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One Last Year

Chapter Text

"How much does he remember?"

Zelda turned away from the small mirror as she tugged at a particularly reticent tangle in her hair. Her question hung in the air, threatening to be left unanswered.

Impa almost seemed not to have heard, her wrinkled hands idly fiddling with the ribbon that tied her sleeve, her tired red eyes lost in thought. She was old now, Zelda reflected, curved over and shrunken, with not an outward trace of the proud Sheikah Master she had once been. Though she still led her people with the same sharp intelligence and steady hand as when she was thirty, this aged crone would not, Zelda knew, be in any shape to fight, ever again.

At length, the ancient Sheikah woman took a deep breath. "I fear there isn't much." Her gaze met Zelda's, perceptive and wise. "And if he has any further recollection than what was left for him, he has not shared it."

Zelda nodded, slowly, trying to stifle her disappointment. She turned back to the polished mirror, peering at her reflection. She had finally been given the opportunity to bathe, a delight she had not felt in a hundred years. The Goddess had put her into a state of physical stasis, but her mind… Her mind had been set loose, wandering every single path her memory and imagination could conjure. She had spent every moment since Link's victory relishing absolutely every mundane task, the pleasure of experiencing the world once again sometimes overwhelming. Every blade of grass, every drop of rain, every breath of fresh air had been a gift.

Now, she was rediscovering the pleasure of untangling her hair. In an age long past, she had hated this part, the way her wet hair tended to clump and tangle seemingly on its own, requiring the firm application of a brush to make presentable again. But now she was pink and clean, and her hair was soft and it hadn't lost its golden sheen, and she enjoyed the mindless task at last.

"I wish," she said, so softly she doubted Impa would hear, "that I could give him his old life back."

Impa snorted. "I doubt he would know what to do with it."

That was true enough, Zelda mused. In those days, Link had been deeply uncomfortable in his role, for most of the time he had been assigned to it and to her. He seemed far more at ease here and now, free as he was.

"Does he remember his family?" Zelda asked.

Impa did not reply, evidently uncertain, and Zelda feared the answer was no. The notion was heartbreaking.

"If there was a way to trigger his memory," she thought out loud, "and help him recover it all…"

"To what end?" Impa asked, her voice soft.

Zelda blinked, turning in surprise to her old Sheikah Master. "Impa."

But Impa shook her head. "I am only asking. Do you want him to remember for the sake of his own well-being, or are you afraid of one day being the only one to remember Hyrule in its glory days?"

Zelda swallowed hard. "Both, I suppose." She felt her heart squeeze. Impa had ever been perceptive. "You think it would harm him."

Impa dismissed this notion with a wave of her wrinkled hand. "He's strong. Perhaps he would be fine. But you must admit that there is pain, grief and loss in those memories."

"His past was not just pain and grief," Zelda admonished. "There was laughter and friendship there, too."

Master Impa sighed. "Friendship he can never resume, laughter he will never hear again."

But at least, Zelda reflected, focusing on a nasty tangle to keep her eyes from watering, he would have me. I would know. I would understand.

The diminutive old Sheikah pushed herself up from the thick cushion where she had been sitting and came to place a parchment-skinned hand on Zelda's arm. "I do not seek to hurt you, child. But you have seen him. He seems content. Be sure of your choice."

Zelda nodded, her throat too tight to speak. Even here and now, with the Sheikah Master's hand on her arm, she felt a sudden and overwhelming sense of loneliness.

I would be there for him, and then someone would be there for me, she thought. She had spent a hundred years dreadfully alone, her calls out into the wild unheeded. A hundred years. Thirty-six thousand days and nights. Some nine hundred thousand hours. An age.

Impa left her to her thoughts, retreating to the little staircase that led her back downstairs. This loft was usually Paya's alone, but the young Sheikah girl had generously offered to sleep downstairs with her grandmother and give the princess of Hyrule some privacy, until Zelda had begged for her company. She dreaded being left alone again, the notion crushing. During her first night here, she had awakened in tears, only to find that Paya was holding her hand, red eyes earnest in their concern. The kindness of physical contact was wonderful, comforting. It reminded her of the first touch she'd felt after those hundred dreadful years.

Link's.

It had been nothing, mindless, his hand extending out to help her into the saddle of one of his several stabled horses. But when she had touched the leather of his fingerless glove and felt the calluses of his fingers close around her own, she had been overwhelmed by the force of her reaction.

Link had no idea. There was a sort of magic in him, Zelda had determined, a power that could rival her own, judging by the way he made her heart race. She had reasoned that it was simply the shock of absence, that there was nothing to it, but…

"Your highness?" Paya's soft voice said. Zelda turned to the Sheikah girl, who stood at the top of the steps. She was pretty, but shy, and generally incapable of speech in Link's presence.

Sometimes, Zelda couldn't blame her.

"Please, Paya," Zelda said, trying on her most winning smile, aware that it might still be a little watery, "I insist that you move about your own home freely. And call me Zelda."

"Yes, your highness," Paya said, and Zelda resisted the urge to correct her. "Um, he is here."

There was only one man in the world capable of putting Paya in this state of distraction. Zelda felt her heart leap, foolishly. In this, at least, she and Paya were of one mind. Link rarely called upon her at this hour, which naturally meant complete and absolute havoc for her nerves.

"Well," Zelda said, putting her brush down with an unsteady hand, "one mustn't be rude."

She was self-conscious. Paya had provided her with Sheikah clothing and she was clean, for a change, but somehow this only made her feel even more inadequately attired.

She found Link standing before Impa, both of them seemingly content to remain quiet. His eyes darted up to Zelda in recognition but otherwise he maintained his usual guarded expression. There had been times, Zelda remembered, when he would greet her with a smile, and sometimes before that, even, with an actual scowl, depending on the state of their friendship. But this… This polite distance reminded her of the years before the Master Sword, of the days before his fateful selection.

He remembers the essential, Zelda's heart whispered, but in many ways, he remembers nothing at all.

Impa turned to glance at Zelda and Paya as they descended. "Ah, here she is. Good."

"Is something the matter?" Zelda asked.

"No, no." Impa waved a small sheet of paper she had evidently only just finished reading. "Our dear Link has brought me the final response I was waiting on." She smiled, and Zelda noticed she was missing a few teeth, which only added to her obvious age. It made Zelda want to smile fondly in return. "The Gerudo have accepted to visit. A delegation is on its way."

A fleeting memory of Urbosa threatened to surface, but Zelda stamped it down. "Good," she said, forcing herself to sound cheerful. "Good. And their leader― remind me?"

"Riju," Link volunteered, before Impa could reply.

"Riju," Zelda repeated, smiling at Link. He was looking at his boots and didn't notice, which made her heart squeeze.

"Now that we know the Gerudo will be among us," Impa said, "we shall have to prepare lodgings for all those delegations. There will be Hylians from Tarry Town, Lurelin and Hateno, Gorons from Eldin, Zora from Lanayru and Rito from Tabantha. Kakariko has not seen a council of this size since the days of the Hero of Time." She smiled at Zelda. "It will be good to establish a central governing body now that the Calamity is no longer a threat. Hyrule will be prosperous again."

"That is excellent news," Zelda confirmed, though she struggled to feel as enthused as she sounded. She knew that retaking her place as ruler was necessary for the kingdom, but she had never liked the idea, even a hundred years ago. Study and research had ever been her great passions, and one can hardly research anything from within a ruined castle.

"And now," Impa said, folding up the missive, "it appears our young hero has requested to speak with you."

Link wasn't even looking at her, and Zelda tried to avoid feeling disappointed. Excusing herself, she followed him outdoors, leaving Paya and Impa to prepare for bed. Outside, the village was already mostly quiet, the crickets chirping and the fireflies floating from one lantern to the next. It was beautiful, and Zelda inhaled the fresh night air.

Would she ever take these wonders for granted again?

At her side, Link was looking out at the darkened village, his expression as unreadable as ever.

"Well," she said, to break the stretching silence, "what was it you wanted to talk about?"

He seemed thoroughly uncomfortable, which strangely gave her hope. It was better to decipher his expression at least a little than not at all.

"I… I have a favour to ask."

Zelda's brows went up before she could muster any cool detachment. "A favour?"

Link nodded. As she watched, a firefly drifted near him, and he extended his hand, letting the critter land in his palm. There, it glowed, a pulsing light.

"I want to remember," he said. Suddenly, his blue gaze met hers, and she forgot to breathe. "Impa is wrong."

Zelda averted her gaze, embarrassed. So, he'd heard their conversation. How long had he stood at the foot of the steps in that small house, hearing every word of her worries? "I didn't mean to―"

"I don't know how to remember," Link continued, interrupting. "Time passes, but nothing comes to my mind. Except you."

It was unfair, Zelda thought. It was unfair. He didn't know what those words did to her. "I don't know either―"

"You're the key," Link said, softly. "You have to be." He seemed embarrassed by the fervour of his certainty. When he continued, he was almost mumbling. "It's just, soon, you'll be the princess again. A real princess, with subjects and lofty concerns. Before they arrive…" He ran his hand through his hair. "Please. Tell me what you know."

It was embarrassing how his request made her heart sing. She almost felt as though the sun were rising early, casting her entire world in light and hope. "Of course," she whispered.

Link hesitated, though Zelda wasn't sure why. The firefly in his hand was still pulsating light. With a gentle motion, he placed it on the banister before her, and the insect remained in place, glowing.

Link seemed to struggle to find his words. At his side, his fingers gave a little twitch. Then, at length, with complete solemnity, apparently giving up on finding something better, "Thank you."

The firefly on the banister took flight, rejoining its fellows. Zelda couldn't contain the bubbling joy within, and she said, "You know, once upon a time, you would have thanked me with a bit more of a smile."

He blinked, and Zelda was about to tell him not to mind her, that she was only teasing him, when his expression shifted, his eyes brightening, a smile growing on his face in an expression that was painfully familiar, painfully comforting. His eyes crinkled and he looked almost abashed, averting his gaze to look out at the village.

She had many times wondered whether she would still be vulnerable to him even after a hundred years. Now, with her heart racing and her blood pulsing in her ears, she knew the answer.

"Well," she ruefully said to the night air, though Link did glance at her, "how comforting to know some things don't change." Before Link could ask her for an explanation, she added, "Come see me in the morning, and I will tell you everything I know."

He nodded gravely, which did not ease the pace of her heartbeat. She may well have been a hundred years old, like him, but she very much still lived in the body of a girl, and that body was not yet inured to him. In fact, a hundred years had done nothing to help her resist his smile.

It hadn't always been that way, she reflected as he excused himself and descended the steps to leave. Once, she had thought she hated him.

A bittersweet smile pulled at her lips. She hadn't possessed Nayru's wisdom then.

Link came to find her the next morning, as she'd asked, and together they climbed the hill that overlooked Kakariko, sitting under the apple tree that grew there. She had spent all morning in thought, wondering where to begin, worried that he would grow angry with her for some of the truths that she would reveal.

But in the end, she had decided she owed him honesty, no matter the cost.

She glanced at him as he sat in the shade of the apple tree, the dappled light playing against his face.

He turned to look at her and for a moment she was transported to a hundred other moments and a hundred other places, to a hundred other Links and a hundred other Zeldas exchanging that very look she had never been able to characterize.

She cleared her throat, averting her eyes. A hundred years hadn't sufficed to solve that mystery, and she suspected no answers would come now.

He was paying attention. It was time.

"It started," she forced herself to say, "when you pulled the Master Sword for the first time."

Chapter Text

King Rhoam was late.

To Link, every passing minute felt like torture. He stood as tall as he could, tried not to fidget, and ignored the whispers.

The weight strapped to his back was a sore reminder, the target of darting glances, the object of hushed exchanges, as courtiers pretended not to be speaking of him, of it, of what it all meant, and of her.

For what felt like the hundredth time, he rolled his shoulder, trying to make the weight shift, trying to get used to it, to no avail. The strap was a perfect fit, and even the scabbard wasn't that heavy. It wasn't the sword that made him uncomfortable, really. It was everything that it represented. Everything that it entailed.

A summons from the king, for instance.

So here he stood, uncomfortable, the target of a hundred eyes, the topic of whispers and rumours, of gossip and speculation. He had no royal blood, no title of great significance, no lineage anyone could trace back more than a few generations. He looked common, in that way most squires did when they were still in training, and he was young, too young according to some, a whisper past his nineteenth birthday, a whisper past the accursed trial that had brought him all the way up here, now, to this very moment.

Had he known the trial would lead to this, he thought perhaps he would have refused. He wondered if the eternal mockery of his fellow soldiers would not have been better than this, the wonder, the horror, the stares.

But no. He had been insouciant, then. He had been a child. Perhaps that was why it was considered a coming of age trial.

A trial. Ridiculous. What manner of idiots thought up a tradition so bleeding dangerous, so bleeding fateful? It was so simple, too. So unassuming. One by one, all the squires had gathered around the pedestal in the Temple and taken turns at pulling on the hilt. It never budged, they said. It never even sparkled, or trembled. Hundreds of years it hadn't budged, and no one living could recall ever seeing the damned thing anywhere else but there, half buried in the damned pedestal in a dilapidated temple.

A coming of age trial, they said. You're old enough to pull on the hilt, now. If you don't, we'll know you're still a child.

Link clenched his jaw, staring sightlessly at the door to King Rhoam's study.

One by one, they had all failed, and when Link's turn had come, amidst laughter and ribbing, the damned thing had come out of its pedestal like a hot knife through butter, and the laughter had died.

And now he was here.

It wasn't fair.

Chosen by the Sword, they called it. Chosen! No part of his education had prepared him for this. His entire training was focused on one thing: fight, kill, and die if you must, like his father had done, somewhere in the fields of Tabantha, and his grandfather before that during the Battle of Crenel Hills, and his great-grandfather in some skirmish no one remembered. No one had taught him the prophecies. No one had taught him the meaning of the damned event. No one had told him that being chosen by the Master Sword heralded the doom of our time.

Three days of suddenly being taken under the tutelage of the terrifying Master Impa, of being told just how momentous this was, and hearing every possible rendition of the same speech: the prophecy foretold this. If the Master Sword chooses a champion, then that Champion will be needed. The great Calamity must be stopped, and the royal blood must prevail, or we are all doomed.

No pressure.

One of the castle soothsayers had spat on him, cursing him, as though it was his fault he was suddenly the trigger of a prophecy no one had ever warned him about. At least the other courtiers and nobles had the courtesy of merely glaring at him.

For a moment, he considered turning around, pulling out the sword, and telling them just what he thought. Yes, he'd say, this is the Sword. It chose me. I didn't choose it. I didn't know it would trigger a prophecy. It was an accident. It was a joke. They dared me to do it.

Instead, he clenched his jaw harder and stared fixedly at the wall, wishing he were anywhere but here.

Incidentally, that was when the door to King Rhoam's study creaked open. The courtiers scattered, like roaches.

"You may enter," the steward said, looking down his nose and staring right through Link, which was surprisingly refreshing.

Link nodded, suddenly aware that his movements were jerky, a consequence of his nerves.

The library was massive, one of the larger rooms in the castle, with vaulted ceilings and high windows. But it was to a small study that Link was guided, and he entered it to find the King already seated at his desk.

Automatic training kicked in, and Link fell to his knee, a scramble that made the sword on his back clang somewhat inside its scabbard.

King Rhoam turned to eye him, and the silence stretched on for a moment. Link wondered if he wasn't supposed to say something, and cursed his incomplete training, before suddenly the king's voice broke through his thoughts.

"You are Link, son of Raven, correct?"

Link nodded.

"Just a boy," the king said, and Link wasn't sure whether he sounded mournful or not. Then, before he could reply: "You may rise."

Link pushed himself to his feet, trying to remember the proper posture for a private audience with a king.

But King Rhoam was not looking at him. He was looking at the Sword.

At length, the king said, his voice a deep rumble, "I imagine many have already told you how much of a bother that thing on your back has turned out to be."

Link swallowed. "Yes, your Grace."

"Have any of them explained why?"

Link couldn't meet the king's steady gaze. As unflinchingly as he could, he said, "It heralds the beginning of a prophecy."

"A prophecy, yes," King Rhoam said. "A prophecy of destruction and death, the likes of which have not been seen since the age of Twilight."

Link wasn't sure what to reply. An apology would have seemed trite, meaningless. It would not have encompassed the entirety of his feelings, either.

"I'm told someone spat on you yesterday," the king said. "If it comforts you at all, I have had that toothless mongrel removed from the Castle. What happened was not your fault. The fault lies with me."

"With you?" Link frowned. "Your Grace?"

But the king had stood. He walked over to a hanging painting ― a portrait of some distant ancestor or other― and apparently decided to change the subject entirely. "You have met my daughter, Zelda."

Link was fairly sure he expected a reply. "Yes, your Grace. During ceremonies and balls."

"Did you know she was born on Summertide? The one day of the year where children do not have the protection of a patron goddess?"

Link blinked, and the words came out before he could stop him: "But we celebrate her birthday on the following day― on Nayru's Day―"

"Yes, every woman of her line has ever been under the protection of the goddess Nayru," King Rhoam said. "The kingdom has never known a princess who was not under Nayru's protection. We waited. We said it was a close call. She might have been entirely godless, we said. But you have that sword, now, and it is time for you to hear the truth." King Rhoam turned to Link, his thick beard hiding the hard line of his lips. "My daughter is a godless child. She was born on Summertide, between Dinsfall and Nayru's Day, on the day that typically sees the birth of unlucky, cursed children."

Link blinked, uncertain of how to reply. It was a surprise, certainly, but he failed to see―

"This is especially unfortunate," King Rhoam continued, "because without the protection of a patron goddess, Zelda must now curry favour from not two, but three of the altars before it is too late."

Link didn't speak. He wasn't sure what to say, and he worried he still did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation.

"I had hoped," King Rhoam continued, "that the prophecy would not come to pass in her lifetime. Her mother's proficiency was but a shadow of Zelda's grandmother's, and that, too, was but a fragment of her great-grandmother's. When Zelda's mother died, the last remnant of knowledge vanished, leaving Zelda without much of a teacher. But I had hope." The king's eyes narrowed at the Master Sword. "I had hope that the Sword would remain immobile, as it had for centuries, and that my daughter might bear a luckier child, perhaps a true vessel for the goddess' power, and that the prophecy might wait yet another generation. I see now that was a mistake."

"I didn't mean―"

"You have done no harm," King Rhoam said, interrupting him. "As I said, it was not your fault. I should have pushed Zelda away from her scholarly pursuits and towards her true destiny sooner, more firmly. I doted on her, and I fear she is soft, now, too soft for what lies ahead."

It was on the tip of Link's tongue to argue against that notion. Princess Zelda had never struck him as a soft person. A gentle person, perhaps, and certainly a lady of noble descent, with the usual refined tastes and lofty interests, but never a soft person. She was intimidating to his fellow squires, and even her unusual beauty was terrifying. A boy might find himself liking a girl who looked like that.

"I fear I must now rely on you, my boy," King Rhoam continued. "Your appointment by the Master Sword means you will now be a part of castle life. You shall have free roam of the castle, within reason, and you will be expected to fulfill your duties as they arise. I trust Impa has already spoken to you of your role."

"Seal the darkness," Link said, gloomily. Or we are all doomed, he thought, remembering Sheikah Master Impa's insistent mantra. Then, catching himself, he stammered, "Your Grace."

"Indeed, but you must also work with the Champions. Every tribe in Hyrule has been designating a Champion since the discovery of the Divine Beasts. You've met the Champions, I believe?"

Link nodded. He had, though he could not claim great camaraderie with all four of them. But, at least: "Mipha of the Zora has ever been a frequent guest in the Castle, and we were playmates in childhood. And Daruk of the Gorons was a friend of my father's. He has been a friend to my family since."

The king nodded. "What of Revali, of the Rito?"

Link's expression soured. Revali was an arrogant prancing rooster whose skill with a bow only made Link's own tourney victories look decidedly bland.

King Rhoam noted his expression and chuckled. "I see. And I shall not ask of Urbosa, of the Gerudo. She only rarely visits, and when she does, she dotes more on my daughter than any other person I know. I doubt you have befriended her."

A squire in the barracks had described Urbosa as a gorgeous danger, and Link had been inclined to agree. Lovely to look at, impossible to approach. It was only fitting that she would spend what little time she had in the castle with the only other absurdly pretty woman to be found.

"You will now have to befriend them all," King Rhoam informed him. "The six of you will be working closely together to unmake this prophecy."

"Six?"

"Yes, you, the four Champions, and my daughter. It is clear now she must journey, and she will need protectors."

Adventure! Yes!

Wait. No.

"I don't― I am a squire, your Grace, I don't have the skills of the Zora, or the strength of the Gorons, or the agility of the―"

"You were Chosen," King Rhoam said. "And henceforth you will trust that the Sword has chosen well. It must have, or we are all doomed." Eh, he'd stolen the words right from Impa's mouth. "I will hear no further protestations from you."

Link snapped his mouth shut, then managed a simple, "Yes, your Grace."

"What doubts you have in your mind, you will now eliminate. What fears and worries plague you, you must burn away. The kingdom must never know what horror we face, or the utter lack of preparation that ails us. There will be no weakness. Zelda will master the power that is her birthright, and all will be as it should be."

Or we are all doomed, Link completed mentally, a refrain he was becoming all too familiar with.

"I shall not presume to ask that you do this with any joy," King Rhoam said. "But know at least that what you achieve will not be forgotten."

Link found himself wishing it could be. The stares and whispers would be intolerable now.

"Do not speak of Zelda's birth to anyone," King Rhoam added. "And do not hope that she will thank you for pulling that sword. The Master Sword's choice means the true end of her childhood, and the beginning of a difficult journey for her."

Well. So much for bonding over shared burdens.

"I understand, your Grace."

"In time," the king said, turning back to his desk, "when her power finally manifests itself, I shall designate you as her appointed knight. Together, with the Champions, you will be a beacon of hope, a proof of strength. Now go, and train. The Master Sword's selection is a sign. We know now our doom is fast approaching. We shall not be unprepared."

Almost comforted, Link bowed, and turned to leave.

Yet, as he shut the door, he caught a final glimpse of King Rhoam, whose great stature was now bent in defeat, as the king ran a shaky hand over his tired face, and Link was almost certain he saw him mouth the words 'I'm sorry' to no one in particular.

Link's fledgling resolve crumbled to dust. He shut the door, and he schooled his expression into careful neutrality, clinging to what poor decorum he had managed to master.

He would have to find his own strength, then.

Otherwise, Master Impa, with her unsettling red eyes and scary lessons, was right. They were all doomed.

Chapter Text

Link crossed paths with Master Kohga in the hallway that led to the Sheikah sanctuary, in the bowels of Hyrule Castle. Master Impa's right hand had a much prouder gait than the leader herself, but Link had never known any reason to actively dislike him. In fact, of all the Sheikah, Master Kohga seemed to be the only approachable one. Most of the others either ignored him or seemed to espy him perpetually, as though they sought a weakness in him.

Master Kohga never did. He evidently was too strong to care about small fry like Link, Master Sword or not. Somehow, that made him far more likeable, even if he cared so very much about being shown respect.

By comparison to Revali, Master Kohga's prevalent need to be respected and admired was easy to dismiss. He did have talents, especially in the art of magnetism and levitation, where Master Impa mostly specialized in weaponry and subtlety ― or threats and blackmail, if one listened to the rumours― and as such had always impressed the trainees from the moment they became squires.

It was Master Kohga, many said, who ought to be leader of the Sheikah. This opinion was carefully kept secret, as none dared to voice it to either Master Impa or Master Kohga. The Sheikah were good at making people disappear, they said. Never let them hear you speak ill of one of their own.

Even the location of the Sheikah sanctuary, in the bowels of the Castle, opposite the dungeons, spoke of their rank. A secretive people, a warrior people, feared and mysterious they were. Link's first entrance into that reclusive sanctuary had been nerve-wracking.

The Sheikah had a reputation.

"Chosen One," Master Kohga greeted, with a hint of irony. It made Link want to smile. Months of being the Chosen One had done little to ease the strangeness. Master Kohga's humour was welcome.

"Master Kohga," Link said, nodding sharply. At least Master Kohga was affable. Master Impa, on the other hand, didn't seem to know how to smile.

"Let me know if you ever grow tired of the Singing Lotus pose," the Sheikah master said, a glint in his eye. "I could teach you more."

Link snorted, but they did not pause to chat any further. He was already late. Besides, Link had not been assigned to Master Kohga to train. He was trained by Master Impa herself... unfortunately.

The past few months, since he'd been chosen by the Master Sword, had gone by in a predictable, if irritating fashion.

He would awaken in the morning and train with the other squires and knights before breakfast, as he always had. The knight commander had allowed him to move away from short-sword and spear training and focus on mastering the longer arming sword he now was tasked with using, which Link had taken to with some aplomb.

This part of the day, in the early dawn, his feet sliding through dewy glass as he focused only on his movements and the stretch of his muscles, was almost meditative. It was all downhill from there.

Breakfast was hearty and filling, as he'd always enjoyed it, but it usually heralded the beginning of a long day of obligations. Before the Master Sword, he'd have occupied his time in martial training, managing the diminutive family estate, or running errands for the more senior knights. Now, he had to present himself for training under Master Impa of the Sheikah, who usually devised different tortures to make the time seemingly slow to a crawl. When he wasn't practicing annoyingly complex poses ― the Sheikah method of training, with names like the Eagle, the Lizard, or the Still Pond, amongst other deceptively friendly monikers ― she was drilling him with history lessons, asking him to read in old Hylian, or having him practice his oaths.

The exercises, Link felt, were mostly there to test him. He didn't feel himself emboldened, trained or improved by the experience. The oaths, it seemed, were the most important. He was to pledge fealty to Hyrule, and to the incarnation of the Goddess above all. He was to shield her from harm, he was to guard her with his life, he was to be the blade of her justice.

Link would not have minded, really, as he'd been ready to say similar oaths to King Rhoam when the time came, but knowing what came at lunchtime had made him ask, on more than one occasion, why he even bothered.

He didn't ask anymore. Master Impa had a fierce way of suddenly whacking him with a wooden switch, and the bruises always smarted for days.

Still, the question remained. Why bother? Because at lunch time, he had to present himself to the small dining hall, where he had to dine with the princess. And the princess, evidently, had expressed no interest in him, his achievements, or his role in what was to come. She rarely looked up from her books, and would often depart without exchanging a single word with Link.

Link had quickly understood that she apparently did not like him, and her distance and disinterest were rapidly making the feeling somewhat mutual. His early attempts at conversation had been met with the barest of acknowledgements, and so he'd fallen into sullen silence, scarfing down his food as fast as he could, if only to be excused and move on to the next part of his day.

He kept telling himself that if Princess Zelda at least attempted to seem cordial rather than distantly polite, he might have forgiven the obvious stress of her situation. But seeing her day after day and getting nowhere was making this difficult. Even beauty could only get her so far, he considered.

The afternoon was a mix. Sometimes, he had to put up with tedious lessons in decorum and protocol, and sometimes he was assigned to the king's personal guard, following him around in silence, or standing by the door. In those moments, at least, he could drift off in thought. Sometimes he had to attend events and ceremonies, and sometimes, once in a red moon, he even had the afternoon off.

Today, he was to meet the Champions.

It felt silly. They'd already arrived in Hyrule Castle, summoned the moment he had drawn the Master Sword and become the herald of doom. What's more, he was already well acquainted with Mipha and Daruk, had the misfortune of knowing Revali, and had at least nodded to Urbosa in passing.

But today was the formal introduction. The king was to give them all a token of companionship, apparently. They were all to swear an oath of fealty to Princess Zelda. In so doing, the Champions made a lesser oath of obedience to Link, too.

It made him deeply uncomfortable.

He was still ruminating that thought when he was shown into the dining room, and found the princess already seated.

She had no book with her today, and had apparently waited for his arrival to begin eating.

Link had never been late before. "I'm sorry. I― I got here as fast I could."

Princess Zelda looked at him, mulled over her reply, then said, "No, I understand. Please, be seated."

She was being kind. That was new. Link cautiously sat in his designated chair, and they began to eat in silence.

After a few bites, the princess placed her fork down and said, "We will have the official meeting of the Champions this afternoon."

Link wasn't sure what to think. She was talking to him. Of her own volition. "Yes, your Highness. I, er… Master Impa has drilled the oaths into my memory." Painfully.

"And into mine," Princess Zelda said, wryly. "I wish we could skip it entirely."

Link felt the corner of his lip lift up. She could say that again. "At least it won't be a full-day devotional."

The princess rolled her eyes. "Oh, devotionals." And her tone said enough of what she thought of those.

This was more than he'd ever gotten out of her, and Link was loath to let the silence fall once more. "Yesterday, you were reading a book on the Ancient Sheikah?"

Princess Zelda picked up her fork again. "Yes, for all the good that does me." She was choosing her words. Then, glancing up at him, she added, "I trust you've seen at least some of the strange structures that dot the kingdom."

Link had, though his interest in them had faded rapidly enough when it had become apparent no one would ever successfully interact with them. There were more interesting things to do, as far as he and his fellow squires were concerned, than investigate buildings that were in all likelihood mere echoes of an ancient civilization, utterly worthless outside of a scholar's study.

"Master Impa believes, as do most of our researchers, that the structures are Sheikah in origin."

Link tried not to make a face. If that was the case, then the Sheikah were scarier than he thought.

"You don't like the Sheikah," Princess Zelda said. It wasn't a question.

Link shrugged. "They make me uneasy, I suppose." It was the most diplomatic answer he could give. No one liked the Sheikah.

The princess didn't dignify that with a reply. "In any case, how those structures or their use could have been forgotten is beyond me."

"They mustn't have been very useful," Link said.

He realized too late that was the wrong thing to say. The princess' green eyes flashed with sudden irritation, and she speared a carrot with more vigour than was strictly called for. Apparently, Link had used up the last drop of her good will. Rigidly, she said, "And you would know all about being useful."

Oh no.

"I only meant that, sometimes, things fall by the wayside and leave their place to better methods―"

"If that were true," Princess Zelda said, "then you could handle this damned prophecy yourself, and I wouldn't have to hear anyone harp on and on about how little I have accomplished." She didn't even raise her carrot to her lips. "They all go on about how fortunate we are that you are here, at least. At least one of us is on track."

"I didn't mean―"

"Do you know why you are made to dine here, with me, every single day?" Zelda said, with asperity. "You are the reminder. You are meant to remind me of my daily inadequacy."

"Obviously, that isn't what I meant."

She was glaring at him, the fork in her hand trembling slightly. Her eyes darted from his face to the Sword at his side, with an emotion he might have thought to be resentment. "You're just a soldier," she said, finally, as though the assessment had been a long time coming. "A boy, barely fit to wield any sword, let alone that one." She put her fork down. It clanged against the porcelain of her plate. "And I will care about your opinions on my books, my studies or my pursuits the day you prove you aren't the completely ignorant, lowly squire you seem to be."

She stood. Link knew he was gaping, but he couldn't seem to muster the strength to shut his mouth. A boy? What about her? She was even younger than he was. The nerve!

So instead he said, "I hadn't realized you wanted me to be silent. I'll make a note of that."

It was difficult to keep the irony out of his voice, and she scowled at him.

"What could you have to say that is worth hearing, anyway?"

That stung, surprisingly. "It would be easier for me to eat with my friends, you know. They're nothing but lowly squires, but at least they don't snap at me when I try to make conversation. If you want this to stop, just tell your father."

"I keep asking, and he keeps saying no."

Somehow, that stung even more. Link lowered his gaze to his plate, and tried to prevent the heat of anger from rising in his blood. Or maybe it was humiliation.

Fine. He'd stop trying.

She slammed the door behind her. Link sulkily returned to his plate, taking his sweet time to finish eating. If she couldn't be rid of him, then he'd make sure she knew it.

Later, when he stood before her again, they couldn't even look at one another. King Rhoam had given all four Champions a drape of pure sky blue, and Link had been given a tunic of the same colour, in a ceremony meant to unite them as a single force.

Link had never felt more alien to a group. Mipha had shot him a shy smile, and Daruk had patted his shoulder, but there was still a distance between them. Here, Mipha and Daruk were representatives of their people, born of great legacies and heirs to titles Link would never attain.

Revali and Urbosa had bothered to give him a condescending look and a polite nod, respectively. There was no friendship to be found here.

Least of all within Princess Zelda, whose cool green gaze reminded Link of jade. Cold, lifeless. She had welcomed her Champions with a smile that had not reached her eyes, and though she currently wore a dress in the same sky blue as the rest of them, a gap remained among them, filled with impatience, anger, and disappointed hopes.

It was Urbosa's oath that came first, and the great beautiful Gerudo kneeled before the princess, her armour golden in the sunlight that filtered into the sanctum's high windows. Under the approving gaze of King Rhoam Bosphoramus, she met Princess Zelda's gaze and said, her deep voice carrying with it all the warmth of the desert she hailed from, "To thee, I swear: upon the blood of my mothers, by the grace of spirit, I shall bear thy burdens with devotion and valour, until victory is certain, or I die with honour."

She bowed her head, and the princess thanked her softly, and then it was Daruk's turn.

The great lumbering Goron kneeled, a feat in and of itself, though even on one knee he towered above the princess. His gravelly voice managed the oath with only a moment of hesitation, to gather his thoughts. "To thee I swear: upon the blood of my fathers, by the rage of fire, I shall open thy path, with devotion and valour, until victory is certain, or I die with honour."

Revali's oath came first with a flourish, as the Rito came forward in a gust of wind, the result of grand wing motions. Link was fairly sure the Rito Champion eyed him with some disdain, but it was a mere flicker of a glance, and it ended before he could be sure. In the high elegant voice of nobility, the words came out clear and proud. "To thee I swear: upon the blood of my kin, by the relentless wind, I shall strike true in thy name, with devotion and valour, until victory is certain, or I die with honour."

Princess Zelda thanked him, as she had the other two Champions. Mipha of the Zora brushed past Link in that moment, and suddenly Link felt a soft warmth against his arm. Mipha had a gift of healing, and she had sensed his unease. He shot her a grateful smile, which she echoed briefly, before ascending to where the princess stood.

Link wasn't disappointed to see the mild confusion on the princess' face as she observed their exchange, but she refocused on Mipha as the small Zora girl ― Link's age, but still a child by the standards of her people ― kneeled before her and said, in her gentle voice, "To thee I swear: upon the blood of my elders, by the depth of water, I shall mend thy wounds, with devotion and valour, until victory is certain, or I die with honour."

Princess Zelda thanked her curtly, and Mipha rose to join the other Champions, who were now looking upon him with open interest.

Heart thumping, blood boiling, Link went to one knee before his princess, feeling the weight of the Sword on his back, or perhaps the gazes of both Master Impa and King Rhoam, as well as a cohort of courtiers. He had practised the oath for months and could recite it in his sleep, but here and now, in the light of the sanctum, on the marble floor, all he could think about was how little he wanted any of it.

Still, the words came out, hoarsely at first, then more fluidly: "To thee, I swear." Here, he collected himself, and he could almost feel Zelda fidget above him. "I shall shield thee from evil and despair." Although he was fairly sure that the greatest bedevilment in the princess' life, at the moment, was him. Still, he pressed on. "And should thou come to harm, neither time, distance or darkness shall weaken my arm..." The next words were painful to utter, because he wasn't sure how he would ever manage to uphold them, "and my soul shall not rest, my blood not cool, my heart not soar, until I find thee, to make this land whole again."

There. Not so bad. He was fairly certain Princess Zelda had disliked every second almost as much as he did, but they would be the only ones to know.

She managed to thank him, though from the way she uttered it, she might as well have wished him a long, torturous death, and Link was finally allowed to join the ranks of Hyrule's Champions.

There was pause, then, and it occurred to Link that both Master Impa and King Rhoam were waiting for something. But Zelda turned to them and whispered, "Nothing. Nothing is happening. We can move on."

Had they expected something like this to awaken Princess Zelda's power? If so, it was misguided, at best. The princess seemed about as receptive to a goddess' touch as Squire Dunson at the end of a night of drinking, only she was angry, not drunk.

Link actually found himself wondering what Zelda would be like when drunk. There was no doubt she would mellow out. She might even be adorable, cheeks pink and gaze soft. The thought brought a mild smile to his lips.

"Din, Nayru, Farore, Hylia," Master Impa intoned, with great pomp, dragging him out of his imagination, "By your light, on this day of Summertide, we beg you to bless our efforts―"

Summertide? A heavy weight dropped into Link's stomach, and his eyes darted to King Rhoam, then to Princess Zelda, who was staring blankly at the far wall. But neither of them noticed his gaze.

Mipha shot him a curious glance, but Link shook his head.

How had he forgotten? Summertide was the day of Zelda's true birthday. All the preparations were being made for tomorrow, on Nayru's Day, the first day of autumn, as the season of Nayru stretched from the beginning of autumn to the middle of winter, where Nayrusfall gave way to Farore's Day. Today was the day they had chosen for the ceremony― and nothing had happened.

And Link had been so cruel, at dinner. On her sixteenth birthday. He wanted to groan, the regret and embarrassment great enough to make him wish the floor would open up and swallow him whole.

He was so preoccupied with his guilt that he did not notice when the ceremony ended, only that Master Impa was suddenly before him as the group and courtiers dispersed, and she looked angry with him.

"Master Impa―"

"An hour of Thousand Knives pose," Master Impa said, and Link knew, with a sinking feeling, she had been apprised of his exchange with Zelda at dinner.

"I didn't realize―"

"Kindness," she merely said, interrupting him. "Kindness. Courage. Patience. These are the traits of what...?"

Link felt all the fight drain out of him, resignation taking its place. Sighing, he droned, "... A true hero."

He heard a gentle giggle from across the room. Princess Zelda was walking out with Urbosa, and the mirth in her eyes was like a ray of sunshine brighter than the very real daylight around her.

Their eyes met, like lightning, and for a moment Link's chest tightened. Regret, perhaps? Disappointment? Embarrassment?

Hope?

The princess looked away, visibly uncomfortable.

Praying to his patron goddess Farore, Link let his Sheikah Master drag him back to the torture room that was her training chamber, deciding that it was better not to have any hope about Zelda smiling at him in that bright, carefree way, ever.

Perhaps a hero must be patient, but Link was fairly sure waiting on miracles was not was Master Impa meant.

Chapter Text

He had been asleep. Soundly asleep. Blissfully asleep, under warm blankets, head resting on a fluffy pillow, in dreamless oblivion.

Link ruminated this as the horse under him snorted, and Link's mood soured. He was still sore from yesterday's Thousand Knives pose, his legs and arms completely worn out, and having his night cut short on what was supposed to be a day of feasting and celebration did little to improve his morale.

Next to him, Master Kohga looked decidedly more cheerful. In fact, Link couldn't remember seeing Master Kohga behave in anything less than a friendly, upbeat way. If Link hadn't been in such a foul mood, he might have been better company.

Behind them, riding, were two other Sheikah shadows ―field agents of the tribe―, their traditional hats low over their brows as they kept watch. Link hated that he was outnumbered. Where were Hyrule's good old knights?

"Is there anything better," Master Kohga said, "than an invigorating ride at dawn?"

He was joking, Link knew. Master Kohga loved to joke. And in other circumstances, maybe, this would have made Link smile.

"Master Kohga," one of the shadows said, in mild reprimand, "this is no laughing matter."

With the Sheikah, nothing ever was. But Master Kohga rolled his eyes, winking at Link conspiratorially. "The princess will be fine. I'm sure she made it to the Royal Ancient Lab with not even a scratch on her."

Link didn't even reply. He was supposed to still be in bed. Nayru's Day was a day of celebration, not just the princess' official birthday. It opened the season of harvests. It was customary for the smallfolk to exchange blankets on this day, in preparation for the coming winter, though it was still a few months away. They would place candles in every window and weave baskets to carry the hundreds and thousands of sheaves and bushels of food to come. It was a day to celebrate the small things, the wholesome things.

Like a good night's sleep.

But no. Some things, he realized, were not meant to be. His knight commander had woken him. The king needed his assistance. The princess had gone in the night.

And instead of sending the Sheikah alone, King Rhoam had insisted that Link go, too.

The Royal Ancient Laboratory wasn't exactly far from Hyrule Castle. In fact, it was just on the other side of the lake that served as a moat, to the west, where the sun set. A few hours' ride, at most.

How, Link wondered, groggily, had the princess managed to slip out of a castle that, despite what anyone said, was essentially perpetually busy, especially on her own birthday? Had she done it in a way that had not interrupted his sleep, Link might have been impressed.

But this princess would be the end of him. He just knew it.

Why had none of the other Champions been sent with him? Was that just too rude? It probably was. Mipha was a princess, too. And Urbosa and Daruk were leaders in their own provinces. And Revali― well, it was actually better that Revali not come along. That might have really ruined Link's day.

No, Link was the only one worth sending. He was just a squire, after all. Just a squire with a magic, darkness-sealing sword. Just a squire who heralded the end of times. You know. Nothing worth mentioning.

Oh, don't worry, people of Hyrule, I just embody the last bastion of hope for the kingdom. Why, yes, I will babysit the royal progeny. What else?

By the time Link made it to the Royal Ancient Lab, he was already out of patience.

He found the princess in a courtyard, making notes about a few flowers growing in pots, looking decidedly un-princess-like in the dirt.

The entire courtyard was actually impressive in its organization. There seemed to be labels to everything― the pots, the leaves, the plants, with dates, numbers and initials. Rows upon rows of plants at various stages of growth were carefully aligned lengthwise in the shade or the sun, as necessary.

Princess Zelda was kneeling in the dirt, furiously jotting down notes. She did not hear him approach, the furrow in her brow too deep, her concentration too great. The sun was at mid-morning by then. It promised to be a warm day.

Link crossed his arms and peered down at his princess, waiting.

She finished a sketch, then said, "Robbie, I think we need to water this one a little more."

"Robbie?" Link asked, lifting a brow.

Zelda started, falling back on her lovely arse, yelping. "Oh―" She scowled. "It's you."

Somehow, she managed to make that sound venomous. Link would have been flattered, had he not missed out on his blessed sleep.

He shifted his weight, and said nothing.

Zelda breathed out through her nose in exasperation, lips pressed into a thin line. She stood and patted the dust off her shapely behind in a way that did not attract Link's attention at all, then said, "Still doing the silent treatment, then?"

Yes, he was. He was absolutely still going to be as silent as he could. He glared at her, and she rolled her eyes.

"There's no need for anger. It's a lab, by the gods," she said, exasperated. "The greatest danger here is Purah's attempts at generating controlled explosions."

Link opened his mouth to retort. It was on the tip of his tongue― oh, really, controlled explosions. Nothing to see here, then. But he wouldn't give her the satisfaction. He clamped his teeth together and glared harder, and realized that she would win no matter what, judging by the triumphant glint in her eye.

Genius witch, he fumed. No man could resist the appeal of explosions, controlled or not, and she knew it.

"Anyway," she said, "if my father were so concerned for me, he would have sent the army. Not you."

Argh, not talking was difficult. She was goading him. And she was good at it. But it was a matter of honour now. Link clenched his jaw and stared her down stubbornly.

Realizing he was going to remain silent, the princess gave up. She sighed and turned away from him. For a moment she looked down at the research notes in her hands, and she traced her sketch with a finger. It was a good drawing, well-proportioned and detailed, highlighting the essential features of her subject, with clinical notes in the margins.

"Mother loved plants," she said, in her perfect aristocratic tone. "And though I cannot use her power, I can at least do this." She looked up at him, green eyes like young leaves in the spring, "Sometimes, we just need a break."

Link tried to summon anger ― what about his break?― but he couldn't hold on to it. He sighed. "Your father is worried."

"He always is," Zelda said, irritably, and Link appreciated that she didn't gloat at the breach of his promise of silence. "And I cannot blame him. I know what awaits us as well as he does."

"Do you?" Link asked. Because he sure didn't.

"Of course," Zelda said. She peered at him in curiosity, then an expression dawned on her face that was part horror and part disgust. "Wait. Has anyone told you?"

Link shrugged, but Zelda deciphered the motion too easily. She looked horrified, then resolute, her pink lips puckering together in anger. She slipped her notebook into her pocket, then dusted her hands again.

"Come with me," she said, in a tone that brokered no argument.

She led him, resolutely, to one of the lab's doors, under the amused gaze of Sheikah onlookers, and Link knew better than to protest.

"Purah!" Zelda called out, as she banged the door open. The strength of her determination surprised him. She was never this way at the Castle. And suddenly Link understood why she might have needed to escape.

A sudden pop, followed by a miserable fizzle and the acrid smell of burning hair. A diminutive Sheikah woman appeared, with wide round glasses and a decidedly sooty look. She blinked at them both in confusion, then said, "Oh, Zelda, I think it has finally happened. I accidentally turned your clone into a man."

"What?" Zelda blinked, looked at Link, rolled her eyes, then reached for the woman's glasses and wiped them on the hem of her shirt, completely non-regal, placing them back onto the woman's nose. "No, Purah. I keep telling you, you think you see double, but you do not."

"Oh." The Sheikah woman called Purah eyed Link with a squint, then said, "Well, he's perfect! Why didn't you say so?"

"Perfect?" Link echoed, uncertainly. That did not bode well.

"Wait right here," Purah said, "I will fetch the shock apparatus."

Before Link could argue, Zelda pressed her lips together and reached out. "This," she said, seizing the back of Purah's shirt and holding onto it firmly, "is Link, wielder of the Master Sword."

Purah looked disappointed. "He would have been perfect for my experiment."

"Purah, he is the Chosen Hero," Zelda said, "and he doesn't know what he is up against."

Purah's distracted gaze suddenly sharpened. She now looked at Link and seemed to be a different woman entirely, all traces of scatterbrained flurry utterly gone from her demeanour. She squinted. "Oh," she said, now sounding like the wise woman she must have been. "So my sister has not told you."

"Sister?" Link echoed.

"Master Impa," Zelda clarified, impatiently. "Purah is her elder sister."

Purah reached up, grabbing Link's chin firmly, and examining his features with the clinical fascination of an entomologist studying a particularly rare species of butterfly. "Hrm." She turned his face this way and that, searching for something, though Link wasn't sure what. When at last she released him, she said, "Well. He is perfect."

"I wish you would stop saying that," Zelda said, evidently annoyed. "He obviously is not."

Link didn't have time to give her a roguish grin before Purah grabbed him by his collar and yanked him forward, towards a long table full of various instruments and piles upon piles of books. "Look here," she said, her strength completely unexpected from a woman of her size. Terrifying in itself.

"I'm looking," Link croaked, his throat surely bruised forever by the experience.

"This is what you will be sealing."

The image in the book was an engraving of a large pig… dragon… monster oozing thick furls of smoke. On either side of it were two vaguely humanoid figures, one white, one green, but there was little else to decipher.

"A pig," Link said.

He could almost feel Zelda irradiate frustration in the corner of his vision.

"An incarnation," Purah said, "of every ounce of malice, evil and darkness that ever has been. A creature so foul and somber that its triumph would plunge the world into an unending era of despair and violence. A creature that would, in no uncertain terms, spell the ending of our time."

Link blinked at the page. The thing still looked like a pig dragon. "Is the pig snout a metaphor or something?"

"It is malice made flesh. It will find your greatest fears, your darkest secrets, your most malevolent thoughts, and make them reality," Zelda said, flatly.

"Actually, much like a sniffing hog," Purah mused.

"Is that some sort of poetry, or―?"

"We are scholars," Princess Zelda said, eyeing him with a hard gaze of pure jade. She was visibly trying to drive a point home. "We do not deal in metaphors or poetry. Especially not where the Calamity is concerned."

"There is nothing about this threat that is an exaggeration," Purah confirmed. Link found that ominous. "Imagine," she continued, "everything and everyone you have ever cared about."

Easy enough. The list was short. His mother, his father, a few of his fellow squires, some childhood friends, and the farmers on his family's tiny estate, and the group of Zora children he'd grown up playing with, back when his father had been posted in Zora's Domain, and Mipha, of course, who had always been so kind, and Daruk, who was like a second father to him, and the boys in Castle Town who cheered when he had time to show them how to shoot a bow, and the lady in the market who made his bread and always added more spices just for him, and the guard at the gatehouse―

On second thought―

"Now imagine being possessed of the very urge to destroy them," Purah said, dragging him back to reality. Link frowned at her. "And imagine," she added, "that they have the same urge about you."

Now Link felt a strange emptiness in his gut, the kind that began to build when he and the lads had too much to drink, that heralded a time in the not so distant future where they'd be vomiting in unison in a ditch somewhere.

He imagined Castle Town, as he had seen it only this morning, awakening in festivity, only the madness that seized the city was a bloodlust almost unthinkable. In his mind's eye, he saw mothers smothering their babies in their laundry, fathers drowning their sons in the town fountain.

"Imagine a world where love vanished utterly, and all memory of affection became a thing to be mocked, where friends did not hesitate to crush you for advancement and lovers simply… forgot."

Link glanced at Zelda, wondering if perhaps Purah wasn't being melodramatic. But Zelda's expression was hard, and perhaps that was the true horror of it.

She was just a girl, Link realized. Just a sixteen year-old girl, with the weight of the world on her shoulders, and until this moment, she had supposed he knew what lay ahead, and was taking his responsibility lightly.

But no one had explained. Perhaps they had all grappled with the truth for so long that it had never occurred to them to tell him.

Were they serious? Was this truly the Calamity? Surely, and here he imagined his own mother, in all the dignified grace of her widowhood, her beautiful face smiling on him with pride, surely the people were better than this?

"Pay attention, Chosen Hero," Purah insisted, and Link turned back to her. "Destruction of the world at the hands of some great distant evil is something anyone could rally against. But Calamity Ganon is like a poison."

The image of Link's mother seemed to wilt, the kindly features turning to a horrible mask, a parody of kindness, and the distortion that came with it made Link's blood run cold.

"This evil," Purah promised, "will turn us, too, one and all. We will gleefully burn the trees, uproot the flowers and kill the good creatures of this land. We will watch the world suffocate under our yoke, we will strip it of all that is good and nurturing."

Now Link saw the small acreage of his family land turned to ash, the people turned to lifeless husks of greed and madness. The small grove of trees where he'd played at catching bugs in his youth burned, the critters dead, the farm animals crying out.

Purah's voice was mournful. "We will exhaust everything the world has to give, and when at last nothing remains upon it but what few of us were strong enough to survive, we will choke, too."

No. There was no way. "But―"

"Ganon is powerful," Purah said, softly. She seemed old, now, much older than her couple of decades. "The Calamity nearly won, aeons ago. It was beat back by my ancestors, and the incarnation of the Goddess, and a hero of great strength and courage, as well as an army of machines, and four Champions of immense skill, but the battle was long and arduous, and very nearly lost."

The silence settled over them, and in that silence, the echoes of Link's visions faded, leaving instead a small, shriveled inkling of truth in their place.

"And now we have… me," Link said, peering at the illustration of the Calamity with a growing sense of unease.

"And the little lady," Purah said, brightly, though Princess Zelda's own expression, when Link turned to her, seemed far less convinced.

In fact, given what Link knew of the princess' fruitless efforts, the young woman seemed downright angry. Angry at the world, angry at the Calamity, angry at him… but, most of all, angry at herself.

"We also have the Champions," Zelda said, but her voice was worn, like the spine of a book one revisited too often, and there was no warmth to that comfort. "As soon as we decipher how the Divine Beasts function, I'm sure… Well."

But Link knew what that meant. Something was rising inside him, even as his blood seemed to grow heavy in his limbs, something that felt vaguely like panic.

"We have… nothing," Link managed, his gaze darting from Purah to Zelda, and back.

Now the princess gave him a curt nod, and Link finally understood why she was so angry.

"Well, the Sword is something, at least," Purah said, with forced optimism. "So things could be worse."

A sword. They had a sword. A sword he was expected to wield. A sword he was still training to use.

Now Link understood the anger his princess felt.

"We have nothing," Link repeated, and his breath came faster now. His entire body felt antsy. He could hear the pounding of his pulse inside his ears, and little else. The world seemed to grow dim as the fear took over.

The Champions had no idea. Often, they seemed content to boast and brag, or simply assume all would be well. The King and Master Impa had done nothing to warn him. They spoke in vague terms, explaining he would have to wield the Sword that Seals the Darkness, as though the knowledge were some innate truth that had simply invested him when he'd pulled the damn thing from the pedestal.

The kingdom was blind. Utterly and completely unprepared. The Divine Beasts barely functioned, the Champions did not feel any urgency, the princess had no sealing powers, and the Guardians the Sheikah had uncovered could barely move.

And him? He was just a squire. He had no honours, no title. He was nobody.

"I need a moment," Link said, to no one in particular, and he strode to the door.

He burst out into the sunlit fields behind the lab, beyond which the spires of Hyrule Castle rose in the morning sun like diamond-tipped spears, proud, strong, true. He walked, and walked, in a straight line, away, away.

Had any of their declarations been said with humour, Link considered, he might have dismissed them. But the fatigue and frustration were too real, too akin to the empty, void gaze of the older knights, the ones who had truly known battle, the hate and the blood, and the rampaging death. Before his own father's defeat in the field of battle, Link had seen it in him, too, sometimes, the long-suffering agony of knowing the unknowable and having no one to unburden upon. Link had tried, but to what end? What could a boy, a page, barely a squire, achieve to relieve the ache of war?

Link's breathing came faster and faster, and he was dizzy. It seemed he couldn't breathe in enough. His entire body felt numb, felt ill, felt distant, felt heavy. He stumbled through the grass, green― so green― like Zelda's eyes in the sun― his hands fumbling at the strap on his shoulder.

The Sword and its scabbard came loose, and Link grabbed it, throwing it to the ground beside him, breathing, breathing, he couldn't stop breathing, yet there was no air now, no air to breathe―

The tears of terror came next, here, as he fell to his knees, unable to breathe, and he shuddered. His whole body heaved, and before he knew it, he vomited out bile and his meager breakfast, trembling.

Mother. If this evil existed, he might hurt his own mother at its beckon. All his friends, all the squires he trained with― Mipha, and Daruk, who had been so kind―

He spat to clear his mouth, then looked at the Sword. It gleamed in the grass, obviously unfazed, unaware of his terror, as inanimate objects do. But he felt angry with it.

"Why me?" He managed, croaking. "I'm nobody!"

The Sword didn't reply. Unsurprising, yet infuriating.

"I can't do it," Link managed, softly. Here, in the open field, it seemed no one was listening, and yet the whole world was present. "I don't know why you chose me, but I can't do it." He jabbed a finger at the Sword, for all the good that did either of them. "You made a mistake. And you need to take it back!"

The Sword did not move. It did not speak. It didn't do anything. Because it was a sword. Somehow, Link found himself feeling a wave of empathy for Zelda. Was this how she felt when she prayed at the Goddess Statues in the realm, and heard nothing but silence in return?

"They barely made it last time," Link pleaded, though he didn't know to whom, exactly. "How can we achieve anything now?" The thought of failing them all was crushing, overwhelming, and he felt all strength leave his body.

The earth was soft under his fingers, the grass silky, still a little wet with dew. The wind was warm, carrying with it the gentle scents and sounds of life. And Link listened, listened until he was so still he stopped breathing.

But the world had no words of advice for him. It simply was.

He sat there a long time.

When he returned, near noon, Zelda stood by the door. She seemed to be waiting for something from him, though it wasn't clear what.

Link did not meet her gaze. He couldn't. He walked past her, back into the lab, and went to his required post, by the door, both his hands on the pommel of his sword. When the princess followed him in, her gaze landed on the Sword, and her fists clenched.

But neither of them said anything.

What was there to say?

Chapter Text

"Well, don't you look dashing," one of the squires said, teasing. Once of the novelty of Link's selection by the Master Sword had worn off, and no Calamity had appeared, he'd simply gone back to being Squire Link, a young man on the brink of true responsibility, like all of them.

Link didn't reply, peering at himself in the mirror placidly.

"Watch out, lads," Squire Dunson said, lounging on his bunk. "Now that he's about to be knighted, Link has no time to speak with us lowly squires."

Link rolled his eyes, but he couldn't say anything before Squire Herschel seized his helm from the bed and held it aloft. "Oh, great Squire Link―"

"Sir! He's a knight!" One of the boys called out.

"Sir Link," Squire Herschel amended, "When will you introduce us lowly peasants to the gracious company of our beloved princess?"

"She doesn't want to see you, Herschel," another boy called out, and the gathering laughed.

"Of course she doesn't," Squire Groose said, as the laughter died down. "After all, why would any woman care about us miserable folks when there's a true knight about? A knight of such fortune and― oh," here, Groose interrupted himself. "What was your title, again, Link?"

"Stop it," Link said, gritting his teeth.

Most of the Squires were born to nobility, and many more, at least, to great fortunes. Link had only managed his appointment thanks to the distinguished service of his father, and while martial achievements were appreciated in the army, they meant little in the eyes of these boys.

Boys. It was all they were. Naïve. Ignorant. Unaware.

"I hear the princess hasn't awakened her power yet," Squire Herschel said, giving Link his helm back, by way of soothing the nerves Groose had grated on.

"So calling her the incarnation of the Goddess might be premature," Squire Groose said.

"I bet she's going to work it all out," Squire Dunson generously admonished. "She has to, right?"

Squire Groose snorted. "Just like Link had to achieve all these feats of strength to earn the Master Sword. Oh, no, wait. He just pulled it out and did nothing for it."

"That must make the princess mad," Squire Pipit said, from the bottom bunk where he was resting. "Mother says she goes out to the fountains or Goddess shrines every day to pray."

Link tuned them out. If he listened to them, he might get even more nervous. Already the weight of the world seemed to rest on his shoulders, made heavier from the knowledge that he was the only one with the barest of aptitude to show in the challenges to come. The Champions still struggled to control their Divine Beasts and Princess Zelda―

Well.

"The truth is," Squire Groose continued, "that though our Link has done little to deserve his post, the princess has done even less."

That did grate on Link's ears. He bristled, about to turn and reply, when Pipit cut in.

"You can't command the gods," Pipit said, frowning. "And I doubt any of us would have half the determination and perseverance the princess does if we'd seen no results after over a decade."

"Thank you," a soft voice said.

Link would have recognized the aristocratic lilt anywhere. His stomach dropped.

She was here, in the doorjamb to the barracks, dressed in a regal dark blue dress, a cross of his own Champion-blue and black― some sort of mourning, perhaps. Link could sympathize. In the weeks since that day in the Royal Lab, Link had struggled with mixing in with his fellow squires, too burdened by the horrible truth to focus.

She seemed tired, as though sleep had been as difficult for her to find as it had been for him.

And yet, she was beautiful.

Around him, the squires fell to their knees, an automatic response, and silence fell over the barracks where they usually were full of boisterous laughter, mocking and youthful exuberance.

Turning away from the rest of the squires, Link's gaze met Princess Zelda's, and he, too, fell to one knee, bowing his head.

"It is time," the princess said.

Link seized his helm, a confection of metal and red feathers with engravings of the Hyrulean phoenix. His armour, over his Champion's shirt, was silvery bright, polished to a mirror shine, and the tabard of Hyrule, in white, red and blue, fit snugly over it. He looked like a knight, though he didn't feel like one.

He followed the princess out in the silence.

"Please don't listen to them," Link finally said, softly, when they were out of hearing range. They were striding out into the Guards' Chamber, where more guards and squires kneeled, heads bowed, and ascended the steps to the corridor that connected back to the main hallway. As they walked in the red carpeted halls, courtiers nodded and bowed, but all maintained their distance.

"There is nothing they can say that I have not already been told in far crueller terms," Princess Zelda said, without glancing at him.

"They have no tact."

"A common trait," Zelda said, and now she did look back at him, and Link could have sworn he saw the barest hint of a smile.

It lasted less than a second, but it felt almost like… kindness. Link felt warmth fill his belly, and suddenly the ordeal before him seemed somewhat less terrifying.

"My father has decided that your constant presence would be a more steadfast reminder of my own duty," Princess Zelda said, softly, as they entered the central hall and ascended the steps towards the throne room. "Seeing as the days pass and still nothing has happened."

She meant her power, which had yet to manifest. "I won't impede you," Link vowed, though it seemed like a small promise to make.

"You will be dreadfully bored," she sighed. "But at least it will be good for you to be knighted. It will give you more freedom, such as it is."

"If the ceremony, after, is too much―"

"No," Zelda said. "Daruk is right. It may be good for us six to have a formal ceremony in the Sacred Grove." She glanced back at him. "Thank you for your consideration."

Link said nothing. A flash of the threat that loomed over them passed in his mind.

Princess Zelda did not push further, but what lingering sentiments remained were now gone, the reminder of their fate too heavy to bear.

The throne room was vast, the largest room in the Castle by far, octagonal, with draperies and tall windows. It was a place of dancing and honour, a place of grandeur and regality. Link never got used to it.

They entered it from the large double doors, after walking outside, and Link found that half the realm had apparently assembled to watch his dubbing. None of his fellow squires, of course. They were not yet titled enough to compete with this lot.

In fact, Link knew he was the lowest ranked of them all. Suddenly he remembered the princess' words. A lowly squire, she'd called him.

Suddenly her meager smile, earlier, seemed almost mocking to him. She had made clear what she thought of him, of his standing, of his selection by the Sword. She didn't care what he thought. He was a tool, at best, and a fool, at worst.

