half expected her to come back for it that evening, but she didn't. 

So this morning he'd decided to bring it to her. Mostly just as an excuse to check in with her at the healers. He'd gotten pretty good at navigating the little path he'd found through the villge without seeing anyone, even if it had taken him a bit to remember where everything led, as it was all so different now.

He didn't see anyone when he entered the lodge, his eyes slowly adjusting from the outside light. He could hear people though, a couple sets of voices. One dim and far off, the other closer and more familiar, Aloy's low tones clear to him even from this distance.  

"Erend, quit fidgeting." He heard her say, and coming around the corner he felt that strange mix of amused and irritated he'd come to expect when seeing Aloy interact with the Oseram. Maybe more so at the moment. .. seeing as she was helping him shave... standing behind where he sat, a straight blade in her hand, cutting through the foam on his scalp and looking very much like she had done this before. 

They both looked up as he entered, Erend grinning and booming out "Rost, how are ya? Ow!" He winced as she smacked him with the flat of the blade. 

"Stop moving I said!" She grumbled. Blushing furiously but still focused on the pass she was making along the edge of his Mohawk. "You keep jerking around and I'll have to shave it all off." reaching back to rinse the blade in the bowl of water nearby and setting back to work. She grabbed his head to angle him better, glancing up and adding "Hey Rost." 

"Woman, you mess up my hair and you and I are gonna have to fight." Erend laughed as she manhandle him.

"I'd win." She said flatly, standing on tip toes to properly see over his wide back as she started a new path through his overgrown scruff, moving the blade carefully back from his temple. "What's going on?" She asked, looking up at Rost as she rinsed the blade again, ignoring Erend's chuckling. 

He had actually forgotten what he'd come here for, the domestic interaction he'd walked in on making a nerve jump under his eye. He knew Aloy better than most, knew her to be leary of physical interactions as a whole. So seeing her comfortably grooming some large, half dressed soldier hadn't been something he'd ever had to worry about seeing.... he shouldn't be worrying about it anyway, he was her mate. And he wasn't sure about the Oseram but the tribe encouraged mates to bond through care, this was a common place interaction. He shouldn't be bothered by this..... yet he was feeling distinctly bothered. An irritated itch going at the back of his neck to match the twitch under his eye. She clicked the blade against the bowl again, knocking the water lose and jarring his overly protective brain into paying attention. "You forgot the items you'd come for yesterday." He said, dropping the satchel from his shoulder and tossing it onto the bed at the center of the room. 

"I know" She said, her eyes on her task. "I was going to head that way to grab that and talk to you, so thank you for saving me the trip." She finished her last pass, pushing Erend's head forward to tiddy up his neck and adding ominously "We've all been invited to "tea"." 

"Tea?" he repeated, a feeling of dread settling in the pit of his stomach. 

"With the Matriarchs. Teersa wants us all there to "catch up on things" as she put it." Sounding skeptical of the Matriarchs intentions. She came round to face Erend where he sat, smiling up at her and clearly enjoying himself. She wiped her hands on a rag before tossing it at him, hitting him square in the face. 

Laughing he snatched the rag up out of his lap where it had fallen, giving Aloy a fond look and passing it along his head, saying to the room. "Hence why I'm cleaning up. Can't go see your tribal leaders looking like some vagrant." 

"You look like a vagrant to the Nora regardless." She said, watching him thoughtfully. Reaching out she ran her fingers through his Mohawk, combing it back and twirling the slightly curled end. "Are you leaving it long again?"

"Maybe, you want me too?" He asked, trying to stand. His face straining as he attempted to not overuse his left side, Aloy reaching out immediately to help. He let out a puff of air once up, kissing her on the top of her head before moving off to dig through a travel pack sitting behind them. 

"Mmhmm, I think you should." She said approvingly, turning herself to grab the satchel Rost had brought her "Thank you again for bringing this, I still have to go find Sona and you saved me a good deal of time." 

"Of course. When are they expecting us?" He asked, watching her watch Erend attempting to pull his shirt on without lifting his left arm to high, he managed to get it on moments before she quit her hesitant hovering and took over.

"This afternoon." She said absently, still watching Erend as he turned, a worried frown on her lips. 

He caught sight of her expression "Aloy stop, I'm fine. I only popped a few stitches, the others are all healing and I'll be careful with the newer ones." 

"You'd be being more careful if you'd stay here." She said in a prickly tone. 

"Not that careful than." He said casually. Her frown deepened and she opened her mouth with what looked like a sharp reply but he cut her off "Look they want me to come, and you and I both know I can't keep laying in this rusting bed. I've fought wars with half healed holes all through me, this is nothing to fuss over." 

Aloy was still staring at him with a mix of irritation and worry, finally she went back to looking through her bag, now frowning at the contents instead. Erend was watching her as well, looking like he wanted to say more but was trying to figure out the words and Rost started to feel like it was time for him to go. 

He had hoped to spend more time with her... He missed her dearly and they had just gotten back to a place of easy companionship that he had wanted so badly. But Aloy was still toeing the line of some argument she wanted to start, he could see it, even if he wasn't on the receiving end of the fight this time, he'd leave them too it. "I'll come back after midday than, meet you here." 

She looked up at him then and her eyes were almost disappointed. That shouldn't warm his heart, but it did. She looked thoughtful for a long while, looking back to Erend  before sighing, then she said "lf you'll wait a moment, you could come with me to find Sona. She should be in the village this morning." 

He didn't want to traipse through the village, but it would afford him more time with Aloy, not the easiest task but for her he'd manage. "Alright, I'll wait for you at the door. Erend." He added by way of farewell, nodding at the man. 

He caught Erend's goodbye as he departed, unable to shake that vague haze of annoyance he was feeling towards him. He knew he shouldn't feel as he did. He didn't entirely disapprove of Erend and it wasn't up to him in the least who she took as a mate anyway, it wasn't even something that bothered him all of the time. But seeing them together bothered him. A lot... would it be different had her mate been Nora? He didn't know... as it was she'd picked the Oseram and the best he could do was to try and prevent that choice from keeping her from her people. 

Taking a breath of crisp, morning air he leaned his back against the large, carved wooden beam that supported the patios roof. This was good though, and he was glad he'd come. He still felt uneasy being here, but he could see Aloy with her people. Finally get to watch her be part of the tribe and he was eager for that. 

It wasn't long before she joined him, flashing a tight smile. "Shall we?" She asked, her voice just as tight. 

He fell into step with her, pulling up his hood as he went. Her face was worried, a frown tugging at her mouth and a tension in her neck she always carried when she was on edge. "You seem upset."

She gave a scornful snort, shaking her head. "I'm worried about this thing with the Matriarchs today. Plus, no offense, but I don't really like being in the village in general."

"Right now, I sympathize." He said carefully. He knew she didn't prefer it, but he wanted her to, badly. She could love the tribe if she could see past her resentfullness, as he had. "With time that will change for us both." 

She gave the derisive snort he'd expected and he wasn't going to push the subject. Not now, and not with words, there was no point. He hated indirectness but with her he knew him outright saying she needed to be here would do nothing. He'd said it her whole life and at best all that did was create a bitter tether. One she seemed to have maintained primarily in honor of his memory, which, as she had pointed out the last time he had mentioned her living situation, she no longer had to do... and that worried him. He needed to show her how wonderful and full living among the people was. The closeness of friends and kin that she'd been so deprived, and he needed to brace against his crippling fears and return to the village himself to do that. 

So instead of needling her on it he touched on another subject "What concerns you about the Matriarchs." 

They had passed down the little path that led from the healers to the main gathering place, Aloy clearly heading for the front of the village. Nora were moving about in the midmorning sun, going about their day, the smell of leather and firewood strong in his lungs. The warm scene should be welcome but it sent chillwater splashing down his spine. Looking at Aloy he reminded himself to breath. If he was tense there was no way she would relax, and she needed to, she looked as he felt. That surprised him, he'd have assumed she would be more accustomed to being here than that by now... 

She had ignored his question, eyeing the tribesmen and doing her best to skirt through the area unnoticed, Rost following suit. That didn't last long though, as a Nora mother backed up into their path trying to grab at an unruly child, turning and recognizing Aloy. The young woman gasped, doing a strange movement that almost looked like a bow but wasn't, straightening back up at Aloy's reproachful grimace. But her hostile bearing didn't dissuade the woman's questions nor did it keep the surrounding tribesmen from hearing her and chiming in. 

"Anointed! What is happening?"

"Who are the outlanders Anointed? Why are they here?" 

"Anointed are we safe? What of the murders?" 

People were closing in to better speak to her, barring the path. It was jarring, the crush of confused, worried faces. He hadn't expected this, and it was ripping apart the paper thin damn that held in the waves of panic that constantly threatened him when here and not being surrounded. Aloy for her part seemed unsurprised, but was spitting venom, hissing "I don't know, I'm trying to figure it out, just stay in groups and in villages for now and you'll be okay, now move, I need to get through!" 

"Anointed please, what does the Goddess say?" The woman who'd stopped them originally pleaded, reaching out to place a reverent hand on Aloy's arm, a few of her surrounding fellows doing the same, or attempting to, as Aloy jerked her arm away, backing up a step and almost colliding with him. 

"Don't!" She growled, sounding like a cornered animal "And she says move! I need to find the Warchief." 

Most were focused on Aloy, still asking their questions and ignoring her words, but some had started to notice him, recognition dawning here and there and traveling through the tribesmen like a breeze. He felt someone bump him from behind on their way to be nearer to Aloy. Looking back adrenaline shot through him, feeling very trapped and not seeing a way out as peolple were now crowding them from behind as well. What was happening? He knew they called her Anointed, knew why... but this? He looked back to Aloy. At the defensive posture she was holding herself in, shifting on her toes and looking for a way through, volatile and ready to run. This was why she'd been so tense, she'd known. This was quickly looking like a bad situation. Aloy looked about to blow and unless she started shoving her way through it didn't look like anyone was moving. 

"Move! Now!" Barked a very welcome voice from over the shuffle. 

Sona came into view, looking frustrated, shouldering her way through the crowd. People were muttering and giving her resentful looks but doing as she said, at least they were doing so slowly as she continued to snap and snarl at anyone in her way. 

"Sona." Aloy greeted in relief. "Just the woman I was looking for." 

Sona's eyes flicked briefly between the two of them, her gaze lingering on him for a moment, then she nodded to Rost, but spoke to Aloy when she did, another tiny wave of gratefulness shuddering through him for his old friend and her uncanny awareness of others. "I must speak to my braves at the Mountain, follow and speak as you walk." 

She was still shooting the crowd withering looks, daring them to try to approach once more as they dispersed. His panic was ebbing slightly with the shift in attention, but even as they walked the eyes lingering on his back felt like hot irons. Aloy was recovering quicker then he, though she looked shaken and angry. He watched her move, watched her speak as she and Sona conversed, the words passing him by. She was Aloy. Remarkable, brilliant Aloy but still just his girl, the one who was too curious for her own good and to stubborn for everyone else's. He wanted her to love the tribe, for her to be welcome. 

But what he'd seen hadn't been welcoming it had been reverent, and the separateness she kept telling him existed between her and the tribe was suddenly a thing he could tangibly feel. 

Chapter Text

Her stomach was in knots...

This was a meeting, to discuss at least one looming issue, if not more, she was sure of it. Despite Teersa's determined insistence that she and the other Matriarchs simply wanted to catch up with them all. No, she had a feeling this was about Erend and his men and what would be done about them being brought here. There was no reason why they'd invite the group they had otherwise. Except Rost, he didn't fit in that.... but why all the secrecy, why not just say what their intentions for bringing them here were? To keep her from preparing an argument? It was suspicious..

This whole thing was picking at her nerves.

Squaring her shoulders she marched on, glancing at Erend where he walked to her left, her throat tight. She really hoped the Matriarchs accepted their plan... they'd talked about it. About her worry and what they would do if she were right, and decided that offering to send Dran back, who was essentially fine, while allowing Erend to stay to be near Orlund until he was well enough to leave would be the only way they'd allow him to continue to reside within the village gates. 

He wanted to be here because of her, wanting to help and be close while keeping watch on his friend. She wanted him here for his own good. He wasn't out of the woods when it came to infection, he needed to be near a healer just in case. She also wanted him here because she wanted him close to her.. but she'd been willing to stay with him at the border before, worst case she could go back to that plan. Rost was hesitantly wading back into the tribe, and it wasn't like anything had happened in regards to the murders.... not unless you counted Erends attack, but she still wasn't entirely sure it was the same perpetrators, her gut said it was, but.. she'd found nothing at the site of the attack, and aside from the attack on the Vanguard it had been so long since the murders themselves had happened that any trail she might have missed was surely cold. Though how there could be anything missed she didn't know. 

These last two weeks had been so off kilter... she couldn't find a foothold here and more questions and more blood kept coming. Her nerves were frayed, even with Erend here. She'd missed him so badly but his injury was just making her angry and afraid. She wanted to find who'd attacked them, but couldn't. She wanted to help the tribe but couldn't, wanted to stop thinking about how close she'd come to losing him, but couldn't. She felt powerless and it grated on her, miring her in anxiety.

