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We Know Who Our Enemies Are

Chapter Text

The sun was just reaching the apex of the sky when the distant beating of drums reached Aloy's ears.

Abandoning her task of gathering greens for supper that evening, Aloy straightened from the squat she had been in and listened carefully. They sounded fairly close - not within the Embrace, but not too far outside of it.

Although she had never heard that particular cadence on the drums before, Rost had been drilling it into her head since she was a small child. It was a dire warning that meant danger was near, and all Braves were expected to head towards the nearest village to receive orders, as swiftly as their feet could carry them.

She worried at her lower lip, uncertain if she should run back home to Rost, just in case. Even with their hut being as far into the Embrace as it was, there was no way he couldn't hear the furious beating of the drums with how the sound was echoing off the mountains and throughout the valley. He'd be expecting her.

But then her ever-present curiosity started to tug at her, and her eyes drifted to the path that led out into the rest of the Sacred Lands. Before she could give the matter much of a second thought, Aloy set her basket of gathered plants down in a patch of unfortunate daisies and let her feet lead her towards the nearest road.

"I have my bow if anything goes wrong," she muttered under her breath, reaching up to brush her fingers reassuringly over its smooth metal curves. "It's probably nothing more than a small raiding party of bandits."

Still, it was always better to ere on the side of caution - another one of Rost's lessons. Aloy couldn't help but grimace as she ducked down and began to creep forward. Her adoptive father would be furious with her when she got back home, but she'd deal with it like she always did when her adventurous nature got her into trouble.

Besides, after living her entire life as an outcast in the confines of the Embrace, could he really blame her for wanting to at least observe something interesting for once? Especially now that she was eighteen - an adult by Nora standards and eligible to run in the next Proving. For the umpteenth time, she cursed her unfortunate birthday, mere weeks after the annual event was held. If she had been born just a little sooner, she would already be a Brave and perhaps even know the truth of her origins.

Shaking her head, Aloy put those thoughts aside as she neared the gates guarding the entrance to the Embrace. It did her no good to dwell on what wasn't, so she focused on what was ahead. And froze when she took in the scene in front of her.

The gates were open. And there wasn't a single Brave in sight.

Uncertain, Aloy shifted on her feet. On one hand, something could have gone horribly wrong - she had never once seen the massive walls left unguarded, let alone opened, and uneasiness sank into the pit of her stomach. On the other hand, however, it was an opportunity to sate her curiosity, to learn what lay beyond those walls. An opportunity she may not ever have again. Besides, what if someone needed her help? Outcast or not, surely no one would complain if she came to their aid, and her skill in battle was as refined as any Brave's. She had been training her entire life for this, after all.

Making up her mind, Aloy tilted her chin up and squared her shoulders. A quick look around surely couldn't hurt, then she'd go back home and deal with the consequences.

As she stepped over the threshold, her heart pounded so furiously she briefly worried that she would pass out. Aloy drew in a deep breath, willing herself to calm.

She had crossed over, now outside of the protection of the Embrace for the first time in her life.

Her eyes darted about as she took in her surroundings, swallowing hard when they settled on a black cloud of smoke sluggishly rising in the distance. If she strained her ears enough, she could just make out the sounds of battle, the desperate screaming and whistling of arrows. The war drums were louder now, so she hastily stepped off the road and melted into the protective embrace of the foliage. It would do her no good to stand in plain sight, gawking like a fool.

Ironically, the early spring forest was tranquil, the ceaseless pounding of the drums muted by the ancient trees. Birds flitted about, chirping brightly at their mates, and a startled rabbit dove into the brush when it caught sight of her. A cheery group of buttercups swayed gently in the breeze of a clearing not too far ahead, lit by a couple of lazy sunbeams filtering in through the sparse trees. Aloy finally allowed herself to relax. Whatever was happening seemed to be far from her, and she suddenly felt rather silly for worrying.

Regardless, it was probably about time to head back. Once she finished checking out the clearing first, of course. Perhaps she could gather some flowers to brighten the hut, to lessen the sting of the inevitable tongue-lashing she knew she'd be receiving from Rost.

When she reached the treeline, however, anxiety began to tighten its hold on her, gooseflesh prickling at her forearms. Everything in her told her that something wasn't right and, never one to ignore her instincts, Aloy stilled and lowered herself to a crouch. She glanced to her right, then to her left, her heart lodging in her throat when her eyes caught on a dark form.

There was a man standing in the clearing with his back to her, and he didn't look like any Nora she had ever seen.

Black plated armor threaded together by red twine sat on his shoulders - wide shoulders that connected to powerful, bare arms corded with thick muscle, promising deadly strength. A large hand clutched at the hilt of a wickedly curved blade, and she had to gulp back bile when she noticed it glistening with a dark sheen of blood. A plume of crimson feathers spilled from the back of his headdress, and Aloy would have thought the whole ensemble ridiculous if it had been any other situation, if the freshly killed body of a Brave wasn't lying brokenly at this warrior's feet. As it was, panic clawed at her belly, and she took an automatic step back - right onto an unfortunately placed twig. It buckled, then broke, the sharp snap echoing through the peaceful quiet of the meadow.

The man tensed then slowly turned to face her. His features were mostly obscured by the half mask of his headdress, but she could just make out the gleam of pale eyes as he sneered.

"Well, what have we here?" His voice was deep, almost conversational in tone. Aloy's hands immediately flew to her bow where it sat on her back, and she had an arrow drawn and nocked before the man could so much as raise his weapon.

"Ah, ah, little huntress," he tutted, taking a step towards her and lifting his blade. "Let's not get in over our heads."

"Not a step closer," she snarled, backing away from him further. "Or I'll shoot."

Cold amusement flashed in those eerie, dead eyes. "So fierce! I had heard tales of the Nora Braves, how they allow even women to join their ranks. With spitfires like you, I'm beginning to understand why. It seems like we Carja could learn a thing or two from your tribe."

"Stop talking," Aloy bit out, drawing her bowstring back further. She wasn't certain why she was hesitating, why she didn't just loose the arrow she had aimed at his ridiculously unprotected chest. "And fight me."

"How rude! You wound me," he pouted, placing a hand over the broad span of his bared chest, where some sort of bird-like symbol was painted. "But as much as I would love to see your battle dance, fierce one, I won't fight you."

Confusion welled up in her, but it only stoked the flames of her anger. "Why not?"

"Outside of war, I only fight evenly matched opponents. A personal honor code of sorts," the man explained, giving a loose shrug of his shoulders that only infuriated Aloy further. "And you, girl, are no match for me."

White-hot rage tore through her, and with a strangled cry, she released her tightly drawn arrow. When he dodged out of its deadly path with a smooth, practised motion, she threw aside her bow and lunged at the man. Naked shock widened his eyes to an almost comical level as she crashed into him, sending them both tumbling to the forest floor. The impact from his head hitting the ground sent his helmet flying, and as Aloy pinned him to the earth with the weight of body, her eyes met his. She couldn't help the sharp exhale that escaped her.

He was younger than she had expected - most likely around her age, if not a couple years older. Those eyes - lined on the lower lids by strange, dark markings - were the most striking shade of grey she had ever seen, closer to silver, and something in her gut clenched as they regarded her cooly. Pale lips sitting beneath a regal, straight nose were framed by a neatly trimmed black goatee, matching in color the undercut hair he had tied back in a tight bun. Unbidden, she felt her cheeks warm, and the man had the audacity to grin at her.

A couple of seconds later, Aloy found herself lying on her back, staring at the canopy of leaves above. Taking advantage of her momentary lapse in concentration, her opponent had flipped their positions, hooking his legs in hers and rolling her as easily as if she were made of air. That stupid, infuriating grin was still plastered on his face.

"Like what you see?" he purred, bringing his lips to her ear. "If it was a tumble in the brush you wanted, you should have just said so. I'd gladly partake, especially with a beauty like-"

He was cut off by Aloy's fist connecting with his cheek. His hand darted out as quickly as a striking snake, grabbing her wrist before she could get in another blow. The sound of his harsh, mocking laughter filled her ears, and in that moment she wanted nothing more than to end this man's life.

"Have it your way, Nora. If it's a fight you want, it's a fight you'll get. Don't say I didn't warn you."

Aloy was just barely able to dodge the punch he threw her way, and with a furious yell, she shoved at him until he was knocked off balance. She was able to wriggle out from underneath him, and potent adrenaline surged through her as she leapt to her feet and bolted for her bow. She swooped down to grab it, continuing to sprint for the treeline all the while. The heavy clanking of the soldier's armor sounded behind her, much closer than she had anticipated - how had he already closed the gap between them so much? But despite the nagging of her inquisitive nature, she didn't look back, willing her legs to move faster instead.

There was no time to activate her Focus and search for a path, something Aloy lamented as she crashed blindly through the brush. Thorns and branches lashed and stung against her skin, opening numerous tiny cuts, but she was numb to everything beyond her determination to put enough distance between her and the man to buy her time to draw her bow. One look at his heavily muscled form told her she couldn't beat him in hand to hand combat, but there was no better shot with a bow in all the Embrace, so she could at least even the playing field.

As the trees began to thin out, the already rocky terrain became more and more treacherous, so she chose her steps with care. It wasn't long before she had to skid to a stop, for in front of her loomed a massive, yawning hole in the earth with no visible bottom. As she flailed her arms in order to maintain her balance, a few loose pebbles kicked up by her feet flew into the void, and seconds later she could hear a distant splash as they made contact with the water below.

The pounding of footsteps sounded from behind her, and Aloy barely had enough time to whirl around before she was thrown to the ground. The force of her impact on the rocks below stole the remaining breath from her lungs, and as she lay there wheezing, a wild glance to her side told her that she had come mere inches from probable death.

"Are - are you crazy?" she gasped out. "We could've...could've fallen into that pit!"

A bloodthirsty sneer was splitting the soldier's lips, and those lifeless eyes bored into her with so much intensity Aloy had to turn her face from his.

"Such pretty prey," he crooned, and Aloy gulped as the cold edge of his sword dug into the sensitive skin of her neck. "Don't worry - I'll think fondly of you, little huntress. I'll remember exactly what it was like to steal the light from your eyes."

In a last, desperate attempt to preserve her life, Aloy wrapped her fingers around the blade, hissing as it sliced through her flesh. Blood immediately welled up and dripped down thickly to stain the material of her shirt - at the sight, a momentary lightheadedness washed over her, but she forced herself to stay conscious. The man's eyes flicked down, dilating until the grey was almost entirely consumed by black, and his tongue darted out to wet his lips. Aloy used this moment of distraction to her advantage, and, winding her free arm back, she jammed her elbow so hard into his ribs she could've sworn she heard them crack.

An animalistic howl resounded from him, and his grip on his sword loosened enough that Aloy was able to wrench it from him and fling it off to the side. With the last of her waning strength, she wrapped her arms around him and threw him towards the depths of the pit.

But his awareness returned long enough for him to latch back on to her as he tumbled over the edge, and then she was falling, hatred twisting her features as she stared at the man above her.

Instead of mocking triumph or even potent fury mirroring her own, panic flared to life on the soldier's face, and at the last second he squeezed her tightly to his chest and flipped their positions mid-air. Before she could react, or even begin to think about why he had done something so stupid, something which could easily lead to his death, they slammed into an outcropping of rock.

The man let loose an agonized scream, his hold on her instantly dropped, and Aloy found herself flying through the air until her shoulder smashed against another rock. Something deep within her crunched, the excruciating pain radiating out from the spot nearly blinding in its intensity. The shock from her plunging into ice-cold water was the last thing she felt before her consciousness winked out.

Chapter Text

When Aloy came to, she was very cold and wet, her clothes so soaked that they clung to her like a second skin. A plush bed of greenery cushioned her, despite a cursory glance confirming that she seemed to be in dimly lit cave. Pain pulsed in a ceaseless rhythm throughout her entire body, from the sting of her hands up to the almost unbearable throbbing near her left shoulder.

When she attempted to move her arm experimentally, stars swam in her vision, and she gave a stuttering gasp. It felt as if someone were slicing into her with a knife.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Aloy jumped at the sudden voice cutting through the quiet of - wherever she was - and as her eyes settled on the source, the events of the last few hours came rushing back to her. Fury boiled up in her gut until she jerked away, biting back a cry of pain when her shoulder protested again.

"What, come to end me now that I'm entirely helpless?" she snarled. "I'm surprised you didn't try to kill me in my sleep."

"Easy," the soldier said, raising his hands as if he were calming a startled animal. Clutched in his long fingers was a jaggedly torn length of purple fabric. "I think your collarbone broke in the fall. I was going to put your arm in a sling before you woke up, that's all."

"Don't touch me!" Aloy snapped, sitting up and leaning as far away from him as she could manage. "I don't need your help."

"Yes, you do," he replied matter-of-factly. "That arm isn't going to be functional for another several weeks, and until then, we're stuck here together."

"Not if I have anything to say about it." Aloy attempted to rise to her feet, but a wave of dizziness swam behind her eyes. She stumbled, then sank back down to the ground, right onto an bush of wild roses.

He raised a brow at her, and Aloy huffed indignantly.

"I don't need help from some - some murderous bandit!"

The man recoiled as if she had struck him, and his steel eyes glinted dangerously at her in the dark. "Call me that again, girl, and you'll see just how murderous I can be."

It was then that Aloy noticed how drawn his face was, how much the black of the odd markings beneath his eyes stuck out against the pallid backdrop of his skin. Beads of sweat clung to his temples, and she watched mutely as one broke free and carved a wet trail down the angle of his cheek. Instead of being tied back, his hair was now loose, the silky black strands falling to frame his face and making him look younger, almost boyish in appearance. Her gaze swept over the rest of his bulky form, face warming when she realized he had stripped off all of his armor which left him in nothing more than a thin, knee-length skirt that was as waterlogged as her own outfit. She stopped when her eyes landed on his lower right leg. It was bound in a splint made of scrap metal and the same sort of fabric he held, and understanding dawned on her all at once.

"Your leg is broken," she said quietly. "It's not that you want to help me, it's that you need me to help you."

"We need to help each other," he corrected her. "I don't relish in this any more than you do, Nora. My place is out on the battlefield, cutting down my enemies in a glorious spray of blood, thriving among the arrows and chaos."

"You're disgusting."

He only shrugged at her, smirking in amusement. "Yes. But you can also call me Nil."

"That's not your real name," Aloy said flatly.

Nil's laugh was surprisingly warm, and something in her stomach twisted at the sound. "No, it's not. But tell me, little huntress, would you give me your true name?"

At her silence, his smirk grew. "I thought not. But is there something I can call you by?"

Aloy stared blankly at him, until he sat back with a roll of his eyes. "Fine, then. I suppose I'll have to get creative. No great issue for me."

He tilted his head, his expression growing serious and his voice a touch softer when he said, "Now, may I please take a look at that shoulder of yours? Unless you want it to chance it healing incorrectly."

Instead of dignifying him with a response, she angled herself so that her left side was facing him. Carefully, Nil reached out to her. When his fingertips brushed over her skin, Aloy couldn't suppress the tremor that coursed through her. He paused.

"Does it hurt here?"

"My entire arm feels like it's going to fall off," she hissed. "What do you think?"

"Temper, temper," he muttered under his breath. "She spews fire like a Bellowback. Maybe that's what I should call you."

"Don't you dare," she said, offended despite not even knowing what a Bellowback was - not that she would ever admit that to him - but there was less conviction behind her words than before. She couldn't quite seem to focus with his hands on her. Most likely from the deep sense of disgust she felt, she reasoned, or maybe the bone-chilling cold sinking into her from her wet clothes.

Nil hummed thoughtfully before giving Aloy's arm a sudden, quick tug. Hot agony lanced through her torso. Out of pure reflex, she swung her other arm around and slapped him straight across the face. He didn't so much as twitch from the blow, only eyed her balefully.

"Well, definitely broken," he said, rubbing at his reddening cheek absentmindedly.

"Don't do that again, or I swear I'll-"

"Kill me, yes, yes." Nil was already busy tying an intricate-looking knot into the dark silk, and he examined the makeshift sling briefly before holding it out to her. "I'd ask if you need assistance, but I think I already know the answer to that."

Aloy snatched the sling out of his grasp with her right hand, unable to prevent the whimper that escaped when her fingers closed around it.

"You should really let me take a look at that one too."

Stubbornly, she ignored him, carefully looping the fabric over her head and around her neck. With as much care as she could manage, Aloy lifted her other arm into the cradle of the sling. By the time she had arranged it properly, sweat had broken out along her forehead, and her fingers were trembling. Nausea churned in her gut in response to the near-blinding pain radiating from the broken bone, and she had to close her eyes for several seconds to hold back to urge to vomit. When she opened them again, Nil was staring at her.

"Let me see your hand," he said, his tone brokering no room for argument.

"Fine," Aloy moaned, too sick and too exhausted to bicker with him anymore. She'd figure out how to get rid of him later.

She didn't expect him to be as gentle as he was when he grasped her hand in his, and her heart stuttered in her chest as warmth from his heavily callused fingers seeped into her own. From beside him, he produced a moderately clean-looking cloth soaked with water and began carefully dabbing at the wound.

"That was very smart of you," he said after a few minutes, glancing up at her with a wry smile.

"What?"

"Distracting me the way you did." Nil finished cleaning the cut and started wrapping more silk around it. "You picked up on what would catch my attention, and my ribs ache deliciously from the bruise your elbow gave me. Very clever."

"My only regret is that I didn't run you through with your sword," Aloy muttered sullenly.

He snorted, giving the cloth a final pat before dropping her hand. A chill overcame her, and although she tried to keep steady, shivers still wracked through her body.

Nil frowned. "You need to get out of those clothes, huntress. We're barely out of winter, and I know what a harsh mistress she is in these lands. You'll freeze, and that will do neither of us any good."

"Not a chance," she said, cursing herself for failing to keep the shakiness from her voice. "If this is some sick ploy to get me into bed with you, it's not going to work."

His expression hardened, and what little friendliness and light remaining in his eyes died away until they were as flat as they had been when she had first encountered them.

