As Zelda's feet touched the ground for the first time in a century, she felt a wave of exhaustion settle over her. She'd been a creature of pure magic, keeping Ganon in check, for so long that having actual physical weight again felt so heavy. It took a moment to register the feeling of sunlight falling across her bare shoulders instead of Ganon's miasma-filled aura of malice.
Her eyesight slowly came back and she found herself in the field outside the castle. There was a sound ahead and she focused her vision to take in the figure in front of her.
Link was an exhausted mess. He was covered in sweat, and a small trickle of blood ran from a cut on his forehead. His tunic was badly singed from Ganon's attacks, and the thin strap of leather he used as a hair tie was barely keeping his disheveled ponytail together.
Given that the last time she'd seen him he'd been a hair away from death, it was the most beautiful sight she'd ever seen.
Zelda took a shaky step towards him. "Link?" she said softly. Her throat felt rough and scratchy from long disuse. "Do you... remember?" She took another step. "Do you remember me?"
His face softened into a soft smile as he looked at hr. "Of course," he said. "It took a while, and a bit of work, but I regained all my memories of you. Of us."
"Oh. Oh good," Zelda said. Her vision started to blur as tears welled up in her eyes. "I... was worried you might not. The last time I saw you you were so close to death I worried you wouldn't make it. When years and decades passed and you stayed in that coma, I was worried that we might have been too late after all. And then when you finally awoke, but you didn't seem to recognize my voice, I... I was worried..." Tears finally did start falling, leaving hot trails down her cheeks. "I was worried that I'd never actually see you again."
She took another step forward, but her ankle gave way and she started to collapse. Link leaped forward to close the distance between them and, with his arms wrapped tight around her, gently lowered her down to a kneeling position.
Zelda lowered her head down on to Link's shoulder and tried to wipe away her tears. "I'm so, so happy to see you again, but I'm so tired from using a century's worth of magic to keep Ganon trapped," she said.
Link ran a hand down the length her wild loose hair, smoothing it a bit with a reassuring touch. "We should get away from this place. Somewhere safe," he said quietly.
Zelda raised her eyes to take in the ruined mass of Hyrule Castle. Ganon may have been destroyed, but the bright capital of Hyrule was nothing more than a pile of ruined rock and lifeless Guardian units. She wasn't the crown princess anymore; she was nothing but a woman from a time long past without a home. Was anywhere in this unfamiliar land still safe?
"You must have met the Great Deku Tree," she said. "Is it still safe there?"
"Yes," Link answered.
"Then take me there. He should know what to do next."
The Lost Woods were full of twists and turns, but members of the royal family were taught how to find their way through the illusionary magic. The trip from the castle wasn't terribly far, but bone-deep exhaustion ran through every fiber of Zelda's being and it was only with Link's support that she was able to keep plodding her way down the twisting forest paths. It was a relief to see the fog finally fade away in the warmth of the Sacred Grove's sunshine.
This, at least, hadn't changed at all in the century Zelda had been in magical stasis, and that at least was a bit of relief.
The path to the Great Deku Tree in the middle of the grove was easy to walk on, and Link helped ease Zelda down to a sitting position in front of the great tree. There was a rattling noise as tiny korok heads started popping out from behind bushes and trees. One brave korok edged forward towards them. "Could it be?" it asked. It reached out to nudge Link's foot with a stick, and let out a cry of joy when the branch found resistance.
"Mister Hero!" it cried, scrambling up his leg and to cling to Link’s bruised shoulder. "Mister Hero! You came back from your quest! I'm so happy to see you again! And alive, too!"
"We all are," rumbled a deep voice. Zelda looked over into the broad face of the Great Deku Tree. "It's good to see you in the flesh after so long, princess."
"And you as well," Zelda said. "Thank you for keeping the Master Sword safe for me. And for keeping other things safe as well."
She looked back up to see Link staggering under the weight of a massive swarm of koroks, hugging him all over and yelling with joy about how glad they were to see him again. They must have really liked the poor knight.
"It was no issue," said the Deku Tree. "Both were keys to Hyrule’s salvation. And together, both of you were able to finally fulfill the prophesy."
"I suppose," Zelda said, "but at what cost? The country is ruined, the Champions and my father are dead, the castle destroyed. Ganon may be gone at last, but his destruction still remains."