He forced himself to focus. Impa had kept repeating the tenets of knighthood for months now. Kindness. Courage. Patience. The three virtues. And then there were the three actions. Protect the innocent, first. Uphold the law, second. Obey your ruler, third. The order was important, and Link hoped he never had to sort through those priorities.

But there were additional requirements for a wielder of the Master Sword, requirements that superseded the tenets of knighthood, if it came to it. Destroy Ganon, above all else. Protect the incarnation of the Goddess. Combat any and all agents of the Calamity. These were straightforward, almost uncomfortably simple, and, Impa had reminded him, they had no chance of contradicting one another.

Unless Zelda was the Calamity, Link thought, dryly. She certainly had a destructive effect on him.

"Come forward," King Rhoam commanded, and Link snapped back to reality.

"O King of Hyrule," Princess Zelda intoned, curtsying before her father. Link merely kneeled, bowing his head, below the balcony where King Rhoam sat in his throne.

"Today we mark the knighthood of Link, son of Raven," Master Impa said, her voice commanding the attention of all assembled. "The Master Sword does not choose a hero lightly. His selection is proof of his courage and valour, a testament of deeds yet to come."

Link felt the princess stiffen next to him, but he could say nothing. Besides, it felt wrong. A hero, they called him. But he had done nothing yet to prove himself, save some victories on the tourney grounds and a few skirmishes in the field, in attempts to clear out wandering packs of Bokoblins. There was nothing to support these claims of valour.

Yet.

Here, as he listened to Master Impa speak of his upcoming duties, of the vows and oaths he was taking by the sword, Link realized that the eyes of the kingdom were on him, on them. Admittedly, he had done nothing yet to deserve their faith. But that didn't mean he couldn't do his part from now on.

He glanced sideways at Princess Zelda, but she was staring stonily ahead. She really was pretty, Link considered. It was a shame she was so wound up. Not her fault, perhaps, but unfortunate all the same.

Despite himself, he found himself withdrawing to the Mind of the Crane, a state of quiet awareness Impa had taught him about, his ears fully open to all that surrounded him, his mind completely still, as though waiting for ripples on a lake. It was restful, here. He could receive and react, but there was no past here, no future.

As Impa asked him to accept his responsibilities ― protect the land, shield the innocent, offer his faith to the goddesses, on and on― Link merely found himself acquiescing, focusing only on the words as they came, and letting them be free when he was done speaking them.

"Then come forward," King Rhoam suddenly said, and now Link was back in the throne room, with a thousand eyes upon him, and the fate of the world on his shoulders.

He pushed himself to his feet, trying not to wobble dizzily. The king stood from his throne, and the entire room fell to its knees.

In the long silence, Link let himself be guided to one of the long winding staircases, ascending to stand before his king, in a place much higher than a commoner could ever hope to be.

Out of the king's scabbard came a ceremonial sword, ornate in gold and amethysts, and the King looked down on Link, his sword raised.

"Squire Link, kneel before your king." Link kneeled again on the steps, hearing the blood rushing in his ears.

"By the grace of Farore," King Rhoam said, touching the blade to Link's right shoulder, "and Nayru," the other shoulder, "and Din…" The blade kissed Link's bowed head, lightly. "You knelt a squire, but you rise a knight. Rise, Sir Link, knight of Hyrule, wielder of the Master Sword, Champion of the realm."

A chorus of clapping rose as Link did, and Link couldn't help but smile a little. For years he'd been waiting on this day, and though he had hoped it would occur at the side of his friends and fellow trainees, at least he could finally say he'd made it.

He stood as tall as he could as the King stepped down from his throne and gave him the requisite accolade. It was an honour to be knighted by the King. Most of his fellow squires could hope for Chancellor Cole, or High Priest Auru, and some would have to contend with a senior knight.

If only his father had been alive, Link thought. Would he have been proud to see his son join the ranks of the Royal Guard, as he had? Or would he feel as Link did, that the honours were yet undeserved?

Link quashed the feeling down as much as he could. Too late now. The deed was done. He was a knight.

He caught Princess Zelda's gaze as he turned to take his place on the dais, next to the other Champions. Her expression was inscrutable, but there was a slight vulnerability there that made him feel strange.

After all, hadn't she called him a lowly squire? Even as a knight, he remained the lowest among them. He was no threat, even if she felt he marred the good name of the order.

So why did she look so… defeated?


 

"Gee, this is uplifting… She's making it sound like we already lost."

"Wasn't this your idea?"

"Oh, give it a rest…"


 

Chapter Text

The Zora delegation was the first to arrive in Kakariko Village, closely followed by the Hateno delegation. Their arrival was heralded by a welcoming cheer. Zoras, Sheikah and Hylians greeted one another with warmth, strangers meeting as though they were long-time friends, brought together in the camaraderie of shared relief and elation.

Word of Link's great victory seemed to have brought the people of Hyrule out of their self-imposed seclusion, and trade routes that had once been seldom traveled were beginning to see increased activity. It felt like the land was blooming alongside its people.

From the tiny window of Impa's home, Zelda observed them with apprehension. Her people.

"You should not be afraid," she whispered to herself, so softly that only a faint wisp of breath came out of her lips.

It was a familiar refrain, one she had held within herself for years, starting after her mother's death, repeating it sometimes so often that it seemed to lose all meaning. You should not be afraid. You should not be afraid. Of failure. Of the Calamity. Of rumours. Of your power. Of Link. Of Link. Of Link.

A strange feeling sat deep in her gut, like indigestion. She had repeated the mantra so often to herself that she had thought herself fully immune, fully bolstered, even though her power had been absent. She had been so sure of herself, but it had taken one man to make her afraid again, his competence and confidence like impregnable, unassailable moral fortresses. You should not be afraid, but clearly…

Her lips moved again, despite herself, forming the words silently. You should not be afraid. A sentence that had been like a blanket of cold comfort in the endlessness and horror of the Calamity's prison. You should not be afraid.

Below, Link had made his appearance, emerging from the inn where he was temporarily residing. The Zoras, including their leader, imposingly tall and boisterous, welcomed him with exuberant warmth.

"That is Prince Sidon, son of King Dorephan, brother to Mipha, and heir to the Domain."

It was still striking to Zelda that her old Sheikah Master's voice could sound so frail. Once, an age ago, she had been a commander to armies, a battlemaster of unparalleled skill, a terrifying example of her people.

Zelda turned to Impa, nodding. "Yes," she said, "I assumed, by his regalia. He used to be so quiet." She looked back outside, at the fierce handshake Link was getting. "He seems… enthusiastic."

"So he is," Impa agreed, chuckling. "His correspondence made great use of exclamation marks." She was silent for a moment, before saying, "Join us when you are ready."

You should not be afraid. "I will accompany you."

Prince Sidon was a charmer, Zelda realized as she watched him greet Paya with a smile that would have dazzled hardened hearts. Paya was putty in the prince's fins, gawping up at him with a flush that might have heralded a forthcoming swoon. To her great credit, she remained upright, even as her hand was pumped up and down enthusiastically, and she even replied audibly when asked about her opinion on freshwater fish.

The theatrics suddenly stopped when Prince Sidon noticed her. Behind him, Link and his childhood Zora friends were chatting amiably, but his attention, too, turned to her.

"Princess," Sidon said. He smiled at her warmly, his pointed teeth white and sparkling. "A hundred years is too long to go without your company."

From anyone else, the words might have seemed disingenuous, sarcastic or mocking. But Prince Sidon was in earnest, and Zelda found herself smiling at him genuinely. And, rather than curtsy, she reached for his large scaled hands, squeezing them sincerely. "Prince Sidon. It really has been far too long."

They stood in silence for a moment, smiling at one another, until Zelda snapped out of it, turning to the Hateno delegation and welcoming them as graciously as she could. Uma, one of the village elders, smiled at her with a generosity that reminded Zelda of Impa, and the Sheikah Symin bowed to her curtly, extending Purah's salutations.

There was a builder there, too, by the name of Bolson, whose flourished bow made old Uma chuckle.

"Princess," the builder said in a surprisingly girlish voice. "I weep with joy to see you."

Over his shoulder, Link rolled his eyes, and Zelda stifled a laugh. The moment was brief, but Link's warm gaze made her feel strangely comforted. Then, before she could be distracted, she returned her attention to the builder. "Mr. Bolson," she said. "I suspect you will be very busy in the months to come."

"Never too busy to build you a wonderful home," Bolson said. "I build the loveliest homes in Hyrule. Ask anyone." He glanced about himself, before settling his attentions on Link, "Ask him! Go on, lovely boy, tell your princess how perfect your very own house is."

Link looked embarrassed. "Er. Yes."

The strange feeling returned, this time like an illness. Zelda felt the ground move under her feet, as though she were sliding. It was all in her mind, she knew. Just her imagination. "I did not know you had a home," she said, as steadily as she could, as she turned to Link.

But why wouldn't he? Hadn't he lost everything, just as she had? There was no reason to feel the strange lurch in her chest, no reason to feel as though the quiet in her heart was unsettled.

She didn't know what she had expected. That he would remain homeless? That he would build a home for them both?

That he would come to Hyrule Castle, and rebuild it with her?

She quelled the notion before it took root. There was no use entertaining fanciful ideas. What manner of selfish fool was she? Link had done so much for her kingdom already. He deserved peace, at last. He deserved to enjoy the fruits of his efforts.

"It is a very good home," Bolson said. "All the best furnishings and decorations. I oversaw the renovations myself."

"No kitchen or privy, though," Link observed, and Zelda forced herself to refocus. Bolson dismissed this criticism with a wave of the hand, irritated.

"Details."

"Not that we see young Master Link very often of late, in his home or out and about," Elder Uma said, for the princess' benefit, and Prince Sidon's. "I suppose he is too busy saving the land." She said this with a bit of a wink, and Link looked mildly embarrassed.

"And he is very good at it," Prince Sidon enthusiastically affirmed. "A true flood prevention expert." He clapped Link's back with enough force to make Link stumble.

"I'll go check on the cooks," Link mumbled, clearly uncomfortable, as the tip of his ears pinkened, his chin sinking into his shoulders.

A chorus of laughter erupted, Sheikah, Hylians and Zora in united mirth. As Link walked away, he made a dismissive gesture with his hand, as though to shoo them away, eliciting more amusement in response. Zelda felt her heart squeeze. A hundred years ago, Link had not been this comfortable with royalty and peasants alike. There had not been this much proximity between Hyrule's people, either. And this newfound friendship was not her doing. It was Link's.

I will need him at my side, Zelda thought to herself, and the thought evoked her ageless refrain ― you should not be afraid.

But I am afraid, she knew. I always have been. I cannot do this without him. This good, honest trust between my people depends on him. He is the foundation upon which I must rebuild Hyrule. He is as necessary now as he was to defeat Ganon.

Hyrule ― and its princess― needed Link. But Link had a home in Hateno. A real home, with furniture, a place to settle down. A place to begin his well-earned retirement. Had he not earned it? Did he not deserve a chance to die of old age?

The thoughts haunted her, even as she made happy conversation, even as she greeted every visitor in turn, every Zora and Sheikah and Hylian, even as they gathered for a meal. The niggling thoughts followed her from moment to moment, lurking in the back of her mind, unsettling and unresting.

Through great effort, she listened to the concerns of her people's delegates. Vah Ruta, Prince Sidon said, was suddenly utterly lifeless. She listened with concern as he described the strange absence of motion or noise from the immense machine, and listened to Bolson's boast that he could fix it. Prince Sidon entertained this idea politely, but his eyes spoke a different worry. Zelda had been ―along with Purah, Robbie, and the four deceased Champions― one of the only persons in the realm to somewhat understand the Divine Beasts. Zelda placed a hand on the Zora's arm, to indicate she understood.

The Elder Uma, of Hateno, was arguing with Symin about the fate of the laboratory's mysterious director, Purah, with Uma insisting that Purah had not come to have tea in weeks, while Symin assured her that Purah still lived and was well. Apparently, Zelda realized when Symin leaned in to explain, Purah's experiments had reverted her age, and she was now working on getting back to her real appearance. Impa rolled her eyes at this news.

Much talk was had about the remaining herds of bokoblins, moblins and other irritating pests that lurked in the countryside. Many agreed that their numbers had dwindled, but that they were no less of a threat, and Prince Sidon made a tentative proposal to reconvene when all delegates had arrived to form some sort of fighting force that could keep the foes in check. This suggestion was met with great cheer and loud toasts, though Zelda only drank halfheartedly.

Was she even necessary? She felt torn between her two selves. She was a princess, and the people of Hyrule did need a central governing body. This was her purpose, not gallivanting about the countryside studying insects and plants. Even if studying was all she wanted to do, all she had ever wanted. She remembered the delicate experiments she had once worked on with Purah and Robbie, the meticulous drawings and notes she had made.

Was she Zelda, princess of Hyrule, chosen of the Goddess Hylia, or was she Zelda, scholar and researcher? The question made her chest feel compressed, and before long she felt a headache coming on.

When at last the new arrivals were herded off to their respective tents and accommodations to organize themselves, she wandered away. It felt good to raise up her skirts and feel her legs move under her, her thighs working, extending, and the breath in her lungs as she inhaled and exhaled. This, at least, was a wonderful feeling.

She found her way to the apple tree rather mindlessly and was quite close by the time she noticed Link in its shade.

"Oh," she said, startled. He seemed equally surprised to see her, judging by the guilty look on his face.

"Princess." He pushed to his feet. He put the Sheikah Slate away. "I was just―"

"No," she said, "no, please, don't stand. I can… I'll find another place―"

He shuffled his weight, in a motion she had only seen rarely, when he was unsure how to proceed. "Actually," he started, "I was hoping…"

She caught his meaning almost instantly. "Oh." She took a step forward, into the shade of the tree. He didn't move away. The late afternoon played shadows across his face, and though she tried to decipher his expression, she couldn't decide what he was thinking. "Your memory. Is it working, me telling you all I know?"

She hoped he didn't hear the hard beating of her heart. It wasn't hope, she tried to reason. Even if he did remember everything, a lot of time had passed. A century. He might have changed. He might no longer wish to continue their friendship, remembered or not.

Worse, she feared, he might decide to dislike her.

Several expressions warred for dominance on Link's face, flitting too fast for her to capture any of them. Then, he said, "Sometimes, I think it's working. The memories lie in a smell, a sound, a movement, a colour, a fleeting moment." She saw his fingers twitching at his side, as though he was warring with himself on what to do with them. "But they escape me so quickly, I can't…" He shook his head, then gazed up at her, his blue eyes arresting. "It helps, though. Your voice― sometimes even just the tone of your voice brings me to moments…" He seemed embarrassed, the tips of his ears growing pink, in that way they often did. "I mean―"

"I understand," she said. "I think." She forced a smile, to drown out the sound of her own heartbeat. "Well, then, we should continue, shouldn't we? Where were we?"

He watched her as she folded her skirts to sit between the apple tree's roots, his gaze inscrutable. Then, clearing his throat, he said, "Er. I was appointed to you. I remember a part of the ceremony, and the Champions talking amongst themselves."

A familiar feeling of dread and embarrassment flooded her veins. Zelda nodded. "Right." There would be many of those feelings yet. A hundred years had been more than enough to reflect on her arrogance, presumption and ignorance where Link had been concerned.

She took a deep breath as Link sat down in the soft grass next to her. He seemed on the verge of a question.

"Yes?" She asked, if only to think of something other than her shame.

"Did you hate me?" He finally blurted out. "I was… I was young―"

The question smarted, like the burn of a stinging plant. She had expected it, of course, and she'd had ample time to reflect on it, too. She reached out, placed her hand on his. "I was young too. We were going through trying times." She swallowed hard. "But I promised you the truth, and here it is. I wanted to hate you. I tried."

His eyes were fixed on hers. He did not move his hand. For a moment the blood rushed to Zelda's ears, drowning out all sound. Then, she shook herself out of it, jerking her hand away.

"But I told you we would go over the story in order, and my opinion of you is irrelevant for now," she continued, heart racing, unable to look at him directly. "I suppose I should continue on with the last autumn before the Calamity."

"Was it?" Link asked, frowning. His gaze had turned to a vague point on the horizon. "The last autumn?"

Zelda nodded, watching the strange mix of emotions play on his face. She had realized quickly that the time frame of events was important, that it gave him a tether to which he could attach her words, and that it made his understanding stronger.

It also forced her to retell events that filled her with shame. She had much storytelling to do before her past self ever started to treat Link with any semblance of kindness or respect. Which meant that the sooner she started, the better, or he would indeed go on to think she had hated him.

And that would be a horribly wrong notion for him to harbour.

"When summer ended," she said, softly, when she was sure that he was listening, "I realized it was time for us to visit Vah Medoh…"

Chapter Text

The road up to Rito Village had been smooth. They'd stopped by the Royal Lab, but only in passing, then continued their way down the Hyrule Ridge, and across the Tabantha Great Bridge that spanned the Tanagar Canyon, to the dun coloured cliffs of Tabantha, where vast fields of wheat gleamed, golden, under the sun. The harvest was in full swing here, as cold winds already began to come down from the Hebra Mountains, far to the north, and even from the Gerudo Highlands, to the south, dropping the temperatures at night to near freezing. They'd camped two nights near Kolami Bridge, as seasonal storms had brought in strong winds and slippery conditions, halting the trek somewhat.

Link had overseen the construction of every camp, plunging himself into his duties like a man seeking an anchor. The two Sheikah shadows that accompanied them would only see them as far as the Rito Stable, at the foot of the many bluffs that led to Rito Village. Afterwards, Princess Zelda and her appointed knight would be guests of the Rito people, and the shadows would return to Kakariko Village in time for their own harvest. Every able bodied person was needed to bring in the pumpkins and carrots, the rice and the apples.

All across Hyrule, the bounties of summer were being collected. Scholars at the lab had predicted a difficult winter and recommended the felling of more trees, for firewood, than usual. Before departing, Link had seen to it that the farmers on the family estate, in Mabe Village, were ready for the harvest, too. He'd sent more of his earnings in hopes they would have time to make any and all necessary repairs to their homes, and given them an additional stipend to purchase warm clothing, as needed. It wasn't much, he knew, but it was all he and his mother could afford.

Some of the other squires, for their part, had withdrawn to oversee their estates, bringing home furs and riches, money and goods for trade and barter, should the need arise.

Link wouldn't have enough money for that. If food came to lack, he would have to request assistance from the King's own reserves. The shame of it was great, but it was better than letting the several families under his care starve through no fault of their own.

He was musing on this as he watched the sunrise that morning, gleaming over dewy fields and ripe crops. He heard her approaching, and did not stir.

"At last, the storms seem to have passed," she said.

Link hummed in agreement. The effects of the storms, he hoped, hadn't been too destructive.

They'd found shelter by the Kolami Span, under an overhang, but there had still been moments the day before where the lightning had seemed to strike directly overhead, spooking the horses. Storms like those could spell the end of a harvest if they had come with hail. Fortune, at least, was on their side.

"I found a few interesting insects," Zelda said, pulling out the device she carried with her every time she went out on surveys. It was a strange, rectangular thing that shone blue and orange, reminiscent of ancient Sheikah designs. She and Purah called it the Sheikah Slate, and it apparently could take pictures, perfect likenesses of moments in time. It was eerie to look at, actually.

Zelda was still talking. She seemed to find his new silence uncomfortable, and preferred to goad him into speaking as much as he had once tried to.

"… and perhaps if they were to be cooked, somehow, this would release their particular―"

"What now?" Link asked, blinking, pulled out of his musings. "You want to cook insects?"

She peered at him. "Well, yes, of course. How else are we to discover their hidden properties?" She turned to a butterfly as it fluttered past. "Oh, look! A Winterwing butterfly!" She raised her Sheikah slate and the device snapped, capturing a picture of the critter before it could fly away. Delighted, Zelda turned to the Slate and studied the likeness she had just taken.

It was then that a great flap of wings was heard, and Link rose to his feet immediately, drawing his sword… just in case.

But there was nothing to worry about. Above them, a group of Rito were descending, unimpeded by their light armour.

"Princess Zelda," one of them said. "Good morning." The group of envoys bowed low. "We come on behalf of Champion Revali, who has been expecting you."

"We were slowed by the storms in the past few days," Princess Zelda said, putting away her Sheikah Slate. "But I am glad to have company, at least."

Link tried not to be insulted.

"If you wish," the Rito envoy said, "we can carry you to Rito Village. Your attendants need not accompany you all the way there."

The Sheikah shadows looked relieved by this notion, but Link stepped forward. "I go where she goes."

The Rito were obviously surprised by his interjection, blinking at him as though he had been invisible. Then, ignoring his declaration, the leader turned to Princess Zelda and said, "Master Revali said you alone would be staying with us in Rito Village."

Of course he had, Link reflected, irritated.

"I suppose Link can handle the horses," the princess said, glancing back at him, and Link knew he would have a long day ahead of him.

"Very well," the Rito said, pleased, as though the matter were settled. "In that case―"

But the matter was absolutely not settled.

"I go," Link repeated, firmly, "where she goes."

Zelda inhaled, to argue, when one of the shadows said, "I will handle the horses. That way, her Highness remains escorted by her appointed knight."

The defeat in the princess' face was almost worth it. Link nodded, satisfied, and the Rito envoys looked crestfallen, having clearly not expected to carry two adult Hylians all the way to the bluffs where they roosted.

Well, they could blame their Master Revali, Link decided. There was no way he would settle with waiting in the stables while the princess assessed Vah Medoh. Link's fate, too, hung in the balance.

In the end, it was decided. The leader of the group would carry Link, being the strongest of them, and two others would carry Princess Zelda, in turn, to ensure neither risked exhaustion, which might be fatal for their charge. One of the Sheikah shadows bid them a pleasant trip and turned back to the Hyrule plains at once, while the other shadow gathered up the reins of Link and Zelda's horses and tied them to his saddle. It would be slow going, but at least it would be less stressful without having to keep an eye out for the princess.

"I would have been perfectly safe," Princess Zelda said, primly.

Link smiled. "Excellent. I'll be happy to see it for myself."

In the end, he found himself regretting the experience. The princess was offered a blanket of thick Rito wool, but nothing had been planned for Link, and he discovered that flying was a frostbite-inducing affair, in cold winds that the sun was now too weak to compensate.

They flew for a little under an hour, but every minute was painful. When at last the cliffs and stones of Rito Village grew close, Link was close to freezing, and he was eager to find himself a bracing fire near which to warm himself.

Touching the ground was a relief, and he turned to the princess to assess how she was faring.

But that was a mistake. With the thick blanket wrapped around her, her nose and cheeks pink with the cold, and her eyes bright in the morning sun, Princess Zelda was a vision. The urge to bring her in close was alien, almost overwhelming.

For the first time in his life, Link was relieved to hear Revali's voice.

"Princess," the pompous ass said, spreading out his wings in genial welcome. Around him, many of the Rito had gathered, curious to see their future ruler, and when the princess gratefully relinquished her blanket, they bowed with similar flourish.

"Revali," Princess Zelda said, warmly, stretching out her hands for him to seize. "Thank you for your hospitality."

"It is my great honour to welcome you here," Revali said, bowing low as he held her hands graciously. Then, noticing Link, the proud Rito stood tall once again and said, "And I see you brought the help."

Link said nothing. It was better to say nothing, especially when Princess Zelda turned to look at him.

"Master Impa thinks it will be good for Link to see Vah Medoh," she said.

"I'm sure he will have all sorts of useful insights," Revali said, in a tone that clearly stated the exact opposite. Then, managing a smile, the birdman said, "Well, I'm sure we can manage to find him a comfortable little corner to sleep in."

Like a dog. Link smiled politely. He knew Revali thought little of him.

Their rivalry had begun while Link was still a page, some ten years ago. The boys of Hyrule Castle Town who were worthy of training to become knights, or at least guards, became pages first, tasked with fetching and carrying, as well as ferrying messages and polishing armour. Still, those boys who had demonstrated an early aptitude for the arms were allowed to participate in a junior tourney of sorts, a smaller version of the greater melees and jousts that squires and knights partook in.

Link had been so proud to enter his first tourney. He had always had an inclination for the tests of the body, for combat, archery and racing, even for riding, though he was still only a novice and ponies were more than large enough at the time.

He'd outdone and outperformed all the other boys, earning himself the attention of the knight commanders, who'd personally congratulated him on his ability with training swords.

In fact, he'd done well in every discipline but one, where he'd arrived second. Archery.

At the time, the thin little Rito boy had been smaller than even the littlest Hylian page, but he had a lightness to his movements that betrayed great agility. And he handled the bow like he had been born with one, like the extension of his wing.

Link had been amazed by it. He'd approached the boy named Revali who, with a haughtiness Link would soon learn to know well, had challenged Link to an archery contest that Link lost, handily. Soon, their every interaction was a competition, borne with friendly asperity. They would wake in the morning to compete, ribbing each other mercilessly.

One day, the young Revali had explained he intended to become a great warrior, and that he would then become the Princess' chosen knight.

Callously, Link had teased him about it. No one had ever heard of a Rito becoming a knight. Their hollow bones made them excellent archers, but terrible fighters. He'd driven his point home by pointing out how terrible Revali was with close-range combat.

Children can be cruel, Link reflected. They might have been friends, had Link simply been kind. In time, the truth would have come from the mouth of the knight commanders. The Royal Guard was reserved to Hylians only, and the Rito boy's dream of being the princess' chosen knight would never come true.

Thereafter, the rivalry between Link and Revali had become poisoned by jealousy and irritation, until they simply stopped speaking to one another. Revali could be unkind, too, and one too many jokes at the expense of Link's father ― or rather, how lucky it was that Link could rely on his father's reputation to achieve his position ― had driven a permanent wedge between them.

Link had hoped never to have to speak with the boy again, but Revali had gone on to become the Rito Champion, and Link had been chosen by the Master Sword.

Fate. How irritating.

Revali showed Princess Zelda to a nest house, where thick furs covered the walls to keep out the wind. Most houses, Link realized, were open to the elements. The Rito were naturally immune to the cold, dealing with frigid altitudes often. But Princess Zelda's little designated abode was warmly insulated, with a central firepit and thick feather duvets.

As soon as she was settled in, Zelda was back outside, requesting to see Vah Medoh. They were meant to stay for a week, Link knew, but she was nothing if not studious.

"How long will it take to reach Vah Medoh?" She asked, as she walked alongside Revali to one of the town's many outward facing platforms. Link, as usual, followed along silently, grateful to be back on the ground. Well, platforms. Close enough. "I heard it can be quite a challenge to make it onboard."

Revali smiled, his green eyes creasing at the corners, and for a moment he almost looked charming. "Skies, with my help, it will be a few minutes, at most."

Princess Zelda nodded, shivering. "Good." She pulled out the Sheikah Slate from its holster at her hip, and said, "I've been studying the adjustments you asked about, and I think they will be a bit of a challenge, but I'm sure we can figure it out."

Revali inclined his head politely. "In that case, let us begin."

"Begin?" The princess asked, her breath coalescing in the morning air. "But I―"

At that moment, a powerful whirring sound was heard, as the great Divine Beast appeared overhead, the machinery suddenly loud now that the sound wasn't obstructed by the village constructions and rocks. Princess Zelda stepped back in surprise, and even Link couldn't help but gape.

The Divine Beast Vah Medoh, named in honour of a Rito sage from an age long past whose actual name was otherwise forgotten, was massive. It seemed made entirely of the same materials as the shrines and the Sheikah Slate, but it was built on a scale that Link had never fathomed before.

And it flew! Link actually felt dizzy to look up at it, as though the ground were tilting under his feet.

"Impressive, isn't it?" Revali said, his chest puffed out. Much like a rooster, Link thought sullenly.

Princess Zelda's mouth was slightly open, her green eyes wide. "I knew it was large, but I didn't think― How does it stay up there?"

Revali shrugged. "I'm sure you'll find out." He bowed low. "May I carry you, Princess?"

"Wait," Link said, before Princess Zelda could reply. Both of them turned to look at him in irritation ― Revali for the interruption, and Zelda for having to wait before she could focus on her studies.

"Sir Link," Princess Zelda said. "It is not up to you to decide― Oh."

Link was holding out a warm coat. It was pointless to say more. His princess seemed almost chastised. Meekly, she took the garment and slipped it on.

Then, before Link could argue against it, she climbed onto Revali's back, and they were off, the sudden gale of their takeoff blowing dust into Link's eyes. He flinched, and by the time his vision cleared, they were high above him, already mere minutes away from boarding the Divine Beast.

Feeling strangely bereft, Link looked about himself, wondering what to do.

There were Rito children looking at him. Fledglings? He blinked at them, and they shrunk a little.

Well, did he look that scary? Link cleared his throat. "Is there a place I can, er, practice? With my sword?" He jutted a finger to the Master Sword strapped on his back. "It will help me keep warm."

"We don't use swords here," one of the fledglings said, clearly the bravest of them.

Link nodded. He knew only too well. A brief moment of remembered shame took him. "Right. Sorry. I'll just… uh, sort myself out."

"Are you a prince?" One of the younger fledglings asked. A girl.

Link chuckled. It surprised him, and the fledglings peered at him in confusion. A prince! No one in Castle Town would have made that mistake.

"No," he said, smiling despite himself. "I am most certainly not a prince."

"Master Revali said the princess would be accompanied by his rival," another young Rito said. "But if you're not a prince―"

"I am a knight," Link said, gently, smiling. "A lowly knight, actually," he amended, remembering the princess' words. "I am Princess Zelda's protector."

"She doesn't seem to like you," the girl Rito said, and Link sighed.

"I know."

"Why are you Master Revali's rival?"

Link let out a long breath. "Well, we were in a tourney together, and we've been fighting for the honours ever since."

"I don't believe you," the braver fledgling said. "Master Revali is the best archer in the world."

"I'm sure that's true, but I can hold my own with the sword, the spear and the mace, on horseback or not. I may not be as good as Revali for archery, but I came pretty darn close."

"Is riding a horse difficult?" One of the boys asked.

"Not if the horse likes you," Link said, kneeling by them. They were young. The Rito had lifespans slightly shorter than the average Hylian. Revali was already considered a full blown adult, by Rito standards, though he was younger than Link. They aged fast. While these children looked anywhere between two and nine years old, they might have been as young as several months only. "If you want, I'll show you how it's done when my horse arrives at the stable outside the village."

The boys looked excited by this prospect, which made Link feel a bit better.

"Does the princess wear pretty dresses, sometimes?" One of the girls asked.

Link turned to her, thinking of the travel wear the princess always used on the road ― practical, comfortable, it had to be a disappointment for anyone expecting finery.

Then again, it would have been uncouth to point out that no dress would ever round out a bottom quite as well as the princess' pants did, so Link simply said, "When she's in the castle, yes. She likes to wear blue. All kinds of blue. Midnight blue, sky blue, blue sometimes so pale it looks like a shadow on pure white snow."

"I like blue," the Rito girl said, her wings gently pulling at the hem of her light blue skirt.

Link smiled. "I can show you a few of the dances the nobles perform in court."

The girl's face brightened. "Oh, I'd like that!"

It was good, Link considered, that the children had warmed up to him. Clearly the adults all preferred to side with their Champion, and gave him the barest of courtesies. They gave him a tiny insulated hut near the princess' own and told him where he could find food, but little else. It was the children who showed him around the village, showcasing its quirks and hiding spots, explaining the way they lived, hunted and slept. They told him which males courted which females, along with the sordid gossip that necessarily arose in such a small settlement, making him swear not to tell.

They roamed the entirety of the village, from top to bottom, north to south and east to west, and in a way Link found himself enjoying their company a great deal more than Revali's arrogance and Princess Zelda's cool distance. While the Rito Champion and the Princess of Hyrule spent their days, from early morning until late evening, up in the damned Divine Beast, adjusting and tweaking its controls, Link enjoyed a return to his own childhood, discovering insects and playing silly games with an audience that appreciated him for who he was rather than what he was meant to do.

Occasionally, when the fledglings returned to their abodes at midday for a quick lunch, Link would find himself back on the landing platform, peering up at Vah Medoh, and longing to be a more active participant in his own fate. He had stopped going when Revali had found him there, presumably having come down to retrieve a meal for himself and the princess. The Rito Champion had managed to make himself even more insufferable than usual, reminding Link of his own inadequacy, challenging him to fight him aboard the Divine Beast, and mocking him for his inability to fly.


 

"Despite these truths, it seems that I have been tapped to merely assist you. All because you happen to have that little darkness-sealing sword on your back. I mean, it's just… asinine."


 

Asinine indeed. Revali didn't seem concerned by the danger before them at all.

From that moment on, Link instead sought refuge in the shade of the trees that grew near the base of the village, eating his meal in silence and solitude, wishing he could be home with his friends rather than here.

One afternoon, one of the boys, Akoot, asked Link to help him fly.

"I can't fly," Link said, laughing. "How could I possibly be useful?"

"It's easy," Akoot promised, as the other fledglings nodded emphatically. "You just throw me!"

"Throw you," Link echoed, skeptically, peering at the others to find out whether they were mocking him.

"Yes," Akoot said. "It'll be like when Master Revali uses his Gale force, only… I'm not strong enough to do it."

Link leaned back against the stone. They were sitting in the shade. The day had been unusually warm for the autumn season, and many of the Rito villagers were using this as an opportunity to prepare a feast, to wish the princess farewell. For once, they were glad Link kept the fledglings out of their talons. "I don't know if that's safe," he said.

"But you're strong," Skett, Akoot's brother, exclaimed. "It'll be even better than when we use the blanket."

Link laughed. "If one of you gets hurt, I'll be in trouble."

"But Sir Link," young Medli said, "we can all fly already, we just can't take off very fast."

"Right," quiet Komali said, "even if you accidentally throw us off the platform, we can just fly back."

Link sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "If you were Hylians, I would get in so much trouble."

"We're not Hylians," they said, excitedly, almost in sing-song.

Link had already made his decision, but he let them simmer in anticipation, pressing his lips together severely and looking at each one of them in turn. They were holding their breath, and Link finally relented. "Fine," he said, as they exploded into a chorus of excited shouts and whoops. "But I want one of your big brothers or sisters to keep watch while we play."

That was how he ended up on the landing platform, throwing squealing and laughing Rito fledglings into the air.

"Your turn, Skett," he said, reaching for the boy. If they had been Hylians, he might have been exhausted by now, but the hollow bones and diminutive sizes of the Rito made them as light as pillows, only squirmier. "Can you feel it?" He asked the boy, whose giggles shook his entire body. "The wind comes, and it gathers around you, just like with Master Revali, and it launches you UP!" And he threw the boy straight up, and the boy screamed with delight, zipping up higher than he'd ever achieve on his own.

"My turn, my turn," Komali said, his little wings reaching up, and Link was swarmed by more fledglings than he could throw, all clamouring for his attention.

"One at a time," Link laughed, trying to be heard over the commotion.

"What in all of Hylia…?"

He knew that voice. The fledglings fell silent, and Link turned to see both Revali and Princess Zelda, peering at them, speechless.

Link gently put Komali down, and fell to one knee. "Princess," he said, bowing his head. Around him, the older fledglings imitated him. The younger ones merely gaped back.

"What is the meaning of this?" Revali finally said.

Link felt anger surge within him. "The fledglings wanted to play," he managed instead, rising.

"We wanted to fly, Master Revali," Akoot said. "Just like you do it! And Sir Link was helping us."

The Rito Champion scoffed. "Helping you? He can't fly. He's just a Hylian."

Link's gaze crossed Princess Zelda's. She had an odd look on her face, and Link felt the sudden certainty that he looked exactly like the lowly knight he truly was, rumpled, out of breath, surrounded by scrawny, grabbing hands, and he felt his heart squeeze with shame.

Only… it was her fault. He had asked to accompany them to Vah Medoh, and Revali had scoffed then, too, asking him how a mere soldier could be of use up there, in the belly of one of the greatest inventions in history.

And none of the adult Rito cared to spend any extended time with him. The only ones who wanted to see him were the young.

Had she expected Link to stay alone, inside his hut, like an automaton, with no needs or interests, no compulsion to keep himself entertained? He was just a soldier, true, and not a noble one, even, but that did not make him so dull witted that he was satisfied with his own lonesome company.

"He was throwing us," Skett said, looking chastised, clearly upset that he had disappointed their hero. "We aren't strong enough yet to fly like you."

The expression in Revali's eyes changed somewhat, and his gaze darted from the fledglings to Link, then back, and something in his stance softened, imperceptibly. "He was throwing you. To imitate my Gale."

Little Medli nodded emphatically, and Link shifted his position, his instinct to protect the girl should Revali be cruel to her. She was the sweetest of them, gentle, kind, and patient. No one, not even her own personal hero, was allowed to hurt her.

But Revali did no such thing. Instead, he drew up tall and said, "Well. Yes. I suppose it might be time to teach the lot of you how it's done. Properly."

The light changed in the fledglings' eyes, and they exploded into a cheer, jumping up and down, flapping their wings excitedly. They swarmed the Rito Champion, a storm of feathers begging for his attention, and Revali seemed changed. He was smiling, clearly uncomfortable with the amount of excitement around him.

Well, any day he stole Link's spotlight, Link supposed, was worth gold. The Hylian Champion felt suddenly very lonely.

It was then he noticed the princess was still looking at him, not at Revali or the commotion. Her expression was still unreadable, a combination of puzzlement and something else that could have been disgust… or wonder, or anything in between.

When she finally turned away, pulled out of the moment by the tribe's Chieftain, Chief Watarara, Link felt a strange sort of relief.

That evening, after their packs were made and their early morning departure prepared, the village organized a feast. There was music and dancing and fish prepared in a dozen different ways, warm stews, rich mushroom roasts, wildberries in thick applesauce, and freshly baked pies. There was enough food on display to feed an army, so Link partook with great appetite.

He even danced a courtly step with Medli, though she was very light and very short, and absolutely incapable of turning in the right direction. Across the fire pit, the princess danced with Revali, and they chatted as friends. Link couldn't hear what they were saying, but he felt something in his gut when he saw the way Revali gazed at his princess, smiling kindly― uncharacteristically gently.

"Do you wish you were a prince?" Medli asked, as Link lifted her and sat her against his hip, if only to make the dancing less painful on his back.

She had caught his look across the fire. Link stubbornly turned away. "No."

"You're a liar," she said, quietly, omnisciently. But she didn't press the matter.

Thank the gods.

Chapter Text

Princess Zelda was a mystery.

She could go from excitable, to irritable, to melancholy in the span of minutes, only to be drawn out of her shell in seconds whenever she saw something interesting.

She had spent most of the trip back from Rito Village explaining the minutiae of the adjustments she'd made to Vah Medoh, wondering aloud about the machine's abilities and specifications. Link had learned early on that nothing he said really registered, as she was mostly the sort to speak her thoughts out loud. She wasn't looking for his input, that much was obvious.

A message had reached them on the road back, when they made it to the Tabantha Bridge Stable. The nomadic stable masters typically packed up their stables of wood and furs and canvas as soon as winter came. Winter typically meant a great nomad gathering in the south of Hyrule, until the more distant roads became passable for horses again in the spring. Most wintertime commerce went to the Rito instead, who were both unimpeded by snow and mostly immune to the cold.

The stable had clearly been slowing down its activities. Most of its beds were free and the stalls, which usually housed upwards of twenty horses, were deserted. Link and Zelda had stationed there after a boy, the nomad son of the stable master, by the looks of things, had hailed them off the road. A message had come for Link.

Usually, correspondence was issued to the princess, so both of them had been curious.

The message had arrived three days earlier, and requested that Link present himself, as soon as possible, to the Kolomo Garrison, near Lake Kolomo. A warning was issued: reports were advising of banditry and danger in the Breach of Demise that separated Link and the princess from Carok Bridge and the Central Hyrule plains. The Sheikah recommended that they trek south instead, to Jeddo Bridge, and follow the main road south. A full briefing would be issued once Link reported to Kolomo.

Link had expected the princess to protest, but she seemed strangely relieved, even perking up a little. She had spent the next week capturing pictures of the wildlife, as they went around the Seres Scablands, down to the Nima Plain and Safula Hill, across Manhala Bridge and into Coliseum Town near the Great Plateau that had once been the heart of Hyrule Kingdom and now served mainly as a religious centre. They rested there a full day before departing on a last stretch of road, trekking past the impossibly high ancient walls of the Plateau and reaching Kolomo Garrison by mid-afternoon.

Garrisons, Link knew, were no place for a princess, but Kolomo was one of the larger garrisons, where many of the soldiers already lived with their wives and children. It oversaw a large part of southwestern Hyrule, patrolling the roads that connected the Gerudo Desert with the rest of Hyrule.

When they arrived, the commander was evidently relieved to see them. The princess was shown to a richly furnished room in the commander's estate, as befit her station, and Link was assigned a private room in the barracks, which was more than he expected.

Sometimes, he forgot he was a knight.

"This entire swath," the commander was explaining, later that evening, after Link had eaten with the other guardsmen, "is currently considered impassable."

He was designating a part of the North Hyrule Plains, including the Breach of Demise, on a large map of Hyrule spread between them. The area he was pointing to was a vast territory, but mostly uninhabited, where the main appeal consisted of agriculture and the road that led to the Royal Research Laboratory.

"Do we know whether the bandits are organized?" Link asked.

Commander Rusl nodded. "They all belong to a clan, they say. The Yiga Clan. This is particularly alarming because we've been receiving similar reports out of Gerudo Desert. We actually think their main hideout may be somewhere there. Unfortunately, the bastards are slippery, and they look just like your average Hylian traveler."

"What do they want?" Link asked.

Commander Rusl shrugged. "There's no telling. But the Sheikah are worried. Some of their intelligence agents claim the Yiga may be more than just a clan of bandits, that they may be a rogue offshoot of the Sheikah themselves."

Link thought of Master Impa and Master Kohga, whose patience and skill were truly terrifying to behold. He shuddered. "Let's hope they're wrong."

"They rarely are," Commander Rusl grimly said. "Which is actually why they requested you be personally advised. As the princess' appointed knight, it may fall to you to protect her from them. We are trying to coordinate with the other garrisons and outposts to track Yiga movements, but with the harvests in full swing, many of the men are distracted. I fear the first sign of Yiga presence you might see will be their knife at your throat."

Link exhaled slowly, trying to find the Mind of the Crane. "How safe are the roads in Central Hyrule?"

"Safe enough," Commander Rusl said, pointing to the two long rivers that ran south from the lake around Hyrule Castle. "The Regencia River to the west and the Hylia River to the east have so far appeared to serve as borders to their encroaching. It would be wise to be careful all the same."

"And they've given no indication of their intentions," Link said, trying to keep the incredulity out of his voice.

"It could be anything," the commander said. "They could be trying to poach caravans of food now that so much of it is being transported and stored. They could be trying to take over some territory with the understanding that Hyrule won't want to give them an honest fight before spring."

Or they could be agents of Calamity Ganon, Link thought, grimly. As soon as he returned to Hyrule Castle, he would consult with Master Impa and Master Kohga. He would have no choice, much as he hated the idea. Their instinct, he knew, would be to prevent the princess from traveling, but that was not a viable solution. When spring came, she would want to continue visiting the Divine Beasts in person. In truth, no one was better suited for the task.

The princess would not like being surrounded by guards, Link knew. She sometimes seemed to barely tolerate his own lone presence, and only because she could sometimes make herself forget he was there. He would occasionally catch her glaring at the Master Sword, when she thought he wasn't looking.

No, she would not take kindly to a full guard detail.

"Would you like us to send a full contingent as an escort?" Commander Rusl asked.

Link blinked, surprised. He wasn't used to his opinion being asked in any capacity, especially when it came to the princess' safety. But then, he was her new appointed knight.

Looking at Commander Rusl gave Link the general idea that requesting a full contingent would be ill received. Soldiers were often delegated to local farms to provide additional help at harvest. Any distraction to protect the princess would be considered an unfortunate necessity, but Link doubted any of the local farms would appreciate it.

"Er, no." He mused over the idea. "I think we will consult with the Sheikah on the matter. But thank you for suggesting it."

Commander Rusl managed to hide his relief somewhat. "Whatever you think is best," he said, politely. He did not share his opinion on the Sheikah, but Link was fairly sure it was similar to his own, and that of most Hylians. Still, the choice was not theirs.

"We will most likely stay here a few days," Link finally said, after a lapse of silence. "If that isn't too much of an impediment."

"Of course," Commander Rusl said, nodding gravely. "Take all the time you need to choose your next course of action."

"Will you permit me to join the guards during their training routines while I'm here?" Link asked.

He knew the answer would be yes, but protocol required that he ask. As a knight, Link was technically of a higher rank than the Guard Commander. To assume anything was given would be to divest the man unduly of his privileges.

Besides, Link still felt like a boy, sometimes, unworthy of speaking as an equal with a man of such experience.

To his credit, the Guard Commander never even implied that anything was amiss. He gave his cordial consent, and Link excused himself. It was getting late. The sun had just set, and the guards were now changing in preparation for the first night shift. The garrison town seemed to be quieting down, the houses giving out a warm glow through their windows where candles were being lit.

The shadows danced in the dusk, and Link found himself trying to control his unease. If he stopped to think about the weight of all his responsibilities, he might crumble in a panic. It was bad enough that a group of utterly unprepared people were attempting to stop the greatest threat of their time, but Link was now saddled with a princess who loathed him, and he had to protect her from a rogue Sheikah clan whose designs were yet unknown.

"We used to be more."

Link's senses exploded in alarm at the unexpected voice. Yiga, his brain screamed a moment before it recognized the voice. Link's arm twitched once, the only sign that he'd been about to reach for his sword, and he focused on catching his breath and slowing the rapid thundering of his heart.

He turned. The princess was standing beside him. How had she sidled up next to him without him hearing her? Had he really been so preoccupied?

She was looking at the stone and wood houses, her interest not melancholy but clinical instead.

"More?" Link croaked, trying not to let on that she had essentially scared the living daylights out of him.

Zelda nodded. Sometimes, when she was in her studious, scholarly pursuits, she didn't look like a princess at all. That, in itself, was terrifying. She was almost… approachable, fascinating, her interests and passion shining through like a beacon that called, that made him want to join in.

No, Link decided. Appointed knight. Incarnation of the Goddess. No touching.

"I am beginning to suspect," she said, peering with detached interest at the candlelight that began to replace the fading sun, "and our studies have certainly given us reason to believe it may be true, that there was a time, in the long distant past, where we Hylians did not light up the night with mere candles."

Link's eyebrows wanted to join with his hairline. "How else would we light our homes?" He asked, trying not to sound skeptical. "Fireflies?"

She didn't get upset with his stupid suggestion, which only made him more nervous. She even smiled a little, almost whimsically. "No, but I think they might have studied the luminescence of fireflies and imitated it."

Link tried to picture a world cast in the ephemeral green and yellow glow of insects and worried about Zelda's sanity. "We would need so many fireflies," he dumbly said.

She snorted. "They didn't use actual fireflies," she said. Then, she sighed and visibly gave up. "I want to go out by the lake, and the guards won't let me go alone." Then, a part of the regal politician entered her pose, and she asked, "What was it the commander needed to discuss?"

Link hesitated, wondering how much he ought to tell. She would not be happy to hear the Sheikah would want to surround her with even more guards. Maybe he could argue to Master Impa that he was enough. He certainly trained enough ― every morning, before breakfast, just like when he was at the Castle ― and he was fairly confident he'd be able to defend one girl. A princess, certainly, but in the end, she was no larger and no broader than any ordinary person… A very stubborn one.

And pretty.

But still. Just a girl. Having Sheikah around would probably be more frustrating than useful, anyway. He'd never be sure of their intentions.

"I would hate for you to be mistaken, so do note that your silence is not comforting at all right now," Princess Zelda said, flatly, in what seemed to be an attempt at humour.

Link actually couldn't help but let a tiny smile quirk at his lips. "Sorry, I, uh―"

"If Sheikah intelligence intends for me not to visit all the Divine Beasts," she said, "you can tell them that they are―"

"No, we need to see the Divine Beasts," Link interrupted. A split second later, it occurred to him that interrupting was very rude, especially when the Princess had been speaking.

But she seemed relieved rather than offended. "Good," she said. "Then whatever else it was, I don't care. Now fetch something warm if you want, and let's get moving."

"Wouldn't you rather wait until morning?" Link asked, frowning.

She was already striding away, so she did not take kindly to his question. Exhaling dramatically, and in that moment she looked exactly like a sixteen year-old girl, which made Link smile and his heart thump bizarrely, she turned partway and said, "Skies, stones, seas and sands. Snails. Snails that glow in the dark."

"Right, fetching my doublet," Link immediately relented, jogging away, and chuckling to himself.

"I heard you laughing at me," she admonished, later, as they walked the gravel beach of Lake Kolomo under a thin crescent moon.

Link wisely chose not to say anything. She glanced back, but in the faint moonlight, her expression was unreadable.

"You have no idea," she said, her voice soft in the clear night air. She turned back to examine the ground where she trod, occasionally bending over to peer more closely at luminescent mosses and mushrooms. "You think I'm doing this for entertainment."

It had to be partly for entertainment, Link considered. She often had him retrieve flowers and mushrooms from cliffs, where he regularly risked breaking a limb. But she was a princess, she'd argue. It would look very badly if he allowed her to injure herself under his watch. Sometimes, she'd watch his exertions and he was sure he'd hear her giggle.

But she didn't appear to be in the mood for personal entertainment tonight. She actually seemed angry again now, though Link wasn't sure what he'd done to deserve it this time.

"You think we know all we know because someone had the decency to write it in a book," she was grumbling. It was directed at him, he knew, but she didn't seem to care whether he was even listening. She did that a lot. "But everything about this prophecy, everything of the legend that is guiding us… We have nothing but hearsay and scientific discoveries to guide us. The research I and Purah and Robbie are undertaking… It aims to verify the stories." She paused on the beach, crouching down to dig through the waterlogged gravel as gentle waves lapped at her boots. She was intent, but she was still talking at him. "And if my power doesn't awaken, at least I will have done that much."

"Your power will awaken," Link said, trying not to betray the terror that seized him every time she reminded him of how utterly incompetent the six of them were.

She stilled in the night, and suddenly Link worried she would crumble, or throw a rock at his face. But instead she became cold, and she said, "You can go to sleep if you want. I'll be only a few more minutes."

She was dismissing him. Clearly, he had seriously angered her. What was wrong with this girl? He was only trying to show her a little bit of faith.

"Princess…"

"You think I should be praying right now," she said, coolly. "What do you even know about anything?"

"I never said that," Link said, the anger at her accusations rising inside of him. She managed that a lot, making him angry. And making assumptions.

"You were a lowly squire," she said, "and now you're a lowly knight. A glorified guard. And having that Sword on your back does not change that."

Link clamped his mouth shut. She was not going to get a rise out of him.

But instead of snapping at him, she let out a long shaky breath. Then, apparently collecting every last ounce of decency and courtly decorum within her, she managed, "I'm sorry. I'll be better in the morning. Tonight I'm just… angry."

She found a glowing snail, hiding halfway in the water and gravel. It emitted a faint green light, and she snapped a picture of it with the Sheikah Slate.

"The stories paint a world that is just and good," she said. Now she wasn't speaking to him, precisely. It occurred to Link that she was kneeling in the water, as she did every opportunity she had, as though praying to the goddesses required it. "But it isn't. A just world gives its rewards to the worthy. This one doesn't."

Link felt a muscle leap in his jaw. He knew he was unworthy of the Master Sword. A kinder person would have kept that observation to themselves. Especially since he couldn't defend himself against a princess. And the cheek of saying it to the gods instead― did she think he was stupid?

But Link cooled his emotions deliberately, seeking the Mind of the Crane. There was no changing his circumstances. He would adapt, he would let her insults fall unheeded, as rain on the swan's back. Sticks and stones, Master Impa had continuously repeated.

But now he knew why Master Impa insisted on the mindfulness exercises. They were damned necessary.

"I would like to return here in the morning," the princess finally said. She rose, and turned to look at him in the moonlight. "If you don't mind."

Asking for his acquiescence was a poor apology, but Link knew it was the only one he would get, so he nodded, curtly.

The next morning came, crisp and bright, with the decision that they would not stop by the Castle, and that they would head directly for Goron City instead.


"These Divine Beasts… so much we don't know… But if we want to turn back Calamity Ganon, they're our best hope."


Not for the first time, Zelda pretended that no argument had occurred the night before. She had a spectacular knack for that. Perhaps it was part of being a princess, especially one that grappled so often with failure. For a moment, Link wondered how often people pestered her about her absent powers, and whether she ever felt safe enough to put them in their place, the way she did with him.

Maybe, he considered, King Rhoam and Master Impa had considered his low rank a boon. Now the princess had a dummy to focus her anger on.

Still, when he lay awake in his tiny room, peering at the ceiling, Link caught himself wishing he could be something different. A source of comfort? A friend?

Ridiculous. He'd never understand her, probably. But he didn't need to understand her moods to protect her. He just needed to be a lowly knight.

Chapter Text

"No."

"Excuse me?"

She stood, furious, her hand on her shapely hip, glaring at him. The road to Eldin and the Maw of Death Mountain specifically had been as uneventful as Link could have hoped, punctuated only by Princess Zelda's unusual ventures into science and a few spats about his station.

This was another one of them.

"You can't drink that," Link said.

"I most certainly can," she said.

"You're going to poison yourself," Link insisted.

"This extract," she said, "is a necessary concoction that may well be more potent than any sort of protective garment―"

Link snatched the phial out of her hand, and held it aloft, out of her reach. "I am going to throw this down the cliff."

"Don't you dare," she warned, looking as threatening as a blonde green-eyed sixteen year-old princess could. "That is the result of meticulous study―"

"You boiled a dead lizard you found off the road," Link said. "I am not letting you drink this, fireproof potion or not."

"Very well," she said, stepping back. She crossed her arms and looked up at him haughtily. "Go on, defy your future Queen."

"I will," Link said, "because otherwise I may not have a future Queen."

He dropped the phial down a ravine. When it landed, the liquid splashed and ignited, creating a small deflagration that startled nearby birds into flying away.

"Ah," Link said, inhaling deeply. "The smell of patriotism."

"Barbarian," Zelda grumbled. "I can't believe they saddled me with you."

"Technically," Link said, trying to savour the feeling of victory as he won a round, for once, "the Master Sword did that. And we've already established I am unworthy."

"At last," the princess said, with a smile that seemed more perfunctory than sincere, "we agree."

He was getting better at ignoring the squeeze of hurt every time she spoke against his selection. There was nothing he could change about the Master Sword's choice, or her opinion on it. He could change his own reaction, though, and he did, remaining either stoic or, in this case, pleasantly oblivious.

"You should just be patient," Link said, inhaling the light sulfur scent of nearby hot springs and scowling at the smell. "The Goron delegation will be here any minute."

She ignored his advice. She did that a lot, too. Instead, she turned back to studying the red stone around them, the unusual formations created by lava over millennia. Death Mountain, in the heart of Eldin province, was a highly active area of Hyrule, geologically, or so she'd explained before being distracted by the dead lizard. It rose high above the plains, surrounded by fertile, nutrient-rich highlands that made Eldin a wonderful place for luxury crops ― truffles, spices, peppers ― and the active geyser fields at its base made its hot springs a rejuvenating visit for the sick all over Hyrule.

But higher up, on the upper slopes of the mountain, the active volcano warmed the air and made most visitors highly uncomfortable. Goron memory spoke of a long history of eruptions divided by periods of relative quiet, and, despite the uncomfortable heat and difficult trek, it was generally accepted that Death Mountain was, for now, mostly inactive and pleasant.

Pleasant. When the mountain was awake, the Gorons swore, then no one would be able to visit unless they were equipped with specialized protective clothing. The Gorons would be forced to leave their mountain and trade in the lowlands, rather than hosting anyone in their city.

Link watched the princess pick up a rock and examine it in the sunlight. It was an ordinary rock, common and unremarkable, but this piece had broken in a way that made it look almost translucent at one end.

"I wonder what stone this is," the princess said.

"It's flint," Link commented.

She cast him an annoyed look. "How can you be so sure?"

Link shrugged. There were plenty of flint deposits here, near the base of the mountain, and travelers collected them to resell in other markets, where they would be more valuable. "I use flint fairly often."

She looked disappointed. "I'm told there are diamond deposits on the mountain." She dropped the flint to the ground. It chipped into two pieces and was lost amidst all the other fragments. "When I was a girl, I used to daydream that I was a great adventurer, discovering precious treasures." She didn't look at him. "It was stupid."

"I used to daydream I could fight dragons," Link volunteered. "Fire-breathing ones."

"I read a book about dragons once," she said, before she could stop herself. Their gazes met. She immediately looked away. "Legends of dragons, anyway."

Link's lips quirked up, unable to explain why his heart felt like it was thumping against his chest. "Well, we've discovered some legends that are real, so why not the dragons?"

"I wish legends stayed in books," Zelda said, and now she was looking at the Master Sword again, and the moment was over. Link's own mood soured.

Fine, then.

Sometimes he wondered whether the pall that the Calamity cast over them would ever go away. If it hadn't existed, could they have been friends? The princess seemed to have the same vivaciousness and curiosity he did, somewhere under the distance and arrogance and disdain. If there had been no threat, could he―

No. Without the Calamity, none of this would have happened. It was silly to wonder.

"Princess!"

The princess seemed inordinately relieved to finally be rescued of her misery. She turned to the Gorons, and Daruk especially, with a bright smile that made Link feel strangely weak.

"Daruk! How good of you to come in person," she said, warmly.

The massive Goron bowed. "Well, I wasn't going to leave the two of you to trek up the mountain all on your own." He pulled a heavy pack off his shoulder. "And before we continue, I have a gift for you."

"Oh," Princess Zelda said, surprised at the lack of ceremony that seemed completely characteristic of Gorons in general, "That is… very kind."

Daruk smiled toothily. "The mountain may be quiet," he said, "but it remains one of the hottest places in Hyrule. Thankfully," he continued, rummaging through his pack, "the Gerudo are particularly adept at harnessing sapphires."

He pulled out a circlet of sapphires that glittered in the sun. Link's mouth went dry. The damn thing was undoubtedly worth a fortune. It would attract the greed of anyone who saw the princess wearing it.

With a gentle motion, Daruk placed the circlet on the princess' head, and Link lost track of where his panic was headed.

Skies, stones, seas and sands, the princess looked… beautiful. The way the metal was folded and worked seemed to make her eyes greener, her cheeks pinker.

Link took a deep breath and focused, trying not to look.

Zelda seemed stunned by the Goron's gift. "Oh," she reached up to brush at the cooling stones against her forehead, "Daruk, I think you are being too generous."

"Nonsense," Daruk said, gruffly. He seemed pleased with the way she wore the gift, and smiled softly. "You were made to wear crowns," he said. "And I have something similar for our knight," he said, turning to Link. "But I figured he'd be shy about wearing crowns, so here you go."

He handed Link two matching sapphire earrings. Link's ears had been pierced when he became a squire, a tradition for most common Hylian men and women who could ill afford larger, more expensive pieces of jewellery. Still, he wasn't one for fancy gifts, and usually kept simple metal rings there, refusing to indulge in expenses when the family barns needed repairing or the horses needed new saddles.

But the worth of these earrings, Link realized, would be enough to pay for new thatching on the homesteads and maybe even for a new water pump. He might be able to fix the windmill's grindstone, which had chipped and now turned somewhat unevenly―

He glanced up, and smiled at Daruk, who was looking down on him with a grin. "Thank you, Daruk."

"No problem, lil' guy," Daruk said, chuckling, visibly aware of the direction of Link's thoughts. "You'll have to give my regards to your mother."

"I will," Link said, slipping the earrings on. Instantly, the sapphires began to work, spreading their inherent magic through his body and cooling him off. Their power was potent, he realized. Clearly, they had been mined and cut and mounted recently. With time, their effects would fade, and they would become nothing more than ordinary precious gemstones, worth a fortune to the rich and nothing at all to the adventurers.

"Well, well," Daruk said, placing his boulder-sized fists on his hips and smiling at the result, "now you look like one of those fancy nobles, back at the castle."

Link managed an embarrassed chuckle. He caught the princess' gaze, but she looked away quickly.

Stones, but she was pretty. She was prettier here, in the harsh rugged landscape of Death Mountain than in the grand ballrooms of her father, where the silks and gems detracted from the simplicity he saw now.

He was getting distracted.

"I think we're ready to move on," Daruk said, cheerfully. He motioned to his fellow Gorons. "Scout the road ahead and make sure there are no pebblits. We'll be walking, not rolling."

"Pebblits?" Princess Zelda asked, as she fell into step next to the Goron Champion.

Daruk nodded. "Little stone spirits. Usually they don't really bother anyone, because we roll by too fast for them to catch up, but…" He shrugged. "You never know."

"Fascinating," the princess said, her hand instinctively moving to her Sheikah Slate. "I would love to see one, if possible."

"There will be plenty of time," Daruk said. "As long as we also work on my Divine Beast."

"Of course," she said, and her expression lit up.

Link tuned out the rest of their conversation. It focused on movement axes and propulsion mechanisms, which bored him completely. Instead, he delved into other thoughts… thoughts of autumn and winter.

Usually, landowners had to pitch in for the harvest. He wondered whether his mother had managed to hire help to replace him, given his new duties as appointed knight. He hoped he would make it back in time to help a little.

Sullenly, his thoughts returned to the task at hand, and the reason he couldn't just go now. He had greater responsibilities.