"Let me make this very clear for you. This is about survival, nothing more. If you die, it's likely I will too, so I need you alive, and that means removing your clothing so we can share heat. I can get a small fire started, but it won't be enough to stave off hypothermia. I'm aware that trust is rare to find, but I can assure you I am a man of honor and my word, and I will not touch you beyond what is necessary."

Frustrated tears pricked at Aloy's eyes. Deep down, she knew he was right, knew that they needed to rely on each other, but she couldn't reconcile that with the fact that he was the enemy, with the fact that he had tried to kill her mere hours ago. How many innocent Nora had he slain to get so deep into the Sacred Lands? How many more lives would he have stolen away had they not fallen down here?

It felt like a betrayal to everyone and everything she had ever known, but Aloy forced herself to nod. She could almost see Rost in front of her, his kind eyes creased with disappointment. He would likely want her to go down fighting, to protect the tribe - it's what he would do in this situation, after all. But Aloy wasn't him, and more than anything, she wanted to live. It wasn't the selfless or noble choice, but after the way she had been treated from birth, outcast as a helpless infant, did she truly owe the Nora anything, much less her life?

"I'm glad you're capable of seeing reason," Nil said dryly, and Aloy wanted desperately to snap back at him, to hit him again. But she held her tongue and stayed her hand. If she had to be stuck in this mess with this monster of a man, there was no need to make things more miserable than they already were.

At least he hadn't tried to kill her again. Yet.

While Nil turned to figure out how to get a fire started with their limited supplies, she tugged off her boots one-handed, tossing them aside. Her movements were stiff and mechanical, and she kept her eyes stubbornly trained on her hands and her task as a blush crept up her neck. How much more humiliation would she have to endure before this was over? He was at least giving her the dignity of privacy, refusing to look her way as he fiddled with one of the numerous leather pouches looped to his belt. Aloy forced herself to draw in a deep, steadying breath as she hooked her trembling fingers into the hem of her pants and pulled them off as quickly as she could.

A burst of warm air gusted over her back, and she craned her head around to see that Nil had been successful in bringing the fire to life. It was small, but it crackled cheerfully, lighting the stony walls of the cave with a warm, welcoming glow. Now that they had more light, Aloy took a moment to study their surroundings. Curiously enough, they were enclosed by a triangular arrangement of what appeared to be prairie rose bushes, and in the middle sat the oddest looking device - metal and distinctly flower shaped - and Aloy made a note to examine it later with her Focus. For now though, she scooted closer to the fire, its heat abating her uncontrollable shivering somewhat. Despite the dire circumstances, a tiny smile touched her lips, and she closed her eyes, savoring the much-needed heat.

"I can help you with your top now," Nil offered.

Instead of the acerbic reply she would have given him minutes earlier, Aloy dipped her head in assent. There was no way she'd be able to get her shirt off with her injury, and she reminded herself yet again that this was about practicality.

Dragging himself behind her, Nil gripped the first layer of her clothing, then paused.

"Is this top layer necessary?"

"Why?" Try as she might, Aloy couldn't keep the sharpness from her tone.

"Because I don't see any way this is coming off without being torn," he said. "You're lucky your undershirt laces up, or I'd have to cut that from you as well."

Aloy clenched her jaw so hard her teeth creaked. "Do what you need to and nothing more."

A moment of fumbling later, Nil was sawing with the coarse fabric with something sharp, and it wasn't long before the sopping fabric loosened on her chest. Deft fingers unlaced the ties of the second layer, and she relieved when they didn't linger unnecessarily.

"I'm going to try to be gentle about this next part, but it still might hurt."

"I can handle it."

True to his word, Nil was cautious and careful as he pulled the remnant fabric from her. Still, when he shifted her left arm to slide off a sleeve, Aloy had to squeeze her eyes shut as tears welled up, and it was from more than just pain this time. Although she had broken bones before, and as distant as he tended to be, Rost had always been there to dress her wounds and comfort her in his own way. Her heart ached with longing as she thought of her adoptive father and home. Never before had Aloy felt so alone and afraid, and all she wanted was to be back in their cozy hut, wrapped in the snug comfort of the blankets on her bed, just waking up from this horrible nightmare. Instead, she was trapped freezing and half-naked with the enemy somewhere beneath the Sacred Lands she wasn't supposed to be in in the first place.

"Done."

Swallowing back her misery, Aloy turned until her eyes met Nil's, and she found a small measure of comfort in how he kept his gaze staunchly fixed on her face. She allowed herself to relax, just a bit. Perhaps he had been truthful about his honorable nature after all - maybe she could at least trust him with this.

"How, uh," Aloy licked her lips, averting her gaze. "How are we supposed to...you know..."

"Chest to chest is best for sharing warmth," Nil said, raising his hands innocently when she shot him a glare. "Hey, I think it's less awkward than spooning. Unless you'd prefer that."

"Of course not!"

"Then chest to chest it is."

Aloy's eyes widened and darted away again as he laid down beside the fire and began to pull off that skirt of his. Despite not being religious in the slightest, she fervently thanked the All-Mother that the impressive blush she was definitely sporting was hidden by the low light of their surroundings. She could hear him shuffling around as he placed their soggy clothing out to dry by the fire, then a few moments of silence passed before he cleared his throat.

"Come here." Nil's voice was thankfully devoid of any suggestiveness or teasing. Keeping her eyes from looking anywhere but down, Aloy hesitantly crawled into his opened arms.

She couldn't help the gasping sigh of relief that escaped her as her skin pressed against his. He was so warm, way warmer than she had expected, and Aloy instantly caved to the instinct that demanded more. She couldn't put her arms around him, so instead she huddled as close to the soldier as she could get. Nil's breath danced over her scalp as he chuckled softly and tucked her head beneath his chin.

"There you go, little huntress. Take what you need."

It was a dangerous thing, to allow herself to feel as safe and as comfortable as she did right now. But she was so tired, and with his arms wrapped carefully around her and his palms stroking at her back, Aloy found herself beginning to care less and less. The heat emanating from his body was lulling her into a drowsy sleepiness, and she had to stifle a yawn against him.

Nil's hands ceased their motions, and Aloy chanced a glance up. Their eyes met, her breath catching at the stormy intensity of his gaze. His lips parted as if he was about to speak, but instead he snapped his jaw shut and pressed her head back against his chest, where his heart thrummed against Aloy's cheek as rapidly as a rabbit's.

"We should both get some rest."

"Yeah," she murmured, her eyes already drifting shut. The world felt pleasantly distant now, like her soul had temporarily departed from her body and was watching from elsewhere. It was as if the only thing anchoring her to reality was Nil and the even rise and fall of his breathing.

"We'll sort through supplies when we wake and figure out where to go from there." He hesitated, then quickly smoothed his fingers over her hair. "Sleep well, fierce one."

But Aloy didn't say anything in response, for she had already fallen into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Warmth. It surrounded her, engulfed her, and she basked in it shamelessly as she eased back into consciousness. A breezy moan of bliss parted her lips, and Aloy nuzzled her face into the source of this heat, her nose brushing up against soft, smooth skin.

Wait. Skin?

Aloy froze, her eyes flying open. A sculpted chest smeared with inky remnants of black paint filled her vision, and that's when the events of the past day caught up with her.

Her cheeks burned scarlet, and, praying that Nil wasn't yet awake, her gaze slowly trailed up his torso until they reached his face. Where she found a pair of very amused grey eyes staring back at her.

"Comfortable, huntress?"

A tangle of embarrassed fury welled up inside of her, and Aloy shoved him away with her right hand, wiggling away as quickly as she could with a broken collarbone. Nil's eyes widened, and he snapped his head to the side.

"Your clothes should be dry by now," he said in a strained voice, clearing his throat. "By the fire."

Shit.

Somehow it had slipped her mind that she was still entirely naked, and Aloy was certain her entire upper body was practically glowing crimson by now. Desperately wishing she had the ability to cover any part of herself, she awkwardly leaned over to retrieve her clothing.

"Get enough of look in this time?" she muttered darkly, tugging her pants on.

"Not intentionally."

Thankfully, Nil had continued to keep his eyes averted, and as she eyed him, she could see a flush creeping up his neck. Something in Aloy softened minutely at the sight, and she reluctantly admitted to herself that perhaps she hadn't been entirely fair to him. Enemy or not, he had been respectful of her so far, and it wouldn't kill her to extend the same courtesy.

"I..." Aloy hesitated, but pressed on. "I could use some help with my shirt again."

"Give me a moment to dress myself," he replied quietly, and she kept her chin ducked and her eyes trained on her hands until he dragged himself behind her.

"You know, there's no point in taking a partner who's not entirely willing," Nil remarked as he guided her arm through a sleeve. "I may have my vices, but I'm not a total monster, little huntress. I know you don't have much reason to believe me, but you're safe here with me. Much safer than you'd be above ground right now."

Her stomach plummeted, icy apprehension stabbing at it. "What - what do you mean?"

"We've come to Nora lands for a major operation," he explained, pulling the laces on her shoulder tight. "More force than we've ever used before. The Sun-King has grown desperate with the Derangement, so we've come to collect as many blood sacrifices for the Sun-Ring as possible."

"Derangement? Sun-King? Sacrifices?" Anxiety seized at Aloy, and she shook her head frantically. "I don't understand, what - ?"

"The Carja...the raids," Nil's tone was filled with confusion as he slid beside her, having finished tying her shirt up. He raised his hand, but when Aloy flinched away from him, he dropped it and curled it into a fist instead.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Aloy said, and she couldn't help but feel incredibly stupid. Having spent her entire life in the Embrace with no access to knowledge of the outside world, and now she was paying the price. She took a breath. "I - I'm an outcast from my tribe."

Realization dawned over Nil's face. "Well, that explains a lot. What was your crime, fire hair? Stealing? Assault? Or perhaps something worse?"

His voice held teasing, but there was also a darker undertone present, and some unidentifiable feeling curled in Aloy's gut.

"That's none of your business," she snapped. "And stop calling me by those ridiculous names."

He ignored her, instead looking troubled as he mused, "No, there was no crime, was there? You have no knowledge of the war, or even the Carja. You had to have been a small child."

Nil's words hit closer to home than Aloy could stomach, and that old sorrow and loneliness ached in her heart. She struggled to her feet and, desperately searching for some sort of distraction, activated her thankfully still functional Focus.

"I'm going to search for a way out," she said, turning her back to him as her Focus identified a nearby pathway leading back to where they had presumably fallen into the cave in the first place. "Don't follow me."

"You won't get very far," Nil called out after her as she stepped into the claustrophobic tunnel. "Unless you'd like to go for another swim!"

To her frustration, the Carja soldier was right. No matter how thoroughly Aloy searched, no matter how many times she ran her fingers along the sheer rockfaces of the main room, there seemed to be no way out but up or further in. It didn't help that she could barely see her hands in front of her face, as it was now night outside - and a new moon to boot.

Her Focus pinged on some sort of ancient ruins of the Old Ones in the depths of the cave, and her curiosity flared to life. But then her shoulder throbbed in a painful reminder as she considered swimming all the way back there. It was either risk permanent damage to her clavicle for even the chance of an exit or stay here with Nil until she healed enough to climb out by herself. It wasn't an easy choice by any means, and despite the urge to give in to her more impulsive nature, Aloy knew she'd have to weigh her options carefully.

She supposed she could try to scream for help, but with ruins so nearby it was likely a useless endeavor and a total waste of energy - most Nora tribesmen staunchly avoided anything involving the Old Ones, the risk of the Matriarchs finding out and consequently being cast out too high. Plus, who knew how far these Carja had gotten into the Sacred Lands? Even though she couldn't hear a thing beyond the singing of crickets and the rustling of leaves, there was no telling who was nearby. She could be ensuring Nil's rescue and calling down her own death. Reluctantly, she admitted to herself that it was best not to risk it.

When she reentered the flower room an hour or so later, Aloy stubbornly kept her gaze fixed on the floor as she sat down next to the fire, across from where Nil was prodding it to life with a stick.

"Find anything?" he asked sardonically. Her fingers itched to wrap themselves around his neck and squeeze as hard as she could.

"Shut up," she ground out, still refusing to meet his eyes. "Don't speak to me, don't even look at me."

"Well, that's going to make me informing you on the state of our supplies very difficult, little Bellowback," he said lightly.

"All-Mother, stop it with the stupid names!" Aloy yelled, finally jerking around to face him as the remnants of her patience were finally burned away. "I don't want your supplies, or your help, or any of this!"

Nil blinked owlishly at her, tilting his head. "So you'd rather starve?"

"I - I can find my own food," she insisted.

"Rats, girl," Nil deadpanned. "You'll find rats. Maybe a small fish or two, if you're very lucky."

Aloy didn't say anything in response. Instead, she buried her face in her hand as she pushed back against the bitter hopelessness trying to creep its way into her heart. She wasn't yet entirely beaten, and she furiously tried to convince herself that there was a way out, that she wouldn't be stuck here with him for as long as she dreaded.

"Luckily for the both of us, the Carja military sees to it that its soldiers are well taken care of," Nil said brightly, as if they hadn't just been arguing. "I've worked it out, and if we're careful, we can make these rations I was carrying last for at least the next three weeks. It won't be comfortable, but at least we won't starve, and we can figure out a plan for after in the meantime. I have some fresh water left in my canteen, but after that's gone we're going to have to start using it to boil the water in here for drinking and bathing. Thank the Sun I had a chunk of soap on me, or we'd both be getting uncomfortably dirty very quickly. I also have a mostly full canister of Blaze for all of our fire-making needs, although that shouldn't be as necessary if we can keep it going with branches from these bushes. That's it, I think."

Something made a soft thud as it landed in the grass near her, and Aloy lifted her head to see a small package wrapped in cloth lying at her feet.

"There. You're probably hungry," Nil said. He gave her a crooked smile. "See? I can be reasonable. You don't even have to come over here."

For some reason, Aloy's heart pounded as she curled her fingers around the ration, eying him the entire time. As she opened it, it became clear that it was some sort of dense, spongey cake. Caution overtook her, and she shot Nil a hard look.

"It's not poisoned, is it?"

Nil only raised an incredulous brow at her, and she made an indignant noise before nibbling at a corner. Sweetness and hints of spice coated her tongue, and she couldn't help the groan that escaped her at the taste. It had been far too many hours since Aloy had last eaten, and without a second thought, she eagerly devoured the cake until nothing was left but yellow crumbs. Then licked the sticky remnants from her fingers for good measure.

"Spiced maize cake," Nil said with a distinctly pleased grin. "Reinforced with goat's milk and honey for hungry soldiers who need the energy. It's not the finest of Carja delicacies, but it's not too bad."

"It's...good," Aloy admitted, fingering at the wrapping. It took a lot of effort, but she managed to swallow her pride long enough to add, "Thank you...Nil."

Her companion didn't respond, but his eyes were warmer than she'd yet seen them when he dropped his head in a quick nod.

--

The days crawled by excruciatingly slowly, and Aloy counted her blessings at the fact that she was trapped somewhere she could tell the time at all. Otherwise, she was certain she would have gone insane long ago.

The pair continued to sleep side by side - fully clothed now, much to her relief. There were no blankets, and the tiny fire they kept stoked with bits of Blaze and branches from the rose bushes did little to stave off the nighttime chill that seeped into the cave. It was the one subject Nil avoided bringing up, and Aloy was thankful for that small favor. Sleeping together was an awkward but necessary matter of survival, but she became accustomed to it faster than she would have anticipated. Sometimes, when her despair at the situation became too much to handle, Aloy would pretend that the arms curled securely around her belonged to someone else, someone who actually cared for her, and there were nights where it was the only thing that reliably lulled her to sleep.

Although she did her best to avoid speaking with him, Nil talked incessantly about anything and everything. His choice of subjects were mostly things of little consequence, usually anecdotes about interesting people and places he had seen on his travels in the military. With little in the way of entertainment, Aloy had no choice but to listen, despite pretending to ignore him most of the time. It didn't escape her notice that he seemed to avoid speaking of himself or his past, and no matter how much she tried to keep a lid on it, she could feel her curiosity growing with every day. But she gave this urge as little ground as she could, stubbornly refusing to answer any of his questions about herself or really talk to him at all. And that was when the singing began.

Admittedly, Nil had a very nice voice - even if Aloy would rather re-break her collarbone than tell him that. What grated on her was that if he wasn't talking, he was loudly belting out what he had explained to her were Carja marching songs. Many of them were unnecessarily gory, and Nil sang these parts with a particular kind of relish that turned her stomach.

But she also had to admit that, though extremely annoying, his singing and talking filled the otherwise empty hours. As time marched slowly on, she could feel her normally ironclad willpower crumbling, and, sometime on the seventh day of their being trapped, she finally gave in.

It was just after their daily meal - the one instance where Nil was reliably silent - when Aloy spoke to him about something other than survival. She had just swallowed her last bite of her meager ration of boar jerky, lamenting how little it did to stave off the persistent ache of hunger in her gut.

"So..." Aloy began hesitantly, trying her best to keep her tone neutral. "Do you fight with anything besides a sword?"

Nil went entirely still, his lips parting in surprise. A grin quickly grew on them. "Ah, so she does know how to hold a conversation."

"You know what, nevermind. Forget I asked," she said, throwing her hands up in exasperation. Hurt stabbed at her, but she resolutely ignored it.

"No, no," he said, waving a hand at her. "I'm glad. I was beginning to grow concerned that I might die of boredom down here and leave you all alone."

Aloy snorted. "I'm certain I'd manage. I'd at least have something different to eat."

Shocked laughter echoed off the walls of the cave, and the soldier's eyes danced with amusement. "She jokes too! And my exact kind of humor, no less. Perhaps we're more alike than different after all."

"Don't get used to it," she said, hiding her smile behind a hand.

"I'm a fair shot with a bow," Nil said with a wistful expression, leaning back on his elbows. "More than fair, in truth. But the Voice of Our Teeth is back at our encampment, and I'm sure she's been given to someone else by now as I've likely been presumed dead."

"You named your bow?" Aloy asked incredulously.

"You didn't?" he returned, appalled.

"It had never crossed my mind to." Aloy sat back, chewing at her lower lip thoughtfully. "Although I guess I can sort of understand the attachment. It's odd not having mine near at hand after spending most of my life with it."