She sighed, feeling sick and uneasy, looking back she noticed that Rost looked a bit green as well... actually he looked absolutely spooked. Understandable, she supposed, as he was walking up the path to All Mother on his way to speak with the Matriarchs for the first time in what, 25 years? He glanced over while she was looking back, so she gave him a reassuring smile. This part was nice at least.... not that he was uncomfortable but that he was trying so hard. She knew what it was costing him to be here... but, this would be good for him in the long run, and he was a brave, he'd be alright. 

The winds had picked up, cold and biting, kicking the flags that lined their path into movement, the fabric snapping in the sharp air. Looking back down the path she wondered if Sona would be here soon, her unease growing. She had said she would meet them, but she'd rather not have to wait around on anyone. Luckily she needn't have worried, as Sona was already there, the Warchief coming into view as they topped the rise, a stoic sentry at the entrance to All Mother. Beside her stood Varl, speaking to the braves who where stationed there. What in the world was he doing here? This just kept getting worse and worse. She already didn't want to be here and now it was looking like she'd have to withstand Varl's customarily surly attitude on top of everything else. He looked over as they approached, his eyes hitting her first, then flitting to Erend, his normal scowl darkening as she'd expected, but he surprised her, offering the Vanguard a nod of acknowledgment, Erend returning the gesture with a look that said he hadn't expected the vague greeting either. So that was something...

Surprisingly Sona was the surliest person here this afternoon. She'd been the usual scowling Warchief earlier but Aloy had attributed that to the crowd, now she looked meaner than an angry Sawtooth  "They are waiting for us. Follow." Sona said curtly by way of greeting. 

"Good to see you too." Erend said grufly out of the corner of his mouth, loud enough for her to hear but not enough to carry to Sona, who had ducked under the hangings that served as a door and disappeared, followed closely by her son. "Is it just me or have her and her kid swapped attitudes?" He kept on.

"Erend." She warned, casting him a cool look out of the corner of her eye. His tone and posture was casual but she could tell he was hurting, see it in the way he was moving and his slowly worsening mood wasn't going to help anything. This is why she'd wanted him to stay at the healer's, she knew it was too soon for him to take the steep hike here and she doubted very much that a sarcastic Oseram would help them convince the Matriarchs of anything. He was already irritable and they hadn't even walked in much less started talking. The last thing she needed was to have to wrangle her partner into keeping his smart remarks to himself while also convincing them he should be allowed to stay.

He gave her a stubborn look to match her own, his jaw set as he held the curtain aside for Rost and then her to enter. But he let out a breath and said. "Yeah I hear ya."

He better, this was bad enough as is and she was already irritated enough that he'd come at all. This was important, she needed him to play nice. They were both a bit edgy today, for various reasons, non of which involved each other, not really. So she'd rather avoid a fight if they could... but she also wasnt above rising to the occasion if he didn't kill the snide remarks and start being charming in a hurry. 

They had made their way about halfway down the long dank stairwell, their footfalls loud in the echoing corridor, when Teersa came out from the room they seemed to use as the main gathering place here, Sona and Varl having almost made it to her when she appeared. "Ah! Good!" She said happily, reaching out to clap Varl on the shoulder. "I don't remember inviting you child, but I would assume you are here at your mother's behest?"

He nodded and Sona spoke "The border is his post, his input is called for." She was looking more severely at Varl than anyone, sparks flying from her eyes as he resolutely stared at the ground. She wasn't real sure what was happening but she couldn't see how Varl having a say in Erend staying or going would work out in their favor, even if he was making an attempt to not outwardly loath her mate. 

Teersa had ushered the first two arrivals through, reaching out her withered hand and smiling at the rest of them, "Come come, we have much to discuss." Her eyes fell on Rost and her smile widened, beaming at him and making him shift uncomfortably as he did his best to smile in return, managing more of a grimace than anything. She laughed, giving his back a pat as he came level and pushing him through the door when he hesitated, saying "Welcome, Rost, it is good to see you here. Be at ease!" 

Turning back she looked up at Erend, greeting him as well, "You look to be fairing better than I had hoped! A good thing too, I think our Anointed is rather attached." She said, touching his arm as she let him pass her also. 

He laughed at that "Aahh, she likes me okay, sometimes." Turning he bounced his eyebrows at Aloy, grinning that stupid handsome grin she couldn't help smiling back at, the corners of her mouth betraying her entirely. She hated when he got to her like that, it was far too easy for him.. and her gaze must have reflected her attitude because he laughed again, adding "See? Sometimes, just not right now." 

She made an exasperated sound and tore her glare off him, turning to greet Teersa, not feeling any less aggravated. "Much to discuss as in..?"

The old woman's mouth thinned, reaching out to hook Aloy around the shoulders to further guide her into the room, saying flippantly "As in there are many topics I'd like to talk about, dear girl." 

Of course. Sighing she detached from the old woman and moved back to Erend's side, sitting between him and Rost, a chair coincidentally having been left open there. They had added a few seats to the long table the Matriarchs used, everyone aside from Teersa now seated, with the distinct absence of one. Lansra wasn't here. Maybe she wasn't coming? Her heart did an excited little skip at the thought, but that would be too much to hope for.

Erend noticed this when she did, looking around the room from where he'd taken a seat, as if he expected her to be lingering in the shadows, which, wasnt entirely unlikely she thought, glancing around herself...

He turned his attention back to Teersa as she came round the table to sit not far to his left, saying "So where's my favorite Matriarch at? Don't tell me she couldn't make it, you'll break my heart." 

She wanted to smack him... but he actually got some laughs, from Teersa and Jezza no less, the only one who seemed bothered by his cheek being Varl. And possibly Rost, but it was hard to tell as he was still so tense, looking like he wanted to vanish. 

Chuckling, Jezza replied simply "She has chosen to abstain from this meeting." 

Relief washed over her. She still had a bad feeling about this, but not seeing Lansra and having to listen to her drag things out with her insanity was always a good thing. This made everything so much easier, if that old hag couldn't stand to be around the outcast, the false prophet and the outlander all at once that was fine by her. Now she just had to convince these two that it was necessary for Erend to stick beside his man and that should, hopefully be doable. 

"Yes well regardless of our sister's unwillingness to participate I think we can guess her opinions accurately." Teersa said sharply, sounding like she didn't miss the Matriarchs absence either. 

A tea made of fire kiln and some other herb was brought out, Aloy grateful for the zing the warm liquid filled her with, making her feel a bit sharper. This was fine, these two she could convince, and whatever else they wanted to figure out would work out too. 

Thankfully, Teersa wasted no time "I appreciate you all joining us, we have had some... upset, amongst ourselves, in regards to recent events, and answers are called for." 

She knew it. And she was just as sure this "upset" was Lansra specifically. She must really dislike them all to miss out on a chance to be the soul cause of a whole meeting...

"I think first we should speak on our dear Captain and his men." She said, nodding her head to Erend. "Things turned out differently than we had expected on that note!" 

There was a general murmur of assent amongst them. Aloy waiting to see if the the Matriarch planned to continue. But it was Sona who spoke. 

"That is my fault, Matriarch." She said, not sounding at all sorry. "The call to let them stay at the border with sparce care or be brought in to be healed was mine, and I made the choice I believe was right." She was sitting on the opposite side of Jezza, her face rigid and set, and Aloy couldn't help but feel her respect for the woman swell. 

"Why did you make this choice." Jezza asked placidly. 

"Because these Oseram have proven to be brave and loyal allies. I may not have survived the battle in the tainted lands had it not been for Erend and his men." She said firmly, her arms crossed. "All Mother would not ignore a life debt, nor the debt we owe for the blood and sweat they put into reviving our homes, along side our people all those months ago." 

The Matriarchs were considering this, like it was some kind of trial. Was it? She wasn't sure, but Sona's words had touched her. She was always proud of Erend. His Vanguard too, they were good people who had been good to her. But hearing someone else praise them made her glow. Looking over at Erend she saw the pride the words had elicited in him and that glowing feeling exploded. Her heart swelling to see him get the credit he deserved over something he absolutely should be proud of. It was nice to know that Sona was not allowing tribal law to cloud her better sense as well. Erend had pushed a downed Sawtooth off her at the spire, you don't forget when someone helps you that way, at least you shouldnt...

Teersa had been looking at Jezza over her interwoven fingers, nose resting on her knuckles. Finally she leaned back and said "That is well, but what now? We must decide if we will continue with what is or with what had been decided before." 

"I and Lansra have both spoken at length on that, as you well know sister." Jezza said flatly, eyeing Teersa from under crisscrossing bangles and ropes. "You know we have chosen to stay with the our previous decision." 

"Yes fine." Teersa sighed impatiently. "Then there is that. As of now, you and your men must remain at the border." She added this last bit to Erend, Varl and Sona. 

"That's all well and good, but I have a man still laid up with a hole in his neck. How are we looking to handle that?" Erend asked, looking between the two old woman incredulously. 

"We will continue to care for your injured until he is well enough to be moved." Jezza said calmly, looking like she thought this was comforting. 

"And I appreciate that, but he's my man. I'm his direct commander, it's my duty to look out for him, and I don't feel great about leaving him where I can't get to him with him as messed up as he is." He stated frankly. 

"Would it not be possible for Erend to remain until his charge is able to move?" Sona added in. Erend looked at her when she looked at him, equal levels of surprise on their faces before both looking back to the Warchief. They'd planned on Aloy throwing the idea out but the Warchief had gone and saved them the trouble. 

Teersa considered it "And the third Vanguard? What of him?" 

"Dran is well enough to leave, if he must." Aloy joined in eagerly, feeling hopeful that this might actually work. "I can take him back today, and Erend and Orlund once that's possible..... and if it's still necessary." She added on, unable to help herself. They should be allowed in, this was stupid, but if they had to play along to get them as far as the border at the very least that was fine. For now. 

Teersa gave her a small smile, turning to look at Jezza's thoughtful face. "Well?" 

She sipped her tea, than leaned back and crossed her arms, finally nodding and gesturing with her hand vaguely "I agree with that." 

This was working out so much better than she had planned, a bit more weight lifting off her shoulders. He'd be near and more importantly safe while he healed. Leaning back in her chair she let out a breath, reaching over to rest a hand on Erends thigh, giving him a small smile when he looked over. He winked at her, grinning, giving her the distinct urge to lean over and kiss him. She resisted, considering their company, but wanted very much to get him alone suddenly.

"You said there was much to discuss, what else are we here for?" She asked the Matriarchs, turning back to them. 

"Yes, the other side of this particular topic is that we must decide in what capacity the Vanguard will be allowed to help, and in what way will the tribe be allowed to interact with them." Teersa said, turning her attention more directly to Sona and Varl for the first time. 

Sona had crossed her arms and turned to her son as well, again glaring lasers at him. For his part Varl looked irritated, but thoughtful. He'd been staring at the table and she watched him realize all eyes had essentially turned to him, his face registering first nerves and then resolve. He took a couple steady breaths, frowning and first looking at his mother and then at her. He looked like he was almost asking her a question, the strange look simmering beneath the scowl, but what he wanted from her she couldn't guess, and if he really wanted to ask her something he'd need to actually ask. He looked over at Erend briefly, the dark look flitting across his features like a shadow, but he seemed resolute in his attempts to make right, as he said sullenly "I believe the Vanguard should be allowed to aid our people in any way they can. I can't see harm in working together, even if the duties they are set keep them outside the Embrace as you have asked." 

Aloy was genuinely taken aback by his response. She'd expected opposition and gotten support... maybe there was hope to salvage some sort of relationship with him still. Maybe not as a friend, but as a trusted ally once more... it felt good to think that was possible, having Varl in her corner had never been a bad thing. Erend was looking at the brave appraisingly, scratching at his beard like he did when he was contemplating something suspicious. She didn't blame him really, he'd been ready to march back to the Embrace and put Varl in his place when she'd eventually told him what the brave had said to her that night, but Varl was offering what they wanted. 

Her hand was still on his thigh, so she gave him a gentle squeeze. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, and smiled back at her when she offered him another small, reassuring smile. She looked back to Varl and caught the smallest flash of his disapproving gaze before it had shifted back to the table.

"I can't see any issue with that, Sona? Jezza?" Teersa sounded like she might actually be having fun with this, though she was doing her best to remain impassive. She was glancing between Varl and them far more frequently than Aloy felt was required, looking curious. 

Sona was looking as pleased as was possible for her, giving a curt nod in response. 

"If it will help us find who has harmed so many I am willing to allow it." Jezza said sadly. 

"Another issue resolved! Which leaves one more thing we must discuss. It will need to be decided what the next steps are for our newest tribesman." Teersa said brightly, fixing Rost with a warm smile that crinkled at the corner of her eyes. "You are reintergrating so well, I think you are ready to decide your purpose amongst the people." 

He went stock still, his face a mask, looking like he was miles away from "integrating well". Rost was suddenly very much on the spot and Aloy felt bad for him. The powerful, unreasonable urge to defend him flaring up behind her ribs. He didn't need help, Teersa was looking at him like a beloved son, and Jezza's regard was far from cold. But he looked like he needed help and it hurt her heart for him. He wasn't ready for that was he? All tribesmen had a purpose amongst the people, something they were required to do to benefit the community. Whether it be hunting, stitching, being a brave or a mother, everyone had their duty. Rost was far from being one to shirk his duties.... but he had just rejoined and was struggling so badly with that... was he ready to be a brave again? 

