“Hey, it's going to be alright.” Aloy's gentle voice breaks through my thoughts, prompting me to cease anxiously fidgeting with my bandana.
“I'm fine,” I respond with a half-smile, “just nervous.” Nervous does not begin to encompass how I feel.
It's been nearly four GAIA years since I last saw my family – since I left without saying goodbye. Determined to pursue a fiery-haired heroine, I'd told them my intentions to become a traveling herbalist – and they'd forbid me from leaving. Little did they know to that lengths Teresa Lairde would go to follow Aloy of the Nora. Under the light of a shrouded moon I'd crept away from my homeland, plunging into a world whose intricacies I'm still struggling to fathom.
In disobeying them I may have forfeited any right to their presence, yet the desire to reconnect has gotten stronger over the past few months. Curiousity and concern for their well-being are major contributors – but really I just miss them. Generally I'm too busy to give the feelings much thought. Despite the unrelenting and often chaotic reality of being Mated to a woman critical to the preservation of existence, I love the life I share with Aloy in the Living GAIA project. It's not easy, but it's rewarding. I support the important restoration work by ensuring a stable and healthy environment for its participants. Most notably my Mate of three years, Aloy, the Lead Administrator.
She's the reason I'm here, standing in a shadowed corner of the shanty town in Meridian Village where I grew up. Aloy knows the importance of family. Our core team in the project has become the only family she has, one she would fight till the bitter end to protect. My recent tendency towards reminiscing and telling stories about my youth has led us to this moment, Aloy's warm hand resting securely in my lower back.
Both of us are wearing concealing cloaks. Although we don't show our faces in public often, almost everyone is familiar with Aloy from her close association with Sun King Avad. When we do need to move around a heavily populated area we usually go concealed to avoid unwanted complications. Today, however, my aim is to be recognised. Around this time my family makes their way home after a day at the market or in the wilds. Given how we parted, the most I can hope for is to not be verbally flayed on site. Ambeth might speak to me, but it's been so long...
“There,” Aloy whispers.
Activating my Focus I see three figures approaching. One is pulling a cart, the same old contraption my family has transported herbs in for as long as I can remember. My father is pushing it, my mother on his right. A boy is behind her.
Teve? He's grown so much since I saw him last. My little brother is now almost as tall as my mother, his body lanky yet strong.
Aloy takes my hand and I squeeze it before letting go. I need to face them alone. She remains hidden on the other side of the street from my family's home as we agreed. I lower the hood obscuring my identity and step into the dusty street.
My throat is tight, all moisture seeming to have drained into my feet. The lamps overhead don't illuminate the allies or corners but should be enough for them to see me by. My mother's body jerks – her gaze fixing on my face as she stops mid-stride. Teve runs into her and then my father looks up to see what has caused the hold-up. I can tell both my parents recognise me. My hair is longer and my face has matured, but I'm still Teresa. Still the daughter who abandoned them to chase a legend.
I want to say something - can't find the words. Don't know if I could say them if I could. Although Aloy's several steps behind me the knowledge of her presence helps keep me strong. Now I understand what she means when she says knowing I'm there for her is enough.
My father, Hapath, is the first to react. He takes another step, the cart creaking along behind him. I feel nauseous as he approaches. His expression has never been easy to decipher and this moment is one of the most important in my life. How he reacts will shape how the rest of my family responds.
Part of me senses his intention to walk by, ignore the daughter who betrayed his trust and abandoned her family. When imagining this moment I'd thought myself capable of handling the rejection. Shrugging my shoulders and going back to my life with Aloy and GAIA. I had not anticipated how violently the encounter would affect me. The fact that he might refuse to see me, his own flesh and blood, is unbearable.
“Greetings Hapath,” my voice is low but clear, “Man of Many Paths, Who Married a Woman of the Sun, Tender of Herbs, Father of a Trouble-Seeker.” These are his Banuk titles. I've heard all of them over the years, yet the last was never formally added. It is the first Banuk title I ever received, followed by Guide to the Mistress of Machines and Machine Singer. Using his titles are the only way I can think of breaking through to him – of convincing him to let me in.