"I know this likely won't mean much to you, but I apologize for having a part in that," Nil said softly. "I know how much a trusted weapon can mean to those like us. If it's any consolation, I'll help you search for it when we leave here."

"If you don't try to kill me first," Aloy muttered.

Nil's silver gaze grew so intense, she felt as if she had been pinned in place, and for a moment she could scarcely breathe.

"I'm not going to kill you, fierce one," he said, his words serious and measured. "Not now, not later. Upon my honor, you have my word."

Nil looked away then, and whatever spell Aloy had been under finally broke. She had to wet her lips before speaking again, because they had gone dry.

"...you know, Nil..." She clasped her fingers together in her lap, taking a deep breath before continuing. "You're not so bad. I don't think I'll try to kill you either when this is all over."

"Such progress," he remarked with a chuckle. "Why, we could almost be friends, little huntress."

"Don't count on it," she said, but this time she didn't attempt to hide the tentative smile that bloomed on her face.

As Nil continued to study her, that lazy smirk of his returning, Aloy felt warmth rising in her belly. She couldn't shake the feeling that all of this was somehow a betrayal, that maybe she shouldn't be making nice with the enemy like this, but she also couldn't bring herself to care as much as she once might have. And when Rost's voice echoed sternly in her head, warning her of the potential consequences of her actions, this time she tuned it out. Instead, Aloy focused on the man in front of her, whose company she was actually beginning to enjoy.

Chapter Text

Several more days passed by, and Aloy was pleasantly surprised to find that time seemed to move faster now that she was trying to make the best of her temporary fate. Still, she had never been laid up for quite so long before, and restlessness nagged at her. She would often walk the length of the cave that wasn't submerged in water, pining for her lost bow and fantasizing about running through the forests and hills of the Embrace once more.

It certainly helped that Nil had ceased his constant needling of her, especially since she now engaged in conversation with him more often than not. He still teased her from time to time, but it was in a friendly, light-hearted manner rather than intended to get a rise out of her. On the other hand, the obnoxious singing hadn't stopped, but Aloy found that it didn't bother her nearly as much as it had before. Nil even taught her a few of the more pleasant songs, and sometimes she would even hum along with him. On these occasions, his lips would quirk with a smile, causing her stomach to flip and her heart to beat erratically. These events started occuring with alarming frequency at the oddest of moments, and, worried that she was becoming ill, Aloy began checking the cut on her hand several times a day for signs of infection.

But the wound healed quickly and without any complications. Nil told her as much when he looked over her scabby palm one morning.

"Well, little huntress, it looks like we can do away with the bandage now. Try not to itch at it." He shot Aloy a grin as he unwound the cloth from her hand, his touch lingering slightly longer than necessary. Warmth from his fingers suffused into hers, and Aloy yanked her hand away as though she had been burned.

Nil's brow creased. "Does it still hurt? I can take another look - "

"No!" Aloy said hurriedly and a little too loudly. She had to find her breath before continuing. "I'm...I'm fine."

"If you say so." Suspicion narrowed his eyes, but by some small miracle he allowed the matter to drop. Aloy breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

"So, what did you want to do today?" Nil asked with a wide yawn, stretching his arms out above his head. The motion only further highlighted the pleasing angles of his well-sculpted physique, and Aloy stared for just a tad too long before averting her eyes.

"You act as though we have a choice in the matter," she said, picking at some dirt on her boots.

"We do need to discuss what we're going to do for food going forward," Nil said thoughtfully. "I only have enough rations to last us through the next week."

"I have seen more than a few fish in the water, although they're small," Aloy said. "I'm not sure how we'd go about catching them though." She wrinkled her nose. "I guess the other option is rats. Plenty of those scurrying about."

"No, no, you leave the fishing to me," Nil said, waving a hand at her. "I have my ways."

"If you say so." Aloy chewed at the inside of her cheek, before adding, "Let me know if you need any help though."

"Will do, huntress." He gave her a small smile before leaning forward eagerly. "But if you're offering in a more general sense, I was going to ask if you could help me walk around a bit. Being as stationary as I have been wastes the muscles, so I could use the exercise."

The thought of him pressed entirely up against her as they walked had Aloy's heart racing and her mouth going dry, but she managed to nod.

"Um, sure."

'Stop being ridiculous,' she chastised herself furiously as she stood and went to his side. It's no more contact than sleeping beside each other, and you manage that just fine every night.'

Nil hissed through his teeth as she carefully eased him up and helped him stand on his unbroken leg.

"That ache," he moaned out, clutching at her arm and leaning into her. "How it hurts, but so well."

Heat pulsed through her center in response to the noises he made, and Aloy shifted on her feet, desperately searching for a distraction. Of course, there were none to be found - it's not like the cave they had been stuck in for the previous two weeks had suddenly changed in the last thirty seconds. She instead panicked and lurched forward, causing Nil to nearly topple over.

"Woah there, huntress," he said with a startled laugh. "Mind warning me next time you decide to start moving?"

"Sorry," Aloy muttered. Closing her eyes for a brief moment, she breathed in through her nose, then out through her mouth several times - a method she often employed to center herself, to find her focus in overwhelming situations. Because she was most definitely overwhelmed by this situation.

"Being stuck down here with me starting to get to you that much?" Nil teased as she wrapped a supportive arm around his waist and shifted to move forward. He balanced himself against her, timing the movements of his healthy leg against her own, and together they headed towards the entrance to the cave.

Aloy smiled at his words, feeling her tension begin to drain. Leave it to Nil to disarm her through his unique brand of self deprecation. "Well, at least you're aware of how annoying you are."

Nil grinned in return. "I know I'm not everyone's cup of tea, fierce one. I've been aware of that fact since I was a young boy."

Aloy raised her eyebrows, her interest piqued. For all they had spoken, Nil had never once brought up his past. "Oh? So you've always been this off-putting?"

"Oh, yes," he laughed. "I've always displayed a keen interest in bloodshed and aptitude for the arts of war, although I didn't have much opportunity to explore these interests as a child, due to my growing up deep in the Jewel."

"You grew up...in a gem?" Aloy furrowed her brow in confusion as she tried to work out what he meant.

Nil let out a snort. "Nothing so fine, little huntress. It's a jungle - this is, a forest where it rains often. My family's estate is there, and we were very isolated from the rest of the Sundom."

"You have a family," Aloy said softly.

A shadow passed over Nil's face as he sneered. "Had. And I'd much rather I didn't."

"How can you say that?" Aloy couldn't help but raise her voice as the unfairness of it all barbed at her. "I'd give anything for a family, someone to belong to."

"My mother died when I was six, and after that my father's idea of fun became beating me until I was bruised and bleeding," Nil said quietly. "Family isn't always sun and roses, huntress."

Caught off guard, Aloy only stared at him, her mouth slightly open. Sympathy squeezed in her chest, along with a growing feeling of fury at the thought of a father turning his fists on his own helpless child. The thought of Nil as a small boy, cowering and scared beneath some nameless monster, had her quivering with suppressed anger.

"But he's dead now," Nil said, waving a hand as if it was some trivial matter. "Done in by his own love of the bottle."

"Nil-"

"But back to my original point." Nil was staring off into the middle distance now, and Aloy swallowed down her helpless rage as he changed the subject. "As isolated as we were, once I grew into adolescence, it didn't take very long for my particular skill-set to catch the attention of the Carja military, especially in light of my station."

"Your station?" Aloy asked, tilting her head.

Nil pointed to the black markings tattooed beneath his eyes. "In the Sundom, only nobles may receive these. Therefore, I'm nobility." He shook his head, a rueful smile crossing his lips. "Sometimes I forget how little you know about the world, little huntress. Any questions you have, I'm more than willing to answer."

Aloy tried not to let his words hurt her - she knew he intended no harm with them, and his offering to answer her questions did a lot to lessen the sting.

"What's a noble?" she asked after several seconds, when she was sure she had her temper under control.

"It's a title inherited by blood," Nil answered, not a hint of judgement present in his tone. Aloy allowed herself to relax and her desire for knowledge to take over as she listened raptly. "The nobility are land owners and have sway in the Sun Court in Meridian."

"Meridian?"

"The Carja capital, far west of here." Nil's jaw clenched. "A great city on a towering mesa, home to the Palace of the Sun and the Sun-King himself - his Radiance Sun-King Jiran, 13th Luminance of the Radiant Line."

Sensing that this was for some reason a touchy subject for him, Aloy changed tack. "So, all you need to do to inherit this title is be born to the right parents? Merit has no bearing on it?"

"And be male." At her offended look, Nil sighed. "I didn't say I agreed with it, huntress. I'm of the opinion that women are just as capable as men. Personally, if I had a wife, she'd have as much sway over the affairs of my estate as I do. This isn't a popular opinion at court, mind you, but I've always walked along my own Sunlit path."

"Wife," Aloy said, frowning at the unfamiliar word. "A partner...like a mate?"

"In a sense, yes." Nil's gaze slid to her, some unidentifiable emotion shimmering in his eyes. "Although a Carja wedding is much more binding than your Nora mating customs. It's intended to be a lifelong bond, breakable only by the permanence of death."

"We do have lifemates, but they're rare. Most of the time a mating is temporary," she mused. "Do female nobles receive markings like yours?"

Nil nodded. "Yes, but they're painted on rather than permanently etched into the skin as a lord's are. A lady wears her father's paint until her wedding day. During the ceremony, her new husband replaces them with his own."

Aloy wrinkled her nose. "Sounds a lot like ownership."

Nil grimaced. "Another unfortunate fact of Carja society. In addition to being seen as lesser to men, women are also considered property to be passed from father to husband. A lady rarely has a say in who she's partnered with."

"That's barbaric," Aloy said with no small amount of disgust, and Nil chuckled dryly.

"I would agree with you. My people love to go on and on about how savage the other tribes - especially yours - are, and yet we keep humans as property. You should know me well enough by now to believe me when I say I would never take a wife who wasn't entirely willing. I see no point, no enjoyment in a loveless marriage. Another unpopular opinion of mine, I suppose."

They had reached the start of the cave, and Nil inclined his head towards the open sky above them with a slight grin. "Why don't we sit here to continue this conversation? It would be nice to spend some time beneath the sun."

Aloy helped him settle down beside the murky water, and they spent a few moments basking in comfortable silence and the unseasonable warmth filtering in from above.

It was Aloy who eventually broke the quiet. "I'm sure you've noticed most Nora also wear paint."

Nil angled his head towards her. "I did. It has something to do with your mother?"

Aloy glanced away as that old ache of longing throbbed too close to her heart for comfort. "Yes. It does."

"But you don't have any." Nil's voice was unusually soft, and a lump formed in her throat. She hadn't ever discussed the unusual circumstances of her birth with anyone beyond Rost, but something in her told her she could trust the Carja soldier with this.

"I'm motherless," she admitted, staring down at her feet. "I was made an outcast as a baby and was put into the care of another outcast named Rost. It's been just me and him my entire life."

"Is he good to you?" For some reason, Nil's voice was tense, but she shrugged it off.

Aloy huffed out a laugh. "He...does his best. There's not a lot of love lost between us, but he's always made sure my needs are met and has spent the better part of the last ten years preparing me for the Proving."

"That's how a young Nora becomes a Brave, right? A right of passage, in a way."

"Yeah." Bringing her knees to her chest, Aloy wrapped an arm around them and stared up at the sky wistfully. "I don't know where I came from or who my mother was, but I'm going to find out soon. The person who wins the Proving recieves a boon of their choice, and I've spent most of my life training for this. When I win, I'm going to ask the High Matriarchs where I came from and why they made me an outcast."

When she gave a sidelong glance at Nil, she was surprised to see anger of all things creasing his silver eyes. His hand was flexing and twitching at his belt, as if he wanted to grab for a sword that wasn't there.

"Monstrous filth," he spat. "The leaders of your tribe deserve their limbs torn from their bodies and their blood spilled over the earth. An innocent child doesn't deserve to have their fate decided for them before they can even walk or speak."

The murderous look in Nil's eye was so similar to the one she had seen back in the forest that Aloy flinched away from him instinctively. Her sudden movement seemed to snap him out of whatever fit of rage he had entered, and the twisted wildness eased from his features until they were entirely blank.

"You've shared something of yourself with me, so I suppose I should do the same with you," Nil said, his voice carefully devoid of emotion. "So here it is, huntress. I'm a kestrel, one of the Sun-King's elite soldiers. I answer to no one beyond his Radiance and my commanding officer, his Champion. The most difficult missions, endless opportunities for bloodshed without consequence. It suits me."

He carded a hand through his loose black locks in frustration.

"Or at least, it did. When I agreed to undergo the trials to become one, I assumed we would act for the glory of the Sundom - not that I ever cared too much for such concepts - but that would include maintaining, at the very least, the most basic of honor codes." His lips curled into a sneer. "But I assumed wrong. As the Derangement of the machines has gone on, the Sun-King has grown ever madder and demands more slaves, more sacrifices, more blood to appease the Sun. The sick, the elderly, children - it's all the same to him. He's even sacrificed his own son and heir in the Sun-Ring."

"Why don't you just leave the military, then?" Aloy asked softly as she regarded the man beside her. It was true that Nil was infatuated with bloodshed to an unhealthy degree, to the point where he spoke of it as fondly as one would a lover. But he didn't seem to be entirely heartless - in fact, the soldier was equally obsessed with his peculiar code of honor, which boiled down to only turning his bow and blade on those deserving of it or during battle.

"Oh, if only were it that simple, little huntress," he said, resting his chin on an upturned palm with a bitter smile. "You don't just walk away from being a kestrel. If I deserted, my commanding officer wouldn't stop hunting me until I was found, and then he'd bestow upon me the most painful death imaginable."

"Nil..." Aloy whispered, unsure of what else to say. Instead, her heart pounding wildly in her chest, she haltingly reached out to him until her fingers found his. She twined them together and gave his hand a firm squeeze. Nil gaped at her, then snapped his mouth shut, looking away as his throat bobbed.

"So you see, fierce one, we're both trapped in our own ways," he said quietly. "Even if I make it out of here, I'll have to return to that life. I made my vows, and I'm committed to them until I one day slip into darkness."

At the hopeless despair in his voice, a powerful sense of conviction welled up in Aloy, and she tugged on Nil's hand until he reluctantly met her eyes again.

"We'll figure something out," she said fiercely. "I'll help you, Nil. You don't have to do this alone."

Nil shook his head. "I won't have you dragged into the crossfire. You're too good for that, huntress."

"Aloy," she blurted out, her eyes widening at her own outburst. But it was already too late to take it back, so she pressed on. "My name. It's Aloy."

"Aloy," Nil said slowly, turning her name over as if he were tasting it, and something about the way it sounded on his lips made her shiver. A small, genuine smile bloomed on them. "My true name is Sahad. But you can keep calling me Nil if you'd like - I have to admit, it's grown on me."

"Sahad," she said breathlessly, and his grip on her hand tightened. "Sahad, Nil - I'm going to help you out of this. I promise."

Some potent emotion was shining in his eyes, and Nil leaned towards her and parted his lips. But whatever he was about to do or say, he seemed to decide against it, sitting back instead. Still, a small, genuine smile quirked on his lips, and Aloy was struck by just how at peace he looked.

They sat beside each other beneath the lazy heat of the afternoon sun awhile longer, their hands clasped together the entire time. Aloy couldn't shake the feeling that something undefinable had shifted between them, and only time would tell if it was for the better or for the worse.

Chapter Text

"Mm, good morning."

Eyes still shut, Aloy smiled as Nil nuzzled his face into the space between her neck and shoulder. His arm was draped over its usual spot on her waist, his chest pressed against her back. But so was something else - something hard and hot against the curve of her backside. Instinctively, Aloy arched into it and was rewarded by a pulse of heat echoing through her core.

Nil stilled behind her, and she was momentarily worried she had done something wrong. But then his hand slid lower, all the way down to the vee of her thighs, and Aloy had to bite back a cry as he boldly cupped her clothed sex.

"Is this what you want, little huntress? For me to touch you here?" His voice was husky and warm against her neck. Aloy shivered as he scraped the very edge of his teeth over the sensitive skin there.

"Yes," she gasped out.

His fingers moved then, and, desperate for more contact, Aloy ground back against them, pleasure spiking with each movement. His other arm snaked beneath her then hooked around her chest until his hand was covering one of her breasts.

"Do you want me, Aloy?" The hand on her breast squeezed, and Aloy didn't bother trying to suppress the moan of pleasure it pulled from her this time.

"Yes, Nil, please..."

"Aloy..."

"Aloy?"

Her eyes flew open, and she came face to face with the real Nil. Concern tugged at his features as he looked her over.

"You were crying out in your sleep," he said softly, brushing a wayward strand of hair from her face. "Are you all right, little huntress? It sounded bad."

Aloy's gaze dropped to his lips, and she couldn't help but wet her own.

"I..." Her eyes flitted back up to his. The silver in them was turning molten as realization set in. "No, it was..."

His brow furrowed in thought as his eyes searched hers. After several long moments, he seemed to make up his mind about something - and then he closed the gap between them to cover her mouth with his own.

Nil's lips were surprisingly plush as they worked against hers slowly. Without thinking, Aloy kissed him back, the pleased groan he gave in response reigniting the leftover heat simmering in her from her dream. When he shifted closer to her, his fingers came up to tangle in her hair, and the gentle tug he gave it had her gasping against his lips. His tongue slid between her parted lips, hot and wet as it mingled with hers, and she was caught off guard by just how wonderful he tasted - of spice and musk and somehow so very male.

Pressed firmly against hers, his body was as hot as a hearth, a contradiction of hard muscle and soft skin, and Aloy could feel the firm bulge of his erection digging into her thigh. It was so much like her dream that she wondered if she was still sleeping. When Nil's fingers drifted down to her hips, and then the swell of her backside, she finally snapped back to reality. Blind panic at her careless actions gripped her in a stranglehold, and gasping, she tore herself from him, breaking the kiss.

'My first,' she thought numbly, bringing her fingertips to her swollen lips.

"Aloy?" Nil's voice was hesitant, full of questioning, and more unsure than she had ever heard it.