She sighed. "I feel... lost, I suppose. I finally accomplished my sacred duty, but I don't know how to go on. I know longer have a home. Or anything to do."
"Hmm. I see. Well, what would want you do, right now, if you could do anything in the world?" asked the Deku Tree.
Zelda pondered it. "I'd see Hyrule, I suppose. The Hyrule that now exists. I truly enjoyed travelling the country with Link before everything changed, readying the Divine Beasts for battle with Ganon. I'd want to study more about the ancient Sheikah machines and how they work. I've had so much commitment to my royal duties in life, I wish I could have been more of a scientist."
"Then you should go," said the Deku Tree. "Hyrule is at peace now. Ganon has gone. This land has managed to keep itself together for a century; a little more time away from those royal duties won't hurt."
"I'd like that," Zelda said, "but I have nothing, really." She played with the mud-stained hem of the tattered ritual dress she'd worn since her last birthday so long ago.
The Deku Tree chuckled. "Don't worry about that. My children can provide you everything you need for a long journey. Take some time to rest up here, and then head off to wherever your heart desires. I know a knight who would be happy to escort you."
The thought of travelling again with Link was pleasant. She looked back towards him, and let out a chuckle at the sight of him finally collapsed under the weight of a pile of cheering koroks.
"Yes," she said. "I think I'll do that."
The Zora lands didn't seem to have changed much from what Zelda could remember. The koroks had provided them with new travel clothes and supplies, and it was nice to travel down the twisting paths towards the heart of the Zora region. There was more greenery than before and the signs of abandoned moblin encampments down the main winding road, but the city itself still rose like a glistening alabaster shell rising out of the lake at the heart of Zora's Domain.
People stopped to look at them as she and Link slowly made their way to the throne room at the heart of the city. She could hear low murmuring as she passed. The Zora were extremely long-lived compared to the other races of Hyrule, and she wondered if she had known some of the people here during her time here training Mipha in how to use the Divine Beast.
Mipha. Her heart sank a little. Mipha had been such a sweet, compassionate woman who'd always tried her best to heal the pain of others. She'd always had a comforting word for people who were troubled. She'd listened with a sympathetic ear to Zelda's struggles with her father as she worked on a lovely set of armor for some mysterious beloved.
And she'd died horribly inside an ancient machine because Zelda had failed in her main duty as the Princess of Hyrule.
Zelda regretted many things about how everything had fallen to pieces a century ago, but the deaths of her Champions -- her best friends -- weighed heaviest of all.
A tall, broad-shouldered Zora noble perked up at their arrival and hurried over to greet them. "Link!" he said enthusiastically, grabbing Link's hand in his own and shaking it vigorously. "You came back! I knew you could defeat Calamity Ganon! Your courage and determination are second to none in Hyrule!"
Link looked bashful as the man shook his hand a few times before dropping it. There was something so familiar about his upbeat attitude. He couldn't be, could he...?
"And who is this?" the man asked, turning his attention to Zelda. Royal Zora gems hung from around his neck and sat above his wide brow fin like a diadem. It had to be; no one other than a Zora royal would be allowed near such treasure.
Prince Sidon's eyes slowly widened as recognition set in, and face burst into a bright many-toothed grin. "Princess Zelda!" he said, sweeping her up in a hug so strong it lifted her clear off her feet. "I had thought you were dead! I am so glad to see you again!"
Zelda laughed at his enthusiasm even as his arms pressed her against his broad scaly chest. "It's good to see you too, Prince Sidon. I could swear you were just a tadpole the last time I was here."
Sidon carefully set Zelda down on the ground and took a step back to see her properly. "Why, you look just the same as the last time I saw you a century ago! I didn't think Hylians aged so well."
"They don't, normally," Zelda said, her spirits falling a bit. "I've been using magic to contain Ganon for a century. I suppose that sort of keeps one in stasis."
"Well, no matter the circumstances, I'm glad you and Link were able to save Hyrule in the end! I always believed you could!"
"Save it?" Zelda said. "I suppose it was saved in the end. But..." She averted her gaze from Sidon's face. "But too late. I'm sorry that saving it came with untold destruction of Hyrule and its people. And I'm..." She hesitated before continuing. "I'm so sorry for what I've done to you."
Sidon tilted his head. "What you’ve done to me?"