"I..." He started, faltering before he cleared his throat and regained his ground "I am honored to do what ever the tribe requires of me." 

"Oh I'm sure you are, but where your skills will be best utilized is what I wonder." The Matriarch said. 

"He is a brave." Sona said, a note of finality in her voice, looking across the table at Rost as if she were asking him if what she had said were still true.

"My spirit may be that of a brave." He corrected softly. "But my body is not."

"Age and experience begets skill and wisdom." Sona said stubbornly, staring him down. "You are a brave, more so because of your wounds." 

They were staring at each other, a silent battle of wills. It occurred to her suddenly how little she knew of Rost's relationship to the people. How little she knew of his time since he'd returned, she'd been so focused on other things... it was almost painful how little she knew, and she made a mental note to fix that. For now she was left to wonder how well these two knew each other. He'd been a brave then, and she would have been as well, maybe they'd been friends. The idea seemed alien, imagining a younger Rost and Sona hunting with other braves. But they were still staring each other down and she had seen him speak to her almost exclusively. 

Rost folded first, giving a grunt of consent, sounding mildly amused when he said "if that is true, than my duties would fall on you to decide." 

Sona had a fairly limited array of facial expressions as far as Aloy had seen, but now she was looking almost triumphant and she was fairly certain this was the most dynamic she'd ever seen her be. Varl had seen this too and was giving his mother a perplexed look. 

"He could help train your inept baby braves." Aloy lobbed out casually. 

Sona looked at her, severe as ever, then her face changed again and she was nodding. "That has merit." 

"Goddess be praised I do love when plans fall together so smoothly." Teersa said happily, waving over a young woman and speaking quietly to her. The girl moved off and the old woman continued. "Let us share a meal, food is what is needed to settle all things." 

"I'll cheers to that." Erned said amicably, raising his mug of tea to the Matriarch and laughing when she obliged him. 

Food was brought to them, some sort of stew, and they ate. Which was a whole lot more pleasant than she'd expected. She was hungry finally, the weight of this meeting lifting away. Erend even ate well, which was almost more of a releif than anything, as he'd so far not been keen on food. Rost picked at his meal, looking a little shell-shocked, but he listened to them, offering short, gentle responses when he'd occasionally answer someone from around the table, though mostly Jezza and Sona spoke while Varl watched his food cool, Erend and Teersa chatting easily. She was left to her meal for the most part, which was fine, as she felt entirely drained. 

Looking back over at Rost though she felt that wave of pride again. It was so weird seeing him here... Among the tribe, talking to other Nora and having history with people. But it also felt really good, a sort of peaceful satisfaction settling into her bones on the matter. He belonged here. He needed this so badly and he would get better. Teaching the kids, that would fix this, break those last barriers down and let him be one of them again. 

He looked up, his sharp eyes finding hers. She smiled at him, further turning herself so she was speaking more directly at him, saying in a low, warm voice "I'm really proud of you." The words getting caught up behind her eyes as they left her lips.

They caught him too, his eyes going over bright as he dropped his gaze, smiling and taking a deep breath. He didn't look at her again, she doubted he could and that was probably for the best because she hadn't meant to make them both cry at this stupid meeting. But he mumbled a thick "Thank you." Managing one quick glance and another halting smile. "If the Goddess has any mercy I'll prove capable here." 

That itch was there again, the one that wanted to blurt out everything she knew of Gaia... but she hadn't told Rost about that part... she couldn't. It was his religion, that was a thing they practiced and were taught since birth. She couldn't shatter that, not right now. He wasn't ready, and frankly, neither was she. 

She'd been zoned in on her thoughts, but then she felt eyes on her and looking up caught Teersa curiously staring at her. 

"What?" Aloy asked. 

She kept looking, a glint in her eye Aloy didn't trust at all. Finally saying mildly "I was just wondering if you'd had a chance to speak to Basha while you've been at the healers."

What the heck kind of question was that? She looked at Erend, who was sitting between them and had qued into the conversation. He looked as confused as she was, his brows knitting together as he tried to work through what she meant. "Uh, I mean we've spoken..." 

She hummed and nodded knowingly, pursing her lips and looking at her cup while mulling over her next words. When Teersa spoke she glanced up at Aloy, her tone light. "You know.. she's not only our head healer, she also oversees the health of the tribe's mothers." 

She choked on her tea, the hot liquid almost coming out her nose as she fought to breath. If this was going where she thought it was she wanted out, now.. this was not a conversation she wanted to have. With anyone. Ever. But especially right now sitting between her lover and the man who'd raised her. But that looked to be exactly where Teersa wanted to take this. She didn't even wait for her to fully recover from her coughing fit before elaborating on her previous statement. "She knows her stuff Aloy, she may be able to help things along. I mean you took your mate how many months ago? Surely you should have conceived by now." 

The atmosphere in the room was shifting dramatically, everyone now paying attention to her mortally embarrassing predicament, though only her, Erend and Varl looked shocked. Why was no one else bothered by this? She knew the Nora were okay talking babies but here? Now? Her tongue was actually glued to the roof of her mouth, utter horror at the flippant question searing a flush across her cheeks so deep she felt sunburnt. She was speechless...they'd talked about this, briefly, mostly just to establish were they both were with it and to cover her using the herbs she did... now she'd had the topic dropped on her in a room full of people and it wasn't even something she ever thought of if she could help it. 

she realized her mouth was open and snapped it shut so hard her teeth clicked, lost for words she looked at Erend, who's eyebrows had shot up, he met her eyes and her loving partner didn't miss a beat. "I don't know why you're looking at me, she's talking to you." 

Her mouth dropped back open and she gave him a look that could kill, something he completely ignored, draining his tea and determinedly eyeing the empty cup. 

Unbelievable! Scoffing she tried to respond, managing to choke out an ever helpful "uuhh." Before looking over at Teersa's amused face and frowning. This wasn't any of their business and the old woman was enjoying this far too much. "We aren't really trying to help anything along... It isn't a great time for ...that." 

"So you don't want children? Why take a mate at all?" She looked perplexed but it was a facade and she was just loving watching her squirm, she knew it, that curious glint was still sparkling away. 

"Remeber how I said she likes me sometimes." Erend chimed in helpfully. 

"Erend!" She gasped, appalled. Her face was going to melt off her skull if her flush got any hotter and she just wanted to disappear under the table and out of the room. 

Teersa was chuckling and she couldn't make eye contact with anyone else so she glared daggers at Erend instead. He gave her a sheepish look, shrugging and still half ass smirking at his joke "What, am I wrong?" 

"Oh Goddess." She said, her elbows planted on the table top as she leaned her head into her hands. But then she could feel the ribald comment about to spill out of Erend at her words. Picking her head back up quickly she gave him a warning look "Dont." Is all she said, his devilishly amused look confirming she'd been right, turning back to Teersa's equally amused face she said "I have more the Goddess needs me to do, and I took a mate because should that ever... come up, he's who I chose.... for some reason." She added, casting him a dark look. 

He didn't react to her look though, but to her words. His amusement slipping away into a soft, bemused expression. The look in Erend's eyes, one she hadn't seen often, always gave her chills. It was the look he gave her when they talked about the future, about what they wanted. As inappropriate as she felt it was at the moment the look still sent a strange longing into her marrow, her irritation sputtering out under the weight of his warm regard. She couldn't look at him looking at her like that, so she cleared her throat and turned back to Teersa, just in time to see her gearing up to make her next statement. 

"Well, I hope the Goddess sees to allow for such a thing. You of all people deserve to feel the joys of Motherhood, All Mother knows." She said placidly, then she cast them both a mischievous look. "Besides I think you two would have rather adorable babies." 

She was going to die..right here.. Dropping her face into her hands she groaned, giving up any semblance of trying to smooth her way through the situation. Then she felt the warm, heavy weight of Erend's hand on her back, rubbing wide arcs across her shoulders, and the embarrassed turmoil in her gut started to slow it's spin.

"Only if they look like her." He said easily, giving her a much gentler smile than he had earlier when she turned her head to look up at him. How was he so good at navigating things like this? She usually just... didn't. But he dealt with it so well, and that look he kept giving her... Turning her face back into her palms she snorted, both of them chuckling. She snuck a peak out of the other side of her hand at Rost, remembering suddenly that he, too, was sitting through all of this, but he looked surprisingly unaffected. He was watching Erend's hand on her back, but his expression was blank and unreadable. 

Her hands were starting to sweat with how hot her face was still burning. Taking a breath she leaned back in her chair. 

Teersa seemed to have tired of picking on her and was now giving Erend her full attention. "What do you know of caring for a child? I would assume Aloy has described to you the responsibilities held by the father?" 

It was his turn to look uncomfortable, shifting and glancing at her. She smirked at him, nodding back towards the Matriarch to indicate he should go on and answer. He had NO idea what was entailed because they'd never talked about it. He always skirted the edge of any topic involving motherhood and she had never felt any urge to bring up what Rost had taught her of the tribe's way. Teersa caught on to this pretty quickly through his stammering, and decided to take a moment to educate him. He looked like he was trying very hard to regain the swagger he had thrown on during her interrogation of Aloy but was failing miserably, looking trapped.

As much as she sort of loved seeing him writhing uncomfortably under the onslaught of Teersa's baby talk, she wanted to leave. Her max capacity for dealing with this having been hit. 

This had been draining. This whole thing.. the decision making and now this emotional whirlwind. Rost was watching the interaction between Erend and Teersa with a strange expression she didn't have the mind to sort out, and Sona had turned back to Jezza and was again speaking in low tones. But Varl was staring at her, an odd look on his face. She couldn't pin it but his gaze didn't falter when she met it. Was that judgement? Wouldn't be the first time, but as with the other times, she had no issue shutting him down. He didn't say anything though, just sighed heavily and looked away, shaking his head. 

Ugh, she hated that. That subtle, selfish, know-it-all attitude the Nora all held for her. She'd thought Varl was better than that but he'd proved her wrong and continued to do so, his mother had proven one of the few to truly see and hear her, and take their opinions from there. To the rest she was just some figure head, a touchstone to the Goddess.

She was getting aggravated again, she was tired, she could see Erend shifting his shoulder painfully, and no one but Teersa seemed to be saying or doing anything other than gossiping and silently praying to leave. 

It was time to go. 

‐------------

When they arrived back the sun was still a few hours above the horizon, the village less packed where they were heading. Everyone having gone off to the eating lodge for dinner. Rost left them and vanished quickly after saying goodnight, going back to the cabin as far as she knew. And that was fine. She wanted to be alone with Erend. 

He wrapped his arm around her as they turned from their parting with Rost to continue on to the healers. Nuzzling into her ear and making her grin and shiver. Chuckling and giving her that deep, needful look he'd given her at All Mother, making her blush return and heat snap along under her skin.

Her mind was on getting to his little room and getting him comfortable. On his lips and the soft touches they could only exchange when they were alone and almost jumped out of her skin when Basha caught them at the door. Insisting she needed to re-dress his wounds and looking a thousand times more irritated than she'd been at him being summed out. 

But the stitches were healing well, really well, actually. She'd been concerned that today's hike to All Mother and back would have irritated something but it hadn't. In fact the redness had subsided considerably, and it took a large chunk of the anxious weight she'd been carrying with it, allowing her to really breath for a moment as she wrapped her mind fully around the fact that he was doing good and would be fine. 

Looking up at his face she caught his smug smirk. "I told you I was fine." But instead of plucking at the worried nerve his injury had caused her like it would have earlier, his words made her smile.

"You're right one time and look how smug you are." She sighed. 

"Basha you heard her acknowledge I was right just now, didn't ya?" 

She had just finished securing his bandages, glancing up she gave him a glare that might have almost had a sparkle of humor in it, almost.. but otherwise she ignored him, standing and collecting her things.

They spent the rest of their evening talking about their time apart. Peacefully at ease for the first time in what felt like forever as they spoke, comfortable in each other's arms. Erend was tired of laying down so much, so they sat on her bedroll, propped against the side of the bed, her legs thrown across his lap as she leaned into him. This was something she'd been so hungry for. This connection. The safe, easy feeling that made her feel so wanted, and so in love. She was practically in his lap and it wasn't enough, tilting her head up she touched his chin with delicate fingertips, getting his attention and bringing his face down to hers to gently kiss him. 

This lasted for another few minutes before he pulled away, running his thumb over her cheek and giving her that look again. But he said nothing, just kissed her one last time before suggesting they lay down. 

His bed was still too small, but now that he'd navigated the outside world without further issue, he'd convinced her to share it with him again. It was cramped, but she generally slept on him anyway and it was temporary. That wasn't really the main problem, the main problem was that being this close to him was driving her body crazy. The sparks she'd been pushing away for days catching like wildfire. She knew he was still far to hurt to do anything intimate with her, but by the Goddess she wanted him, a low, throbbing pressure between her legs building no matter how she tried to calm herself.

They couldn't do anything, she needed to calm down. 

It didn't help that she could feel him feeling the same. So far he'd been healing and hurting, and still he'd been more enthusiastic about his affections then she'd expected from someone with holes in their torso, yet he'd been pretty good about not pushing it, but tonight felt different. 