Hapath, the father who sat me on his knee in our tiny kitchen and showed me how to separate blossoms from leaves, pauses. Maybe I imagine the twitch at the corner of his mouth. The emptiness of his expression presses on my heart. “Why have you come back?” He asks gruffly.
His tone causes pain to lace through my chest, the chance for forgiveness slipping farther away. I cannot deny that selfish interest is what led me away from my family. And now, selfish interest has brought me back – hoping that an explanation might make it all better.
“I wanted to say I-,” the words catch but I push through my feelings, desperate to say what I need to while he's listening. “I love you. I love you all. Father, mother, brother. I'm sorry I disobeyed you and left Meridian. I needed to go – I wish I could have said a proper goodbye.”
Mother and Teve are now standing before me. They're so close I could reach out and touch them. My fingers itch to do so yet I cannot deny them the first action. The air is thick, making it difficult to breathe. I can see moisture sparkling in my mother's eyes. My brother knows who I am but doesn't know me. The crushing weight of what I've lost causes tears to cascade over my cheeks.
“Teresa,” one of my father's hands is tilting my face up to look at him. His thumb carefully traces along my jaw, the familiarity of its warm roughness spurring a sob past my lips.
Suddenly warmth is all around me - firm arms and familiar smells eliciting memories. Scenes, words, emotions. My family... they're embracing me. There's still unhappiness, they may never get over my betrayal, but they've offered me a chance.
The torchlight seems dimmer when we pull away from each other. One of my mother's hands remains around my waist, unwilling to let me go. Teve looks awkward yet there's a small smile on his face. It makes me laugh, the sound choked.
“We're surprised you have time for us,” father states, the words edged with accusation.
“You make time for what's important,” I reply, grasping father's left hand to keep him from pulling away.
“Is it true you're Mated to the woman heading the Sun King's farming operations?”
Mother's description of the Living GAIA project makes me smile. So that's what they're calling it on the streets. The project's secrecy means that I've heard a lot of creative names. Of all of them, this one is perhaps the least embellished.
“It is true, mother. Her name is Aloy. Would you like to meet her?”
Interest, surprise, and uncertainty wash over her face in rapid succession. The mix is so achingly familiar new tears come to my eyes.
“We are not in any state to be hosting important guests,” father says but even he cannot fully hide his excitement.
Smiling, I reply. “Aloy doesn't care for such formalities. She would like to meet you.”
After another show of reluctance my family agrees. One quick touch to my Focus and Aloy is pulling away from the shadows. Although I can't imagine how it's possible I fall a little more in love with her as she lowers the hood of her cloak, revealing a wild mass of red hair, ribbons and braids. Lines are faintly visible at the corners of her eyes and mouth as she steps up beside me, extending her hands to my parents with poise and friendliness.
“It's a pleasure to meet you. I am Aloy, Nora warrior, Machine Whisperer, Connector of Tribes, Slayer of Corruption, and Dedicated Mate to your daughter Teresa Trouble-Seeker.”
I can tell my family is impressed by Aloy. Her confidence is tempered with experience interacting with people from all across the land, high-born and humble. Despite the ease with which she adjusts her actions to suit the audience there's still an otherworldly essence to her, as though she's larger than the world she inhabits.
It's a weight she's born as long as I've known her, but she didn't always bear it so gracefully. Pressure to fit the expectations placed on her took a toll on Aloy's well-being and when we met she was searching for meaning beyond the role she'd inherited. By the grace of the Sun I was able to help her find inner peace. Now that responsibility is merely part of who she is, not the sum of her worth.
My parents share their titles with her and suddenly we're being ushered forward into their home. Nearly everything looks exactly as it did when I left – there's a basket and stool in the far corner that's new – but its familiarity causes a strained kind of pleasure in my chest. Some of the awkwardness fades the longer we talk, exchanging news and reminiscing about past events. Aloy's presence eases the lingering resentment and the mood is largely one of celebration.
I learn that Ambeth is Mated with one child and a second on the way. Despite the late hour, Teve is sent to fetch her and the small living space becomes even smaller when she, her Mate - a man I recognise from her excursions to the Tailor district - and their son enter.