"For causing Mipha's death," Zelda said. "If hadn't been so foolish, if I hadn't insisted on using those Divine Beasts, she wouldn't have..." She trailed off as emotion overwhelmed her.
"Oh. Oh, princess." Sidon dropped down to one knee to match Zelda's eye level and gently took her hand in his. "My sister knew the risks of being a Champion. She knew the dangers the role entailed, and that in fighting Ganon it might very well have killed her. She was so proud to have been chosen as the Zora champion, so that she could use her powers for the good of Hyrule. And besides."
He looked up over the edge of the city. Zelda turned her head to follow his gaze and saw the trunk of Vah Ruta peaking out from above the steep mountains that surrounded the Zora city.
"I saw her Divine Beast let out a great burst of energy before the clouds of Calamity Ganon vanished," Sidon continued. "I think she still managed to save us all in the end.
"I like to think she's still watching over us. After all, big sisters are best at that. He squeezed her hand. "And I believe in you, princess! You've always tried your best to do what’s right, no matter what."
He released her hand and stood up. "Would you like to Vah Ruta up close? I can help you get there. It’s a magnificent creature to behold, now that the rains have stopped."
Zelda took a breath to steady herself before replying. "Yes, if you wouldn't mind. I'd like to take a look at the inner workings to see what kind of effect Ganon had on the controls."
"Then it's settled!" Sidon said. "First thing tomorrow I will take you -- and Link, I suppose, if he still wants to go back -- up to the pool where Vah Ruta looks over us."
"Tomorrow?" Zelda asked. "Why tomorrow?"
"Because!" Sidon said, grinning brightly enough to show off his many rows of sharp teeth. "Tonight, we should welcome you back to the Zora kingdom with a feast a hundred years in the making! After all, we wouldn't be here without you. Prepare to taste the most delicious fish you’ve ever tasted!"
Zelda felt touched by his exclamations -- and his unwavering support. "Thank you," she said. I love fish."
Zelda clung tightly to Link as the small platform descended deep down into the earth. She could feel his chest moving in an out with each breath beneath her touch, and a gentle hand on the back kept her steady on a small circle that had not been designed for two. It finally touched down with a satisfying thump, and she moved out of his arms into a room that pulses with the light of ancient Shiekah technology.
"Is this what it's like inside the shrines?" she said, her voice quivering with barely repressed emotions as she looked around the inside of Ne’ez Yoham Shrine. "It's so much larger than I thought it would be. And there's so many of these entrances all around Hyrule, it must have taken absolutely ages to construct all these. Do all the shrines look like this inside?"
"No, some of them had Guardians inside, "Link said. He shuddered. "Large Guardians. "
Zelda steeped forward to take in the stone ramps in front of her, where a tube kept endlessly dropping out heavy stone boulders, which ran down the twisting platform to disappear into a dark bottomless abyss below.
She turned back to face Link and grinned. "This is fascinating! Do you think the mechanism that keeps dropping these stones is only triggered by us entering the chamber, or do you think it runs on continuously as a type of perpetual motion machine? What kind of system keeps cycling the stones from below to the pipes above? Do you think these stones were mined here, or where they brought in from elsewhere? Do you think the constellations on the walls have any particular significance, or are they purely decorative? Who would go through so much effort to construct such an elaborate apparatus that can only be entered by a single individual in possession of a particular tool?"
Link could only answer by looking confused and shrugging his shoulders sheepishly.
Zelda laughed. "It's all right; I wouldn't expect you have to have all the answers." She turned back to face the steep slope and the boulders running endlessly down at. "But as someone who's only touched the surface of Sheikah technology, I wish I could do an in-depth study of everything here."
"You could try solving it," Link said.
"It's puzzle," Link said, gesturing to the room. "Most of them are. There's ancient sages waiting at the end with spirit orbs. Well, there were; I've been here before. If you could make it to they end, they rewarded you."
He pulled the Shiekah Slate from off his belt and held out to Zelda. "Give it a try."
Zelda took the slate from him and ran her hands over the familiar device. "Will you show me how these runes work? I'm very familiar with the image capturing rune, but these other ones -- the blue circle, the snowflake, the lock -- they're all mysteries to me."
Link nodded eagerly.
"Good," Zelda said. She turned back to the endlessly falling boulders and held the slate out in front of her. "Well, puzzle, prepare to be solved."