The faint snoring from the healer off in some other part of the building and the crackling fire were the only sounds, and she couldn't calm down... her mind kept wandering down lurid paths as she traced the ink on his skin. He in turn was gently running a hand up and down her back, occasionally kissing her head softly where he had his face half buried in her hair. 

"You're thinking too much." She mumbled against his chest, moving her head just enough to look up at his face. 

He glanced down at her, his eyes thoughtful, and just watched her. Expression going soft the way it did only for her.

 "What?" She asked warmly, smiling at him, yearning surging through her blood.

He gave her a faint smile in return but shook his head, letting out a long breath. "S'nothin." He said. "You're just beautiful." 

She cocked an eyebrow at him and he laughed quietly, the sound vibrating through his wide chest and into her. Bringing up his hand from its spot on her waist he brushed her hair back from her face, playing with it the way he did, fondly watching the strands fall through his fingers. She watched him in return, marveling at how much she loved this person. She who had determinedly needed no one....she needed him. Needed this, through the insanity this world kept throwing at her she needed his steady, loyal comfort, the grounding sound of his voice. Unable to help herself she reached up to touch his beard. Running her fingers through his coarse hair and up to his face, tracing the strong lines along his cheek and brow idly and loving the way his eyes closed in bliss at her caress, turning his head to let her touch flow across his skin. 

He made a humming sound in his throat, "You better stop before you start something huntress." He murmured, his eyes still closed. 

"You're too hurt for something." She said, fingers gliding down his neck and making him let out that low hum again. 

"I don't know about that." He growled, focusing his grey eyes on hers, his pupils dilated. His hand had gone back to her side, the slide of his touch more instant than before. "What if something was just kissing me?" 

She propped herself up so she could look down at him, rough fingers shifting to trace up her back, sliding along under her shirt and making her shiver. "Kissing rarely stays just kissing with us, as you are well aware." 

He was grining up at her devilishly, his eyes on her lips as he hummed in acknowledgment "So?" He said, "Us kissing has turned into something in a lot less private places than this." His limited healing allowed him enough movement with his left arm to reach up to hold the hand she still had laid on his chest, his fingers lacing with hers, eyes sparkling as she blushed. "Remeber the hotspring?" 

Oh she remembered...it was her turn to hum with longing. Those hotsprings just inside the Claims border had been anything but private...but somehow they'd managed not to be seen, or heard.... But that didn't change now, they couldn't. "You're injured Erend." 

He dropped the hand from her back, trialing it along her skin, down her shoulder blade and along her ribs, curving up, his fingers leaving her skin just bellow the swell of her breast, his hand coming out from under her shirt to slide up her neck, pulling her down to him and pressing his lips to hers. A firm, sweet touch that lingered, ringing out from his warm touch and straight to her core. 

"I'm not that injured." He whispered against her mouth, setting her a flame, the hair on her neck standing on end as an electric thrill shot down her spine.

She shouldn't let this happen... if he hurt himself because of something the did how would she feel? But then he was kissing her again, his lips warm and insistent, a slow, passionate pull she could never help but drown in. She heard herself moan, his tongue rolling along hers, and she knew they were gone. Pulling herself up a bit she broke the kiss, her forehead against his as she whispered back "We have to be careful.... and quiet." 

~☆~☆~☆~

His hand had already dropped back down her chest, massaging her beast through her shirt and making her gasp. Watching this he said breathlessly "Careful huh? Maybe I should just lay here and let you aah, do the work than?" His hand dropping lower he reached around her, grabbing her ass firmly. She was thoroughly worked up and she knew exactly what he meant. 

Not having a single issue with that she gave him a sultry look and twisted so she came to a kneeling position, glancing one more time at the doorway before shimmying her pants down over her ass, pulling one leg out so she could throw it across him, coming to rest on his lap, her bare heat throbbing at the contact with his pants and the chilly air. He was already ridiculously hard, his shaft trapped along her slit, his thin cloth pants the only thing between them. It made her wet, as it always did, that she had done that to him, made him feel that way, and she had every intention of making him feel even better. She gave her hips a little shake as she pulled the furs up to her waist, just incase someone did walk up.. and the movement made him groan, loud, gripping her hips and watching her with heavily lidded, hungry eyes. 

"Shhh!" She said, smiling and biting her lip as his rough palms glided over every bit of skin he could reach.

"Yeah we'll see who's shushing who here soon." His low voice growled out, grinding his hips up into her, making her pant, but not distracting her enough to keep from noticing his wince of pain. 

"Hey, alright stop." She gasped, pushing her hands gently against his chest to make him still. She leaned forward and kissed him slowly, bringing the pace back down with the gentle caress of her hands. Leaning back again she said softly "Let me." while shifting her hips back down his muscular thighs, hooking his waist band and catching his eye as she went. His breathing was shallow, watching her closely. Smirking she pulled his pants down, making sure not to hook his erection in the fabric as she pulled it free. She'd been watching his face so far but her eyes couldn't stay off his length as it sprang free. She loved his body in so many ways... but she loved his dick. She had been most surprised by that at first, that something so very foreign could elicit such a powerful reaction in her, but it did. Bitting her lip again she gave Erend a look of pure lust, heat coiled tight in her core and an ache so strong she could hardly stay still rolling up from her center. She didn't intend to use her mouth on him right now.... but still... 

Unable to resist she slid her knees back a bit more, ducking her head and licking up his throbbing shaft with the broad side of her tongue, Erend sucking air through his teeth as she did, her name tumbling from his lips in a desperate whisper. 

He tasted amazing.... part of her wanted to keep going, but it wasn't enough, they could do that later. Now she needed to feel him. It had been so long....and than this week not being able to even sleep at his side, much less make love to him. Now after all the stress and fear and all the missing him... she couldn't wait any longer. She needed to feel him inside of her now. His expression was telling her he felt the same, his hands reaching for her as she snaked her way up him, kissing his skin where the bandage didn't cover it as she went. He was panting now, his movements desperate as he pulled her back down to kiss him when she was close enough. Lost in the fire of him she tried her best to mute the needy sounds slipping from her unbidden. Arching her back she pushed herself back and down, keeping his lips locked with hers as she used one of her hands to grip him, a whimper sounding from her strong warrior of a man as he tensed beneath her touch, the sound going straight to her ego. 

She wanted more... emboldened she took his bottom lip in her teeth, tugging gently as she lined him up and began sinking her hips down over him, the blunt head of his dick rubbing pure ecstasy across her opening as she teased herself with him, making both of them moan far to loud. Chuckling breathlessly they shushed each other again, breathing hard and staring into each other's eyes as she moved herself back a bit more, pushing the tip inside. This intense, powerful feeling she got when they made love like this, slow and passionate, was a feeling she hadn't dreamed existed. There wasn't anything else but them at these moments, no one but him. Nothing of concern outside the safety of their arms. 

Leaning back she eased herself down, closing her eyes in bliss, the delicious stretch of him filling her in the deepest, most intimate way forcing a low moan from her chest that reverberated through her whole body. The powerful yearning she had was unbearable, the explosion of sensation washing up her body and filling her head with clouds of ecstasy. She wanted to get completely lost, but he ground up into her, lost in his own pleasure and hissed when his side pulled painfully, and even though his thrust had almost made her see stars she was aware enough to remember they needed to go slow. Taking an even breath she focused on her lungs, on the slow gyrations of her hips as she took him in, inch by inch. Focusing into her body to slow her rapid fire heart rate, just like if she were hunting. Opening her eyes she looked down into the steel colored eyes of her partner, the man she loved more than anyone, and felt another heady rush of heat, his handsome face reflecting the same need for connection that she too so desperately felt. 

She stopped her movements, settling down on his lap where they were joined. Bending at the waist she leaned down to kiss him lightly. The first warm, soft brush of his lips sending a shiver through her body she knew he felt, based on the way he sighed, his eyes losing focus for half a breath. He snaked his hand into her hair, pulling her head back a bit to look into her face. She watched him watch her, his eyes taking in her eyes and mouth, her freckles. He lingered on those, pulling her back down to nuzzle soft kisses against her cheeks, his lips tracing their way along her spots and making her giggle breathily, his mustache tickling the delicate skin of her face. He groaned into her temple, and she could feel his abs tensing beneath her fingers with the effort of keeping his hips still.

"Ssshhhh." She said again, straightening back up on him and bringing a finger to her lips, giving him a sinful look. Keeping her eyes on his she slowly raised herself up, descending even slower and reveling in the way he was now watching their bodies, his jaw agap and a look of sheer, agonized want on his face as she rode him gently. She kept her pace nice and easy, her hands rubbing over the uninjured parts of him, her passes as slow as the seductive twist of her hips. She could feel her climax building, the pressure in her loins steadily rising, and she was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to kiss him, so she did, leaning back down and kissing him deeply, her hips grinding against him. At this angle she was rubbing her clit against him where the base of his shaft connected to his pelvis, the friction sending immediate shock waves through her, her heat pulsing around him, sharing in her heady stiffled moans. 

Spasms rocked her body as she ground her way to her peak, losing all focus as she came hot and hard on top of him, her breath shuddering out of her as her body quaked. She kept kissing him as the initial wave of pleasure subsided, her body still aching for him, loving his hardness inside of her. She wanted him to cum, she loved that, pleasing him but also the act itself. It gave her such a strong feeling of oneness, of being linked on a deeper level than just their physical bodies and she couldn't really explain why. But she needed it. 

He was watching her with all the love and hunger she'd hoped for, his hands roving her body, gripping her just hard enough to remind her how strong he was, his powerful arms flexing despite his efforts to remain still. He gulped in a breath, and she saw a tremble run through him, the quiver running visibly down his arms, wide biceps and forearms shaking and making her mouth water. She took his hands, pushing them gently back down so he was resting back against the bed again, continuing the slow roll of her hips. Once he was laid back she leaned back down, this time to kiss the black line that ran along his body below his collarbone. He let out a pained groan, long and deep and full of want, his manhood throbbing inside of her and making her gasp. 

Goddess he felt good... so good. And he tasted good. His skin salty and tangy and such a uniquely him taste. She lost herself again, slowly trailing her way over the patterns on his body, alternating her lips with her tongue to kiss and lick her way across him, the way they both liked. He was a shuttering mess beneath her, his breathly groans and whispered sighs lifting her ever higher. Leaning back she bent her legs back at the knee, hooking the top of her feet over his thighs for stability, then she caught his eye, making sure he was watching as she caught the hem of her shirt and lifted, discarding the garment off the side of the bed, her nipples erect and perky, bouncing just a bit as she tossed her hair back, basking in the hunger on his face. His hands were on her fast, calloused fingers from years of work and fighting rubbing her skin in the most delicious way, but he winced again, dropping his left arm quickly and she slowed them down again, massaging her breasts herself and grinding slow figure eights against his lap, letting him drink in the sight of her but not letting him touch her, slapping his hands away playfully when he tried. 

A spark of that dominate fire she dreamed of flashed through his eyes, making her heat jump and him moan as her walls constricted him, in turn making her insides spasm even more. He wanted to do more to her, to speed this up and take his pleasure from her body the way she would usually be begging him to do at this point, and she wanted him too. But they couldn't, so instead she focused on her breathing, on the throbbing lust that was pushing her so close to her second fall. Watching him, smiling and shaking her head as he tried to slide his hand down to her clit and received another smack, his pupils blown wide as he growled at her, his hips quaking between her thighs. 

Keeping that same slow pace she brought her own hand down, slowly sliding through her curls and down to their sopping wet connection, circling his shaft with her finger before sliding it back up to touch herself, whispering darkly "I said, let me." 

He didn't know where to look, his eyes roving from her playing with her clit up to where she was still twitching and massaging her breast and up to her face, his face contorted in desire, ecstasy burning off of him and straight into her. He was close she could see it, and so was she, she just need a bit more.

Leaning her head back she groaned, using her leverage on his legs to slide herself up and down his length, winding her hips as she moved, finding a nice soft pace that she could tell he loved, his breath coming out in ragged gasps. 

His hands flew to her waist. The strong grip forcing her down and holding her against him, his hips jerking as his orgasm overcame him. She didn't let up the motions on her clit and that combined with the feeling of being pinned while she bucked against him instinctively, the intensity of his orgasm with the sensation of his throbbing dick, it all sent her tumbling again, her head lolling back as she panted and bit her lip hard to keep his name from spilling out.

Slowly they relaxed, his grip becoming loving, gliding over her to massage her trembling legs. Sliding up her body along side his eyes, drinking her in as he softened inside of her. Her eyes found his lips and she couldn't resist, the urge to kiss him far to strong. 

~☆~☆~☆~

They kissed that way for a minute before her pheromones calmed down and she realized she was very naked in a room that very much did not have a door, plus she couldn't hear if the healer was still snoring over her still pounding heart. This was enough to motivate her off of him and back into her soft sleep leathers, Erend's eyes already closed, a look of absolute calm on his face by the time she returned to the bed. 

She snuggled in under his arm, being pulled close and finding her place on his chest, his heartbeat in her ear. She wanted to tell him how badly she needed this, how he was the only one she knew, without question, had to be by her side through everything, but sleep claimed her before she could put her heart into words.