Ambeth bursts into tears as soon as she sees me, strong arms pressing me against her protruding belly. “You fiend! I knew you'd go off pursuing some fox but of course you'd pick one leagues above your station!”
Laughing through my own tears, I revel in Ambeth's warmth as Aloy leans forward. I know the look on her face and prepare myself to be utterly embarrassed.
“Teresa may have been born to a humble station but she has a spirit to rival the brightest of the Sundom.” The determined glint in her eyes dare anyone to challenge her. No one does.
The mood reaches a new height fuelled by Ambeth's energy, questions traded like multi-coloured bundles of Lady's Lace. At some point a tray of food appears, the aromatic spices rapidly sweetening the close air. I'm so caught up in talking that I forget its existence – until Aloy places a pastry oozing with fruit paste against my mouth. The resulting smile comes effortlessly and I don't hesitate to take the morsel from between her grasp.
Our eyes lock, the weathered tips of her fingers grazing my lips as she slowly pulls them away. I begin to chew yet barely register the flavour, ensnared by the warm pools of hazel that have darkened with intensity. The corners of Aloy's mouth curve ever so slightly, my breath catching as the familiar rush of heat rises in automatic response.
When we look up from each other we catch the room in a moment of silence, each of the occupants observing us with intent interest. My lips quirk in a self-conscious smile but I feel no embarrassment. Aloy pointedly ignores the attention, deft fingers reaching for another treat. Face lit by a playful smirk.
The show of such affection from an acclaimed warrior seems to make Aloy more approachable, my family steadily engaging with her more directly. Ambeth in particular displays an interest in my fire-haired mate, her nervousness overtaken by rabid curiousity. When I look over during brief pauses between conversing with my mother about the state of the district, my heart warms at the sight of Ambeth, bouncing her firstborn on her knee, and glowing with her passion for conversation. My sister's face shifts between utmost seriousness – likely in discussion about economic affairs – and excitement as she speaks of her family, recounting local anecdotes or regaling Aloy with stories of my antics as a child. Teve's snickering as he listens in draws the room's focus and, to my horror, soon everyone is contributing to the archive of embarrassing tales.
Despite my chagrin, Aloy's deep, rolling laughter is worth every ounce of shame.
We turn down the offer of a make-shift bed in the small building, Aloy cementing my family's respect for her by offering gifts of fine cloth and expertly crafted tools. Ambeth does not hesitate to enfold Aloy in her arms, and when Aloy returns the gesture with a comfort I've watched grow in our time together tears once more prick my eyes. Father, mother, Ambeth and Teve gather me against them, the embraces loosened with comfort. Father and Teve shake Aloy's hand but mother cautiously brings her close, leaning toward her ear as she stiltedly enfolds her daughter's chosen mate.
The night is at its darkest when we leave the flickering torchlight of the market district. Although I could use my Focus to watch the steadily shrinking shape of my parent's home I merely walk with chin titled over my shoulder, their waving forms disappearing amid twisted metal and flapping fabric. Only when I can no longer see the familiar shape I used as a landmark when returning from countless foraging trips do I fully turn my head forward.
The vast dunes and spindly grasses are suddenly awash with memories. Snippets of a different time return to me – of a little girl who ran amid them, learning the crags and nooks of precious herbs and the best places to find shelter in case of a sudden sandstorm or hostile presence. The wind is like whispering ghosts, Aloy and I's steps swallowed by its endless whine through imposing stone formations.
I feel an arm slip around my waist and automatically lean into Aloy, one of my own drawing our bodies closer. Neither of us speak for several more moments, the barest sliver of moon casting dim flickers across the shifting sand.
“They loved you,” my voice is soft, a caress that eases through the warrior's barriers to reach her heart. Because even now, after years of building her inner strength and confidence with people, I know Aloy still carries that anxiety. The fear that people will see her merely as a figure of acclaim or something to ridicule. I've been plagued with nerves about this reunion, yet I know she's been just as afraid. She's tried to hide it, be a pillar of support for me... but I've seen it in the subtle lines around her mouth. A distant darkness to her eyes. She doesn't have to tell me she's afraid of being an obstacle between me and my family. Or that she's afraid she'll always be treated as an outsider.