His mother had taken it all in stride, demonstrating the necessary pride when he had returned home a knight. She was happy he had been designated as Zelda's appointed protector, because his added income from the responsibility meant more warm clothing for the people of the family acreage, and new candles, and better boots for the coming winter. Her boy, she called him, fondly, kissing his forehead. Her boy was going to shield them all.

Shield them all. Link's mouth felt dry, and he was fairly sure it wasn't the heat.

He had tried to explain the Calamity to his mother, but he wasn't sure she understood. She had squeezed his hand and looked upon him with quiet confidence, as though she were certain he would not fail.

And Link hadn't corrected her. What good would that do?

The road up Death Mountain climbed steeply, and for a moment he interrupted his thoughts to focus on navigating the winding path. They stopped frequently, for the princess' benefit, although Link wasn't complaining that he got a breather, too. Occasionally, Link would unstopper the water canteen he had on his belt and offer it to the princess, but more often than not, the sapphires they wore sufficed.

They passed by quarries and mines, as a myriad other tunnels that lined the cliffs along the road. Diamond, sapphire, ruby, opal― most of Hyrule's precious gemstones originated here, somewhere in the blistering heart of the Mountain, where only Gorons dared to delve.

Ravines of ash and cooled magma hinted at times where the lava flowed underfoot, where heat rose up uncomfortably and only the thickest stone skins could resist the burning air. It made Link somewhat uneasy. The mountain loomed over them, deceptively quiet, but from time to time Link was sure he could feel a rumbling that was deeper than heard, humming in his gut like a distant tremor that could well have been hallucination.

They reached Goron City by mid-afternoon. It was far less refined in look than Rito Village had been, but Link felt more welcome here. The Gorons had gathered round to greet their princess, not bowing or clapping, but smiling broadly in a way that felt more genuinely friendly.

A few Goron children were eyeing them with open curiosity, and Link pulled out a few choice stones he'd collected along the way ― fragments of a hard deposit he knew the rock-eating race particularly adored, distributing them as he would have given out candy among Hylians.

"Heh," Daruk said, as Goron Chief Darbus approached, "The lil' guy knows how to make friends."

Link said nothing. He'd grown to like the few Gorons he knew. They were a simple people with simple tastes. Even the haphazard layout of their city spoke to their general lack of concern for aesthetics if they were inconvenient.

"Princess," Chief Darbus said, bowing to Princess Zelda.

Link almost tuned out the pleasantries. They exchanged greetings of well-wishes from the king to the Goron people, and back, and then they discussed how long the princess would be staying ― a little over a week, or as long as necessary to tune Vah Rudania to Daruk's liking. They would want to begin their descent back to Hyrule Castle before the end of autumn, though, as the snows would begin to slow their progress.

Darbus and Daruk mostly showered the princess with the classic Goron hospitality, which was utterly without dissemblance or malice, and perhaps a little bit plainer than she was used to. But she took it all in stride, appearing to mesh as comfortably with the Gorons as she had among the proud Rito.

That was a skill, Link knew, that perhaps might have gone unnoticed.

They were provided a house, if it could be called that. It lay among the cliffs, well in the shadow of the mountain, where a steady breeze managed to cool it to just bearable temperatures. A thick curtain separated the princess' sleeping quarters from the common area, where Link was provided a nicely comfortable cot.

Afterwards, Daruk insisted it was too late in the day to trek up to Vah Rudania, so they were offered a bath in hot spring water, which the Gorons were gracious enough to bring down into the house, for the princess' sake. Link, for his part, was ushered out to bathe in the actual springs among the rest of the Gorons, leaving the princess to have a moment of peace.

Relaxing in the foul smelling waters, which in spite of their scent managed to take most of Link's aches away, Link pondered. The Goron children were playing with their fathers as the sun sat low on the horizon, splashing and rolling.

Master Impa had explained to him that, in the old Goron tongue, genders were non-existent. Pronouns were neutral. It was only through contact with the Hylian race, and its duality of sexes, that the Gorons had decided to adopt some form of pronoun, and chosen the male, because most Hylians seemed to assume they were. But all Gorons could choose to have children, and all Gorons considered themselves part of one family, one group.

It seemed like a good way to live, Link considered, as one of the Goron children tumbled into the water, shrieking with delight. They reminded him of the rough and tumble childhood he'd had himself, both in Hyrule Castle Town and among the Zoras, back when his father had been assigned to teach Princess Mipha to use the spear.

Some things were universal, evidently. Children. Family. Exuberant laughter.

"You seem deep in thought," Daruk said, coming to sit by him. The water sloshed up with the sudden displacement, then settled back to the middle of Link's chest. On his other side, Chief Darbus did the same, though he remained quiet.

"I was thinking about family," Link said.

"Hm," Daruk said, nodding in appreciation. His own gaze turned to the children splashing about in the sulfur-rich pools. "I always enjoyed family."

"The one thing," Chief Darbus observed, rubbing his leg to relieve some sort of cramp that ailed him, "that makes a brother stronger and weaker at once."

There were other things, Link thought, but he didn't let his mind wander all the way back to the princess. He dragged it to the present moment and said, "I'm surprised this is my first time visiting Death Mountain. My father spoke of it all the time."

"A good man, your father," Daruk said, and Darbus nodded slowly, emphatically, in silence. "Took his job very seriously, but everything else was fair game."

"When we were in Zora's Domain, he would make a habit of catching me to throw me into the water," Link said, remembering. "I pretended that I hated it."

Daruk snorted. "He knew you liked it. Fathers know."

They quietly watched the Goron children racing through the shallow waters, splashing everyone around them.

"When you have children of your own," Daruk said, "you'll find yourself doing all the same things."

Link said nothing. Part of him wondered if there would ever be a time when his job would be over. Would he live to see his duty completed? And when it was, what sort of woman could he possibly hope to marry and start a family with? It seemed that none managed to capture his attention with quite nearly the same vivaciousness as the current bane of his existence, who wasn't here at the moment because she was bathing in hot steamy spring water―

"Before I worry about children," Link said, "we need to make sure there remains a world for them to live in."

Grim, sure, but it was a better line of thought than the alternative.

"Hah!" Daruk said, chuckling. "No sweat. We'll crush that Calamity, no doubt about it. Our little princess will help me fix my Divine Beast, and then we'll be unstoppable."

Link said nothing to that. He didn't want to be dismissive of those hopes. Part of him figured that Daruk's confidence was good. It meant that the Goron Champion would be unflinching before the threat.

But then, he also completely ignored the harsh realities they faced: Link's inexperience, Zelda's powerlessness, the danger of overconfidence from both Revali and Daruk, and the overall lack of knowledge the Sheikah had on how to operate the Guardians, even as a threat of such magnitude and evil loomed…

"Has anyone described the Calamity to you?" Link asked, casually, though he was genuinely curious.

"Yeah," Daruk said, his massive hand brushing the thought aside. "Big pig dragon smoke monster. Malice incarnate. Wants to annihilate the world. To be honest, it doesn't matter what it is: if it wants to hurt me and mine, I'll stop it."

"That's our Daruk," Chief Darbus said, chuckling. Darbus was old, very old, but he still seemed strong, considering. Link wanted to believe them. Sometimes, he still felt like the young man who firmly believed that being a knight was the greatest achievement a poor Hylian boy could aspire to, and that women were meek and quiet, and that all Sheikah served the royal family.

He was being forced to face disillusionment at every turn, lately. Now both Daruk and Darbus' confidence seemed foolhardy, and all the more terrifying for it.

For the first time since arriving in Death Mountain, Link shivered.

"I think I should turn in early," he said, pushing himself to his feet. "Make sure her royal highness has everything in order. She will want to visit Vah Rudania early in the morning."

"Glad to hear it," Daruk said, genially. Link bowed to both of them, as befit their stations, and Daruk added, "And be sure you're there too. This is your mission as much as ours."

Link blinked. Somehow, he'd expected that their venture to Death Mountain would be much like it had been in Tabantha: a lonely expedition. But Daruk seemed more inclined to make Link a part of the team than Revali had been, and that made Link feel a surge of… it was hard to define. Belonging, perhaps.

But reality called. "Um. We'll see what the princess thinks of that. She doesn't usually want me to be there if I don't have to be."

Daruk shrugged, smiling. "Alright, lil' guy. You're the expert on Hylian princesses."

That was a sad truth if ever Link heard one, he thought to himself as he wandered back towards town. He and the princess had been forced to interact and make polite truces for months now. She was easily the most infuriating woman he'd ever met, a creature of ambitions and scholarly passions, a mix of fury and grace that apparently wanted nothing more than to overturn his carefully laid plans in favour of… of lizard elixirs.

And she could be funny, Link knew, sometimes despite herself, when she got carried away, when she thought he wasn't paying attention. But she so often went off on tangents of curiosity that he was ever vigilant, and he had found himself observing the way she sketched, the way she spoke to herself ― she spoke to herself a lot, clearly preferring her own company to his ― and the way she examined every new thing she came across.

She could be a marvel of compassion or a wonder of clinical detachment, switching with the same ease Link changed fighting stances, and her eyes were a window into a mind that Link admired despite himself, full of quiet resolve and furious contradictions.

She prayed every morning while Link cooked or practiced, and she prayed every night while Link hunted and foraged in the dusk, and Link knew he had to steer clear when she finished, because it was in those moments she was most often irritable and most likely to lash out against him, against the Sword. And, watching her helpless devotionals, Link couldn't help but sympathize.

He found his princess brushing through her wet hair meticulously, scowling as a tangle stubbornly refused to unmake itself, dressed in her usual sleepwear. She rarely had any opportunity to sleep in an actual bed, often having to manage with the cots of nomad stables or, rarely, a mat of furs when no inn or stable could be found.

She handled the road with quiet dignity, which was more than Link had expected, and never complained of discomfort. Maybe her upbringing had taught her to keep her thoughts to herself.

But tonight, Link knew, she would sleep soundly and be impossible to wake before morning.

And so would he, blessedly. On the road he was constantly on the watch for possible attacks, and rarely slept more than an hour at a time. Sometimes, he would nod off in the saddle. He hoped she hadn't noticed. At least, if she had, she hadn't made any comment to that effect.

"It will be good for you to finally get a full night's sleep," she said, raising a brow at him.

Well. So much for that.

"For both of us, I think," Link said.

"I will tell my father that this entire idea of you accompanying me everywhere I go is ridiculous," she said, shaking her head. "Hyrule may be threatened by a great Calamity, but until then it remains a safe place."

Link opened his mouth to argue. He had yet to broach the topic of the Yiga Clan to the princess, mostly because she generally refused to listen to what he said, and also because he hadn't seen any sign of it on their travels so far.

"I know you feel like it's your duty to protest," she said, to her own reflection, as she began to tie her hair into a loose braid. "But let's be honest. You don't like traveling with me, and I don't like traveling with you."

Link blinked, trying to quash the rise of disappointment and failing. "Er…"

"This whole business," she said, "is a sham. You should be in Hyrule Castle Town, enjoying your well-earned glory."

Now a muscle in Link's jaw leaped. She was mocking him. "I'd rather see the Divine Beasts," he said.

She seemed mildly surprised. "Oh."

There was a drawn out silence, so Link assumed the conversation was over. He turned away and he prepared his cot with military precision. She pulled the thick curtain until it was fully drawn and he couldn't see her end of the house anymore.

He finally sat down on his cot and began to remove his boots, when suddenly she emerged again, but she looked embarrassed. Her voice was smaller than before, and now she did look like a girl, a girl who had bitten off more than she could chew, and Link felt a surge of protectiveness wash over him.

"I know you're doing what my father and Master Impa are making you do, following me around like this. Thank you for doing your duty. But I wish you would stop."

Link ignored the pinch of hurt and looked away, as he had every time she brought the subject up on the road. "Good night, your highness."

She pressed her lips together, and Link saw her gaze slide to the Master Sword. Her fists balled up, and then she turned on her heel and went back to her side of the curtain.

He lay awake in his cot a long time, listening to her toss and turn, and waited until she settled down before letting himself relax. Then, ignoring the echo of her words that tumbled around his head, he closed his eyes and imagined himself in another world, in another reality, where the princess didn't hate him.

The next morning came, as stifling hot as the one before, heralded by a pillow landing on him, and the shuffling and grumbling of a sixteen year-old girl.

"Honestly," he heard her saying, "can the fate of Hyrule really rest on the shoulders of such a lazy man?"

She did that a lot, mumbling about him. He was almost used to it by now. She must have just come back from prayers, then. She always mumbled when she was done with prayers.

He had hoped she would sleep in more. She always seemed tired. But it apparently wouldn't be.

"Come on," she said, bustling about as she rummaged through her pack to find what scholarly instruments she would need for the day ahead, "if you don't hurry, you'll miss breakfast."

Breakfast! Few things could invigorate Link like the promise of a full belly. The Gorons, especially, had a magical touch with spices, and they offered deviled Eldin ostrich eggs, various pilafs, curries and breads― alongside simple seared and braised meats. It was the kind of food Castle guards and squires could aspire to on the eve of a long deployment, filling and tasty, to make up for the coming weeks or months of lackluster rations.

Link's appetite quickly became legendary. By the second day, the Gorons would sit around the table and watch him eat, laughing. They, themselves, tended to munch on rocks of all sorts.

"Igneous is the way to go," one of them assured him, even as another dismissed the notion and argued that igneous rocks were for the uneducated masses ― the true refinement of metamorphic rocks was the real delight.

Link typically had too much of a mouthful to reply, but he nodded with interest all the same. Across the table, the princess eyed them all with speechless wonder, occasionally forgetting to chew.

After breakfast, they would collect their surveying gear and follow Daruk up to Vah Rudania.

Somehow, having seen Vah Medoh first removed the sentiment of absolute awe that the Divine Beasts seemed designed to inspire. Vah Rudania was a lizard, massive and intimidating, but it at least touched the ground. It was also Link's first opportunity to climb aboard a Divine Beast.

They would spend most of their mornings performing adjustments and having Daruk test them out. Occasionally, Link would follow along on the tests as Zelda waited near Goron City. She seemed reluctant to be in Link's presence if she could avoid it.

Lunches were light, relatively speaking, and afternoons typically involved traipsing about Death Mountain in search of rare species of lizards, butterflies and other creatures, on days when Daruk felt no more work was necessary. They would then return in time for a supper that put breakfast to shame, then visit the hot springs to clean the day's grime off.

His time in Goron City turned out infinitely more pleasant than their visit to Rito Village. At least the Gorons seemed to like him. Actually, the Gorons seemed to like everyone.

They treated the princess with surprising gentleness, especially given how powerful their shoulder 'pats' were, and three days in, she had decided to bathe with the rest of them for the remaining days of her stay, which meant Link had to sit there and pretend she wasn't a sixteen year-old girl with hips that would not have been amiss on a Gerudo. It was easy to ignore her, though, especially if he looked skyward and drowned out the sound of her voice by roughhousing with the Goron children.

Luckily, at least, Urbosa had given her something to cover up with, even if it did expose her midriff and shoulders and most of her shapely legs.

Sometimes Link wondered if anyone on Death Mountain had the slightest idea what actually went through a young Hylian man's mind. Clearly, Princess Zelda had decided that he hated her, for some reason, and therefore that he had absolutely no capacity for any other thought, and the Gorons… Well. The Gorons were simple creatures with, apparently, no concept of gender or physical tension, and as long as Zelda was mostly clothed, there was nothing to worry about, as far as they were concerned.

The entire thing combined produced what was probably considered to be torture, in certain circles.

As a result, the week flew by, except for those few moments that just seemed to go on forever.

At least, the princess' adjustments to Vah Rudania had seemed to improve Daruk's control over the Divine Beast. The Goron Champion still appeared absurdly overconfident in his abilities, but there was no doubt that, when the time came, he'd do a passable job aiming and shooting.

Or so Link hoped, because in truth there was no other hope to cling to.


"I may not know a whole lot about this Calamity Ganon thing, but mark my words, I'll protect this land of ours to the death! Right, little guy?"

Chapter Text

Leaving had taken forever. When at last they finished waving goodbye, they were back on the lower road, their horses refreshed and fed, and they had to follow a turn in the road to be out of sight before they could put their arms down.

It had been a good time to rest, at least. Link had managed to sleep more, and eat more, and there really was something to be said for those hot springs. But leaving now left him feeling strangely bereft― the Gorons were boisterous, cheerful, and they didn't know their own strength. They reminded Link of one family, with all the happy simplicity that implied.

Staying amidst them with the princess was an uncomfortable experience. Part of him wanted to get carried away, to make jokes, to tease, and another part of him, a restrained and anxious part of him, seemed perpetually aware that he couldn't.

If Zelda hadn't hated him, he mused. He contemplated the thought often. Irritatingly often. And he never allowed himself to finish the thought. If he stopped, if he really gave in, he might have acknowledged he was attracted ―any red-blooded Hylian would be― and frustrated and… and…

No. Ideas of big happy families did not mix with thoughts of Princess Zelda, no matter how much he wished they did. Wishing changed nothing. She disliked him. She disliked traveling with him. She thought he was unworthy.

"Two down," the princess said, to herself, "and two to go."

Link didn't reply. He was still somewhat altered by the week he had just passed in her company. His nerves were just a little too frayed by the constant back and forth between extreme irritation and frustrated attraction, so it was best to mull it all over in complete silence until he cooled off.

Mind of the Crane, he reminded himself, surprised to be mentally thanking Master Impa for her training.

In the spirit of cooling off, he began to work at his earrings to remove them. The sapphires had done an admirable job, but as their horses began to descend into the lower plains and moved away from the heat of the mountain, he once again began to feel the chill in the air that betrayed that summer would not return for many months yet. Around them, some of the trees' leaves were changing colours, turning red and gold, and the inhabitants of Eldin they saw from the road were hard at work preparing high stacks of wood.

Ahead of him, the princess also removed her sapphire circlet, and tucked it safely into her saddle bag. She was quiet, today. Quieter than usual.

"Daruk is too confident," she finally said, startling him.

Link ignored the strange pull inside him. So what if they thought alike? It meant nothing.

She had glanced back at him, so he replied, "And Revali, too."

She nodded, slowly. Link thought she would say more, but she didn't. Instead, she turned back to look at the winding, descending road, and remained quiet a long time.

They were at the Ternio Trail Crossing, several hours later, when she spoke again. "When did you plan on telling me about the Yiga Clan?"

The question actually took Link by surprise. "I― what?"

"I asked Commander Rusl to tell me what the matter was, the reason we had to perform a detour to Kolomo Garrison. Your silence when I asked made me nervous."

He ought to have known. She was a curious person by nature. Of course she would have made her own investigation. "I wasn't sure you needed to know."

She turned in her saddle. "Since when are you allowed to make those decisions for me?"

Link felt the exasperation overtake him before he could stop it. "It's not like I was keeping it from you. It just didn't come up. And I didn't want to scare you."

He saw her eyes dart to the hilt of the Master Sword that peeked over his shoulder. Something trembled in her eyes, something that looked like anger. She turned back to face the road, and she said, "You think a bunch of Sheikah defectors would be enough to scare me."

"Why not?" Link said. "They scare me."

"So much for courage," she said, mockingly.

"Courage isn't stupidity," Link argued. "I should know. Master Impa drilled all the oaths and virtues into my head for months on end." And that was when he wasn't busy fearing her, too.

"Months," she echoed, bitterly. "Oh, what hardship. Months of training. I shall weep for you."

"You know what?" Link said, before he could stop himself. He even pulled in the reins, and his horse obediently stopped.

Part of him screamed to stop, but there was no stopping it now. The little voice of reason was being drowned out by a rush of frustration. Frustration at her ― her voice, her arrogance, her perfect lips, her soft-looking skin, her irritability, her sadness, her distance, her beauty, dammit, her long blonde hair, her hands, her sketches, her Slate ― and frustration at himself ― his helplessness, his loneliness, his thoughts, his weakness, his anger, his bloody buried wants ― everything mixed together into white hot rage. And it all came out, in one raw torrent of vitriol.

"I know you don't like me," Link continued, clenching the reins in his fists. "I know you think I'm unworthy. But I have as much control over this as you." He inhaled, glaring. "There you have it. If I could take it all back, if I could put the Sword back into the pedestal and pretend none of this were real, I would, alright? Would that make you feel better?"

He meant that question to be ironic, but part of him wondered ― could he? Maybe there was no other way. Maybe the Sword would choose someone else.

She was looking at him oddly now, and Link suddenly realized that she could end him and his entire career as a knight at that exact moment. Then, in a voice he had never heard from her before, she croaked, "No. It wouldn't."

And, with eyes that seemed strangely bright, she turned away, and nudged her horse to continue.

Before Link could rearrange his thoughts, she kicked. Her horse broke into a canter, then into a gallop, and she was away before Link could muster his bearings.

Oh, damn.

He urged his horse to follow suit, clicking his tongue and leaning forward, a motion his horse understood viscerally, and it surged forward, as though electrified.

The road down from Akkala and Death Mountain was treacherous. It was often steep to one side, and it was poorly maintained in places, with rocks large enough to damage hooves and horseshoes, as well as thick mud patches that could be slippery underfoot. It was dangerous enough to climb, and as they descended at a racer's pace Link's mind was flooded with visions of broken necks and thrown victims.

If something happened to her because he had snapped at her, he'd never forgive himself.

Just my job, he repeated to himself, feeling his horse skidding in places, as he instinctively rearranged his weight to make the descent easier on the poor creature. It's just my job.

He hadn't been knightly. The right thing to do would have been to say nothing, to take it all in and let it all go. But he had let the boy inside win, and now the knight had to fix everything.

Because it's just my job, he insisted. Ahead of him, already several hundred feet down, the princess' horse wasn't faring well. It was skidding every other step and struggled to control its bearing, edging closer to the edge of the path and a possible tumble down into the rocks.

Then, it reared, and Zelda was thrown.

Link's heart seemed to clench inside his chest. The whole world seemed to slow to a crawl as her body fell, a tumble of blue fabric and blonde hair.

She landed in the grass on the side of the road. Link wasn't sure how― it all happened so quickly. He vaulted off his own horse and scrambled over.

The princess sat up, and Link felt a surge of overwhelming relief ― she was fine, she's fine. She isn't hurt, just a little dusty, just a scare―

He slid to his knees next to her, his movement digging tracks into the red mud, and reached out to check her face.

She slapped his hand away, and suddenly he remembered who she was. Princess. Princess Zelda. And he was just a knight. Just a lowly knight. But his heart was beating with raw fear, his only thoughts were a jumble of primal emotions, and for a moment the difference between his elementary terror and his higher reasoning was a canyon too vast to bridge.

He fell back on his arse, and tried to focus on his breathing. She's fine. She isn't hurt. She will be fine.

And then he heard her sniff. She raised a shaking hand to wipe away at her face.

Like a dam breaking, a wave of self-loathing overcame him, badgering his conscience. She's just a girl, he told himself. A girl with nothing to show for her efforts, and the eyes of the world upon her. And I should know better.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"Gods," she said, her voice trembling. He couldn't see her face, but she seemed to be crying out to the entire world. "One moment alone. Please."

She was a hammer blow to the chest. Link forced himself to stand up. He dusted himself off as well as he could, hesitated, then walked off to retrieve their horses.

As he walked away, he felt a pinprick of cold on his face. Looking up, he saw it was snowing, the skies a uniform gray. Not real snow, he mused. Tiny miniature droplets of ice that melted as they touched the ground. They didn't count. Not yet.

He found the princess' horse huffing and spooked amidst a copse of trees, the foam on its lips a testament to how hard she had been riding. It welcomed his touch and he took a moment to brush down the sweat from its coat with a handful of dry autumn grass, humming a soft tune the stablemasters called a song for horses, gentle, ancient, comforting.

He checked its hooves one by one, cleared out most of the dirt and even a few rocks that collected in the groove between the shoe and the hoof, then clicked his tongue, and the horse seemed to have regained some semblance of calm.

His own horse had come to his side, called by the humming, and Link checked it, too, then he grabbed both bridles and led them back to the road.

The princess had collected herself. Her nose was pink and her eyes were puffy, but she was once again in control of her emotions. She did not look at him directly, her gaze fixed somewhere beyond him.

"Winter," she said, hoarsely. She, too, knew it was on the horizon now, mere weeks away.

Link nodded, handing her the reins to her steed. The horse nickered, displeased, and the princess' expression wavered. She reached up to caress its nose, and it turned away, impassive.

Link looked away as the princess' lip quivered. He pretended to be deaf when she pressed her forehead against her horse's neck and whispered apologies.

Horses. Link pushed himself into the saddle, remembering the words of the stable master in Mabe Village. Horses were both the brightest and dumbest creatures to walk the world. Dumb because they spooked at all and nothing, and they did not know their size. Bright because they recognized kindness and had the ability to forgive… with time.

Princess Zelda pulled herself up into the saddle. Her horse, which usually behaved with such patience and calm, stomped and seemed restless under her. She pretended not to notice.

Without a word, she nudged it forward. Link followed suit, and they once again began the slow descent into Central Hyrule.

Winter, Link mused, somberly. Granted, they were still high up above the plains. Further down, the tiny ice crystals would be nothing but a thin, cold, autumnal rain. When it did come for good, winter would last months. Most roads, including the one they currently traveled, would be impassable. The Hylian world would shrink, blocked in by the snows and the cold, quieting down, muted. A season of pickling jars, knitting, weaving and thick stews, a time for huddling, for hiding, as the days grew shorter and the nights grew clear and frigid. Winter meant minding your resources, counting the sheep, the goats, the cows, the cuccos, and estimating how many needed to be kept alive to ensure prosperity when spring returned.

A season of wet boots and wet wool, a season of cold wet toes, a season of frustrated idleness.

Link wondered if winter felt different in Hyrule Castle. It would be his first winter there. Would the grand halls be drafty and cold? Would the reduced number of courtiers make it feel empty?

He was so absorbed by his thoughts that when his horse stopped, he blinked.

The road was narrow, squeezing between two rocks, and ahead of him the princess had stopped. She was looking down at something near the side of the road.

"Sir Link," she said.

He dismounted and walked over to see what was going on.

Shyly, she said, "That mushroom, there." She pointed to a blue-capped mushroom almost the size of his hand. "Could you… Would you mind retrieving it for me?"

Blinking, he mutely strode over to the fungus. It seemed innocuous enough, with a light blue sheen that almost matched his Champion's tunic, and he bent to pluck it from its place in the shade. It felt cool to the touch.

Then, he turned back and handed it up to the princess, who grasped it gently, her Sheikah Slate already out and ready to capture it.

Dusting his hands on his pants, Link looked away. He was about to return to his horse when her hand on his shoulder stopped him.

She wasn't looking at him, but she wasn't looking at her Slate either. "Thank you."

Somehow, Link thought she didn't just mean about the mushroom. Unsure of what to say, he nodded. She nervously moved her hand away, as though she had been burnt, and that was Link's signal to return to his horse.

They said nothing else to one another that day, nor the day after.

Chapter Text

Hyrule Castle was ready to withstand a siege, judging from the unending trail of food carts and boats that lined up at its gates and docks. It had operated on reduced help for a week now, having sent home all guards and servants whose families lived in areas that would soon be unreachable due to snow. Hyrule Castle Town was preparing for winter, too, as citizens boarded up windows with thick pads of cloth that would prevent the cold from seeping in through single-pane glass.

The trees were completely bare now, mere scratchings amidst a carpet of browning leaves. The grasses were still green, but that green was fading. A few squalls had left a harmless dusting of snow in shaded corners, but nothing lasting had yet fallen from the sky. Still, with every passing autumn day, the days grew shorter and the skies seemed to grow heavier, lower.

A true, lasting snowstorm would be upon them any day now.

Link watched the frantic activity below the battlements in silence. He sat on the walls a lot these days, looking out over a dreary Hyrule. South, far over the rolling hills, he knew, his own mother was commanding the family acreage like the captain of a ship, mustering all the resources she could to prepare the farmers for the annual season of hardship. The days were colder. The stones he sat on were less and less comfortable to the touch, and he had to dress up in a thick doublet and warm cloak when he intended to sit out for more than a few minutes.

His training with the Sheikah continued. Here, in the Castle, Master Impa did not seem to care about the rhythm of the world. Buried deep in the bowels of the Hill, perhaps she did not see the yearly changes. Perhaps she didn't care. In a way, it was comforting. The training he underwent was one of the only true distractions he had. These days, they made him practice stealth, and he had developed the habit of moving about as quietly as he could.

Zelda hated that. He tended to approach in silence, startling her out of her studies. The last time he'd tried, she'd thrown an inkwell at him, perhaps before she even realized what was going on. She'd missed his face, but the ink hadn't.

… They were not on friendly terms at the moment.

Most of the squires had gone back to their family estates by the time he had returned with the princess. What few squires remained did not seem comfortable speaking with him. Link no longer slept in the guardhouse and barracks with them. He had his own room, under the princess' tower, high above them, as befit a knight.

An honour and a privilege that he would have preferred to do without. Those few weeks since his return had been the loneliest of his life. The princess clearly did not like having him around, especially now that he lurked from shadow to shadow under Master Impa's orders, and he had no friends he could turn to in the long hours that separated dawn from dusk.

Following an altercation regarding his gluttonous appetite, most importantly how revolting the size of his bites were, the princess had decided to have her meals in her laboratory tower. Now that he was no longer expected to dine with the princess, he supped with the commanders and castle knights. Men of experience, with stories and lives behind them, who had no interest in a green boy, even a boy who wielded the Blade of Evil's Bane.

His afternoons were idle now, too. He was expected to read and train, to be the Hero. He had tried to bury himself in fighting practice, but there was only so much he could do to keep himself busy between noon and supper.

So instead, he wandered the Castle, keeping out of everyone's bustling way, practicing at silence.

By now, he was fairly sure he knew every nook and cranny he could access. The kitchens, the dining halls, the treasury, the armouries, the balconies, the long, broad curved hallways and the narrow, claustrophobic corridors, the prison block, the training grounds, the wilting gardens.

The library. But she was always there. He tried to avoid the library.

In the end, he often returned here, to the battlements, looking over gloomy Hyrule in silence. Somewhere south, near the Gerudo province and some Tabantha highlands, reports spoke of areas and plateaux that were still clinging to late summer, where fruit still finished ripening under the last vestiges of warm winds from the west. Here, though, the cold was seeping in.

Link looked up to the sky, noting the length of the towers' shadows. Soon, he would have to accompany the princess to her afternoon prayers. He hated doing that. She would always be so absorbed by her work, sometimes with a smudge of ink on her cheek or her nose, and she would blink at him in confusion, her concentration gone, like a bubble of contentment she would have to create all over again.

Seeing the disappointment on her face every time she saw him was like a daily and slow torture. Forcing her out of the only refuge she seemed to have, having to mutely withstand the sight of her resignation, and marching her like a prisoner over to the shrine of the Goddess Hylia, where, under the dead and uncaring eyes of Din, Farore and Nayru statues, she had to kneel before the pool of purified water and pray… It was difficult.

This was what he had become. A gaoler. Master Impa had dismissed this notion, of course. He was a motivator, she insisted, he was obeying his king.

But he knew, from the strain in the Sheikah Master's eyes, that she, too, found the task difficult. That small sign of kindness had endeared Master Impa in Link's eyes a little.

To her credit, the princess never said a word of protest at prayer time. She never argued, never refused, never complained. Link was grateful for that. He wasn't sure whether he had the authority or the right to force her to pray. And part of him wondered if he'd even have the will.

After supper, the knights and guards went to drink in town, but Link was still considered too young for anything stronger than light ale or mulled wine, and he often found himself alone again. If he was lucky, the Sheikah Purah would find him and keep him busy with her experiments. In another life, this might have bothered him, but he was now so starved for company that he didn't mind, and she certainly talked enough for two.

Sometimes, though, especially when Purah and Robbie were away on a quick jaunt to the Royal Research Lab ― they went by boat now that the roads were not considered safe ― Link found himself sitting by the large hearth in the kitchens, listening to the cooks eating and shutting up the cupboards for the night, or he would tour the battlements again and try to strike up a conversation with the shivering guardsmen there.

Lonely. Sometimes he got so lonely he would even enter the library, look for the princess. But she usually ignored him if she was alone. Or, if other courtiers were there, she would let them gawp at him, would watch Link's comfort slip away until he could withstand it no longer and left. Sometimes he tested his own patience, holding out as long as he could.

Once the bells rang the twenty-second hour, he followed the princess up to her tower, hopefully without argument, though sometimes they did exchange a few nasty quips, to the great annoyance of Master Impa and other guards. Once she was safely within her quarters, he could finally retire to his own room and dive into the oblivion of sleep before it all started again, the next day.

That evening, a bitingly cold breeze seemed to be howling in the halls, clanging against the windows, and between hearths Link could swear his breath was coalescing in front of his mouth.

The princess would be fine, he knew. She had a massive hearth that the servants lit for her and thick downy blankets. She would be cozy and warm. Part of him wondered if it would be enough to warm the dark recesses of her heart. Here in this dead, drafty castle, he struggled to see the heat in her, wondered where the feisty, investigative girl he'd accompanied to Death Mountain had disappeared to.

Link, on the other hand, had to light his own fire. It was a tedious task that usually took about an hour. He'd brought back a few more flintstones from Death Mountain, and they sparked magnificently, but then he would sit in front of the hearth a long time, with a wool blanket wrapped around his shoulders, staring into the fire as it grew. The room wasn't large, yet it took forever to warm up.

The wind howled outside, whistling, and it seemed to seep in through the very mortar and stones of the walls. It was an eerie feeling. Link found himself afraid, somehow, afraid that perhaps this was how Calamity Ganon would appear ― not as an entity he could fight, but instead as a monster of darkness and cold, indomitable, pervasive. Unstoppable.

He shivered, and that was when he heard the footsteps running by his door.

For a moment, he doubted his own senses, but years of training had taught him to, at the very least, investigate.

He swung open his door and peered out into the dimly lit castle hallway. The princess' chamber door was ajar, and the footsteps were fading in the other direction. With barely a moment's thought, Link tightened the blanket around his shoulders and grabbed the Master Sword from where it leaned, by the door.

Of course she was sneaking out. Of course she was. He glanced back mournfully at the warmth he was now leaving to fade out, and braced himself. The Yiga. His oath. Her green eyes. His knightly duty.

He sighed and followed her.

Down the hall and down the winding staircase he went. Link would occasionally get a glimpse of a flowing nightgown, and in one instance a sconce shone on silky blonde hair. His heart was racing, wondering whether it was a good idea to follow, to keep to the shadows, but he knew she did not want to see him, and he wasn't about to begin a new fight at so late an hour. He was getting very good at keeping quiet and dodging her anger.

Anger. He remembered the inkwell, the barbs, the cool ignorance of his presence. They were like bickering children, and all he wanted to do was tug on her pigtails, tie them to the back of her chair, something. Something to fight back.

The castle slept ― and what parts didn't sleep would be out on the town until at least the wee hours. She walked down the hallways without interruption, and he followed with the same ease.

A non-negligible part of him was irritated. As her protector, it seemed almost too easy to follow her. If the Yiga Clan were to find her, it would be so easy to hurt her. He knew. Sometimes she made him want to shake her. Sometimes he shut his mouth to avoid saying the exact things he had on his mind.

Oh, to fight the Yiga, Link fantasized. It would be so good to release the helpless frustration. He could imagine himself sinking his fist into a traitor's face. Maybe Zelda wouldn't think he was so useless and boorish then. It would serve her right to be saved by the man she loathed the most.

She entered the Goddess Shrine. Now Link hesitated in truth. There were no sconces in there, only tall narrow windows that let in the moonlight, and it was unbearably cold as a result. He approached the doorway as quietly as he could, letting the carpet absorb the sound of his footfalls, and he peered through the door jamb uncertainly.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw the Shrine in the gloom, an octagonal room large enough for a hundred, with a long center aisle that led to the pool and, beyond, the altar. A crest depicting the Triforce cast a shadow in the moonlight, falling over the quiet princess.

She was kneeling in the water. Link shivered in earnest. That water was no warmer than an icy river, yet there she was, her long white nightgown soaking through, sticking to her thighs where she kneeled, the frigid water lapping at her. The sensation had to sting, at the very least, but she did not shiver or recoil.

Something of the anger in him wilted, and an uncomfortable sensation of awe replaced it.

She wasn't praying. Her hands were at her sides, fingers dipping in the water, and she wasn't performing any of the common mudras or chanting the usual mantras. For a moment, she seemed as still as the Goddess Hylia before her, maidenly rather than motherly, alabaster rather than stone. And Link hated how beautiful she was, trying as he was to cling to his own irritation.

"You sent me a dream," she said. She was speaking softly, but in the cold, still air and the nightly silence, the words reached Link with some clarity as he stayed in the shadows and remained behind a column. "You showed me a barren wasteland, deserted and cold. I called out, but… I had never felt so alone."

She spoke gently, but Link knew her well enough by now to hear the underlying tone of anger. Part of him wondered whether he should leave her to her confessions, but a larger part of him refused. Curiosity, perhaps, that he tried to justify as protective duty.

"And when I cried for someone ― anyone― to answer my call, you sent him." Now her hands closed into small, white-knuckled fists, and her voice began to tremble. "Is this your idea of a joke?"

The Goddess statue looked down on her with her usual benevolent smile, distant, as cold as winter.

Clearly, the princess thought the smile looked too ironic for her taste. Her hand darted, and a splash of water slapped against the Goddess' face. Link averted his eyes, heart pounding at the implied insult.

"Why?" Zelda cried, the anguish in her voice like a knife in Link's gut. "I asked for help― I asked you to help me open my heart, my mind― I wanted to honour my mother, and my grandmother― And you send me him!"

Stupidly, it was then that Link realized who she was talking about. His hand tightened around the sheath of the Master Sword, shame overtaking him.

So. She really did hate him. He oughtn't have been surprised by that, and yet the surge of hurt managed to take him off guard. Had he been so despicable, really? Annoying her had been more of a game than an actual war.

Link didn't hate her. In fact, most of the time, he rather liked her. He liked the way she scowled at the puzzle of her studies, the fire in her green eyes when she reprimanded him, and the way he sometimes managed to startle her into amazed shock before she could remember she wanted to be irritated with him. He liked the way her voice rose several octaves when they argued over nothing, and the way that anger seemed to make her cheeks flush and her chest heave.

And he liked that she often stood up to him on her own merits nowadays, rather than invoking rank at every turn.

"In the dream, I begged," Zelda said, once again speaking softly and dragging Link back to painful reality. "I begged him to go away. But he never spoke. He just k― I just―" A strangled, anguished sound barely left her throat. "Why did you give me that dream? What message could you possibly hope to send me?"

There was no reply. The silence weighed heavily in the shrine, like the pall over Link's heart. Outside, the wind blew against the windows and they rattled. In the cold, Link tightened the blanket around himself and slipped the Master Sword's strap over his bare shoulder.

"Impa says I will understand your will in time," she continued. "But the more I pray to you and the less I believe it. I asked for my power, and you gave him the Master Sword. I asked for my courage, and you appointed him to me." Now her tone changed and suddenly the sixteen-year-old girl she was came through in full ironic splendour: "Thank you for that, really. What a reasonable boon to grant."

She inhaled, trembling. Her voice regained a semblance of calm, though she was shaking enough ― from the cold, or the contained fury.

"I should have learned my lesson," she said. "I really should have. But then, I asked for wisdom, and you sent me that… that…" She shook her head, trembling. "There was n-nothing about that dream," she insisted, "that was wise. It was useless and… and… and ruinous."

Ruinous? Link felt his eyebrows go up. Was his presence that upsetting?

She was flustered, or cold, or both. Either way, Link thought the tips of her ears were growing pink in the moonlight. The sight did something to him, and he ignored that particular stir. He had to focus. He had to remember she hated him. She'd said so, and that was ruinous enough, if the ache in his chest could be trusted.

"Anyway, he would never," she mumbled. Link had to strain to hear the rest. "Chosen by the Master Sword. Son of a Royal Guardsman. Champion of the realm. It's preposterous. He'd never k― I don't have a single inkling of power. Makes me wonder why anyone bothers with me." She jabbed a finger up at the Statue, accusingly. "If you're busy training another incarnation of the Goddess in my place, I would be rather grateful if you could tell everyone about her very soon. We'll make her the princess instead. Then I could just go back to studying― I don't know― cool safflina. It's supposed to have refreshing properties when brewed into a tea."

Link stifled a smile. That was more like the princess he knew. It managed to shine within him despite his injured pride.

"And the next time I pray for wisdom," she said, firmly, though her voice was growing tremulous, "I would th-thank you to not send me a dream like that one. Here, I'll pray for it n-now. Get it right, this time."

She bowed before the statue, and Link shivered in sympathy. Now her sleeves were soaking through, and even the end of her hair.

Oh. Not good. Instinctively, he stepped forward, the blanket trailing off his shoulders.

She didn't hear him. She grabbed a silver pitcher and filled it in the water before her knees. "Goddess Hylia, Goddesses Din, Farore, Nayru, I now beseech you for wisdom. Show me the path. Help me awaken the p-power that is my birthright. Show me the way."

She raised the silver pitcher overhead. Link's heart lurched. He stepped forward as she began to pour the water over her own head, with a gasp of shock at the cold.

She didn't have to do it, Link knew. It was winter. She didn't have to. This was a summer ritual, a ritual of sunlight and hope. If she continued, she would catch her death―

"Sh-Show me how to unlock my p-power," she prayed, shivering violently, raising the empty pitcher with trembling hands.

Then, she went very still. The moonlight reflected off the silver, polished to the shine of a mirror, and the whole Shrine seemed distorted within. Link decided that was enough. But she must have seen him in the reflection, and she turned to him. The pitcher came down, and splashed into the water.

She seemed surprised, but that lasted only a moment. Then, she was well and truly furious.

"Wh-What are you doing h-here? How long h-have you been s-standing there?"

She was pale, and he was sure her lips were turning blue. Not that he was looking at her lips. Especially when she was this angry. Angry! He was there to rescue her! He stepped to the edge of the shallow pool and stretched out his hand.

"You're going to catch your death of cold. Please get out."

"Answer m-my question," she said, inching away.

"Gods. There is nothing you told the Goddess that I didn't already know," Link said, exasperated.

She still wasn't coming out of the water. Fine. He chucked the blanket aside fully. The night air slammed against his bare skin, which was when he remembered he wasn't wearing a shirt. He winced, tensing against the chill.

At least he had pants. And boots.

"How in all of Hylia," he asked, stepping into the pool and hating every moment of it, "can you tolerate even one second of this? Give me your hand."

"I can m-make my w-way back on my o-own," she insisted, stubbornly, even as her teeth chattered. She was wide-eyed, inching away still, as though she feared him.

For a moment he paused, hesitated. Did he look scary? He hadn't taken the sword out. He was almost embarrassingly unclothed and shivering. He hadn't even used his scary voice. He'd actually gone out of his way to be kind and gentle― mostly.

No. He wasn't the strange one. She was being silly. Besides, he had more important things on his mind.

"If you get sick," Link said, wading through the water to reach her, "they will blame me. I am not looking forward to five more hours of Thousand Knives pose. Am I going to have to grab you?"

"N-No!" Her eyes were wide, green, her cheeks flushed, and for a moment Link could swear the moonlight cast shadows for each one of her lashes, which almost made him lose track of what was going on. "You sh-shouldn't," she said, but her back was against the altar now, and there was nowhere to run. "I f-forbid it." Her gaze darted down to his chest, then she shut her eyes. "G-gods, why are you here?"

Gods. Link wanted to groan with annoyance. Girls. "Take my hand."

"I m-most certainly w-will n-not," she said, flushing all the way up to her ears. Cute.

Well. She asked for it. "Right," Link said, rolling his eyes. "That's enough."

Before she could move away or react, he'd bent over and grabbed her by the waist and hips, pulling her over his shoulder like a sack of flour. Unceremonious ― that was the way.

She yelped, ineffectually, and began to squirm, just as ineffectually.

It was almost too easy. He'd have to teach her how to fight back, or anyone would be able to kidnap her, which would be a huge pain in the arse. And also a terrifying ordeal. For her. He might enjoy the break.

It hadn't seemed so obvious at first glance, but she was absolutely freezing. Her thin nightgown clung to her skin ―not that he noticed, he reminded himself, keeping his gaze as level as possible ― and she was shivering violently. He returned to the edge of the pool and stepped out. He moved her off his shoulder and brought her against his chest, wincing at the feeling of her cold, clammy clothes, and she instinctively curled up against him. Sure, he was mostly dry, but the wet cloth made Link shiver too. He clumsily grabbed his dry blanket ― it was still warm from his body heat― and wrapped her in it as well as he could.

"You sh-should have left me alone," she said, to his neck, where her breath brushed at the hair on his nape.

That sent a strange feeling coursing through his blood, but he ignored it. "Appointed knight. I made an oath."

"W-We're in the c-castle," she said, angrily. "I am n-not in danger here."

"And yet here you are," Link grumbled, "on the brink of hypothermia." The rumble of his voice against her cheek apparently upset her, because she jerked and tried to get away, but Link tightened his grip on her legs and adjusted his hold on her back and the blanket. "Would you stop squirming? You are making this very difficult."

She scowled, clearly indignant. "Th-this is no w-way to treat a p-princess."

That was true, Link considered as he left the shrine, carrying her as he went. At any other time of day, his behaviour would have been outrageous. Scandalous.

Especially since he'd interrupted the princess' devotionals.

"If my father knew you interrupted one of my prayers," she said, evidently following the same thought pattern, "you would be in big trouble."

He began to ascend the staircase, ignoring her. Too late now, anyway. Besides, he wasn't sure why, but he felt good about stopping her. It felt right to rescue her from that frigid, unresponsive world, and it felt like divine inspiration to take her away from the Goddesses' gentle, unfeeling smiles.

She squirmed a little in his arms, apparently trying to get comfortable, and it felt… Well. It just felt.

He was definitely a heretic.

"Wh-where is your shirt an-anyway?" She asked, petulantly, and he felt her finger jab into his bare chest.

"I don't wear a shirt to bed, which is where I would be if it hadn't been for your sudden and urgent piousness."

She groaned. "Great. I needed to hear that."

"What does it matter?" Link asked, as he reached the landing to the floor where he resided, next to the doors to all the royal and noble quarters. He was tired. She wasn't that heavy, but he was cold, and she was squirming, and he was actively ignoring an entire host of other physical sensations right now. "You don't care. I'm just a servant."

"You're not acting like one," she said.

That was true. He was acting like a barbarian rather than a knight, and it took a lot of concentration to quash the niggling feeling of manly victory deep within. That was not knightly. It was not proper. And it definitely shouldn't feel so damned good.

He pushed her door open with a foot, then stomped over to her four poster bed, and dumped her on the blankets as unceremoniously as he could. She squeaked, bouncing, and he ignored any and all tantalizing jiggling by immediately turning away to drop several more logs into the hearth.

Focus on the fire. You love poking at fires. Fires are great. Fires don't throw things.

"I c-could have you stripped of your titles," she said, indignantly.

No. Do not think about stripping. The fire is a beautiful thing. Hm, fire. Hot. Good.

It only took a few moments for the flames to regain some semblance of strength, so he put the poker back next to the hearth and tried to find the Mind of the Crane. It was difficult, given that he was sharply aware of every whisper of cloth and adorably petulant grumble behind him. The Crane was squawking, sending feathers flying everywhere, but Link mentally seized it and held on for dear life.

"Now get changed into some dry clothes," he commanded, stalking to the door. Then, to drive home how completely unattracted―no, unruffled he was, he growled out, "And if I catch you wandering into the cold again, you'll be in trouble."

Big trouble.

"Trouble?" She echoed, voice hitching up an octave in sudden anger, and he fought the urge to look back at her.

He wasn't going to, though. He could see her in his mind's eye anyway, wet, warming up, cheeks flushed with fury, green eyes sparkling with animation and perky―

Crane! "Uh-huh. Big trouble. The biggest trouble," he insisted, pushing aside the red curtain that covered her door.

He dodged a stuffed horse as it bounced harmlessly off the wall. Now he did turn, glaring at her mutinously. "Out of inkwells, are you?"

She stuck out her tongue at him, which had the exact opposite effect she meant it to have. Instead of angering him, it only made her look― Gah. Fighting to hold on to his fury, he ducked out, and closed the door behind him.

Once he was back in his room, less than a minute later, he shut himself in, leaned against the wooden panel of his own door, and let out a nervous chuckle.

His composure crumbled. The Mind of the Crane was gone in a wild storm of feathers, and all he had left was the Mind of the Man, flawed, distracted, violently eager. His whole body seemed to hum with tension. His heart was racing, his blood was burning, and his only thoughts kept turning back to the same dangerous direction.

Ruinous, she'd said. She had no idea. It was safer to imagine the fire coursing through his veins was anger. Because if it wasn't, he was in trouble.

Big trouble.

Chapter Text

As usual, the princess said nothing of the night's events the next morning. Even Link thought that they seemed like some sort of fever dream, had it not been for the traitorous hint of a sniffle in the princess' voice when she greeted Master Impa on the way to breakfast, and the haughty way she ignored his presence.

She's coming down with a cold, he thought to himself, wondering why he felt both sorry and smug about it. She had a way to bring out the full spectrum of emotion in him. And the full spectrum of want.

Mostly the anger, he reminded himself. Hate. Mutual, all-encompassing hate. Yep.

He watched her slip into the dining hall, remembering the feeling of her body cradled in his arms.

No. Mind of the Crane. She is just a girl who happens to be a princess. Nothing to lose one's head over. Or any body part over.

And she doesn't even like me. Because she hates me. She. Hates. Me.

That was the worst and most important part, Link thought, up until the moment pain pinched the tip of his ear and he yelped, instantly drawn back to reality.

Master Impa dragged him away from the doors and hissed, "What have you done to her?"

"Done to her?" Link echoed, incredulously. They stood in a narrow alcove, and passing servants peered at them curiously until Master Impa's glare made them scurry away faster. "I haven't done anything to her." Sadly.

Besides, why was he the culprit? Did no one care what she was doing to him?

Gods. Castle life would kill him.

"She won't even look in your direction," Impa accused him.

Link blinked, then feigned shock. It was difficult to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. "Is that…? Is that somehow a new development?" Then, before the Sheikah Master could reply, he added, "She never looks at me, ever, if she can avoid it."

Master Impa ran a hand over her face, evidently exhausted by something. "Oh, shadows, I can't decide which of the two of you is the most difficult. Or the densest."

Densest? Link wasn't sure what she meant. "It's not me," he said, crossing his arms. "I am the very picture of calm and poise. Have you noticed how she isn't dead? You're welcome."

Master Impa clearly gave up at that point, and she took a deep breath. She was entering her own Mind of the Crane, so Link waited patiently. He had no idea why she was so upset. He'd done his job, and the princess had clearly decided to handle the event as she did all such events: by completely ignoring any good he did.

Well, that was fine with him. He didn't care. The disdain was mutual. Supremely mutual.

"I am going to send you," Master Impa said, "on an expedition."

Link frowned. "What? With Zelda?"

"Princess Zelda," Master Impa corrected him. "And no. You will be accompanying some of the other guardsmen and knights."

Link had spent so much time bored and twiddling his thumbs lately that he instantly perked up. Finally! Something to do. "Where are we going?"

Master Impa's traits seemed drawn. For the first time, Link noticed the tense set of her shoulders. It was subtle, but this was not the Mind of the Crane. It was the Mind of the Wolf ― alert, ready to bite. That made him uneasy.

"There have been reports of Yiga attacks," she said, at length. "Out in the fields, on the roads. Robberies, vandalism. A contingent is going out to find what it can."

Link nodded. It didn't explain why she was so nervous, though.

But she continued.

"You know by now," she said, "that the Yiga are a rogue offshoot of my tribe." She glared at a servant who strayed just a bit too close, and she watched him scurry away in fear. She really had a way with scary looks. Link envied that. "And I fear―" She interrupted herself, debating something within that she did not care to share with him. Link had never seen her hesitate before, which made him nervous, too. Impa shook her head, and continued, but the veil in her gaze hinted that she had changed her mind on what she meant to say. "I fear that perhaps they are agents of Calamity Ganon… hell bent on stopping the princess from awakening her power."

Link frowned. "She doesn't have power."

"Yet," Impa corrected him. "She doesn't have power yet. But with the Yiga―" she sighed, and suddenly seemed far older than she truly was, and Link realized what it must have meant, being the leader of a tribe as ancient and secretive as hers, now divided and at odds, "I think the Yiga plan to eliminate any such possibility."

An image of Zelda, green eyes staring unseeing in death, flashed across his mind, accompanied by a jolt of something painful that he didn't want to identify. Link's jaw clenched. "Not if I have my say in it."

This was it. His chance to tan some Yiga hides. He was already antsy to go. He hadn't had any opportunity for a good fight in months.

"The Master Sword does not choose her Champions idly," Master Impa continued. "I must believe you mean to protect her as you say, and this is one way to do it."

"I will," Link said, frowning. "But what about you? Do you want to protect her?"

Master Impa pinched him, hard, and Link bit down a yelp. "I'm trying to help, you foolish boy."

Link rubbed his arm where she had pinched him, glaring at her mutinously. "Well, how am I to know? Someone needs to keep an eye on Zelda while I'm away."

"Princess Zelda," Master Impa corrected him again, wearily. "I will keep a close eye on her, never you fear. May the gods strike me down if anything happens to the girl."

There was a hardness in her red eyes that made Link wince for any Yiga who made the mistake of going up against her. He pressed his lips together. "Fine. I'll go." He set his jaw, and met the older woman's eyes. "But― Master Impa, if anything happens to her―" He interrupted himself, suddenly afraid of the unnameable feeling in his gut. Afraid he might have threatened his terrifying Sheikah mentor and meant it. Then, pressing his lips into a thin line, he swallowed. "I mean to hold to my oath."

The pointed look he gave her made Master Impa blink in surprise. Then, she collected herself.

"Good," she said, coolly. "That is all I have ever wanted. Now go."

Link nodded and hurried to the kitchens to grab a quick bite. He had a lot to do before he was ready to go.

But first, just in case the Sheikah really were the untrustworthy folk everyone said they were, he had to cover his arse.

"Groose."

It was early morning, and in other circumstances, Squire Groose would have been at his training already. But the Knight Commander was preparing for the expedition, and Groose was sleeping in rather than pitching in at his family's Castle Town mansion. That was common enough ― escaping familial duty by claiming military duty.

"Groose."

Groose rolled over, his red hair messier than usual. He might have been out the night before. Hard to say.

Link reached in and pinched both of the massive young man's nostrils shut. The red giant was up instantly, punching and kicking. Then, realizing that he was safe, he blinked at Link blearily and, defensively, rubbed his nose. "Link. What do you want?"

He was supposed to say Sir Link, but Link let it slide. "I have a job for you."

Squire Groose's golden eyes narrowed in anger. "I may not be a knight yet, but I am not yours to boss around."

"I need you to watch over the Princess while I'm away."

Groose's expression changed, the tension in his shoulders shifting. "Is this a joke?"

Link shook his head. "I have to be out of the Castle today. I know you don't like me, but I've seen you fight and I trust you. It would make me feel a lot better if the Princess wasn't surrounded only by Sheikah shadows, but also by at least one good Hylian knight."

Groose agreed, Link knew. He shared every Hylian's general mistrust of the Sheikah. "I'm not a knight," Groose said, leaning back against his pillows, but he looked supremely pleased with himself.

"Help me today. It will help to prove that you're ready."

Groose's eyes betrayed his eagerness.

It was almost too easy. Link ought to have felt guilty. He wasn't being upfront about his motives. Technically, the Princess didn't need a knight every step of the way, especially here in the Castle.

But it never hurt to be careful. Master Impa might have professed her trust in him, but he would be a fool to put his wholehearted trust in her just yet. It didn't feel good. In a way, he did like the woman. He definitely respected her, even if he wasn't ready to leave the princess in her exclusive care.

"This will be an interesting day," Lady Ashei said, in her usual drawl, much later, when Link exited the stables with his horse in tow.

She was a knight native of Hebra, far to the northwest, and seemed to thrive in the colder months. She was dressed with a thick white fur coat, her polished armour peeking out under it. Her horse was the same: strong, a little wild, and armoured.

"I do not understand," Sir Linebeck said, shivering miserably in his three layers of woolen coats, "why we have to go out. It was cold yesterday and it'll be colder today."

"Stop your whining," Sir Osfala said, his noble tone marking him as their better in every way, just in case his clothes and overcoat didn't. "We have to go before the big storm arrives. It will break soon."

"Today," Ashei said, peering up at the sky. It was thickly clouded, a deep grey that announced snow.

When Link joined them, they peered at him with varying expressions of disinterest. He was young, though not much younger than they were, but he was also mostly unblooded, and not of drinking age. A child.

It was the hilt of the Master Sword on his shoulder that drew their attention the most.

"Well," Sir Osfala said, "it appears we have been joined by the Chosen One."

There was no mistaking the hint of irony in his voice. Link shot him a polite smile, aware that this silent acquiescence was the most likely to infuriate the noble knight. And it did, judging by the irritated glare he received in response.

Link was getting very good at keeping quiet when he wanted to be.

"I remember trying to pull that sword," Ashei said, in what Link assumed was her friendliest deadpan. "It never budged."

"I hoped it wouldn't budge," Sir Linebeck said. "I'd be a terrible Chosen One."

"Because you're a coward and a drunk," Osfala reminded him, still irritated. "And you still owe too many gambling debts." He pulled himself into his luxurious saddle and scratched the neck of his regal steed as a long whistle sounded in the crowded courtyard. It was almost time to go. Everywhere around them, men, women and horses were milling about, organizing into their patrol groups.

"Well, at least I'm old enough to have flaws," Linebeck said, as he climbed atop his dappled old horse, a creature that looked both bored and dumb, if that was possible. "Unlike young mister prodigy over here."

Link ignored that. He was getting used to it. Besides, the words only seemed to hurt now if they were said by Zelda.

Princess. Princess Zelda. He looked up at the battlements, and tried to convince himself that he wasn't worried. She would be fine. The Yiga were outside, not here.

"I don't see Master Kohga," Sir Linebeck observed. "Wasn't he supposed to come with us?"

"Who cares?" Sir Osfala scoffed. "We don't need the Sheikah."

Link was climbing into his saddle when Master Kohga came out into the courtyard, his large horse in tow, joking with a few of the other Sheikah. The sight of them caused Link a small measure of relief. In a way, the more Sheikah he could keep an eye on out there, the less there were in the Castle.

He was alone in his relief. The arrival of the Sheikah plunged the assembly of Hylian knights into unease. Even Lady Ashei and Sir Linebeck seemed to grow quiet.

"It doesn't seem right," Sir Linebeck said, under his breath, "that those shadows would investigate their own. How can we trust them?"

Master Kohga had climbed into the saddle, and his gaze met Link's across the courtyard. He waved, cheerfully. Link waved back, entirely aware that his patrol companions had noticed the exchange. Along with most of the other knights.

"Well, he seems awfully cheerful," Lady Ashei noted, one of her dark brows rising. She didn't say anything to Link, though, merely shooting him an inscrutable look. "Maybe we're all worrying about nothing."

Her tone implied the opposite. Sir Osfala snorted, but did not reply. He gently kicked, and his horse began to walk off, so they all followed after him.

Sir Linebeck had been right to complain. The wind, as soon as they exited the castle gate, began to whip at them mercilessly. Link was glad, in that moment, to have his warmest doublet and his fur-lined hood, including warm boots and gloves. For a moment he wished that Daruk had also given him a gift of ruby, but that was a greedy hope. He'd made it through harsh winters with worse clothing before.

The company of knights and Sheikah trailed through the half-deserted city, their numbers attracting the curious gaze of townsfolk and children. Link nodded to those he recognized, but did not stop to chat. His heart was full of worry he couldn't channel.

A short briefing had been presented earlier by Knight Commander Eagus, who had explained where and how they would proceed, and Link intended to follow orders. Orders were good. They felt safe. They organized his life, prevented too much thinking. He found he had missed the military rigidity, the protocol of command. It was one of Princess Zelda's greatest criticisms ― that he was just a peon, an unthinking body, good to be ordered around and little else.

Link stifled a snort. Well, she had tried to order him around, to little avail.

"You seem cheerful," Master Kohga said as his horse caught up with Link once they were out the gates.

The comment brought Link out of his thoughts. He noticed the rest of his patrol had dutifully given him and the Sheikah Master more space to talk. Perhaps it was disgust, though. Hylians knights generally distrusted Sheikah as a matter of principle, and the entire Yiga ordeal had soured Hylian-Sheikah relations to a frigid degree. Link couldn't blame them. He himself still disliked the Sheikah, too. He just disliked Master Kohga a little less, that was all. And Purah, sometimes. And maybe Master Impa.

"I was thinking," Link said. He hesitated to be as friendly with Master Kohga here as he was when they trained in the Sheikah Sanctuary in the bowels of Hyrule Castle. He was already alienated enough from his own fellow knights because of the Master Sword. He didn't want to be the Sheikah trainee, Master Impa's pet, on top of it.

But Master Kohga ignored his reticence, which Link appreciated somewhat. "I hear you and the princess have grown… close?" The smile on the friendly Sheikah's face betrayed great amusement at his own joke.

Great. The princess. Another topic that would draw a deeper line between Link and the others. Link caught the darting glances from nearby riders. He smiled, perfunctorily, and said, "We have differences of opinion." When he was allowed to express it.