Chapter Text

He'd started refusing the Hintergold the morning they'd gone to see the Matriarchs, feeling the lulling pull of addiction his blood was far too inclined to lean into reaching for the floating effect of the plant. And he couldn't let that become a thing. Instead he'd been taking meager doses of Ember. The spicy herb less potent but less dangerous as well. Which was good.. but as a result his pain was now obvious, the throbbing ache of the healing wounds radiating out along his arm and back and souring his mood faster than a swig of rotten ale. Aloy had been the balm through the whole ordeal. The heart of his souls forge, burning out the steady pain until it was a dull shadow at the edge of his awareness. 

But she wasn't here to distract him from that this morning... she had gone off to do as the blasted Matriarchs had deemed necessary, taking Dran back to Roan and the others at the border. And he hated it. Hated being stuck here. Even if it had been highly entertaining watching the stocky man try to haul his still heavily bandaged leg over the strider, and fail, in several different ways. 

But far too soon he'd managed it and they were off, leaving Erend here at the gates staring after the speck that was Aloy, wondering what to do with himself. He was in too much pain to sit still, plus the damn stitches itched. But being up and about sent twinges of fire through his nerves... still, going back to the healers to lay around being uncomfortable and useless felt like the less appealing option, but what else was there to do? He was very aware of the Nora in his vicinity all staring at his back, they'd been doing so since he came up with Aloy, the usual crowd keeping their distance as they were prone to do when he was with their "Anointed", but not one of em having enough manner to keep their eyes to themselves. They certainly weren't thrilled to have him here, he could see the unease and it made him a bit tense, especially with his armor and hammer back at the lodge, not that he could swing it properly right now anyway... 

But he also saw some recognition from the faces he'd become familiar with, and he had been given the go ahead to stay.... 

Making up his mind to go forth and see what, hopefully benign, trouble he could get into, he turned and headed back into the village, no real destination in mind.

It took him very little time to realize that his initial assessment was correct, No one was thrilled to see the outlander, no matter how friendly the face he put on was. Still, plowing head long into situations and hoping for the best was his strong suit, so he kept on through. Eventually he'd wound his way around to some kind of industrial area, the smell of tanning hide and wood smoke strong in the air. This was better, people here were working and busy and he had gotten on well with most of the craftsman when he'd been here last. Maybe some of that had lingered. 

Turns out it hadn't, but being mostly ignored was better than being mostly stared at so he loitered around, watching the Nora prep pelts and skins, carving intricate wooden totems or hammering out machine plate for armor. He'd managed to waste a decent amount of time at this when he heard his name. 

"Erend!" The voice of Aloy's stitcher friend called. Turning he realized he'd walked right by him, ducked into the shadows of one of the fancy overhangs they kept over the tanning benches like he was. He stood and came over, looking smaller than usual in the pocketed leather work apron he wore, smiling and reaching out a welcoming hand, which he took easily. "How are you my friend?" 

"Bored and bothering your tribesfolk." He answered honestly, happy to have found a friendly face. 

"I can see that." He said in an amused tone, suddenly looking around. "Where is Aloy?" 

"She had to take one of my Vanguard back to the border, per your Matriarchs request."  He tried to keep the irritation out of his voice on that last bit and was pretty sure he'd managed. Looking past Teb he noticed a large pile of various kit and some tools arranged around where he'd sat. "Whatcha makin'?" 

The Nora turned, following his gaze before looking back to him, a quizzical look and a half smirk on his face. "I'm helping Dain repair and craft new kit for the braves, would you like to help?"

He slapped his pale little friend on the shoulder, grinning at him, thrilled to have something to occupy himself with. "Absolutely, tell me what to do." 

Teb set him to work, mostly fetching things and cutting or hammering out material, but he showed Erend some stitching techniques and let him give it a try on one of the armored pelts, the results definitely passable, even if they weren't as good as the others. He was proud of it anyway, stitching was a fairly common thing to know among the Oseram but not with any craftsmanship, it felt good to sharpen that particular skill. Teb was always good for a conversation as well, and when he had nothing to say he listened well. Over all he liked him, and he knew how kind he'd always been to Aloy, something he'd been a tad suspicious of initially... but had softened to once he met the man and saw that he truly was just a kind person. Teb had always been respectful to him as well and gone out of his way to be a friend to them both, which he appreciated even if it wasn't necessary.

He felt better, once it was all said and done. Making things with your hands did that, just like at the forge, and looking at the stack of now complete armor pieces his anxiety was considerably eased. He still wouldn't say no to an ale... but he felt good. 

Mostly good...

He was acutely aware of his injuries, the pain now cresendoing into a scream of pain all up and down from his neck to his hip. He'd been away from the healers for hours and his body was done, no matter what his spirit felt. There was nothing vague about the pain what so ever now, and he'd ignored it as long as he could. 

"Think I better get my ass back to Basha." He said, handing over the last tunic, now solidly stitched, another little burst of pride making it through the ache when Teb eyed it and gave the garment an approving nod.

"You are better at this than I'd have thought." He said happily, smiling at him. But when he looked over and took him in and his smile faltered, his face growing concerned, his pain clearly visible on his face. A worried note had crept into Teb's voice when he spoke "Will you be alright to walk back?"

"'Course." He said, he wasn't that bad. But when he made to stand he wobbled a bit, cursing himself as he watched Tebs face further contort with worry. "It ain't that far and I've been far more hurt than this."

Teb said nothing for a moment, looking at him with a thoughtful, worried expression as he turned to leave. Standing he followed, coming up along side Erend as he made the door and laying a soft hand on his shoulder, saying kindly. "I think I'll come along, say hello to the healers. I don't get over to say hello as often as I used too." 

He was torn between being irked at him insisting and thankful cause his knees still felt a bit jiggly. Looking out from under their awning he settled on grateful, as the town was still glaring daggers at him and he was feeling more hurt and vulnerable than he had earlier. Their stares flaring up a defensiveness in him, the kind that had him mouthing off and starting fights when he shouldn't, and he really shouldn't here. So it helped having Teb as a buffer. 

"You know the healers well?" He asked him, more to distract himself as he walked than anything, each step on his left side sending jolts of pain through him, making him grit his teeth. 

"I worked with them during the attacks, and when we attended the battle at the Spire. Basha wanted to keep me on, train me to do more than stitch wounds, but I didn't prefer the blood." He said squimishly, pulling a face. 

"Yeah the gore's not my favorite part either." He said absently, giving it everything he had to walk normal and not show his discomfort. 

"Says the man who smashes people with a giant hammer." Teb laughed. 

Okay fair point "Yeah but I don't stand there starin' once their smashed." He said, smiling despite himself. "And personally I prefer hitting machines." 

"I think Aloy told me something similar once." He said. "I can't say I prefer either option. Hence me not becoming a brave." 

"Aloy likes shooting anything dont let her fool you." He laughed. She didn't, she was kind to a fault, sparing lives he himself would have ended on the spot with a heavy swing and not a moments hesitation. But that didn't mean she didn't love the thrill of the kill. That murderous spark of battle that flickered through her eyes when a bandit set his aim on her was just about the sexiest thing he'd ever seen and he wouldn't have her as anything other than the warmaid she was. 

Teb was still chuckling. "I don't doubt that, I don't think I've ever seen her without a bow on her back, even in the village." 

"She hardly takes it off at home even." He joked. 

They'd arrived and if he didn't feel about to keel over he'd be disappointed to part ways, a good chunk of day still stretching ahead of him and his time with Teb had been good for his mind. But Basha was at the door with an attitude and a vial of Hintergold he had no intention of turning down, so numbing up and waiting for Aloy it was.

----------

The next day was spent sitting with Orlund, who had finally been allowed to wake properly, his intake of dreamwillow having been reduced. He couldn't speak, not with all the wrap and the hole in his neck that, thankfully, had missed anything real important. But they sat with the poor man, catching him up on everything that had happened and reassuring him. It killed him to see his friend like this, the man was brave and honest and everything a good Oseram should be, he didn't deserve this, but he looked glad at their company.. maybe.. it was hard to tell as glazed over as his eyes were.

Eventually his healer returned with another dose of Dreamwillow and they were shooed out of the room and left to wonder what to do with themselves.

Aloy was fairly certain Rost would be at the cabin, and wanted to go and see him there to pass the rest of the day. She wasn't aware he'd over done it yesterday, as he'd refrained from sharing that, but he remebered that treck and it was a steeper, longer hike than he really felt up to.... still, he wasn't about to tell those sparkling green eyes no. So off they went. 

Fire and spit the hike was just as steep and just as long as he remebered. Looking ahead at Aloy as she nimbly pranced her way up he tried to remind himself that her people did this type of crap all the time, this was no big deal. But than he'd have to catch his footing and he'd remeber exactly why his people did not do this type of crap.

He was sort of looking forward to seeing Rost however. Nervous too, as the three of them hadn't had much time to spend just them, but good nervous. So far he'd been heartened by the man's reactions to him, and whether he liked him or not, though he was inclined to like him, he respected him. Deeply, and he recognized that he was a person to pay attention to and learn from and those people were invaluable. Also he would hopefully one day be his father-in-law.... if he could stop being such a rusting coward about it.... 

But he wasn't there, and the fire was cold so he'd clearly been gone awhile. So they hung around and ate some rations, Aloy rummaging around in the Loft for some stuff she hadn't grabbed before. Thankfully one of these items was an extra shirt, as he was now down to one, his other so blood stained it'd become a lost cause. 

Begrudgingly they headed back, the descent far easier than the climb. But after returning they decided the lodge was too stifling, instead they snagged some more Ember, making their way back out and around the outside of the village towards the river. Heading for a spot they'd taken to visiting when they had free time during the rebuild, intent on enjoying the day and each other's company. The birds had left for the most part, flying to warmer places as the cold autumn of the Embrace hit, but today was bright and fairly warm, the remaining animals noisy in the dried grass and trees, their leaves rustling in the light breeze, snow bright in the shadow of their roots. Laying out they dozed in the sun, chatting here and there, Erend stretched out on his back, loving the easily weight of Aloy curled up at his side, her head on his chest and the musky smell of her hair soothing his senses. 

The sun slowly set to their left, the light fading from a bright, clear hue to a deep red orange flare, making his lovers hair glow at the edge of his vision, when he bothered to open his eyes. The closer the sun came to the horizon though the colder it got, and when he felt her shiver against him he sat up, reaching for the pack he'd thought to throw together before they'd set out, slugging back another vial of Ember and yanking the blanket he'd brought along from within.

"Look at you, coming prepared." Aloy said behind him, her eyes sparkling. She'd sat up as well, bringing her knees up and wrapping her arms loosely around them, watching him.

"Well one of us had to think ahead, it's cold out here." He said in a lofty tone, laughing at her indignation.

"Plus you wanted to snuggle." She teased.

"Also that." He laughed, hooking her waist with his good arm and pulling her over. She clambered over him, sitting herself between his legs and leaning her back into his chest, letting him wrap the blanket around them both, wrapping his arms around her as he did and nuzzling into her neck, making her giggle his name, the sound sparking down his spine. 

He wanted to keep going, the feel of her in his arms an allure he could never resist, but she stopped him, twisting so she could see him better. "Erend wait, I have something for you." 

"Oh yeah?" He said impishly. "Is it you? Cause that's pretty much all I want right now."

She bit her lip and gave him a playful look but shook her head, putting up a hand to block the kiss he was aiming at her jawline. He kissed her fingers instead, trailing down her palm and making her giggle again. 

"Erend stop! I'm serious." She said, looking at him fondly.

"Alright." He said defeatedly, still holding her tight. "What do you have for me?"

Her cheeks went pink, that lovely little blush making his skin prickle, becoming more and more distracted by the warm comfort that was her. He forgot so easily how small she was when she was her usual machine crushing, bandit murdering self, but when she was tucked in his arms it hit him hard and set off all kinds of warm, protective feelings. But she was set on whatever she had for him and leaned back, rifling through her pocket before holding out a closed fist to him. He held his own hand out palm up and she released what felt like a single shard, but it wasnt.

It was her trinket. 

Least it looked like hers, the shiny little triangle paper thin and delicate looking in his large palm. Glancing up at her he realized it wasn't the same one, as hers was still securely sat at her temple. Which meant..

"You have two of these?" 

"No. I have one. Eluthia has many though, and the last time I was there I remembered that I'd been wanting to grab one..." she looked up at him, a shy, delicate expression on her face "for you, if you want it.." 

It had never occurred to him to want one. It seemed like an integral part of her, but not something that could be seperatly used, even though he knew it could as Olin and those bastard cultists had all had one, but..... he looked back up at Aloy, a nervousness hanging around the expectant look she was giving him. This was important to her, and he'd happily take anything she thought to give him, learn anything she wanted to teach. 

"If you're giving it to me I want it, but, why?" He asked, feeling like he might break the thing if he closed his hand. "I mean, why do you want me to have one now?"

"Well it's a useful tool... you've used mine, you now it helps to show you things you can't see." He did know this, the one time he'd used the thing a stark memory of blue glow animals and people and crisscrossed lights. "And... I've added this Focus to my network." She said, looking at him like this should be a significant piece of information but it was eluding him as to why. Looking back and forth between his eyes she added "Which means we can talk to each other." 