"I, um." She untangled herself from him, doing her best to ignore the hurt that spilled over his face like blood from a wounded machine. Aloy scrambled to her feet and looked about wildly, grabbing the first thing eyes settled on - Nil's canteen.

"I'm going to go refill our water," she said, keeping her back to him. "I'll be back in a bit."

He called out her name again, but despite the tears that threatened to blur her vision, despite how much a part of her wanted to stay, Aloy hurried on into the next room.

--

'Stupid,' she reprimanded herself as she lowered into a crouch by the water. 'Stupid, selfish child.'

It had been two weeks since she and Nil had shared their names, a month total since they had fallen down here, and Aloy felt like she was beginning to lose her perspective on who and what he was. Shame gripped her in a vice, and she lowered her face to her hand, furiously wiping the moisture from her eyes.

'A killer, a heartless murderer,' she told herself. 'That's what he is. Remember that dead Brave you saw when you found him in the woods, think of his sword covered in blood.'

But the voice in her head sounded more like Rost's than her own, and instead of the day her and Nil had met, all she could think of was the way those grey eyes lit up whenever they met hers. How he had started waking her up in the mornings, by stroking her arm and back until she was roused into consciousness. His gentle touch when he bandaged her hand, the concern shining in his eyes even then. The torment written all over his face as he yearned for a means to be free, to put aside the mantle of a kestrel. And now, the feeling of his lips slanted over her own, the way his kiss had made her heart pound and her blood sing in her veins.

Guilt coiled in Aloy's chest as her thoughts once again landed on the man who had raised her, what he would say if he knew what she had done. She had little regard for what the general Nora viewpoint on the matter would be, but Rost's opinion mattered dearly to her. Would he go so far as to disown her? She hoped not, but she couldn't be certain. Nothing was certain anymore, not with how much the past month had changed her - and not only in regards to her perspective on the world.

It was as if Aloy had shed the itchy old skin of her childish self, and she wasn't quite sure what to make of the newly revealed woman underneath. She had wants now that sometimes frightened her; but truthfully, she was mostly intrigued by them. She was beginning to understand that these were the strange things she had been feeling towards Nil - from the fluttering in her stomach to the desire to make him smile and laugh. It was almost laughable now how she thought she had been ill.

If she decided to not act on her feelings, Aloy knew she could simply go home and resume her old life. Rost had to think her dead at this point, and she knew he would welcome her back with great joy (well, as much joy as a man like Rost allowed himself to feel and show). She would never again have to mention or even think of the Carja soldier, and she could refocus on preparing for next year's Proving. On finding answers.

But the thought of not pursuing whatever this was with Nil left her cold and empty. She would be lying to herself if she said she wouldn't miss him, wouldn't wonder how it could have been between them if she had explored these feelings. The day was coming where she would need to say goodbye to him, and either way, it was going to be a difficult task. How much hurt would it save her if she rejected him now? Was going forward knowing that they had to part even worth it?

Then there was the matter of helping him break the chains of his sworn duty. The day she had seen that conflict in his eyes was the day she promised herself she'd do whatever it took to help him escape that life. She knew that at his heart, Nil was a good man - twisted and damaged, yes - but good all the same. His fierce dedication to his code of honor was enough to tell her that.

Still no closer to an answer, Aloy heaved a weary sigh and refilled the metal canteen before making her way back to the flower room, to Nil.

He was sitting up, his unbroken knee held to his chest and his eyes fixed on the glowing coals of the fire. When she entered, he angled his head towards her, an unreadable expression on his face.

"Aloy," he said quietly.

"Nil." She drew in a breath and shook her head. "No. Sahad. Can we talk?"

Face still carefully blank, he gestured at the ground next to him. She settled beside him, folding her legs underneath her.

"I'm sorry for running away like that," Aloy said, staring down at her lap. This whole affair was awkward enough, and meeting his eyes right now was downright unthinkable. "That wasn't very...considerate of me."

"Especially running from a man who couldn't follow after you even if he wanted to," Nil said wryly, and when she cautiously glanced at him, he gestured at his leg with a half-smile. Some of the tension eased from Aloy. If he was joking, then he couldn't be too horribly upset with her.

"I didn't think I misunderstood the situation," Nil said, running his fingers through his hair. "I apologize if I did, but...your eyes, the way you were looking at me...you seemed like you wanted me to kiss you."

"I..." Aloy turned her gaze to the fire. "Honestly, I'm not sure what I want."

Nil huffed out a disbelieving laugh. "It's not that difficult, huntress. Either you want me or you don't. And I'd like to know either way."

"It's way more complicated than that," she snapped, curling the fingers of her right hand into a fist. "It's not just myself I have to think of. It's the war, the Nora, Rost - "

"And what about you?"

When Aloy faced him again, Nil had angled himself so close she could feel his breath breezing over her skin. His grey eyes were narrowed, the intensity in them pinning her to the spot. A tendril of heat curled in her belly, and her mouth went dry.

"What do you want, Aloy?"

He crawled forward, and Aloy leaned back until she was horizontal with the ground, blades of grass tickling at her exposed skin. Thick arms caged her in, just as they had all those weeks ago in the field of buttercups, and she wasn't so sure she wanted to escape from him this time.

"Because I know what I want."

His lips lowered to her neck, just barely touching the skin there, and Aloy shivered.

"A beautiful, strong Nora huntress, hair as red as a splash of blood, tenacious as a Scrapper's jaws."

"I do. I mean, I want you too," she whispered, bringing her fingertips up to brush over the rough skin of his cheek. Nil planted a gentle kiss on her broken collarbone. "It's just that it feels so selfish."

Aloy could feel him smile against her chest. "And so what?"

"So what?" she repeated incredulously. With some effort, she propped herself up on her elbow and pushed him back. "So what? I've already been too selfish, Nil. Talking to you, allowing you to take care of me, especially growing this close to you...the tribe, Rost would have wanted me to fight you, to kill you or die trying. The fact that I'm alive at all is probably selfish."

"Aloy, listen to me," he said, his voice filled to the brim with quiet resolve. "It's not selfish to want to live. It's not selfish to want to seize happiness for yourself, to find the smallest bit of joy in a world sorely lacking it."

His thumb brushed over her cheek.

"Don't deny yourself your desires. They'll only continue to claw at your ribs, growing ever more vicious and demanding. It's not selfish to give in. It's not selfish to pursue the things you want. Your tenacity is part of what draws me to you."

With infinite care, he lowered her back down to the ground, his gaze trained on hers the entire time. Her heart beat wildly against her ribs, her stomach flipped, and hot wanting throbbed in her core. And this time, instead of fighting it, she embraced it.

"Now, let's try this again." A smile played on his lips, but his eyes were all heat. "What do you want, Aloy?"

"You," she breathed.

It wasn't Nil who closed the gap between them this time but Aloy, her mouth crashing into his with so much force their teeth clacked together. But Nil didn't seem to mind; he growled against her and threaded his fingers through his hair, kissing her back hard, his tongue already demanding entry into her mouth. She opened for him, and then he was devouring her, his lips and tongue and teeth drowning her in a dizzying array of new sensations. Where their kiss earlier had been gentle and sweet, this one was all rough and needy, and Aloy found herself diving eagerly into the heady rush of a new experience.

Questioning fingers ghosted over the side of her breast, and she arched into it, eliciting a pleased hum from Nil. But then he pulled away from her, despite Aloy's indignant cry of protest. Sitting up until he was straddling her hips, he studied her intently, and Aloy couldn't help but feel a tad self-conscious.

"So eager, so receptive," he murmured. "This is all new to you, isn't it?"

Aloy saw no point in lying, so she nodded, although her cheeks still heated with a blush.

Nil laughed, but it wasn't unkind. "And that's nothing to be ashamed of, my little huntress."

He leaned back down to slant his lips back over hers, kissing her tenderly this time.

"I'll be here to guide you through everything," he assured her, his lips trailing to her forehead, her cheek, her neck. Finding her right hand with his own, he intertwined their fingers together and lifted his face again, the grey of his eyes as soft as a morning rain shower. "You don't need to be alone."

A thick lump formed in her throat. His words echoed within her chest, filling it to the brim with such powerful, nameless emotion that Aloy couldn't bring herself to speak as the totality of everything crashed over her.

Her entire life had been spent keeping a distance from others, always watching and never participating, no matter how many times she had attempted to find a way to be included as a child. Years spent yearning for belonging, for companionship, for someone to welcome her with open arms and not out of obligation as Rost had. Someone who wanted her for her, who chose to stick by her side for no other reason than because they liked her for who she was.

And now she had found exactly what she had been searching for, ironically in the arms of an enemy of her tribe. A person she should have never met in the first place, who she would never have met if her curiosity hadn't guided her out of the Embrace and into the greater Sacred Lands that early spring day.

And he had respected her from the start, hadn't he? He'd seen her skill, her determination, everything she had worked years to perfect. Something within him had called to her that day, and she was now beginning to understand that she had been calling back from the start.

As Nil gave her a crooked grin and kissed her again, Aloy closed her eyes with a smile and basked wholeheartedly in his attentions, tossing aside all other thoughts and feelings beyond the touch of his lips and his hands and the warmth wrapped snugly around her heart. Selfish or not - it didn't matter to her much anymore. For once in her life, Aloy could say that she was truly happy, and that meant everything.

Chapter Text

"Hold still!"

"I'm trying - Sun and Shadow! Could you at least attempt to be a little gentler?"

"I'm doing my best! It's just so fine, it's difficult to do anything with."

"You know, I'm not sure why I even agreed to this."

"You know exactly why. Just one more...okay. There, I'm done. You can stop whining now."

Aloy stepped back with a frown and crossed her arms as she studied her work. Several braids and the beads from her own hair now adorned Nil's, and despite the irritated look on his face, he looked rather handsome this way. She let her gaze linger until a knowing grin grew on his lips.

"Come here, little huntress," Nil said, grabbing for Aloy's right hand and tugging at her until she was situated on his lap, facing him. "I'd like to claim my reward for sitting still as long as I did."

When he leaned in, however, Aloy bent out of his reach with a laugh. At his pout, she stuck her tongue out at him. "You were hardly what I'd call still, Nil. I'm not so sure you deserve a reward."

"Then I suppose I'll just have to take it from you," he murmured. A heartbeat passed, then he struck, surging forward to claim her lips with his own. Without any further protest, Aloy sighed and melted into him. His hands smoothed over her back, then her sides, then down to settle over her hips, his thumbs gliding in soothing circles there. He kissed her slowly and lazily, as if they had all the time in the world.

But Aloy was all too aware of just how little time was left. In a few short weeks, both of them would be healed enough to leave, and what then? It was too much to contemplate, too much for her to bear. Ignoring the pangs of despair that stabbed at her heart, she instead kissed Nil back roughly, delighting in the groan it pulled from him. As she sank into his attentions, Aloy let her mind wander.

Several days had passed since she had kissed Nil for the first time, and everything since then had almost felt like a dream. Each night was spent in his arms while he taught her everything there was to know about being intimate with another person, and Aloy eagerly absorbed each lesson. There was so much to learn, so many ways to wield fingers and lips and touch in a battle of sensation, and he hadn't even taken her fully to bed yet.

As inexperienced as she was, Aloy wasn't entirely ignorant of the mechanics of sex. She had spent her life in the wilds, after all - happening upon mating animals was a common enough occurrence. She'd never forget the sight of Rost left speechless when, as a child, her curiosity had gotten the better of her, and she had asked him about it. To his credit, he has composed himself quickly and had taken her aside to explain what she had seen, as well as how it applied to people. Her inquistive nature sated, that had been the end of the matter at the time.

But now she found herself recalling what he told her all those years ago, sparking both apprehension and excitement when she thought about the act in conjunction with Nil. It was one thing to observe animals mating and an entirely different one to partake herself. Several times now Aloy had felt his erection brush up against her, and it felt big. She wondered how something of that size could fit inside of her - and even if it could, would it hurt? Surely there must be some pleasure to be found in the act, or everything they were doing right now wouldn't feel so deliriously good.

And then there was the matter of Nil's experience. Not that she cared about how many previous partners he had - and there clearly were others in the past - but she found herself curious and more than a little self-conscious. Despite his initial reassurances that her inexperience was nothing to be ashamed of, Aloy couldn't help but worry that she would disappoint him somehow. It was a strange feeling for one so accustomed to easy competence in her arsenal of skills.

Some of this inner turmoil must have shown on her face, because Nil pulled away with a frown.

"What's wrong?" he said, bringing his fingers up to tug at one of her loosened braids. "Did you want to stop?"

"No!" Aloy said quickly. She worried at her lower lip. "I was just - are you enjoying yourself?"

Nil squinted at her. "...yes? Is this a trick question?"

Aloy blew out a breath through her nose and dropped her gaze. "Of course not. It's only - I'm sure you've had other partners who were more experienced. You know, more enjoyable for you."

Fingers slid under her chin and pushed it up until she was looking at Nil once again. His eyes were filled to the brim with understanding. "I've had many bed partners, Aloy, men and women alike."

Nil's lips found her forehead, and he took a moment before speaking again. "I'm of the opinion that there's enjoyment to be found in anyone, as long as they're eager and willing. Experience has very little to do with it. Besides, teaching another the very basics has been its own delight I've not yet experienced."

He pulled away from her, grey eyes shining with the strangest gleam. "And...every time before has been solely for physical release. But with you...I don't know what it is, but things are somehow different with you. Attending to your needs brings me as much pleasure as only focusing on my own."

"Nil," Aloy breathed. Her heart was suddenly thudding against her chest nonstop, and she couldn't seem to get it to slow.

"If you don't believe me, that's all right," Nil said, and she caught a coy smile on his face as he turned and gestured. "I'll just have to show you. Go sit closer to the fire."

Confused but willing to play along with yet another one of Nil's strange whims, Aloy climbed off of him and shifted to her right until she was only a couple of feet from the flames.

Dragging himself over to where his canteen lay by the crackling coals, Nil dribbled a couple of drops of water into his hand, smirking when he rolled them between his fingertips.

"Looks like your bath is heated, little huntress," he said as he produced their carefully rationed bar of soap and a clean cloth from one of his pouches. "Now if you wouldn't mind helping me with the small matter of your clothing..."

Nil's voice was dripping with suggestiveness but also held a note of questioning - after all, the last time Aloy had been fully unclothed in front of him had been their first night together. Then, it had been out of necessity. Now, she was eager to the point of impatience to be rid of her clothes.

Purposefully avoiding looking at Nil, Aloy shimmied out of her pants. She was much more adept at disrobing after weeks of living with a broken collarbone and at last able to pull her top off herself (albeit with a great deal of care and patience). After she had finally removed her shirt, Aloy chanced a glance at Nil and found him already making his way over to her. Warmth curled in her belly in response to the way he was gazing at her, his expression soft yet full of carefully restrained wanting.

"Lie back," he said, pouring some of the heated water on to the rag. As Aloy reclined, Nil worked the soap into a lather. She was somewhat surprised to find herself mostly free of embarrassment at being so vulnerable in front of him. In its place, anticipation wound into a taut spring in her center, tightening further everytime his eyes made another pass over her naked body.

"That's my girl," he crooned, leaning over her with a pleased grin.

His lips dropped to her shoulder as he glided the soapy cloth over the taut skin of her stomach, leaving a trail of goosebumps in its wake. The nearness of the fire kept Aloy from becoming too chilled, however, and she soon closed her eyes, luxuriating in Nil's touch.

Each swipe of the rag was accompanied by languid, open-mouthed kisses, from her shoulders to her collarbone to her neck. When Nil brushed the fabric teasingly over one of her tightened nipples, then the other, Aloy didn't try to stifle her moan, bowing into his touch eagerly.

"Good, good," he murmured encouragingly. "Allow all that anticipation to draw you as tight as a wire."

His hands wandered down to that little patch of curls between her legs, dancing teasingly over her folds, and Aloy inhaled sharply. His touch felt nothing like her own did, during those secret, stolen moments alone when the tension became too much, and she needed quick relief. It was so different, so intense that her hips bucked involuntarily against him, a needy whine spilling from her lips.

"Nil," Aloy gasped, curling up and reaching down to grasp at his wrist. She opened her eyes in time to see him shaking his head with a wolfish smile.

"Uh uh," Nil tutted, tugging her fingers from him and smoothing the washcloth down to her inner thighs. "Patience."

Frustrated, Aloy lay back again, her heart pounding a furious rhythm against her ribcage. She forced herself to settle, instead focusing on greedily soaking up every caress, every stroke - after a lifetime of minimal contact, everything he was doing to her felt so good. Nil took his sweet time washing her legs, then her feet, and each touch wound her tighter and tighter until she was twitching and wriggling beneath him, her breath coming in short bursts.

Finally, after washing the remnants of the soap from her, Nil pulled the cloth away with a very unnecessary flourish. Aloy fixed him with an indignant stare.

"Ready for more, little huntress?" he asked, giving her a rakish wink.

"I've been ready," Aloy muttered.

"Good things come to those who lie in wait," he said lightly as he settled between her legs. Aloy huffed.

"Says you, who didn't have to lay here while - oh!"

Aloy clawed uselessly at the dirt beneath her. Nil had bent over and covered her sex with his mouth in one smooth, rapid motion, and her eyes rolled back when he licked a hot stripe there. If she thought his fingers had been intense, those were no match for the wet heat of his tongue lathing over her. Aloy wasn't sure if she had ever felt any better physical sensation in her entire life.

'So this is why people enjoy sex so much,' she thought, dazed.

And then the tip of his tongue flicked over the bud at the apex of her slit. Stars exploded behind Aloy's eyes, and, in need of some kind of anchor, her hand shot down to grip at Nil's still braided hair. His responding moan vibrated against her, tearing a choked sob from her.

"That's it, take everything you need," he said as he pulled away briefly to flash her a grin. But Aloy shoved him right back down against her and rocked desperately against his face, chasing after her release.