Master Kohga let out a loud laugh that startled birds out of nearby trees. "Now there's the understatement of the year. Are you sure you've never considered putting that Sword back into its pedestal and running away?"

Link glanced at the Sheikah Master. It wasn't the first time he made the joke, and even now the crinkling at the corner of his eyes betrayed his continued mirth. "I made an oath," Link said, softly.

Master Kohga saw the seriousness in Link's face and scoffed. "Oh," he said, smiling genially, "lighten up. No one is really asking you to give up on the princess." He clicked his tongue at his horse, a black mare of excellent upbringing, if her gait was any indication. The Sheikah didn't usually ride, but Master Kohga had a vast array of skills. "I confess I'm glad to be out of the Castle."

Link exhaled. "Me too."

"Hm," Master Kohga nodded, glad to finally have someone in agreement. "The atmosphere back there," he said, jutting a thumb over his shoulder, "is nothing short of crushing."

"I can't blame Master Impa," Link said. "I'd be on edge too. Are they your cousins, the Yiga?" He asked, and he heard the knights stifle chuckles behind him.

Master Kohga heard them too, and he rolled his eyes. He was handsome enough for a Sheikah, with the sort of long lashes and silver hair that made women fawn over him. He'd even had a son last year, who he'd sent off to be raised in Kakariko Village. The Sheikah typically waited much longer to have children, but Kohga was a charmer, and it had surprised no one that he'd become a father so young. "Master Impa," he said, with a smile, "is too easily frightened."

"If you think the Yiga aren't a threat," Link said, with some asperity, "why are you here? Master." The title was an afterthought.

Master Kohga shook his head. "Oh, the Yiga are a threat," he said, emphatically. "But I haven't lost sleep over them."

Link didn't reply. Shockingly, he tended to side with Impa on the matter ― better to make sure.

"At any rate," Master Kohga continued, "there is nothing to be worried about. What can a few rogue assassins do against the might of Hyrule and the wielder of the Master Sword?" He smiled conspiratorially.

Link could feel the gaze of his fellow knights on his back, the mutinous sentiment boring a hole into his skull. He knew that he'd think the same in their place. Fraternizing with the shadow folk was not a good idea, every good Hylian knight knew it. They had ways of learning secrets. The purpose of the Sheikah was to find actionable intelligence, so they cultivated techniques to extract information out of people before their subject even noticed. It was underhanded, everyone knew that.

"So," Link said, casually, turning the question around to avoid answering to anything, "in your opinion, there are no suspicious events to report in the Castle? Nothing to worry about?"

"Suspicious?" Master Kohga echoed, amused. His voice dropped. "I don't think so. Unless we count a barechested knight carrying a soaked maiden back to her quarters in the dead of night."

Link's blood ran cold, and it took all he had to maintain an unaffected air. He glanced at Kohga. "Nothing happened."

"Of course not," Master Kohga said, winking. Link felt the urge to sink his fist into that smile, and the sudden violence of that emotion was unexpected. He reined it in forcefully, surprised at the animosity.

Instead, he said, "So, have you reported this incident?"

Master Kohga looked almost offended. "Of course not. You just told me nothing happened. Why would I report anything?"

It's our secret, Link realized. He will hold on to this until he wants something from me. It was one of the things Sheikah tended to do, one of the reasons Hylians generally disliked them so much. Impa and Purah both had their own such little secrets held over him, which was highly annoying, but nothing of this magnitude.

Link had always somewhat feared the Sheikah, but never Master Kohga personally. Now, he had reason to. A word in the wrong ear, and Link would lose everything. Interrupting the princess at prayers, touching her so familiarly, entering her chambers without a chaperone, both of them being in an uncomfortable state of undress― it was damning, even if nothing had happened. The princess would escape unscathed, but he had no titles to hide behind other than the ones bestowed upon him.

"When you ask for your favour," Link said, sourly, defeated, "remember I have nothing."

Master Kohga looked abashed. "Come now, it was simply an observation. Do you think I am as Sheikah as that?" He smiled. "You have nothing to fear from me, friend."

Friend. Link forced himself to stay calm. Right. Master Kohga had never acted out of turn. He was as Hylian as a Sheikah could get, actually. Maybe he was right, and Link was letting his prejudice get away from him. Besides, they were on the same side. They didn't have to be best chums to help each other. What good would Master Kohga achieve by revealing Link's mistake? Separating the princess from the wielder of the Master Sword would be counterproductive.

"Anyway," Link said, softly, "it won't happen again."

Master Kohga's smile was earnest. "I trust your word on that. You are an annoyingly honourable young man," he teased. "And your devotion to the princess is commendable." He nodded. "I know you will do what is right."

Link smiled nervously in thanks. Good. As long as Link maintained Master Kohga's good opinion, he surely had nothing to fear.

Right?

The column of knights followed the road south, led by Knight Commander Eagus and Chancellor Cole himself, a diminutive man whose affection for green overcoats and heat-storing rubies made him stand out among the conservatively armoured men and women. They rode past the Sacred Grove and along the hills, passing what most Hylians called the Passeri Greenbelt ―now more a scattering of leafless trees than its namesake would have anyone believe― sometime before noon. Overhead, the sky was growing ever darker, lower.

Master Kohga, thankfully, didn't try to keep the conversation going, leaving Link to reflect in silence.

Eventually, the country route joined up with one of the more important roads, a paved connection that ran across the Hyrule plains from the northeast to the southwest. Mabe Village and his own family land lay at eastern end of this stretch, where the road then continued east among the hills through the Applean Forest and onward to Rebonae Bridge and the Lanayru wetlands.

But it was not to the east that Commander Eagus led them. Instead, they took the right and continued southward and westward. The crossing was busy with carts and traders eager to net a few last coins before being forced to retire to their respective farmsteads for the season. To either side of the road, rolling hills of dying green and tilled earth testified to the end of the harvest. Trails of ice lined the bare furrows, but winter had yet to coat the earth with white.

The wind whipped at Link's hood, its icy fingers grasping at what exposed skin it could find ―his face, his ears, his collar. He found himself wishing he could experience the hot westerly winds that would keep the Rayne Highlands and the Lowlands of Gerudo warm for another few weeks at least. He'd heard of high plateaus that defied winter in the west, sometimes all the way to Nayru's Fall, before finally getting their own snowbanks. Some said that even when Hyrule was entrenched in ice and snow, the Rayne Highlands still bloomed.

It was preposterous. In Hyrule proper, the cold winds came down from the north, cruel and biting, just as they were now.

So he was relieved when, as the company followed a turn in the road, he suddenly spotted Hyrule Garrison and its glowing braziers.

Chapter Text

Hyrule Garrison, much like Kolomo Garrison, was centrally located, sitting in the heartland of Hyrule near the Great Exchange, halfway between the seat of power that was Hyrule Castle and the seat of faith that was the Great Plateau. It had flourished from a bare military encampment to one of the most prosperous towns in the land. The small keep that had once been its only building was now surrounded on all sides by stone houses and cottages, and the bright market colours testified to the amount of money that flowed in from all corners of Hyrule.

As the knights approached the town, Commander Eagus announced they would take a break for lunch, and continue on in an hour. Those who wished to do so were welcome to seek food and ale in town, but they had to report back in time.

Link had wheedled his own food from the castle kitchens that morning, so he settled with the rest of the company outside the town limits, tying his horse to a fencepost and pulling out his modest meal. A nearby brazier kept him comfortably warm, and Master Kohga even deserted him to seek out a meal of his own, which suited Link well enough.

"Is that Cook's own bread?" Sir Linebeck asked, sidling up next to him.

"From the kitchens," Link nodded.

Sir Linebeck produced a large salami from within his own saddlebag and unwrapped it. "I'll trade you a big slice if you give me a piece."

It was an easy trade to make. The bread hadn't cost Link nearly as much as the sausage had to have cost. They had just finished their exchange when Lady Ashei joined them, offering them each a handful of wildberries and an apple if they were willing to part with more of their fare. Then Sir Osfala offered to share his cheese, which completed the meal.

As they sat in the dying grass, eating in relative silence, Link felt a strange sort of contentment. This, he thought, as the wind continued to pull at their clothes and the ground felt hard under their arses, was his true calling. He'd always preferred to be outdoors, even as a child. Even in the winter. He was a good hunter and a great climber, and these expeditions were exactly what he was made for.

But instead, he'd pulled the Master Sword, and been assigned to the princess. That was a grim thought.

"So, the Sheikah Master," Lady Ashei said, pulling him out of his thoughts. "Does he always treat you so familiarly?"

Link blinked, and noticed both Sir Linebeck and Sir Osfala had turned to listen, chewing all the while. "Er. Well, yes. He's friendlier than most Sheikah."

Was that too much? It was generally a bad idea to defend the Sheikah. Link had always preferred not to speak of them at all.

"I don't like him," Lady Ashei said, bluntly. "I can't explain it." She shook her head.

"That's the Sheikah for you," Sir Linebeck said around a big bite of cheese. "You never hear those bastards coming."

Link smiled, recalling the princess and her anger at his stealth practice. She often became so absorbed in her studies and work that she didn't hear him coming, even when he wasn't trying to hide himself.

"I hear Kohga has a son now," Sir Osfala said. "Though I don't know why anyone would send their child away to a place as remote as Kakariko for an entire winter."

Sir Linebeck shrugged, then said, mournfully, "My father used to send me away. Couldn't stand the whining."

"How self aware of you," Sir Osfala said, narrowing his eyes.

"What do the Sheikah say about this Yiga business?" Lady Ashei asked, ignoring her companions. She was always blunt, but Link found he kind of appreciated it, especially after Master Kohga.

"They don't really talk about it," Link said. "At least, not to me."

Lady Ashei nodded, but her curiosity hadn't been satisfied. "Well, they have the whole Castle on edge, especially after what happened to the treasury."

"Treasury?" Link echoed, confused.

"You haven't heard?" Sir Linebeck asked, chewing on bread. "It's all the guards could talk about."

Lady Ashei flicked Sir Linebeck's ear, and he yelped, then covered his hurt ear with a hand and a pitiful whine. "I'm telling the story," she said, firmly.

"Yes, ma'am."

"What happened in the treasury?" Link asked.

Lady Ashei stretched out her legs against the grass. "I was on guard duty last week, yeah? I have rounds I usually do, only that night I was running a little late. I guess he thought I had already passed by."

"He?" Link prompted.

Lady Ashei nodded. "Yeah. Sheikah boy in full traditional attire. Covered face. I saw him walk past me in the hallway, away from the treasury. I asked him what he was doing up there, away from the Sanctuary, and so late, but he told me to mind my own business, and walked off." She chewed. "Brat."

"Did you recognize him?"

Lady Ashei shrugged. "Don't know his name. He was young, maybe your age, yeah? Silver hair, red eyes, the usual. Had a noble Sheikah accent, though. Pretentious. Had covered fingers, like he'd plucked at a string instrument for too long."

Sir Osfala snorted. "Of course he did. Those Sheikah and their kotos and harps and lutes― Such pride in their arts." He rolled his eyes, which said enough of what he thought of them.

Many of the castellan Sheikah had noble accents and knew how to play instruments, Link reflected. That wasn't much of a hint. And it was no surprise this one had been arrogant towards a Hylian. The Sheikah were respected for their ability to gain knowledge and use it, not for their manners.

It did bother Link, though, to hear the Sheikah being so openly disparaged. Sure, the Sheikah weren't always pleasant, but they had generously begun training him, and sometimes even Master Impa could be funny. Purah and Robbie were friendly enough, and Master Kohga was in a class of friendliness all of his own.

He kept this thought to himself.

"Anyway," Lady Ashei said, "next morning I hear that sapphires were taken from the treasury." She shook her head. "I know it wasn't coincidence that Sheikah boy was there that night. I don't have proof, but I feel it in my gut."

"So he would have acted alone?" Link asked. He didn't know why, but he hoped that was the case. He hoped most of the Sheikah truly were as honourable as they said they were.

Lady Ashei eyed him with some disdain. "Yeah. Could have." She glanced at the Sheikah group. They stood apart from the rest of the company, and they seemed uncomfortable with the glares they received from the knights. "But that just goes to show you can't trust them."

"Thus it is," Sir Linebeck said, raising his waterskin in a toast, the religious mantra coming out with a decidedly unreligious burp.

Link felt uneasy. "I'll stretch my legs, I think," he said, pushing himself to his feet. "Before we get back in the saddle."

The knights nodded without interest, and Link wandered off into a nearby field, his thoughts a jumble. Neither Master Impa or Master Kohga, or even Purah, had deemed it important to tell him that one of their own had stolen from the treasury. Did they know? Wasn't it their purpose to know? And if they knew and hadn't told him, could he trust any Sheikah at all?

He took a deep breath and focused on his mindfulness. It was no use trying to puzzle anything out just yet. He lacked too many pieces.

Idly, he watched the landscape, the rolling hills, the fading green, the heavy sky, the way the grasses bent in the wind in long waves. For a moment, he remembered Daruk, and how much he loved his rocky land, and how fiercely he had vowed to protect it. This was Link's land, a place of wide open fields and skies, the place he called home.

It was impressive how simply the awareness came upon him, how easily he accepted that he was ready to die to protect these hills, those trees, the very dirt under his feet. If the Calamity did come, and everyone seemed convinced it would, this was what he would defend. This land, its people, its creatures.

Idly, he bent and plucked some sprigs of safflina from the ground. Cool safflina. It was a plant of winter, the sort to pierce the snow and make flowers in the direst of tundras. Usually it blossomed much later. This safflina heralded winter, and as Link looked up at the pregnant sky, he knew nature was ever reliable.

Zelda would know why that was.

The thought came into his mind unbidden, and he tried to bury down the heat that always seemed to rise in his blood when she entered his thoughts. Enough. How far did he have to go to get a break?

A single horn call pulled him back to reality. Time to go. He hurried back to his horse, untying it from the fence where it had patiently waited, and shoved the safflina into his saddlebag. Just in case, he told himself. Just in case she wants it.

Knight Commander Eagus rounded the company up, and onward they continued, through Hyrule Garrison and down the road, southward in the direction of the Grand Exchange. This time, Master Kohga left Link to his own devices, which suited him. Sir Osfala even started up a conversation on the quality of steel in Royal Guard swords, complaining that, though they did cut a great deal better, they seemed to break far too easily.

Before they reached the Exchange, they veered off the road towards Mount Daphnes, a high hill that separated them from the Regencia River. It was here, apparently, that Yiga activity had been reported most recently. The Knight Commander urged them all to be cautious as they began the ascent of the rocky slopes.

Link was still absorbed in thought. Stealing a few gems from the treasury― was that truly worthy of any real attention? He wondered if Master Impa hadn't mentioned it precisely for that reason. Maybe it was irrelevant.

Now Master Kohga, on the other hand, that was definitely relevant. If he had heard or seen Link carrying the princess back to her rooms, then... But Link hadn't seen anyone that night. The halls had been truly deserted, as far as he had been able to tell.

Then again, he hadn't paid much attention once Zelda had been in his arms. Focus had been fleeting at best. That was a mistake he could not afford to make again, pretty girl or not. If the Yiga truly meant to harm her, he had to stay focused. He had to keep practicing his stealth, and he had to be ready to fight at any given moment.

Mount Daphnes' summit was dug out by narrow trails, where only one rider could pass at a time. The Knight Commander advised them to watch their mount's step, periodically commanding men to halt and keep watch in position. Several others were dispatched to circle the hill and look for signs of enemy activity. The rest of them, Link's patrol included, continued through the narrow passage.

As they advanced, Link began to feel a rising sense of unease. He couldn't decide why that was. The birds were quieter, the wind softer. Even the rustling of the leaves felt ominous. Why? What had changed?

He wasn't alone in his discomfort. Ahead of him, Sir Osfala had turned in his saddle to look back at Lady Ashei, his frown like a question, and she had merely responded by bringing her hand to the pommel of the short sword at her waist. The entire column of knights had fallen quiet, speaking softly and only if they had to.

There was a smell in the air that Link couldn't place. He turned his head, trying to locate its origin, trying to tell it apart from the smell of men and horses, of wood and earth.

"It's death," Sir Linebeck murmured, from behind him.

Link turned to look at him, curiously. Sir Linebeck's horse looked nervous, but the knight himself merely looked grave.

"The smell you're looking for," Sir Linebeck explained, hunched and quiet. "It's death."

Link looked back at Lady Ashei and Sir Osfala, who had glanced back, and Lady Ashei nodded in confirmation. They would know. They were blooded knights, tested on the battlefield. Dread settled in Link's gut.

"Keep your weapons close," Sir Linebeck said, simply.

But none of them saw any sign of the enemy. They reached the village less than an hour later, and Link knew they had arrived because the smell, by then, had become overwhelming. The horses were now skittish, stubborn, reluctant. Most of the knights and Sheikah had covered their faces by then, and Chancellor Cole looked positively ill. Even Knight Commander Eagus seemed uneasy, though he had the decorum of not covering up his nose.

As Link's horse emerged from the narrow rocky passage to join the rest of the company, he suddenly was hit by the actual stench of death. It was almost enough to make him sick.

"Here," Lady Ashei said, handing him a small phial. "Rosewater." She motioned for him to rub some under his nose, and Link skeptically obliged. Now everything smelled like death and rosewater.

"Dismount," Commander Eagus ordered, and they all did as told. "Be on your guard."

The village was deserted, Link thought. Deserted and dilapidated. Signs of fighting were obvious, and several houses had clearly burned down. There were flies everywhere, but no corpses they could see.

"Looters, maybe?" Sir Osfala speculated, softly, but Lady Ashei shook her head.

They found the source of the smell in the center of the village, when one of the Sheikah called out for Master Kohga to come see.

The loud buzzing of flies alerted Link to the horror he was about to see, but he knew it would be a show of cowardice to shy away. One by one, the knights approached and peered into the well, stepping away with curses and watery eyes, their hands on their mouths. Link, too, approached and looked in.

A man gazed up at him, unseeing, his eyes pecked out by crows, the buzzing of flies covering his skin, inside his gaping mouth. Under him, many other bloated bodies seemed to go down into the dark, stacked on top of one another, filling the deep well with rotting.

Now they knew where the villagers had gone. Link moved away, dizzy, and joined Sir Linebeck against a rock, where he focused on breathing in and out as regularly as he could.

"It's not easy," Sir Linebeck said.

"I'll get used to it one day," Link said, by way of apology for his obvious nausea.

Sir Linebeck shook his head, the dark circles under his eyes suddenly less a sign of drunkenness than a sign of weariness. "No," he said. "Never aim for that." He pulled a flask from his belt and unstoppered it, taking a quick, bracing swill. Then, he handed it to Link.

"I shouldn't drink," Link said.

Sir Linebeck shrugged. "Suit yourself. Drink is my cure. Some," he said, nodding towards Sir Osfala, who was in conversation with Ashei, "use women. Others spend themselves fighting. Whatever makes you feel alive." He stood, looking older than he really was. "We'll have to bury those people. Help me find a shovel."

"What about the Yiga?" Link asked, pushing away from the rock to follow him, as other knights conferred about the right course of action.

Sir Linebeck shook his head. "Ain't nothing left for them to destroy here. They'll be long gone."

With that grim truth hanging over their heads, the knights began the tedious task of pulling the villagers out of the well, one by one, digging graves, and speaking some of the necessary prayers.

It was late afternoon by the time Link looked up from the pit he was digging to take one of the bodies and bring it down into its resting place. A man, killed by a single firm cut to the throat. The death count included eight men, five women, and six children, all seemingly killed in the same ruthless way. In that moment, Link regretted not having taken a long hard swill of Sir Linebeck's drink.

The body shifted as Link placed it, and a sliver of metal slipped out from the man's collar. A shard of a blade.

Link bent to retrieve it. The metal was broken, but otherwise still sharp, the blood on it dried and flaking. Link moved it up to look at it against what light did filter through the heavy clouds.

He knew this metal, he thought. He'd spent part of the ride arguing its merits and demerits with Sir Osfala. This was a fragment of a Royal Guard's weapon, or at least a shard of the same sharp yet breakable metal forged by the Castle's smithies. It was curved, as Sheikah weapons tended to be, but there was no denying its origin.

"Oi," Sir Linebeck said, bending over the side of the grave to look down at Link, "not about to be sick, are you?"

Startled, Link shoved the piece of blade into his pocket, nicking his palm in the process. He winced, but managed to shake his head. "No, I just…" He sighed. "I just never had to put a man in a grave before."

Sir Linebeck nodded. "Well, at least you're not doing it alone. Give me your hand, I'll pull you out."

Link scrambled out of the pit. Around him, some of the men were now shoveling dirt back into the graves. The weight of Link's discovery seemed to burn a hole in his pocket, but he was numb now. The smell around them would fade, and soon this village would be a ruin, abandoned to the elements. It ached. He had trained his whole life to save people just like this, and now he stood helpless above their graves, his mind a flurry of questions.

"Go rest a moment," Sir Osfala said, snapping Link back to reality. The shovel looked out of place in his nobleman's hands. "We'll finish up with this one."

Lady Ashei, too, was peering at him with mild concern, if that was at all possible. In that moment, Link understood why knights were organized into patrols, and he felt that one day, Sir Osfala would make a brilliant commander. He nodded gratefully, suddenly feeling the weariness in his limbs, and the grimness of his thoughts.

He found a secluded place behind a house, leaned against the wooden wall, and exhaled, trembling. The rosewater had long since stopped working, and now he was almost getting used to the pall over the village.

Mindlessly, he brought the shard of metal out of his pocket, and examined it closely, rubbing the blood away as well as he could.

There was no doubt about it. The ripples in the metal were dark, lending it a charcoal tint from a distance, an effect Link had only ever seen in very specific weapons forged in Hyrule Castle. The Royal Guard used them, especially for ceremonies. Link's own father had even carried a massive broadsword made with this very alloy.

But there were very few other groups who could use this alloy for their own weapons. In fact, the Sheikah were the only ones Link knew of.

Had the Sheikah executed these people? If so, then all of Hyrule Castle was under threat. If not, and if this truly was the work of the Yiga, then how had they obtained castle-forged weaponry? Had they infiltrated the castle? Were they being aided by the Sheikah? Were the Sheikah and the Yiga one and the same? Link strained his memory, trying to remember something, anything, that might support the theory, but he was without luck. Even a theft from the treasury hadn't prompted any openness from Master Impa. No, she was hiding all she knew, as much as she could. This did not bode well for anyone.

The feeling of dread Link had been fighting off since they'd arrived was now overwhelming. He tried to breathe, but it didn't help calm his nerves.

No matter which way he looked at it, there was only one conclusion he could draw with certainty. He was a knight, and he had a sworn duty to the princess, and if he was right, then she was in very real danger.

"Oh, there you are," Lady Ashei said, and Link closed his fingers around the shard of metal. "We were wondering if you'd gone off to be sick."

Link certainly felt ill, but it was with a rising sense of panic and not from disgust. "No," he croaked. "But thank you for worrying about me."

Lady Ashei looked embarrassed, her usually pale cheeks turning ever so slightly pink, and in that moment she looked more like a woman than a knight. "Well, don't get used to it, rookie," she said, as gruffly as she could.

"Lady Ashei," Link said, urgently, "What happens when our oaths conflict?"

She blinked, her gaze becoming hard. Testily, she said, "Which oaths?"

"Protect the innocent," Link said, motioning vaguely to the dilapidated houses, "or protect the incarnation of the Goddess?"

Lady Ashei frowned. In response to her unspoken question, Link opened his palm so she could see the fragment of the blade in his hand. The flicker of recognition in her eyes was immediate, but to her credit she did not exclaim.

"You found this on one of the bodies," she guessed, her tone now very grave.

Link blinked, surprised. "Yes. How did you―"

Lady Ashei rifled through one of her own pouches, and pulled out a similar shard, extending it towards Link. The same alloy, the same curved bladeline. "I found this," she whispered, "inside a little girl's throat."

Link's mouth went dry, and Lady Ashei continued, her voice barely a murmur.

"This is Sheikah weaponry, only look," she turned the shard over, and Link saw the Sheikah Eye, its tear rising up instead of down. Sheikah weapons did usually have this mark near the hilt, but this engraving was upside down, the tear moving away from the blade instead of towards it. A Yiga mark.

Link looked up, his gaze meeting Lady Ashei's hard stare.

"The Yiga have infiltrated the Sheikah," Link said, his voice so low it was almost inaudible, as though being overheard would precipitate their discovery. The truth was like a slap to the face, a realization so horrifying that it was difficult to process. Even Lady Ashei looked paler than usual.

"Go," she said, placing her own shard into his hand and squeezing it with the strength of desperation until Link could feel his skin being cut. "Warn them."

"But what about―"

"Rest easy," Lady Ashei said, firmly. "Your oaths are not in conflict." She smiled, though the expression did not reach her dark eyes. "I will explain everything to Sir Osfala and Commander Eagus." And no one else, she seemed to say. "They will understand." She shoved him. "Now ride before the storm breaks."

He didn't bother to tell anyone he was leaving. He trusted Lady Ashei would.

Climbing into the saddle, he made sure all his saddlebags were firmly closed, and then he rode. Hard.

The roads seemed to fly below him, the fields a blur at his sides. The wind was strong now, and by the time Link left Hyrule Garrison, the skies opened, and snow began to collect in the ditches and on the grass, sticking to his clothes.

When Link made it back to Hyrule Castle's courtyard, the sun had long set and the bells struck the twenty-second hour. He dismounted, leaving his exhausted horse to one of the stable hands, and he dashed up the steps to the main building, taking his saddle bags with him. He was ragged and sore, but something primal had been howling within him, and he wasn't going to drop off his saddle bags until he could be sure…

It was difficult to focus when every fiber of his being was cursing him. He was the princess' Champion. He shouldn't have left. If something had happened in his absence― the idea was unthinkable.

Overhead, the skies were now unleashing an actual snow squall, the wind pulling at his clothes, the snow stinging his face. He ran past the warm braziers, ignored the smells wafting from the kitchens, running up the road that circled the hill upon which and into which Hyrule Castle was built. The gates were open, the walls dark against the deep grey skies, and though torches burned warmly, he felt no urge to seek shelter.

He ran past the gatehouses and into the gardens, where the ground was quickly covering with a smattering of snow, the earth hard from the cold.

The library, he thought, desperately. Please be in the library.

As he entered the castle, he slipped on the flagstones, catching himself at the last minute. He only barely registered the sudden warmth, racing up the carpeted staircases and down the empty hallways. No stealth now, no time.

He was so intent on racing into the library that he was actually surprised when he literally ran into Groose.

"Whoa there," the red giant said, seizing his arm and stopping him mid-step. "Not so fast, I need to search you― Link!" Groose broke into a smile that made him look instantly less boorish. "I thought you'd be back tomorrow at the earliest. Did you think I'd be that terrible at this job?"

"Is she in there?" Link asked, breathless, nodding to the library doors.

Groose nodded. "Oh, yeah. I've been frisking every single library visitor. Not a single weapon goes in without my say-so."

"What about the door at the other end?" Link asked, bent over to catch his breath.

Groose's expression filled Link with a leaded feeling. "Oh."

Eyes wide, Link shoved past the squire, stumbling into the vast library with neither elegance or poise. He pushed towards the balcony, looking down.

Zelda. And she was with a Sheikah!

This was already and usually something Link didn't particularly appreciate, but the broken shards in his pocket seemed heavier than ever, the knowledge he'd collected today filling him with anger against the shadow folk.

He raced down the stairs two steps at a time, Groose on his heels.

The princess was sitting at her usual desk, bowed over a leather-bound book, curled up in a thickly woven blanket to protect her from the cold, and her hair shone like gold in the candlelight. Next to her, Misko the Sheikah bard was playing the harp.

A bard, Link thought. Well of course. The Sheikah's bandaged fingers plucked at the strings, playing a tune Link had heard before, though he couldn't be sure where or when. It was a soft sort of lullaby, one that suited the princess perfectly.

Together, they were a picture of romantic perfection, worthy of a painting ― the golden princess and the silver bard. It made Link's heart clench as he strode forward. But he ignored it.

They both looked up at Link's arrival, the music coming to a halt as Misko stopped plucking at his harp.

Unharmed, Link determined. The princess was unharmed and oblivious to the terror that had seized him. Actually, Link was worried by how often he found himself assessing her well-being. There was doing his job, and then there was mild obsession.

Stifling the relief that flooded him, he dropped his saddlebags and bowed hastily.

One of her brows went up. "Oh. You're back." She didn't sound particularly disappointed, but she didn't sound enthused either. "Just as I was getting used to your replacement." She smiled warmly at Groose, who flushed to his ears, dopey as a page before his first lady.

"Did you run all the way here?" Misko the bard asked as Link got back to his feet. He had an amused smile on his arrogant handsome face. Link glared at him, still catching his breath, and trying to calm the rapid beating of his heart.

"So it seems," Princess Zelda said. She eyed Link with an unreadable expression. "Well, what was so urgent that you had to interrupt Misko's music?"

First name basis. Link ignored how his blood boiled at her familiarity with the Sheikah lad. In fact, she was entirely too comfortable with the Sheikah people, as a whole, for her own safety. And, judging by the haughty look the silver-haired bastard shot Link, the Sheikah bard knew it. It made him want to sink his fist into Misko's smug mouth.

In that exact moment, Link wanted to lock the princess up in a tower and deadbolt the door, because otherwise all those Sheikah might as well just… Just...

Groose, to his credit, leaned into his ear and said, "I searched him, by the way. No weapon. Just the harp."

Just harp her to death.

Link forced himself to take a deep breath. No. He wasn't thinking straight. In all likelihood, most of the Sheikah, despite their shady behaviours and uncanny skill at finding the chink in one's armour, were loyal to the crown.

But if some of them were false, or if they had turned to the Yiga, then Link's concern was justified.

Of course, if the Sheikah or Yiga in the castle had meant to kill Zelda, they would have seized the opportunity of his absence to do it, and they likely would have succeeded. So Groose had been a good deterrent, or, more than likely, Master Impa had done her part accordingly. That didn't release her of her responsibility to be upfront with Link, but at least he wouldn't have to fight her.

This Misko, for his part, was just an arrogant bastard who could play the harp and charm ladies and look good with his silver hair and his courtly step. And Zelda liked him that way. Of course she did. What red-blooded woman wouldn't love a handsome bard who could sing her beauty with skill? Why would she even care about a tactless, bumbling knight whose only qualification was that he had pulled the Blade of Evil's Bane by accident?

Not that Link cared.

"We're waiting," Bard Misko said, evidently entertained by Link's choked silence.

Only now, as Link stood before them, assured of her safety and certain that he had a more important place to be, he struggled to focus. The ride, Master Kohga, the cold, the village, the smell, the flies, the graves, the stern talking-to he was going to give Impa― All those things seemed distant when the princess looked at him so expectantly.

Alive. Unharmed.

Innocent.

"Nothing," he croaked. "It was nothing."

Her pink lips parted, eyebrows rising somewhat, and Link would have been content to observe her surprise with satisfaction had Misko the bard not begun to chuckle at the same moment, the rich tones of his laugh far more elegant than Link's own, damn him.

It struck Link that he had essentially run into the library, breathless and grimy from the road, for 'nothing'.

Feeling the heat of embarrassment and anger rise to his cheeks then all the way to the tips of his ears, Link hastened to retrieve his saddle bags. He was going to retreat. Regroup. Recover.

The bard was still chuckling, each sound attacking Link's fractured pride like a relentless battering ram, and Squire Groose followed him, blinking at him in confusion.

Suddenly, a thought occurred to Link, and he paused. He hesitated, which made the bard stop laughing to observe him with curiosity, clearly in expectation of something even better to mock. The princess had already gone back to her reading. Link knew it was stupid, but he still reached into his saddle bag, retrieving the cool safflina. It was a little crumpled from the ride, but still seemed fresh and fragrant.

Anyway, what else was he going to do with it?

So, swallowing his pride, he stomped back over to the princess' desk, dropping the flowers unceremoniously onto her open book. She was startled, her green eyes jumping up to look at him, her little smile melting away to leave her looking soft, confused, painfully beautiful.

For Misko the bard, though, this was the final straw. "Oh, he brought you flowers!" He burst into actual laughter. No doubt he had concluded that this was Link's hamfisted attempt at courtship.

But it wasn't. That would be stupid. Link, feeling the embarrassment in every single one of his arteries, resisted the urge to strangle the Sheikah until the bard sang in terror. Instead, he turned back to the princess, who wasn't laughing. Somehow, that made Link feel just a smidge better.

"Cool safflina," he said, hoarsely. "Supposed to have refreshing properties when you brew it into tea. To study it," he clarified. Then, he shifted his weight, avoiding the bemused expression on the princess' face, and swallowed. "Good night."

Then, he hurried out of the library, chased by Misko's laughter and the princess' silence.

Chapter Text

Link was avoiding her.

Zelda watched him carry a thick roll of canvas over his shoulder to where tents were being erected to welcome those Hyrulians who were uncomfortable sleeping out of doors. Kakariko Village was abuzz with activity these days, especially ahead of the Goron delegation's arrival.

She sat in the shade of a tall pine, where a long table had been set up for dignitaries to work, scratching her thoughts onto parchment in order to be sure she'd remember them all. She had always been meticulous about this sort of work, and a hundred years had not changed her.

At the end of the table, Prince Sidon was describing Zora legends to several Sheikah and Hylian children, making grand gestures and mouthing all necessary sound effects. His audience was rapt, and even Zelda struggled not to listen intently.

That wasn't the only distraction. Link was coming back now, unladen, striding with purpose to retrieve more necessary materials. It was a hot day, though, and the pines were oozing thick sap onto the table and her clothes. Still, she dared not step out into the afternoon sun. Link was exerting himself, his brow shiny with effort, and his sweat-soaked clothes clung to his body in a way that Zelda could guess was uncomfortable.

His walk was interrupted by Paya, who insisted he take a moment to drink. He gave her a quick smile and took the waterskin from her, but as he tilted it back to drink, his eyes found Zelda's.

Zelda smiled.

It was almost unnoticeable: Link froze, for a bare whisper of a moment, looked away, then resumed drinking, his throat bobbing. The waterskin began to sag against his fingers, his thirst clearly greater than he had anticipated. He did not look her way again, instead handing the skin back to Paya with a polite thank you, then continuing on his way.

Zelda ignored the knot of dismay in her stomach.

She was being silly, she knew. He had not indicated that anything was wrong. Their last few meetings had been as cordial as possible, given the circumstances.

In her retelling, they had reached Link's offering of cool safflina. The moment remained in her mind because it still managed, all these years later, to make her feel… strange. Off-kilter. Vulnerable.

As for the rest… Well. Explaining his interruption of her prayers, and the subsequent climb back to her room, and their fights and disagreements, the tension and the frustrations… The more she told the story out loud, the more terrible it sounded, and by the time she concluded the story of his return from the expedition, she had been too tired of reliving the anguish to continue.

I was sixteen, she kept telling herself. And I knew nothing at all.

Still, she reflected. Link had not sought her out since, and had been nearly impossible to track down.

He was definitely avoiding her.

Could she blame him? She knew what was coming in the story. She knew how ugly it would still become. Perhaps he suspected it, too. Perhaps he was growing weary of hearing how much her young self had mistreated him.

Perhaps he had decided remembering wasn't worth it after all.

There was no easy way of describing what that particular idea did to Zelda. If she really delved into it, it could be summed up as fear. Fear of being alone once more, fear of being the last Hylian who properly remembered… Fear of seeing him move on. Fear that she could not.

Fear that if she spoke of her fear, he'd think her mad. There were times where she certainly felt the thin veil of sanity lift. Sometimes, she'd awake in darkness, and the terror would come upon her ― that all this was a dream, that he had not rescued her, that she was back to that first year, that the Calamity celebrated around her. She'd shut her eyes against the dark and curl up under the blankets, desperately clinging to her pillow, trying to stifle her tears so Paya would not wake up.

But I cannot burden him, she swore to herself, staring at her sap-stained parchment blindly. He has suffered enough.

If he no longer wanted to know, she had no right to force him to listen.

She had been tied to him for so long, though, had prayed to his name with such assiduous faith for so long, that she worried. She knew he could move on from all that had happened. But she would never… Could she ever…?

"Princess," Paya said, startling Zelda.

The young Sheikah woman had approached without her notice, and Zelda ignored how Link passed by with two thick coils of rope, conversing amiably with the young builder Karson. Instead, she turned to Paya and tried to give her a smile that wasn't too strained. "Yes, Paya? I'm sorry, I was deep in thought."

"I understand," Paya said, smiling pleasantly. She was still clutching the empty waterskin as though it were a precious thing, and Zelda ignored the feeling that tugged at her heart. "We've just been warned that the Goron and Tarrey Town delegations are coming up the Sahasra Slope."

"Wonderful," Zelda said, though she was sure she didn't look as delighted as she meant to. "I should probably change into more suitable clothes, then." Her simple country dress had become stained with clear sap and she was sure she'd have to brush through more gobs of the stuff in her hair.

She emerged from Impa's house less than half an hour later much refreshed to find that most of the villagers and visitors had already gathered near the northwest village entrance. They were hailing the newcomers warmly as they trickled in, and Zelda braced herself for the crush of the crowd.

Squeezing through the assembled people, she joined Sidon's side. The Zora prince stood tall above the crowd and he always seemed pleased to see her, which did soothe Zelda's frazzled nerves. She still had to get used, once again, to large gatherings.

The delegation from Tarrey Town had come with a few of the horse-taming nomad tribe leaders, who apologized to Impa for inviting themselves, but the Sheikah Master welcomed them warmly. They had packed their own accommodations, they assured her, and did not intend to cut into Kakariko's food reserves. Then, reverently, they stopped before Zelda and Sidon, bowing with sincere gratitude for their welcome.

The Tarrey Town delegation counted Hudson ―who was warmly and excitedly welcomed by his fellow builders Karson and Bolson―, Hudson's wife Rhondson, who was beginning to show signs of pregnancy, and a young Sheikah man who introduced himself the courtly way, bowing in the gallant manner Hyrule Castle's courtiers of old. His name was Granté, he explained, smiling with gentle charm. His manners, Zelda learned when she asked, had been taught to him by his father Robbie, who was growing a little too old to travel.

Though Zelda mourned the absence of her old scientist friend, just as she had been sad not to see Purah from Hateno, she welcomed his son warmly. He had something of his father's looks, she said, and the young man laughingly commented that boded ill for his elder years.

As Zelda politely made the introductions to Prince Sidon, Master Impa and Paya ―the last of whom responded to Granté's flourished bow with a pretty flush― she ignored the feeling of Link's gaze on her. It was already a hot day, she swore to herself. The last thing she wanted was to get dazed.

At some point, he had wiped his face with a cool cloth and taken his sweaty tunic off. This was reasonable, Zelda assumed, because that tunic was no doubt absolutely disgusting by now. It was also the cruelest of tortures, because now she couldn't seem to keep her eyes off him.

She wanted to scoff internally, but she honestly couldn't.

None of the newcomers seemed to take Link's lack of a shirt as an offense. They all knew him well, it appeared, owing many of their recent successes to him. In fact, once Granté got to him, the young man greeted Link with a clap to the shoulder. They were friends, then. Link even apologized for his attire, explaining to a nodding, sympathetic Hudson that he had been working all morning.

For Zelda, though, it was hard to look away from Link's chest. At her side, Paya observed Granté and Link's conversation with a dismayed look, a mix of discomfort and awe that made Zelda want to giggle in cringing sympathy. One handsome man was a lot for the girl to handle, so two...

Zelda had known Link was handsome even a hundred years ago. She had known it viscerally, like every other woman at court. She had hated it, hated the way his infuriating proximity completely undermined every carefully constructed feeling of loathing and distance she could nurture. Watching Paya now, Zelda knew exactly how she felt. The minds of girls and young women were as easily turned, as easily distracted, as any young man's. Even today, with a hundred years of wisdom to keep her focused, Zelda could feel her preserved body react with unthinking longing.

And yet.

Zelda's gaze slid back, once more, to her knight of old, and ignored the sinking of her stomach.

Scars, pale against the flush of exertion and his slight tan, criss-crossed and puckered his skin, punctuating it with countless scratches and punctures. Here, the circle of an arrow shaft, there, the deep cut of a blade. Innumerable, permanent, marring his otherwise healthy and muscular body.

I've done this to him, Zelda thought, nauseated, before she could stop herself. If it hadn't been for that ancient Sheikah technology, if they hadn't discovered that Shrine of Resurrection…

It figured, of course, that he still managed to look so damned good, even, perhaps especially, with the wear and tear of almost dying for her. Somehow, she felt a niggling of her old irritation with him resurface: would it truly behoove him to be a little less exemplary, to look just a little less attractive?

Blinking against the distraction, Zelda turned back to the village entrance with focused determination. She didn't need to look, she told herself. She was Princess Zelda, Incarnation of the Goddess Hylia, Bane of the Calamity, daughter of King Rhoam Bosphoramus and future Queen of Hyrule. She would not be undone by a bit of muscle and some scars.

But oh how she'd like it...

"There they are!"

A rousing cheer went up from the crowd as the Goron delegation entered Kakariko, and Zelda took a deep breath, the excitement around her overwhelming. The Gorons were lugging hefty sacks over their shoulders, their fabled strength all the more impressive from the demonstration.

At the head of the line, a young Goron was lugging two bags of goods, and Zelda's throat tightened.

"Daruk," she murmured.

The young Goron blinked in surprise, then broke into a broad grin. His bags fell to his feet and he reached up to the Goron chain medallion tied around his neck by a swath of sky blue cloth that Zelda knew all too well. "So you really did know my ancestor?" He seemed excited. "The message Boss Bludo received mentioned you had been away all this time― but you're here! A real princess!"

Suddenly aware that he was addressing a real princess, the Goron youth's eyes widened and he fell awkwardly to his knees, his large frame toppling somewhat.

"Your highness," he said, trying to control the waver in his voice. "It is an honor."

Zelda was unable to stifle a laugh. She leaned forward, her hands stretching out to touch the Goron's large shoulder. "Please, rise. We do not stand on ceremony among friends. What is your name, son of Daruk?"

"Y-Yunobo, your highness," the Goron replied, pushing himself slowly to his feet. "I am the assistant to our Goron Elder Bludo, and he's sent me on his behalf."

"Be welcome to Kakariko Village," Master Impa said, her eyes crinkling at the corners, as Zelda replied, "It is a pleasure to meet you, young Yunobo."

The young Goron seemed a little overwhelmed, especially as Prince Sidon greeted him with a pumping handshake that would have put Daruk's to shame, but he recovered when he remembered the bags at his feet.

"I have a gift for you," he said, and though he was distracted, Zelda was fairly sure he spoke to her.

The Goron pulled the drawstring of his bag open, and suddenly Zelda was assailed by the familiar smells of various Goron spices. She had not smelled such fragrances in a hundred years, but the memories of a hundred luxurious meals and roaring fires returned to her with unexpected clarity, mixed with countless other memories she had thought long forgotten. The feeling of nursing a spiced tea as she sat in the snow next to her mother in the castle courtyard, the delightful smell of curries and seasonings on feast days, the reflection of a campfire in Link's eyes as he roasted their vegetables in companionable silence―

Unbidden, Zelda's vision filled with tears.

Distraught, Yunobo reached out, panic in his voice. "Princess? I'm sorry, are you―"

"I'm alright," Zelda assured him, with a watery smile. "I just… I'd forgotten how much I loved Goron spices. Thank you."

Evidently relieved, the Goron youth smiled. "Oh, good, because when Link told me to bring you a pouch of them, I assumed you'd be happy. I didn't want to launch the waterworks!"

Zelda blinked, wiping at her eyes primly with her fingers, "I'm sorry, what?"

"The… the waterworks," Yunobo repeated in confusion. "I mean, your tears. I didn't… I didn't mean to…"

"No," Zelda said, gently shaking her head, "You said… Link?"

Her eyes darted to Link, but he was studiously not looking at her in the least, observing instead the slow progress of the sun across the sky, apparently and fastidiously focused on some inane conversation between Elder Uma and builder Hudson.

Something coiled inside Zelda that she didn't recognize. Link? Link had asked that she be brought a gift of such simplicity? But… why? More importantly, though, how? How had he known?

"I didn't think the spices would be enough," Yunobo said, breaking her out of her thoughts before a fully-formed idea could crystallize in her mind, "so we've also brought gifts of gems."

And, before Zelda could react, Yunobo and the other Gorons pulled open their bags, revealing a veritable treasury of sapphires, rubies, opals and diamonds. The stones shone brightly in the sun, dazzling the crowd into awed exclamations and stunned silence. Zelda actually found herself breathless, and her hand came up, resting under her breast as she tried to quiet the racing of her mind.

"Oh," she managed.

"It's not like they're very good to eat," Yunobo said, and his fellow Gorons nodded with smiles. "We know they'd be of more use to you if you want to restore the kingdom."

"Our kingdom," Zelda breathed. Then, looking away from the blinding diamonds, she reached out to Yunobo's massive hand and squeezed it, peering up at him earnestly. "Yunobo of the Gorons, this is a generous gift. I cannot, in good conscience―"

"Don't worry about it," the Goron youth said, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment. The motion reminded Zelda so much of Daruk that she actually wanted to throw herself into his arms and hear him speak comfortingly, as the Champion had all those years ago. "We didn't mine all this by ourselves, anyway."

Zelda seized on this. "Who else should I extend my thanks to?"

"Well, actually," Yunobo started, "L―"

"Uh," Granté loudly exclaimed, drawing the attention of all those in attendance. He was wincing, rubbing his rib on the side where Link stood, though Link remained still, as stone-faced as ever. When Granté continued, his voice was strained, "perhaps we could retire to the shade and continue our conversation there? It's been a very long road."

"Of course," Master Impa said, flatly, though Zelda wasn't sure whether she was looking at the young Sheikah or at Link. When she spoke next her tone was more deadpan than Zelda had ever heard: "Shades forbid the Gorons overheat."

The crowd relocated in a confused jumble of excited chatter, and Zelda soon found herself engulfed by conversations with other visitors. She tried to locate either Yunobo, who reminded her so much of Daruk, or Prince Sidon, who had ever been her loud shield, but the two of them were conversing with Link instead. Paya and Granté were making awkward small talk, while Master Impa and Elder Uma were apparently giving the builder Bolson a verbal dressing down about something or other.

Eventually, Zelda excused herself.

Every time she took a breather away from the crowd, the same question resurfaced. Why was she even trying to be queen? Crowds always made her anxious, overwhelmed. This would be her entire life from now on.

More importantly, why was it that every time she tried to think of what she wanted to do instead of rule, the only picture that came to mind was a lazy morning in bed with her knight?

It's his chest, she decided, climbing up the slope to her usual hiding spot. It does things to a girl.

As she came upon the apple tree, she looked up into its boughs, wondering. From up there, she'd see all of Kakariko Village, but no one would see her. And the branches were low, well spaced out. There were harder trees to climb.

Gathering her skirt around her knees, she tied it up and pulled herself onto a low branch, her fingers finding the craggy grooves of the bark, her slippers thin enough to find hold on thick knots.

Meticulously, she found her way up another branch, then another, the exercise comforting, liberating. Climbing was like a puzzle, and though she could not claim to have even a fraction of Link's stamina, she made it up without too much difficulty.

Turning around, she sat, straddled, on one of the tree's higher branches, looking through the thick cover of leaves at the world beyond. From here, she could see over the hills of Kakariko, could look far at the fields of Hyrule and the mountains beyond.

My kingdom, she mused, wondering why the idea felt so lonely when a crowd of her people rejoiced below.

"Princess?"

Link's voice called up to her from below, and Zelda peered down. He was looking up at her with a puzzled expression on his face.

"Hello," she said, ignoring the way her heart raced at the sight of him.

"Are you… alright?" Link asked, his brow furrowed.

Zelda wasn't sure what to reply. He was still without a shirt, and the combination was still wreaking havoc on her nerves. Did he know her attraction? Did he know her guilt? Was he doing it on purpose? He seemed unaware. With his old self, she would have had to guess, but this new Link was absolutely guileless, honest… Ridiculously good-looking.

"I am still getting used to crowds," she admitted, bravely. "But otherwise I am perfectly content. Did you not want to stay and chat with your friends?"

He glanced down at the village, uncomfortable, then back up at her. "I… I've been thinking…" He took a breath, hesitated, then said, "In the story you're telling…" He shot her a look she couldn't decipher, then asked, his voice coming up to her softly, "It's going to get worse, won't it?"

She laughed, bitterly. "Yes," she finally admitted, running her hand through the leaves within her reach. "It will get worse before it gets better."

"But it gets better," Link said, his hand running against the bark of the tree mindfully.

"We were friends, once," Zelda replied.

"Are we friends now?"

She blinked in surprise, peering down at him. "Friends?" She echoed. His expression was unreadable. "I…" A lump formed in her throat, and she had to look away. "I… I wouldn't dare to presume," she finally said.

"Your old self seemed to presume a lot. Try it now."

"Is that a joke?" She glared down at him, squinting.

He was smiling, the expression heart-achingly at home on his face. It transformed him utterly, and it made her heart slam against her ribcage. She very nearly toppled over from the branch she sat on.

It was so close, she thought, so close to how he had been, once. Teasing with mock impudence, his blue eyes bright with mischief when he thought he could get away with it, when he was fairly sure no one would see, a secret he kept just for her. By the end, it had been enough to reduce her insides to jelly.

Did he remember?

"Are you beginning to remember anything at all?" She asked, trying not to let the hope transform her tone into desperation.

The smile on his face wilted somewhat, and he said, "If it's too much trouble, I understand."

I live for this, she wanted to say. I wish it could go on forever. "Link, you are my friend, whether you remember it or not. Don't let the story I'm telling fool you."

"So we weren't more?" Link asked, calmly.

His eyes were blue and piercing, looking up at her with something that looked so closely like… knowing. Oh, gods. Did he know? She hadn't gotten to anything that could remotely hint― She wasn't even sure she wanted―

"Why do you ask?" She dodged. "Remembering something?"

He peered up at her intently, and Zelda was desperately glad for the distance between them. Under his scrutiny, she could feel her heart racing, could feel her breath quicken. She was sure he'd see the pulse at her throat, the heaving of her chest.

Finally, he broke eye contact, looked at the horizon, and said, ever-so-nonchalantly, "I can see up your skirt."

She threw an apple down at him, and he ducked with a laugh.

"Go put a shirt on," she said, "you liar. Or else I won't tell you how horribly I treated you that winter."

"That winter?" Link echoed.

"Oh yes," she said, almost in a grumble. "We were very horrid to one another."

"Can't wait," Link said, pushing away from the tree. "I'll be right back."

She watched him stride away, trying desperately to stem the rising tide of longing and joy that flooded her heart. How could a single conversation with him raise her spirits so easily? That did not bode well for when she finished telling her story. What would she have left to keep him close? He might leave. She might never see him again, her role in his life fulfilled, his duty to her long complete.

She would not survive that.

Much as she had nearly not survived that winter.

As she waited for Link to return, Zelda's mind began once again to wander the pathways of her memory, the recollection almost as painful as living it in the first place. Even today, if she closed her eyes and dived back in deep, she could remember it all, starting right after Link's peculiar offering of safflina...

Chapter Text

So Link had made a fool of himself. He could live with that. His pride was nothing. At least the princess lived. At least there was that. But the expedition's events had unsettled him. There was no safety in Hyrule anymore, and clearly none to be found in Hyrule Castle.

He had paced back and forth for most of the night, leaping to check in the hallway at every imagined sound. Outside, the snowstorm had worsened, lining his windowsill with ice and snow, the wind howling. He couldn't find sleep. His pride was hurt, his worry piqued, and he kept rehashing the moment of his humiliation in the library.

When he entered the Sheikah sanctuary that morning, he was bleary-eyed and exhausted. Even the Sheikah sparring partners who typically teased him for every weakness looked at him with what could have been either concern or confusion.

Master Impa was at her own training, her strong movements sharp and precise, each motion exactly as strong as it needed to be, with not a single hint of wobble or overextension. It was a marvel to behold, and a far greater achievement than Link could ever hope to manage, and he admitted it despite all the reservations he still had about her.

When she noticed him, she finished her set of strikes, then completed the final salute, a symbolic gesture that helped put the mind back into reality after the ardent concentration of practice.

"You have not slept," she said, reaching for a cloth to mop her brow.

"Oh?" Link said. "I hadn't noticed." Even the sarcasm wilted midway through his sentence, and he deflated.

Master Impa peered at him, her expression unreadable. "You have something on your mind." She noticed the curious looks of the other Sheikah and motioned for Link to follow her.

He followed, dragging his feet and stifling a yawn. They entered Master Impa's quarters, a simple and unadorned set of rooms adjoining the training hall. They fulfilled their basic functionality and little else. She motioned for him to sit on the floor, by her low table, and she retrieved a bottle of water from her shelf after closing the door behind them, pouring them both a glass.

"You returned early from the expedition yesterday," she observed. "None of the others have come back."

Link didn't reply, stifling a yawn. He had prepared himself for this conversation all night, and he was going to wait for the right moment to air his grievances.

Master Impa studied his face, noting his unusually sullen silence and rightly concluding that he was not happy. "And you don't trust me, it seems, judging by that oaf of a squire." The accusation was less a question than a statement. Good. At least they were going to be direct this time. Master Impa kneeled across from him, her red eyes sharp and perceptive. "I told you I would watch over the princess."

Link's vague smile didn't reach his eyes, and he knew she saw it. "Well, I don't trust anyone lately. Don't take it personally."

Impa shook her head. "I cannot blame you for that," she admitted. "I might have done the same. But with all due respect, if I had wanted the princess dead, she would be dead."

Link's fingers twitched, and she noticed. Her eyes narrowed.

"I serve the Royal Family," she said, each syllable as sharp as a knife.

Link pursed his lips, then said, "Does that mean we do not talk about the treasury, then? That doesn't seem like fealty."

Master Impa looked down, a bare flicker of her gaze that told Link everything he needed to know.

"You know," he continued, "for all that we share responsibility for protecting the princess, it seems there is a lot we don't talk about."

Master Impa sighed, a sign of defeat he did not expect. "You are a smart young man," she said. "You know leading the Sheikah requires… subtlety."

Link shrugged. "As far as I'm concerned, you can't be a loyal servant of the Royal Family while harbouring a sapphire thief."

"I have already assured his Majesty the King that I intend to recover his family's stolen treasures and punish the one responsible. You need not fear on that count."

"One of your own," Link mused, coldly. "That must be a real pain in the hide. And what with the Yiga infiltration, I imagine you must be scrambling for a solid foothold."

Master Impa's gaze sharpened, and the air in the room suddenly felt crushing. Link was actually startled by the shift ― the lanterns seemed to dim, the dust seemed to thicken, and the shadows seemed to deepen. Shadow magic? In his chest, his heart leapt with urgency and a primal voice inside him insisted that he was not safe.

When Master Impa spoke, her voice was different, a deeper tone that carried with it the grave implication that lying would be unwelcome, that it would end badly.

"Yiga infiltration?" She asked.

Link squinted at her. In his pocket, the two metal shards almost burned him through his clothes. "Did you not know?"

She said nothing, her eyes narrowing. Link inhaled deeply, trying to make himself feel comfortable, but every passing second made the air feel ever more crushing.

"What did you see on your expedition?" Master Impa finally asked, as the cogs in Link's mind spun wildly.

"Castle-forged Yiga weapons," Link finally said, coming to a decision. He motioned to a sickle on the wall. "One of those, actually."

The curvature of the weapon formed a nearly perfect circle, the sharpness of the blade catching the light hungrily. It was dark steel as the Royal Guard's, but the Sheikah eye was right-side up, its tear moving down. Master Impa's eye darted to it, but then returned to him as Link rifled into his pocket to retrieve the fragments of metal.

As he placed them before Master Impa, Link recounted, briefly, how and where he had found them. For a second, he was certain he saw a flicker of pain in her red eyes, especially as he told of the murders and their viciousness. Her bandaged fingers reached out to turn the Yiga-marked fragment over.

"It is as I feared," she finally said, after Link fell silent once more. "Though I did not think you would find proof so far from Hyrule Castle." She pulled her hand away, and the air in the room lightened, and Link could at last breathe better.

"Did you really not know?" Link asked.

"I suspected," Master Impa said, "but I had no evidence." She looked up into his blue eyes. "Who else have you shown these to?"

Link shook his head. "It was Lady Ashei who found that piece," he said, designating the Yiga-marked fragment. "I only found the other."

"And she gave it to you," Master Impa said, woodenly. "I do not suspect she intended for the Sheikah to be apprised of its existence. Lady Ashei is a noble knight, but she dislikes my people, as most Hylians do."

"As I did too," Link said. "And I can't blame her." He pulled his hand over his eyes, trying to rub the fatigue out of them and failing. "Master Impa, you have a sizeable problem looming on the horizon that I don't think you are sufficiently concerned about."

"Oh?" Master Impa said, glaring. "Do I look nonchalant about traitorous thieves and Yiga murderers? That is not the impression I mean to give."

Link glared back. "Those are not the problems I am talking about," he snapped. "The Sheikah as a whole are facing mounting mistrust and dislike. Your skulking and arrogance are creating a situation where, even if most Sheikah are innocent of wrongdoing, this entire Yiga situation will drive your people out of Hyrule Castle."

To his surprise, Master Impa did not snap back. So, she knew. Link sighed.

"I have a suggestion," he said, trying to soften his voice. "But your people will not like it."

She said nothing, which he accepted as an invitation to continue.

"The princess needs a Royal Guard that I trust completely," Link said. "And that will henceforth include knights of my choosing only. And Sheikah shadows."

Master Impa squinted at him. "I already have a protective detail for her."

"Of my choosing," Link repeated. "And from this point forward, they will pool their resources and information. This new Royal Guard will be under my command, not yours and mine, nor yours and the king's. Mine. Those Sheikah I select must be of unquestioned loyalty and absolute devotion to the crown."

"The Sheikah obey me," Master Impa said. "They will not listen to a green knight, promising and talented though he may be."

Link didn't even blink at this. He had mused on the matter all night and had concluded this was the only way. "If they do not learn to work with the order of the knights," he continued, as though Master Impa had said nothing, "the growing mistrust between Hylians and Sheikah will escalate. If the king finds himself forced to choose between your people and his…" He shrugged. "You do not have the luxury of saying no to this proposal. It will be a show of good faith and a task honourable enough that Hylian knights of great standing and influence will be reluctant to refuse. They will be forced to work with your people. If your shadows learn to play nice, you could at least protect your own interests while you sort out the rest."

Master Impa peered at him with a look that Link couldn't decipher. Then, finally, the light in her eyes changed, brightened, and she seemed to be on the edge of a smile that never truly manifested. "A green knight," she repeated, "promising and talented."

To Link, that sounded like agreement. He deflated in relief. "Because," he explained, "if I go another sleepless night, I will go mad."

She frowned, pushing the metal fragments back his way in a show of trust. "Was it worry that kept you up?"

He shrugged.

Master Impa saw right through that, and proceeded with her interrogation. "If you were so worried, how did you convince yourself to leave your post and come here this morning?"

Link averted his gaze, which was apparently all the answer Impa needed.

"Well," she said, rolling her eyes, "if that giant red squire is going to keep protecting her while you're away, I suppose it's only right we knight him and make him one of the first in this new Royal Guard of yours."

"I will be taking on young knights and experienced ones, yes," Link agreed. "But if you could provide your best Sheikah… Master Kohga would be a good bridge. He is likeable enough."

And it would allow Link to keep an eye on him, to prevent him from revealing anything untoward.

Because even though Link knew Master Kohga was only doing what all Sheikah did, which was collect information and use it, the knowledge made him uneasy. Master Impa was holding on to the many times Link had thought he'd stolen fruitcake unseen from the kitchens. And Purah knew he was the one who had accidentally knocked over one of the princess' experiments, rendering it useless. Even Robbie held on to some secrets of his own, most notably how he'd caught Link staring at the princess' lovely behind. They all knew things about him that could ruin his day.

Only Master Kohga held on to secrets that could ruin his life.

"Hm," Master Impa said, turning away to rifle through a few of her belongings in search of a quill and parchment. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. I have some tasks I prefer to assign to my second. But I will give you a list of names I trust."

Link pretended nonchalance. "As you wish."

"I am pleased," Master Impa said, returning to the table and beginning to scratch at the parchment, "that you returned with this news so quickly." Her red eyes, sharp and perceptive, lifted from the table to meet his. "Although I suspect you did not act out of love for my people."

Link shifted his weight. "I had this feeling." A feeling he couldn't describe aloud even if he tried, a feeling that perhaps he had lost it. The concern had grown from deep within his gut, rising up like steam and filling him with the inexplicable certainty that the princess was in immediate danger and that only he could protect her. And under that absolute knowledge lay a darker layer of terror, a terror primal and deep he didn't recognize and likened to standing upon the edge of precipice and knowing that he would lose his footing, knowing that failure meant a loss too terrible to envision, too painful to acknowledge. "This feeling that I shouldn't have stepped away from her."

Master Impa said nothing, and when Link looked up to find out why, he merely saw a serene expression on her face.

"Good," she said.

Their meeting ended soon after, Link departing with the promise that Master Impa would select her most trustworthy shadows and broach the topic to the king. Link had already determined to ask a few castle knights to join the new Order of the Guard, but not before he could be sure that Squire Groose could be knighted for the purpose.

