Inspired by this prompt: "You guys realize that there probably was a celebratory party after the battle. Can't help but imagine Erend dragging Aloy into that, with dancing and all. At some point, Aloy gets pulled into his arms and they lock eyes, not even noticing that the music had stopped playing. Neither of them wanting to let go, and Erend thinking how beautiful she is. (Then one of the guards making a loud comment about it in the background)"
In the aftermath of Hades, Meridian bloomed. Rubble was cleared, machines dismantled, and houses rebuilt. New understandings were forged between the different tribes, some more reluctantly than others, and the world slowly righted itself.
When the other Nora returned to the Embrace, Aloy chose to stay in Meridian, to help where she could. It was a decision that frustrated some of the Nora, especially Varl who tried to convince her that her place was with them and, in the unspoken subtext, with him. By contrast, her decision had overjoyed a certain Vanguard Captain, no matter how much he attempted to hide it behind a swagger and a suggestive comment or two.
Like her, Erend too stayed consistently busy, not only by helping with the rebuild efforts, but also with training new Vanguard recruits. However, he still tried to free up time to meet Aloy for lunch and dinner whenever possible. She wasn't sure when meal-sharing had become their ritual, but sometime in the following weeks, she had grown to look forward to it and be disappointed when one or both of them was too busy.
Today, despite the flurry of activity surrounding the upcoming party to celebrate the defeat of Hades and rebuilding of the city, they had managed to meet for lunch at their favorite Oseram tavern. Together, tucked away at a corner table in the back, they ate pork buns while Erend complained about the newest bunch of recruits.
"It's not that they're bad," he was saying, "they're just inexperienced. And have no idea what it actually means to be Vanguard."
"I'm sure you'll whip them into shape," said Aloy. "I've watched you run drills. You're a hard taskmaster."
"When I have to be. Something I learned from Ersa." Erend eyed her thoughtfully. "I don't suppose you'd be interested in helping with a few sparring sessions, would you?"
Aloy raised her eyebrows. "Me?"
"Sure. So far, they've only sparred each other or other Vanguard. Having someone like you would be good for 'em."
"Someone like me, huh?"
Erend's cheeks turned pink. "Yeah, you know, fast, agile. Plus, you're not a burly Oseram so it'd be easy to underestimate how kickass you actually are."
Aloy laughed. "You saying I don't look intimidating?"
"Well . . ."
She rolled her eyes. "I'd be happy to help wipe the floor with your recruits."
"Maybe I should charge admission." He ate his last pork bun, washing it down with a swallow of ale. He had cut back significantly on his drinking, rarely indulging to the excess he used to and Aloy was glad of the change.
"So," he began, "you coming to the celebration tonight?" She made a face and he chuckled. "I know, it's probably not your thing, parties and people and all, but it might be fun." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I'd love to see you there. As would a lot of other people, I'm sure, you being the savior of Meridian and all."
Aloy looked at him fondly, noting the hopeful expression he was trying desperately to pass off as casual interest. "I'll think about it," she conceded and tried to ignore the warmth she felt in her chest at his grin.
"I can swing by Olin's place, well your place now, tonight on my way over. We can go together."
"I said I'd think about it, not that I was going."
Erend shrugged, grin not faltering. "Well, maybe I'll ditch the party with you."
"Aren't you required to be there?"
"Eh, I doubt anyone would notice."
She leaned back and crossed her arms. "You're going to spend time with me this evening no matter what, aren't you."
Erend's eyes widened innocently. "Maybe I just want to spend time with a pretty girl, is that so terrible?" She punched him in the arm. "Hey, ow, all right." He sobered, twisting his ale mug around in his hands. "If you need a break from me though, I mean, if you'd rather be left alone, I understand, just tell me."
"No, Erend, that's not . . ." She sighed, wishing she was better at knowing what to say. "I enjoy spending time with you."
She nodded. "Do you think I'd be here if I didn't?"
"I doubt anyone could make you do anything you didn't want to," he said and he was looking at her with that expression again. More than desire, more than awe, more than happiness or pleasure, he looked at her like she was the only thing in the room, like all his life and joy came from her and her alone, not because she was the Savior of Meridian or the Anointed of the Nora, but because she was simply Aloy. No one had ever looked at her the way he did and it both excited and frightened her. I love you, his expression said and she wished she wasn't afraid to say it back.
Instead, she laughed. "I don't know, I've done a few errands for people that were less than pleasant."
"That's just cause you're too altruistic for your own good." Erend finished his drink, shaking his head. Reluctantly, he stood up, stretching. "Well, I have some business to finish up before the party. I suppose I should get to it." He left a handful of shards on the table and paused. "I'll see you tonight?"
She smiled and nodded, watching as he strode out the door with a little wave.
She really hadn't been planning on going to the celebration, but somehow that evening she found herself in a new set of Carja silks waiting for Erend. At his knock, she stood, suddenly nervous. She took a deep breath and opened the door. He was out of his usual armor, instead wearing just his striped shirt and pants. His eyes widened when he saw her and she blushed.
"You look beautiful," he said.
She smiled. "You don't clean up so bad yourself." He held out his arm and she took it, closing the door behind her. Arm in arm, they walked through the streets toward the palace. Occasionally, Aloy snuck a glance at Erend, trying not to smile at how pleased he looked.
"I'm glad you agreed to come tonight," he said after a moment. "And we don't have to stay long if you don't want. If it gets to be too, you know, confined or rowdy."
She squeezed his arm. "You know you don't have to leave too, right?"
"Well, yeah, but I'm escorting you."
Aloy squashed all the responses about how she was perfectly capable of walking herself back and just shook her head instead. "Thank you, Erend."
He blushed, rubbing his neck with his free hand and grinning shyly down at her.