Now that was significant.. if they could speak to each other through the device than "So we can talk while we're apart? This thing has that kind of range?" She was nodding excitedly along with his words and the crackling energy coming off her was feeding into him. "So we can just, click, and speak, even if your here and I'm in the Claim?" 

"That's the idea." She said breathlessly. "I haven't been able to test it really but.. I know it's worked for others."

That sounded like the second best thing to just never leaving her side, and by the forge was he ready for this. He grinned down at her, kissing the side of her face. "Well what are we waiting for? Let's give it a go." 

She was beaming and his heart was too big for his chest, but she shook her head, grabbing at him to keep him from trying to move.

"Let's teach you the basics first. It will make it much easier to test out any type of communication." She said, her voice trembling a bit with excitement. 

"Fair enough." He said feeling genuinely excited about this as well but more than anything loving how excited she was. This was part of her, something only she'd used for almost her whole life and it hadn't been something others had smiled upon, not something she could share. She was trusting him with this, and she hadn't even been sure how he'd react, he could see it, even though he'd always been open to what she had to say. That old fear was always there and it both broke his heart and made him feel more love than he could describe whenever she fought past that to trust him enough to let him in. 

Aloy had twisted back around, settling back more snuggly against him, happily instructing him as she clicked her own focus into life. "Okay, so put yours on and activate it and I'll show you." 

He did as instructed, managing not to jump when the little bit of metal snapped to his temple, but definitely jumping when the crisscross lights illuminated the world around him in a startling, domed array. He tried to glance down at Aloy but she was now an indistinct blue glow person so he went back to looking around, noticing a blue glow fox and then feeling off footed when he realized it was behind the rusting boulder he was apparently seeing through. 

"So, I'm not sure this will work but.... let me try something." She murmured, her voice pulling him back to reality, swishing her hands through the air and dislodging their blanket. Then she poked at something and he let out a yelp, a large rectangular double image of the world popping up in the top left of his field of vision. 

"What is that? What am I seeing?" 

"That's my view, so I can show you what I see on my focus, and you can copy me." She said, sounding shy again. "I can see what you see as well." 

"That makes sense, I guess." He said weakly, still trying to adjust to seeing the same surroundings twice, overlayed like some strange mirror. "You said Eclipse saw you through Olin's focus, I just didn't know if you could do that too or if that was some fancy trick of theirs." 

"I didn't know either.... but there was a little button that looks like two windows... so I thought it might do something like this, and apparently it does." 

Looking down at her he couldn't help but admire how clever she was, not just smart, though she was as sharp as a whip, but clever. She understood things like this trinket and all its ancient figures and meanings. She looked at little glowing lines and deduced their meaning, and a glowing pride was swelling up in his chest, choking him up for a moment. She looked back at him and he kissed her softly, trying to let her know what he was feeling right then. She gave as good as she got so she must have got the message, but once again she headed him off. "Okay stop, we can do more of that later I want to teach you this."

Then he opened his eyes and he could see her but also himself, looking bask at him from the damned floating box, his pulse jumping as the sudden image startled the hell out of him.

"Whoa okay, so don't look at me when we're doing this, that's too strange." He said, gently pushing her chin with his hand to get her to look back at the scenery. 

She laughed, taking and kissing his hand before shifting into serious, get stuff done Aloy and beginning her lesson. This Aloy never had time for his humor, no matter how charming and hilarious it was, so he buckled down and tried to master the urge to weedle more kisses out of her. 

She did some fancy movement with her hand and lights sprang out on her window, radiating out in a complex pattern not unlike some of his tattoos, which was mildly interesting and something he'd need to ask about, but then she clicked something else and glanced back at him, making sure to keep her head turned mostly away, and he realized he was supposed to be imitating her. 

"Uuhh... so can you do that again?" He asked, receiving an exasperated but still mostly fond look.

Turning back she repeated the process and watching what looked like magic he couldn't help but think he may have signed up for more than he'd bargained for when he agreed to learn this particular skill. 

But fire and spit did he love his teacher, so he'd figure out. 

Chapter Text

As of yet he'd not stayed to eat in the village. That still felt too... social, too close to his old ways. But despite what Teersa had said about him being able to take his time to re-enter the fold, the other Nora he'd been spending time with felt differently.

Sona had all but insisted he get used to joining them in a hurry, asking pointedly everyday since the meeting if he'd be staying to eat with the other braves, and both Aloy and Erend were in wholehearted agreement, pushing just as strongly, Aloy having offered to go with him several times. "Suffer it together" as she'd put it.

He didn't relish the idea, but after another day of being pressured by his Warchief as he attempted to assess a few of his new charges during their hunt, he gave in. Being to tired and hungry to refuse, the day run late into dusk while the braves lost their quary and he realized he'd have more of a challenge than he'd expected ahead of him with these ill trained young men and women.

Shaking his head he tried to clear the frustration of the day from his mind, the beads in his beard clicking. He'd worry more on that tomorrow, now he needed to focus on his breathing, the instinct to flee being within the gates brought on still fresh and still fierce if he allowed it to be. 

To stave off that feeling he looked around as he determinedly planted one foot in front of the other, taking in the simultaneously strange and familiar surroundings, still trying to commit everything to memory. Slowly replacing what was with this new reality of his. As new as the village was, the old paths and buildings rebuilt or reworked, he'd managed to learn the area fairly quickly, and he made his way from the gates to the dinner fire unnoticed, the lanterns that lined his path swaying, their soft glow dancing amongst the shadows as the sounds of many voices and laughter reached him from farther up through the chilly, dark village. 

The braves had taken a long table, and All Mother be blessed it was on the outside of the gathering, allowing him to slip in along the dim outskirts of the fire light. He spotted Sona first, nodding when she looked up, then he found the Oseram. He could see Erend clearly at the far end, as he sat taller than the surrounding tribesman, his foreign hair and bulk a stark contrast to the Nora, and if he was there than so was Aloy.

As if summoned by his thoughts Aloy's bright freckled face suddenly appeared around Erend, leaning back to see around him and scanning the crowd with her sharp eyes, spotting him almost immediately. Her wide smile bolstering him as he made his way to them.

She'd had the forethought to save him a seat and bring him food, anticipating correctly his dread at having to go to the crowded cook fire for his meal. A meal which turned out to be a stew he hadn't had since he'd been outcast. An overwhelming shock of both nostalgia and appreciation hit him as the smell of roasted boar and squash wafted over him. Something that must have shown on his face as Aloy was giving him a sparkling look, beaming as he took his seat to her left. 

"I'm glad you're here." She said warmly. "I was starting to think Sona was wrong and we'd come for nothing."

"Eating with your people is not for nothing Aloy." He said evenly, wishing he didn't have to say that.

She made a face, her tone dismissive. "Mmm, I don't know about that, but if you come more so will I." 

"I will keep that in mind." He said, feeling like he'd stepped into some kind of dreamwillow induced haze. It was so strange... being here, next to Aloy in the company of the tribesfolk... within a village. This was something he'd dreamed of for her. The smell of the food and sound of many happy voices, the voices of the people you belonged too, who belonged to you. He'd missed this feeling for her, having been deprived this herself. 

But that wish, picturing her here as she is now, relaxed and chatting while she eats among her tribe.... it had never included him. It couldn't. But suddenly the reality of it did, and it choked him up so thoroughly he almost couldn't eat. 

Almost. 

"So how was the hunt?" Aloy asked through a mouthful of stew. 

That deflated his daydreamy euphoria a bit "They used three hunts worth of arrows and brought down not half of the game they were tasked." He said with a sigh. It truly had astounded him... he had heard over and over how young they were, and Sona had elaborated, letting him know that they'd been allowed to run the Proving three years earlier than was tradition, some of them running only because it was what was needed and not because they wanted to become braves at all... but the lack of trained skill and worse the lack of knowledge of their ways had been shocking.. "They lack skills you had at half their age." 

"I told you it was bad." She grumbled. "I tried to help teach a few of them to shoot last time I was here and almost took an arrow to the knee. Twice."

"There is a girl, Liah, she can shoot. She has good form naturally, like you, but she needs practice." He recalled, running through the points he'd tried to remember for each young hunter. "The other two cannot... but one, Mald, he can track, surprisingly well for someone who can't aim.... what is it girl?" 

She'd put down her spoon and was staring at him with a look that was somehow both soft and intense. Shaking her head she said. "It's just...." she was hunting for the words, gesturing uncertainly with her spoon. "I'm just really...glad. For you... you deserve this." 

"I deserve whatever the Goddess sees fit."

She scoffed, rolling her eyes "Then I'm glad she saw fit to have you deserve this." Then paused, smirking and adding sardonicly. "I guess divine intervention would be required to help these braves, as bad as they are." 

"All Mother has her ways." He chuckled.

She gave him a steady look, that something he'd noticed before, something she kept from telling him, rolling around behind her eyes. That look always appeared when he mentioned the Goddess at length.... why? What did she know that she wouldn't say? 

He almost asked, as she looked about to tell, but then Erend's booming voice rang out as if he weren't sitting right next to them. "Aloy! Settle this, fastest way to take out a.. Rost! How are ya?" He asked happily, taking note of him for the first time and reaching around Aloy to cuff him on the arm.

At least Aloy had keen situational awareness...

"You shoot the blaze canister, obviously." Said an almost equally loud brave, turning her pale face to Aloy for confirmation. 

"I have no idea what you're talking about." She answered flatly, crossing her arms and giving Erend a look as he nudged her before speaking. 

"Rusting Bellowbacks! The flaming ones." He said, pointing a finger at the woman across the table "And you'll get yourself roasted trying to shoot them canisters." 

"Only if you're as loud as you Oseram." The brave replied with a smirk. 

"He's right though." Chimmed in a man to their right. "Better to hit the sac from afar, much safer." 

"It's only safer if you're out of reach, or you take it out with a tripwire first. Otherwise it will run you down before you can puncture its blaze stores."  Aloy said. "But you won't get much salvage." 

This set of another heated round of opinions that ranged from smart to amusing. He wasn't to the point of being able to maintain a conversation with a large group, the words just wouldn't form through the fog his anxiety filled his head with, but watching Aloy, an open expression on her face as she listened to the woman across from her argue her point, it made him feel almost at ease. He knew she was resentful of the people and he'd seen why... but he'd been afraid that was the only thing she felt for them. Seeing otherwise gave him hope that she may still be part of this place, may still want to be. Even if she only relaxed this way around a seldom few for now. Still, Aloy laughing and arguing along, watching her mate with soft eyes when he'd speak, occasionally turning and pulling Rost briefly into the conversation, an apologetic but determined look on her face anytime she did, it gave him hope. 

Shockingly Erend was the one who behaved most like he belonged. The stares he was receiving from around the space didn't go unnoticed by Rost, he himself receiving a few dark looks from some of the older, more...difficult Nora, but the man was acting as if it bothered him not at all, and maybe it didn't. He was speaking more enthusiastically than Aloy and had roped even more of the nearby tribesmen into the debate as the night went on, the topic moving from one machine to the next.

This was another thing to wonder on, he had been focused on Aloy coming home and put thought into Erend as to whether he would inhibit or encourage that, but not considered what he himself might do. But watching the two of them he couldn't help but think that the Oseram may not be too far off from chosing to be here himself, he would need to ask him sometime. But not tonight, and too soon she and Erend were wishing them a goodnight, the majority of the other people having finished and moved off, either going home or heading towards the large central fire to socialize. When they'd gone he stood, intending to excuse himself as well, but Sona had stood also, further along the now mostly empty table, and made a point to catch his eye. 

"I must speak to you before you go." The Warchief said evenly, "I have a question on the young braves." 

"Of course." He said, not really feeling up to it but not having the authority now nor the desire to turn down her request. 

She nodded and glanced at the people still sitting within earshot, considering as always. Then making a decision she started to walk. "Follow." 

He did as she asked and followed her away and down the path, noting that she was escorting him to the gate, which would have been where he was headed anyway. Good, perhaps this would be a brief conversation than. 

"Varl has sent word that there have been several unfortunate injuries among his braves at the border." She started with a heavy sigh, looking frustrated. Than catching his worried look she added "No attacks, just foolishness. But he will need to have their patrols covered while they heal, and I cannot spare anymore of my experienced braves." 

"So you want to send a few of the young." 

"Yes. Two of them. Who would you deem capable?" 

"You need me to decide that?" He asked, knowing full well she did not in any way need anyone to decide anything, but unable to help the retort. 

She cast him the closest thing to an amused eye that she ever gave, her tone clipped but not biting "No. I want to know if you are still capable of making sound decisions." 

He'd have thought that a return quip had it not come from her. She was serious and he took a moment to think on the decision. But he was interrupted by the sound of frantic footfalls coming up the path from ahead, a sound he'd become too familiar with as of late, his body tensing instinctively, ready to react.  Looking up he realized it was one of the young braves from that morning, Liah, looking upset and winded.  

"Warchief! They need you, another body has been found!" She looked stricken and sounded worse, a quiver in her voice as she spoke, breathing hard as she'd clearly run from wherever she'd come, her eyes afraid. Despite his keen attention to what she was saying he realized that this was her point to brace, she had skill, but she was fearful. Tucking this away he watched Sona square herself up.

"Breath girl! Calm yourself." She said sharply, advancing on the brave. "Where?"