A low growl rumbled in Nil's chest, his palms coming to Aloy's thighs and spreading them wider. One of his hands dropped back down, the tip of a finger grazing over her entrance, and without further ado he slipped it inside of her in one smooth motion. Gasping, she canted her hips up as her inner walls squeezed at this new intrusion. Having something inside of her was definitely a foreign feeling, but like everything else she'd experienced as of late it felt nothing short of amazing. Aloy briefly wondered how more of those thick fingers or even his cock would feel inside of her, and she felt herself clench down on him at the thought.

As if reading her mind, Nil added a second digit. Aloy began to tremble as he delved into her mercilessly, his tongue lapping at her clit, his fingers pumping in and out of her with a gradually building speed. It was just enough to keep her on the precipice of her peak, just enough for her pleasure to flare within her so intensely she could barely stand it, and Aloy couldn't keep herself from writhing beneath him as if she were caught in a snare.

Then one of his hands snaked up the length of her torso to pluck and toy with a nipple, and this was enough to finally send Aloy tumbling over the edge. All of her awareness of the world around her narrowed until there was only Nil, his head between her legs, and his fingers curling inside of her as he devoured her through intense bursts of pleasure, and she cried out shamelessly.

Eventually, as Aloy came down, Nil slowed his movements, then pulled away from her with a satisfied sigh. He placed a tender kiss on her inner thigh before crawling over top of her, grey eyes brilliant with affection.

"Good?" he murmured, reaching up to caress her cheek.

Aloy leaned into his warm palm with a soft smile, closing her eyes briefly. "Definitely. But what about you?"

When she opened her eyes again, a sly grin was splitting his lips. "Oh, I enjoyed myself, little huntress. But if you wanted more..."

To illustrate his point, he rocked his hips against hers. Aloy's breath caught when she felt the delicious friction of his cock against her core.

"Yes," she gasped, pressing back against him greedily.

"If you feel ready, I'm more than willing," Nil said, brushing his nose over hers. "But be sure that you're truly ready, Aloy."

"I am," she said, lifting her chin. "I want this."

"Then I'll be happy to oblige the lady." Aloy rolled her eyes, but couldn't keep the smile from her face as he reached down to pull off his skirt.

But before he could tug it down more than an inch, a voice echoed down into the cave.

"Aloy! Aloy, are you down there?"

Aloy's heart leapt to her throat. There was no way. It had been an entire month, he had to think that she was long dead, and yet -

"Rost," she whispered.

Nil's eyes widened with alarm, and he rolled off of her. Aloy sat up so quickly her head swam, jerking her head towards the entrance of the cave.

Time sputtered to a halt. Panic seized at Aloy's throat, her thoughts racing through her head like a charging Strider. Her mouth opened, then shut again.

"Aloy." Nil's callused hand grabbing at hers grounded her somewhat, and she looked over at him, swallowing.

"Aloy!"

"It's okay, Aloy," he said, squeezing at her hand. His overall expression was grim, but his eyes were so gentle and understanding that tears sprang to her own. "You can go home now."

Somehow, she found her voice. "No, Sahad - "

"Here, let me help you with your clothes. Quickly, now."

Nil reached over and fumbled for her top, throwing it over her head and working at the laces with shockingly steady fingers. His face was blank but for the slightest tremor in his lower lip.

"There you go. Now your pants."

"He'll kill you," she said shakily. "If he comes down here and finds you with me like this..."

"I was as good as dead anyway, little huntress." Nil's voice was casual of all things, but Aloy felt as if she were going to be sick. He picked up her trousers and moved towards her with them, but furious conviction reared up inside of her, and she slapped his hand away.

"No." She shook her head fiercely, distantly surprised at how simple it was, how firm her resolve in her decision was. A month ago, she wouldn't have hesitated to call down her guardian. But Aloy knew now just how much could change in a month.

"No, I won't. I can't do that, not to you."

"Be reasonable, Aloy," Nil said. "You have a home, someone to go back to. My life isn't worth that."

"It is," Aloy hissed, just barely remembering to keep her voice lowered. "Your life, you...you're worth so much more than going home to me, and I won't watch you die in front of me. I'm staying with you, Sahad, no matter what that means. Besides, I made you a promise that I'd help you break free from being a kestrel, and I intend to follow through with that."

Nil sat there for a moment, staring at her with unabashed wonder, his mouth slightly open and his eyes wide. Slowly, haltingly, as if in a dream, he reached out and guided her hand to his face, where he placed the softest of kisses on her palm. Then, he set his jaw and pulled her the rest of the way to him, until she was held snugly to his chest.

"Oh, Aloy," he whispered, pressing his face into her hair and taking a deep breath. She felt his lips twitch against her scalp. "Tenacious and stubborn as always."

Aloy couldn't stop the tears that came then, or the muted sobs that shook her entire body. Although Nil stroked at her hair and cradled her close, it did little to ease her anguish. It felt as though she had torn away a part of herself and traded it to keep another, and now there was no turning back. Her heart ached as she thought of Rost, of how pained and hopeful his voice had sounded when he had called out for her. But going back to her old life wasn't worth the cost, and if Aloy were sure of anything, it was that she wouldn't sacrifice Nil for her own comfort.

Distantly, Rost's voice rang out again.

"Must be hearing things...but I could've sworn..."

Nil's grip on her tightened, and Aloy buried her face against his chest, where his heart beat strong and steady, a lifeline through the despair that threatened to drown her.

But strangely enough, when Rost's footsteps finally receded, that sorrow began to recede as well. And as Aloy angled her head up to seal her lips over Nil's, her decision started to feel like more of a beginning than an end.

Chapter Text

After Rost, things changed between Aloy and Nil. As the full weight of her choice sank in, the mood between them grew more serious, less playful. Aloy often caught the soldier staring off into the middle distance deep in thought, and occasionally that pensive gaze would be turned on her. She wasn't sure what to make of it, but a growing sense of dread began to creep into the edges of her subconscious.

On top of that, although Nil continued to be intimate with her, their physical activities hadn't progressed any further. Despite being as attentive to her needs as always, he seemed to be purposefully putting off bedding her, and Aloy found herself growing more frustrated by the day. It was difficult not to feel spurned, but, as was her habit, she stubbornly pushed those emotions so deeply within her that they barely registered anymore.

It wasn't all bad news. By some small grace, at the end of their sixth week together her collarbone had healed beautifully. It was strange to not be hampered by the sling anymore, and to be freely able to move her arm about, although Aloy still found herself doing most things one-handed. She supposed it would take time to adjust to the way things used to be.

Nil's leg still couldn't quite support his massive weight, and he estimated that he had another couple of weeks to go before the limb would be fully functional again. On the evening he performed his final check on her arm and collarbone, declaring her good as new, Aloy raised an inquisitive brow at him.

"So you're not going to tell me to run back home?"

Nil snorted. "Oh, I know better than to do that now, little huntress. It would only be a waste of precious breath."

"Well, I'm glad you're finally understanding that I'm here to stay," Aloy said, but anxiety slithered through her at the troubled look that washed over his face. It was quickly replaced by consideration, and she tried to tell herself that she was working herself up over nothing.

"If you're willing, though, I think both of us could use something better to eat than cave fish." Nil's teeth flashed in a wide grin. "So, what do you say? Are you ready to get out of here and go hunting?"

Aloy's eyes widened. "You think it's safe for me to climb out of here now?"

Nil shrugged. "Your collarbone is as healed as it's going to get, and if you're wanting to avoid detection, the sun has already set. It's as a good of a time as any."

"I guess so," she said, then frowned. "But just so you know, it might take me awhile. I'm going to have to search for my bow first, and if I can't find that, I'll have to use snares."

"Take all the time you need, little huntress," Nil said, dropping a kiss on Aloy's nose, which she promptly wrinkled at him. "I'll be here waiting."

--

When Aloy climbed over the edge of the pit and into the chilly night air, it was with no small amount of effort. Panting heavily, she collapsed on to the cool stone with a frustrated moan. A little over a month without any form of upper body exercise, and her stamina had already decreased so dramatically that even the short climb out of the cave had her weakened muscles protesting.

"Guess I'm going to have to adjust my bow," Aloy muttered sulkily to herself while she rose to her feet. She glanced about and grimaced. "Well, if I can find it."

By some miraculous turn of fortune, she discovered said bow where she had dropped it not more than one hundred feet away from the pit. She wondered briefly how Rost could have possibly missed it as he had searched the area, but then again, it had been well concealed by the rapidly growing spring greenery. Testing the bowstring, Aloy winced. It was nearly rotted through from exposure to the elements, and the metal parts were in desperate need of oiling. Hopefully it would last at least a few draws, and then she could worry about fixing it.

After hastily throwing together a few arrows of questionable integrity with her limited supplies and what she could find in the immediate area, Aloy activated her Focus. The surrounding area lit up with all manner of creatures, and she took time to carefully consider her options. Boars - her favorite - were most likely out of the question, seeing as her ammunition was limited and they took several arrows to fell. But there were plenty of rabbits hopping their way through the nearby brush, and Aloy's mouth watered as she thought of sinking her teeth into that tender, velvety meat.

A few precisely aimed arrows later, and the deed was done. Satisfaction filled Aloy as she collected the four rabbits she had managed to successfully kill - at least her aim hadn't suffered too terribly much from her being so inactive. Privately, she was thankful for her Focus. Nil would probably consider it cheating based on his previous inquiries about the device, but tonight it had given her a desperately needed edge.

Aloy made her way back to the pit, unable to prevent the ridiculous grin that spread over her face. Soon, her and Nil's bellies would be full for the first time in weeks, and the hunger pangs would finally be gone. But before she could begin her descent, a glint caught her eye.

Aloy's breath caught. There, shining in the dim light of the waxing quarter moon, sat Nil's sword. Rain and time had washed away the blood that had once stained it, leaving the curved blade pristine. After a moment of consideration, she bent over and picked it up. It was surprisingly light and somehow not as intimidating as it had been on that long ago day. There was nothing special about it other than the fact it belonged to Nil. It was, after all, just another weapon.

Making up her mind, Aloy shoved the hilt of the sword into her belted sash. After tying the rabbits to her bow and securing it over her back, she began to climb back down into the cave, taking extra care with where she placed her feet - there was no reason to risk a repeat of their unfortunate fall and break another limb. When she stepped back into the flower room, Nil straightened from where he had been brooding over the fire.

"Aloy," he said, shock clearly apparent on his face. Silver eyes glimmered warmly at her from across the flames. "I - you're back."

"Yes?" she said, confusion lacing her tone. Removing her bow from her back, she held it up, rabbits and all. "And I brought us dinner."

A soft moan spilled from him as he eyed her quarry, and Aloy's lips quirked.

"You know, I've only heard that sound from you in one other kind of situation," she remarked, unable to keep the smirk from her face as she handed him the string of rabbits.

"Don't judge me, little huntress," Nil grumbled, untying their dinner. "I know your stomach aches as much as mine."

"Oh, I almost forget!" Aloy pulled his sword from her belt and held it out to him. "Here. I found this too."

An inscrutable expression crossed over Nil's face. Hesitantly, he placed the rabbits on the ground and accepted the blade, turning it over in his hands.

"Aloy..." he said, his voice barely loud enough to register. "Are you certain?"

"Of course," she said softly. "I trust you."

Nil dropped his sword with a loud clatter and surged forward to capture her lips in a searing kiss. Throwing her arms around him and kissing him back just as fiercely, Aloy's heart thrummed against her ribcage as rapidly as the wings of a hummingbird. This time, things between them felt different - heavier somehow, and as his warm hands made their way down her body, insistently guiding her into his lap, Aloy surrendered all thoughts beyond those of her lover.

Wasting little time, Nil made quick work of her clothing. Without having to be mindful of any injuries, it wasn't long before Aloy was entirely naked, her skin prickling and her nipples hardening in response to the chilled air of her surroundings. But she paid it little mind, instead focusing on the man beneath her. His mouth capturing hers in a kiss, Nil's fingers wandered down to the vee of her thighs, circled over that little bundle of nerves a few times, then boldly delved into her slit. Slipping a finger inside of her, he groaned. Aloy knew she was already practically soaked - even his kisses and the press of his body against hers was enough, not to mention how long she had been anticipating this moment.

White hot pleasure exploded in her core as Nil added a second finger then curled both up to brush against a spot inside of her she had become intimately acquainted with over the previous days. He slowly worked her with the sizable digit while rubbing his thumb over her bud, and as Aloy rocked herself in time with his motions, she was distantly surprised at how used to the stretch of his fingers she had already become.

While her lover was busy, her hands stroked and caressed their way down the broad expanse of his chest, all the way to his abdomen where his waistband settled. Without any hesitation, Aloy reached down and, lifting the hem of his skirt, wrapped her fingers around the velvet heat of his cock.

A low groan sounded from Nil as he bucked into the grip of her hand, his fingers slipping out of her. The sudden movement caused him to lose his balance, but he managed to catch himself on his elbows before he fell back entirely.

"Fuck," he growled. "Aloy, please - if this goes much further - "

"I know what I want, Nil," she said lowly, giving him a firm squeeze. The responding moan shot straight to her already aching core, and she had to wet her lips before continuing. "Weren't you the one who told me to chase after what I wanted without guilt?"

"I suppose I - ah - was," he said, tilting his head back and squeezing his eyes shut. Aloy worked at his skirt with her free hand until he was free of it, finally bared before her for the first time since their initial night together.

If she had thought him beautiful before, now he was even more so. Despite the weeks of little in the form of sustinance, Nil's body was still rippling with powerful muscle, each dip and rise more pleasing than the next as Aloy let her eyes wander. His cock twitched her hand, reminding her of her current task, and her attention shifted to it, thick and hard and weeping a few drops of viscous fluid at the tip. Her curiosity getting the better of her, she resituated herself until she could bend forward to taste him. A gasp sounded from Nil, and he jerked his hips up. Deciding she didn't hate the way he tasted - salty with a hint of musk - Aloy took him fully into her mouth.

She had no idea what she was doing, but if the noises Nil was making were any indication, he was definitely enjoying himself. Encouraged, Aloy swallowed him down further, careful to avoid scraping him with her teeth. In contrast to the swollen firmness of his length, the skin was soft and smooth where she dragged her tongue over it. Warm fingers threaded through her hair and tugged, so she lifted her head, allowing him to guide and pace her.

This went on for a few minutes, until suddenly Nil hissed and stiffened, then pulled her off him entirely. His pupils were blown wide, and an attractive flush warmed his face.

"As much as I love your pretty little mouth on me, I'm afraid that this would be over far too soon if I let you continue."

"We've put this off long enough," she replied wryly. "Hopefully there won't be any interruptions this time."

Nil chuckled, wrapping his arms all the way around her. "It doesn't matter much to me, little huntress. I intend to finish what I've started. Even if the sun goes out, I'll have you tonight."

Without another word, he fell back on to the earth, bringing her with him. Aloy shrieked out a surprised laugh, throwing her arms around his wide shoulders to steady herself. With a roguish grin, Nil arched up to slant his mouth over hers, keeping his movements gentle and measured as his hands made their way to her waist.

"This might hurt," he cautioned when they finally separated, guiding her hips up. The head of his cock brushed teasingly over her soaked folds, and Aloy had to grit her teeth to keep herself from dropping straight on to him right then.

"Does it always?"

"No, not always. Just the first time." Nil smiled up at her, sweet and genuine. "And knowing you, you'll be just fine. Just allow me to guide you, slowly."

Aloy nodded, pulling in a deep breath of air to steady and calm herself. Reaching down to line himself up, Nil used the hold of his other hand on her to ease her on to his cock.

Pressure was all Aloy initially felt as she lowered down on to him. A shaky sigh left her; the stretch of his swollen tip alone satisfied a want she hadn't known she'd possessed, and she found herself already impatient for more. But Nil kept a tortuously slow pace, his firm hold not allowing Aloy to move nearly as fast as she wanted, and she had to swallow back her frustration. Soon enough, he bumped up against some sort of barrier within her.

Gripping at her hips, Nil kept his sharp eyes trained on hers, then thrust upward and pulled her down on to him simultaneously. There was a sharp tearing sensation, and Aloy was unable to prevent the wince and harsh exhale that escaped her. It was definitely not the worst pain in the world, but it was by no means enjoyable, and she was suddenly grateful for Nil's insistance on preparing her with his fingers and mouth. One of his hands found hers, and he rubbed a thumb soothingly over her knuckles.

"That's as much as it'll ever hurt. Take your time."

Once the initial sting had faded to a dull throb, Aloy steeled herself and sank the rest of the way down on to his length, until he was completely bottomed out inside of her. Nil grunted and dug his dull nails into her upper thighs, tiny pricks of pain against the ache in her core. It gave her something else to focus on, and it wasn't long before the remaining discomfort ebbed, leaving nothing but an overwhelming sense of fullness and a burgeoning pleasure in its place.

"Good girl," Nil murmured, his fingers dancing over the skin of her belly and up to her breasts. "Go ahead and move when you're ready."

Aloy didn't need any more time to adjust. Already eager for more, she gave an experimental rock of her hips, gasping at the sparks of pleasure that skittered over her skin as he moved inside of her. Nil was hot and thick, and her own slick coating him made moving near effortless.

Rough fingertips caught a pebbled nipple and rolled it in a pincer grip, bringing Aloy higher while she set a desperate, uneven pace. With his other hand clutching at her waist, Nil coaxed her down so that he could take her other breast into his mouth, the wet flick of his tongue teasing over the sensitive skin. In the face of so many competing sensations, Aloy couldn't keep her focus on anything but where he touched her and the feeling of his cock buried far inside of her, already feeling herself trembling with exertion as she sprinted towards her rapidly approaching completion.

Nil met her thrust for thrust, his flushed skin glistening with a coat of perspiration from his efforts. When he finally pulled back from her chest, he captured her hand in his own, threading their fingers together. Those steel eyes were alive and molten as they reflected the flickering flames of the nearby fire, and, mesmerized, Aloy couldn't bring herself to look away. The way he was gazing at her - with lust and affection and something deeper, something she was too afraid to name but she knew she was reflecting right back at him - wound her tighter and tighter.

"Sahad," she panted. "I - I can't, I'm going to - "

"I'm right behind you, Aloy," he said, his voice strangled. "Go ahead, it's all right - let go."