They reached the bridge leading to the palace and Aloy couldn't help but stare. Bright paper lanterns hung along its length, flickering in the twilight. They led up the stairs and into the main chamber where they lit everything in a warm glow. Inside, the smell of spiced cake and roasting meat filled the room. In one corner, a group of musicians warmed up their instruments.
Avad smiled broadly when he saw them. "Erend, Aloy. I'm glad you came."
"It's beautiful, Avad," Aloy said.
"A reminder that beauty comes from destruction and celebration from fear and despair. At least, that is the hope." He gestured at the room. "Please, enjoy yourselves. Relax. You both deserve it." He nodded to them and moved to greet Vanasha.
"Hungry?" Erend asked.
"With those smells how could I not be?"
He laughed and together they went to get a plate of food. Aloy had never seen so much to eat in one place. Cakes, pies, meat, fruit, and more. Some she recognized from her meals with Erend, but much was unfamiliar. Erend laughed at her expression and handed her a plate. He pointed out the different foods, recommending his favorites as they moved along the table.
Talanah waved from her seat on a low couch and they moved to join her.
"I didn't expect to see you," the Sun-Hawk said.
"Erend twisted my arm," said Aloy and laughed at the Oseram's indignant expression.
The musicians began to play, lively music inviting people to dance. Aloy ate her food, chatting with Talanah and Erend and watching the dancers as they moved around the floor. After a while, Erend excused himself.
"Have to go make sure everyone's behaving themselves," he explained. Aloy watched him push through the crowd, stopping periodically to chat with members of the Vanguard.
Talanah leaned closer. "So, you and Erend."
"What about me and Erend?"
"Come on, Aloy."
Aloy blushed. "We're just friends, Talanah. Nothing more."
She smiled knowingly. "You keep telling yourself that, Thrush. I've seen how he looks at you. And how you look at him." Talanah got up to dance, leaving Aloy staring after her. Thoughtfully, she chewed something Erend had called a cinnamon bun and considered the man in question. She thought of his easy smile, his boisterous laugh, the way he carried himself under his heavy armor. She thought of how he looked at her, of how she felt when she saw him.
"You okay?" Erend was looking at her, a furrow between his eyes.
"Fine. Just thinking about something. Everyone behaving?"
"More or less. Though there are a few people here I could have sworn were supposed to be on duty tonight." He shifted a little on his feet before finally holding out a hand. "Would you maybe want to dance?"
Aloy had never danced in her life. Had it been anyone else asking, she would have refused instantly, but Erend looked at her, questioning and hopeful and adorably nervous, and her excuses were non-existent.
"I don't know how," she said, taking his hand and letting him pull her to her feet.
"It's easy, I'll show you. If a big lug like me can do it, you definitely can." He laughed at the look on her face and led her onto the dance floor. "Just follow my lead," he said. Aloy watched the pattern his feet were making and copied it.
"See? Now together." He grasped one of her hands, put his other hand around her waist, and together they began to move. "Relax," Erend told her, grinning, and she did, letting him guide her around the floor.
"This is fun," she said, smiling up at him.
"Told you." He spun her out and twirled her back in and suddenly she was in his arms, their faces only inches apart. Everything seemed to slow and freeze until it was just the two of them. She stared up into his eyes - the color of storm clouds, of the fine powdered ash left in the edges of the forge - and could read again the unspoken words that seemed to always be there. I love you, said his eyes and, for the first time, she realized she wasn't afraid.
"You gonna kiss her, Cap?" said a voice and the world moved again.
Erend flushed, taking a step back, and Aloy realized the music had shifted to a new tune. "I better not find out who said that," he said with no real malice and the other Vanguard all laughed. Still holding her hand, he led Aloy off the dance floor.
"Sorry about that," he said, his free hand moving to brush across his mohawk and down his neck. "They're a bunch of idiots."
"I don't know," said Aloy, forcing her tone to stay light, "I think their question had merit." Erend's mouth fell open. She smiled up at him, giving their entwined hands a tug. "I could use some air. Walk with me?" He nodded dumbly and followed her out onto one of the balconies.
The music and laughter from inside floated out on the air. Overhead, the sky was clear and scattered with stars. Aloy took a deep breath of the clean night air, letting it clear her head and ease the butterflies in her stomach. When she turned back to Erend, he was gazing at her.
"You're so beautiful," he said and flushed again. "You know, in the starlight and with the lanterns and all."
She raised an eyebrow at his rambling. "You don't look so bad yourself, Captain," she said. She wasn't used to this, wasn't used to flirting or being forward, but it was worth it for the look on Erend's face.
"I - it's - thanks," he stammered.
Aloy stepped closer, tilting her face up towards his. It was both an invitation and a challenge, an unspoken echo of the earlier question.
You gonna kiss her, Cap?
She could hear his breathing speed up, saw that look flicker through his eyes, and then he leaned down to meet her. He tasted of Oseram brew and spiced cake, his lips soft and warm and eager.
"I've been wanting to do that for a long time," he said softly, touching his forehead to hers.
"Why hadn't you?"
"Wasn't sure you wanted it. Wasn't sure if you felt the same way about me."
"Why do you think I enjoy spending time with you?"
He shrugged. "I figured it must have been my winning personality."
She laughed softly and kissed him in turn, lingering. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close as they swayed gently to the music drifting by.
The title is based on a poem by Pablo Neruda called "Amor" or "Love." If you haven't read any of his work, I recommend it. His poems are beautiful. Here's but a taste:
That's why I love you and yet not why.
There are so many reasons, and yet so few,
for love has to be so,
involving and general,
particular and terrifying,
joyful and grieving,
flowering like the stars,
and measureless as a kiss.