It took about two days for the rumours to find their way into the barracks and guardhouses. Link knew by the way the older knights, the younger squires and the more experienced guards suddenly began to treat him with more deference. Some even said hello in the hallways, which was a marked change.

Instead of feeding the rumours, Link stayed as stoic as he could. He was still puzzling over how to explain this new development to the princess. She would not be happy. She would most likely balk at the notion of having a full contingent around her.

In fact, she would most likely be very angry with him. That would be unfortunate, because she disliked him enough already.

She had said nothing about the cool safflina, his hasty return to the castle or his obvious exhaustion. In fact, she seemed content to avoid him. When he did find her now, she was in the company of servants or the damned Sheikah bard Misko.

If she noticed the new respect his fellow guardsmen demonstrated, she said nothing of it either. Whenever they did happen to be alone together, or as alone as two persons could be in a castle, she'd pretend he wasn't there as long as she could. It ought to have hurt, but Link found some measure of relief in it. These days every time she spoke, he found his focus shifting to her inexorably, attending to her every movement and word with decidedly embarrassing interest.

It was better, safer, if she ignored him.

And then, one morning, she was gone.

The sleep was still clinging to him when Groose barged into his room to shake him awake. Link actually tumbled out of bed and into the cold, shaking off the remnants of a dream of her that had made him ache with longing he wasn't particularly interested in thinking about, then he collected himself.

"I'm sorry," he said, blinking, as Groose paced back and forth in obvious dismay, a cloud of white steam forming in front of his mouth, "what?"

"She's gone," Groose repeated. A knighting ceremony was being prepared for him, at Link's request, and Groose had utterly changed in his anticipation and gratitude. "Took her horse and some food and warm clothes, and poof."

"Poof?" Link echoed raspily, a rising panic clambering into his gut. Outside, the sky was clear and blue, but that usually meant cold weather.

"She left this," Groose said. "Found it with some stupid bard. He didn't want to leave it to me, on account of wanting to give it to the king himself, so I punched him."

Link ignored the jolt of genuine appreciation for Groose and held out his hand. A letter, never sealed. "How did the bard take it?" Link asked, to distract from the way his fingers shook.

"Nasally," Groose replied.

Link glared up at Groose. "That's not what I meant. Maybe don't hurt the Sheikah next time."

Groose shrugged. "He's arrogant and stuffy. Anyway, he's just a Sheikah."

"We're trying to make friends with them," Link reminded him. "You'll be working alongside them sooner than you think."

Groose shrugged again, and Link turned his attention to the letter in his hands. It was addressed to King Rhoam.

'Father,' it read, 'By the time you read this I will be far away. Lady Urbosa has agreed to host me for the winter. Hopefully, you will see I do not need guards of any description, let alone a full contingent of them.'

"She's heard about the Order of Guards?" Link asked, frowning.

"Yesterday. King Rhoam took credit. They had a fight."

Link wanted to rub his eyes and curl up in bed, go back to sleep. In a way, it was good that King Rhoam had claimed responsibility for the idea. It diverted the anger away from Link himself. On the other hand, now they had a royal runaway to manage.

'They say that summer still clings to Tabantha's highlands and Gerudo's lowlands, and I want to see it with my own eyes. Do not worry about me. I can take care of myself. Love, your thrice-damned daughter.'

"Prepare my horse," Link commanded.

"Not your squire for much longer," Groose grumbled.

"Fine," Link said, "I'll prepare my horse, and you can tell Master Impa that I'll find the princess, and then you can tell the king that she's missing."

"I'll prepare your horse," Groose said, walking out.

By the time Link was out of Hyrule Castle Town, it was mid-morning, and the entire castle was on alert. Many had been scolded, and many more were loudly proclaiming their determination to save the young princess, but Link was already gone.

In another life, perhaps, he would not have felt the same urgency. In another life he might have considered her a fool, a hapless accident waiting to happen. But it was guilt he felt now, guilt that he hadn't seen it coming, that perhaps he had precipitated events by leaving the news of her new guards travel as gossip and rumours before he even broached it with her. Guilt, too, because he had not revealed what had happened on that expedition, and now she was walking out into a dangerous world with full confidence of her safety.

If anything happened to her, Link knew, it would be his fault.

How had she managed, anyway? He wondered as his horse trudged through the white fields. The snow had compacted a little, which meant he progressed faster than in freshly fallen powder, but it was still rather slow going, and he only knew what direction she'd taken because her tracks remained, as evenly spaced as the ones he and his horse were making.

The Yiga could find her like this, Link knew, angry that he'd allowed himself a moment of rest. He shouldn't have left her to her own devices, not even for a moment.

Hours of hard riding in the biting cold eventually led him to the Hyrule Ridge, where winter had arrived but not settled as well as it had in the plains, and over the Tanagar Canyon, where he finally could remove his cloak.

Tanagar seemed to mark a division in the air. A strong, hot wind blew through it, its warmth inexplicable. Across the bridge, Link saw that there were still green grasses blowing, even some late autumn flowers. He followed directions, tracking the princess and her distinctively white horse. Many travelers had seen her, or had at least some recollection of the horse, and all agreed she had been headed west, to the Rayne Highlands south of a winter-locked Tabantha. Soon, though, they warned, the hot seasonal winds of Tanagar would cease to blow, and winter would finally come down from Hebra to trap all of Hyrule into winter. They would not want to be there when the weather turned.

But as far as Link was concerned, the warmth was welcome. There was a chill in the air, to be sure, but even his horse welcomed the respite. The sun's mid-afternoon slant didn't herald any dangerous omens and the grass underfoot had only just begun to turn yellowish.

He was climbing up to the Rayne Highland ruins when he finally saw her horse.

Chapter Text


 

"It seems I'm the only one with a mind of my own. I, the person in question, am fine, regardless of the king's orders. Return to the castle, and tell that to my father, please."


"And stop following me!"

Link couldn't claim to be a genuine expert on princesses, but he had a feeling Princess Zelda was upset. He blinked. He hadn't realized the order of guards he was preparing would be such a problem for her.

"Honestly," she was mumbling ― he'd almost missed the mumbling― as she strode over to her horse and began to work at her saddlebag, her frustration so great that her fingers fumbled with the clasps, "acting like I'm a child…"

Link cleared his throat, slowly catching up, though he was in no hurry to appear eager about it, "I would have preferred if you had warned me before leaving. Your highness."

There. That was as kind and undemanding as he could make it. His teeth weren't even that clenched.

She glanced at him sideways, and her hands stilled. "Oh. Would you have preferred that?" She asked, quietly.

Not good. That was not good. But what else could he say? "I wanted to brief you on the order of the guards myself," he said instead. "I'm sorry if their formation has upset you, but I had reason to think―"

"For the last time," Zelda said, her eyes narrowing and her cheeks flushing with anger, "I do not care what you think." She took in a deep breath, evidently scrambling for some sort of mental foothold. "Anyway," she continued, not really at him, but instead to her steed's flank, "it's not like you make any great effort to show it."

"Show what?" Link asked, confused.

"What you think," she snapped, but when her gaze met his she flushed and her pink lips pressed together. "It doesn't matter," she continued, as if reassuring herself. She pushed herself up into the saddle. "You don't matter. Your appointment to me is as idiotic a decision as they come. I do not need you."

Link sighed. "Look, I understand that you're upset―"

"I am not upset!" She insisted, petulantly, glaring down at him from horseback. She drew herself up as straight as she could. "I am capable of taking care of myself. Or did you not read my note?" She rolled her eyes. "With my luck, you saw it before my father did."

"He isn't happy," Link said, to avoid confirming her suspicions. "And rightly so. Impa says―"

"Oh, Impa says?" Princess Zelda asked. "So she isn't Master Impa to you anymore, is she?"

"The Yiga are everywhere," Link insisted, curtly, ignoring that. "Traveling alone is not safe."

"I won't be traveling alone," the princess said. She steered her horse to the southern slope of the highlands, looking out towards the Gerudo Highlands' cliffs. They were well and truly covered in fresh snows. "A contingent of Gerudo warriors rides out to meet me here."

Link strode over to look in the same direction. This part of Hyrule rarely saw travelers of any description, let alone winter riders. "Why would the Gerudo meet you here instead of―"

"Never mind that," the princess said hastily. Link peered up at her.

"It's the Yiga," he guessed, trying to keep himself from sounding completely smug, "isn't it?"

"Go. Home," she said, stubbornly looking at the horizon.

"I swore an oath," Link said, lightly, clicking his tongue at his horse. The proud creature stopped sniffing the autumn grasses and trotted over to him. With a practiced movement, Link pulled himself into the saddle, finding his seat with the ease of experience. "And until I see you in a safe place and under guard―"

"I intend to spend all winter in Gerudo," the princess said, haughtily. "What will you do there?"

Link shrugged. "Be bored, I imagine." He knew there was no way to cancel her plans, but perhaps he could have the few guards he'd already selected come over―

"The Gerudo will not suffer you," Zelda said, her brow rising up in an arrogant challenge.

Link snorted, but said nothing. He frankly didn't care. He was the Hylian Champion and wielder of the Master Sword. The Gerudo would have no choice but to suffer him.

"Oh, there they are!" The princess said, clearly excited by the prospect of being rid of him. She was looking down at the stretch of land that bridged the Tanagar Canyon, linking the Rayne Highlands to the north and Hemaar's Descent, in the Gerudo Highlands, to the south. Clearly, the stretch was windblown and warm too, as only some snow drifts had managed to cling to the land, the rest blown to water. The grasses there were yellowed, though.

As he looked down, he saw the source of the princess' excitement. A small cloud of dust rose up, stirred by the progress of four large horses and their riders.

Link knew the Gerudo by look and reputation, but he'd never had any substantial interaction with them. As they approached the slopes of the Rayne Highlands, Link finally got his first genuine and uninterrupted look at ordinary desert people.

Tall and broad, yet undeniably female, the Gerudo were a tribe of warrior women, their skin tanned and rippling with muscle where it was visible. Their hair generally came in every shade of red there was, though Link imagined they likely did go white with age. He wasn't sure. And they favoured colourful fabrics and armours, sometimes with garish combinations.

These riders, Link saw, his hand resting on his lap and ready to reach for his sword at a moment's notice, should the Gerudo reveal themselves to be false, were not dressed in the usual garb of their people. They were wrapped in fur-lined, colourful cloaks, with thick scarves to cover their nose and mouth.

Their scimitars, Link observed at they came within shouting range, were gilded and visibly sharp, but they had not unsheathed them. Nevertheless, he pushed his horse forward a step to stand between the princess and the newcomers, pretending not to notice her irritation when she could not ride ahead in her enthusiasm.

"Good afternoon," he called out, impassively.

The riders, when they were finally within conversational range, were clearly much larger than Link had estimated. They would tower over him, and their horses were massive, as dark and wild as they seemed to be themselves.

Their leader, by the looks of it, pulled back her hood and nodded to both of them. "Sav'aaq, your highness." She bowed her head. "I am Vatorsa, patrol captain of the Gerudo Highlands. Chieftain Urbosa has sent me." She motioned to her fellow riders, and the women pulled back their own hoods to greet them with varying degrees of warmth. "These are my warriors, Sapphia, Ruvara and Toruma."

"Sav'aaq," the one called Sapphia called out, cheerfully. She seemed to be the youngest of them, but the most outgoing.

"We have come to escort you through the Gerudo Highlands," Vatorsa continued, ignoring the interruption. "The main road into Gerudo is not safe for travel, as you know."

The Yiga. Link turned to look at the princess smugly, but she was very stubbornly not looking at him.

"Thank you, Captain Vatorsa," Zelda said instead, riding around Link's horse as well as she could, "I welcome your company and your assistance."

The captain nodded, and her eyes flickered towards Link. "Is this your guard?"

"Her knight," Link politely replied, his serene smile and rigid posture clearly familiar to Captain Vatorsa.

The Gerudo warrior's eyes narrowed. Her own posture was as peaceable as it could be, but it still had an edge to it that Link knew warriors could never truly shed, and in that moment she mirrored him somewhat.

"We will not harm the princess," she assured him, clearly reading his body language as fluently as one would expect from a skilled warrior. "Chieftain Urbosa has made me swear to see her safely to Gerudo Town."

"Wonderful," Link said, his affable tone unchanging. "I've never seen Gerudo Town. It would be a shame to miss such an opportunity."

Sapphia buried a sudden giggle into her hand. Link didn't miss the quizzical looks Ruvara and Toruma exchanged, either.

"Captain Vatorsa," Zelda said, regaining control of the conversation and dismissing any thought of Link utterly, "I would hate to lose precious daylight."

The captain nodded. "Then let us be off."

The princess nodded in return. Then, she turned to Link and said, "I hope you are satisfied that I will be safe."

Link shook his head. "I have sworn an oath."

A flush of anger rose up to her cheeks, and she looked eminently teasable. Still, the presence of the Gerudo women seemed to make her uncomfortable expressing her anger with her usual vehemence. "Sir Link," she said, enunciating clearly as she did when she was trying very hard to keep her temper in check, "I do not need your presence at my side for this part of the journey."

Link shrugged, then turned to the Gerudo captain. "Shall we be off?" And then he spurred his horse on towards the southern slope, effectively preventing any further argument.

In truth, he was simmering with a mix of anger and confusion, and he knew that any prolonged argument would only end in a shouting match. He was not eager to give her that opportunity. She was an emotional creature, certainly, but she was also sharp-witted and much brighter than he could be, and he would lose any debate he allowed her to spark.

Besides, he was still debating whether he was angry because she had run off without warning or because when he'd found her he had been so relieved that it had left him speechless in the face of her fury. Maybe he was angry that she was angry. Maybe she was naïve to think he'd be foolish enough to leave her to fend for herself after what he'd seen in that village. Maybe he was angry that he hadn't told her about it, warned her of the danger.

Maybe it was all of those things.

Either way, the flush of his anger kept him warm as they crossed the Tanagar Canyon and started climbing the slopes of the Gerudo Highlands, leaving the relative warmth of the Canyon and re-entering winter.

They were climbing single file on a path that had been cleared by previous patrols when young Sapphia rode up next to him, her eyes glittering with excitement.

"Will this be your first time in Gerudo?" She asked. She was young, Link knew, because her features were still somewhat soft, and though she was much taller than him, Link imagined she was a little younger than princess Zelda herself. Fourteen, maybe fifteen.

"It will be," Link replied, politely. He did not miss the glance backwards that the princess shot him, but she sniffed and turned back to focus on the road, so Link took this to mean she would not, at least for now, demand that he keep quiet. Or quieter than usual.

Well, then, it was time to make full use of it.

Sapphia sighed contentedly. "I hope you like it," she said, eagerly. "We so rarely get any voe in Gerudo, especially during the winter."

Link nodded, though he wasn't sure what a voe was. "Have you ever left Gerudo before?" He asked, leaning her way in his saddle with a smile. He never would have dared to attempt this with Zelda, but he knew he could be charming if he tried, and he very much wanted the Princess to rethink her opinion of him.

Sapphia shook her head, smiling with pleasure at his show of interest. "This is my first time outside of town. I have to complete my training under Captain Vatorsa before I am considered fit for the Chieftain's guard."

Did the Gerudo never leave Gerudo Town before adulthood? "I hope you enjoy the big open world," he said, to avoid asking any rude questions, cracking his most charming grin. A nasty little imp within him hoped the princess was listening.

"I already am," Sapphia said, looking out from below her lashes, in a tone so universal that even Link, whose extreme denseness had on more than one occasion made him the butt of his fellow squires' jokes, could not have mistaken her flirtation.

This made him uncomfortable. He'd gone too far. Women in Hyrule Castle Town were never this straightforward. "Uh―"

"Don't mind her," the warrior Ruvara advised him over her shoulder, earning herself Sapphia's sharp glare. "Vai her age do not meet voe very often, and she has not yet learned the subtleties of charming them."

Link laughed nervously, then turned to Sapphia and said, "Well, I shall take it as a compliment all the same."

The Gerudo girl flushed with delight, but mercifully was now too embarrassed to push for more conversation. Beyond Ruvara, Captain Vatorsa and Princess Zelda had both glanced back, but Link's eyes only met the princess'.

Her eyes were sharp as two cut emeralds, the tips of her ears and nose pink in the winter cold, though he could have supposed it was irritation, too. Link felt his gut clench with an emotion he could not articulate. She often had that effect on him, which caused him no end of unease.

Luckily, she looked away suddenly, nose high, in what she meant to be disgust.

They climbed the slopes until they reached a pass that was too high for the horses to climb. Captain Vatorsa led them instead to a wooden ramp, explaining that it had been built during the searches for the Divine Beasts, creating paths up and down the cliffs of Gerudo, which had greatly eased their navigation.

Link had some experience with precarious structures and fared generally well on the climb up, but he was relieved when he finally reached solid ground, even in spite of the whipping winds and biting cold. Ahead of him, the princess looked a little pale, but he was still too sore with her to ask if she needed a moment's rest.

She was a princess. She could damned well ask for herself.

The rest of the journey was slowed down greatly by the snows. They were deep here and the horses trudged through painstakingly. Link was glad that he'd packed extra blankets to keep his horse warm, and even some feed.

As the sun began to fall, Captain Vatorsa signaled for them to veer off the narrow trail in the snow and led them to a deep overhang. A dingy wooden wall had been built to fend off the snows from the mouth of the overhang, and, within, traces of campfires past had burnt a charcoal center that had darkened the rocky ceiling.

It had few charms and fewer comforts, but it was a haven away from the wind and the snow, so Link thought it was the most wonderful place to rest he'd ever seen.

"We shall rest here for the night," the captain said. "Toruma, please start the fire. Sapphia, with me."

"If you're going hunting," Link said, as he finished tethering his horse with the others, "I'd love to help."

He wasn't particularly eager to be back out in the cold, but the frosty looks the princess was shooting him were just as unpleasant. Hunting could be meditative, and he desperately needed a moment of peace.

"Very well," the captain relented. "Sapphia, don't let him get lost."

The young Gerudo seemed delighted, and Link shot her a polite smile.

"Actually," the princess suddenly said, speaking up for the first time in several hours, "I would very much like to have Sapphia at my side. I have so many questions about Gerudo Town, and we are almost of an age."

Captain Vatorsa turned to the princess curiously, but to her credit, she had the wisdom not to question this request. Instead, she motioned to Ruvara, and the Gerudo warrior seized her bow and knives, motioning for Link to follow. Link caught Sapphia's disappointed look, but did not have time to say anything.

"What was that about?" Link asked, when they were back out in the dimming daylight.

Warrior Ruvara smirked, looking down at him. She seemed about to reply, then shook her head, and strode off.

They hunted for three hours, tracking a herd of wolves, before they accidentally crossed paths with a snowcoat fox. Link downed it with a single arrow, and, several minutes later, Ruvara shot down three white pigeons.

They returned past dusk to an overhang that had considerably warmed up, the fire casting a bright glow to the little cave. On their return, Sapphia leapt up excitedly and congratulated them on their catches, and Toruma began to skin the fox carefully, each cut aimed at protecting the fur and leather.

Sapphia and Link, for their part, began to pluck the feathers from the pigeons. On the fire, a cookpot was already simmering some sort of vegetable broth, and Link realized, as his stomach grumbled, that he'd eaten almost nothing all day.

The princess, Link noticed, seemed less animated than she had earlier, and she was scratching away at her journal, curled up in a thick Gerudo blanket.

Well, that was fine by him. He had worried she'd be outspoken about her disdain for him.

Then again, her lack of animosity was just as unsettling. Was she planning something?

As though sensing his gaze, she glanced up. Just as Link was about to look away, she scowled.

Oh. Good. Still angry.

They ate in relative silence, with Sapphia supplying most of the conversation. Occasionally, the princess would interject with a question, but otherwise, the meal was quiet.

When they settled down on their respective mats and pallets, Link even let the young Gerudo settle next to him. She was better company than the princess, who had evidently no interest in chatting with him that night, and Link wasn't sure it would be a good idea to poke at the princess' patience by moving closer.

"Sav'orr," Sapphia whispered as she curled up under her thick wool blanket. "It means good night."

"Sav'orr," Link repeated, which clearly delighted the girl.

Across the fire, the princess' green eyes observed, but before Link could ask, she curled over, and turned her back to him.

Link was too tired to wonder, and he fell into a blessedly dreamless sleep.

Morning found him in the form of breakfast, the smell of porridge drawing him to groggy wakefulness.

"Sav'otta," Captain Vatorsa greeted curtly.

They were alone. Link sat up.

"Don't worry about your little princess," the captain said as Link instinctively reached for the Master Sword. "Morning ablutions. They'll be right back."

Link flushed, though he couldn't tell if it was from relief or embarrassment. "Sorry," he said, rubbing his hand over his eyes. "Habit."

The captain nodded. "Your devotion is commendable."

"And stupid," Link added. "She wants no part of it."

The captain snorted, and Link saw the shadow of a smile pull at her lips, and a flicker of mirth in her eyes. "Sands," she said, shaking her head. "Voe."

Before Link could ask her to explain what she meant, young Sapphia returned, with the princess close behind. They were chatting animatedly, night having clearly wiped away all traces of the princess' melancholy and anger.

"And they say Molduga guts are the only cure," Sapphia said, the gruesome fact making her giggle with enthusiasm.

"I've never seen a Molduga," Zelda said, with clinical interest.

"And sands willing," Captain Vatorsa said, "you never will. Nasty creatures."

"Deadly," Sapphia insisted, obviously overjoyed by this fact. "My vaba says she once saw a Molduga rip someone's limbs off."

Rather than being taken aback by this declaration, the princess kept asking more questions. Ruvara shot Link a smirk, and Link rolled his eyes. He knew his princess well enough by now. She loved discovering all fauna and flora, especially if it could either heal or kill.

And, as he'd suspected, Sapphia and Zelda continued chatting animatedly for the entire rest of the ride down from the highlands and into the dunes of the lowlands, discussing the countless ways the desert could kill a person. Falling palm fruit, being crushed by a sand seal, getting lost in a sandstorm, being speared by a lizalfos, being electrocuted by a lizalfos, being burnt by a lizalfos, falling into a sandpit, snake bites, coyote attacks, eating the wrong sort of cacti, dehydration, exposure, sunstroke―

By the time their group entered Kara Kara Bazaar, Link's nerves were frayed beyond belief. When he finally dismounted, he accepted Toruma's offer: a skin of thick voltfruit wine that buzzed down the throat and numbed the extremities. It took the edge off of his worries.

There was no way, not by all the gods, that he was letting his princess stay alone in the desert for the next two months or more.

He said as much to Ruvara, and the Gerudo warrior snorted with amusement. "Do voe typically have much of a say in the doings of their princess, out there in Hylia?"

"They do not," Zelda said, overhearing. She was removing her saddlebags from the saddle of her horse, and her pointed look in Link's direction did not go unnoticed.

"I've made it this far," Link replied. "I don't see why I shouldn't keep going."

"Actually, this is as far as you go," Captain Vatorsa said, returning to their group after a brief conversation with the local innkeep. "Voe are not allowed in the sacred city of Nabooru."

Link was about to argue when he saw the princess' growing smile, and the rise of her brow.

"Come again?" He politely asked.

Captain Vatorsa shifted her weight, clearly tired. "Gerudo Town is not open to voe. I have arranged accommodations for you here, in Kara Kara."

Link squinted. "I am the princess' knight."

"And she will be safe among an entire tribe of warriors," the captain slowly said, her red brow rising like a gentle warning that she would soon be insulted.

The princess pulled him aside, drawing him out of earshot of the four Gerudo women. "I warned you."

Link gave her his most deadpan look.

"Well," she laughed nervously, clearly beginning to feel the stirrings of what could have been guilt, "I told you I didn't need you here."

"I am going," Link said, calmly, "into Gerudo Town. Chieftain Urbosa will make an exception."

Zelda snorted, more a girl than a princess, and as annoying as any girl her age could be. "Will she?"

Link didn't have time to reply. Zelda turned on her heel and rejoined the other women, making preparations to continue on their way to Gerudo Town, whose outline he could just vaguely make out beyond the distant dunes.

A palm fruit landed next to his feet with a thunk, startling him. It splattered on the sandy ground, its juices seeping into the dirt.

"Heh," an old Gerudo merchant lady called out, "one of my sisters died that way. Watch your head."

Link stepped out from under the palm trees, scowling.

Was he right? Would the Chieftain make an exception? There was only one way to find out.

Chapter Text

Captain Vatorsa found Link in the setting sun, by the awning of his tent, skewering a desert rat.

A mere fifty paces away, the tall, smooth sandstone walls of Gerudo Town rose in the waning sunlight, white and bright, offset by a veritable rainbow of tents and pavilions planted in the sand all around it. The Forbidden City was closed to men, but this did not prevent commerce with all merchants from flourishing outside of its walls, under watch and authority of the Gerudo Guard.

It was in this secondary city of tents that Link had managed to find accommodation. It was a miserable abode, though, and not nearly so comfortable as the inn in Kara Kara Bazaar would have been, but it couldn't be helped. He had a point to make.

"Sav'aaq," the Gerudo captain said, leaning against one of the nearby tentpoles.

Link grunted in greeting. His skewer had hit bone and was being difficult.

"I was wondering what you ate out here," Vatorsa said. She saluted a passing Gerudo guard with a quick, absent nod. "Now I know."

"I caught it myself," Link said, giving a quick shove and finally piercing the rat's behind with his metal skewer. "Vendor Purlo says it's a rare delicacy."

Vatorsa snorted. "Hm, I know Purlo. He keeps trying to sell me pyrite by telling me it's gold."

Link glanced up from his work and squinted at the captain. "So the man doesn't know his minerals. He might still have working taste buds."

Vatorsa laughed, a throaty sound that had the ability to make men's heads turn. The Gerudo had those to spare. "Fair enough," she said, giving up. "I've been sent to ask again." She looked irritated. Link had it on good authority that she was eager to get back to the Gerudo Highlands and away from town business.

Link ignored that, poking at his cookfire. "I'm hesitating on the spices. Spicy? Chilly? Mighty?" He waggled his brows. "Sneaky?"

The captain rolled her eyes. "No, sneaky isn't your forte."

Link scowled. So what if he'd been caught eight times already trying to sneak into town? Judging by the extreme attentiveness of the guards, trying to sneak in was one of the city's main attractions. It was almost tradition for men to try. "Fine," he said, grabbing a pinch of salt and Eldin herbs, "Spicy it is."

"It's really impressive to me," Vatorsa continued, clearly uninterested by his selection, "how easily you waste conversation." She mused, looking up at the cloudless sky with a pout. "The princess complains that when you talk, you don't speak your mind."

Link tried not to jump at the bait. So what if he wanted news of the princess? He wasn't going to give her the satisfaction. No doubt Captain Vatorsa reported his every word back to Chieftain Urbosa, and the princess by extension.

"It's not my fault," Link said, finally sitting back and looking up at her. His rat was beginning to cook on the fire. "I hate repeating myself."

The Gerudo snorted. "Is that it? So I take it your answer remains the same: you will not return to Kara Kara, let alone Hyrule proper."

Link gave her a perfunctory smile.

"Sands," the captain said, with disgust, "you're as stubborn as she is." He wasn't sure, but he thought this amused her.

"She could come out to ask for herself, you know," Link said.

Vatorsa shut her eyes, as though mustering her patience. "So I should ask her to do that, then? Again?"

Link shrugged. "Or you could let me into town."

"I'll ask her again," the captain said. "In the meantime, I have been asked to find out whether there is anything else you need, aside from the key to the city?"

"Nope," Link replied, turning the skewer and checking the state of his rat. "All good."

Captain Vatorsa observed him for a moment, concluded there was nothing more to say, then turned on her heel and walked away, greeting one of the guards as she went. He let her go.

Around him, the other men watched him with open, avid curiosity.

Link tried not to pay attention to the stares, poking at his skewer to make sure the cooking was progressing well. This was becoming habit, the messengers, the status quo, the looks.

Eighteen days he'd spent outside the walls, grateful that winter made the desert's heat bearable. The nights, he could handle with blankets and a fire. The weather was tolerable. It was the wait that was slowly draining his patience, like the slowest of tortures, tugging at his sanity, plucking at it one strand at a time, until he felt frayed and irritable.

By the second day, the visit of the Chieftain's messenger to his modest abode had sparked interest among the men of the camp. By the third, he had the attention of all the women in the city, too. No other commoner ― all men were commoners in the desert, titled or no ― commanded such regular attention from the Chieftain. Some of the men in the camp had sworn they had never seen her. Some claimed they had waited on a private audience for months.

Yet Link had her ear every day, without fail, because of the princess.

As far as Link was concerned, the entire ordeal would have been easy to avoid if Chieftain Urbosa had simply allowed him into the city.

"Is she gone?"

Link looked up. Vendor Purlo was carrying an armful of display boxes, evidently distraught.

"You just missed her," Link replied.

The handsome vendor let out a gargle of frustration. "Every time. It's like she has a sixth sense for avoiding me."

Vendor Purlo, Link had quickly concluded, was desperately courting Captain Vatorsa's coin purse.

"Is that pyrite?" Link asked, with mild interest.

The vendor looked indignant. "It's gold," he insisted. "Gold, damn it."

"I'll buy a piece," Link said, reaching into his pocket. "Twenty rupees?"

"You don't have to," Vendor Purlo said, defeated, putting his cases down anyway and pulling out his shiniest piece of pyrite. "It's the Gerudo who are missing out on a golden opportunity." He grinned at his joke, looking at Link expectantly.

Link handed over a red rupee. "Hah," he said, to avoid confrontation.

"I don't understand," Vendor Purlo commented, handing over Link's purchase and pocketing Link's twenty rupees before the knight could change his mind. "If you're the princess' appointed knight, why does the princess hate you?"

Link shrugged, if only to ignore the stab of annoyance ― or pain, whichever― that inevitably cut to the quick. Vendor Purlo was friendly, but he had a knack for choosing the worst possible topics of conversation.

"And if she hates you, why are you so loyal to her?" The young merchant leaned forward, smiling slyly. "Because the men have been talking. There are women coming out of that city at night just to talk to you."

Link shifted uncomfortably, watching the fat dribble off his rat and sizzle in the fire. He didn't like to talk about it.

"It makes no sense, being loyal to her," Vendor Purlo concluded, decisively.

Link ignored that. His general silence never seemed to deter the merchant. Good for him.

"Do you think they'll be back tonight?" Purlo asked, changing topics.

Link shrugged. "I don't know."

About four days in, Sapphia had found him and introduced him to some of her young Gerudo friends. And then the word had spread: a knight of Hyrule, young and handsome, with some hunting skill, was camping outside the city.

Since then, the Gerudo women had made a point of coming out of the city every evening to attempt conversation. Some were awkward, many charming, others forward, and most of them came with friends, turning the nightly visits into improvised celebrations for the men of the camp.

Link, for his part, had discovered that repeatedly saying no to women, especially women whose survival depended on advantageous matches, was a lot more exhausting than he had expected. The Gerudo were determined and they were not used to being denied. Sapphia had assured him that he was considered a catch, but this had not seemed like a blessing to Link.

He was certainly building a reputation as fearsome as the princess', a reputation of stubbornness and determination that made the Gerudo wild and most merchants keep at a distance. The savvy ones, at least. The younger ones, like Purlo, were less clever about it, eager to discover why Link's general silence and obvious lack of interest were so damned magnetic, with a hope to coast on Link's popularity with the fairer sex.

Frustratingly, it seemed that most of the city emptied to visit him in the evenings, but the only woman he actually wanted to speak to never deigned to speak to him directly.

"Gods, if I were in your shoes," Purlo continued, wistfully, "I would have given up. Have you thought about giving up?" He snorted in disbelief. "I mean, if a woman doesn't want me, it's time to move on, you know?" He spotted Sapphia and her friends approaching. They were already giggling with good humour, clearly in high spirits. "Oh," he said, licking his lips with nervous excitement, "here they come."

The sun had just set behind the Gerudo Highlands, the sky orange and the air a greenish haze that felt muggy, and to the distant east a scattering of stars was blinking to life.

What did Zelda and Urbosa talk about, in the evening, when she retreated to the city with her Champion and left him outside? Did the princess pace and complain? Did she attempt to preserve her dignity and command by never mentioning him?

He had tried to accompany her during her daily expeditions, but had been utterly superfluous, and the derision of his uselessness had shown in the eyes of the Gerudo guards that followed the princess as she explored. He had tried to follow his princess through the sands too, watching her make notes about the rare flora of the region, observing her efforts with the ancient Sheikah structures that dotted the area, climbed Vah Naboris behind her, and he had ignored the squeeze of his gut every time she glared his way. When she did speak to him, it was to berate him, her anger growing with every day that he did not leave.

After a single week, the arguments of the princess and her knight were discussed in whispers over cook fires and ice-cold drinks, their daily tribulations as exciting to observe as a sand seal race. Speculation abounded on the reasons Link had yet to leave. The older women thought it was stupidity, but the younger thought it was romantic.

In the end, he had decided to leave his duties to Urbosa. Of the four Champions, he knew she was the most capable of protecting the princess. The distance was driving him insane, though. He'd wake in the morning from nightmares of unseeing eyes peering up at him from a well, certain that he was leaving his princess to the wolves, and it always took him several minutes to control his urge to join her again. Pride and worry warred in his conscience, a whirlwind of torment, frustrating because he was trying so hard not to feel either. He clung desperately to his oaths and duty, pretending that his concern was nothing else.

Did Zelda feel none of it? Did she sleep soundly, in those luxurious Gerudo halls? Did she not toss and turn, lying awake, sleep elusive, wondering about him?

Evidently not.

"Sav'saaba," Sapphia greeted, smiling at the young men that began to gather round. Her eyes fell on Link, though. "We just saw Captain Vatorsa. She didn't look very happy."

"Even a prickly cactus has a soft centre," young Aveil said, snorting. "It must be wearing her down, this constant back and forth." She knelt in the sand next to Link, who was stubbornly focused on his skewered rat, and ran her finger up his arm teasingly. "If one of you were to bend, finally, I bet that would make a lot of people happy."

Link let her tease him because shrugging her off would be rude, but also because he had learned that any reaction was considered encouragement.

As far as he was concerned, night was his time to dodge advances. Many of the Gerudo had made a mission of distracting Link from his unrelenting duty, but no woman had earned herself the pleasure of his intimate company yet.

Link, for his part, wasn't sure why he resisted. His oaths to the princess had nothing to do with love. Only duty. He tried to ignore the longing within, the strange pull he felt to make her laugh by the fire, the urge to fight, the urge to apologize.

Around him, the men were bringing out their meals and the Gerudo shared their own fare, a mix of vegetable and hearty soups, glazed meats and vegetables, fried bananas and crepes, washed down with various specialty alcohols. But Link refused to partake to excess. He kept busy by hunting what he could, and he wasn't going to waste any of it.

"I hear someone told her about these," Sapphia said, motioning to the cheerful gathering around them. Link tried not to listen, but couldn't help himself. "And when she heard about the wager―"

"Ah, don't," Aveil said, shooting the men around them a nervous look.

"Wager?" Vendor Purlo asked, between gluttonous mouthfuls of food. "What wager?"

"There is a wager in town," pretty Yarna said, draping herself on Link's shoulder lazily, her heart-shaped lips brushing against his ear as she leaned in, teasingly, "that whichever one of us gets Sir Link first wins the pot." She turned to Sapphia, who was rolling her eyes, and asked, "How much money is there now?"

"Three thousand―" Aveil thought aloud, "Um, eight hundred…? I lost track of the rest."

"It's not just about the money," young Sapphia said, leaning in, as though to reassure Link, though Link was very carefully not reacting to the Gerudo on either side of him. She looked concerned for his feelings, which was a kind sentiment. "The truth is that you're a good party for any Gerudo worth her glass, and it was just done in good fun."

The men in the assembly bore expressions that went from utter dejection to mirthful amusement. Amidst scattered chuckles, one of them managed a frustrated 'Ah, that's just not fair'.

Link was inclined to agree. He had heard about it a week earlier, blurted out by a young Gerudo under the influence of wine, and it still made him profoundly uncomfortable.

He removed his skewer from the cooking fire, which shook off both Aveil and Yarna, "Again, I'm flattered, but you could all do much better."

Vendor Purlo looked disgusted as he chewed on a fried banana. "Such a waste." Most of the men around him agreed solemnly. He motioned to his cases of pyrite. "He's just a knight. I sell the finest quality nuggets of gold―" This earned him a few heartfelt chuckles from the Gerudo, which he ignored, "―but does any beautiful woman throw herself at me? No."

"Oh, don't be jealous," Yarna said, extending a slim brown leg to poke Purlo with a painted toe, her golden anklets tinkling and shining in the fading light, "I'm sure you'll find your one true love."

"It's not true love I'm looking for," Purlo said, flirtatiously, as he threatened to tickle the Gerudo's foot. She recoiled, giggling, wrapping herself around Link's arm with feigned innocence.

Link was getting really good at reading the genuine from the fake. Yarna was one of his most determined admirers, and the light of greed mixed with what was possibly genuine lust in her eyes. He was especially wary about her. She was relentless.

Aveil, for her part, seemed less motivated by money and more by pride, having already attempted to slip into his tent once. He had politely refused and she had taken this rejection with grace, but Link had been careful not to give her any sign of encouragement, lest she try again.

Sapphia had a more delicate approach, and Link found it especially difficult to turn her down― she liked him genuinely, it seemed, with the naïve hope that seemed to live in young girls everywhere. She was young, though, and he had reminded her of this often, explaining that she would get over it soon.

Even Ruvara had casually offered herself, but only once, and she had taken his refusal with good humour, explaining that, with the money at stake, it would be foolish not to try.

Most of the others had adopted this approach, it seemed, asking without much expectation, and taking their rejection with raised glasses and good-natured laughter. Those, at least, Link could deal with relatively comfortably.

"Anyway," Sapphia continued, for the benefit of Birida, a quiet warsister who sat next to her, "apparently the princess wasn't happy."

Yarna burst out laughing, and Link felt her squeeze his arm into her breast. Not to be outdone, Aveil scooted in closer, and soon he was stuck between them again, trying to eat his roasted rat as cleanly as he could.

"Now that is the day's greatest understatement," said Yarna in her throaty voice. "She picked up one of the Chieftain's vases and threw it at the wall! I know, because I was the one who had to clean it all up." She smiled at Link. "I suppose it's not enough to treat you poorly, she also wants you to be miserable. You should show her." She said this from below her lashes, in that universal way that implied… Well, everything.

He clearly wasn't the only one bothered by this. "Could you be any more transparent?" Birida asked, rolling her eyes. "I think he knows you're interested."

"I don't think he does," Aveil said, sarcastically, reaching for a spoonful of glazed vegetables. "I think you should take your clothes off."

The men agreed with this loudly, but Link raised his hand to politely speak against that suggestion. Yarna, though, had taken Aveil's challenge to heart, and she pushed herself to her knees. "Well, it's not like I have anything to be ashamed of," she said, venomously, and she reached for a clasp at her shoulder.

It was at that exact moment that Princess Zelda, daughter of King Rhoam Bosphoramus, heir to the kingdom of Hyrule, walked into the circle of firelight.

The clamour of jeering and cheering died off almost instantly, matching the sudden dread that suffused Link.

The princess eyed him, then Yarna's attempt at disrobing to his left, and Aveil, who was trying to meld into his right side, and the avid gazes of the others ― Sapphia, Birida, and several of those whose names he had not learned.

The Gerudo were pretty, Link knew. Objectively, they were each attractive in their own way, and here in the dusk and the glow of the cookfire, they seemed perfectly at home, brown and tanned, red and gold. Next to them, the princess seemed pale, a spattering of freckles and a modest Gerudo silk dress lending her an almost girlish look completely removed from the heat and sensuality the women around her exuded.

Link knew this. And yet he drank in the sight of her as a parched man plunges into a well. He hadn't seen her in almost two weeks. It made his heart clench painfully in his chest, a heady madness that seemed to overtake his senses. Everything about her was perfect, from the careful styling of her hair to the bare sliver of midriff her dress exposed, and even the curled shoes she had been gifted.

"Sir Link," she finally said.

He pushed himself to his feet, disentangling himself from both Aveil and Yarna, moved as though his body was not his own. She spoke, and he obeyed. It was― It was―

Infuriating.

Like a starving man whose stomach aches from a new meal, the relief of seeing her came with a sudden spike of frustration. At first Link wasn't sure what it was that suffused him. It felt cold, yet it left a trail in its wake that was restless and burning.

She stepped away, and he followed through the crowd, aware of every silent stare, conscious of the open curiosity that he and his princess evoked. The more he walked, his feet digging into the sand, the more he felt the cold spread, igniting something inside of him that was almost savage, something that felt like cold fury.

He felt the warmth of his fire fade, replaced with the hard chill of the desert's night. Her back was exposed, and in the half-light of dusk he saw a shiver run from the bottom of her spine to her nape. If she stayed out long, she'd get sick. From talking to him.

He was angry, he realized. Stupidly angry.

His anger actually surprised him a little. He hadn't noticed it rising, bubbling over. He hadn't allowed himself to acknowledge it. Blinking expressionlessly, he knew every passive moment, every silence of his mind since leaving Hyrule Castle, had been a desperate bid to keep calm.

In truth, he realized now, the anger had been building inside him the whole time. It had given him the determination to sleep in the desert cold on a terribly thin mat in a tent. It had made him want to scale the city walls. It made him dream of shaking his princess, shaking her until she came to her senses.

It made him want to reach out and touch her― gods, he could almost feel it under the pads of his fingers. They twitched, and he curled them into fists to avoid following his mind down that path.

He tried to unclench his jaw, to no avail. The princess seemed oblivious to this. Instead, she stood up straight, and Link ignored the dip of her navel and the lines of her waist, barely hinted under the thin fabric of her dress.

"Why are you still here, Link?" She asked.

It was on the tip of his tongue to be crude. It would have been easy to remind her that she had led him here, to a land of women, to a land where he was considered a catch. But the words stayed in his throat.

Realizing that he wasn't going to reply, her eyes darted to the distant firelight, to the gathering that had remained quiet since his departure, as though her presence had stolen all the good cheer out of the crowd. Perhaps he didn't have to say it. She seemed to conclude the same thing.

She shook her head. "Well, it seems no one has claimed the pot yet. You haven't chosen any of them." Then, coolly, she said, "I'd pick Sapphia. At least she actually likes you."

Link managed to loosen his jaw. "She's a good person."

The princess' green eyes narrowed. "And I'm not?"

Link shifted his weight as a cold finger of rage curled up inside his stomach. Well, she had asked. "I was unaware you were among my options."

It was impudent. He knew it. She knew it. And she tensed, the implication so brazen she was actually shocked into speechlessness for a moment. But she recovered and hissed, "Now I see it."

"See what?" The words came out calmly, but Link was already beginning to lose any sense of control.

"You are here," she said, stepping forward, "because you are trying to make my life difficult." She was flushed, the righteous indignation making her voice rise an octave.

Something inside Link snapped.

"Difficult?" He echoed, quietly.

She let out a frustrated sound, her eyes rising to the starry heavens. "I have given you orders on multiple occasions. I told you to go home. I commanded you to go home. I am safe here, and you've admitted it." She motioned to the high walls of Gerudo Town. "I have a tribe of warriors and the Gerudo Champion to keep watch on me. The only reason you are still here," she said, and her eyes flickered over to the fire, and the women that sat by it, and she hesitated, "... is―is that you are stubborn."

Link was drifting now. It took every ounce of his self-control to bite out, "I am doing my duty."

"Your duty," she repeated, scoffing. "Oh, that is rich."

"Zelda―"

She gasped. "Princess," she corrected him with a hiss. "Do not forget who I am."

How could he? Within him, Link felt a war brewing, a battle for the supremacy of his attention, a war between anger and want, of blood boiling intensity, a loss of control, a failure of sanity.

"Who you are?" Link said, and he heard himself almost snarl.

He saw her eyes flicker to the Master Sword, and he knew she knew what he meant, what he was going to say.

Her eyes widened, and she took an instinctive step backward. "Link. Don't."

"Sir Link," he corrected, stepping forward to close the distance once again. "Your Grace."

"Highness," she said, but her breathing was shallow. "My title―"

"Your Grace," Link insisted, heedless, his voice still rising, inching forward. "Daughter of Din."

"Stop," she said, her voice trembling. "Stop it."

"Daughter of Farore," Link said, the venom in his voice too intoxicating for him to stop. "Daughter of Nayru."

She was speechless, eyes bright, and in the back of Link's mind a distant voice echoed, as from within, as from a dream, that begged him to stop. But he couldn't. He felt the keen unfairness like an open wound in his soul. He felt the void within, the incompleteness, and he wanted her to feel it too, just once.

So he leaned in, and forged onward. "Beloved Hylia."

He expected a slap.

It would have been deserved. He had certainly chased after one.

Instead, her fingers reached out, touched his chest. It stopped his very breath. She ran her hand over the strap of the Master Sword, her expression hard, angry. Her eyes were bright, and they landed on the sword's pommel over his shoulder.

"Damn you," she said, her voice hoarse. Link's stomach clenched, the pain sharp. Then, she turned to look directly into his eyes, and he saw she was on the verge of tears. "Do you think you're clever? Do you think I could forget my own failings?"

She ran her hand down his chest along the line of the strap. Now she was looking up at him, so close he could have embraced her… or kissed her. Yet when she peered up at him that way, it seemed the whole world stood between them.

"You can stay," she said, stepping back. "Or you can go. Have all the women you want. Be Sir Link, Hylian Champion. Bask in your glory. I don't care anymore."

She turned to go. Link hesitated. Was that it? Had he won?

Had he lost?

Foolishly, he called out to her: "Alright, then. You can stop sending Captain Vatorsa as messenger. She hates it."

She stiffened, but didn't turn.

"And―" He grappled for words, "and don't expect me to take any of your anger anymore. I swore to protect you, not to handle your tantrums." It sounded petulant to his ears, and he didn't doubt it was. But he was so tired...

"Fine."

She said it lightly, as though she was finally free of concern. It made him uneasy. He had expected fury, violence, a storm of fists.

But when she inhaled deeply, he saw nothing in her eyes. Her expression was carefully neutral now, distant. And before Link could think of anything to say that would be a fitting apology, she turned on her heel and left.

The Gerudo guards at the gate let her through, and he was left alone in the growing cold.

The silence that followed stretched on for a long time. Link could feel a hundred eyes upon him. He was growing familiar with the staring.

But in that moment, all he wanted to do was scream at them to let him be.

The party dispersed rather quickly after this, his mood too stormy for good humour or flirtation. Sleep came fitfully, his dreams turning to nightmares, his waking moments filled with loathing for himself and for his circumstances.

Pathetically, what bothered him the most was that if she had stopped caring then, it meant she had cared before. And he had squandered it. Could anything have been nurtured? Could anything have grown?

The following evening, for once, the Gerudo women gave him a wider berth. Link didn't doubt they would be back at it soon, but he was grateful for the respite anyway.

Vendor Purlo, though, had not been gracious enough do the same.

"Are you sure you don't want to walk away?" He asked.

Link had obviously considered it, especially in the long hours of the night before. It was probably the right thing to do. Purlo had belabored the point almost every day since his arrival, and it was beginning to make sense.

"I can't," Link replied, clinging to his oath, but he was less sure now than he had been yesterday, and Purlo clapped his shoulder sympathetically.

"Women," he said, eloquently. "Troublesome creatures."

Link couldn't bring himself to respond. It seemed to him that the real troublemaker was the thumping thing inside his own chest; it made him do things, say things, that could only lead to misfortune.

In the fire before him, a twig snapped with a sharp crack, and a little volute of embers fluttered up.

Vendor Purlo was about to speak when Captain Vatorsa stepped into the circle of firelight. Link looked up, half-heartedly. He had assumed Zelda, in her new detachment, would have stopped sending any messengers through Urbosa to request his departure, and somehow, that prospect had not made him feel any better.

But Vatorsa had not come on behalf of the princess. She bore the seal of the Gerudo instead of Hylia.

"Chieftain Urbosa sends for you. She waits in Vah Naboris. Follow me."

Vendor Purlo sputtered. "What? At this hour?" He scoffed, looking to Link for agreement. "What did I say, huh? Women." This earned him a glare from Captain Vatorsa that he didn't notice.

But Link was already pushing himself to his feet.

"Come on, now," Vendor Purlo said, in his most reasonable tone. He motioned to the platter he was preparing. "I was just about to grill some of my very finest bananas. Stay, friend."

Link observed the hungry gaze of his companion of misfortune, feeling an inkling of discomfort. "Enjoy your meal."

Clearly aware that he was defeated, Vendor Purlo shrugged, shooting him a bit of a scowl. "Suit yourself. More for me."

And Link, unable to explain why he felt any sort of relief, trudged after the Gerudo captain, following her into the sands of the desert.


"Ah… Well you certainly got here fast…"

Chapter Text

Link's heart raced as he hurried down the Divine Beast's inner slope towards the exit.

"And where exactly," Chieftain Urbosa asked, "do you think you're going?"

But Link was reeling. He wheeled on the Gerudo Champion, who seemed far more at ease within her Divine Beast ―a monstrous camel that harnessed the power of lightning― than either of the others had been, and nearly jabbed her in the chest with an accusatory finger. "You shouldn't have woken her up."

Urbosa took this comment with an annoyed flick of her head, her red hair swishing out of her face. "You are acting like children. Go talk to her."

"We already talked," Link said, his voice raw, trembling with agitation. "You knew she was upset with me. You shouldn't have woken her."

The Gerudo's lips quirked upwards despite herself. "Well, what was I to do? Send her into eternal slumber to ensure you never fought again?"

Link ignored that, turning away.

"You can't leave," Urbosa said. As Link strode out of the camel, he came upon a high ledge and realized she was telling the truth. The sands passed by far below, as Vah Naboris strode mechanically across the desert.

The giant machine had been motionless when he'd climbed into it, but now he felt the rumbling and reverberation of its every step, and he hated that he hadn't noticed when Urbosa had started its little walk. He had been too absorbed by the look of betrayal and anguish on Zelda's face to think of anything else.

Link realized Urbosa had manœuvered masterfully. Had she intended for this result from the start? For a moment Link felt a strange inkling of awed fear. As a leader, she had to be a fearsome thing, a force to be reckoned with.

And if Zelda was learning from her, then…

"You will both sit down and speak," the Champion insisted. "This quarrel has gone on for long enough."

Link shook his head emphatically. "You saw her face when she noticed me. That was not the face of someone who is dying to work things out. I think she's actually afraid of me now."

He ignored the fact that this was entirely his doing. He had been so convinced that she had truly stopped caring, so desperate to believe that she would finally stop haunting his every thought, that the open-mouthed expression of anguished shock had actually hurt. Especially since seeing the peace on her face as she slept had stirred within him a fierce surge of protectiveness that did not bode well for him.

"I can't do this," he said, leaning in to speak softly. "I will throw myself at every demon there is, I will take down entire pantheons if I have to, but do not ask me to go back there."

The Gerudo Champion actually seemed to feel some inkling of pity for a second, but she shook it off. Damn her. "You have sworn an oath. What is one little apology in the face of that oath?"

Link spluttered. "An apology?" He felt a muscle leap in his jaw, and he struggled to keep the incredulity from his voice. "An apology? That woman," he said, motioning vaguely, "has made herself the bane of my existence since the moment I met her. She is insufferable― yes," he said, when the Gerudo Champion opened her mouth to retort, "I know she tries hard. But she has no right―"

"No right?"

Both Link and Urbosa turned as the princess of Hyrule strode onto the ledge, furious. For a brief second, Link considered jumping off of Vah Naboris. Would the dunes cushion his fall? Somehow, he doubted it.

"Let us talk about you, Chosen One," Zelda said, jabbing her finger into his chest. "I was the one who taught you what we were facing. I tolerate your presence―"

"Oh," Link scoffed, "well, that makes it all right, then!"

"―I spend every waking moment seeking a way to awaken this stupid power of mine, while you prance about with that damned Sword of yours. You just― You just pulled it out of a pedestal!" She reached for the front of his Champion's tunic, the blue material balling into her fists, her teeth clenched. "I would kill to awaken my power with that same ease, you ungrateful lout!"

Her green eyes were watery, full of primal emotions that flickered too fast for him to identify clearly ―anger, certainly, pain, desperation― but the mix was effective. He swallowed a lump in his throat and tried to stay focused on self-vindication.

"It is not my fault," Link said, grabbing her wrists to force her to release him. A spark of energy ran through his fingers, and he firmly put her hands back to her sides, eager to stop touching her, because she was doing something to him. "I have tried to be friendly. I have tried to protect you―"

"Protect me?" She gaped.

"I tried to keep you from dying from the cold―" A flash of recollection ― the princess' body against his, the feeling of her breath on his neck― made him hesitate. Zelda, too, seemed startled, her own memory clearly as functional as his.

Urbosa coughed, and both Link and Zelda seemed to remember she was there. The princess stepped away, and Link realized once she moved that they had been almost nose to nose, chest to chest.

Zelda cleared her throat, then said, giving herself the appearance of cool collection, though she was evidently trembling, "I don't care what you do or don't do, anyway."

Link snorted. "Right, you mentioned that. Well, I don't care either. Not anymore." He tried very hard to make the comment flippant, though he worried she would notice the way he itched to pull at her, to bring her in, to steady her― He stayed very still and hoped she wouldn't notice his twitching fingers.

"Perfect," she spat.

"Great!" He exclaimed, venomously, ignoring the way Urbosa ran her hand over her face in clear exasperation. "And now that we've established that," he continued, turning to the Gerudo, "can I please be let off this thrice-damned Divine Beast before I hurl myself off?!"

"You know," Urbosa said, her usually warm voice now as chilly as the desert's night air, "this is not why I arranged this meeting."

"I don't care!" Link cried, even as the princess let out a petulant "Too bad!" They exchanged sharp, angry looks at the mutual sentiment, then Link turned away towards the ledge.

"That's it," he said. "I'm leaving."

"Gods," Zelda said, annoyed, "you spent so much energy trying to prove your point in following me all the way here, and now you're in such a rush to leave..." She turned to Urbosa for acquiescence, but the Gerudo chieftain did not seem eager to take sides. The princess narrowed her eyes in accusation but did not insist.

Link turned to both of them, a sudden pull of exhaustion coming over him. "I was just―"

"Yes, you've said many times," Zelda sighed in exasperation, turning to him. "Just doing your duty."

Like a twig snapping, Link's last ounce of good sense left him.

"Someone has to," he said.

Urbosa audibly groaned, and the princess' eyes widened in shock. Too late, Link realized there would be no coming back from that.

"That's it," the princess whispered, the rage apparently stealing her very voice. "I've had enough." She recovered her voice and turned to Urbosa. "Champion Urbosa, thou shalt be witness―"

That was not good. The Gerudo Champion's wide eyes flicked over to Link and, before either of them could protest, the princess wheeled on him and continued with the aged Hylian speech.

"―On this night, I release this man, Sir Link, from service to me. Do you hear me, Link?" She repeated, angrily, "I release you. You are no longer bound to me. You are no longer my knight." Her eyes went to the Master Sword again, in clear disgust. "I can't make you relent the Sword, but at least I shan't have to suffer you anymore."

She raised her nose and turned away from him, both regal and childish. Like a man drunk on his own anger and indignation, Link licked his lips and said, "Fine!" He threw out his hands as he shrugged, "That's a gift. Thank you."

She didn't dignify that with a reply, turning away and striding back into Vah Naboris, disappearing into the confines of the great machine. Champion Urbosa let out a long breath, like a kettle about to boil over.

"You damned idiot."

"She doesn't need me," Link said, turning to her. Under his feet, he could feel the great Divine Beast slow down, its strides less and less powerful. "She has you."

"She needed a friend," Urbosa said, eyeing him with clear disappointment. "A moment of humility would have sufficed."

"It never has before." She had nothing to say to that. "Well, it's too late now. Let me off this thing."

He disembarked near Gerudo Town, walking the rest of the distance and kicking up sand with every step, rehashing every moment of the argument, rewriting it in his mind, wishing― wishing he could fight again, wishing he could have said more, said less, wishing he could have been more witty, more aloof, more faultless…

By the time he reached his dead little campfire and his measly little tent, it was perhaps an hour or two after midnight. In winter, dawn was still some six hours off at least, and he was exhausted, utterly empty of all feeling. It was cold, so he rekindled his campfire using the coals of a neighbour.

As the flames sparked back to life, he curled up on his side, shut the flap of his tent, and tried desperately to unclench his jaw, to little avail.

Morning found him first, and he awoke from a fitful sleep to find that the camp was happily awake and oblivious to the catastrophe that his tattered life had become. He listened to the cheerful exchanges and trades, the clinking of hot drinks and the rustle of tent flaps and clothing, the splashing of washbasins, the scraping of his neighbour's razor, the teasing call of early bird merchants and the ringing replies of the Gerudo guards.

Link shut his eyes and tried to remember his dream. A woman in white. She had been beautiful, and though her face had been unfamiliar, he knew, in that way dreams allowed the dreamer to simply know, that she was Zelda. A better Zelda, he reasoned. A kinder Zelda.

She had reached for his hand, had pressed a gentle kiss to each of his fingers, a motion so intimate and sensual that he was almost embarrassed by it in the light of morning. She had said nothing, but he had understood everything, because it was a dream.

He didn't have to like Zelda― he just had to fight the Calamity when it came. Then they could part forever.

His fingers tingled as in memory, and he ignored the sudden pang of loneliness that assailed him. He was being ridiculous.

Anyway, it was too late to look back.

He repeated this to himself multiple times as he forced himself to get up. He had come with few belongings. Most of his current furniture was borrowed. He had little to pack, as most of his effects remained with his horse and saddle in Kara Kara. That would be a half-day's walk at least, but he was in no hurry to return home a failure.

In fact, he was in no hurry to do anything. The whole world seemed to whirl around him, every other thought a reminder of how much he had allowed the situation to get out of hand. What was he going to tell the Order of the Guards? How would he explain this to Impa? What would his mother think?

What would the King do?

But it was too late to look back, he reminded himself. He had told Urbosa he would fight the gods themselves rather than deal with the princess, and now he would have to do the next worse thing. It was still better, he told himself, than forcing an apology.

"You look terrible," Purlo blurted out when Link emerged from his tent. "I told you that you shouldn't have gone."

Link ignored that, as usual. He placed his small pack next to him and sat down to rifle through the few rations he had purchased days before. Breakfast, lunch, supper, breakfast, lunch― five meals, in all. He might need to purchase more from Kara Kara Bazaar if he wanted to get back to familiar Hyrulian hunting grounds comfortably.

"Did something happen?" Purlo asked.

Link looked up. The expression on Purlo's face was that of genuine concern, though the effect was somewhat ruined by the way the man took a large bite of banana.

"I'm leaving," Link said.

"Leaving?" Purlo echoed. A mix of emotions warred on his face: happiness, sadness― "Good for you," he finally said. "I always knew you'd stop letting her treat you so poorly. But I'll be sad to see you go." He rifled through his own bag, then pulled out his favourite fruit, handing it to Link. "Banana?"

"No, thank you," Link said. "I doubt I could enjoy it more than you."

Purlo seemed to contemplate this, then nodded in thoughtful agreement. "Probably not." He returned his banana to his pack. "So when are you leaving?"

"Today," Link said, after a moment. "Most likely."

Purlo nodded. "It won't be the same without you here," he said.

"It's for the best," Link said, feeling the growing stubble on his chin. "I'll be more useful in Hyrule Castle."

"I'll keep an eye on her," Purlo said, smirking. "She'll be safe as a pearl on my mother's neck."

Somehow, that did not comfort Link. "Are they real pearls?"

"Does it matter?" Purlo asked, before taking a long swill from his canteen.

Later, when Purlo finally left, Link paid the last of his debt to the man who had rented him the tent and furniture, then said goodbye to those merchants he had grown to know by face. He asked one of the Gerudo guards to make his excuses to Sapphia and the rest, and finally started on the road to Kara Kara Bazaar.

By then, the midday sun hung in the southern sky, and his shadow stretched before him. Again, his mind returned to the night's events. The argument, the fight, Vah Naboris, the ledge, the dunes, the dream.

Eventually, Link came to the truth. This was a complete, unmitigated disaster.

She needed a friend. Urbosa's words came back to mind, and Link's pride bristled. What about me? He retorted to Urbosa's mirage. I needed a friend too.

How had the Hero and the Goddess done it the first time around? How had they tolerated each other long enough? This incarnation was far too arrogant for her degree of incompetence. Never mind that she could be funny, or alluring, or downright brilliant. Never mind that she had a keen tongue and a spectacularly curious spirit. She had decided to hate him, clearly.

I would kill to awaken my power with that same ease. The princess' words echoed in his mind, and for a moment he could almost feel her fists in his shirt, could almost smell the scent of her hair, her skin, could almost feel the touch of her phantom kissing his knuckles. It was unbearable.

He kicked at the sand, and it sprayed almost like water.

There had been a few times, he reflected, where they had almost gotten along. When he hadn't worn the Master Sword and she had been absorbed by her work. She talked to herself― the memory pulled at his lips and he held back a smile. She was like a force of nature, omnipresent, impossible to ignore. She took over his attention every time she entered a room.

She could be bright, she could be beautiful.

And she could be cruel, mercurial, childish, like the sixteen year-old girl she was.

He reached Kara Kara Bazaar by mid-afternoon, checking in on his horse and renting a room for the night. He would leave in the morning, he swore to himself. He did not contemplate going back. He certainly did not contemplate apologizing. What sort of man would he be if he apologized? She had dismissed him, anyway. She would not take him back.