When she finally fell apart, Aloy was sure she blacked out for a moment. Her entire body jerked and writhed against his as she collapsed forward on to her lover's broad chest. Spasms of pleasure echoed in her core as she felt her inner walls clench and unclench around him over and over again, dragging him towards his own peak. Blood pounded furiously in her ears, muting the sounds of her own keening cries and Nil's relieved groan when he gave one final, hard thrust up and then stilled, emptying himself deep within her in a hot rush of his seed.

Eventually, his strong arms came up around her and he lifted her slightly, slipping out of her with a hissing breath. The sudden emptiness ached, and Aloy winced; she could already feel the beginnings of soreness creeping into the tender flesh there. When she settled back down against Nil, too drowsy and too warm to want to move, his hands stroked over her hair and back, and his lips peppered lazy kisses over her neck and shoulder.

"How do you feel, little huntress?" he asked quietly, smoothing an errant strand of hair from her brow.

"A little sore, but mostly fine." Aloy nuzzled into his neck with a sigh. "That was amazing."

She felt the pleased noise he made as it vibrated in his throat. "I've never had any complaints regarding this particular skill set, but coming from you, that means a lot."

"When can we do it again?"

Nil laughed brightly, and Aloy's heart warmed at the sound. "Well now, I think I've created a monster."

Aloy's finger poking at his side finally got him to stop laughing. "Not for awhile, fierce one. It'll take me some time to recover, and you'll probably need a day or so to heal as well."

At her disappointed sigh, Nil tugged her away from his chest so he could kiss her, a languid caress of his lips over her own. Aloy melted into him, kissing him back just as lazily, letting her fingertips drift over his sweat-slick skin.

"I promise there's plenty more where that came from," he said when they parted, humor still sparkling in his eyes. "Nothing is more important to me than ensuring a lady's satisfaction."

"By Carja definition, I'm no lady," Aloy mumbled sleepily, tracing circles over his chest.

"Ah, but to me, you are," Nil whispered against her ear. "If things were different, if I had you back home, I'd already be courting you properly. Women like you are a rare breed, and I wouldn't let you go for Sun-King Jiran himself."

Aloy's heart sped, the implication of his words crashing into her all at once. All of her tiredness gone, she angled her head to stare at him.

"You - you'd want to keep me?" she asked, scarcely daring to breathe.

A bitter smile twisted his lips, and she felt her heart begin to sink. "Of course. I would, and I do. If it were possible as things are now, believe me, Aloy - nothing would stand between us."

"Why can't you?" She pulled away from him, frowning and desperately trying to stave off the anxiety that was creeping into her.

"Non-Carja aren't even allowed in Meridian," Nil explained, regret weighing heavily on his face. "Not to mention someone of my status being associated with an outsider - especially a Nora - would be yet another death sentence. Both you and I would be thrown into the Sun-Ring and sacrificed, and I won't let that happen to you."

"Then we - we run away together, go somewhere else!" Aloy knew she was being ridiculous, knew that she was borderline begging, but she couldn't bring herself to care as panic set in and the words spilled out of her like blood from a wound. "Please, Sahad, I don't want to be apart from you. You're the only one who's ever seen me, who's ever truly wanted me, and I don't want to lose that, not when I just got to have it for the first time in my life!"

Nil brought his hand to her face, cradling her cheek and wiping away a stray tear with his thumb. Aloy shuddered and willed herself to be still.

"I know, Aloy," he said quietly. "Trust me, I know. I wasn't going to tell you this, not yet, but there may be a way - although the odds are slim that it will work, and it would take time and my absence."

"I'll take any chance I can get," Aloy said, gripping at his wrist until her knuckles whitened.

"We'll discuss the particulars later. Regardless, you need to stay here in Nora lands for now." When she opened her mouth to protest, he held up a placating hand. "Hear me out. Your entire life has been spent in preparation for the Proving, to find answers. I don't want you to waste all of that effort, and besides, you have someone waiting for you. I don't want you growing to hate me for taking you away from all of that."

"I...I know." Aloy could already feel her resolve starting to crumble. As much as she hated to admit it, Nil was right; she wanted to stay with him, but she also needed to finish what she set out to do all those years ago. Rost deserved to know that she was alive and well, and maybe she could even begin to mend the gap between them. Time, even time away from the man she had grown to want by her side more than anything else, would give her both of those things. And if there was a way Nil could come back to her, a way to have both answers and him - what other choice did she have but to trust him?

"I know it's not what you want to hear," Nil said softly. "But it may be the only way I can secure a future for you. For us."

Nil's lips found her forehead for one last kiss. His fingers slid under her chin, and he pushed it up until she was looking at him again.

"But we'll have to speak more on this later, fierce one. For now, allow me clean both of us up, and then we have a dinner to prepare."

Aloy didn't protest. Instead, she mutely watched him wet a rag, more conflicted and uncertain than she had been in her life. All she wanted was an easy answer, for this to work itself out on its own, but she knew that wasn't likely or even realistic. As Nil dragged the cloth over her tender center, wiping away blood and slick and seed, she forced down the maelstrom of emotions inside of her as best she could. Right now, Nil was still beside her, and that's all that mattered.

Chapter Text

As much as Aloy tried to stretch out every remaining minute she had with Nil, time still passed far too quickly. It was like fighting against a wild river current, powerful and inevitable in its neverending flow. No matter how much she railed against it, she knew that it would eventually sweep her away as it always did.

It was no surprise that sleep had become elusive and only occurred in short bursts for her, the ticking of the steadily winding down clock echoing even in her dreams now. Not even Nil's soothing caresses and murmured words could calm Aloy on those nights where she startled awake into a blood-chilling panic and was left wide awake for hours after. Taking it in stride as he seemed to everything else in his life, Nil would always stay up with her, occasionally talking but mostly just holding her tightly against him, like she would vanish the instant he loosened his grip. This only magnified the ache in Aloy's heart. Sometimes she wanted beat her fists against his chest, to fall to her knees and beg him to stay with her, but she knew he wouldn't listen, and it would only be a wasted effort.

Instead, Aloy found solace in the hard angles and roughened skin of her lover's body. The fire in his eyes and the warmth of his hands were incomparable to anything she had yet experienced, his constant touches a grand feast after years of starvation. It felt sometimes like she'd never be able get enough of him, leading her to seek him out multiple times a day.

Nil bedded her in many different ways, sometimes quick and hard, in other instances slow and sensual, drawing her so taut at times she felt as if she could snap. As his leg finished its healing and became capable of supporting his bulk, the variety of positions he took Aloy in increased as well, from her bent over on to her hands and knees while he pummeled into her relentlessly, to him looming over top of her like a hunter inspecting the kill he had cradled in the steel trap of his arms.

Or like now, how he was curled around behind her, his naked skin a furnace heating her own, his hardened cock an insistent press on her lower back.

"My beautiful Aloy," Nil purred against her neck, his fingertips grazing over the hardened peaks of her nipples. "So fierce, so strong."

Aloy unabashedly reveled in the warmth that engulfed her everytime her name left his lips, and now was no different. The sensual, rumbling sound of it combined with his words of praise wound tight in her core, and all she could do was was curve into his maddening touches.

"Tell me how to please you," he murmured. His tongue darted out to taste the skin of Aloy's neck, eliciting a shiver from her. "Anything I have to give is yours. Just say the word."

"Inside of me, now," she gasped.

"Well, now," Nil mused. "Are you sure? There are many other activities we could be enjoying first."

To illustrate his point, his fingers pinched and caressed her breasts even more, until Aloy was whining and bowing uselessly against him. Slick had already pooled between her thighs in a sticky mess from how worked up she was from his onslaught of teasing. Despite the fact that he hadn't even touched her there yet, she was more than ready for him.

"Nil," she gritted out, "I said now."

He chuckled lowly. "As my huntress commands."

Lining himself up against her entrance, he sank into her easily, not bothering to suppress his relieved moan when he bottomed out. Aloy bucked her hips back against his, luxuriating in the stretch of his cock inside of her as he filled her, along with the completion she felt everytime they coupled. His fingers stroked their way in a lazy trail down the smooth skin of her abdomen, until they found her aching clit, drawing a whimper from her when they circled over it in a practiced motion. It had only been a week, and yet he already knew her so well.

"So good, Aloy," he hissed between hot, open-mouthed kisses and sharp nibbles to her neck. He pulled out slowly, then thrust back into her hard. "Do you feel it? How my cock fits so perfectly inside of you - it's like you were made for me, and I for you."

The tension inside of her coiled ever tighter, but Nil kept the motions of both his hips and fingertips controlled and even, bringing her right to the edge of her peak but not allowing her to go over just yet. His free hand came up to once again toy with a pebbled nipple, and needy little whines and whimpers spilled uncontrollably from her while she writhed against him.

"Fuck, I love everything about you." Another thrust, this one deeper. "Your courage, your loyalty, your skill..."

"Sahad," she panted, reaching back to dig her fingernails into the taut skin of his thigh. At the contact, he hissed and stilled, and she knew then that his self-control was beginning to wane. "I - I want...I want..."

His teeth caught her earlobe. "Tell me what you want, little huntress."

Words were hard to grasp on to against the current of so much sensation, but Aloy managed to gasp out, "I need release, please -"

As soon as the words left her, Nil bit down into her neck and slammed into her with so much force it was only the arm he had hooked securely around her waist that kept her from flying forward. The sharp pain from his teeth sinking into her plus the pleasure from his hands and cock melded together in a dizzying combination of sensation, bringing her closer and closer to her peak. As he fucked into her mercilessly, his fingers on her clit sped their vigorous circling until Aloy was jerking erratically against him, her climax now just barely out of her reach, all of her thoughts consumed by a haze of pleasure.

"Come, Aloy."

It was the combination of his touch and the sinful crooning of his voice that had her finally plummeting over the edge, and Aloy practically screamed as her vision went white for a few endless seconds. Distantly, she registered her lover's snarling shout as his motions stuttered and then ceased, his hips flush with her backside, his cock twitching as he emptied himself deep within her.

While Aloy caught her breath, Nil slipped out of her and rolled on to his back, bringing her with him until she was resting entirely on top of his chest. A veil of drowsiness settled over her, both from the exertion of their coupling and the warmth of his body against hers.

"This is what, the third time today?" Nil's hands traced idly over the skin of her back. "I'm not sure I can continue keeping up with you at this rate, little huntress."

His fingers found a knot in a muscle, and Aloy moaned as he worked at it, her eyes fluttering shut.

"That's all right," she replied groggily, wincing when he hit a particularly sore spot. "I think I'm done for the day anyway."

Nil gave a pleased hum. "I can't believe I've finally done it."

Aloy cracked an eye open at him. "Done what?"

"Satisfied the insatiable beast, of course." Nil blinked up at her innocently, batting his eyelashes for good measure.

All Aloy could do was glare at him then settle her head back down on his torso and mutter, "Ass."

Rich, mirthful laughter vibrated in his chest. "Well, I must have really tired you out this time if that's all you can manage."

"Shut up," she mumbled petulantly. "I'm trying to enjoy it while it lasts."

Nil's motions stilled. "Aloy..."

"What?" she said shortly, stubbornly refusing to look at him. She knew she was being petty, but their looming parting had cast a pall over everything they did, and it was growing more and more difficult to not sink into despair and bitterness.

With a sigh, Nil gently pushed her away from his chest until he could look her in the eye. "It's time to talk about this."

"Oh, now you want to?" she snapped, a rush of hot anger overtaking her. "After an entire week of refusing to explain yourself and deflecting everytime I ask?"

"I'm sorry, Aloy," he said, propping himself up on his elbow. "Truly. But I was still working out the details myself. I didn't want to give you false hope."

Unbidden, tears stung at her eyes, but she stubbornly blinked them back. "I just want to know what's going on, Nil."

"I know. The problem is, so much of what I'm planning is uncertain." He glanced away, taking a breath before refocusing on her, conviction gleaming in his eyes. "But here's the short of it. In a week, when my leg is as healed as it'll get, I'll be heading back out west to fight."

Cold apprehension washed over Aloy. "But you said you didn't want to be a kestrel anymore. I thought - "

"Not as a kestrel or under Sun-King Jiran's banner," Nil interrupted her, shaking his head. "I'm sure I've been long presumed dead anyway, and my sudden return wouldn't be looked upon kindly by my commanding officer. Before we came to the Sacred Lands, however, I had heard credible rumors of a resistance being mustered by Jiran's exiled son, Avad, in Oseram lands. The prince intends to liberate Meridian and, ultimately, the entire Sundom."

Biting at her lip, Aloy sat up fully and wrapped her arms around her knees, hugging them close. "I still don't understand why any of this is your responsibility. I've been thinking about this too. You could just lie low for awhile, and once I finish what I need to here, we could start a life together somewhere else. Somewhere far away from both the Sacred Lands or the Sundom."

The smile on Nil's face was tinged with sadness. "We've talked about this, my little huntress. Beyond this being the honorable thing to do, I belong on the battlefield. Bloodshed is all I've ever known, the only thing I've ever been truly skilled at. Besides, you deserve so much more than a life on the run. And this is the only way I have to give you that, even if the chances are high that I won't survive it."

His words jolted through her like a shock, and Aloy straightened. "What do you mean, you won't survive it?"

His hand curled over hers, warm and steadying, and he sat up as well. Aloy forced herself to calm and hear him out.

"This rebellion is a long shot. Meridian is well protected, the soldiers stationed there unmatched in skill. The only way in or out is through the Great Elevators and the bridges, so whoever holds the city has a staggering advantage. Unless Prince Avad has some trick up his sleeve, the odds are slim that this will work."

"Then why try at all?" Try as she might, Aloy couldn't keep the desperation from her voice.

"Because it's the only way for me to begin to atone for all I've done." Nil's fingertips were a soft caress over the arch of her cheek. "I'm not a good man, Aloy. I never have been. Even now, I struggle to regret my actions, as conflicted as I am about who I've been commanded to target. I've reveled in murder and destruction with the full blessing of the Sun-King himself, and even when I began to suspect that what I was doing was wrong, I numbed myself to what was left of my conscience even more. The draw of war, of killing is too much for a man such as I to resist."

"But you were starting to question it. You told me yourself."

Nil frowned. "Yes, but I had no way out and no motivation to search for one. Why bother when I could so easily satisfy my cravings, when the alternative was almost certain death? But then..." His eyes softened as he swept his gaze over her. "But then I happened to come upon a foolhardy Nora girl while out scouting one day."

Aloy wasn't sure whether she should be offended or touched. "It was I who came upon you, as I seem to recall."

Nil shook his head and chuckled, then sat back. A thoughtful look spread over his face.

"You know, little huntress, I used to believe that there was no place more intimate than the killing field, no other physical or spiritual closeness that could compare to the moment of death, when your kill's eyes become so glassy you can see your own reflection gazing back at you. I still believe these things, to some extent. But then, there's also what I have with you. For the first time in my life, these beliefs have been challenged."

Scooting closer to Nil, Aloy laid her head on his shoulder, sighing as the heat from his skin warmed her cheek.

"What's so different about me?" she asked softly. "You told me you've had many lovers before."

"I have. I've also killed in the hundreds. But when I take you to bed, nothing else comes close to what we share, and I couldn't tell you why that is. The best part of it all is that I can capture that feeling, that indescribable look in your eyes as many times as I want. There's no limiting factor there, unlike with my other vices."

Pain lanced through Aloy's heart once again. "Except...us parting."

"As I am now, I'm not the man you deserve," Nil said gently. "But by joining the Sun Prince's rebellion, I have a chance to be. I'll never fully discard my desires, but I can redirect my arrows and blade on to those who actually deserve death, those who prey on the innocent. And what better first target than the regime that made me what I am?"

Aloy forced herself to nod. The hardest part of all of this was how much she understood where he was coming from, why he needed to go back to the Sundom. It was his strict dedication to his code of honor that kept him walking that thin line between holding on to his remaining humanity and losing himself entirely to meaningless bloodshed. And along with that also came his need to make things right in the only way he knew how. A question came to her then, something she had wondered often but hadn't yet had the courage to ask. But as time ran out, her bravery only grew.

"Nil?" Aloy asked, her tone hesitant. "I've been wanting to ask you this for a long time, but...why did you switch our positions that day? When we fell down here?"

"Simply put, little huntress, I didn't want you to die, not yet." His brow knitted. "And if I'm being entirely honest, I'm not sure I could have run you through with my blade either. As I said, I usually savor the moment death steals the light in my kill's eyes. But there was something about your eyes - that look in them was so intoxicatingly alive and defiant, I couldn't help but want more."

He took her hand in his, pressing his lips to her knuckles with the slightest smile.

"And for once in my life, I know I made the right call. I would have missed out on all of this and still been trapped as a kestrel with no way out. You've given me purpose and a precious chance at freedom, Aloy, and I will forever be in your debt for that."

Nil bowed forward to kiss her, his hand coming to cup her cheek, the pad of his thumb stroking at the soft, thin skin beneath her eye. His lips lingered on hers for awhile, tasting as sweet as the summer berries growing above them, before he broke from her with a heavy sigh, his forehead still settled against hers.

"I don't want to lose you, Nil," she whispered, leaning further into his touch. "I'm so afraid."

"You want to know a secret, little huntress?" His smile was bitter when he finally pulled back from her. "I am too. More than I've ever been in my life, and it's not even for myself. I'm afraid for you. The thought of leaving you behind gnaws at me like flies on a festering wound. The only solace I find in all of this is the fact that you have Rost to go back to."

"It's not the same," she said, resting her chin on the tops of her knees and blowing out a frustrated breath. "He's not like you, not even close. There's always been this barrier between us, and I can't imagine things being any different when I go back home. He's taken care of me my entire life, but I've never once felt truly loved by him."

"We have that in common, then." Nil's arm wound around her shoulder, and he hugged her close. "I barely remember my mother anymore. My childhood after her death was a waking nightmare of fear and misery, and by the time I entered the military I was already too hardened by my father's hand to actively seek out such silly sentiments. I don't know what it's like to feel loved either."

Mutely, Aloy twisted around, wrapping her arms around his waist and squeezing tight. His heartbeat was a gentle, grounding thrum against her cheek.

"But you do," she said, her voice choked. She gulped back all of her nervousness and trepidation before pressing on. "You know exactly what it feels like, Sahad, because I love you."