Riding into Hateno Village gave Zelda a feeling of warmth. So much of Hyrule’s cities had been utterly annihilated, but here was one place that reminded her so much of the castle town she grew up in. Children laughed as they chased each other through the streets playing tag. People milled about the market stands, looking at fresh fruits and vibrant dyes. Merchants called out to Link, beckoning him to come visit their stores again, and bring his new lovely companion with them.
Despite how much she had enjoyed their travels across the country, it felt nice to soak in the atmosphere of a bustling town free from the threat of monsters.
Link lead the horse up a hill around the back of town, and past a clump of funny little cube houses. A bridge past them led to another hill, where a pleasant old-style house and a small garden lay waiting.
Link stopped the horse and helped Zelda dismount. "Is this what you wanted to show me?" Zelda asked. "Granted it is quite nice, but I don't see--"
He cut her off, and gestured dramatically to a large wooden sign placed near the door.
"'Master Link's House'," Zelda read aloud. "Oh! You built a whole house while out adventuring?"
He looked a little bashful. "One thing led to another, and..."
Zelda chuckled. "Well, I'm sure it must have been nice to have a place to call home while you were adventuring all over Hyrule."
Link unlocked and opened the door, and motioned for Zelda to enter.
A broad wooden table sat in the middle of the main room, and Link pulled out one of the chairs from the table and motioned for Zelda to sit, before heading for the door. "Wait here just a minute," he said. When Zelda raised an eyebrow he said, "It's a surprise!" before vanishing back outside.
As the Crown Princess, Zelda didn't have a lot of experience with what the homes of commoners were like, but Link had built a warm, inviting place. Fresh flowers and clean dishes were placed on the wooden table Zelda was seated at, with comfortable looking chairs off to one side. Large display racks on the walls housed exotic weapons from all over Hyrule and seemingly lands beyond. A set of stairs off led up to a second floor, presumable with a bedroom of sort. Despite its simplicity, Zelda felt comfortable there. It was nice inside.
There was a series of odd clanks and bangs outside, and Zelda was terribly tempted to peek before Link finally re-entered, one hand hidden behind his back.
"It's mid-summer," he said cryptically.
"I suppose it is," Zelda said. She wondered what he was getting at.
He took a step closer. "I remember that your birthday is in mid-summer, and that the last one you had--" His eyebrows scrunched as he looked for the right phrasing. "--didn't really go so well."
"No, so much," Zelda said sadly.
Link removed his hand from behind his back, set a plate on the table in front of Zelda, and then took the seat next to her. It was a slice of white, fluffy cake, with a variety of fruits arranged around the edges. Fruit cake; her favourite. She looked at him in surprise. "How did you...?"
He shrugged. "I did some reading while I was in the castle." He smiled. "Happy 18th Birthday. I hope this year's a little better for you."
As a princess, Zelda had had birthday banquets in castle halls filled to the brim with guests. She'd had the finest food made from the freshest ingredients gathered from all over Hyrule presented to her. She'd had statesmen and rulers wish her birthday wishes. She'd spent her last real birthday on one of Hyrule's holiest sites. And yet, being served a bit of cake by her favourite knight in a cozy wooden house in a small town meant more than all of that combined.
Zelda reached out to take Link's hand, and he looked down with a self-conscious gaze. "Thank you," Zelda said with deepest sincerity. "This is... This is more than I could have possibly asked for."
She let go of Link’s hand, took a bite of the cake, and felt bliss as sweetness filled her mouth. Link had cooked a little bit during their first time exploring Hyrule together, but he'd gotten so much better since then. She wondered what else he'd learned to cook.
"It's exquisite," she said. "You did a marvelous job on this. And on this house and everything in it. You've really managed to build something lovely here."
She gestured at the room around her. "Although I must say, you did build quite a lot of space in here for a single person," she said with a laugh.
Link looked back up to meet her gaze and gave her a soft smile. "It'd be just right for two people, though."
"For...? Oh!" Zelda could feel a flush spreading across her cheeks as the meaning sunk in. This was, after all, a lovely house, in a lovely town, in a lovely, peaceful part of the country. Just the sort of place that a woman who'd spent a whole century fighting a calamitous monster alone could see herself staying.
"Yes," she said, returning his smile, "it's just perfect for two."
He reached out to gently take her hand in his again. "Welcome home," he said softly.
She curled her fingers gently around his. "It’s good to be home."