Right?

He was still pondering this when Captain Vatorsa strode into the inn. She was wearing her cold-weather clothes, so Link assumed she was heading back on patrol.

"Ah, the little voe," she greeted him, motioning for a meal to be brought out to her. "May I?"

Link shrugged, and she sat across from him. Link kept on eating. After a few bites, he noticed the captain had been silent the entire time, and that she was observing him with overt interest.

"Something on my face?" He asked, flatly.

"You abandoned the little vai," Vatorsa said, a small smile pulling at her lips. She tisked. "I expected more from you."

"I didn't abandon her, she dismissed me," Link said, acerbically.

Vatorsa leaned back into her seat. "Of course, how silly that I should forget. Your fight really upended the betting pools."

Link scowled. "Look, I'm not in the mood. If you want to tell everyone you had me and claim the prize money for yourself, go on right ahead. I won't be there to say otherwise."

Captain Vatorsa pouted. "Oh, you poor thing. Saving yourself, are you?"

He ignored the sudden flush that warmed his cheeks. Sharply, he glared at her. "I'm not that stupid."

She changed her approach. "You broke sweet Sapphia's heart. Fickle thing, though. She's after a merchant now. If she doesn't join me tomorrow morning, Ruvara will have to drag her to patrol by the ear."

"I'd rather eat in silence," Link grumbled.

"So eat in silence and I'll talk," Captain Vatorsa said, her smile waning, replaced by a cool glare. "You have angered the Chieftain."

Link didn't reply, chewing.

"After your fight, she and the little vai had a disagreement. The Chieftain did not want you to be dismissed. The little vai told her to mind her own business."

Link, with his knife, speared a stewed turnip with more force than necessary, but didn't reply.

"Then, when we tried to find you in the camp, you were gone."

"She dismissed me," Link reminded her.

"You swore an oath, the Chieftain says." Vatorsa nodded in thanks to the innkeeper's daughter as she brought forward another bowl of hearty stew, then continued, "An oath that transcends time, distance and darkness, apparently."

"She." Link repeated, enunciating clearly, "Dismissed. Me."

"You are behaving like a child," Vatorsa said. "You clearly love her, and I'm sure she's half in love with you herself."

Link dropped his spoon, inhaling deeply. "Captain," he finally said. "Your assumptions are both irritating and wrong. I am going to change tables."

"The Chieftain has ordered that you wait," Vatorsa said, picking up her bowl before he could move. She stood. "Wait three days. If nothing is mended by then―"

"With all due respect," Link replied, coolly, "there is nothing left to mend. She cannot command me. I know this desert is your Chieftain's realm, but I am a Champion like her, her equal. I will leave in the morning, and you can give my regards to your Chieftain and to the Princess of Hyrule." He looked down at his bowl, then up at the captain. "I've lost my appetite." He stood, left a few rupees on the table, then bowed curtly to his fellow warrior. "Sav'saaba, Captain."

That night, sleep did not come.

… And I'm sure she's half in love with you herself. Captain Vatorsa's voice echoed, and he turned over on the bunk, hating the way his heart fluttered with the barest hope.

Well, Zelda didn't love him, he knew, angrily. Because she had dismissed him. Released him from service. And just because he felt he could hear her voice, her mumblings to herself, just because if he closed his eyes he could almost muster the smell of her, didn't mean that he 'clearly loved her'. The Gerudo captain had it all wrong, and she was stupid, just like everyone else.

There was no shaking the thoughts of Zelda, though. Young and angry, she seemed to haunt him wherever he turned, her eyes hard as jade, and he could almost hear her accusations ringing in his mind, and the more the moonlight crept across the floor, the more they began to fall into place.

I would kill to awaken my power with that same ease, you ungrateful lout! The words rang in his head, over and over, and suddenly Link had the odd impression that he had been looking at this puzzle from the wrong angle. And it was beginning to make a new sort of sense.

Link, from the top of his nineteen years of wisdom, could feel his stomach dropping slowly, the dread coming over him at a crawl, ineluctable. She was just a girl who had been unable to awaken her power, and what he had seen as doing his duty, she had seen as flaunting the Master Sword at every turn.

Deep down, Link knew, he would have hated himself too.

Maybe asking a sixteen year-old girl to be both patient and kind had been too much to ask. Link certainly still lost his temper frequently, and he was supposedly a man grown.

The entire notion sat about as well as indigestion.

But what to do? He had said unforgivable things, she had done irreparable deeds, and now they stood at odds, unable to reconcile. He had ignored his pride too often to go crawling back, and she had complained about him too much, chafed against his presence too much to take him into her service again.

Why did he even consider repairing anything? Were they not beyond fixing?

Could they defeat the Calamity even if they weren't on speaking terms?

Dawn came to the world with pale orange light, as it only did, the innkeeper said as she swept the front steps, when a sandstorm was coming. Link could almost feel it on the wind, a strangely electric sensation, one that would soon harass the village and scrape at the skin.

He wanted to be gone before the storm locked him indoors for a day. The idea tore at him, though. He was tired, he reasoned. He had barely slept, and surely his doubts were merely due to his inability to reason with so little sleep. He was right to leave. He couldn't go back, not if she didn't change, not if he had to look at himself in the harsh light of her judgement.

Not if he had to wonder why he even stayed as long as he had in the first place.

He found his horse in the stable. It was refreshed and eager to get going, which Link thought was fortunate. At least one of them felt that way.

He was finishing with the straps of his saddle when Captain Vatorsa strode into the stables, clearly animated by more than mere messenger duty. She was walking with purpose, and Link actually paused as she reached his side.

She shoved a scroll the size of a finger into his hands. "Read this."

Link frowned. "I don't have time for this. There is a sandstorm coming."

The captain glared, so Link rolled his eyes and looked at the hastily scrawled message.

Princess missing. Yiga on the move.

Like a sudden weight, Link's stomach dropped to his knees. He swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat. Then, to the captain, he said, trying desperately to keep the creeping panic from his voice, "When did you get this?"

Vatorsa nodded back to the door. "Ruvara and Sapphia, this morning. They beat the couriers. We've been assigned to find her."

Of course they had, Link thought, forcing himself to calm down. Chieftain Urbosa hadn't been dismissed as he had. She had taken charge of the princess. She was responsible for her well-being now, not Link.

Still. His fingers itched.

"Why did you show me this?" Link asked, schooling his face into comforting impassivity. He reached for his knight's bridle, preparing to slide the bit between his horse's teeth.

"I was under the impression," Captain Vatorsa said, "that you were a brave voe who valued his duty."

"Until I was relieved of that duty," Link said, with some trepidation. Did he sound convincing? The Captain had always seemed perceptive, and he feared she would hear the waver in his voice.

The Captain squinted at him. Then, with some disgust, she said, "Why did the Sword choose you?"

After that, without another word, she turned on her heel and walked back out. Outside, the wind was rising, the clamour of Kara Kara warning that they should board up the windows and take in the livestock.

But Link barely registered any of it.

After a moment, ears buzzing, heart racing, he pushed his horse back into its stall, made sure it had feed and hay, then strode to the doors.

And he unsheathed the Master Sword.


She inhaled, cringing away, but the Yiga stalker crumbled to the ground, and Zelda peered up, speechless.

Chapter Text

The blindfold came off Link's eyes with a sudden tug, and he blinked in the torch light. As his eyes adjusted, he focused on the room around him. It was plain, a typical Gerudo structure of sandstone and painted glass, and dimly lit because it lacked windows. There was nothing particularly distinctive about its architecture.

But it was significant, Link knew, because he was inside now.

"Is this it?" He asked, glancing over his shoulder at Ruvara. The Gerudo warrior nodded. "Was the blindfold necessary?"

"Wouldn't want you getting a glimpse of the vai," Sapphia said, pushing herself up to sit on a nearby table. She kicked her feet in the air, clearly excited. "We haven't allowed a voe inside the city walls in ages."

In fact, Link had been informed, aeons was more like it. One man had been allowed to slip in, back in the days of the Evil King. But those accounts were scratchings on crumbling parchment now, and many doubted their accuracy.

Nevertheless, Link nodded, turning away. He had made requests, had expected them to be refused again, but they hadn't. He had no idea what had changed.

Except everything, a small voice whispered in the back of his mind. Something like a key in a lock, twisting until he came undone.

He ignored it.

"You asked to see him," Captain Vatorsa said, motioning to a long box that rested on another table.

Link focused on the room's contents. It was a chirurgeon's office, with a whole wall covered in medical instruments that looked ominous at best, and long tables for the sick to lie upon. And it smelled faintly of blood and vinegar.

The box was made of pliant palm wood, dried out in the desert sun, lightweight but sturdy. Bracing himself, he pushed its cover open and peered in.

The Yiga mask lay upon the dead man's chest, harmless now that it was off, and it was splattered with blood. His doing, Link knew. He hadn't seen clearly, had struck in wild rage, had made a single slash that might have cut a row of bamboo stalks in two. In this case, it had ripped a massive deadly tear into the Yiga assailant's flank, like a cleaver, all the way into the liver.

In death, Purlo's face was almost unrecognizable. Gone was the genial humour, the scheming merchant tactics, the excited fawning. In this box, he was just a Yiga, just another dead threat. It was alien, really.

Beside the man, the Yiga sickle shone darkly, unblooded. Castle-forged steel.

Link waited to feel something, but nothing seemed to come. He felt vaguely repulsed with himself. Killing in the line of duty did something to the mind, made one feel… vindicated. But looking into the coffin now, Link could only think one thing: that this was the first man he'd ever killed.

"He waited for me to leave before springing the attack, didn't he?" Link asked impassively as he looked straight into Purlo's unseeing eyes. He was trying desperately to feel something ― remorse, perhaps? Hadn't Purlo been a companion? A would-be friend?

Had he always been a traitor?

"He wasn't the leader," Captain Vatorsa said, "as far as we can tell. But he was assigned to watch you."

Link tried to relive the moment of Purlo's death, struggled to recover the fragments of that particular memory. But all that came to mind with any consistency was Zelda. Zelda, helpless, out of breath, terrified, Zelda closing her eyes against the coming blow, Zelda, Zelda, Zelda―

He would have cut his way through an army of Yiga, Link considered as his hand tightened on the coffin lid. Certainly the force of his cut had contained the rage of a hundred blows, had killed almost instantly, cutting from the gut all the way across to the neck. It had been an ugly death, but Link hadn't cared.

He didn't like the primal violence of his actions, but the dislike was less imposing to his mind than the blind and furious knowledge that he would do it a thousand times again if he had to. He hated how sure he was about it.

Sapphia sighed, drawing him out of his thoughts. "I bet the pool will go up another thousand rupees or so," she said, to Ruvara. "Imagine that."

Before Ruvara could reply, the door inched open and Toruma leaned her head in. "She is coming," she said, to Captain Vatorsa.

"Right," the captain said. "Out." She motioned for Sapphia to descend from the examination table and they left Link alone with the corpse. He tried to calm himself, to school his breathing into a steady pattern.

Chieftain Urbosa walked in.

"Chieftain," Link said, kneeling. He had been warned by Captain Vatorsa that, given the Chieftain's great generosity in smuggling him into her city, the least he could do was show her the proper deference. Especially since they had parted on unpleasant terms.

Urbosa observed him in supercilious silence before her expression cracked and relief showed on her face. "Thank you," she said. Link briefly wondered whether she was thanking him for Zelda's rescue, or for kneeling. She sounded tired, as though every spark of energy had been drained out of her. "I don't know what we would have done without your intervention."

A royal funeral, Link thought darkly as he stood. "What happened?"

"We had a disagreement," the Gerudo Champion said, coming to look down into Purlo's coffin. She wrinkled her nose at the large gash in his chest, but did not comment on it. "By the time I woke the next morning she was gone."

"A disagreement," Link echoed.

"About you," the Chieftain said. "I'm sure you can figure out the essential arguments." She sighed. "I warned her that she would not be visiting any other Sheikah monuments until she agreed to cool down and speak to you calmly. She decided to go with or without my help."

Link snorted, and Urbosa shot him a deadpan look.

"Oh, don't gloat," she warned, "you were hardly better behaved."

"I was the picture of patience for months," Link said. "Months."

"Indeed," Urbosa said dryly. "To think: all the Yiga had to do was wait."

Link sobered up. She was right. He had not lived up to the virtues of a knight. Kindness. Courage. Patience. His father had been tested time and time again too, sometimes coming home in sullen anger and retiring to his silences, but he had never been curt with Link, had never been anything but the perfect image of a knight, as far as Link could tell.

Link's kindness had run out a few months in, his patience had been worn thin by a single teenage girl, and his courage had failed him when he had to muster the humility to return to his post.

Undone by a single girl. The Calamity would make short work of him.

"You think I owe her an apology," he said, pulling the casket's lid closed, if only to avoid looking at Purlo's dead and clammy-looking skin any more.

"I wash my hands of it," Urbosa said. "Do with each other as you wish. I live in a city entirely comprised of vai, and despite that I have yet to encounter a more volatile duo."

Link was sure he ought to feel sheepish. Instead, all he felt was mute discomfort. If he were honest with himself, he would have preferred Urbosa's help to approach the princess once more. All he felt now was mute anxiety, and beneath... a current of vindication.

As though sensing the direction of his thoughts, Chieftain Urbosa retrieved the blindfold and motioned for him to turn around.

"It's time you saw her," she said. "She has requested that you not leave before speaking with her."

Link didn't reply, turning around to let the Gerudo Chieftain cover his eyes. He wondered whether the princess even had to make it a request. She had dismissed him, but she was still the royal heir and the future leader of his entire people. He was in no position to disobey her.

And, if he was honest with himself, he didn't really want to. Perhaps perversely, he wanted to see what would happen. Would she get under his skin again? Would he lose his temper?

He hoped not. He was tired of that. Tired of feeling like he was walking a tightrope. He had saved her life ― would that be enough? Would she forgive his trespasses and atone for her own? It seemed so unlikely. Their relationship, such as it was, felt desperately beyond repair.

Still, Link considered, he had obtained an entry into the city. And she had asked to speak with him. Surely…?

He quashed the niggling hope that threatened to suffuse him. Better to stay detached, he decided as the light vanished beyond his eyelids. Better to prepare for the worst. He always seemed to get it.

"Now follow me, and watch your step," the Chieftain said, taking hold of his sleeve.

He followed her, stumbling, ignoring passing whispers. They did not exit into daylight, he knew, because the brightness would have been unmistakeable even with a blindfold. Instead, he followed along into winding corridors and up a short flight of steps. If the Gerudo were affronted by his presence, blindfolded or not, they were kind not to say so within his hearing range.

The more he walked, the more his steps seemed to fumble. He could feel the seconds ticking by, the beat of his pulse, the rush of blood in his ears. He was getting close to her, he knew, closer by the moment, and he hadn't yet decided what he would say to her. He didn't know how to apologize, but he didn't want to leave.

It was the worst sort of maze.

At last, the Chieftain paused.

"Here we are," she said, softly. "As soon as you hear me close the door behind you, you can remove your blindfold." A beat passed. Then, startling Link, the Gerudo woman took his chin between her thumb and forefinger. She smelled of heat and oils, and her fingers were callused. "Try to forgive her," she said, whispering. "Please." Her hand dropped away, and before Link could reply, she swung open a door and pushed him in.

He stumbled a little, catching himself just in time to hear the door click shut behind him. Slowly, he removed the blindfold, blinking again in the torchlight. Forgive her? His mind reeled. Would that she wanted me to in the first place...

The princess was sitting on a low cushion, dressed in a flowing Gerudo robe. She did not turn to him when he entered.

"Link," she said.

"Princess," he replied, still a little unsteady from the blind walk. Then, remembering his manners, he bent to kneel.

"Don't," she said, turning to look at him.

Pausing in a half-hunch, Link glanced up at her in confusion. "Huh?"

She pushed herself to her feet. Her knees were bruised, he saw through the veil of her skirts, and her elbows and hands too. A part of him, deep within, that he ignored, growled possessively at the sight. But in this moment, with the half light and flowing robes, the golden sheen of her hair, she looked like a lesser deity, proud and resolute, and Link felt like a fumbling fool, uncertain, dirtied by the death of a man.

"Do not kneel before me," she said.

Link straightened, suddenly uncomfortable.

"Princess―"

"Be silent," she said. Then, she took a shaky breath. "Please."

Link pressed his lips together, confused. She always insisted on protocol. She hated when he ignored it. And now that he was trying to make that one concession, she was refusing it. Could their conversation, such as it were, already be taking such a terrible turn? He'd hardly said a thing.

Just as Link was dealing with his mental scramble, the princess seemed to war with herself. She opened and closed her mouth and inhaled to speak but said no words.

Finally, her composure melted, and she looked like a girl again, pretty and approachable and vulnerable, which did not make him feel much better. "I have a lot to say," she finally blurted. "And I fear it may not all come out quite as I intended. I would appreciate if you let me say my piece first."

Link wanted to argue, but he owed her a moment of speech at least. He nodded, placing his hands behind his back, standing at ease.

When she was sure she had his attention, she clasped her hands together. She was nervous, but when the words came out, they were steady enough.

"Thank you," she said. "For saving my life. And…" She inhaled deeply, wringing her hands, "I'm sorry."

Link waited, but she seemed to be tongue-tied. Finally, when he wasn't sure she was going to say anything more, he risked a gentle, "Is… Is that it?"

She seemed puzzled, the expression drawing her brows together. He had always liked the little crease that formed there. "I… Yes. I think. I…" She exhaled with a nervous little laugh. "It felt much bigger when it was in my head."

The admission caught Link by surprise, and he felt a twitch in his lips, a quirk that wanted to become a smile. Was she kidding? Had she meant to sound so… sincere?

Despite his best efforts, despite the warning of his logic, the vise that had seemed to crush his chest for months relaxed, ever so slightly. He found himself smiling at her in what he hoped was encouragement. He could handle this awkward girl. He could even learn to like her. He might one day hope to befriend her, if she stayed long enough.

Noticing his reaction, the princess managed a sheepish little smile, and a weak chuckle bubbled out of Link.

"You're laughing at me," she said, smiling despite her accusation.

"I…" Link shook his head. "I don't mean to. It's just…" He outstretched his hand in a vague motion, eventually dropping it back to his side helplessly, "I've been trying to work up the courage to say the same thing, and I agree, it's just… it feels…"

"Insurmountable," the princess said, solemnly.

"Impossible," Link agreed.

"Completely unthinkable," she continued.

"Absolutely unjustified," Link nodded, trying not to smile.

She chewed on the inside of her cheek, looking every bit like an ordinary girl instead of the future queen of the land. "I cannot blame you for feeling that way," she said. "I was too focused on my own indignation to think of what I was doing to you. Urbosa and I… We fought about it. She said I was ruining your life and reputation."

That much was true, Link considered. But he had been too proud to acknowledge it, too proud to keep from insulting her when the chance had come. He had dived headlong into his own dismissal, really. No patience, kindness or courage from him. If anything, as they stood before one another now, in this windowless room so far from home, he felt as though they had been stripped of everything, diminished down to their essential selves.

His essential self felt guilt and shame, and longed for friendship, longed for peace. He had done nothing to achieve it.

She was still speaking. "I was blinded by my…" She curled up her fingers into fists, then released. "I know you are right, that I am completely powerless, and that I should have no right to be angry with you because you are ready when I am not."

"I shouldn't have said the things I said," Link blurted out, almost desperately, before she could slip back to unfriendly waters.

He could make this right. They were both trying to make this right, he knew. He just knew it. It was in the way she wrung her fingers together, the way she looked concerned, shy, unsteady. He knew those things, because he felt them himself. He had to seize this chance―

He took a step forward, bowing his head. "I was out of line," he said, to precede her.

The relief of his admission showed on her face, and she said, with the same uncomfortable honesty, "I shouldn't have dismissed you for any of it. Impa keeps admonishing that I should be the very picture of grace, wisdom and generosity."

Kindness, courage, patience. Link wanted to reach out and squeeze her hand. "I haven't lived up to Impa's standards either," he said, and rejoiced when he saw the little quirk of her lips. Instead of touching her, because that would require crossing the room and feeling the way her hand would fit in his, he cleared his throat and added, firmly, "If I could take it all back, I would."

"As would I," she vowed.

They were silent a moment, and Link finally ventured, "Perhaps a truce?"

She shook her head. "No," she said, and Link deflated, his hopes crushed. "That will not suffice."

"Suffice?" Link echoed, weakly.

She approached him, and for a moment Link saw a glimpse of the Queen she would be someday, if destiny was kind, a regal sort of decisiveness that straightened her spine and gave her cheeks a flush of passion. "I want to start anew," she said.

She was looking up at him, and Link was suddenly painfully aware of their isolation, of how easy it would be to slide his fingers through her hair.

Strange, how that worked. Yesterday he had been sure she was the vilest creature alive. Yesterday he had been certain all past signs of kindness on her part had been imagined.

"Uh―"

"I was ready to die," she said, and her voice was soft. Her eyes looked like emeralds in the torchlight, and her lips were petal pink, but the words that came out of them made Link's gut clench. "I fell into the dust," she said, and he noticed her hands go to her elbows, rubbing at the bruises there absently, "and I thought perhaps it was for the best."

She had seemed terrified, Link thought. He hadn't seen that resolution in her at all. But she seemed earnest now, and he was afraid to believe her.

"As I waited for the Yiga to close in, all the things I had failed to do raced through my mind," she explained, and now her hand moved from her bruises to his arm, and her brow quirked in remembered agony. "I thought of all the things I had said and done, and the sum total of those actions led me to nothing at all." Various expressions came upon her as the memory replayed in her mind. "I was so sure you were long gone. It never occurred to me you could save me. Or even that you would, after all." Her lip trembled, but her eyes were far away, and Link held his breath as her fingers traced his arm, his chest. Then, her voice cracked: "But Gods, I still wanted you at my side with such… such…" Her fingers closed on the fabric of his tunic, and her eyes refocused on him. They were bright, wild, beautiful, and she was whispering now, as though possessed of some fierce determination. "I begged the Goddess for help, and suddenly, you were there."

Link hadn't heard the call of any gods. All he'd heard was the pounding of his heart. His vision had gone red, his entire focus shifting to murder. There had been nothing holy or righteous about it. The primal call in his gut had been voiceless, something that came from deeper, something that growled and ran with wolves, that shouted a single concept: mineShe is mineNone shall touch her.

He couldn't bring himself to say any of it. He hadn't mentioned it to Chieftain Urbosa, nor to any of the others. He had buried it deep within himself, where it belonged, and pretended that his knightly duties were the sole reason for his intervention.

In truth, the violence of that remembered feeling worried him.

"I shouldn't have left," he finally said. She was still clinging to him, and by seas, skies, stones and sands he wasn't going to stop her. "And I should have been… better."

She scoffed, releasing him, and she took a few steps away. "Don't be ridiculous. I gravely misused you," she admitted. "I rejoiced in your frustration, celebrated your isolation. I was so sure you deserved it. I made such rational contortions to convince myself… I thought…" She frowned, and she crossed her arms over herself, bracing. "I thought you already hated me."

Link felt his brows draw together. He hated seeing her like this, vulnerable and small, where he was concerned. "Why?"

"Because I would," she said, simply, with a bitter laugh. "And why wouldn't you? You fulfilled your destiny without a hitch, and I can't seem to get it right, though I've been trying for years." She exhaled, and her arms fell away from her chest in an exasperated swing. "It was so easy to hate you," she said, once again so akin to an ordinary girl that Link couldn't help the way the corners of his lips pulled upwards. "You were so damned perfect."

"Perfect?" He echoed, and his brow raised in amusement. He opened his mouth to continue, but she narrowed her eyes at him.

"Don't start," she warned him, lifting a finger. "It is infuriating."

"I shall endeavour to be a greater failure," Link said, as soberly as he could. "Your highness."

"Oh, you are insufferable," she groaned, but she said it with an unmistakable hint of fondness that made Link feel like she didn't really mean it. "Now, as I said, I would much rather begin anew. I wish I could just… erase all of it, everything I've done. Pretend it never happened."

She seemed sad, all of a sudden, forlorn. No, he wanted to say, don't look sad. We were doing so well!

"I am very... forgetful," he said. Hopefully. Desperately.

"Well," she said, "I am not. Which, while terribly irritating for me, is fortunate for you, because it means I shall have to learn from my mistakes." She straightened, bringing her hands together primly, regally. "Sir Link."

"Princess," Link said, preparing to kneel.

"No, no, no," she said, with great annoyance, "don't kneel. I told you not to kneel. You saved my life. Now stop interrupting."

She was bullying him, Link knew. And for the first time, it didn't feel cruel. In fact, he tried not to give her a cheeky grin. He didn't want it to end. He wanted to see her like this, alive, vivacious, decisive, until the end of time. In fact, he hoped he would. He hoped he'd stay at her side to see it all, forever.

He swallowed hard as that fleeting thought sank in. His smile wilted. Stay at her side forever? Oh. That…

That hope was probably not good. Not good at all.

"I was going to say," she continued, apparently oblivious to the terrifying realization that was coming over him, "that I know I dismissed you. And I do not think I am worthy of your service. So I will not be taking you back."

Link frowned, pulled back to the moment. "What? Why?"

A hundred questions flew through his mind. Had he not made a sufficient apology? What was he going to do? He was so sure they were finally putting their fights behind them―

"I want to deserve it," she said, breaking through the haze of confusion. The way she looked at him then made him feel warm. The heat suffused his entire face, and he could feel it course through his body, all the way to his fingers and toes.

When she looked at him that way, when she said things like that...

I am lost, Link realized, with a sinking feeling. She will devour all that I am, and not even know it.

"I want you to swear your oath to me again, someday," she said. "But it will be on your terms, and only when you deem that I have earned it." Her lovely face broke into a sheepish smile. "Although I would appreciate your protection until then."

"You have it," Link said, hoarsely. Was there any point in pretending otherwise?

She looked delighted. "Right," she said clearly relieved, clapping her hands together, like a girl instead of a queen. "Thank you!"

She looked attainable, Link reflected. Real. Possible. At his side, his disobedient fingers twitched in temptation.

But she wasn't paying attention to any of that. She was talking to herself again, evidently pleased with their agreement. "...that way no one in Hyrule Castle needs to know," she concluded, once Link refocused. Decisively, she added, "It will be our secret."

The cautious relief he felt was like wine, suffusing his body with a terrible mix of relief and worried anticipation. This was new territory. The pitfalls ahead would be difficult to predict. He was a fool to be so happy about it.

It was masterful, Link knew. In one simple request she had secured his service, his respect and his long-term commitment again. In so doing, she had also protected his reputation from judgement, while ensuring he would have no choice but to follow along, if he cared for his reputation at all.

She would be a fearsome queen, one day.

As the princess brushed past him to call out to Champion Urbosa, sending a warm shiver down his spine, Link wondered whether he had what it took to survive a friendship with her without needing more.

Judging by the way his heart was still racing from her smile and the way his skin tingled through his clothes where she had touched him, he probably didn't. In fact, the Calamity might prove easier.

Great, Link concluded to himself with giddy irritation.

Simply fantastic.

Chapter Text

The nightmare was unending. A hundred years, it whispered. A hundred years and a hundred years more.

From within the bower of her mind, Zelda trembled, feeling the Calamity pressing in, pushing in, trying to break down the walls she had erected, whispering through the stones that she would fail eventually, that it was only a matter of time.

Time. In the nightmare, Zelda had no greater enemy. Even the brightest sanctuary her mind could conjure would one day fall to dust, blown apart by an enemy that transcended time itself.

Here, in this prison of flesh and spirit, Zelda focused instead on prayer. She was exceptionally good at prayers, she thought bitterly.

But the voice of the Calamity came through all the same, cajoling, threatening, loving and furious, in turn male and female, young and old, sweet and painful, frightening and comforting. How many times, Zelda wondered, had she come close to loving its presence? How many times had she almost succumbed to its sweet promises and deadly poisons?

Link is coming for me. He will awaken. She felt the Calamity pulse around her with amusement, though she knew her confidence enraged it. Mind games. They had played them for years, for a century. She knew the Calamity well now, knew her faith made it furious. And the Calamity knew her, too. Too well. It knew where and how to make her faith waver, how to make her question, how to plunge her into months of despair.

But not now, Zelda vowed. The time of Link's awakening was drawing close. She had thrown all of her devotion into this one truth, this one source of belief, the last remaining bastion of sanity that remained.

He is not coming, the Calamity whispered to her mind. He has rotted away in his little tomb. A hundred years. Zelda almost choked as the image of Link came to her, his skin parchment thin, his bones smiling through a rotten face, his darkened carcass ravaged by time.

Against the welling of her tears, she clung to her only shred of sanity. You are lying.

Wait not upon your fallen hero. Think of what is yet to come.

She blinked rapidly, focusing, turning away from the voice, the physicality of it completely useless. Go away.

But the Calamity ignored that, assailing her with images of glory, a restored throne, a golden crown atop her golden hair, and the adoring prostrations of her beloved people, the gentle touch of the breeze, a continued, unending life to do good in.

That is not what I want, she said, though her heart ached.

The Calamity was unfazed, replying only with the feeling of an infant's hair in the palm of her hand, the soft snuffling noise of a newborn against her breast, the gentle press of a lover's lips against her forehead. If she opened her eyes, she knew, she'd see him, or something close enough: a man, perfect, handsome, gentle, but whose dead eyes would never match Link's. The Calamity never managed to get that part right.

Stop, she said, though she knew it was pointless. You do not understand what I seek.

It could be yours, the Calamity repeated. It was incessant. All of it. You need not choose.

Day after waking day, night after sleepless night, the Calamity had never stopped. It was a constant, unending assault, a barrage of such violence, its arrows sometimes disguised as promises, as gifts… There was no escape, Zelda had realized a few months in. No escape from the voices.

You cannot have me, she said, for what was surely the millionth time, and she opened her eyes to look at Ganon straight on. I am not afraid.

But the Calamity seized upon this again. Now this dark Link was bleeding, faceless, empty of meaning. Sometimes it would laugh at her, its expression twisted into cruelty.

She hated when the Calamity made use of Link's face, and kept her eyes as tightly shut as she could.

When you fail, dark Link promised to her mind, his lips moving to the Calamity's words, there will be nothing to stop me. I will have you, one way or another.

She watched him placidly from within, refusing to reply. The dark Link smiled.

Would it be so terrible?

She looked away, her gut twisting. In truth, she had contemplated it. Had contemplated it so many times that she now refused to answer for fear she might agree to him.

Dark Link approached, his steps inaudible because he wasn't real. He did this a lot, Zelda knew, when he didn't have her full attention, when he wanted her to fear his touch. But he couldn't touch her. Hylia protected her.

She watched him stretch out his hand, and she stared blankly, knowing what would come next ― the blinding light, the hiss of pain, the mad smile. And the slow decline of her reserves.

And then his fingers grazed her cheek.

As though burnt by a brand, Zelda recoiled in the prison of her spirit, her mind revolting against the abomination, the breaking of sanctity, fighting down a surge of desperate need and shameful surrender. Like a broken animal, she shrieked in horror, struggling to get away, but she couldn't.

She was trapped.

Hylia, she cried out, begging, when no light burned away the growing darkness. Hylia, I need you! Where are you?

The Calamity reached out again, its puppet smiling, and slid his warm palm against her skin, the calluses so familiar that her entire spirit shuddered. She was only mortal, she thought, terror flooding her veins. The shiver that ran down her spine was almost too good, too vital, and she knew she would succumb if… If...

Hylia!

Be quiet, Dark Link whispered, gently, lovingly, your beloved goddess rests with your hero nowYou need not struggle anymore.

Zelda moaned, weeping, feeling the light leave her, seeping away, and she felt the warmth of the tears on her cheeks, felt the darkness closing in, felt the sweet promise of death beckoning, alluring.

"Zelda."

"Please," she wept, clinging to this Dark Link, who looked down upon her with such kindness, "please don't hurt them―"

"Zelda."

She gasped, the world shifting into focus.

His eyes, she reflected. They're blue.

She was clinging to Link's tunic, the familiar blue fabric crumpled in her fists, and she was trembling, her whole body shaking like a leaf in autumn. Her breath came in quick shuddering gasps, as though suddenly the horror of her mind was finally catching up to her body.

"Are you alright?" Link asked, the concern in his eyes so achingly familiar that she felt her lip tremble, and she began to weep anew.

With a wordless cry, she threw her arms around his neck, burying her face into his shoulder.

"What's wrong?" Paya asked, worry evident in her voice. She was in her nightclothes, standing at the other end of the attic bedroom, wringing her hands with concern.

"A nightmare," Impa said, from where she stood near the stairs. She looked grim.

"It's alright," Link said, softly, and Zelda's heart swelled with speechless gratitude. He ran his hand against her forehead, pushing her hair out of her face, and his thumb rubbed at the tears on her cheeks with such sweet familiarity that she nearly kept crying. And, because she was too distracted to resist, he brought her in closer and tucked her into the curve of his neck.

He smelled like grass and wood and horse and soap. The magic of it was a shock to her senses. Under her cheek and her ear, she felt his steady heartbeat.

He is alive, she thought, numbly. Calamity Ganon lied.

"You're safe," he whispered into her hair, and now she could feel how tense he was. "No one can get you."

It was unlikely that this was his intention, but the shiver that ran down her spine had nothing to do with nightmares. He was warm and firm against her, and she wanted to curl up in his arms, melt into him, if possible. And it occurred to her she was lightly dressed, and that she was sitting his lap, and that this felt entirely too comfortable for her own good.

She stiffened, and he suddenly seemed to come to the same conclusion, the muscles in his arms and shoulders tensing. And Zelda's heart began to race at the thrill of it.

For shame...

"I'm sorry," Zelda said, suddenly pulling away. Link let her go, his expression reverting to his usual passivity, and Zelda felt her heart squeeze with a mix of embarrassment and longing. She looked at Paya, desperate to recover. "I didn't meant to frighten you."

"You were talking about the Calamity," Paya said, her brows furrowed together in worry, "so I thought Granny ought to know, at least."

"We couldn't wake you," Impa said, studying her. "So I had Paya fetch Link."

"Oh," Zelda said. Guilt seized her. "I'm so sorry," she said, hoarsely. "I didn't mean to wake all of you. Please," she added, collecting herself, "go back to sleep."

"It's alright," Link said, gruffly, pushing himself to his feet. He was barefoot. Had he not bothered to slip on his boots when he left the inn? "I don't mind."

Zelda felt her cheeks flush with heat, so she resolutely looked away, peering instead at Impa. It was still dark outside. "Is it late?"

"Early," the Master Sheikah replied. "But I imagine the Rito delegation will already be up and about."

"Early birds," Paya said, and then she began to giggle softly to herself, hiding her smile behind her hand. When three pairs of eyes turned to her, she flushed a deep red. "I'm sorry," she exclaimed, "that was terribly rude."

Link, whose expression was carefully schooled into neutrality, nevertheless pursed his lips to avoid smiling, and Master Impa revealed a toothy grin before she could help herself.

Zelda rubbed at her eyes, too tired to respond to the joke. "That is a shame. I can't seem to get enough sleep lately." She was exhausted, but she would have to be up soon. A princess' day began with the sunrise.

"Are you sure you should be keeping this busy?" Paya asked. "You seem to have nightmares every night. And you barely eat."

Ignoring the way Link's gaze swerved back to look down at her with concern, Zelda shook her head. "I'll be fine." She had been awake day and night for a hundred years, with nothing but the Goddess to sustain her. This was nothing. And the way Link's eyes narrowed did not distract her in the least.

"In that case," Impa said, giving two little taps of her cane on the wooden floor, "perhaps our dear hero has lingered in this room long enough."

Link tensed, his expression changing. He shot both Zelda and Paya an apologetic glance. Then, he bowed, excusing himself.

Zelda's hand darted out to grab his sleeve, and he froze, glancing back.

"Thank you," she said, meekly.

He studied her silently for a moment, then blinked and nodded. Zelda released him, and he seemed to hesitate, the frown returning to his brow. He seemed about to speak, but decided against it, and finally, after a moment of pause, he pushed past Impa, disappearing into the stairwell.

A moment's silence followed, during which the three women who remained listened to the hero's receding footsteps, and the slide of the door downstairs. Then, he closed the panel behind him, and the house was quiet once more.

In the resulting silence, Paya sighed, "Oh, he is too handsome."

Impa let out a cackle, and Paya looked embarrassed, as though suddenly aware of what she had just said. Even Zelda, though she was still shaken from the nightmare, let out a weak laugh. With a low keening sound, Paya curled up on her bed, pulling the pillow over her head, which only made Impa smirk in amusement.

Then, to Zelda, the Sheikah elder said, "If you need to talk..." And her old red eyes spoke volumes.

"Thank you," Zelda replied, meekly. "And I'm sorry for waking you."

"At my age," Impa said, turning to return downstairs, "I'm just glad I could be woken."

"Grandma," Paya said, peeking out from under her pillow with a scandalized look on her face. "Don't say things like that."

But Impa was already gone, cackling to herself.

Paya glanced at Zelda shyly. "Was she always that way?" She asked, barely above a whisper.

"No," Zelda said, falling back against her bed. "She used to be scary."

"So she hasn't changed," Paya grumbled, hugging her pillow. She scowled in thought. "Everyone fears her in Kakariko. Everyone except Link."

Link. Zelda smiled wistfully, trying to wrap herself into her blankets once more. "He is a child of Farore. Courage was always his greatest strength." Her blankets had been tangled, and a knot formed in her throat. Had she thrashed so much?

"I like him," Paya said, softly, and Zelda saw she was already going back to sleep, her eyes closed and her silver hair splayed around her face. Her heart squeezed once more.

Me too, Paya.

She tried to untangle her blankets, attempting to make sense of the twisting she must have done to get them like this. The blankets, like everything else she had generously been offered, were simple, made of wool and cotton ―no silk or velvet here― but they were comforting. Comforting because she hadn't had blankets for a century.

The memory of her nightmare returned, the calluses of her captor on her skin, the sweet whispers and heart-rending visions as vivid as they had been during her real captivity.

She pulled herself into a little ball of limbs under the covers, curling up upon herself as she had in those early days following her mother's death, and she grabbed a lock of her hair, tugging to check she could feel the pull, feeling the silk of it between her fingers, desperate to know she was safe, that this was all real, that she had truly escaped.

The tears came again, this time soft and silent.

It can't happen again, she vowed. The nightmares were dangerous. They attacked her sanity, made her question everything. And worse, she feared too many would make those around her feel pity for her.

Sometimes, in these hours between dark and dawn, she could almost feel the Calamity howling against the walls of its prison, could almost hear it calling from the great beyond, vowing to hunt her down, swearing to ruin her forever. And she trembled in her little bed, certain there would be no escape next time.

You must not be afraid, she repeated to herself. Link hadn't been. Or, rather, he had kept his calm despite the fear. She could do the same. She had to, even when it felt like she would crumble. Especially then.

Somehow, though she had been sure it would be impossible, she found a fitful sleep, mercifully dreamless, and woke again to the slanting rays of sunshine beginning to creep across the floor.

Paya had woken, apparently, but she had not bothered to make her bed, and Zelda saw she slept with a stuffed frog ―a Sheikah spirit. Its floppy red tongue was pulled out in Zelda's direction, and the sight of it reminded Zelda of her own stuffed toys from a hundred years ago. She had been a girl. Just a girl.

Innocence, Zelda reflected, distantly. Paya was a sweet girl, and innocent, as Zelda had been before her mother's death. Could a girl like that truly be the granddaughter of a fierce Sheikah warrior such as Impa? The idea seemed almost… too good to be true. If the world had truly moved on, and if girls could be girls instead of warriors and ladies and knights― if only for a little while longer, then hadn't all of it been worthwhile?

Look at that, Ganon, Zelda thought, with a grim smile. She imagined the Calamity looking up, its aura filling with hate. She has escaped you. They all have.

Thanks to Link.

Zelda turned, stared at the ceiling. Link. He had escaped too.

But Zelda hadn't. She had only to close her eyes to conjure up her prison once more, had only to sleep to relive hours and days and weeks and months and years and decades of manipulation and torture. In a way, she knew the Calamity better than anyone else. In a way, its absence seemed more wrong, more abnormal, than its constant vows and threats.

She had known it for a hundred years, she reasoned. Her life before, without its voice, was a distant memory, relived only because those seventeen years of childhood had become her sole lifeline, the only bastion of mental safety she had. And retelling them to Link helped to remember them better.

She knew the Calamity was gone, but that didn't keep it from hurting her even today, even in bright sunlight, even after its defeat.

The house was quiet. Outside, Zelda could hear the bustle of Kakariko's market. It had grown apparently organically, drawing the people together in cheerful conversation and trade. The area surrounding the village was bountiful, so many newcomers foraged, fished and hunted for the benefit of all others. In fact, tasks were already organized and delegated. Those best suited to gutting, skinning, cooking, or tanning were ready to prepare game animals, wasting nothing. It was a testament to the strength of her people, Zelda reflected, looking at the dust motes suspended in the sunlight.

She had promised the Rito delegation an audience this morning.

The Rito had arrived two days ago. The chief's envoy, Teba, had come with his wife and son, and the musician Kass had also joined them, accompanied by his wife and daughters. They had selected a lodging ground high above the village, upon one of the steep hills that surrounded it, and had already begun to mingle with the Hylians, Sheikah, Gorons and Zora that now filled Kakariko to the brim.

Teba was a warrior. That much had been obvious at first glance, from his straight spine to the curtness of his words. And he never seemed to smile. In many ways, he reminded her so much of Revali, and yet... Revali had been more deferential. Teba was decidedly not. But Link had seemed to like him, and Zelda had decided not to form an opinion too soon.

Of the two Rito representatives, Zelda felt a much greater appreciation for Kass the colourful musician than for the serious white-feathered warrior, but Teba was being groomed to become the next Chieftain, and there was no way to avoid him.

Outside, a cuccoo crowed, and Zelda buried her face into her pillow once more. She felt wretched, tired, as though she hadn't slept at all, and remembering the nightmare feel of the Calamity's touch disguised as Link's made her feel like the bed swayed under her. She was nauseous.

In truth, she wanted to hide away.

I am a coward, she thought, even as her usual mantra echoed in her mind: you mustn't be afraid.

If she were perfectly honest, she wanted to run. She wanted to have a cozy cottage, a little lab, to be free to come and go as she pleased, to explore the world, to never return to that wretched ruin of a Castle that had been her prison for a century. Maybe in a secluded home, in her own warm hideaway, she would finally be free of the Calamity.

Her father came to mind, and Zelda squeezed her pillow. She wanted to leave the Castle to crumble, but she owed him a coronation, a triumph. She owed everyone a queen. She owed the Rito a meeting.

Wait. What time was it?

Blinking, Zelda sat up, squinted at the sunlight, the calculations dusting off her hazy mind.

It was late.

She was late.

Her blood ran cold, and she vaulted off her bed in a panic. She had overslept, had allowed her nightmares to ruin her good impression with the Rito. Why had no one been sent to wake her?

She shrugged off her nightgown and splashed water from the washbasin on her face, slipped on her hose and a simple dress, and did her best to brush out the knots from her hair.

"Princess?"

Zelda turned. Paya had returned and she was looking at her quizzically.

"Paya," Zelda breathed, "oh, good. Please, will you help me button up this dress? I'm late."

"Late?" Paya asked, reaching nonetheless to begin buttoning up the princess' back.

"To the meeting," Zelda said, "with the Rito." Sometimes it seemed Paya wasn't paying attention. "I promised them a council." She groaned. "Oh, what will they think of me?"

Paya had reached the middle of Zelda's back. "Oh, no, that's all been taken care of," she said, confused.

Zelda froze, her brush still stuck in her hair. "What do you mean?"

Paya blinked, confused. "Well, everyone has been told that you're sick. Master Link has taken over as your representative. I came up here to check on you."

Zelda did feel nauseous, but she swallowed it in and said, "Sick? Me?"

"So everyone thinks," Paya said, peering at her as she finished buttoning Zelda's dress. "The Rito send their best wishes for recovery, and Prince Sidon has asked me if you would welcome a visit from a few select emissaries later today." She wrung her hands. "Downstairs, that is, not in public. He says you wouldn't need to put on any finery."

Zelda knew she was gaping a little, and she shut her mouth, collecting her thoughts. "Link has taken over as my representative?" She finally said.

Paya nodded, and the smile returned to her lips. "Yes. He's negotiating a trade agreement with the Rito right now, I think."

Zelda's stomach curled over. What did he know about trading? She tried to recall whether Link had ever been trained in politics and trade. Perhaps a hundred years ago, as part of his knightly training? But he had never mentioned it, and he had since forgotten everything. She would know, because she was still telling him his story.

"I will be fine," Zelda insisted, nervously, as her insides seemed to twist upon themselves. Link was out there, negotiating on her behalf. She had no doubt he was a cunning puzzle-solver, but she feared the ruthless Teba would make mincemeat of him. Bartering was an art, and though Zelda was rusty after a hundred years, she at least remembered the basics. "I should go."

Paya frowned, wringing her hands. "Princess, Sir Link knows you're not really sick, but he thinks, and I agree, that you haven't been taking care of yourself."

"That is none of his business," Zelda said, raising her skirts to make her way downstairs. "I know he means well, but he cannot simply―"

She braced herself against the wall, swaying. Her vision blurred, narrowed, and for a moment she saw as in a tunnel.

"Princess?" Paya asked, through a haze.

"I'm fine," Zelda forced herself to say once more, as though to convince herself. "I… I was vigilant for a hundred years. This is nothing."

"If you were vigilant for a hundred years," Paya asked, softly, "then don't you deserve a rest?" She was nervous, Zelda knew. It was in her posture, in the furrow of her brows. "No one is expecting you outside today. Master Link made sure of that."

"Link has no idea what he is doing," Zelda said, swallowing hard. "These days of meetings and councils are the very foundation of a new Hyrule. I cannot sleep through them."

"You'll be no use to anyone if you pass out," Paya said, trying to sound firm, and Zelda was surprised to see a pretty scowl on her face. "Sir Link has asked me to come check on you. Prince Sidon and Master Yunobo and even Master Teba will want to speak with you later, and you should get all the rest you can until then."

Zelda studied the young Sheikah girl. "Paya."

She flushed, her bravado deflated. "Yes, your highness?"

"Thank you for your concern," Zelda said. She inhaled deeply. "I promise I won't overexert myself. Please… help me?"

After a moment's hesitation, Paya nodded. Zelda sympathized. Paya's loyalties were clearly with Link, attached to Zelda by obligation and propriety rather than genuine feeling. But Zelda hadn't given up on winning her over.

She hadn't given up on anyone, tunnel vision and nightmares be damned.

Slowly, they made their way down the stairs, Paya pausing occasionally to lend Zelda her arm.

"Is your grandmother keeping an eye on him, at least?" Zelda asked, when she reached the landing with only mild dizziness.

"Of course," Paya said. Then, shyly, she added, "They only wish to serve, your highness."

"I know, Paya," Zelda sighed, leaning against the front door frame. She rubbed at the bridge of her nose, trying to make the dizzy spell vanish. "I have put my life in their hands time after time and would not hesitate to do so again. But ruling…" She ran her fingers over her eyes, the memories distant. "Ruling is a burden that was entrusted to me."

"Grandmother says you hated those lessons," Paya said, reaching for the door and sliding it open.

Zelda smiled bitterly. "But I am the only one still alive who has had them." She put her arm through Paya's and felt her expression shift to a pleasant smile as the sunlight hit it. Paya observed the change, concern in her red eyes.

"You are very much like him," Paya said, gently. She did not need to speak Link's name for her meaning to be clear. "He has a mask, too."

"I know," Zelda said, as they began to descend the steps. The sun was high, the air hot and humid. "But the sooner we reestablish peace, the sooner he can go back to…" She waved vaguely, trying not to sound sad, trying not to trip. "... to his home, I suppose. It is the very least I can give him."

Paya did not reply.

When at last they reached the bottom of the stairs, Zelda inhaled deeply. She smelled cookfires and people, felt the heat on her skin, and felt her insides churn with fatigue and weakness.

I should not have come out, she concluded, forging ahead.

"Who else is there?" She asked, as Paya led her down a road towards an area of Kakariko that overlooked Telta Lake and Rikoka Hills. It was a peaceful location, where the Sheikah often buried their own, but it also featured a large tree and blissful shade, and a certain distance from the bustle of the village.

Paya looked up, thinking. "Well, Masters Teba and Kass, Sir Link, Grandmother Impa. And then, Master Yunobo, Prince Sidon and M-Master Granté as observers. Others were invited, but I believe they preferred to wait for a general assembly. Tabantha trading doesn't interest them."

Zelda nodded, and they arrived within sight of the long council table. It was in the shade of the tree, but an additional canvas had been spread overhead and someone had collected stones to hold papers down if necessary.

Motioning for Paya to slow down, Zelda came to a stop.

Prince Sidon and Kass were outright laughing, Yunobo was giggling nervously, and the Warrior Teba seemed mildly exasperated, rubbing the edge of his beak with a firm wingtip. Young Granté was reclining in his chair, balanced on the two back legs, though he had clearly been asked to take all the necessary notes, judging by the abandoned inkwell in front of him. He seemed more absorbed by the conversation, chewing on a shiny red apple.

Master Impa said something Zelda couldn't make out, and Link replied dryly, which only caused more chuckling from his audience.

A knot formed in Zelda's stomach.

Did they even need her? Was she even necessary for her provinces to get along?

Was it right to feel such a horrible mix of hope and sadness at the idea?

All eyes were on Link, and Zelda's returned to him. He hadn't seen her, facing as he was towards the Rito delegates. But Kass the bard had noticed her approach. Mercifully, he did not make any case of it, though his eyes softened in what she assumed was welcome.

Whether they needed her or not, she was here now, and she was going to do her best. Zelda took a step forward, letting Paya support her, and they approached to be within hearing.

"... It's absurd," Teba was saying. "No one sane would accept a deal like that."

"You're welcome to take your offer somewhere else," Link said, smiling in amusement, and Teba snorted. "I think it's more than fair."

"My Chieftain would peck my eyes out," Teba said, leaning back.

Link smiled. He was painfully handsome when he smiled. It transformed his face utterly, and for a moment, looking as he did in the late morning dappled sunlight, his best tunic on and his hair well-groomed, he looked almost… princely. "But your Chieftain is not here, and it's your opinion I'm interested in."

Teba scowled. He glanced at Kass, who was leaning his head casually on his propped up elbow. The colourful Rito smiled lazily. Then, Teba let out a groan. "Well, I think you're robbing me, and you think I'm robbing you, and I'm told that means the deal is as good as it's going to get."

"So I recall," Link said, pleasantly.

Teba harrumphed. "Well, that settles the matter of the wheat, then," he said, and the onlookers cheered mildly. Granté leaned forward, annotating something on his parchment, finishing with a well-punctuated flourish.

But Teba wasn't done. "You know, that still doesn't answer my other request." He leaned towards Link, and for the first time since meeting him Zelda saw a playful glint in his eye. "Will you join the Rito's standing guard?"

Prince Sidon scoffed, and Teba turned to glare at him. "If our dear Link joins any army branch," Sidon said, confidently, "it will be the Zora's."

"Actually," Yunobo said, "I don't think that will sit well with the Boss." He shot Link his most winsome smile. "The Gorons would love to have you."

"A fire mountain is no place for a hero of his caliber."

"Nor a freezing peak," Sidon pointed out.

"I'm sure that if he had gills," Teba said, dryly, "the question would not even need to be asked, but he doesn't."

Link raised a hand, and to Zelda's surprise, the three of them quieted down. "I appreciate your proposals," Link said, and there was a sad edge to his smile now. "But I have neither gills, nor wings nor a rocky skin. I am a Hylian, and my place lies with the Hylians." When Prince Sidon looked positively crestfallen, he added, "I know from experience that brave and capable warriors exist in all your tribes. I have no fear you will be putting the Hylian branch to the test at every tourney."

"A standing army," Teba said, thoughtfully. He shook his head. "It seems absurd that we did not have one to begin with. It will be good to unify all our existing guards into one force."

"Perhaps we ought to hold off on discussing its particularities until the Gerudo delegation arrives," Impa said. She had obviously been quieter than usual until then, observing the conversation in thoughtful silence. "They will have valuable input on the matter."

"Indeed," Granté said, and his eyes found Zelda and Paya. He smiled. Zelda felt Paya stiffen at her side. "And in any case," he added, seemingly aware of his effect on the Sheikah girl, to judge by his smile, "I'm sure we should wait for her Grace to join us before we design an army for her."

Link frowned and turned, his eyes finding Zelda's instantly. He seemed a little startled. Zelda merely forced herself to swallow her pride.

"I see I am entirely superfluous," she said, smiling as pleasantly as she could, through the heat and the dizziness.

Link rose and immediately pulled out a chair for her. The chair next to his. Paya, for her part, accepted a seat offered by Granté, but Zelda hesitated, and Link frowned at her hesitation.

"Please your highness," Teba said, clearly tired. "You have arrived just in time. Your knight has robbed the Rito. I think I would rather deal with you than with him."

Kass sighed, and Link scowled.

"No backing down," he warned, glancing back at the Rito, and the others chuckled. "We as good as shook on our terms."

Teba shrugged. "Well, I can't be blamed for trying."

Zelda felt a little nudge of warmth for the Rito warrior. Perhaps the serious look was a mask too, a way for him to hide his good humour, to seem like a leader. "I will have to look over the terms," she said, finally accepting Link's help into her chair, though she ignored the strange trickle of heat from the way his sleeve brushed hers. "But I doubt I will have any reason to undermine Sir Link's efforts if they are advantageous to the Crown."

"I can vouch for the fact that the deal is sweet for both sides," Prince Sidon said, grinning. "They hate it." Then, his expression shifted, and became a familiar look of concern. "How are you, your highness?"

Zelda blinked, taken aback by the sudden shift in conversation. All around the table, looks of obvious worry and genuine interest gazed back at her, and she swallowed hard.

"I'm fine," she said, as Link regained his seat next to her. His proximity did something to her, made her feel both strong and weak, and she pretended not to notice. "Thank you. It appears I simply needed more sleep."

"Maybe it's a Calamity fever," Yunobo said, and he seemed embarrassed by the quizzical looks that turned his way. "Maybe?"

"Maybe it's having spent a hundred years fighting a monster," Impa said, gravely.

Zelda stiffened under the sympathetic gazes. She wanted to be strong, wanted them to look at her the way they looked at Link ― with respect, as an equal.

She desperately wanted to belong, she realized with shame, and being treated like a glass doll did little to achieve it.

"I'm fine, really. All these councils have just been a little more exhausting than I thought."

"If there is anything we can do," Kass said, "please let us know." His gaze was kind, but Zelda would have preferred humour. She forced herself to remain impassive.

"I appreciate that," she said. Then, forcing a smile, she said, "But I am here now. Let us continue."

"There isn't much left to discuss," Granté said, looking over his notes. Next to him, Paya leaned in to look over his shoulder. "When Lurelin and Gerudo arrive, we will have a busy docket, though. Remaining items include the creation of a standing army, the restoration of Hyrule Castle, the delegation of formal representatives to your court, and the assignment of new Champions to each Divine Beast."

Unbidden, Zelda recalled the Champions, lifeless, killed within the very weapons they had hoped to use. Assigning new Champions― the idea made her feel ever more nauseous. How could she, in good conscience, do that to anyone and still call them friend? In Zelda's mind, the echo of the Calamity laughed. It wasn't real, she knew. It wasn't. But she heard it laugh raucously, heard it triumphant, victorious. Nightmares always meant she carried the Calamity with her for a few days. She hated it.

She inhaled deeply, but the heat, the humidity and the churning in her body came together, and she struggled to remain in the moment.

We are returning to the status quo, she knew, as her memory of the Calamity ceaselessly mocked that reality. Be quiet, she commanded, but pointlessly. Memories couldn't be silenced.

"New Champions," she repeated, weakly.

She felt a nudge against her leg. Link hadn't moved, but she could feel the touch of his foot against hers, like a warning, or a show of support. Did he know what she was thinking? Did he remember the ache of mourning them? Did he recall the deep friendship that had bound them all?

"Provided we can get the Divine Beasts to work again," Prince Sidon said. Yunobo and Teba nodded gravely.

"Why don't they work?" Paya asked.

Because the ghosts of the previous Champions are gone, Zelda thought, inhaling slowly, shakily. Next to her, Link shifted, and now she felt him graze her leg with his own, flooding her body with warmth. He knew, she decided. He knew the grief in her heart, and he was trying to make her strong.

What could she possibly say to these people now, the descendants and family of those illustrious heroes? Could she tell them that the ghosts of their ancestors had been so close, and that they had missed their chance to see them one last time? Was it right to cause them grief? Or was it better to lie, just for once, if it meant not reopening long-gone wounds?

How could she then ask them to offer up one of their best for a cause that had cost the previous Champions so dearly?

In her mind, the Calamity still laughed. It will never end. I will return. You are trapped. A hundred years and a hundred years more.

She had no choice, really. "I'm sure the selection of a new Champion for each Beast will help," she said dully, defeated.

Link's hand reached for hers under the table, squeezing. Startled, she glanced at him, but he wasn't looking at her. No one would have noticed, she knew, unless they spotted the racing of her pulse.

Shamefully, she realized that it helped a little.

"I would like to see these Divine Beasts," Granté said thoughtfully. "Especially if they are made of Sheikah technology as my father says."

"You're welcome to return with us when we leave," Teba said, with a shrug. "But I doubt there's much to be done."

Zelda wanted to reply, but she was drifting, awash in a sea of memories and threats, promises and sorrows. Link was squeezing her hand, tightly, and Zelda was sure her fingers were going white, but she let him, desperate to stay present.

"Princess?"

She blinked, returning to the moment. "I'm sorry, I was thinking," she managed, but the heat was overwhelming, and her stomach still churned.

Suddenly, it grumbled, loudly, and Zelda clapped a hand to her stomach in mortification as the moment was broken. The eyes of the others shot to her and she went pink.

"Hungry, your Grace?" Kass asked, but he reached for a wicker basket at his side and rolled an apple across the table. Around them, the chuckles of the others were good natured, honest.

"Thank you," she managed, untangling her fingers from Link's to seize the apple.

How had she forgotten what hunger felt like? Being deprived of basic needs for so long had been both a blessing and a curse, and regaining the habits of every normal living thing was more difficult than she had expected.

Link frowned. "Have you eaten anything at all since lunch yesterday? It's almost noon."

She bit into the apple, crunching away, and glanced at him. "No," she admitted, between bites, trying to smile pleasantly. "I suppose I forgot."

Link did not believe her smile for one second, his eyes narrowing a little more.

"You forgot?" Yunobo exclaimed, horrified. His pudgy cheeks confirmed he had never forgotten a meal in his life.

Link was still frowning at her. It made Zelda uncomfortable. He had often looked at her like that before, ages ago, when he rightly felt she was being absent-minded, and it always had a way of making her feel… safe. Cared for. Dangerously warm.

"Perhaps our princess has been so long sustained by the Goddess Hylia that she no longer remembers that food, sleep and care are necessary to her health," Impa said, sternly.

Zelda flushed. "I… That's just…"

"Unacceptable!" Prince Sidon exclaimed, standing with such suddenness that Paya yelped, jumping and clinging to Granté's shirt. Not that the young Sheikah man seemed to mind. Even Yunobo and Teba seemed surprised by the outburst. "I, Prince Sidon of the Zora, will not let our lovely princess forget to take care of herself!"

"I'll be happy to remind you of your meals," Yunobo said, smiling earnestly.

"And one should not forget sleep," Teba said, gravely. "You need your focus as much as any warrior."

A hundred years ago, these outbursts would have been unseemly, patronizing, and Zelda would have been offended, certain that their words betrayed mockery.

But those days were gone. In a flash of clarity, it occurred to Zelda that they weren't being rude. They were being bluntly kind. The care on their faces and in their words made Zelda forget to chew. In fact, for a moment she struggled to keep her lip from trembling.

She had forgotten what the kindness of strangers felt like.

"An apple won't be enough," Link said, decisively, before Zelda could say anything. She wasn't sure she could speak, frankly. If anything, she felt absolutely certain her voice would be a tearful little warble, at best.

His declaration was met with a chorus of agreement, and Yunobo got to his feet, nearly tilting the table over in his excitement. Conversations erupted, laced with excitement. Apparently, Link wasn't the only one who loved to eat. Paya and Granté stood, discussing the best way to eat silent shrooms, as Kass and Teba began to argue with Prince Sidon about the proper way to prepare salmon.

After ushering Zelda out of her chair, they found their meals in the market, where Zelda finally satisfied her grumbling stomach and began to feel better, enough to begin laughing at some of Teba and Sidon's arguments. Link sat by her the entire time, watching her eat with the focus of a hawk, until he was satisfied, with Yunobo's agreement, that Zelda had eaten sufficiently for now.

There would be more meals, Prince Sidon vowed, bragging that he would make her the best grilled fish in the world, a declaration that instantly provoked Teba to take offense.

And for the first moment in ages, Zelda remembered with a warm heart what it had been like to be in good company, among friends.

She didn't hear the Calamity again that afternoon.

When Link found her under the apple tree that evening, he had changed out of his best tunic, opting once more for his knight's tunic in blue. The sun set over Kakariko as countless volutes of campfires rose up straight into the pink sky.