An endless moment of silence dragged by. Nil's heart skipped and then sped to an erratic tattoo, pounding furiously in her ear. A few more seconds passed, then he crushed her to his chest, a broken, wounded noise tearing free from him.

"Oh, Aloy," he gasped, and she realized then that he was shaking. She tightened her grip on him. "How am I ever going to bring myself to let you go?"

The tears she had been trying her damnest to hold back finally came then, blurring her vision and running freely in messy rivulets down her face. Hopelessness, despair, impotent fury - a storm of emotions raged inside of her, and she was helpless against it, crumbling instantly.

One week.

Seven days.

Then it would all be over, and Aloy would wake from the dream to re-enter the real world, a world which suddenly seemed infinitely duller than it had before. To think that she had once believed that her time with Nil was a nightmare. Now that the end was near, she could only curse herself for wasting so many weeks loathing and then resisting him.

"I don't know," Aloy whispered, burrowing deeper into his embrace, as if she could hide from their oncoming fate. "I don't know."

Chapter Text

A gentle, warm pressure settled on her lips, stirring her from sleep. It moved to her cheek, her jawline, her pulse point, then back to her mouth, until Aloy finally slid her eyes open to see Nil hovering over her. With a slight smile, he brushed a few stray strands of hair from her brow.

"Good morning, little huntress."

Aloy's throat closed up when her thoughts caught up with her and cold realization set in. As much as she had tried to put it off, begged and cajoled Nil for more time, today was the day she would be saying goodbye to him, potentially forever.

Instead of speaking, her lips found his, and she kissed him back hard, desperation tinging her every movement. Nil made a soft noise against her mouth, cupping her face as he deepened the kiss, his tongue parting her lips and sliding into the heat of her mouth. Gripping at his back, Aloy pulled him as close as he could get, greedy for these last touches, wanting to burn how he felt in this moment into her memory.

No clothes lay between them, as both were still bare from the night before, so it was an easy thing for Nil to press into her until he was fully sheathed in her warm depths. No words were spoken, a hush falling over them as Aloy hooked her legs around his hips and he rocked into her, his grey eyes locked with hers the entire time. Each thrust, every pass of his lips over her skin drove the emotions roiling within her to a fever pitch, even as they also pushed her towards her inevitable peak.

The knowledge that this could be her last time with Nil made every moment all the more bittersweet. Aloy tried to hold her release back, she really did. But it was a losing battle - her lover knew her body nearly as well as she did by now, and when his fingers fell to where they were joined to stroke firmly at her clit, she couldn't help but fall apart beneath him. Tears burned in her eyes as she came, her inner walls contracting around his cock rhythmically, and soon he was joining her, groaning out her name even as he continued to thrust into her irregularly. It wasn't until he was entirely soft that Nil pulled himself from her with a hiss, settling beside her once more.

Coaxing Aloy to roll on her side to face him, Nil interlocked their fingers. Her gaze landed on the silver of his eyes then dropped to the inky black of the markings beneath them. An idea sprouted in her mind and grew until she couldn't ignore it anymore.

Haltingly, as if she were in a trance, Aloy's fingers unwound from his to graze over the old tattoos.

"Your markings. You said you share them with family, right?"

"Yes?" Confusion colored Nil's tone, and he lifted his head to tilt it at her.

"And...if you had a wife...you'd paint them on her, and she'd wear them too."

Realization broke through his face like the sun through the clouds after a long rainfall. "Aloy, what are you saying - "

"I want to wear them," she blurted out, biting at her lip as if to catch the already spilled words. "I want something to show that we still belong to each other, even after you're gone."

"It wouldn't be legally recognized by the Carja unless I petitioned for it," Nil commented, brushing his own fingertips over the space under her eyes.

"I don't care." Aloy shook her head. "It wouldn't be to the Nora either. There's no way I'd ever get approval for you to be my mate anyway, but that doesn't matter to me. What matters is that I know what they mean."

"Are you certain? Being bound to a man such as myself, even unofficially..." He looked away, his throat bobbing as he swallowed.

"You're the man I want," she replied fiercely. "It's not about whether you deserve it or not. I want to be your mate - your wife."

Propping himself up on an elbow, Nil studied her in silence with inscrutible eyes for so long that Aloy began to fear that he would refuse her, and shards of icy anxiety stabbed in her gut. But his features soon relaxed, an easy grin splitting his lips.

"All right, Aloy." He rose to his feet, offering her a hand up. "Let's get dressed, and you'll have me as a husband before the hour is out."

They threw on their clothes together quickly, giddiness bubbling up in Aloy as she pulled on her leggings. She knew already that Nil belonged to her as much as she did him, but something about wearing the evidence of their bond on her face solidified that sense of belonging even more. Even if her markings were to be painted on rather than tattooed as his were, that could always be changed. Maybe one day, far down the road, they could be etched permanantly into her skin as well, and despite everything else she found comfort in the thought.

For the first time since the day they had met, Nil donned his full armor. She watched while he took his time to hook each piece of the intricate ensemble on to his body with great care. Combing his fingers roughly through his hair, he tied it up into the severe bun he had also neglected to wear since that first day. When he finally turned to face her, his movements were halting and tense with apprehension.

It wasn't difficult to understand why - he looked all the part of a kestrel, an elite soldier, intimidating and powerful in armor made to emphasize those very characteristics. But when Aloy looked into his eyes, all she could see was Nil, the man she loved with all of her heart, and the tension within her vanished in an instant. She came to his side, and, standing on her toes, pressed a kiss onto the rough stubble of his cheek, smiling when she felt him relax beneath her.

"This is okay?" he murmured, turning his face to catch her lips in a brief kiss.

"Of course," Aloy replied, running her fingers over the smooth, dark metal encasing his shoulders. "It's part of who you are."

"Well, and I also couldn't get married in nothing more than this," he said, gesturing down at his skirt, grinning when Aloy rolled her eyes at him.

"And you know I wouldn't have cared either way." She glanced about with a frown. "So...how is this supposed to work?"

"For starters, we should be standing beneath the Sun. Follow me."

Grasping at her hand, he lead her from the flower room into the entrance of the cave, where bright, lazy beams of summer sunlight filtered into the murky darkness. Nil squinted up at the sun, clucking his tongue.

"Traditionally, marriage ceremonies are held at dawn, but it seems we've slept in far past that, so midday will have to do." His tone was dry when he added, "May the Sun forgive us our transgressions."

Aloy snorted, and he raised an eyebrow at her with twitching lips before taking her other hand in his. His voice was soft when he spoke.

"We're going to skip past all of the ceremonial nonsense and religious readings and go straight to the relevant vows, if that's all right with you. All you need to do is repeat after me, substituting the appropriate words. Okay?"

At her quick nod, he cleared his throat.

"Aloy, beneath the light of the Sun, I claim you as my wife. You are the Shadow to my Sun, the Sun to my Shadow. As those two are bound, so are we."

Her heart was racing when she repeated in a shaky voice, "Sahad, beneath the light of the Sun, I claim you as my husband. You are the Shadow to my Sun, the Sun to my Shadow. As those two are bound, so are we."

"Together we will be bound," he continued, rubbing his thumbs soothingly over her fingers, "until darkness separates us."

His simple touch was all it took to calm her, and Aloy's voice was strong and clear when she spoke this time.

"Together we will be bound, until darkness separates us."

"You don't need to repeat this next part," he muttered, dropping her hands to dig into one of the pouches on his belt. After a few seconds, he produced a black stick of kohl with a flourish and a wink.

"This will be easier if you keep your eyes open and look up," Nil advised, bringing the pigment to her eyes. Aloy did as he said, rolling her eyes up to stare at the deep blue sky above them.

The cool edge of the stick pressed against her skin, and Nil worked in quick strokes while he spoke. "Aloy of the Nora, with these marks, I, Sahad Khane Argir, bring you into the shelter and protection of my house, Kho Argir. With the Sun as my witness, you shall henceforth be known as Aloy Khane Argir."

When he finished, Nil leaned back a bit, a fond smile coming to his face while he looked her over.

"I have to admit, you somehow look even more beautiful this way," he commented, circling his arms around her waist and drawing her close. Aloy could feel her face flushing at his compliment, but for once it didn't bother her. "There's something about seeing my markings on you, knowing you're mine..."

"So, is that it?" she asked, tracing her fingers over his broad chest, eyes wide as she stared up at him. "Are we..."

"Well, there is one more thing," Nil mused.

"What's that - "

Aloy was cut off as he bent down to kiss her, his lips surprisingly gentle and chaste against her own. He held her there for a long moment before releasing her, keeping his face close to hers.

"There," he murmured, tucking a lock of fiery hair behind her ear. "A kiss to seal the vows, and now we're as wed as we can be without a Sun Priest being involved."

Drawing back from her slightly, Nil grabbed one of her hands and turned it, palm-up. He deposited the stick of kohl there, closing her fingers over it.

"This should stay with you. If you wish to continue wearing my markings, after all, you'll need something to draw them on with."

Warmth simmered like coals in Aloy's belly as she took in Nil - her mate, her husband - as if for the first time. Nothing had truly changed between them, and Aloy wasn't a spiritual person in the slightest...but she felt somehow more connected to him. Like no matter how far he roamed, they'd always be inextricably tied together.

Still, only a few short hours lay between now and their separation. She was determined to make the most of their remaining time together, the only time they'd get together as a bonded couple until that far-off, unknown day when he would return to her side.

So, as their last day boiled away under the summer sun, Aloy sat with Nil at the water's edge. They talked, laughed, and were silent in turns, always touching, their eyes often locked together as intimately as if they were coupling. Most of these final moments were spent with Aloy nestled between his legs or in his lap with his arms around her. It was silly and childish, but she had the fleeting thought that maybe if she kept her body intertwined with Nil's, just maybe he wouldn't leave her.

All too soon, the sun began to set, casting dusky shadows over the walls of the cave. When the remaining light finally faded to the faintest glow, Nil gave a reluctant sigh and carefully extricated himself from Aloy.

"It's time, little huntress," he said quietly, rising to his feet.

"I know," she replied, accepting his offered hand to stand herself. A thought occurred to her, and she paused. "Wait, just a second - there's something I wanted to do before we...we go."

Nil tilted his head in confusion but nodded, and Aloy hurried over the path she had traversed many times before, back into the other room. In the middle sat that curious metal flower, gleaming dully in the sparse light. Activating her Focus, Aloy scanned the object and watched as data scrolled over her field of vision.

Code fragment downloaded: /// [function: true] {{When this pine sapling}} {{grows to flower...}} {{who'll be here?}} [function: true] ///

"Huh," Aloy said to herself, her brow furrowing. "That...doesn't tell me much."

Still, the strange words inexplicably touched some chord deep within her, and Aloy pondered them a few seconds more, an air of melancholy settling over her. But she had delayed long enough.

When she came back to Nil's side, he gave her a grim smile and angled his head towards the cave wall.

"Well, let's go."

Just as they had fallen in, the couple climbed out together. It wasn't nearly as difficult a trek as it had been that first night Aloy had gone hunting, her muscles once again honed to top form with how many times she had left since in search of food. Nil's armor jangled beneath her, and she was frankly a bit jealous of how his breath still came evenly, not to mention how he barely seemed to be struggling.

When they pulled themselves over the edge, Nil immediately stood, his chest swelling as he sucked in a huge breath of the fresh mountain air. Darkness crept into nearly every corner of the Sacred Lands, cloaking most everything from sight, but he stared out over them anyway, his eyes wide and a slight smile curling his lips.

"In all my years marching through the wilds, I never thought I'd miss them as much as I have these past weeks."

"It feels like coming home in a way, huh?" Aloy responded softly, taking in the lush nighttime scenery of her childhood herself.

His silver gaze slid back to her.

"Not quite."

Something undefinable passed between them then. Anguish and desperate wanting clawed their way up through Aloy's gut and into her throat. Her lips parted.

"Nil - "

He crashed into her, his hands coming to her voluminous hair and tugging while he kissed her thoroughly. A broken sound fell from Aloy's lips as he guided her several feet backwards, until her back was flush against a tree trunk. The heat from his body melded with hers so completely that, for a moment, she wasn't sure where she began or he ended.

Yanking her leggings down, Nil shoved a couple of thick fingers into her slit, his mouth simultaneously falling to her neck. His teeth scraped and bit while his lips kissed and sucked, stoking the flames within her and almost certainly leaving marks over the pale breadth of skin. Aloy leaned into his attentions, desperate for something, anything to remind her that he had been here with her.

Nil didn't spend long preparing her. The instant he seemed satisfied that Aloy was ready, he removed his hand from her, bending briefly to tug her boots and pants off the rest of the way. Then, curling his arms around her thighs securely, Nil hoisted her up against the firm surface of the tree. Jagged bark dug into Aloy's skin, but she paid it barely any mind, because seconds later her husband was shoving the fabric of his skirt out of the way and sliding into her in one hard stroke.

It was rough and messy, full of frustration and useless yearning for a path denied to them. Instead of dwelling on this, Aloy lost herself in pure physical sensation as he drove into her, his breath coming in sharp, short bursts and grunts. Nil seemed to have about as much control over himself as she did, but he still had the presence of mind to drop his fingers and circle them rapidly over her clit, bringing her too close, too fast.

The ferocity and suddeness of her release surprised Aloy. Wave upon wave of overwhelming pleasure crashed over her as she came, arching against the solid heat of her husband. It didn't take much longer for Nil to fall apart as well, sobbing, shuddering cries shaking his entire body when he spent himself deep inside of her for the final time. His movements slowed then finally stopped, and with a heavy sigh, his forehead fell to her chest. He stayed that way for several moments while their breathing calmed, before gradually easing her back to the ground.

Aloy dressed quickly and quietly, and when she finished, Nil mutely took her hand in his. Together, they headed towards the road out of Nora lands, only a short walk from their cave.

"Nil...how is this even supposed to work?" Aloy asked when they reached their destination, stubbornly ignoring the prick of tears in the corners of her eyes. "How will I even know when you come back?"

"I'll find you," Nil said roughly, cupping her face in his hands. "You don't have to wait for me, but if I survive this, I will come back for you. Even if it's just to make sure you're all right."

His eyes were so alive and so determined that she instantly believed him, somehow finding a small measure of comfort in his conviction. It was such a change from those lifeless grey eyes she had encountered all those weeks ago that her chest constricted painfully.

"And I'll wait for you. No matter how long it takes."

"You might be waiting for nothing, little huntress," Nil reminded her gently. "If I don't die in battle, I could very well be put to death for my crimes. I don't want you to waste your life wondering."

Aloy swallowed thickly. As much as her heart ached at the thought of losing him entirely, she knew he was right - but she couldn't bring herself to think about that right now, not while their parting was imminent and everything was still so raw.

"If you do anything for me, live your life with as much vigor as you always have." He angled his head down, bringing his face so close to hers she could feel his breath dancing over her skin. "Don't let my absence consume you. And if I survive long enough to come back and you've moved on or found someone else, I'll be at peace with that. Promise me, Aloy."

Her name on his lips was bittersweet, but she drank in the sound, doing her best to commit it to memory.

"I'm your wife," she whispered, shaking her head. "I meant every word of those vows. There will never be anyone else."

"Nor for me," he said, his eyes shining as brightly as the moon overhead.

Nil closed the distance between them and covered her mouth with his own. The kiss was tender and sweet, and his arms wrapped around her waist to pull her as close as she could get. Aloy knew then she'd remember this moment forever, would recall it every night as she lay in bed and wondered if he'd ever come home to her. If Nil hadn't been holding her in the security of his embrace, she was certain she would have crumbled to her knees right then.

It seemed to last an eternity, and yet it was over all too soon. He pressed his lips to her forehead, then under each eye, and he looked more conflicted than she had ever seen him when he finally pulled away from her.

"I'm as bound to you as you are to me, even in death," he said, giving her hand a final squeeze. "Don't forget that."

"I won't." Aloy's voice was barely a whisper. "I love you."

He dropped her hand and backed away, and she could've sworn his eyes were wet with unshed tears.

"Goodbye, Aloy."

Her stomach churned to the point where she felt sick, but she managed to choke out, "I'll see you again, Sahad."

With one last, long look, he turned heel and began the long walk back to the Sundom. Aloy watched her husband until he dipped below the crest of a hill and vanished as if he'd never been there at all. Her heart was a leaden weight in her chest as she began her own trek back home.

--

The walk back to Rost's hut was a short one. Sneaking back into the Embrace was no easy feat with the Braves guarding the high walls, but Aloy managed, her aptitude for stealthy maneuvering saving her from detection more than once.

Two months had come and gone, and not much beyond the season had changed, the bright, lush spring fading into a hazy mountain summer. Her feet stepped over the same roads she had run along countless times as a child while her eyes took in the shadowed forms of the mountains, ringing the valley like overprotective sentinels. Somewhere far off, a Whippoorwill cried out in search of its mate.

The familiarity of her childhood home should have brought comfort to Aloy. It should have filled some of the hole left in her heart in the wake of Nil's departure. But all she felt was a sense of wrongness and discomfort, like she was trying to shove on a shoe that didn't quite fit anymore.

Even though it was late into the evening, a few torches were still lit outside of Rost's hut, and she allowed herself to finally relax, just a little bit. Slinging her bow over her back just as she had countless times after returning from a hunt, Aloy pushed open the heavy wooden door.

Rost's hulking form was silouetted in front of the roaring hearth, his back to her. When he heard the creak of the door, he jerked around, wariness hardening the deep lines of his face (when had he grown so old?), a hand shooting to his belt where Aloy knew he kept a dagger. But then his eyes caught on her, and they widened until they were impossibly huge. Every other emotion melted away until only shock and disbelief remained.

"Aloy," he breathed out, her name an exhausted, strained utterance on his lips.

"Hi, Rost." She smiled weakly, setting her bow down next to its old place by the door. "I'm home."

Aloy wasn't sure who moved first, but a split second later she was caught up in his enormous arms. Surprised laughter bubbled from her, tears springing instantly to her eyes. When was the last time Rost had touched her affectionately, much less hugged her? For a moment, Aloy felt small again, and it was tempting to lean into that, to cling to him as she had as a girl after a nightmare. But instead she straightened, pulling away from him until she could look him in the eye.