"Up the path from Mother's Cradle." She stammered, trying to straighten her spine as her Warchief glared down at her, her chin up, the quiver of panic almost conquered. "Not far from here, I can take you." 

"No. Go to the healers and retrieve the Anointed." Sona said, then turning to him said simply "We must go." 

He wasn't about to argue. This was the first murder since they'd arrived, and he hadn't been able to be of much use in regards to this problem as of yet, so he was eager. Eager and worried, he needed to see what Aloy was dealing with, what she was facing so he could help and protect her both as best he could as clearly these attacks were not going away. 

Sona was quick, but his pride was too strong to allow him to slow them, so he hurried after her, focused past the angry needle spikes of pain in his joints. He'd pay for this later but he didn't care. Aloy and strangers were one thing, his comrade and now superior were another. The ache would be worth the damage his ego was avoiding.

Luckily the scene wasn't far. Just as the girl had said, it was right outside the darkened gates of an empty Mother's Cradle. Her tall, pointed fence looming like black fangs above those gathered. He couldn't see initially what was happening, there were three other young braves there blocking the view, huddled closer together than he'd expect for the weather, even if it was a bit cold. Perhaps Liah wasn't the only one whose bravery was their failing.. This thought was cut short as the braves parted, turning to receive the Warchief and himself as they came closer, all attempting to speak at once. The light of the moon was wane but enough, and the sight now visible between the braves made his stomach twist into sick knots. 

It was one body, the man a bit younger than himself and a face he recognized, having seen him several times out hunting while he'd been outcast and probably before. He was laying out in the dirt on his back, sprawled, blood pooled about his upper body from a slit in his throat. Aloy had said that was how the others had been killed as well, but this appeared to have happened here by the amount of blood spilled and from what he remembered the other scenes had been dump sites, not kill sites. This seemed more rushed, sloppy. That gave him some form of hope that they may find more here than they had so far. 

"Be quiet!" Sona barked, silence ringing out in an instant, all of them snapping to attention like scolded children. She had more to say to them, but his attention had shifted fully. Moving forward past the group he came towards the dead man, careful not to disrupt any marks in the earth as he did. Some of these looked like the kids movements, but there were others, a large swath of earth around the body disturbed in a way that suggested a struggle, a violent one. He crept a bit closer, as close as he was able, unwilling to disturb anything lest Aloy's metal world plaything could make something of it that his eyes could not, and crouched, looking the man over. His empty eyes were open to the stars, a look of surprise permanently etched on his now frozen features, for he was cold, the blood blackened and his skin rigid to his touch. He was hardly close enough to reach the dead, stretching out to his fingertips and balancing on the balls of his feet just to check how long he'd been here, but examining further he spotted the corner of what looked like Carjan silk tucked into the furs of the man's tunic. 

"Sona." He hailed, not taking his eyes off the anomaly, continuing to study the man, but hearing her approach as she finished the question she'd been asking of the braves. He felt her arrival and reached back a hand, offering it up to her from where he crouched. She took his meaning without explanation and dug her heels into the dirt, taking his hand and anchoring him so he could lean out further and retrieve the silk without disturbing anything. 

Once back she gave his hand a tug to help him to his feet, something he appreciated more than he let show as the muscles of his legs screamed and protested. It was indeed Carjan silk, the cream colored piece of fabric only a hands breadth in length, but stained with black streaks. Grabbing the other side of the cloth to hold it up he realized the stains were glyphs, a single word.

Follower

Looking up he locked eyes with Sona, a look of concern etched onto her face. Turning her dark regard back to the deceased she said quietly "This man's name was Tul..." She looked back to him, the concern deeper and her voice lowered, not wanting to be heard by the trembling Grazers behind them "Rost this man has never left the Embrace. Goddess protect him. This is not good." 

It wasn't. Not if those who'd never left the Embrace were now falling victim.... and the note.. looking back at the mess of blotches dread settled heavy on his heart. Follower.... he feared he knew what that meant, who that was directed towards. 

For the second time that night Aloy seemed summoned by his thoughts, her arrival announced by Erend, his heavy footfalls hitting Rost's ears, bringing his eyes up to her face, looking young and fragile in the moonlight.

A face he was now sure was being targeted for death for the second time in her short life.

Chapter Text

A small group of people came into view, standing around what must be the crime scene, though she couldn't make anything out from here, the moonlight not bright enough to see anything far off. Kicking up her pace she pulled ahead of her small group.  

Her heart was going to break through her ribs if it hammered any harder. 

Another murder.... right on the heels of the attack on the Vanguard... laid out only a few minutes travel from every other Nora staying in Mother's Watch. This was brazen... feeling like a direct challenge to her and the braves. 

She was past angry. She was furious. Furious and done with this... done with being in the dark while people died and whomever was responsible grew bolder.

She'd find something tonight. That was all there was to it... there were no other options. No other outcomes. There would be something here, something found. 

And if it was a person they would pay. Dearly...

Coming level no one spoke, Rost's concerned eyes stuck to her face, Sona looking as angry as she felt. They parted for her, but Rost held out his hand. 

Angry as she was she almost pushed it aside, thinking he meant to stop her, but she spotted the cloth at the last second. Giving him a questioning look she took the thing. Spreading it out as Erend's solid mass of a presence came up to stand behind her shoulder, looking down at what she could now see was yet another death letter, this time written on Carjan silk in ink, not blood. 

"Follower." Erend read the glyphs aloud "I assume that's referring to the dead guy? Following what, Aloy?" 

"Do we know who he was?" Aloy asked of no one in particular. 

"A man named Tul, one who has never left the Embrace." Sona said somberly, her face in shadow. 

Never left? Then why... "Follower" she repeated under her breath, moving forward and activating her focus as she went, the scene lighting up. "So now anyone who supports me is a target." 

People had been dying over a border issue before, now they were dying specifically because of her and that knowledge boiled hot dread out through her veins. 

"That may be true.." Sona started.

"It clearly is." She interrupted, her attention strained between the conversation and the jumbled mess of tracks and trenches carved all around the body. He'd been killed here.. overpowered. His throat slashed and then.... 

A set of tracks. A single set. Running hard up the path and out of sight. 

She was moving forward before thinking about it, but Erend had noticed her. "What do you see Aloy?" 

Snapping back she stopped, looking back and pointing along the ground, following the trail with her finger. "Tracks. Deep ones. I have to see where this goes. If.."

"I am coming with you." Rost said out of no where, moving to follow. 

"As am I." Erend added stubbornly, making to do the same. 

"Look no offense to either of you but I'm faster than you both, we don't have time for all of us to go." She said, her frustration building. She understood, knew they wanted to help, to have her back.. but that wasn't necessary.. she didn't need that. She needed to hurry the hell up and chase down this lead before the path went cold again. 

Her legs were already carrying her further along, not willing to wait. 

"Aloy." Erend's voice sounded behind her, agitation and worry warring for dominance over his tone. "Wait. It's dark and you don't know who's out there. All we do know is they're now after you."

"Everything is after me." She said, just as stubborn. "I'll be fine, you can follow the trail with your focus and catch up if you.."

"Aloy." He said again, a definite edge there now. Turning she looked at him, still several paces behind her, Rost at his side. There eyes met and time felt like it held its breath. She could see him, see what he needed from her here, to be careful, what she'd been asking from him. To wait and let them all help.. but....

She was careful... she'd done things a thousand times more dangerous, with no help at all. This was nothing and he was making a big deal out of nothing... and he was the one hurt, not her. Plus, if she caught these people, found something that led to catching them, they could go home, they'd both be that much safer.

He'd just have to forgive her later. 

"Erend. I'll be fine." Hurt sparked across his features at her words, twisting up right in the center of her chest... but this had to happen. It couldn't wait, and she could deal with whatever she found better not worrying about her mates current injuries. 

So she turned and pitched forward onto the tip of her toes, taking off like a bolt, focused on the purple traces dashing along the ground beside her and pushing anything else away. 

--------

The cliff was a sheer drop almost all the way around, higher than the last cliff her trail had ended at the foot of, but this one didn't continue up to a peak. Instead the land jutted back from the lip of the rock and back beyond her vision. 

She searched for a way to the top, eventually finding what could barely pass as a climbing route and hustling up. Her fingertips numb in the cold, a restless energy boiling through her veins and propelling her hand over hand. This was it. Her answers lay here, she could feel it. 

Cresting the top she peaked before yanking herself up, but no one was within view and a quick focus scan turned up nothing, her arms shaking as she clung to the clifface to keep out of view as she slowly turned and searched. Clambering up she looked around at the scenery better, the open space at the top spanned a few lengths in, rocky crags spiking all along the edge and up into more mountain beyond. 

But that's all there was... 

"No!" Growling in frustration she clicked her focus, searching for the trail, for anything. 

She found a single foot print. 

Right in the center of the area, pointing towards the rocks at the furthest point from where she stood. Her heart slammed into her throat and she bolted forward. Hands gliding over the cold stone in large searching arcs as she peaked around outcroppings and through cracks. She'd almost given up when the stone beneath her hand shifted. 

Stopping dead she examined the ground. It was grooved and rutted right at the base of the rock! It wasn't much taller than she was, or much wider, an oblong spire of pocked grey stone. Grabbing it on both sides she gave it a tug and was surprised how easily it came free, almost over balancing backwards, having pulled much harder than necessary to move the fairly light rock. Shifting sideways Aloy set it down, crouching to peer carefully around her door turned shield and into the inky dark of a small cavern beyond. 

The opening was small but large enough for a man to squeeze through if need be, and she couldn't yet see inside, but she heard no movement or noise of any kind from within. 

Reaching up she activated her focus and flipped down the tiny radial menu, turning on the little light at the tip of the metal device. It's bright, white light as harsh on her eyes as fresh snow in sunlight for the half second it took to adjust. Then the cave and its contents came more clearly into view and she gasped out loud. 

The tiny stone room was absolutely overflowing with items... boxes and tools and Carjan armor, red feather helmets thrown haphazardly in a large pile at one side, their gold plated siding glinting in the focuslight. Hardly able to breath, she moved slowly, forcing herself into the rhythm of well trained caution, her pulse hammering in her ears. She could see all sides of the cave, the slight opening she looked through sitting in one corner of the space. Starting along the left wall she searched the area with her eyes, the focus's scanning function not active while the tiny light was on. But there wasn't anything but rocks along the walls. Rocks and a vast array of clues she was itching to investigate...

Satisfied there was no one there she moved forward, slow and careful. All of it was here, the missing armor, a low bench and crafting table with silks and ink, wire and arrow shafts. There were signs of someone staying here, a small bedroll tucked to one side amidst the mess. 

She moved towards the little table, looking over the pile of tools. The tools were all Carjan... as was the ink and other materials. Yet the table itself was Nora made... that was odd. Why would a Carjan outlander... or any outlander for that matter, craft something from her people? Looking over she realized that the bench was of the same make, roughly hewn wood fashioned together with wooden pegs and wire wrap.

That didn't make sense, and alarms were going off in her head. Looking back a stab of blue caught her attention. Reaching under the table she felt the long thin shafts of arrows and knew before she pulled them out what they'd look like. 

Carjan military grade tip, shaft and binding... with blue tipped Nora flethcing. 

The same arrow found at the murder.

The blue was still there, peaking out from under the table, and looking closer she realized the dye had dripped onto the floor where the feathers had laid.. which meant the arrows were dyed here.... Looking around she found the small pot of dying pigment the tribe used for everything, stashed under a small satchel by the table. The satchel had a water skin in it but nothing else, a Nora waterskin, in a leather Nora stitched bag...

Something was wrong here...

They'd up until now assumed an angry group of Carja or other outlanders, maybe sophisticated bandits... but not another Nora.. maybe it was a a group of both Nora and Carja? That didn't seem likely... but a Nora being angry enough over the open border to stage something involving the Carja did... 

She needed to discuss what she'd found, tell Sona of her theory and get together a list of outcasts who could be at fault, start trying to round them up and question them. 

Giving the place one last once over she snagged up the satchel, adding in the dying pot and arrows to take with her to show the Warchief as well. 

Once outside she clicked off her focuslight, the dark terrain slowly becoming clear as her eyes took in the diminished light. While she waited she gave her surroundings another scan and was alerted to the fact that Erends focus was close, really close. Part of her wished he'd stayed back, but she knew he wouldn't.. and the other part was sort of glad of that, even if he was going to be livid. 

Sighing she made her way to the ledge, looking for a way down and determined not to lose her temper as he might, almost have a reason to be irritated at her over this... even though she'd found what she'd come for. Least mostly, finding a person would have been better but...

The sound of gravel shifting behind her sent cold, sharp adrenaline flooding her system, but whoever it was was too close, already on her and yanking her back by the bag slung over her shoulder. She snarled, trying to whip around but before she could manage it a strong hand slammed between her shoulder blades, ripping the bag off of her as she was shoved forward, her feet tangling as she was knocked off balance. She spun as she feel, catching site of a bulky black mass, hooded in pelts and backlit by the now spinning stars. 

Then, for not the first time in her life, the snowy world tipped, frozen stone and branches flying up around her at a sickening speed as she fell out into nothing, leaving a startled scream to drift on the wind.