"I had forgotten," Zelda said, as he put his scabbard down at his side and sat next to her. "I forgot what hunger and exhaustion felt like."

Link eyed her silently for a long moment. "I know."

"It hurts," she said, and her eyes watered.

"I know," he said, because he seemed to understand she wasn't talking about hunger anymore.

"It hurts to remember them. Urbosa, Revali, Mipha, Daruk. It hurts to remember the Calamity. It hurts to recall the century I was trapped, and the horrible things I once said to you." She couldn't look at him. "I spent so much of my time in that prison that I made our past out to be a wonderful, idyllic time. It was the only thing that kept me going. But it wasn't perfect. And now I am sharing those pains with you, too."

Link observed her silently, an undecipherable look in his blue eyes. Then, he reached out and took her hand in his, squeezing it ever so slightly, and Zelda felt the same familiar jolt travel up her arm.

"I'm sorry," he said. "That I am hurting you."

"I doubted you," Zelda said, shakily. "Today, I mean. I seem to do that a lot. But you negotiated that treaty with Tabantha and the Rito without a hitch."

"As far as you know," Link said, carefully schooling his expression into neutrality.

He was joking, trying to make her smile. So she let her lips twitch upwards.

"Without a hitch," she repeated, squeezing his fingers. Then, shaking her head, "It seems like I constantly need to apologize to you."

Link shrugged and released her hand. "You are repaying me many times over already."

"How?" Zelda frowned.

Link looked at her once more, this time with a heat in his eyes that made his gaze feel electric, and Zelda's pulse began to race. "You were about to tell me about the last spring."

How did he do that? How did he manage to make every word out of his mouth thrum along her sensitive nerves? No wonder Paya had gone weak at the knees for him. She was like a puddle before him. "The last spring?"

He nodded, and she took a deep breath.

"I owe you that much," she conceded, smiling weakly. "Since we'll be getting a good price on wheat thanks to you." She nudged him gently, the camaraderie acceptable when it was just the two of them.

He smiled. "I live to serve," he replied, but without irony, his blue gaze earnest. It was such a simple thing, really, without pretension or ambition. And it echoed through her memory like a gong.

"What?" She breathed.

"What?" He asked, blinking.

"How did you―" She shook herself to reality. "I'm sorry. Nevermind." He couldn't mean anything by it, she reasoned. She hadn't… She hadn't gotten to that part of the story yet. And though he kept thanking her for her narration, nothing ever seemed to stick out, to come to his mind unprompted.

No. He didn't mean anything more by it, she repeated to herself. He simply couldn't.

"Right," she said, as she inhaled shakily, "the last spring." She rubbed her lower lip, trying to remember where to begin. "I suppose I ought to start with midwinter and our return to Hyrule Castle..."

Chapter Text

"Merry Farore's Day!"

The pillow was whipped into Link's face, startling him into indignant consciousness. He flailed, but the pillow lifted once more and struck him again rather hard, then again and again. The attacks did not let up, so Link gave up until the pillow finally landed on his face and settled there. When he was fairly sure the attacks had ceased, he lifted it off and blinked blearily up at Groose, whose face was screwed up in a desperate bid not to break into a childish grin.

"They say becoming a knight makes men of boys," Link grumbled.

"They're wrong," Groose said, giddily. "It's Farore's Day! Get up, the snowball fight is about to begin and we have to get there before the squires' stashes get too large to defeat."

Link groaned, turning over. "No," he mumbled. "M'not." It didn't matter that so many courtiers, squires, knights and other folk had massed at the Castle, after days of trudging through the snow, just for the midwinter celebration. They could begin their day without Link.

"Where is your feast spirit?" Groose insisted, pulling at Link's blankets. He had been growing antsy in the absence of his usual number of friends, and had been looking forward to the feast for a whole week. "We have to show those squires that knights can still aim! I have a few knights to fight with us, and I know I'll convince a few of the Sheikah guards to tag along too."

Link squinted at him, peering over his shoulder, though he was still stubbornly clinging to his blankets. "You made this an Order of the Guard thing?"

"No," Groose said, too quickly to sound honest. "Squire Dunson insulted our honour," he continued, ignoring Link's glare. "He said that knights were too old to have proper fun."

"I'm younger than Squire Dunson," Link said. By a few months, but still. "He is an idiot."

"Exactly, let's smash his teeth in!" Groose exclaimed, smiling broadly. He paused, his face screwed up in thought, before conceding: "Well, I guess honour says we can't maim him, but we can grab him and shove snow down his collar! That's still fair game."

"I can't," Link said. "I have to show the proper decorum."

"Psh," a woman's voice scoffed outside his door. It was still ajar, and it occurred to Link that anyone from the Royal Quarters could have been listening in. "Sir Groose, please tell him if he continues to resist, I shall have to command him."

Link froze, and his eyes met Groose's. The giant red knight shrugged, and mouthed 'Her idea', with an apologetic grin.

"Princess," Link said, to the open door, self-consciously pulling the blanket over his bare shoulders, very aware of her squirming the last time he hadn't been properly dressed, "the squires fight dirty. There will be nosebleeds and black eyes."

She sounded thoughtful, "Indeed. It would be such a shame if something were to happen to me because my devoted guard decided to sleep in."

That's cheating, Link considered. She is cheating. And yet he couldn't shake off the sudden burst of giddy, childish excitement in his chest. "Fine," he finally relented. "I'll get dressed."

Groose pumped his fist, peering out the door, presumably at the princess. "He said yes!"

"So I hear," she said. "Now onward, Sir Groose. We of the higher rungs shall not allow mere trainees to outclass us, and they have a head start."

"Yes, your highness," Sir Groose said, with the appropriate gravity.

"Groose," Link hissed, grabbing his second by the sleeve as he reached for an undershirt with his other hand, "if Squire Dunson uses icicles in his snowballs against her, you dunk him in the moat."

"I broke a hole in the ice just for that!" Groose concurred cheerfully as he left the room, chattering at the princess amiably.

She seemed to tolerate Groose's chatting with patience, Link reflected. But Link himself still hesitated to speak out of turn, too worried about their fledgling truce to test its limits just yet.

She hadn't gone back on her word, though. They had returned from Gerudo under heavy escort two weeks ago, through thick blizzards, trekking much of the time with snowshoes and sleds, an arduous journey that could have tested anyone, and they were still on cautiously friendly terms. The relief was palpable, and the butterflies in Link's stomach too. Their truce felt like a silk thread, a delicate bulb of glass ― fragile, precious.

By Farore, he wasn't going to ruin it. He wasn't.

As Link pulled his tunic over his head, Lady Ashei knocked at his door and peeked in.

"She is going to participate in the snowball fight. You're aware, yeah?"

"I am," Link breathed, stumbling to pull his socks on and hopping on one foot clumsily. "I'm going as fast as I can."

"Good," Ashei said. "Because a certain Squire Pipit insulted my honour by implying my snowball aim has gotten lax since I left Hebra. This demands reparation."

"We can't open war on a couple of squires just because their bark is meaner than their bite," Link admonished, falling back on his bed as he tried to pull his boots on backwards.

"Don't be ridiculous," Ashei said, her eyes sparkling with mischief in an otherwise serious face. "It's Farore's Day."

Then, without a further word of explanation, she saluted at him and disappeared from sight.

Exhaling as he finally succeeded in pulling his boots on, Link flopped onto his back and mentally prepared for the day to come. A small smile pulled at his lips. Farore's Day. The shortest day of the year, but the official herald of a coming spring. Now the nights would grow shorter, in time the days would grow warmer, and soon the snow would vanish, replaced by tentative buds and blossoms. The roads would become freely passable again, and he'd be able to visit his mother. Rito-borne letters just didn't have the same familial warmth as a smile.

The season of Farore, his patron goddess, was also his own, which meant good luck for the next few months, until Din's Day announced summer.

Judging by the way he and the princess were now finally beginning to get along, it seemed his luck had come early.

Yes, Link reflected. Luck was on his side. Their return to Hyrule Castle had marked a change in their relationship, and others had noticed it. Courtiers no longer outright ignored him, often asking for his opinion on martial matters, fellow knights no longer dismissed him as a child, and the servant staff would frequently show him unusual deference.

His Order of the Guard had been welcomed with lukewarm attention, which was a sight better than the frosty ignorance Link had expected. Master Impa, true to her word, had proposed a few Sheikah shadows for his consideration, and Link had accepted them readily. He still had to sift through the list of Master Kohga's suggestions, which Master Impa hadn't yet approved, but there was no rush. His Order was steadily filling with Sheikah loyal to the crown and knights of all ranks and backgrounds. Link had sworn to himself that none would be turned away due to their lack of nobility. Nobility was in the heart, Link knew with absolute certainty, not in the name.

At first, cooperation between the two factions tended to friction, but once Princess Zelda had accepted their watch, Link had found making them work together was infinitely easier. There was something about the future Queen of Hyrule, Link knew, that encouraged those around her to bend the knee and put aside their quarrels. Was it her work? Was it her title?

Whatever the case, Zelda now tolerated the Order, and this made Link's efforts to promote it feel less futile. Lady Ashei, Sir Osfala and Sir Linebeck had even consented to lending a hand, provided other matters did not call them away from the castle. And Groose, now Sir Groose, was a surprisingly apt second-in-command, able to muster both loyalty and light-hearted good humour from the men and women in the Order. Link had yet to master that particular skill, but it didn't matter.

Yes, his luck had turned to the better. For the first time in months, Link felt that he was once again in a friendly place. Maybe he was getting used to his new station.

"Wouldn't that be grand?" He absently whispered to his reflection in the miniature mirror that lay on his bedside table. In a movement he had repeated for years and that was now mere muscle memory, he tied his hair up as neatly as he could.

Outside the window, the air looked crisp and cold, but the sky was a pale blue spotted with fluffy white clouds. The sight of them made Link smile ― they heralded a rise in temperature that he welcomed wholeheartedly. And the snow would be perfect for a snowball fight.

He grabbed his coat and gloves, as well as his pointy woolen hat, a thick fur-lined confection his mother had made for him a few years ago. She had even dyed the fabric green, to match his soldier's overcoat.

He strode out of his room as he fastened the buttons on his lapel, and nearly ran into King Rhoam Bosphoramus.

The king towered above him, as intimidating as his daughter had been. He wore a thick surcoat, but was not dressed for the outdoors, and when he noticed Link's obvious intention to go out his lips pursed a little.

"I take it my daughter has gone to join in the commotion."

"Commotion?" Link echoed, before he remembered himself. "I'm sorry, Your Grace, I don't understand."

"The ridiculous snowball fight the squires organize every year." The King's expression soured. "It is no place for a princess. She should be in the Goddess Shrine, begging Farore's blessing."

Link's heart squeezed with dread. Don't order me to do it, he mentally pleaded. Things were only just improving between them― if he once again became the princess' gaoler― "Your Grace," Link said instead, as reasonably as possible, "Farore's Day is a day of exuberance and childish wonder. Just as quiet contemplation and kindness is right for Nayru's Day and proud celebration and excess is fare for Din's Day." At the King's raised brow, he added, with a wavering smile, "Perhaps there is no better way to celebrate the spirit of Farore's Day than partaking in this snowball fight?"

The King peered down at Link like he was trying to decide whether Hyrule's Champion had spoken out of turn. Then, in the spirit of Farore, no doubt, he exhaled in annoyance and said, "At least make sure she does the bare minimum before the evening's ball."

Link bowed at the waist, as low as he could, his deference hasty and grateful. There was no avoiding today's prayers, he knew, but they would be easier to get through if the princess was winded with excitement and pink-cheeked with good humour.

As the King continued on his way, Link tried hard not to grin from ear-to-ear. Luck was definitely on his side today. He could hardly keep from hopping gleefully. It was unsightly, he knew, and inappropriate for a grown man, a knight, but sometimes he still felt like a child, and it bubbled up within him despite himself.

Smiling broadly, he hurried down the hallways to the yards instead, racing down the stairs impatiently.

The squires' snowball fight was a tradition that seemed to go as far back as knightly oaths and rye bread. In the days of his father, when Link had been merely a page and too little to play with the larger boys, his father's friends had fashioned Link a large wooden shield so that he could be part of the melée without risking severe injury. It was a secret, Sir Raven had said in good humour. If Link's mother heard of it, he had sworn, there would be nothing but a little puddle of knight left where his father had once stood. 'Do not tell her I let you be here for this.'

And then, hefting the largest snowball Link had ever seen, one that had been dangerously spiked with ice chips, Sir Raven, knight of the Royal Guard, experienced warrior, father of Link the page, had let out a warcry that had trembled down into Link's fur-lined boots and thrown his snowball with every ounce of strength he could muster.

'Another!' He had commanded, and Link had dutifully pulled a heavy snowball from the pile and handed it to him, heart racing with excitement.

It was one of Link's fondest memories, a day engraved in his mind as so quintessentially fatherly, so childishly pure, that even to this day he turned to it when darker memories of his father's death came to haunt him.

"Link!" Squire Cawlin called out when he arrived into the courtyard, where the battle was already raging, "I have a snowball marked just for you! Dunked it in the water overnight!"

Link began to jog. "I have one minute of grace, treasonous squire!" He laughed. Squire Cawlin began to count out loud, and Link began to run. Snowballs dunked in ice water were simply balls of hard ice, and they hurt.

I should have prepared, Link considered, ducking as he escaped through the battle.

To his right, the other Champions were present ― Revali merely observed with a mix of annoyance and amusement, Daruk was packing snow to reinforce the forts, Mipha was tending to a bleeding squire, and Urbosa was in command of her very own fort, though there was no telling whose side she was fighting for.

They were here for tonight's feast and ball, Link knew, but everyone in the Castle had gathered here to watch the fight or participate. There was nothing better to do before midday, anyhow. As he moved, he spotted Master Impa and Master Kohga standing off to the side, and Chancellor Cole, and even High Priest Auru. Courtiers and staff alike lined the walls, cheering or whooping.

"Sir Link!" A voice rang out clearly across the courtyard.

He turned, avoiding a disintegrating snowball.

The princess was peeking up over a snow fort's wall. Sir Groose and Lady Ashei were at her side, evidently focused on crafting more snowballs, the task as vital, it seemed, as real battle. Zelda motioned wildly, and Link changed course.

He ducked and rolled, avoiding the hard crash of two particularly vicious looking ice balls, then came to cover next to Groose.

"About time," his fellow knight said. "We don't have enough throwing arms. The squires came prepared. I guess they learned from last year. Wish we'd done the same."

Link picked up a heavy snowball. "What's in this? Lead?"

"Just a large chunk of ice," Lady Ashei said. "Makes them fly further."

"You Hebrans are vicious," Link said, but he peered over the wall, spotted the backside of Squire Strich, and swung. The squire yelped, turning around as he rubbed his arse. There was no doubt he'd be bruised in the morning.

"That's right, Strich, that one is for throwing my underwear in the moat last year!"

Groose handed him another snowball. "Oh, no, that was me," he corrected, absently. "I did that."

Link blinked at his teammate, then winced and called out, "Sorry, Strich. My mistake." Then, he turned to Groose and said, "You realize you're in trouble now, right?"

"Don't fall for it! This is what they want," Groose said, gesturing to the other side. "To divide us!"

"You're the one who just said―"

"Sir Link," Princess Zelda said, firmly, "we have a system. Either get throwing or get out of Fort Bosphoramus."

Link turned to her, surprised by the asperity in her tone. But she wasn't focused on him. She was packing more snowballs. She was joking, he realized, and the realization filled him with warmth.

"Yes, your highness," Link replied dutifully, and he lobbed his snowball as far as he could.

It was then that Sir Linebeck came sliding into the fort. His nose was bleeding and he had clearly suffered a few severe bruises, judging by the way he was nursing his arm. "Commander, a message."

Link turned, about to reply, when Princess Zelda pushed past him. "Yes, soldier," she said, gravely.

"Fort Osfala intends to lead a charge, your highness," Sir Linebeck said. "We have begun to build a stockpile of snowballs for the attack. Hopefully Fort Gerudo will follow."

Urbosa was currently ordering Daruk to lob a massive chunk of snow at an indiscriminate melée of knights and squires in the middle of the field. She was apparently intent on fighting autonomously. Sir Linebeck seemed to doubt she would even notice any strategic movement. It made Link want to snort. Urbosa had a warrior's mind― she knew what she was doing, and right now it was whatever she wanted.

"We are very pressed for resources," Zelda said, trying to keep her expression as serious as possible. "I'll see what I can do."

"When you are ready," Sir Linebeck said, "we shall flank them from the right."

Then, before Link could say anything, Sir Linebeck ran back out of the fort.

Link peeked over the wall. Across the courtyard, the squires and guards had built one large fort that stretched low and long, while on this end of the courtyard the knights and kitchen staff had made several high forts separated by open terrain.

"They have a terrible defensive position," Link said. Much like last year. Only this year he wasn't on that side.

"Hence the charge, I think," Zelda said, rolling as many tightly packed snowballs as she could. She was flushed with exertion and her eyes were bright. Link had no doubt her mittens were already soaked through, and the notion made him want to smile. "Now stop gawping," she said, glancing up at him, and he flushed, "and make sure to use suppressive throws. The last thing we need is to lose our own defensive position."

"Yes, your highness," Link said, obeying by hitting Squire Pipit right in the face with a soft snowball that made him splutter. "That's a ten-pointer, I know it."

She peered at him inscrutably, and her ears grew even pinker in the winter air. Then, firmly, she pointed to the other side: "I have identified Squire Niko as the head of the enemy's operations."

"That's fortunate," Link replied, surprised she even knew Niko's name. "He's dumb as a bucket of rocks." Next to him, Groose nodded emphatically.

"Good. Now here," she said thrusting a large icy snowball into his gloved hands, "knock him out."

"You want me to―"

But before Link could reply, a great cry rose over the battlefield, and both sides ran out of their respective forts to pummel each other with snow and ice. As fragments of ammunition exploded on bruising bodies, splinters of ice flew in all directions.

One struck Link in the face, and he flinched, ducking.

The princess had already had the wherewithal to do the same and her eyes widened when she saw his face. "You're bleeding."

Link reached up and saw the blood on the tips of his gloved fingers. "It's a scratch," he said, satisfied that it wasn't too bad. "Looks worse than it really is." He peered up at Groose, eager to change the subject because the way she was looking at him made him deeply uncomfortable. "What is going on?"

"Oh," Groose said, looking over the wall, "the horror, the horror." A burst of snow landed near him and he spluttered.

"Who's winning?" Zelda asked, loudly, over the sound of the great battle.

"Hard to say," Lady Ashei replied. "It seems Squire Cawlin has died." She tisked, then added, "Training standards aren't what they used to be."

"I think Sir Osfala has broken through their lines," Groose announced.

"Well, then," Link said, solemnly, as he sat up, "that can only mean one thing." He loaded his coat pockets and his arms with all the snowballs he could get. "Lady Ashei," he said, "you have the guard. Sir Groose, let us join the charge."

"Go forth and claim Squireland in the name of Fort Bosphoramus," Zelda primly demanded.

"As my lady commands!" Groose cried out, lunging over the wall. Link vaulted over the wall mere seconds later, and together the two of them howled out a war cry, running through the battlefield with their arms full of ammunition.

Less than ten minutes later, the battle was over. Squires moaned in defeat, some cradling their noses and skulls. A few were lying in the snow, making a great show of their glorious death. Standing over them, Link and Groose were aching and bruised, out of breath, and they were laughing like children.

"Well done," Sir Osfala said as he joined them. His temple was bleeding. "Defeat would have been highly embarrassing." Off to the side, Urbosa was still offering resistance to a small number of allied squires and knights, but the battle promised to be short-lived.

"No casualties to report, sir," one of the Sheikah shadows said, grinning broadly. "But there are a few cuts and bruises."

"Excellent," Groose replied, puffing his chest theatrically. "That will help to build their character, mark my words."

"Thank you," Link said, to the Sheikah messenger, who, in his participation, looked both winded and happy. It seemed to completely transform the Sheikah; where before they had been surly and reclusive, they now looked open and bright-eyed. And Link was glad Groose had invited them after all.

"Link."

Link turned to Princess Mipha of the Zora, who was peering up at him with some concern. She was warmly dressed in a thick Zoran overcoat, with woolen mittens and a large scarf she had surely borrowed from a courtier. The Zoras tolerated cold water, but frigid air was a more difficult matter to handle.

Mipha was looking at his cheekbone, frowning. "You're hurt."

Now that he paid attention to it, Link could feel the stinging and the slight burn of his blood against the cold air. "Oh, it's nothing at all."

Mipha ignored that, her mitten-clad hand reaching up. A soft warm glow began to spread through Link's cheek, and he knew she was healing him.

"You don't have to," he said, embarrassed. There were plenty of others with worse cuts and bruises.

When the cut was healed, Mipha's hand moved away and she said, softly, "It makes me happy to help you."

He knew that. Mipha had always been ready to heal him, especially given how often he'd injured himself during his time in Zora's Domain. His father had been sent to train her with the spear, and Link had tagged along, ready to go on plenty of adventures. Painful, bruising adventures. "Thanks," he said, sheepishly.

She smiled gently. She was always gentle.

"Ugh," Urbosa said, striding over to them with her thick fur boots and long colourful coat. She was absolutely covered in snow and her hair was a mess. "You Hylians fight like wolves." She dusted some snow off herself. "Absolutely merciless."

As Mipha offered to relieve some of Urbosa's pains, Link glanced back to the snow fort where he'd left Princess Zelda. She was chatting excitedly with Daruk and Revali. Good, he thought. She ought to have friends around her.

Of course, there was Misko, too, congratulating her on a battle well-fought.

Why did watching her smile up at Misko feel so…

"Will you be wearing a new dress tonight?" Urbosa asked Mipha.

… Infuriating?

"I am," Mipha replied. "In green."

"Isn't Link's soldier's uniform green?" Urbosa asked, slyly, and Link turned back to her upon hearing his name.

"What?" He asked, dumbly.

"It's nothing," Princess Mipha stammered, healing one of the Gerudo Champion's bruises. "She's trying to tease me." Then, for good measure, she flicked at the Gerudo's ear, and the tall woman winced. Soft-spoken Mipha might have been, but she was no pushover.

Across the courtyard, High Priest Auru was commending all those who would listen for their efforts in celebrating the true spirit of Farore's Day, reminding them that a brief visit in the Goddess Shrine would also be appropriate.

Habit prevailed. Link turned to Urbosa and Mipha to excuse himself, then strode off towards the princess.

She watched him approach with a smile that seemed to dim. She knew why he was joining her. Prayers. She hated prayers.

"Princess," Link asked, before the smile vanished entirely from her face, "may I join you in your devotionals today?"

It was formal, he knew, and completely unlike their more... frank past conversations, but he wanted Misko to stop looking at him with such arrogance, and he desperately wanted to show all other courtiers that he was worthy of being her knight.

She seemed surprised by his question. "Oh," she said. "Of course." And her smile seemed more genuine now. "I forgot your patron goddess was Farore."

She hadn't, Link knew. She seldom forgot anything. She was putting on a show for the courtiers too. A show of graciousness. Master Impa would have approved.

"Do not let me keep you," Bard Misko said, bowing low, his silver hair falling into his eyes in that way that made the court ladies all a-titter. "I shall think of no one else until I see you again."

Arrogant bugger. Even Revali rolled his eyes. Link shifted his weight, trying to hide his impatience. Really, without his finery and good looks, the bard would have little to recommend him. Even his romantic promises felt vain and empty of substance.

Princess Zelda thanked him for the sentiment all the same. Did she know? Link wondered. She could be bright, perceptive. Surely she saw what Link did, that the bard was a waste of her attentions?

As the princess made her excuses to the other Champions, the bard glanced at Link, a sidelong glance that spoke volumes about his disdain. Link smiled dumbly back.

Pretentious twat.

"That bard is a test of patience," Revali said as Misko walked away, smiling at a group of simpering ladies.

Link was so startled he was short of words for a brief moment. Revali had never deliberately opened a conversation with him. Not in many years. "I― yeah. But Master Impa says he's harmless."

"Is he?" Revali asked, darkly, in a way that made Link fear him a little.

The Rito warrior's mood did not improve as the day wore on, and Link sympathized. It seemed Misko the bard was everywhere. From the moment Link had risen from his prostrate prayer to offer the princess a hand up, the bard had swept in all over again, promising her a ballad, or an ode, begging for her favour at the feast. For once, Link was glad that he had mastered a few Sheikah meditation techniques. Revali, who hadn't, seemed on the edge of a silent conniption.

"Breathe," Princess Mipha softly urged the Rito Champion. "There is no reason to be upset."

"That bard," Revali said, as the five Champions stood in a small antechamber adjoining the Sanctum, much later that day, "is an eyesore."

Urbosa snorted. "Speak for yourself." She was wearing a long Gerudo dress, one that was far more ornate than anything she typically wore when she was in her home region. She had done something with her hair, braiding it elaborately, though Link couldn't quite make sense of it. She looked like a true warrior-princess, a lady of refinement and bloodthirst, and though Link now knew her better, he remembered why the sight of her had been so intimidating to him and his fellow squires.

"Yes, Bard Misko is descended from ancient Sheikah bloodlines, and he is a favourite of the court," Mipha admonished. "It will not do for us to speak ill of him today." She had donned a diaphanous Zora dress in a seafoam green that complemented the redder tones of her skin, and elaborate jewellery adorned her head and every visible part of her wrists and ankles. Sapphires glittered next to emeralds, and the silver casings caught the candlelight.

Princess Mipha, Link knew, was the heart and pride of the Zora people, and they did not hesitate to gift her with delicate extravagances.

"I don't mind the man," Daruk commented. "He plays the harp rather well." Gorons did not typically have evening wear, Link knew, but Daruk had wrapped himself in a colourful toga and scrubbed himself with sand, giving him a brushed look that exuded power and simplicity. "Besides, it's not for you to decide."

Revali did not reply, choosing to sulk instead. He was wearing Rito clothes that seemed simply cut at first glance. It was only on closer examination that one noticed the embroideries, the subtle patterns and the precise excellence of the tailoring. These were fineries that only the very best Rito could make, and they were worthy of a prince.

Next to all of them, Link felt distinctly inadequate. Protocol had dictated his clothing for the feast and the ball, and as a result he'd donned his soldier's garb, as would all the knights attending. It was a pristine green uniform that had the benefit of making his shoulders look nice and square, that was fairly comfortable and that made him look quasi-respectable. Sometimes, it even caught the eye of a few less-scrupulous maidens.

But it was a far cry from a prince's tunic or a king's doublet. He would look plain next to the other Champions. Plain and out of place. Because he was.

"Is everyone ready?" Princess Zelda asked as she finally joined them in the antechamber.

Link turned and froze, feeling like someone had punched him in the gut.

"Oh," Urbosa said, smiling. "You look lovely."

Link almost wanted to laugh. Lovely didn't begin to describe it. He had limited knowledge of tailoring, but whoever had managed this deserved an immediate and permanent posting to the princess' household.

Fittingly, she looked like spring in pale blue and white, and her skirts moved around her lightly, almost as though they were made of air. She had pulled her golden hair away from her face, tying it back into a loose style that framed her face, bringing out the spring green of her eyes, and white opals and pearls rested at her collarbone, on her ears, in her hair―

Link swallowed hard, averted his eyes. It was no good, staring at her like this. He had to think of something else, and he automatically turned to his usual meditations. In his mind's eye, he focused on a quiet ripple on the surface of a pond, the way light would play on the water, a little like it had in the moonlight when she had prayed in the Goddess shrine, that night he'd touched her, carried her back to her room. She had been so pliant.

… No. Bad Link.

His fingers twitched at his side, so he flexed them nervously. Meditation wasn't working.

"Come," Zelda said, reaching for Daruk's arm with a smile, and the massive Goron grinned down at her. "We all have to be seated by the time my father makes his entrance."

"As you wish, princess," Daruk gallantly said, bowing low, and she smiled at him. Then, he escorted her out into the great Sanctum, where courtiers were amassing and servants were beginning to pile the tables high with food. The feast of Farore was about to begin, so the Goron Champion led the princess to the high table.

Left behind in the antechamber, Link felt strangely bereft.

"Come," Mipha said, linking her arm into his. "There is no reason to be nervous. You have earned your place here, among us."

"He certainly has," Urbosa said. "The princess owes him her life."

Link didn't want to think about that, either. It always brought back memories of killing, a thing he'd do again in a heartbeat for her. He did not want to revisit any of those notions, nor the primal, possessive rage that always seemed to lie below the act.

Up on the dais, Master Impa was already seated at the high table. Master Kohga was among his Sheikah for now, standing by the long table setup for them in the hall. Link saw the bard Misko peer at the princess avidly, his throat bobbing. For a second, he seemed unsure, a simple man in front of a beautiful woman. In that, at least, Link sympathized.

"The bard needs to go," Revali said, softly.

Link didn't reply. He didn't want to agree, didn't want to call any attention to his thoughts. The whole world seemed to be staring at them, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to keep up a conversation. The smells of food and perfumes wafted, mingled together, and ahead of him the princess looked like a vision, a young Nayru, almost. The sight of her did things to him. He wanted to gently push Daruk out of the way, to take her hand in his, to pull her chin up and… and…

"Link?"

He snapped back to reality. The concern in Mipha's voice was all he had needed. Revali had moved on, clearly irritated with his silence.

"We're almost there," she said in barely a whisper. "They'll stop staring when we sit down."

Mipha. Link would have embraced her. She was kind, and a good friend, and he did not deserve her kindness at the moment. "Thank you," he managed.

"I forget how uncomfortable crowds and staring make you," Urbosa said, though not unkindly. "It's a shame your duty comes with this lot."

"I'm getting better," Link said, his throat dry. Daruk had pulled Zelda's chair back, inviting her to sit, which she accepted graciously. "I can handle it."

Urbosa and Mipha exchanged a look, but didn't reply. Link's place was at the high table, apparently between Master Kohga and Princess Mipha, close enough to the princess to intervene if anything happened, but not anywhere near her side. The King had that honour, and Daruk.

At one of the lower tables, the squires, and many knights, and a few Sheikah from his Order of the Guard were seated, drinking. Their celebrations had scarcely been interrupted today, and many appeared to be already slightly sloshed. It was good to see them acting friendly. Even the Sheikah seemed to be having fun.

"I see your Order of the Guard has proved itself," Master Kohga said. The eyes of the court were on that table, many openly amazed at the friendly and open exchanges between Hylians and Sheikah. "It was a smart initiative."

"Thank you," Link said, curtly. "That means a lot coming from you, Master Kohga."

"Thanks to you, my son may yet be accepted by Hylians," Master Kohga said, raising his wineglass slightly in a toast. "When the news reaches Kakariko, the rest of my people will be glad."

Link smiled, looking away from his Order. They were merrymaking, and for a brief moment Link found himself wishing he were still an ordinary squire so that he could sit among them as he had his whole life. "It has proven beneficial for Hylians too."

"Indeed," Master Kohga said, and Link knew, watching the direction of his gaze, that he was looking at Zelda. "One wouldn't want anything to happen to our sweet princess."

"My father wished to extend his warmest greetings to our neighbours the Sheikah," Mipha suddenly said, leaning forward to look across Link at the Sheikah Master. "Winter has made communication rather more… difficult."

"I shall convey his feelings in my next letter to Kakariko," Master Kohga said, politely, but Link saw that his expression had shuttered, as though he had been forced away from a topic he much preferred.

Was he attracted to the princess too? Link wondered. It made him uncomfortable. Master Kohga was twice the princess' age. Or was it something else?

"I don't see why that's any of your business," Chancellor Cole said as he walked behind Link. He was speaking to High Priest Auru and seemed in a foul mood. "It is not mandatory that I should pray."

"Even so," the High Priest replied, evidently surprised by the Chancellor's obvious irritation, "prayer on the day of Farore is the very least…"

Their conversation was lost as they left Link's hearing range. They found their way to their places near the King's seat, and Link focused once again on his glass of wine. It had been filled and caught the light in a way that cast a red shadow on the white tablecloth.

Had he seen Chancellor Cole at prayers? His recollection was uncertain at best. He'd never felt any particular affinity for the man, who always struck him as a little ungracious and otherwise ill-tempered. Besides, his focus that afternoon had been on Zelda. She had been devoutly focused on her prayers, her pink lips moving to words only she could hear, and Link had struggled to think of his own devotions. The words of his own prayer had come out in a confused jumble, too distracted by the princess' proximity, where she kneeled at his side as though they were friends.

In the end, he had eschewed traditional formulas and opted for a more direct approach. He'd prayed for sunshine, peace and health for himself and those he loved. The Goddess Farore had always struck him as the most likely, of the pantheon, to appreciate simple appeals.

And please, he'd added, when the princess shifted next to him and he smelled the warm perfume of her hair, give her your blessingI would be your servant forever if you made her smile.

But as usual, there was no reply from the skies.

"All stand to honour your king!"

Link snapped back to reality, to the feast and the banquet hall, and to the sound of a hundred chairs and benches scraping backwards to allow all the king's guests to rise. The tables before them had been laden with food― large platters of roast duck and heron, dried and boiled sausages, an array of potatoes, carrots, turnips, every winter vegetable there was, and bowls of soups and sauces, and fruit jellies, apples, jams, freshly baked breads― so that under the low murmur of excitement one could almost discern the universal grumbling of bellies.

King Rhoam Bosphoramus made his entrance in his most kingly attire, and all his guests bowed at the waist or curtsied. He strode towards the dais and its high table, urging everyone in a jovial tone to wait not on him but to dig in.

Link could only remember the frown on the king's face when he'd asked about his daughter that morning. This, too, was an act, much like Zelda's graciousness. If anyone else knew, no one gave any indication. The king's urging gave way to a merry cheer, and revelers all sat as soon as the king passed them to begin eating.

Link, however, did not move. Mipha, at his side, was doing the same, blinking placidly. She was used to this, Link realized. She knew the procedure. The high table would wait. The king might have played kindly, but it still did not do for his immediate household to dare eat before him.

King Rhoam finally found his high chair, kissing his daughter on the cheek. She smiled at him warmly, and he returned the expression, and Link wondered if they were genuine.

The King raised his glass, looking left at all those seated at his table, then right, and his eyes glanced over Link but thankfully did not stop upon him, then he simply and gingerly brought the wine to his lips and drank.

As one, all those seated at the high table did the same, then they all sat.

"Finally," Master Kohga said under his breath, shooting Link a playful look inviting him to commiserate. "I was starving," he mumbled, comically.

Link managed a thin smile, still feeling completely out of his element, then he reached for a thick slice of warm bread, appreciating the way it tore and melted on his tongue. Hm. Food.

"The princess will ask you to be her partner for the opening dance," Mipha said, softly, as she lifted a slice of duck breast to her mouth.

The piece of bread lodged itself in Link's throat, and he coughed as softly as he could, slamming at his own chest in a panic.

Mipha glanced at him with concern, and Link finally managed to swallow properly. Then he downed a long swill of wine, and ignored Master Kohga's amused glance.

"How do you know?" He asked Mipha hoarsely.

"She said so," Mipha said, peering at him oddly. She seemed about to add something, but instead she switched to another topic. "I told her she should stick to the simpler steps."

"Thanks," Link said, miserably.

Now his hands felt clammy with anxiety.

"Why is she doing that, anyway? Asking me?" Link asked, his question barely audible to Mipha.

The Zora princess smiled softly, and for a second she almost looked coy. "Perhaps she doesn't like the bard Misko as much as Revali thinks."

Link's throat was dry. He knew Mipha was making a joke, and he ought to have laughed, but the idea of dancing with Zelda seemed to take up all of his mind's focus. Why was she doing it? Was she trying to prove to Master Impa, to her father, that she and Link were no longer at odds? If so, it was a strange way of showing it. There was every possibility that Link would embarrass them all, that he would be a terrible dancer.

Well, he wasn't, not exactly. He was average at best, and what few steps he knew, he owed to his mother's tireless patience. But it was still a poor idea, showcasing his limited repertoire to the assembly of Hyrule's most important people.

Not to mention the first dance was always a valse, and that would mean holding her waist, pulling her close...

Link groaned miserably.

"Has she truly been that terrible?" Mipha asked, with concern.

"No," Link confessed. "That is, she was. But she isn't now." In fact, Zelda was actually a lot less terrible. Dangerously unterrible. She had a keen mind and a playful nature when she was allowed to show it. And she seemed fearless, even though Link knew she wasn't. She was easy to like, now that she wasn't trying her darndest to be awful.

And spending every day with her, listening to her chatter and her absent-minded notetaking, her muttered comments and her exasperated oaths... it was beginning to have an effect on him.

"You can get through one dance with her," Mipha assured him, softly. "I will rescue you at the end, if you like."

Hence his problem. Link didn't want to be rescued.

The feast was loud and Link's ears were ringing. When the musicians entered the Sanctum, he felt his gut twist into a knot. He could excuse himself, he knew. Then she'd be forced to pick someone else. She could choose Revali, or… or…

He put his fork down and pursed his lips. Or Misko.

Link snorted softly.

Like hell.

The musicians began to tune their instruments, and Zelda rose from her chair. The ball was about to begin, and it seemed the clamour of the hall was quieting down ever so slightly.

Link sat rigidly. It seemed like his every sense was focused on Zelda, on the way her skirts fluttered about her, on the way her gloved hands clutched at them with a slightly greater force than necessary, and the way she was watching her every step. She came down from the dais and the revelers all sat down, eager to see who she would select for her first partner.

On Din's Day, when power was to be celebrated, the princess would always ask her father the king. On Nayru's Day, she had to ask a wise man, usually High Priest Auru or one of the senior knights or scholars.

On Farore's Day, she could ask whomever she chose, provided her selected partner had demonstrated some sort of courage recently. A demonstration of courage could be anything really, big or small, and this usually enabled her to select her partner from among the masses of knights, squires or even servants, if she wished.

As she came to stand in the middle of the cleared out hall, her eyes swept over the assembly, and many raised their glasses in a toast. She was smiling serenely, but Link could almost see her white knuckles through her gloves.

At one of the Sheikah tables, the bard Misko was brushing crumbs off himself, arranging his silver hair in the reflection of a polished copper plate, and adjusting his doublet. Then, he shot the princess a charming smile.

Her eyes swept over the bard unseeingly, and they came to rest upon Link.

"Sir Link," her clear voice said.

How did she do it? Even though the entire room seemed to turn to him, for a moment it seemed that time itself slowed to a crawl, that the world dimmed until there was only her in it, and Link felt he stood at the edge of the light, eager to join her.

"Will you celebrate Farore's Day with me?" She asked, formally.

It was then that Link realized he'd been holding his breath. Releasing in a slow exhale, he stood, his heart pounding in his chest. Countless eyes were upon him, watching his every move.

"Good luck," Mipha whispered, giving his hand a little jolt of healing warmth, as though to comfort him.

He didn't need comforting. He needed courage.

The walk down from the dais seemed to last an eternity, but it probably only lasted a few seconds. By the time he joined her on the open floor, he noticed she was standing rigidly, the tension almost invisible, perceptible only in the line of her shoulders, the angle of her chin.

"Princess," Link said, bowing.

She curtsied, and as the silks of her skirt whispered around her, he heard a barely audible 'thank you'.

Had she really thought he would refuse?

His chest felt like it was glowing. He stretched out his hand, and she took it, and he gave it the barest of squeezes, almost afraid that even this would be too much familiarity. Still: you are welcome.

She wore gloves, but even through them Link could feel her hands were cold. Fleetingly, he hoped she hadn't caught anything that morning from the snowball fight. He would feel guilty if she did, even though it wasn't his fault. Could he have prevented it? Probably not. But he'd be miserable if she were sick.

The small orchestra was done tuning, and the conductor's baton clicked at the pages of his music sheets. One, two, three.

"Deep breaths," Zelda said, though Link wasn't sure whether she was speaking to him or to herself.

"Small steps," Link replied, all the same, under his breath.

The gentle notes of flutes began, one two, one two, rising, falling, and behind them the violins and violas began a slow crescendo, but Link was already too busy to think on them. His arm reached around Zelda's waist, the world small and shrunken around them, and he cradled her hand gently.

She looked up at him calmly, her green eyes catching the candlelight, and Link felt his throat close up. The moment would come in a second, he knew, where the musical introduction would give way to sweeping strings and upbeat winds, and then he would have to move.

As the music wrapped itself around him, Link made the first step, and she followed instantly, responding with an instinct born of years and years of proper training. It was almost effortless, the way she danced, stepping backwards lightly and sprightly, as though she could read his mind even before his own body.

The violins were joyful, a tune that was older than time itself, and as he led her in the requisite circle, one, two, three, she carried herself with such dignity and grace that Link felt a small wave of awe. When he extended his arm, she twirled, all control and elegance, and her skirts brushed against his legs before she returned safely to the crook of his arm to continue. One, two, three, one, two, three, and still she moved in his grasp as though she had always danced with him, as though this were their hundredth dance and not their first.

They turned and turned, one, two, three, and his senses were overwhelmed, the sight and smell and feel of her mingling with the music and the taste of wine on his tongue, and Link wondered why he did not feel dizzier, when it felt as though he was drunk.

Her cheeks were flushed pink, her eyes were bright, her golden hair shone in the evening candlelight and she was growing warmer, closer.

Was it her heart racing, or his? With their hands and breasts together, he could hardly tell anymore. Did it matter?

And then the music lifted, and Link realized that at some point in the waltz other couples had joined them on the floor, crowding around them, until he was alone in the crush with her, and they all twirled and turned about them.

She hesitated, and Link slowed to a stop. The music ended on a sweeping, happy note, and the dancers stopped to clap in gratitude. Suddenly, the princess' eyes widened, and she pulled away, turning to the orchestra to clap. Link, too, managed a few half-hearted claps, though he would have preferred to curse the musicians for stopping. His heart was pounding, his breath was short, and he felt energized, hot, as though he'd run a hundred miles.

What was wrong with him?

"May I have the next dance, princess?"

Zelda turned to Misko, and though she hid it well, Link noted she seemed startled. "Oh," she said, "of course." And she gave him a smile that Link would have wanted for himself.

"Link," Mipha's soft voice said, next to him, and he turned to the Zora girl, trying not to feel so distracted.

"Mipha," he smiled, wanly. "I suppose that went well." He was trying not to sound affected, but wasn't sure it worked. Around them, the music was beginning again and the couples were taking their places.

"It did," she said, placing her hand in his gently. She was smiling, but there was something in her eyes that Link couldn't decipher. "It appears you did not need rescuing after all."

"Yes, thank Farore," Link said, laughing in stunned relief. "You're right."

She smiled her usual Mipha smile, an expression that had always seemed to mix sadness and kindness to Link's unpracticed eye. "I'm glad," she said, as he began to lead her through a minuet.

"Yes," Link said, reflecting that perhaps this would truly be his lucky season. He hadn't made a fool of himself, and he was finally beginning to fit into his new station. Recovering from his contemplation, he smiled down at Mipha. She merely gazed up at him pensively, a small frown puckering her brow, so Link squeezed her hands reassuringly. "So am I."

So am I.

Chapter Text

Link wiped his brow and turned to look back at Hyrule field, far below. In the month and a half since Farore's Day, the snows had almost completely melted, and a few areas he could see through the atmospheric haze were already turning green. In the great Hyrule Forest, some of the largest trees were already blossoming, their canopies pink and white.

Some steps ahead of him, the princess was barely looking at where she was walking, her eyes turned upwards at the craggy and steep rock formations of the Eldin volcano.

Link didn't bother to ask whether this was a necessary trek, and he didn't stop to tell her to look at the beauty on the horizon. Zelda was absorbed by her search, her hand perpetually on the Sheikah Slate at her hip, and would accept no distraction.

They'd ascended from the road beyond the Woodland Stables, the climb arduous and too difficult for their horses, which they'd left at the foot of the trail.

Between breaths, Link tried not to smile. If he were perfectly honest with himself, he felt good, despite the strain and fatigue. This was their first official excursion outside of Hyrule Castle's dominion since their return from Gerudo Desert, and it felt good to be out.

A large part of the reason for that was his temporary escape from the duties of a Knight Commander. Leaving them all to Groose, who hated the responsibilities even more, was a welcome respite. Certainly, commanding the Order of the Guard was an honour, especially at so young an age, in no small part thanks to the privilege of working with men and women he respected a great deal, but it also came with its lot of daily annoyances, petty squabbles and silly time-wasters.

Princess Zelda had been a delight in that regard, at least. Once her initial resistance had worn off, she had shown godlike patience with the new recruits, the trainees and the arguments that still sometimes came up between Hylian knights and Sheikah shadows, occasionally stepping in to bring order. There was no doubt, Link knew, that she found the Guard's presence supremely irritating in her day-to-day pursuits, tripping over them at every turn, having to check in every time she wanted to go anywhere, from the library to the market, but she had never been anything less than gracious to its individual members.

Instead, she now aired out her frustrations in Link's new study, pacing back and forth and explaining that if the Yiga had truly infiltrated Hyrule Castle and meant to kill her, they'd have done so already, and perhaps he was being overzealous. But neither Impa nor Link were ready to slacken the watch. Her power might arise any day, Impa would argue, and that would be reason enough for the enemy to strike.

Link's reasons were less focused on the princess' continued powerlessness and more on how well he slept knowing she was safe.

He didn't like to dwell on that overmuch.

In any case, when the princess had insisted that spring's arrival signified they could finally resume proper surveying missions, their fledgling truce had reached its first real test. She tolerated the Guard's presence in the Castle, but she had insisted on traveling with the smallest possible number when visiting other provinces.

Link smiled at the memory of her barging in, ready for a prolonged fight. She had evidently considered every argument and was ready to defend her position, and Link's rapid acquiescence to her demands had left her off-kilter, flushed pink with vindication. He had anticipated her request, had prepared for it, and had braced for her arrival.

'I want one Guard only,' she had finally said, as haughtily as possible, though his agreement with her request apparently deflated her fighting spirit completely.

So here he was, happy and free, if only for a time.

All the same, two Sheikah shadows were following along an hour or so behind them, unseen; two knights had remained in the Woodland Stable to ensure they were not being followed by the Yiga or anyone else; and he'd sent word ahead to Daruk and the other Goron elders that they would be in Eldin for a time, just in case.

She didn't have to know about those precautions.

"I think this will be perfect," Zelda called out, over her shoulder. "It will help to confirm my theory."

Link didn't reply, merely following along behind her. She hadn't expected a reply, because she returned to pressing at the Sheikah Slate, speaking to herself once more.

She had deciphered texts describing 'towers', Sheikah in origin, that supposedly dotted much of Hyrule's landscape. No modern knowledge of such towers existed, and she had speculated her translation might have been faulty, that perhaps 'towers' referred instead to notable landmarks that would be visible from up high.

So here they were, scaling the Castle-facing slope of Eldin.

Not that Link minded, really, as his eyes casually returned to the lovely bottom that swayed a few paces in front of him. Exercise was good, and getting away was good, and spending time with her was a lot more pleasant these days than it had been at the onset of winter.

She had taken to traveling with him much better this time around. She still babbled her thoughts out loud, expecting little from him, and Link found he could get away with looking at her when she did so, when she was scribbling at her personal notebook or research journal, when she was busy studying plants and bugs and animals. Occasionally, she would still have him fetch hard-to-reach items, but even then, Link didn't mind. Traveling with her had become enjoyable. Fun, even, for the part of him that wasn't constantly seeing Yiga warriors in every shadow. It was best not to think too hard on the dead he'd buried, but they were always there, in the back of his mind.

But for now, part of him, a part of him that he didn't dare to name, revelled in the escape, savoured these moments where she looked so free. The open air and the wind in her hair transformed her, made her smiles broader and her eyes brighter, and the clothes she picked to travel evidently had the same effect on him as her finest dresses, except they made her seem… approachable.

That last bit wasn't ideal, but no one had to know. He didn't have to say a word, and if he never touched her, she'd never be the wiser.

She paused for breath, leaning against a rock and watched him catch up slowly. Her green eyes lit on him lightly, and Link could tell she was about to say something she meant as a joke. "Beat you to it."

He responded with a roll of his eyes, and she pressed her lips together to keep from giggling. He reached her side and leaned against the rock next to her, eyes dragging along the path ahead, and the path behind them reflexively before relaxing. She studied him quietly, before turning away and looking out at the horizon.

"For all that you have a sharp tongue," she said, "you don't use it as often as one would think."

Link shrugged, removing the cork from his waterskin. "Speaking out of turn has put me in enough trouble in the past." She snorted at that. "Now, it is an exercise in conciseness."

She grimaced, watching him take a long swill of water. "Conciseness," she echoed, with clear irritation. "I have enough of that in my research. Come on, Sir Link," she said, absently wiping her brow with her sleeve, "a friend pointed out that I know essentially nothing about you."

"A friend?" Link asked, after he was done swallowing. He extended his waterskin in silent offering, but Zelda looked at it, grew somewhat pink, and shook her head.

She placed the Sheikah Slate back on the holster at her hip and crossed her arms. "Misko." She smiled in recollection, and Link ignored the feeling in his gut at the sight of it. "Of course, when he said it, it sounded more like 'Why waste your time?', but I think the sentiment was valid."

"How comforting," Link said, placidly.

"Yes, yes," she said, waving absently. "You and Misko do not get along." An understatement, Link reflected, before she continued, "But in any case, I think he is right. I do not know you, and you know me too well." She leaned in, smiled. "I would very much like to even the scales."

Link rubbed at his nape. "Well, I can try." She seemed in no hurry to continue the climb, and in this heat, a shock to the system after the cold of winter, Link wasn't either.

"Excellent," she said, perking up. Her hand had snaked into her bag and retrieved her journal. Research journal, Link noted with some amusement, and not diary. She flipped it open, thumbing at a few pages, before stopping on a heavily annotated page. "Let's see. I have a list of questions."

"A list?" Link asked, trying not to sound too amused. She did not take kindly to amusement where her research was concerned.

She shot him a warning look. When she was satisfied he would not mock her endeavour, she returned her attention to the page. "Name one hidden skill of yours."

Link blinked. "A hidden skill?" Then, he narrowed his eyes. "That's not fair. I don't know any of yours."

"Astrography," she said, dismissively. "I can draw a near perfect map of the night sky by hand."

He tried not to reveal his surprise, but it came out anyway. "Really?"

She shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. "There is only so much prayer I can do before I just begin to stare out the window."

That was a little sad. Wincing in sympathy, Link gave the question an honest effort. "Well," he said, thinking, "I suppose… I can tame any wild horse there is."

She studied him, as though trying to decide whether he was lying. "Any horse?"

"So far," he confirmed, and wondered belatedly if it sounded like bragging. "But anyone can do it," he added. "It's all in the soothing." He gave her a smile that probably did not help his credibility.

After a moment of suspicious reflection, Zelda finally conceded: "I'll allow it." She studied her notes. "Next question. Your favourite food."

"Er…" He rubbed at his jaw in thought. "I don't know. I like food. Any food. Spicy, sweet, sour," he started to enumerate on his fingers, "savoury, hot, cold, raw, cooked―"

"No, don't be ridiculous. You must have a favourite food," Zelda insisted.

"I like apples," Link finally said.

"Apples," she echoed in disbelief.

"Apples are great. They keep a long time and horses love them. Why? What's your favourite food?"

She looked a little stunned. "Well, fruit cake, obviously. It is, after all, the best dessert in the world."

"Oh, excuse me," Link said, teasingly, "I had no idea I would have to defend my choice against such an attack."

She groaned in mock exasperation. "No, please, keep your apples, Sir Link. Such a delicacy." She lifted her journal up to hide her face from his grin. "Next question," she said, her voice muffled by the pages.

Link shifted his weight. Something was off. He studied her, though he couldn't see her face, and tried to decide what it could be.

"If you had a choice, would you have still chosen to become a knight?"

"Uh," he frowned, the sense of unease growing. "Well…" He couldn't shake the feeling that now bothered him, and he looked about them, pushing away from the rock. "I guess. It was a choice." He frowned.

She seemed to notice his change in tone and attitude, and she lowered her journal to observe him, a brow furrowed. "What is it?"

"I don't know," Link replied, his hand instinctively going for the hilt of the Master Sword over his shoulder.

She crossed her arms. "You can't escape the questions that easily, you know."

Link turned to her, about to retort, when his whole body tensed. "Get down!"

And, before she could react, before he could think, he had already moved, reaching for her waist and pulling her away from the stone in one forceful movement, pushing her behind him. She yelped, and an arrow struck the place where she had been standing.

Staggering, she managed to stay upright only because he held onto her arm firmly, preventing her from going careening downhill.

"Duck," he hissed, and she bent obediently. "Stay behind me."

Higher on the trail, the bokoblin looked irritated, its ears and snout twitching, and it reached for its rudimentary quiver to draw a new arrow.

Link grimaced. "Right, get back behind the bend and stay close to the rock face. I'll dispatch this one."

She did not argue, and Link scrambled up the slope before the bokoblin could draw his bow once more. With a single slash, the bokoblin met its end.

Standing over the red corpse, Link could now feel the spread of his bloodlust, the adrenaline running through his veins. In death, the bokoblin's tongue lolled out, its yellow eyes unseeing.

He'd killed plenty of this one's fellows before during summer skirmishes alongside his fellow knights, and did not fear them. Bokoblins could be a nuisance, but they had little in the way of smarts and even less skill in weapons crafting.

A horn rang low and clear, its discordant notes disturbing Eldin's warm air, and Link's eyes darted up, suddenly startled out of his contemplation.

The hornblower ― another bokoblin ― had witnessed Link's arrival, and had alerted the occupants of a nearby cave.

Link's stomach dropped.

Lynels. The three warrior centaurs had spotted him, and their white manes bristled with hostility. Around them, more red and blue-skinned bokoblins were emerging, hefting clubs and spears.

He ought to have seen this coming, he thought, frustrated. Skirmishes here and in every other province seemed to have begun with renewed numbers as soon as the snows had begun to melt. Moblins, bokoblins, lynels, and other nasty creatures had begun to plague the people of Hyrule in greater numbers than ever before, and the reports that were pouring into the Castle seemed to indicate no end to the encroaching tide of monsters.

As though the Yiga hadn't been enough to handle.

Link's instinct was to turn tail and run. Every fiber of his being warned this would be the wise thing to do.

But he couldn't outrun an angry lynel on a charge, let alone three. They were smart, they would corner him on their home territory.

And Zelda―

Link's grip on the Master Sword tightened. Deep within, a beast growled in warning. Zelda was his to guard. She had to live.

So instead of backing down, Link ducked behind a nearby rock. He had a few seconds, he knew, before the lynels found their bows and began to shoot overhead. But at least he could get his bearings and draw a few of the more foolish Bokoblins to his hiding spot, and cut them one by one before they could swarm him.

He gutted two of them before the tell-tale creaking of bows being drawn told him he had to run. Sprinting, he scrambled to another rock, kicking up a cloud of dust. Several more Bokoblins followed, and Link dimly acknowledged the thudding of arrows landing in the dirt as he sliced at his close assailants.

He had to take the lynels down, he knew, but how? Their intelligence rivaled any Hylian's and they were tough, their swings powerful enough to cut a grown man in half without breaking a sweat.

But they were proud, too, and quick to anger.

Inhaling deeply, Link briefly shot a look skyward, voicelessly sending a prayer to his patron goddess.

He could really use a bit of luck right now.

Then, pushing to his feet, he hefted his sword and charged with a long, wordless cry.

The lynels hadn't expected that, their bows growing useless with every yard Link covered, and Link used their surprise to his advantage, ducking behind the closest lynel to slash at its hind legs.

The creature howled, stomping, but Link was already moving on. By now, a second lynel had switched from a bow to its massive obsidian-coloured cleaver and was growling menacingly, so Link went for it directly. The lynel raised its weapon overhead, and Link slid out of the slice's path at the very last second.

In that moment, it seemed that time itself slowed, and Link could almost feel the air displaced by the blade as it brushed past his shoulder. His own focus, however, was on the beast's chest, which had been left wide open by its attack. With a cry, Link thrust the Master Sword forward, plunging it deep into the monster's breast. It howled in pain, and Link pulled, then stabbed again, and again, and again, almost hypnotized by the repeated shudders of his quarry.

Then, time seemed to rush back to him, and Link staggered away. The stabbed lynel was kneeling, its forelegs having crumbled under his weight, and it struggled to breathe. Punctured lung, perhaps. The blood that gushed out of its multiple wounds was flowing red and hot, and Link determined it wasn't going to get up again in a while.

Turning to the other two lynels, he was pleased to note a certain anger in their eyes. Anger was good, Link decided. It led to more mistakes.

He returned to the lynel he'd wounded first, slashing at the back of its hind legs once more, and it finally crumpled with a groan. So Link vaulted onto its back.

Suddenly aware that it was being mounted, the beast began to buck, slightly weakened by its wounded legs, so Link grabbed its mane firmly and held on for dear life.

The third lynel raised its sword and hesitated, unsure how to attack without wounding its comrade. Link made the decision, raising the tip of the Master Sword to his furious mount's neck, stabbing through. A spurt of hot blood followed, and the beast froze in shock. Link wasn't sure he'd struck its spine, but he had definitely hit its windpipe from behind, and now the creature would drown in its own blood, or faint then die of blood loss. Whichever came first.

Before Link could slide off, however, the final lynel grabbed him by his shirt, and Link began to flail.

With its other powerful arm, the lynel raised its cleaver high, triumphant.

Link struggled to breathe. The world shrunk, dimming at the edges, and he croaked against the pull of his collar. Above him, the cleaver glinted in the Eldin sun.

At least the Sheikah Shadows would retrieve Zelda, he thought. He thought of his mother, and felt a brief flash of sorrow that she would soon mourn her only son.

Cringing, Link prepared for the killing blow, hoping it would be quick.

And then the lynel was struck in the head by a small rock.

"Drop him at once!"

Link wanted to groan. There was no mistaking that voice.

Zelda.

Stupid girl. Brave girl.

He had intended to buy time for her escape, not to attract her to more danger. He ought to have mentioned that first... Perhaps he had assumed it was self-explanatory.

Instead of berating her, Link took the chance of the lynel's momentary distraction to give its arm a firm slice. With his awkward position and non-existent leverage, the cut was glancing at best, but it forced the lynel to drop him, so Link scrambled away, breathing hard.

Glancing in Zelda's direction, he saw the many remaining bokoblins heading her way and began to run. Behind him, the furious lynel roared and inhaled deeply.

Oh no, Link thought, speeding up. Before he could think any further, a burst of fire raced past him, missing him by a hair and singing the ground where it passed. A second fireball caught a bokoblin, and it shrieked, dancing to put out the flames.

Link collided with Zelda in a body slam that winded both of them and sent them tumbling to the ground and to the edge of a very steep drop-off. He rolled over her, protecting her with his back as the third fireball whooshed next to them, dodging it but just barely.

"What are you doing here?!" He shouted, pushing himself up on his hands to glare in her face. She was dusty, breathless, beautiful, and evidently angry at his tone.

"Saving you!" She replied indignantly, glaring right back.

Link pushed himself up, cutting down two bokoblins, then grabbed her by the waist and pushed her behind one of the rocks he'd first used for shelter. "Stay down!" he commanded, as one would to a particularly recalcitrant puppy. "I can handle this!"

"Oh, can you?" She asked, sarcastically, as the lynel let out a roar that made the earth tremble. A hot burst of air whipped at him, and Link turned just in time to see it mustering its primal elemental energy.

"You should have run away," he said, ducking behind the rock too, covering her with his body a second time and bracing for the forthcoming wall of flames. With a short stab under his arm, he cut down another bokoblin. It fell to the ground with a gargle. "I was handling it."

"Were," she insisted, flinching as a burst of flames exploded against the other side of the rock, blowing a scalding wind against their faces. "And then I saved you."

"Thank you," Link agreed angrily. Scowling furiously into her face, he said, "I owe you my life!"

"You're welcome!" She snapped, green eyes wide, tone just as furious. "Behind you!"

Wheeling around, Link brought down another bokoblin that was raising its club. Over yonder, the lynel had raised his bow and was aiming right at them.

Zelda, the primal voice warned again. Link had to draw the monster's attention away, or she'd die―

"Stay here," he ordered over his shoulder, before rushing back to the remaining lynel, who stood among its dead and dying comrades with all the righteous rage one would expect of a demonic centaur. Mercifully, the arrow thudded in the dust, and Link sped up.

Look at me, he prayed, staring the lynel down in defiance as he approached. Do not look at her. She is mine.

He dodged one of its attacks, striking its flank, but the lynel turned its weapon around, striking with a circular swipe, a feint the likes of which Link had never seen before.

It was too quick, and Link was flung to the side.

"Link!"

Stunned, he tried to regain his bearings. How had he survived that? He felt like he had been struck by a loaded minecart. As he pushed himself to his feet, he realized the lynel's swipe had hit him with the flat of its blade. An accident of chance, simply due to a twist of the wrist.

His forehead was wet and he was still dizzy. A glancing blow to the head, he observed, as in a haze. Possibly from being thrown to the ground. That was unfortunate. He'd be sluggish now.

The lynel raised its weapon high, and Link forced himself to focus. Good, it was exposing its chest, and lynels did not wear armour.

With a cry, Link pushed with his legs, throwing himself forward, and his blade found its target.

The lynel roared, but the Master Sword was now lodged in its heart. It thrashed, dropping its sword, and its clawed hands sought desperately to seize Link. And because Link was slow now, three of its long claws raked against Link's forearm, cutting through his sleeve to the skin, hard enough to make Link release the Master Sword.