"Where have you been?" Rost croaked, and she was stunned to see tears of his own shining in those kind blue eyes. Confusion set in as they wandered over her face, and she knew he was taking in Nil's markings beneath her eyes. She held steady beneath his gaze, lifting her chin and staring back.

"Aloy, those are Carja - what's going on? What happened to you? Has somebody hurt you -"

She shook her head, forcing back the tears threatening to spill. "No, it's not like that. Can we discuss this later? It's been...a lot has happened, and I just - "

His arms around her tightened again, and Aloy squeezed her eyes shut as she pressed her face into the bristled furs on his chest.

"Of course. We have a lot to talk about, you and I." Her guardian took a shuddering breath. His voice was soaked in relief when he said, "I'm just happy to have you home."

Aloy forced out a smile, pushing back all the thoughts of Nil's absence that threatened to overtake her. She knew they would come eventually, creeping into her consciousness in the silence and loneliness of the deep night. For now, she had Rost back, and something told her things between them would be different from now on.

It would have to be enough.

--

Later on, when Aloy couldn't sleep, her old bed too comfortable and too empty, she quietly slipped from the hut and into the night. The half-moon gleamed steadily overhead, and she wondered how far Nil had made it, if he was looking at the same stars as she was.

Settling down into the tall grass, Aloy leaned back on her hands and closed her eyes. Beyond the chirping of the crickets and the swaying of the grass, if she focused just so, she could still feel her husband's lips ghosting over her skin, hear his deep voice echoing in her ear.

"You're going to come home to me," she whispered into the night, as hushed and as tentative as a secret. "I know it."

"Aloy," his voice seemed to sigh, and she knew it was just the wind breezing over her ear, knew that Nil wasn't really there. But she leaned into it still, a smile curving her lips.

"Live."

And she did.

Chapter Text

Two years later

As she headed out of the safety of the Embrace for the first time in two years, Aloy's mind cycled endlessly through the events of the last few days. A numbness had settled over her like a thick fog, and she still couldn't quite believe that Rost was gone. It was unfair to the point of cruelty to have him taken from her after only a couple of years spent finally enjoying the bond she had yearned to have with him her entire life. She had even delayed her participation in the Proving by an extra year, just to buy more time with him. What was even left for her, beyond the truth of her origins and securing revenge against his murderer? Even if she managed to accomplish those daunting tasks, she had no one to return home to anymore, and her chest ached with the cold reality of just how alone she really was in the world.

Out of nervous habit, Aloy's fingertips brushed over Nil's - her - markings. She had taken to dutifully drawing them under her eyes nearly every morning, and the stick of kohl that Nil had gifted her upon his departure had almost worn away into nothingness after two years of near daily use. Rost had at first argued with her about the matter, insisting that Nil had only used her for his own physical pleasure and had fled when it had become too serious for his tastes, leaving her with false promises and pretty words.

But Aloy had known better, and she had dug her heels in at every turn. This conflict had nearly been the death of their newly-fledged improved relationship. After months of her stalwart refusal to stop wearing them, the issue had come to a head one night, and Aloy had nearly left entirely. Rost had finally seen reason then, resigning himself to heavy sighs and the occasional roll of the eyes, but the subject was never brought up again. Still, she had known better than to wear them to the Proving, and it turned out that her hunch had been correct. How would she have explained to Erend and Irid why she was wearing the markings of a Carja noble?

A Carja noble who was likely long dead, she often reminded herself bitterly. Nil had never come back for her, and as time had dragged on, she had begun to assume the worst. But then the Proving, along with the envoys, had come, and a tiny spark of something like hope had kindled within her while she listened to the contents of the letter penned by this new Sun-King. There was a chance, as slight as it was, that her husband could still be alive. And if he had died, it was likely during battle doing what he loved most.

A small comfort, but Aloy couldn't stomach the thought of him humiliated by execution or tossed into the Sun-Ring as a sacrifice. Her dreams were often haunted by scenes of Nil dying cold and alone, his eyes darting around rapidly as if searching for her. But by the time she reached him, it was always just a little too late. Sometimes she would wake screaming and thrashing, inconsolable until Rost cradled her to his chest and stroked her hair, shushing and calming her as if she were a child again.

But Rost is gone now too, she thought, gripping the handle of her spear until her knuckles whitened to a ghostly hue. So it's time to be strong. You can do this, even if it has to be alone.

And so Aloy walked on, the setting sun casting a long and dark shadow ahead of her. As she rounded a bend in the road, her head tilted curiously - a bright splash of red sat like a pool of blood beside the lazily gurgling river. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a man. The way he crouched facing the water was strangely familiar, and she wondered if he was someone she had spoken with at the Proving. With a shrug, she continued onward. She'd find out soon enough.

It wasn't until she was nearly upon him that the man turned his head in her direction.

Aloy's heart leapt to her throat. Achingly familiar silver eyes never left hers while he stood.

"Aloy."

Somehow, through the roaring of her blood in her ears and the trembling of her fingers, she managed to find her voice.

"Sahad?"

Her husband tilted his head, his lips quirking into his old half-smile. "I told you I'd try my hardest to come back to you. Well, here I am."

Laughter, delirious and high-pitched, bubbled out of her. "What took you so long?"

Nil shrugged, a loose roll of his shoulders. "Oh, you know. Finishing up a war, then prison for my role in said war. It was a bit of a hike to get here, but I came as fast as I could."

"You're alive," she breathed, still unable to believe what was in front of her.

"I am." His eyes were as beautifully sharp as she recalled as they drifted over her. "I survived for you, Aloy."

Without another word, Aloy darted forward and crashed into her husband, giving him barely enough time to open his arms to recieve her. Barking out a surprised laugh when he caught her, Nil spun her around once before crushing her to his chest. He was as solid and as warm as she remembered, and the familiar way his arms swallowed her in their embrace soothed her heart until all of the sorrow of the past two years melted away like a spring snow under the morning sun.

He held her there in silence for awhile, and Aloy sank into the comfort of his arms around her, his breath breezing over her hair as he tucked her head beneath his chin. In spite of everything that had happened over the past few days, something within her had been set right at their reuinion - and she knew then that, whatever trials lay ahead, she'd be able to overcome them.

Eventually, he drew away from her, a soft laugh leaving him at the indignant noise she made.

It was then that her eyes caught on a flash of metal on his back, and Aloy studied it for a moment with a small smile. It was a well-cared for bow, decorated with Carja feathers and, curiously enough, Nora beads.

"So I take it this is the Voice of Our Teeth?" she asked, gesturing towards the weapon.

Reaching back to pat at it, Nil shot her a proud grin. "The second, but she's just as lovely and as deadly as the first."

"Why the beads?" Aloy asked, raising an inquisitive brow.

"Well," he began, tugging her close again, "I had to have something to remind me of you while I charged into battle. Because of these, everytime I drew an arrow, my thoughts were with you."

Throwing her arms around him again, Aloy fought valiantly against the fresh round of tears that threatened to spill, and Nil chuckled as she nuzzled into his warmth.

"I take it you missed me, then?"

"Every single day," she said, clutching at the silky fabric of the scarf he wore. "I thought of you, of this moment, every single day."

"And still wearing my markings - I should've known you'd be so dedicated, little huntress," he murmured teasingly into her ear, his nose brushing up against the shell of it. She shivered, both from the familiar sound of his old nickname for her and his touch. "Now, I'd like to kiss my wife, if that's all right with her."

Instead of responding, Aloy stood on her toes slanted her mouth over his. There was a simultaneous moan of relief when their lips met - it was like the first taste of water after wandering lost in the desert, and she drank him in greedily. Those large, callused hands gripped at her waist, tugging her hips to his, and she wasn't surprised to find him hot and hard for her already. A burst of heat bloomed between her legs, and she deepened the kiss, her tongue grazing over the seam of his lips, insistently demanding entry. But instead of yielding to her, Nil pulled away with a groan and dropped his face to the crook of her neck.

"Aloy, it's been two years." His voice was rough and strained. "I need you. Now."

"Okay," she said breathlessly. Without a second thought, she grasped his hand and pulled him off the road.

How many times, how many lonely nights had she spent dreaming of this very moment? None of this felt real, but something told Aloy that she wouldn't wake up and find herself alone in her bed this time. No, the Nil beside her was very real and very alive, and she couldn't quite take her eyes off him as they walked side by side into a sheltering grove of birch trees.

The limp from his broken leg had never entirely left him, but it wasn't as pronounced as it had been on the day of his departure. He still trimmed his facial hair in the same style, although his face was more mature - harder now in some ways, yet softer still in others, like the way he gazed at her now. Her eyes wandered up to the feathered headdress he now wore, fingers itching to run through his silky black hair once more.

But when he caught Aloy's eyes on him and looked her over himself, Nil stopped in his tracks. His hold on her hand dropped, and he instead lifted it to tilt her chin up, the fingers on his other hand hovering over what she knew was the scabby evidence of her struggle with Rost's murderer.

"What's this?" His tone was low and rumbling, thunder proceeding a violent storm.

"It's..." Aloy licked her lips, her heart seizing as the events of the Proving all came rushing back to her. Pushing the horrific memories back, she focused instead on keeping her breathing even and deep.

"This wound...it's from a blade, and it's only days old at that," Nil said quietly, his hold on her jaw gentle but his eyes creased with fury as they swept over her neck. "Aloy, who did this to you?"

"Can we talk about this later?" Her voice was barely above a whisper, but Nil relented.

"All right, little huntress. Later."

Taking a deep breath, his throat bobbed as he stared down at the ground between them. A minute or so passed, and when he glanced up again, he looked as nervous and unsure as she felt. Aloy was comforted by the fact that she wasn't alone in that regard.

"Aloy, before this goes any further...I know it's been a long time, and I'll understand if you don't want this anymore. If you only continued to wear my markings out of obligation..."

He trailed off, his eyes so nakedly full of wanting and hope that Aloy couldn't keep herself from cupping his face between her hands and dragging him down for a kiss, deep and sweet and full of everything she had held back for the last two years.

"I wanted you then, and I want you now," she said fiercely when they parted. "Sun to Shadow, Sahad."

"Shadow to Sun," he repeated back to her, and his hand came up to rest over her own where it still lay on his cheek.

She drew in a shaky breath and attempted a smile. "You'd better stay with me from now on. I won't accept any less, you know."

"I wouldn't expect you to," he said with a grin as he pulled away from her. Said grin quickly grew wolfish as his eyes wandered down her body, and a tendril of arousal slithered in the pit of Aloy's belly. "Now then. Come here, little huntress, and show me just how much you missed me."

Without any hesitation, Aloy leapt forward and tackled her husband to the earth. His eyes widened comically, and the similarity between now and the first time they had met so long ago didn't escape her - but this time, she returned the heat in his eyes and wanted him so desperately she could barely stand it. A roll of her hips against his had him groaning.

"Tease," Nil bit out. He gathered her up in his arms and flipped their positions with an irritatingly smug smirk. "As much as I love having you on top of me, I think it's fair that I get a turn for once."

Aloy was about to protest, but then his fingers slipped down into her leggings and pressed against her core, and intense pleasure burst within her. It wasn't like she hadn't taken matters into her own hands while he had been absent, but her touch was no match for Nil's. He immediately got to work, thumbing the tight little bundle of nerves between her legs slowly and firmly, coaxing her pleasure from her. Aloy bit at her lip in a feeble attempt to suppress her cries, but it was a useless endeavor against the tide of so much stimulation. So she gave up, instead giving voice to every flame of pleasure dancing inside of her.

"That's it," Nil growled from where he was busy nibbling sharp marks into her collarbone. "Let it all out, fierce one. I want to hear everything I've so dearly missed."

One of his fingers slipped into her then, so much thicker and hotter than her own. Aloy arched beneath him, gripping at his scarf, and Nil let out a satisfied groan.

"You're already so wet, Aloy." His eyes were wild, his breath coming in short bursts. A crimson flush stained the pale of his rough cheeks, and he looked more undone than she had yet seen him.

Beautiful, she thought, licking at her suddenly dry lips.

"I need to have you, I can't - "

"Then what are you waiting for?" Her response was more snappish than she intended, but Aloy was beyond caring. He wasn't the only one who had gone without, after all, and she was not generally a patient woman.

"Hold on." Nil was quickly efficient to the point of frantic as he removed his intricate armor piece by piece, from his vambraces to his spaulders down to an obnoxiously large belt buckle that seemed to serve little purpose. When he finally pulled off his red feathered headdress, Aloy blinked up at him.

"You cut your hair?"

Almost self-consciously, Nil ran his fingers through the silky black strands. It was still shaved on both sides but was now much too short to be tied back like it had been before.

"It was easier to deal with in prison," he said with a shrug. "If you don't like it this way, I can always grow it back."

"I do like it," Aloy said softly. "It suits you."

It was true. He looked less severe than he had when she had met him as a kestrel - almost boyish in a way, despite being two years older. Like cutting a length of his hair off had also relieved some some of the crushing weight on his shoulders that had always seemed to draw him so taut before.

"You flatter me." Smiling, Nil bent over and placed a tender kiss on her forehead. When he pulled away, his expression was serious. "Are you ready, Aloy?"

"I've been ready since the moment you left, Sahad," she said, wiggling her hips beneath him. "Stop talking, and let's do this already."

"Don't have to tell me twice."

Her pants were tugged the rest of the way off, and then his, and without further ado he lined himself up with her entrance. As he sank into her, his eyes remained bolted to hers until he was fully hilted.

Aloy gripped at Nil to steady herself. After going so long without him, the thick swell of his cock was overwhelming in its intensity - nowhere near as painful as their first time together, but she still needed a moment to adjust. But she welcomed the slight discomfort wholeheartedly, even relished it, and something deep within her clicked subtly back into place. This - being joined together so intimately - was where she felt the most alive, where she knew without a doubt that they belonged wholly to each other. All of her fears and worries faded away into the background, only the cutting gleam of her husband's silver eyes boring into hers keeping her grounded to the earth.

Above her, Nil remained stationary, his breathing shallow, the muscles in his arms trembling with the effort it took to hold his bulky form up. After a few moments, when she relaxed, he pulled out slightly, then immediately snapped his hips back forward, tearing a desperate whine from Aloy. She threw her head back, overcome by the waves of pleasure cresting through her, so deliciously potent they danced on the knife's edge of overstimulation. When she finally gathered herself enough to meet his gaze again, his jaw was clenched, and his brow was furrowed in total concentration.

"I'm so sorry, Aloy," Nil groaned, bending down to press his forehead against the crook of her neck. His skin was already slick with sweat. "I - I'm not going to last. You feel too good, and it's been too long."

"It's okay," she murmured, looping her arms around his neck, her fingertips finding his pulse point. "There will be plenty of time later. For now, I'm just happy being this close to you again."

"Well, now I'm entirely sure I don't deserve you." Nil had lifted his head and was doing his best to give her his trademark smirk, and her stomach flipped at the familiar sight. But it quickly faded and, clearly unable to help himself, he bucked into her again. "Fuck. I'm going to take good care of you later. I promise."

"You'll be hearing it from me if not," she said archly, and he flashed her an uneven grin.

"I'd be worried if I didn't."

Nil's mouth covered hers, hot and insistent, and he began to drive into her at a bruising pace, the ferocity of his strokes straddling the hazy line of pleasure-pain that always left her dizzy and wanting more. This, in combination with how he had her pinned, had Aloy helpless to do anything but bow off the ground and take every thrust. She was aware that she wasn't going to be finding release just yet, but that didn't stop her from revelling in how amazing he felt inside of her - stretching and filling every bit of her, banishing the emptiness that had plagued her for far too long.

True to his word, her husband didn't last long. Not more than a minute passed before he stiffened and let out a sputtering moan, silver eyes wild, his entire body quivering like a live wire. His hips twitched and jerked against hers while he emptied himself inside of her, grunting and gasping and clutching at her shoulders like a lifeline. Her name fell from his lips over and over again like a mantra, breathlessly and full of awe, and Aloy closed her eyes, wrapping herself snugly in the sound like it was a warm blanket. When Nil finally slowed and then eventually pulled out of her, his breathing was as labored as if he had just outrun an entire herd of Striders. Aloy couldn't suppress the soft laughter that bubbled out of her.

The great warrior, brought to heel by his wife's touch, she thought humorously, a swell of smug self-satisfaction coursing through her. The sight of his eyes so glazed over with contentment was more than worth her lack of release.

Humming quietly, Aloy brought her fingers up and combed them through the inky mess of his hair, a smile still touching her lips. He answered with his own grin, but a sweet sort of softness lingered in the corners of his mouth.

"Aloy, I love you," Nil blurted out, and the shock on his face at his own utterance would have been almost funny if it weren't for the words themselves. He winced when her eyes widened.

"You never..." She trailed off, swallowing down the lump that had formed in her throat, then tried again. "You've never said that to me before.

Resolve and a hint of frustration simmered in his eyes. "I know. And believe me when I say it was often on my mind while I sat languishing in prison - but I do love you. I've loved you almost from the start."

"I know you did," Aloy said, blinking back the tears that pricked at the corners of her eyes as his words settled over her like a warm blanket. Her thumb brushed over the edge of Nil's cheek, over the markings they shared, and he shut his eyes. "You didn't have to say it for me to know."

Rolling off of her, he settled on his side, enveloping her in the drowsy comfort of his embrace. All around them, night was falling, bathing the grass and bushes in dusky hues and shielding their entwined bodies from the rest of the world. Beyond the birch trees, at the edge of the horizon, a full moon was rising, bright and clear. Its pale glow caught on the angles of Nil's body and reflected in his eyes so intensely they appeared for a moment to be made of pure moonlight. Aloy wasn't sure she had ever seen anything more beautiful in her entire life.

Later, she'd tell him what had happened to Rost, all about the journey she was embarking upon. But for now, all she wanted was to lie by her husband's side for awhile, to bask in his love and warmth. No matter what, she knew Nil would follow her wherever she went, that she'd never have to be alone again. Her future for once looked bright, and in that moment, Aloy knew peace.