Chapter Text

The purple splotches that were a mix of both the culprits prints and his stubborn woman's stretched on ahead in the snowy dark of the mountain this damn trail had wound up, right up to the base of a high clifface, higher than two Thunderjaw at least. And there it ended.

Stopping and planting his hands on his hips he tried to breath through the throbbing pain in his side, the stitch that was going amplified ten fold by the partially healed hole in his torso. He couldn't hear Rost anymore, but he was too rusting mad to care if he'd left him behind. 

How could she do that? Look him in the eye and just .. run off...He couldn't always help, couldn't always be there or have her back... but when he could, when they were together... they flowed.. they were a team, it was one of the things he'd fallen so hard for. That easy, perfect connection they had, like a sixth sense when they'd fight, when they adventured into danger. She said she had felt that too, had admitted it to him shyly one night before she'd been his and it had felt like the first stitch in his then bleeding heart. They'd promised each other more than this... when they'd decided to do this, knowing it would be hard, that their lives would always be full of danger. They'd promised when they could they'd always be there, always have each other's back.

Now he didn't know if that was still a truth between them and it felt like the sutures that connection and those promises had given him were being pulled out. 

Why did she have to insist on doing everything herself? Always? He'd understood when they'd met but he'd thought.. shaking himself he let out an exasperated growl, trudging forward through the thick drifts, his legs gone numb. It didn't matter what he thought... they could figure that out when he found her...

He was only a few hundred paces from the rocky base when he stopped again, looking up he squinted into the dark, trying to see through the snowy boughs of the nearby pines, their branches almost touching the cliff in some places, and the weird little crisscrossing lines were making things more difficult. Then he remembered he wouldn't need to squint to make her out cause she'd be lit up by the magic lights... By the forge he was too upset for this stupid trinket! He was hurt and hurt usually ended up just being mad for him, and right now he was pissed. Pissed and worried...

Scanning the surroundings at his level he didn't see anything but a racoon farther on. He'd tried the damn calling feature but it hadn't been able to connect or something..but she couldn't be anywhere else, she had to be up there...

Then he caught a bit of glow, visible just behind the lip of the cliff and approaching the edge.

And there she was, all blue glow light against the night sky, looking for a way to climb down it looked like, and instead of feeling relief his anger flared hotter, seeing that she clearly hadn't found anything she couldn't have waited on acting like a bellows to his hurt. 

Intent on waiting at the bottom and confronting her on her broken promise he took another wide step, tired of the snow and every other thing in this damn valley, when he heard her strangled scream and all his senses slammed to a halt and than kicked into instinctive overdrive. 

He couldn't see what had happened, but she was falling, and he was running.

Slidding to a halt he braced, widening his stance and arms just a moment before she made contact, her weight hitting his body hard with the force of her fall. It felt like metal burn all up his arms and shoulders, the pain almost blinding as they were dragged down into the snow, his boots sinking into the hard packed stuff under the fluffy stuff that went up to his knees, falling face first into the drift as her body collided with white and slammed them both flat. Arching his body he managed not to squish her, yanking himself back to try and see her and being pelted with broken branches and more snow from above. 

She was awake, dazed and groaning but alive and not any worse for wear from what he could tell at this proximity. Her hair bright as Ember in the snow. Panting he tried to shift them, pulling her further out of the deep trench they'd sank into, but almost fell forward again as she gasped, clutching at her side. 

Fuck. He needed to get them up and look her over.

Focusing into the back of his mind he willed himself up, gripping her under her shoulders and knees and forcing himself to stand. Aloy had come round and was hissing through her teeth but otherwise bearing the movement. Once up he heard footsteps running up and almost panicked, neither one of them in a position to defend themselves or eachother. 

But it was Rost, suddenly there, his bow at the ready, scanning the surroundings as he came into Erend's field of vision.

"What happened?" Rost asked sharply, his voice low, still scanning all around. 

"Up there." Aloy gritted out, "I was pushed."

She was trying to untangle herself from him, looking like she meant to stand and go after her attacker, something that was not happening after that fall, not with how she was clutching at her side as she tried to roll to her knees in the deep snow, him still being almost waist deep in the bank. Once she'd rolled free, clutching at her ribs as she panted, still kneeling, he pulled himself out. 

He was up and kneeling beside her in an instant. Rost hovering on her other side. 

"We need to get her back." He said, needing to take control of this situation and get her looked at now. 

"No!" Aloy protested, giving him a seething look. "Erend they're right there!"

"Do you honestly think whoever pushed you is just standing there waiting for us to come back up?" He barked out, he shouldn't yell, probably, but he was. "You almost died! You're hurt and we're going back!" She wasn't backing down, squaring up to argue some more but he'd had it. "You wouldn't let my ass bounce my way down a cliff and ignore my injuries to run back into danger Aloy, so why the fuck you think I'm about to watch you do that very thing I don't know but it's not happening." 

"Erend...."

"No! You can't even stand, and I shouldn't have to yell at you to take care of yourself after that speech you gave me and..."

"Erend!" She said more loudly, and he realized she was staring at his chest. Looking down he saw why. Bright red was seeping through the leather of the coat the Nora had lent him. The crimson spread staining his mood all the more. 

"Good. So you're hurt and my damn injury is slagged! Again!" He glared at her, having never truly felt this level of angry, not at her, and not sure what to do with it. And since he wasn't sure, it came out as defensive, bitter fury. "Good thing you're faster alone, right? That really worked out here." 

She looked stung by this and that shouldn't be satisfying but it was. Opening her mouth she almost spoke, and he was ready for it, ready to have this fight right here in the dark, snowy night. But then she snapped her mouth shut, dropping her eyes and grabbing her bow from the ground where it had come lose and fallen. 

"Fine." Was all she said, her voice low and emotionless, turning to limp her way back down the gentle slope towards the village. 

He let out a frustrated growl at the night in general, breathing out hard through his nose and running both hands over his Mohawk, feeling more emotionally wounded than physically. 

"Come." Rost said, nodding down the way Aloy'd gone. He was giving him what was almost an understanding look, but his features were too clouded with worry and maybe anger to really tell. 

Honestly he was still too angry to care. His furnace burning too hot to communicate effectively. 

So instead he grunted, marching off into the night after Aloy's limping figure. 

-------

"What happened?" Basha asked sharply, lifting and rotating Aloy's arm as she winced.

"I fell, hit a branch after the one I grabbed broke." She said, her tone cold and flat and looking anywhere but him or the healer, who was now holding up Aloy's tunic so she could poke and prod her ribs. He'd been avoiding looking at her too, knowing they were both teetering on the edge of saying something and wanting to get them both checked out first. Now he looked up and wished he hadn't, her skin already angry and bruised along a wide swath of her side. 

He let out an agitated snort, not meaning too, and almost immediately had her defensive green eyes on him, sending more anger snapping though him at the look she was giving him. She shouldn't even be hurt! Or angry! If she'd just waited... 

The words were right there but so was Basha, and he was still bleeding, so he snorted again and shook his head, looking away and feeling her anger surging in response to his reaction, almost wishing she'd go ahead and be the first to get this argument going as he was getting tired of this being responsible and doing what was smart crap.

"It isn't terrible, you may have a bruised rib or two but nothing broken." She assessed, using a small rag to dab into a pot with her free hand, slathering the pale goop on Aloy's skin. "This will numb it up a bit for now." 

Aloy didn't respond and he was considering the steel tip of his boots, hard, lost in his own pissed off mind, so he wasn't aware of the healer turning her attention to him until she was standing in front of him and making an impatient clicking sound as she eyed his bloodied clothing. 

"Did you come to the Embrace specifically to injure yourself repeatedly?" She spit, pointing to the chair she'd just vacated, indicating he sit. The chair was right next to Aloy and that was pissing him off too, so he made a bit of a show in yanking his shirt off, having doffed the stained coat when they'd arrived, and hooked the chair with his foot as he did, pulling it forward and giving them both more space. 

"I didn't really have a choice." He said shortly, catching Aloy looking at him from the corner of his eye. Glancing over he met her gaze, her eyes snapping up off the retorn wound under his collar bone, looking for the first time to be anything but angry and defiant. Looking upset. 

Part of him didn't want her to feel that way, but a larger part of him really, really hoped she felt like slag over it, and maybe that wasn't fair but hell if he didn't feel like slag himself so...

But then she looked just pissed again and they were right back to glaring at each other before dropping their eyes. 

Basha made quick work of his wound. His muscles were pulled from his fingertips to his shoulder blades, but he hadn't hurt his side any further. So it was just his shoulder wound that required more stitching, which hurt worse than usual as he had again refused anything more than Ember, this time to avoid any grogginess when he and Aloy could speak. The wound was angry and she slapped a large amount of goop over it too when she was done, a bit of relief cutting through the burn, the healer wrapping the aching skin back up, peppering him with more choice words that he wasn't at all listening to. 

Then she was gone and they were alone, the tension in the air palpable. Finally he heard her sigh, and that tiny part of him that wanted her to apologize instead of fight with him over this flared with hope. 

"You should have stayed back." Was all he got. 

Looking up at her disbelievingly he tried hard to remember in that moment how much she meant to him as he sorted out a response. "I saved you.. what would have happened if I had stayed back, huh?" 

"I would have heard my attacker coming but I was paying attention to you showing up." She said scathingly, her words burning in his chest. What was wrong with her?

"If you hadn't run off alone you'd have known I was there and wouldn't have been surprised. And I don't know that you or I believe that anyway! Whoever pushed you got real close, real quick and you didn't see it, whether you want to admit it or not, me trying to be there to help and protect you, like I'm supposed too, didn't make you miss a rusting thing!" He had turned in his seat to face her better, sitting on the edge of the bed with her arms crossed tight. But she jumped up at his words, pacing like she did when she was frustrated. 

"You always want to protect me Erend, but I dont need protecting! Didn't have anyone protecting me while I was fighting against the Eclipse!" She said determinedly. She was wrong, and it felt like she knew it but this was slag. 

"You don't think I don't know that? You don't need protecting, but I want to protect you! I know I'm a useless bung half the damn time but dammit I can fight, I know what the hell im doing out there." He snapped back "and you might not see it that way but you sure as hell had help at the end with that demon Aloy, you didn't do that alone! And I covered you then not knowing you were the most important person in the world to me."

She was quiet for a moment, looking frustrated. Then said in a low voice "You're not useless... ever. I just... too many people have been hurt trying to help me, and you.." she shook her head, "I can't let you get hurt when you don't have too..."

"You don't get to make that call." He growled "Look I get you don't have a lot of experience being anything but alone... but you chose to be with me. To be my partner and you dont leave your partner behind like you just did me!" 

"I did what I had to do, I came here to solve this and I didn't ask you to come." She spat, not looking at him. "If I had waited I might have lost the chance to figure this out."

He felt like he'd been slapped. "No. You didn't. But you're damn lucky I did or they'd be pulling your frozen body down that mountain." He growled, feeling so much angrier than he should. Or maybe not, maybe this was the right amount of angry for once. "And until you can look me in the face while you say it, don't tell me you couldn't have found the same thing if you'd waited, because that's shit and we both now it!" 

He didn't want to feel betrayed but he did, just like he had with Ersa. He felt betrayed and was left wondering what he really meant here and this shouldn't be how it is between them but it was, and it hurt. He wanted to go back to thinking they were a team but it didn't feel like that anymore and he didn't know what to do. He was scared... scared of loosing that connection with her, scared of loosing her because of it. What if he hadn't found her today, hadn't run up just in time? She'd be gone and the last thing she'd have done was run away from him. 

"I'd have figured it out." She said sullenly, ignoring the second half of what he said and further fueling his feeling of being right on this. 

He couldn't believe her. "You'd have figured it out? Really? You look me right in my eyes and leave me behind, then I get hurt saving your life and all you can say to me is that?" That stung, deep. "You promised we'd have each other's backs? What did that even mean to you?" 

"We do have each other's backs. I was having your back. You're hurt, you didn't need to make it worse following me.." 

He stood, kicking the chair back in his haste to get to his feet. "You made it worse and don't you dare blame it on looking out for me! You just didn't want to wait, your lead was too important! Do you know what it would have done to me to be left behind and lose you?! You don't think maybe that's an experience I don't want to live through twice?" She snapped around to face him, a look like she'd just realized exactly what she'd done suddenly appearing, but why? Why hadn't that occurd to her before? 

"Erend I.." but it was too late, he was on a level of mad he hadn't hit in a long, long time and all he could see was red. 

"Don't! You wanna run all your little missions solo. Fine! But I'm not gonna get ditched and watch the woman I love get hurt or worse, Aloy, I'm not!" He had thrown the stupid bloody coat back on, having no real destination, especially this late in this village, but knowing he needed air and to move his legs before he said something stupid, and knowing it'd be cold and that would just make everything worse.

"You need to rest." She said, though not making any move to stop or follow him.

"And you needed to wait but you didn't." He snarled back, not looking at her but stopping at the rooms entrance and adding "I understand not wanting me to get hurt, I don't ever want you to get hurt either, but we're supposed to be a team, and we promised each other different than what happened tonight!" 

And then he was storming off and out of the lodge, the words they'd spoken replaying in his mind on an angry loop to the rhythm of his footfalls as the cold air hit his lungs, doing nothing to cool his furious fire.