“Ambeth especially,” I giggle and Aloy's grips tightens. “No matter how intimated the rest of my family may have been, Ambeth's openness helped show them that, beneath those shrouds of legend, you are just a person.”
Aloy's teeth flash in a smile that causes my heart to skip – and suddenly I'm pressed against a stand of boulders protectively tucked into the shadows of surrounding hills. My hands find her waist and despite my surprise I draw her nearer. Suddenly famished for the taste of my beloved. But Aloy isn't kissing me. Her eyes are bright with familiar hunger, but she's holding back, long fingers weaving amid my short locks. Expression ripe with ardour – and a devotion that steals my breath.
“...everyday you give me something precious,” her fingers graze the side of my head, gradually sliding down to cradle my ear, “today was supposed to be about you.” There's a slight tremble between our pressed bodies. “You reuniting with your kin.”
Her voice is like a haunting melody, stirring an ache in the very core of my being. I raise one hand into the small of her back and begin rubbing. Noting with pleasure how it causes her to relax.
“Yet – here again... you've offered something I'd thought I didn't need -,” she shakes her head, brow creasing for a moment, “something... I thought I'd already found.”
Our eyes meet and it's a whole new level of depth. The connection of two women who've endured numerous trials at the other's side. Created an indestructible bond with labour, passion, and more love than either of them could have fathomed.
Aloy blinks – and there's a glimmer amid hazel. My other hand tangles in stunning coils of flaming hair.
“You... are my world, Teresa.” She draws closer and my eyes flutter. The heat of her spice-scented breath caressing my lips. “Thank you – for giving up yours... for me.”
I claim her lips in a kiss that shakes the length of our bodies. An incredible, heart-wrenching, softness amid the flurry of desire. Our moans erupt together, hands finding well-known knots and ties until our skin is burning against the other's, trading nips and caresses in a dance of ever-shifting balance.
The cool desert fades into a distant awareness of drifting sand and rough sensation. Aloy's breaths and mine indistinguishable, her taste searing my tongue. At some point we flip positions – the warrior's naked body glistening beneath phantom light – and I hold her gaze. A gaze whose intensity no longer intimidates me.
I trace a trail of scars and freckles to a straining nipple. Aloy's pinned by my waist pressed against hers, one arm held crooked over her head by a dark hand. Hammering beats vibrate through my limbs – blood heated with the energy of youth, yet imbued with the tenderness of familiar intimacy. Aloy's eyes are beacons of fire, air issuing in ragged pants as my tongue swirls – flicks. The hand on her hip falling to curve round flesh before burying in a bundle of curls.
Every motion is acute – her free hand slipping between us to nestle within my own damp folds – yet the flashes of intoxicating lust are the background beat to which our bodies pulse. Stroke – swipe – suckle – caress. Its rhythm connects us over the years, through thousands of moments, each drawing their essence from that initial surrender in a cave of artificial creations. When my life had already been irrevocably changed, yet my fledgling leaves had barely felt the touch of sunlight.
The vigour of our ardour keeps our motions steady but there is no flurry of a snatched moment. I peer into the layers of her emotions as she peers into mine. When I played among these hills and bushes there was never a flicker of imagining the path I would choose to follow. With my ears full of breaths and desperate utterances I watch tears spill over my beloved's cheeks, that tangle of far too many burdens giving way beneath the affirmation of my unshakable fealty.
Aloy's name slips like a prayer of gratitude from my lips, stars tinted in gentle colours bursting behind my eyes. Waves of release ripple to every corner of my being, our fingers weaving the essence of each other along heated flesh. She kisses my cheek, my nose, my forehead and then my mouth, the chuckle catching in my throat as I'm consumed by the magnitude of her affection.
“I... used to be terrified of belonging.” Aloy's forehead presses to mine as she speaks, the world once more narrowed to the fathomless depths of her eyes. “Even – even after realising my drive to know where I came from was rooted in the desire to feel part of something Greater... I feared what that belonging would do to me.” Gentle fingertips move along my collar, Aloy's other hand possessively holding my waist. “I thought... I'd have to give up who I was... or no one would truly accept me.”
My own digits move through her wild locks, offering the support I know she needs in my attentive presence.
“That... is what nearly killed me when I began working to restore GAIA,” my grip tightens, “and the guilt of my failures led to my use of Twilight Nightshade.” Her fingers catch hold of the pendant hanging at my throat, the tiny stone fossil unassuming in appearance yet deeply significant. “Every thought and action was focused on trying to be what the world needed me to be.”
My fingers drop to the cord at her throat, sliding between carved bone symbol and a fossil akin to my own.
“From the start...,” she whispers softly, “you saw me as just a woman.”
I grasp the hand at my waist and bring it up between us. Holding liquid hazel as I place a kiss to each knuckle between words. “You – were – always – more – Aloy.” She shivers and I curl around her protectively. “I did not know exactly what helping you would involve,” I speak gently, conviction underlining every utterance, “but I knew I'd do anything to make you happy.”
Aloy swallows, moisture shimmering in her dark eyes. Our hands clasp tightly and once more I am staggered by the vulnerability in this incredible woman. A woman who took on the demons of multiple worlds, never thinking she'd deserve to be happy in any of them.
“It is not selfish to desire another's understanding – to desire being surrounded by people who may not always agree with you, but whose support is unwavering.” My voice is tender yet firm, embodied with hope that each time I say it a little more of her will Believe. “Family can be a powerful thing, but its bonds are not exclusive to those forged by blood.”
Her head falls forward and I instinctively tuck it against my neck, a posture that she still treats with almost heart-breaking reverence. “I couldn't have done this without you,” my cheek presses into her frizzy hair, “thank you for pushing me.”
A light kiss tickles my skin and I smile into the darkness, perfectly content in this moment that is just us.
“Does it... make you miss living here?” She asks after a while, when we've sunk onto a shared bed within the sheltering forms of formidable boulders.
The finger traversing her toned body's hills and valleys pauses near her navel. “In a way...,” my gaze shifts from her pale flesh, traveling over the contours of the plains before us, “it brought back memories of shared meals, playful antics, and comforting familiarity.”
Dark forms are all that I can make out, their shapes ambiguous in the faint illumination. “Growing up - I used to imagine being so many things. Never committing to one of them.” Leaning back, I let my head rest on Aloy's sturdy shoulder, eyes turning up toward the sky. “The world seemed vast... limitless, yet also undefined.”
My eyes remain open but lose focus on what's in front of me. Following the trail of my thoughts as though watching them play out. “Living here was simple. I did what was expected of me.” Inhaling brings in the scent of a dozen different plants I recognise. In the distance I see the flash of roving machines and feel the sting of moisture behind my eyes.
“Sometimes – I wonder what I would have been.” My grip tightens around the arms enfolding me. “But there's never any doubt, Aloy.” My tone is hard. Built from years of unfailing conviction. “Being here – seeing my family – it's a precious feeling.” Blinking, I let the tears run down my cheeks. “But it wasn't here that I realised the Teresa I could be – the Teresa I wanted to be.”
Tilting my head, I press my nose to her cheek, chest filling with a scent more comforting than any wild space. “When I left that life behind I believed home was a place.” One finger catches and holds the pale digit that had been caressing my arm. “But for me, home is a person.”
Her gaze becomes staggeringly soft, a hint of dampness on her parted lips. “I would love to come back here sometimes, spend more time with my family.” My breath catches for a moment – the light of a hundred stars shining in Aloy's beautiful eyes. “But wherever you go, Aloy, I will follow.” One of my hands cups her freckled cheek. “Never will you walk in darkness -.”
“For my love will bring ever-lasting Light.”
Our smiles grow together, bodies melting into one as contentment wraps around us. We renew our vows with adoring whispers and reverent touches as I bury myself in the warmth that is Aloy - heart spilling forth colour that rivals the morning sky.