It remained impaled in the lynel's heart, and Link was thrown away. Catching his breath, he watched the great beast in its death throes, the rage in its eyes slowly dwindling, fading to a dull glint before vanishing entirely.

When Link was sure the lynel would not move again, he reached in to grab the Master Sword once more, flinching at the pain that traveled up his arm.

Of all the wounds, he thought to himself with irritation, it had to be a strike against his sword arm, and by the flailing of a dying enemy.

Almost mindlessly, he killed the Bokoblins that remained and hadn't fled, before turning back to Zelda.

She was looking at him, still hiding behind the rock, her eyes full of worry.

"Is it… Are you…?"

"I'm fine," he grunted, still trembling with adrenaline. He wiped the flat of his blade with a cloth he kept in the scabbard. "I should have scouted ahead."

He turned to look at the carnage, and felt a strange pang within. Corpses of monsters lay strewn all over the red rock, their weapons planted where they had fallen.

Did I do that?

"You're bleeding," Zelda said.

Before Link could react, she had reached up, brushing his hair out of his face, her fingers feather light, and her green eyes were narrowed as she studied him.

Link's heart began to race again, and he froze.

"I can't tell if it's just a little cut― Heads wounds always bleed so profusely." She reached into her pocket and retrieved a linen cloth, the sort she used to wrap and protect delicate plant samples, and she began to wipe at his wound meticulously.

It itched a little, but Link found himself completely unable to move. His chest was too narrow for the pounding of his heart now, and the sound of blood rushing in his ears seemed to block out every other noise. He felt like prey at the base of a cliff, trapped, unwilling to fight, unable to flee. Her touch was gentle and firm at once, and when she worked on him she was so close he could see the way she bit at her lip with her white teeth, and how her green eyes were narrowed in focus, and how her lashes were a darker colour than her hair― And how she was close enough that he could kiss her if he wanted to.

He blinked, tried to force his eyes to look away. It was the adrenaline. It was the head wound. He didn't want to kiss her, anyway. It was just an observation. He tried to look at the sky, tried to look at the ground, but his eyes kept coming back to her.

"Well," she said, and from this close her voice sounded almost breathy, coming from deep within her chest, not that he was looking, not that he cared, "it appears I won't have to carry you home on my back."

She took a step back to better study the cut on his head, before nodding to herself in satisfaction, and released him.

Link almost heaved a sigh of relief, his hand coming up to feel at the crudely cleaned cut.

And then she gasped.

"What is that? Your arm!"

He blinked, looked down. His undershirt's sleeve had been torn, and now the gashes on his arm were soaking through his clothes. Strange, he hadn't even felt that when she was looking at him. "Oh," he said. "It's nothing."

She scowled prettily. "Don't be a fool. Sit down."

"I'm not a fool," Link insisted, but her bossy tone did something to him, and he found himself obeying, sitting down on the rocky ground so she could kneel by him. He even let her fumble at the clasps on his bracers and unravel the cloth that covered his forearm, peeling the blood-soaked fabric from his skin. Then, he let her roll up the sleeve of his undershirt, and she began to press her cleaning cloth against the wound.

He flinched, the stab of pain traveling up his arm.

She clucked her tongue. "Those will leave scars," she said, and she reached for her waterskin and another clean cloth. "The gashes are rather deep." She looked up, and for a moment he saw only the green of her eyes. "You're lucky you had your bracer to protect the rest of your arm."

He nodded, his mouth too dry to speak.

She peered at him for a moment. Before Link could ask her why, she returned her attention to the ministrations on his arm. "I can put a salve on them, to soothe the pain somewhat and prevent infection." She didn't wait for his approval, reaching into one of her pouches and retrieving a little pot of what looked like opaque jelly.

"Thank you," he finally managed, when she was almost done cleaning his wound.

"You're welcome," she said, her eyes still lowered to focus on her task. "I owe you that much. I did drag you up here." She added that with a shy smile that made her look…

Made her look achingly...

Gods, Link thought, turning away, forcing himself to look at one of the dead lynels, knowing it was only a matter of time before he succumbed to the temptation of looking at her again. What is wrong with me? He felt turned around, dizzy, elated by survival and victory. And he feared the sensation would never leave, especially as her focus returned to his forehead.

What sort of trouble was he in now?


"That cut doesn't look too bad, actually. You're fine for now. But you know, there's a fine line between courage and recklessness…"

Chapter Text

"Are you sure you don't mind?"

His horse nickered, so Link scratched its neck before turning to Zelda, who was watching him with concern, and said, "I'm sure."

She didn't seem convinced, but she turned forward again, fiddling with her bridle. Under her, her horse was walking placidly… for now. It tended to kick up occasionally. Link suspected it hadn't forgotten the wild descent from Eldin that had nearly killed it last autumn, nor who had been responsible for it.

The princess, though, seemed almost oblivious to her mount's resentment. She had arrived in the stables that morning with a large bag and several tomes, firmly insisting that they had much more research to do. Link had only just put the bit into his mount's mouth and had blinked at her in surprise. He had asked for two days off, handing over her protection to the rest of his Order, and the princess' sudden appearance seemed to imply she had forgotten that he was on personal leave.

And then Link had seen the redness of her eyes, and he'd thought better of asking.

This wasn't the first time he saw her upset. It was an open secret she and King Rhoam tended to have arguments on the best way to prepare for Calamity Ganon. Link was relieved no one had bothered to ask his opinion, because he still felt woefully unequipped for the upcoming battle.

It was the first time, though, that Link noticed tears on her cheeks after such an argument.

"It's just," she said, breaking the silence once more as they trotted on the long southbound road that divided newly plowed fields where farmers were still hard at work, sowing grains and vegetables and turning up rocks, "I feel terrible. I had completely forgotten."

"I don't mind," Link said, once more.

Her voice was still hoarse, but at least her eyes weren't red anymore, and she had finished sniffling. It had taken her a while to calm down, and once she had, she'd nearly worked herself into another fit when she realized she was intruding on his leave. It had caused such alarm within him to see her in that state that he had known he far preferred to have her with him than not at all.

The princess seemed strangely shy about accompanying him on his personal errand, opening and closing her mouth in turn, as though a question that she dared not voice burned her lips.

Finally, after a few hours of riding, she finally broke. "Sir Groose said you always take two days off at this time of year."

Link glanced back, stifling a smile. Silence and patience seemed to be the surest way to get her to speak her mind. "Yes," he said.

She wrung the slack of reins in her hands, clearly uncomfortable with her question. "Why?"

Link looked up at the sky. It was pale blue, with fluffy white clouds. A light breeze that smelled of earth and new growth blew over the fields, and everywhere, amid the mud puddles and cart tracks, he could see signs that spring was in full swing, from the new leaves on the trees to the light, fresh green of the grasses.

Breathing in deeply the pleasant fragrance of the world, he said, "My father died on this day seven years ago."

He heard her inhale sharply.

"Oh," she said, and she halted her horse. She looked mortified. "Oh. I am― I shouldn't have―" She looked about herself, unsure, and said, "I can go back. I am so sorry. I shouldn't have imposed."

Link smiled, paused and turned in his saddle to face her. "It's alright," he said. "It's mostly an opportunity to visit my mother and my village. You will be welcome there."

Her lip wavered, and she seemed once more on the verge of tears. "I didn't know."

"I would have arranged another escort if you hadn't been welcome," Link said. "Besides," he nodded to her saddlebags, which he knew were full of books, "you have no idea what you're really after. You just needed to leave."

A flash of irritation came across her face, but only for a second, "Am I so transparent?"

Link didn't reply, studying her, before giving her a little smile he hoped invited trust. "What happened?"

She exhaled, frustrated, and looked away. "My father―" She took a deep breath that lifted her shoulders, and said, "My father is angry that I remain powerless." She looked down at her gloved hands and the way they worried at the leather of her reins. "As usual."

"But you prayed this morning," Link said, frowning. He knew because he'd been there, watching her. She'd bent her head, her golden hair catching the sunshine that filtered through the high glass windows. "What more does he expect you to do?"

Her eyes were watery again, and she wiped at them angrily. "A…" She paused, focused on regaining her composure. Then, finally, she said, "A pilgrimage."

By force of habit, Link's mind began to race through the necessary requirements. Would she need a detail? "What sort of pilgrimage?" He asked.

"A visit to the three Goddess Springs," Zelda said, her voice worn. "To be done at once or in three expeditions. He wasn't particular about the how. He says it's best if the visits happen in each of the Goddesses' seasons, but..." She shrugged.

Link observed her quietly. Whatever conversation she'd had with her father, it had clearly exhausted her. There was nothing he could do about it, though. One did not scold a king for the way he treated his only daughter.

Instead, he forced himself to smile comfortingly. "Well, I, for one, welcome it. It'll be good to hit the road for an extended trip." He'd have to exercise to regain the full range of motion in his arm, of course. It still ached when he swung and it stung every time cloth rubbed against it, but Link was sure it was just a matter of time before that stopped. A little lynel scratch wouldn't be the end of him.

She managed a long-suffering look, but Link knew there was gratitude in her smile too. "Thank you." Then, she seemed to remember herself, and she insisted, "But really, I can make my way back. Sir Groose is a poor rider, but he can manage a little outing."

Link shrugged. "You can do as you like," he said, hoping she wouldn't. "I can arrange for someone to accompany you back. But we're almost there anyway."

She frowned, looking around. "Are we?"

He turned, pointing ahead to the south. "Mabe Village. Beyond that hill," he said. "The road winds southward and around."

"Mabe Village," she echoed. "Is that where your father is from?"

Link nudged his horse onward, and was pleased to see the princess follow. "My mother," he replied. "My father was a wandering swordsman when he was younger. One day he crushed a cabbage in my mother's vegetable garden." He tried in vain not to smile fondly. "My mother's father ―my grandfather― owned the land from having served under your grandfather, I believe."

The road before them began a gentle turn southward, and now those farmers close enough to recognize Link would wave at him politely. Zelda observed this curiously, but seemed in no hurry to introduce herself.

"In any case," Link continued, "once my mother caught the culprit who ruined one of her prized cabbages, she wrangled him into staying around a full year to help with the harvest, as a payment of debt."

"For a single cabbage head?" Zelda asked, the amusement in her voice obvious.

"She was, or rather― is a fearsome woman," Link said. "And I suspect her beauty did the rest of the convincing. My father always said she had a fire in her eyes that day, and that he fell in love with her on sight."

"Your father sounds like a romantic," Zelda said. "I didn't remember that about him."

"Did you know him?" Link asked. His father had been in the Royal Guard, but Link had thought he served the king ―and queen, before her death― more than the young princess.

"By face," the princess said, musing. "I must have been seven or eight when I first noticed him. I was quite enamoured."

"Enamoured?" Link echoed, looking her way with a grin.

She rolled her eyes. "He was like a knight out of my storybooks," she ground out, the sudden flush of her cheeks betraying her embarrassment. "His blond hair, his fair eyes―" She looked at Link, flushed deep red, then her lips clamped shut, and she jutted out her chin. "It was harmless."

"I'm sure he would have been flattered," Link said, generously.

"You're laughing at me," she grumbled.

"Not at all," he replied, feeling immensely pleased. "Blond hair and fair eyes, huh?"

"Oh, do be quiet," she mumbled.

He was about to tease her again when her eyes widened and she sat up straighter in her saddle, evidently relieved by a new distraction.

"Is that it?" She asked.

Link turned. Up ahead, the road slid down a gentle slope and widened.

Mabe Village was a small settlement, with little wood, stone and thatch cottages lined up neatly along the road, with a well in the heart of the village and tall, broad trees to create shade. Beyond the houses, livestock bleated, mooed and clucked in neat and well-maintained wooden enclosures, and beyond those still, long tilled fields stretched along the green hills and along a narrow ruddy brook.

The people that lived here were hardy folk, milling about on their errands and stopping to chat with neighbours. Though they were thinner than the people of Hyrule Castle Town, they'd made it through winter well enough.

It was a pretty village. Not rich, certainly, but evidently well managed. Link felt his heart swell with pride at the sight of it.

"This is the heart of your knightly estate, isn't it?" Zelda asked.

Link nodded. "My grandfather left it to my parents when he died. He was glad my mother had married a knight to continue the tradition."

"How far does it go, exactly?"

Link shifted in his saddle. He motioned to the northeast. "The Mabe Prairie extends over yonder, all the way to the Applean Forest. The forest is the furthest limit of the estate. Otherwise it stretches out west to somewhere before the Passeri Greenbelt, and south until it meets the edge of Whistling Estate."

"It's sizeable," Zelda observed. She frowned, then turned to him. "Don't your duties in Hyrule Castle prevent you from seeing to its management?"

Link shrugged. "It's in my name now, since my father died, but my mother has always been the true mind here. I sign the papers, but otherwise she manages it all."

"It's admirable," Zelda said, looking at the tidy upkeep of the houses and the flower boxes on their windows. "We do not pay you enough," she added, after a moment's thought.

Link snorted, halting to dismount. "Just give me a raise when the Calamity dies."

She shot him a reproachful look. "Don't wish for disasters."

Curious onlookers were beginning to notice the two of them. Overhead, a shutter swung open as Link noticed Pergie, the pumpkin farmer's wife, airing out a dusty carpet. Further down the street, Hanch ― who owned the general store, though it was managed with an iron fist by his wife ― was miserably dragging a bucket of well water, straining with effort. Abe, the pig farmer, had just stopped to wipe his brow, and Sue-Belle, the washer woman, was animatedly chatting with old Rusta, who was feeding the birds.

"Link!"

Link turned, bracing, and was toppled to the ground with a grunt. Pushing against his short assailant, ignoring the lancing pain that pulled at his arm, he lifted the boy and tried to dust himself off.

"Hello, Talo," he greeted, winded.

The boy was a mess, as usual ―his clothes in disarray and his hair a nest of cowlicks― and Link noticed he'd had another growth spurt since he'd last seen him. "You're back!" The boy exclaimed.

Talo always had a knack for speaking the obvious. "I am," Link said, straightening. "And I take it your presence here means you're dodging your duties."

The boy scowled. "Ma wants me to milk the goat."

"Betsy?" Link asked, reaching for the reins in order to lead his horse by foot.

"Bitey, you mean," Talo groused. "I'd rather fight a pack of bokoblins."

Link held Zelda's horse as she dismounted. "Be glad you don't have to."

"I almost did!" Talo exclaimed, his face lighting up. "When they came by last week!"

Zelda thanked him softly, recovering her reins from him, and Link turned to Talo with a frown. "What do you mean?" He asked.

"The bokoblins," Talo said. "Hanch and Fado drove them off with a cattle drive, but everyone says it's just a matter of time before they come back."

Link glanced at the princess. She was frowning. It was then, at last, that Talo noticed her.

"Hey," he blurted, before thinking of acting with composure he didn't have anyway, "you're the princess!"

Princess Zelda smiled, pulling her shoulders back. Around the village, Talo's excitement had drawn people out of their houses, and now Zelda was becoming a royal rather than a scholar, Hylia rather than a girl.

"It's lovely to meet you," she said, in the way she usually greeted commoners, and Talo flushed a red so deep Link was sure he'd explode. Link couldn't blame him.

"H-Hi."

"Link."

Turning away from Zelda, Link found his mother walking out from between two houses, wiping her hands on a dusty apron, amidst a few of the village matrons.

She was beautiful even now, some twenty years after catching the eye of a wandering swordsman, her eyes the colour of a deep summer sky, the wrinkles around them more numerous than Link remembered, but crinkling in a smile that had lost none of its charm. Her red hair, which she'd pulled back into a bonnet, was paler than before, the streaks of white beginning to fade its once bright fire.

"Mother," Link said, smiling warmly, and he bent to kiss her soft cheek. She smelled as she always had, of lilac and lavender, and though he noticed a few aging spots on her skin, she still managed to look as regal and fresh-faced as she did in his memories.

She said nothing, her hand reaching up to cup his cheek fondly, and then her sharp gaze turned to Zelda, recognition sparking for less than a second before she took it all in stride. She was very good at that.

"Princess," she said, curtsying. She had perfected the curtsy in those days where his father had spent more time at court, and still managed it with grace and control.

"Madam," Zelda said, curtsying in return. "I'm afraid I invited myself rather rudely."

"She did not," Link said. "Princess, may I introduce my mother, Marin? Mother, this is Princess Zelda."

"You are welcome here," Link's mother assured her. "Though I fear we will have simpler fare than you are used to."

Zelda smiled, shooting Link a look he could have imagined was amusement. "I assure you, Madam, I am used to much worse than my station might suggest. Already this village brings me great comfort."

His mother smiled politely, inclining her head, though Link was sure he'd get an earful later about not having given sufficient warning.

"We will be staying overnight," Link said, in a poor attempt to salvage his earlobes before they got pinched, "and we won't impose any more than strictly necessary."

But now his mother shot him a look that spoke volumes. "I see you rarely enough," she said. "I will hear no such nonsense about you leaving a minute earlier than absolutely necessary." She smiled warmly at Zelda and said, "Link will stay in his old bed, and you shall have our best guest room."

By now, a group of villagers had gathered round, half to welcome Link home with glad claps to the shoulder and half to openly gawp at the princess. She didn't seem to mind, Link noticed, answering their questions with her usual patience and grace, so he relaxed a little. This welcome seemed to have taken her mind off the morning's emotions, for which Link was glad.

"Link."

The warm voice pulled his attention away from Zelda, and Link found himself smiling at his childhood friend.

"Ilia," he said, pleased, and they embraced. "It's been a while."

"It has," Ilia said, her green eyes crinkling warmly as she pulled away. Her pale hair was cropped short, but did not take away from her feminine charm. "Welcome home."

Link smiled, choosing not to respond to that. If he were honest with himself, Mabe Village was home in nostalgia only. His focus lay in Hyrule Castle now, where his friends and peers resided and conducted their business. "Not for long," he warned.

Ilia took this with a graceful smile. "Of course," she said. She smiled at the princess, who now stood politely off to Link's side, observing their exchange in silence. "Your mother did mention you had important duties to discharge before you could be free to return permanently."

Link glanced at Zelda, whose dark gold brow had lifted, but whose pleasant smile had otherwise not changed, fixed on her face as lightly as ever. "Er, yes, well… We'll see."

Ilia's expression wilted ever so slightly. "Well, we were all hoping you would return in the next few years. You are the acreage holder, after all." She perked up. "Though your mother has been teaching me the ins and outs of managing the estate's affairs." She turned to Marin, beaming. "I had no idea balancing finances was so taxing." She giggled. "Pun not intended."

Link smiled, but he could feel something curdle inside his stomach. A glance at his mother revealed a carefully serene expression, the lines of her face as relaxed as she could make it, and he knew she was scheming. Of his two parents, she had always been the strategist, the one to look further ahead.

When it came to prospective matches for her son, Ilia had always been a favourite of his mother's, the sort of good country girl a knight of his standing could and should be satisfied with, the sort of sensible woman who'd manage his business with hardiness and economy. The sort of girl his own mother had been, and the sort of girl she was unabashedly pushing his way. And Ilia was a good prospect, if he were honest with himself: she was pretty, charming, and had a good head on her shoulders.

And she liked him, Link knew. Ilia had never been very good at disguising her emotions, let alone dissembling. It was in the blush on her cheeks and the careful meticulousness of her interactions with him, prim yet warm, mixed in with a dash of great kindness towards his mother.

Link had always thought himself a reasonable person. He was not a rebellious son, and even if he hadn't known Ilia to be a sensible match ―she was― he would have trusted his mother's judgement. The idea had formed in those summer days after becoming a squire. He had been sure that someday, after all those other exciting things like combat, glory and the king's recognition had come and gone, he would return home and... be happy with someone like Ilia.

But that was before he'd drawn the sword that seals the darkness and changed in a way that the people of Mabe Village couldn't ― would never ― understand.

In another life, perhaps… But now?

Link's eyes slid inexorably in Zelda's direction, away from Ilia's sweet prettiness. The princess was still looking on with a patient and warm smile, but Link could tell she was antsy, and the more these three women who occupied so much space in his life stood in such close proximity, the more Link felt an uncomfortable wave of nausea.

"Er," he said, to his mother, "shall we?"

"Of course," she said, with a perceptive look at her son. She had apparently decided he'd languished enough. "Come on. I've had fresh hay brought in for the horses, and the rooms are all aired out."

Link's childhood home was among the largest in the village, as befit the estate of a lesser knight of Hyrule. Its thick thatch had been recently freshened. The wide doorstep had been scrubbed clean. The clotheslines were laden with white sheets blowing in the wind, billowing the scent of soap and freshness, and as they entered the garden from the narrow stable, young Cremia, one of his mother's maids, welcomed him with a quick bobbing curtsy, busy as she was fumbling with clothespins.

The house had not changed much, though it now betrayed many more feminine touches than in the days of his father, in the form of flowers, vases and other fabric confections like quilts and embroideries, doilies and laces. His mother lived with her two maids Cremia and Romani and hosted Ilia at least once a week. With Link gone most of the time, this house was very much a woman's domain.

Still, it comforted Link to be in it. The rushes were clean, a fire crackled merrily in a hearth clear of soot, and the smell of familiar cooking instantly made him feel like he was a boy again.

"This is your home, then," Zelda said, as she followed him in. She was looking around curiously. "It's lovely."

"I hope the scales are a little more even now," Link said.

She snorted. "But of course. You've seen my home and now I've seen yours. I shall have to take extensive notes."

Link's mother eyed them, her look indecipherable, but when Link shot her a quizzical look, she shook her head.

"Will you please show our honoured guest to her room?" She asked.

"I cannot thank you enough," Zelda said earnestly to Marin as Link hefted her bag onto his shoulder. "Your hospitality is very kind."

His mother smiled warmly, but now Link was sure he saw what it was he had trouble pinpointing: she seemed sad for some reason, her eyes softened into some sort of sorrow Link couldn't explain.

He would have time to ask later. For now, he led the princess to a small but cozy bedroom. It had been a repository for his father's armour and weapons during the man's life, but now those weapons served little purpose, and Link had agreed to have them moved to a smaller storeroom until he could find some use for them. In the vacant room, his mother had instead set up a sturdy bed covered in thick quilts and blankets, and vases filled with fresh flowers decorated the windowsill and bedside table.

"Here," Link said, placing the princess' bag on the bed. "There are more candles in the bedside drawer, and a clean chamberpot in that cupboard." He moved to the window and pushed it open. "I know the air smells a little of cattle, but you'll get used to it in no time."

But the princess was looking at the picture frames on the wall. Those hadn't been there last year, when Link had last visited. He approached and found a small painted likeness of Ilia, smiling, amidst other rustic portraits of his mother and Cremia.

"Romani, one of the maids," Link explained, to answer her unspoken question. "She likes to paint, when I can supply her with the materials."

But that had not been Zelda's question. She was still looking at Ilia's likeness with an infinitesimal puckering of her brow. "This girl… is your friend, correct?"

"Childhood friend," Link said, now embarrassed. He cleared his throat. "Though I think my mother is rooting for more." He thought it wise not to share his own musings on the matter, though he wasn't sure why Zelda would care. It wasn't, he thought with some irritation at himself, as though his personal life and marriage prospects were going to cause the princess any particular anguish.

"She's pretty," Princess Zelda said, finally turning to him with a smile. "I'm sure you'd have beautiful children."

He snorted, unable to stifle the spike of panic in his gut at the very thought. "Well," he said, clearing his throat and hoping she didn't notice the croak in his voice, "not anytime soon." When she didn't reply, he said, "I'll, uh, leave you to get settled in, if you'd like."

When she nodded quietly, he excused himself, returning to the main room.

His mother was stirring the soup in the pot over the hearth, humming to herself. It was a tune he vaguely recognized from his early childhood, a song for new beginnings and infancy. Spring and his yearly visits always seemed to put her in that particular reminiscing mood.

She glanced his way, and the humming stopped, and now Link knew he was in trouble.

"Mother," Link said, preemptively. "I'm sorry I didn't give you any warning."

He didn't have to explain what warning. His mother's blue eyes, looking so much like his own, narrowed.

"It was too late to change the plans," he added, lamely, knowing she would see right through him. His mother, shrewd and perceptive as she was, always did.

"You wouldn't have changed them anyway," she said, her voice low, the reproach soft but undeniable. "You're in love with her."

"What?" Link asked, dumbly.

His heart thudded, and he opened his mouth to protest ―he wasn't― but the look on his mother's face prohibited it. She had a way of looking at him in a way that made him feel like a chastened child all over again. He shut his mouth, trying to organize his thoughts for a coherent defence.

"Link," she said, in soft, gentle warning. And Link felt a surge of irritation for the tiny hint of disappointment in her voice.

"Don't be ridiculous," he said, firmly. Then, to change the subject, he mustered up his own indignation. "And really, mother, Ilia?"

They were both speaking softly, unwilling to be overheard by their guest, or the maids, or anyone who passed under their windows, but in his home, Link knew, the argument was no less fierce.

"Someone has to take over when I'm gone," his mother said, decidedly, sniffing as she turned back to her soup. She was being deliberately obtuse.

"I don't doubt she's capable," Link said. "But that is not what I meant, and you know it."

She glanced back at him. "You could do much worse. She is a beautiful girl, a good one."

"Yes, but I told you." He motioned vaguely with his hand, but the words failed him and it fell back to his side helplessly. "I am bound to fight the Calamity. I could fail―"

"You will not fail."

"I could," Link said. "You shouldn't encourage her. She could find herself a good husband. She shouldn't wait for me. It might be decades before the Calamity comes."

His mother studied him coolly. "You will not fail," she said, calmly. "And Ilia knows it as well as I do. She has assured me she is willing to wait a few more years before assuming her cause is lost." She narrowed her eyes at him. "And really, Link, why wouldn't she? You're a catch, the best husband she could hope for."

"Well," Link said, failing to disguise his little surge of irritation, "thanks. But she isn't―"

"I know who she isn't," his mother said, softly, with what seemed like a mix of sadness and disappointment at his perceived delusions. Link wanted to fight back, to argue, to remind her of the stakes, but she was not grasping them. She never had. "But at least you are not so far above her station that her hope is misplaced."

Something uncomfortable festered in his gut. Something that felt disquietingly like helplessness. "I'm going to see him."

She did not try to stop him, her sad eyes following him out the door until he knew she could no longer see him. He stomped through the back garden, trying not to kick up any dirt, and made his way around tiny vegetable shoots towards the tall, gnarled oak tree where he'd played countless times as a child.

If Link managed to defeat the Calamity, which was far from certain, and if he managed to return to this estate alive and unburdened, and if Ilia was still unmarried, and if Zelda―

He tried not to give the thought a voice, but it still wriggled into the back of his mind: if Zelda chose another…

Not that he expected her to choose him. He smiled bitterly at the notion. They were barely making headway as friends, and the chasm that divided their stations was still impassable, and she was a princess, by all the gods, and anyway he didn't love her, no matter what his mother, or the Gerudo, or anyone else, thought.

Sure, he thought Zelda was beautiful, but plenty of girls were beautiful. It would be wiser to want a girl that did not come with the irritating responsibilities of courtly life, a girl who wouldn't ascend to a throne. Link wanted to snort. He was barely competent as a Chosen One, and only slightly above average as knights went. He would make a terrible king.

So what if the only thing that haunted him was the unspeakable desire to kiss his princess and physically fend off the men who tried to win her for themselves? Just because the very sight of Misko's smug lips anywhere near her hand caused a nearly blinding wave of possessive fury to rise within him didn't mean he was necessarily in love with her.

He was a young. It was probably something stupid, like lust. Nothing to write home about.

And, judging by his mother's plans, nothing he would ever write home about, even if it had been the only thing to occupy his days and nights, or he'd get an earful of admonishment.

Ilia, he insisted, to himself. It will have to be Ilia.

It wouldn't be so bad, he tried to convince himself. She didn't make his heart pound, and the sight of her entering a room didn't make everything else vanish from his mind, but it didn't matter. He was fond of her, and she loved him, and he knew he could make himself take good care of her.

And Zelda― Zelda didn't signify. Not beyond the Calamity, anyway.

Link tried to stifle the terrible thought that he almost wanted the Calamity to kill them both instead. It was a fleeting thought, horrifying if he stopped to examine it, so he buried it deep within himself and tried to reason that he was just being melodramatic. Maybe Zelda was rubbing off on him. Ha.

His father's grave had been dug under the big oak, on a little hillock. The headstone was elegant and had been recently cleaned. Link did not doubt it was dusted off at least every other day. The little prayer bowl at the base was empty, so Link reached into his pocket and retrieved his offering ― a slice of thick spice bread he'd carefully wrapped in a dull green cloth. He placed it in the offering bowl, bowing his head, and allowed his mind to empty of noxious thoughts. It was easier now, with the Sheikah training, than it had been in previous years. He still had to thank Impa for that.

"Father," he said, finally raising his eyes to look at the Hylian inscription on the stone. "I got your favourite. Hope you enjoy it." He knelt down before the monument.

He was silent for a long moment, collecting his thoughts. Being here always made him uncomfortable, reminded him of dark days and mourning, of sudden loneliness and tears. His father had been his hero, in many ways, and the model of man he had wanted to become. His death in battle ought to have been expected, but it had come as a surprise all the same, casting a younger Link's life into sudden and inescapable sorrow.

After all, if his giant warrior of a father could be cast down, what hope did Link, then a newly-made squire, ever have of earning himself honour and glory?

"I wish I had the courage to come more often," he finally said, echoing the sentiment that had kept him living in fear for several years after. Mourning had been as difficult as learning from his father had been rewarding. He'd gone from the light of aspiration to the darkness of pessimism, and come out more cynical, more focused. Valour was meaningless, after all, if you were dead.

The headstone didn't reply. Link removed the Master Sword from his back and laid it next to him in the grass.

"You know Mother is up to her matchmaking again, don't you?" He ran a hand through his hair with a sigh. "I can't blame her, but I wish she listened to me." He smiled bitterly. "I suppose she's always been more stubborn than you or I."

Still no reply, but Link wasn't expecting one. He sat there in silence for a long moment, thinking.

"Did you ever feel it inside you?" He asked, pensively. The question had come from deep within, unplanned. "Some sort of great beast that cries out to be let loose?" He rearranged himself to sit cross-legged before the headstone. "Like a wolf that rebels against every sensible idea you've ever had?"

Probably not. His father, all things considered, had led a very ordinary, predictable life, as knight's lives went. Perhaps if he had died later, if he had died this year, for instance, while Link was grown enough to see him more clearly, with more honesty, perhaps he would not still seem like a giant in Link's memory. Perhaps he would have become what he had been in truth: a man of the sword, flawed, loving, imperfect and good.

He wouldn't have lusted after his charge, for instance. In that, already, Link was lesser.

And he might have revealed himself to be utterly incapable of managing this estate. Link, for his part, was fairly certain he'd figure it out just fine, given the chance.

If Link managed to defeat the Calamity.

He took in a ragged breath.

"Am I intruding?"

Zelda's voice was small, unsure. She wasn't the princess right now, Link realized. She was the girl, the scholar, the secret friend. And Link ignored the way his heart swelled with relief that she was there.

"Not at all," he said, turning to glance her way, and he scooted over to make some space in the grass for her. Near the house, his mother stood, observing them, and Link guessed she had sent Zelda to him. It was kind. It was counterproductive to her hopes.

Mothers.

"You never really speak of him," Zelda said, sitting down near Link.

"I carry him with me," Link said. "I didn't think it would matter to anyone else."

She nodded thoughtfully, then sighed, pushing a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. She studied the gravestone, her green eyes dull with distant sorrow. "I know what you mean. I miss my mother. She was a good mother."

Link smiled. "My father was all a son could ask for. He could do no wrong in my eyes."

"Mother was gentle," Zelda observed, thoughtfully. "And funny, in her own way. We had our secrets, our little conspiracies. My father used to pretend it greatly frustrated him."

"My mother would roll her eyes when my father and I came home covered in mud," Link snorted.

"She was the light in my father's life," Zelda said. "I think…" She gathered her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, tucking her chin low. "I think it hurts him, how much I look like her."

Link said nothing, his throat constricting. She looked small next to him, vulnerable, and his heart lanced at the sight of it. The layers of pain mixed until he wasn't sure why he was sad: sad for the loss of his father, sad for the loss of her mother, sad for them both. He ached for her loss, and yet… he felt selfish for being glad that he wasn't alone right now.

"Sometimes," he confessed, "I can still feel the grief, as sharp and true as a dagger, as painful as the day we lost him."

Her eyes watered, but she smiled at him all the same. "Me too," she whispered. "The pain comes more rarely now, and doesn't last as long… but I still..." She pressed her lips together, running out of words.

They lapsed into silence, the understanding running deeper, as the roots of the tree before them, and for the first time Link felt a true kinship with Zelda the girl rather than the princess. It settled into him like a low ember, glowing warm, the moment painful from reminiscence and longing.

He wanted to put an arm around her, but... He glanced over his shoulder. His mother had disappeared back into the house, but she could have looked out the window at any moment. Or anyone else could pass by.

Instead, he moved his foot sideways, until it rested next to hers, their boots touching.

She gave his foot a little nudge with the toe of her boot, and smiled at him a little sadly, and something passed between them, something that finally felt like the comforting blanket of actual friendship.

Link tore his eyes away, unable to speak when she looked at him like that. "He died only a few years after your mother, I think."

Zelda hummed in agreement, studying the dates on the gravestone. "He fell in battle, right?"

"Defending a village from moblins," Link confirmed. "They say he died heroically. I know it's meant to be comforting, but I wish he had been a coward that day. It's selfish, I know," he added.

"It's understandable," Zelda said, thoughtfully. She was studying the boughs overhead. "I know if anything different could have saved my mother, I'd have wished for it too. She died shortly after…" She lowered her voice. "... After my birthday."

By her tone, she was referring to her real birthday, on Summertide, and not Nayru's Day that followed. Her use of the truth was a sign of trust, and Link clung to it. "A little like me," he said. "Father died a week before my birthday."

Zelda said nothing for a moment, then she frowned. She turned to him and squinted. "Wait. Does that mean your birthday is next week?"

Link blinked at her. "Yes…?"

She straightened with a jolt, and Link startled.

"Well?" She asked, suddenly.

"What?"

"Why didn't you tell me?" She exclaimed, indignantly. Her hand went up to her mouth, a sudden dread coming over her face. "You didn't want me to know."

Link snorted. "Is that what you think?"

The dread vanished as her eyes crinkled in light humour. She tried not to smile, settling down again, and once more the grief began to fade to the background of his thoughts. "Will you be coming back here, to celebrate with your family?"

Link shook his head. "Usually I go drinking with the squires." He frowned. "Well, knights, now." He blinked. "Don't tell anyone, please. We used to lie about our age."

"As future Queen, I would only be the High Judge of Hyrule," Zelda said, in her most reasonable tone. "Source of all the laws and their enforcement. Of course I won't make a single reprimand."

Link groaned, and she giggled. Then, she nudged him once more with her foot, gently.

"Don't worry," she said, curling up again. "Your secret is safe with me."

They exchanged a brief smile, and Link ignored the tightening in his chest, and the gladness that she had come along after all. Sitting next to her here, in a place that had once encompassed all his grief, somehow made the burden lighter… bearable.

And he realized his mother might be onto something after all.

Damn.

Chapter Text

… This one here is called the silent princess. It's a rare, endangered species. Despite our efforts, we can't get them to grow domestically yet. The princess can only thrive out here, in the wild...


Link was fairly sure ogling the royal backside was not an acceptable thing to do. If he really wracked his memory, he was, in fact, actually certain Master Impa had mentioned it explicitly during one of his many etiquette lessons, and that Link had, at the time, spluttered that he hadn't, that he would never, and anyway who would want to ogle someone so infuriating?

It wasn't his fault, though. The real problem, the real culprit, was that the princess' backside, for all that he'd tried and failed to dislike its owner, was a lovely shape, and clad in form-fitting black trousers that stretched over it anytime the princess bent over.

Which she was doing right now. For the second time.

Something twisted in his gut, something that felt uncomfortably like a pull, an urge… And he wrenched his eyes away, fixing his gaze somewhere on the horizon. There. Nothing to see, nothing to be concerned about. Nothing untoward for Master Impa to punish.

The princess, for her part, seemed perfectly oblivious to the torment festering inside him. She released her captured frog into the grass, the critter completely oblivious to how close it had come to being eaten in the name of science.

Not that Link would have eaten it, big green imploring princess eyes or not. He suppressed a mild shudder.

He glanced back at the princess. She had now collapsed into the grass, on her back, and was staring up at the pale blue sky, her hair splayed around her head like a golden halo. The flowers around them swayed in the breeze, the leaves overhead rustled. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, spring at its best.

Down the long slope to the south, the Royal Lab was bustling with activity. Zelda had insisted on visiting it today. So Link and his Order had spent a full three days making sure that the road to the Royal Laboratory was clear of danger, patrolling the area assiduously to ensure no Yiga attacks would occur, before Link had finally acquiesced to her visit.

She had been so excited by a recent discovery that Link hadn't had the heart to remind her that today was his birthday. He was confident they would return in time for him to go wandering Hyrule Castle Town like a wastrel with his fellow knights and squires. Until then, birthdays were no excuse to shirk duty, especially if duty merely meant dozing off in the shade of a tree.

Zelda's enthusiasm in the past days had been a little contagious, if he were honest with himself. A new sort of Sheikah Shrine had been uncovered ― a healing facility ― in the middle of the Great Plateau. Ancient text, she had explained, revealed that the shrine had once been used to heal grave wounds, and though all the scholars agreed this find was momentous, it filled Link with a sense of foreboding that he couldn't seem to shake.

The Great Plateau was too far to visit for now ― not with Zelda and her father arguing so often about her distractions from duty ― but much of the studies, drawings, schematics and writings had been copied down and sent to the Lab, which was much closer to home. So Zelda had pored over the material while Link went through his drills in the garden, trying to ignore the odd sense that this discovery was ominous.

Now it was midday, and she had decided to take a break. For Zelda, taking a break apparently meant stepping away to take pictures of more plants and wildlife.

But now she seemed to have run out of steam, her chest rising and falling with each serene breath, and Link sat back against the tall tree whose shade shielded them from the sun, feeling a strange sort of peace settle upon him at last.

"I wish things were different," Zelda said, breaking the comfortable silence.

"Me too," Link said.

She shifted, turning her head to look up at him from where she lay prone in the grass. "But then, perhaps we never would have had the chance to meet."

Link looked down, unable to explain the rush of blood that made his heart beat stronger. She was beautiful like that, with her hair loose around her, her clothing so ordinary, her eyes so wide and earnest. But he'd seen pretty girls before ― how was she any different?

"We would have met," Link said, firmly, looking away to calm his breathing.

He could hear the smile in her voice when she spoke next. "Oh? You sound so very certain."

Link shrugged, embarrassed. "I was among the best squires in my cohort. As soon as I was knighted, it was almost certain I would have been among the Royal Guard. Like my father."

She hummed in response. "But the Royal Guard serves my father, not me."

"One day," Link said, stubbornly refusing to look down at her. "One day the Order of the Guard and the Royal Guard will have the same purpose and will merge... To protect and serve the Queen of Hyrule." It was a reminder he kept desperately at the forefront of his mind, a mantra more potent than any other Sheikah exercise. She would be Queen one day, and he would never be anything else than a knight at her feet.

It was really difficult to remember that when she was bent over, or in her nightclothes, or like this, right now, lying in the grass at his side, as though she were nothing special at all.

"I almost don't want to be queen," Zelda said, absently.

Link couldn't help it. He glanced down. "Why not?" He frowned.

"I want to be a peasant girl," Zelda said, wistfully. "Free to roam the fields at my leisure, to do what I choose with my days."

"You would need an income," Link said, pragmatically.

"I'd raise cuccos."

"Cuccos?" Link echoed, snorting with sudden laughter.

"Why not?" She asked, defensively, though a tiny curl of her lip revealed her smile. "Would you object terribly to my chosen profession, Sir Link of Mabe Village?"

"Not at all," Link said, sobering up as much as he could. "I'm sure you'd be a great cucco farmer."

"I would be," she smiled, turning her attention back to the sky, a smile playing on her lips. "I would have simple gowns that don't need any maid's fingers to button up. I would rise with the sun, and work hard, and go to bed at night with the certainty of having achieved a hard day's work."

"You would be bored out of your mind," Link said. "You're too clever by half to stay in such a simple, unchanging life."

Her cheeks flushed prettily, and Link felt a conflicting mix of satisfaction at having caused that blush, and irritation at himself for thinking, even just a second, that if she were a cucco farmer he'd have no hesitation to ask her―

No. Bad Link. Thoughts of simple gowns and tumbles in a barn were no more appropriate than looking at her shapely backside.

"Well, then," she asked, recovering, even as Link took a deep, calming breath, "what do you think I could be?"

He glanced at her again, trying to swallow the lump in his throat. If he were honest, she could be anything. She was bright and clever and beautiful and full of life, and she had an arresting effect on his pulse.

"You'd make a great wandering scholar," he said, after a moment's reflection. "Going around, collecting the stories and histories of different lands, collating them into tomes." He could tell the notion was very pleasing to her, because she was smiling to herself, picturing this other life with a distant look in her eyes. "You could sell the books for income."

"I would need a protector," she said, and suddenly Link's chest constricted.

"Probably," he managed, ignoring the longing that flooded him.

The silence that followed came with a sad dose of reality. "Not that it matters," she finally said, the joy in her voice now muted, gone.

"I know."

"Father wants me to begin my pilgrimage as soon as possible, before Farore's Fall," she said, her tone now greatly sobered. "But we have yet to visit Zora's Domain and check up on Vah Ruta. That will have to happen soon."

"Mipha will be happy to have us," Link said.

Zelda's gaze went to his face, studied him. "I think so too," she said, softly. Then, her eyes narrowed. "You grew up together, didn't you?"

"For a few years," Link nodded. "While my father trained Mipha to use the spear."

She didn't reply to that, apparently lost in thought. "Mipha is a good person," she finally said, softly.

"A better friend than most deserve," Link concurred warmly. The princess glanced at him, and he was surprised to see confusion in her green eyes. He blinked. "What? Don't you agree?"

"Yes," she said, slowly, carefully. "I suppose I do." She sat up, curling her arms around her knees, which she'd collected to her chest. "Though I don't know if I could presume to call her my friend."

"She thinks of you as a friend," Link said. She was being silly. "Don't overthink it."

Her eyes crinkled at him, a flash of irritation ―was it irritation?― sparking in her eyes for the briefest of moments, but it passed, and once again her eyes were green as new leaves in the sunlight. "All right," she finally said. Then she squinted at him over her shoulder. "And I suppose you have more advice on friendships between princesses."

Oh, he'd stepped into it. He sighed. "I don't," he said, duly chastised. Still: "Mipha is a good soul. If you allow yourself to think of her as a friend, she will return it wholeheartedly."

"I know," she sighed. Then, her shoulders sagged. "I suppose it was always easier to stick with Urbosa than it was to make new friends."

"New friends aren't so terrible," Link said, giving her his most charming grin, and he was gratified to see her hold back her own smile.

"No, they are not," she agreed.

Suddenly, she gasped, her countenance changing utterly. Startled, Link's hand moved to the Master Sword of its own accord, his entire body tensing.

"I almost forgot!" She exclaimed, scrambling towards her bag, and Link exhaled in relief, relaxing.

"Skies," he said, as she searched the confines of her bag, "I thought you'd seen something―"

"Don't be ridiculous," she said, pausing and motioning to the verdant fields around them. "If there were even the slightest danger, you would have kept me locked up at the castle under triple guard."

"Not exactly―"

"Aha!" She was back to searching, and she finally recovered the object of her search. Triumphantly, she pulled out the parcel from her bag.

It was wrapped in festive green paper, and Link blinked in confusion.

"Wh―"

"It's your birthday!" She exclaimed, cheeks flushed. She seemed awash in a mix of excitement and nervousness, and as usual when her nerves were at play, she assuaged them by babbling: "It's not much. The truth is that I had such a short time to find something― It's... " She thrust the package at him, and Link tried not to gape like a fish. "Just… take it, please."

Obediently, Link took the parcel from her hands. It was rather light, and carefully packaged ―she was nothing but meticulous, if her drawings were anything to go by.

"What is it?" Link asked, still stunned.

She rolled her eyes. "Skies, seas, stones and sands," she said, smiling, "the whole point is for you to unwrap it."

But Link was still reeling. In his hands, the package sat unopened, completely harmless, and he opened his mouth again to speak, then closed it, then reopened it, then blinked down at her offering in total confusion.

She got me a gift for my birthday.

Princess Zelda. Princess Zelda had gotten him a gift for his birthday.

He oughtn't have felt so flustered by it. There was no reason for his pulse to race, no reason to feel so childishly happy.

"Thank you," he managed to choke out, still in shock.

"You don't know what it is," she said, now evidently amused. She scrambled over to his side, much closer than usual, and curled her knees up to her chest once more, looking like a girl again, an ordinary girl, one that he only had to lean a little to the right to kiss―

Not that he was going to kiss her, because she was the princess, he reminded himself, tearing his gaze away from her mouth. She hadn't noticed, he was sure. It had only been a fleeting glance, nothing incriminating, just barely enough to notice how pink and soft her lips looked―

"Well?" She asked, and Link swallowed the flustered ball of nerves that fizzed in his throat when she spoke so near his ear. Did she know? Gods, he hoped she didn't. "Aren't you going to open it?"

Focus, Link. You're a man, not a boy.

He slipped a finger into the wrapping, carefully unfolding it. It was easier, safer, to think of deliberate motions than it was to allow his imagination to run wild.

As the paper came away, he found himself looking down at a book.

It was a small tome, a leatherbound confection with the engraving of a Triforce on the cover. He turned it over, admiring the quality of the leatherwork and craftsmanship.

Next to him, Zelda seemed to be holding her breath, so Link pulled the cover open and read the title page.

"A History of Heroes," he read out loud, slowly. "Tales and accounts from the Ages of the Sky, Time and Twilight, by Magister Rauru of the Temple."

Zelda had reached the limit of her capacity for silence, because the words burst out her lips with obvious enthusiasm: "It's the story of your predecessors! I found it in the library some months ago, but I was― well, I didn't think it would be of much use to me," she admitted with some embarrassment. Then, she perked up. "But it could be enlightening for you! It details the legends of the heroes' deeds, and it even describes a few of their sword techniques. Not that I can make much sense of them."

Link was leafing through the book. It was a beautiful piece of work, with colourful illuminations and engravings, and a clear, legible handwriting ― all the more credit to its author. He looked up at his princess, surprised to find that he was touched.

"It's splendid," he said, earnestly.

She flushed a pretty pink, possibly with delight. "Oh, you like it! Good."

Link turned to a page where a full-page illumination depicted the green-clad hero embracing a woman ―the incarnation of the Goddess― dressed all in white. Embracing her rather amorously, actually, their hands tangled and their lips joined. His brow rose, and he glanced at the princess, who noticed the cause of his reaction rather belatedly.

"Oh," she said, the sound a little breathier, perhaps, than Link would have predicted, and he tried not to smirk at her. "Well," she said, reaching over to try to close the cover over his fingers, "you can peruse it as you please later."

"I take it," he said, delighting in the pretty blush on her cheeks, especially since he could admire it from so close, "that the Goddess was not always a princess."

"I suppose you shall have to read and find out," she said, primly, still trying ― and failing ― to shut the book for him. She scowled prettily at her wasted efforts, and her green eyes rose to meet his. "Oh, honestly, Link, we're both old enough to know these things happen."

"Indeed," Link said, ignoring the sharp tug in his chest from hearing his name tumble from her lips with such familiarity. "Do I look shy about it? I'm not the one trying to close the book just to avoid looking at it." He pulled the book away from her reach, and she let out an indignant huff. Smiling, he said, "I don't know that it's that bad, even." He glanced back at the picture, stymying a little wave of… Jealousy? Longing? "They're fully dressed. It's positively prim." Though the way the hero held that Goddess was undeniably possessive. Link couldn't blame him.

"You're hopeless," Zelda said, her lovely ears still a deep pink colour. "I suppose I should have expected it from a man."

"Guilty," Link said. He turned the page and focused instead on images of various swords, some of which seemed reminiscent of the Master Sword, only not exactly. Several pages later, illustrations of keys and locking mechanisms were annotated with neat captions.

This book was truly a beautiful gift, an offering that surely would cost a deal of money to replace within the castle library.

With genuine appreciation, he looked into Zelda's green eyes. She was close. Very close. He ignored the urge that inevitably rose within when he was this close to her.

"Thank you," he said, as sincerely as he could.

She was wide-eyed, her cheeks pink, apparently at a loss for words. Then, she blinked, shifting ―putting a few more inches of distance between them, and cleared her throat.

"Ah," she said, her hand coming up. "Don't worry about it."

And she patted his arm.

Link flinched, only a little, the wound he'd suffered from the lynel still strangely raw under his sleeve.

He hoped she hadn't noticed, but she had, and her hand froze, and her lips parted, and before Link could say anything her eyes narrowed accusingly.

"Sir Link," she said, in that tone that warned of forthcoming reprimand.

"It's a great gift," Link said, desperately hoping she would let it go. "Thank you―"

She grabbed his arm, and squeezed. Not hard, but Link yelped.

"I knew it!" She exclaimed, standing, all trace of the blushing girl gone, replaced instead with the imperious conviction of a know-it-all princess. "You're still hurt!"

"I'm fine," Link growled, angry with himself for confirming anything at all. "It's just sore, that's all."

She was not having it. "Roll up your sleeve."

"Zelda―"

"Skies above," Zelda said to the blue heavens overhead, the pure exasperation giving her imploration a degree of feeling that she probably didn't infuse her regular prayers with, "do as I say."

"It's nothing," Link insisted.

But she had begun removing his bracer and unwrapping the striped cloth from his forearm anyway, and his protestations weakened on his tongue. Her movements were gentle, careful, as they were when she handled wounded animals.

And Link wasn't sure why, but even though he didn't want her to see, he couldn't find it in him to protest when she finally rolled up his sleeve and placed her hands under his arm to study the lacerations in his skin. The feeling of her fingers on him was like a warm shock, rushing up his arm and into his spine, tingling through the inside of his skull, into every nerve ending he had. Despite himself, his fingers twitched, the instinct to run them against her cheek difficult to overcome.

Princess Zelda might not have any sealing powers, but she certainly had magic in her, if her touch was any proof.

Fallen into complete muteness, he watched as she studied the deep cuts on his arm with the sort of detached interest and absent squeamishness of any blooded physician.

"They're not healing," she finally said, looking up at him with anger, as though it were his fault.

"It just needs more time," Link managed, his voice hoarse.

"Perhaps lynel claws leave some sort of organic poison," she wondered out loud, having apparently decided that his assessment was worthless. Her brow puckered. "But this isn't good. Even poison ought to have cleared out from your system. It's been a month."

"I'm fine," Link said, though without the degree of conviction he'd wanted to muster.

"We should head back to the Lab," Zelda said, and Link was touched to hear a small hint of worry in her voice. "I'm sure Purah or Robbie would have something to help speed up healing―"

"No," Link said, suddenly.

She blinked at him. "No?" Then, she frowned. "And why not?"

Link carefully brought his wounded arm closer to his chest. "No one can know. I'm the hero." He looked up into her eyes, and a flicker of understanding there convinced him she would at least listen: "The hero can't be hurt. The people need to believe―" He found himself at a loss for how to phrase the idea that kept haunting him.

"That you are infallible," Zelda finished for him, flatly. She sounded defeated. Her eyes fell to the open lacerations on his arm. "But I cannot in good conscience leave you like this."

"I'm fine," Link said, again.

She was ignoring his declarations though, rifling through her pack. After the tinkling of a few bottles and phials, she retrieved a squat little pot of unguent, returning to sit cross-legged at his side. A single raised brow from her, and he was extending his arm again.

Gently, with the care of an experienced nurse ― or the experienced touch of a scholar ― she applied the salve to his wound, and it helped to soothe the sensitive skin.

There was something about this moment, Link thought, that felt… right. Something about the attention in her eyes, something about the kindness of her touch, something about her unspoken discomfort at seeing a depiction of a kiss―

Link swallowed the lump in his throat.

This was a slippery slope, and he was already further down it than he'd thought.

He was in trouble.

Chapter Text

Link entered the King's Hall of Zora's Domain and found Princess Zelda playing with Prince Sidon. She wore a traditional Zoran dress, filmy and ephemeral ― with only a silk and lace underdress to hide her skin. It was a prude but necessary addition, and Link ignored the brief inkling of curiosity at the way it moved around her, pulling and sliding against her body.

She was lying on her stomach, hair pulled away from her face, and her eyes were crinkling with her smile. Her arm was outstretched over the pool of water, teasing the diminutive Zora within by disturbing the water's surface. The Zora prince was still too young to speak articulately, but he had sharp eyes and a clear interest in the game. Their splashes and laughter, with Sidon diving deep and out of sight only to reappear with a wave, filled the high hall, echoing around them.

Link forced himself to turn his attention back to the princess on his arm. Mipha had kindly escorted him from his room, and it was impolite not to attend to her first.

His eyes kept inching back to Zelda, though. He reasoned that was only instinct, knightly duty, and not any interest in the curve of her backside or the hint of pale, soft skin through her clothes.

He inhaled deeply and looked away.

It was absurd, anyway. Princess Mipha's own vestments were even lighter ― the Zora had different ideas about decency, and in their own home tended to wear diaphanous garments, if they wore anything at all. What clothes they did wear were as fins in the water, flowing and almost clear. It gave them an otherworldly beauty.

Which was why seeing his very Hylian, very non-scaled princess wear similar clothes did something to his pulse.

"I imagine," Princess Mipha said, drawing him back to the task at hand, "that you still remember your way around?"

Link glanced at her. She was smiling gently.

He nodded. Zora's Domain had not changed since his childhood. Its elegant arches and spires, glowing a dim blue in the growing twilight, still held all their ethereal beauty. The waterways, the distant din of waterfalls, and the constant lapping of waves still felt as soothing now as they had felt in those halcyon days of innocence.

"I do," Link said, with a smile.

Absently, he pulled at his sleeve, irritated by the way the Zoran silks felt against his wound. They pulled at the sensitive gashes, wiping away what little unguent he could still apply. His clothes were a gift from the Zoran royal family, lending him almost an air of aristocracy. Not that it helped with the itching.

That lynel was probably cackling to itself in its rocky grave. Link would have to ensure he never let a lynel scratch him to the blood after this. Given the anti-healing properties those claws evidently had, Link knew he couldn't afford to make a similar mistake again.

Misinterpreting his motion, Mipha lifted a hairless brow. "Are your clothes uncomfortable?"

Link pulled at the high cravat on his neck. "I'm not used to this sort of stuff," he said, with a lopsided smile.

"Seas forbid you should look princely," she teased softly.

"Is that what I look like?" He looked down at himself. The trousers were tighter than he would have liked, and the cut of his shirt, vest and coat was close and narrow, with square shoulders. He was certain the squires at home would have mocked him relentlessly. "Princely?"

Mipha smiled warmly. "You'll get used to it, I'm sure."

Link hoped he wouldn't. This wasn't him, and it wasn't right for adventuring, or guarding Zelda, or climbing, or― "I hope you're right," he said, peaceably.

Sidon noticed them approaching and dove back under the water. Princess Mipha had explained that Sidon had been the last survivor of his clutch and that he remained cautious of strangers. His ability to survive the initial clutch in-fighting marked him as strong, but he was still less than an infant, and quite shy.

"I see you have tamed my little brother," Mipha observed as Zelda turned to look at them.

"He is lovely," Zelda said, warmly. Her eyes lit on Link for a brief moment, widened, and then turned back to Mipha. "And I see you have tamed Link."

"Hah," Link said, without humour. Did she think he looked silly? He pulled at his sleeve again, still irritated.

"He wears it well," Mipha said. "Though I had to argue with the tailors a long time to convince them to use opaque fabrics."

Zelda laughed nervously as she sat up, pushing a strand of her golden hair behind her ear. Even in the front, Link noticed with discomfort, the dress she wore was indecent by Hylian standards. Even a nightdress would have been better at covering her up. Which would have been worse. No, better, it was better if she was covered. It was better if her knight didn't feel anything at the sight of her. Safer. Definitely safer. "Is that so?"

Mipha didn't seem to notice Link's discomfort. "Even as a child, Link refused to swim naked."

There was no question that his princess' cheeks were pink now. "Oh?" She asked, breathily. Link wasn't sure whether he ought to be flattered or horrified.

"His clothes weighed him down when he was learning to swim," Mipha said, reaching the side of Prince Sidon's pool and smiling down at him kindly. "It was impractical."

"Right," Link said, inhaling deeply. "I think Princess Zelda gets the picture." To his princess, he added, "I did learn to swim, in the end. With clothes."

The smile she gave him was small, but her eyes were full of mirth. "That is good to know."

Mipha sighed softly. "There is no doubt in my mind," she said, "that it would have been simpler if you'd listened to Bazz and I―"

"I was not going to swim naked," Link insisted. "And you were wasting your time."

"So stubborn," the young Zora princess said, gently.

Zelda could not hold in a soft laugh. "I'm surprised you did not use rank to coerce him."

"I thought about it," Mipha said, and this did prompt outright laughter from Zelda.

"Mipha."

The deep voice pulled them all out of their conversation. Zelda pushed herself to her feet and Link fell to one knee.

"Father," Mipha said, warmly.

King Dorephan was massive, grown to such proportions by several centuries of excellent nourishment and veneration. He was old, Link knew, and had wed a Zora wife after his first wife, a Sheikah, had died. And now that Mipha and Sidon's mother had died of old age, it was speculated he might choose a new wife to be queen until Mipha was old enough to rule.

The concept had been strange to Link when he'd first heard of it. But his father had explained that the Zora lived so long ― and the royal family of the Zora especially ― that they often had multiple wives or husbands in one life.

In fact, Link's father had explained, the Zora took so much time to reach sexual maturity that they often chose to wed outsiders first, knowing that such partnerships would not yield children anyway, and that by the time a century elapsed and they finally entered full-fledged adulthood, their husband or wife would be in the twilight of their years, dying and leaving the Zora free to marry one of their own.

Link had thought it sad that a Zora might choose to mourn a companion not once, but twice. But Mipha had explained that it was a wonderful way to discover more about the world, to grow as an individual, to learn to love unconditionally. Those outsiders selected to live as a Zora's partner never wanted for anything; they were cared for with affection and devotion until the very end.

Link had still thought it sad.

There was no doubt their devotion was true, of course: King Dorephan thought of his first Sheikah wife with fondness even to this day, and even his Zora Queen, Laruto, had spoken of the first Queen with respect and kindness.

What would it be like, Link wondered, to be kept by the Zora? To serve no purpose other than to enhance their life, to help them grow as persons? To teach them about difference and otherness?

To give up on having children of one's own?

Link belatedly realized he was blankly staring at Zelda, and he tore his eyes away, hoping no one had noticed. She was warmly trading courtesies with the Zora King, and showing Advisor Muzu the deference he was owed.

"You like her," Mipha said, gently, at his side.

Link blinked down at her. "What do you mean?"

She smiled softly, but did not elaborate. Link felt himself grow warm. He pulled at his cravat again, realized it was pointless, and stubbornly brought his hand back down, trying not to fidget.

"I do not," he lied.

Her smile was strange now, still ever so gentle, but somehow… less joyful. "She is a beautiful girl, even without her title. And you seem less uncomfortable around one another now."

"You know," Link said, "it's very unsettling. You look so young, but you have the wisdom of a grandmother."

Mipha shot him a look that, on anyone else, might have been perceived as annoyance. "I am three years your elder."

Link smiled down at her. "And yet…" And he straightened, illustrating their size difference.

She sighed, and even rolled her yellow eyes. "Every time we see one another, you underscore how little wisdom you've acquired since our previous meeting, all on your own." She was teasing him, her soft voice musical. "Like a tortoise."

"Embarrassingly slow," Link agreed. "But steady."

"Easy to flip over," Mipha said.

Link tensed, very aware of how close he stood to the pool where Prince Sidon was swimming. "You wouldn't."

"Your clothes are waterproof," she said, gently, smiling at Muzu. "And Zora bones are reinforced with carbon. It would be trivial."

Link looked down at her with a dismayed look. "And they say you're a gentle, sweet lady of grace and elegance." He shook his head.

She did not have time to reply, because King Dorephan's booming voice suddenly sounded, drawing their attention. "And Link! My boy. So good to see you again at last." He motioned for Link to approach, and Mipha led the way.

"King Dorephan," Link said, bowing his head. Lordly as the Zora king was, he was also warm-hearted and generous, and had ever treated Link and his father as honoured guests in his household, standing on little ceremony and less arrogance still.

"I'm told you have become the Hylian Champion. What great news."

That was one way to look at it. Link managed a weak smile. "I hope I prove competent."

"Nonsense," Dorephan said, brushing the notion aside with one sweep of his thick arm. "Your father was one of the best fighters I ever knew. Unmatched on land." He leaned a little towards Zelda, who was listening with interest. "Although none can match the Zora for speed or agility in the water."

"I do not doubt it," Zelda assured him.

"And how is your mother?" Dorephan asked, turning back to Link with genuine interest. "She did not visit as long as you and your father, but she struck me as a sensible woman. Has winter been kind to her and hers?"

"It has," Link said, pleased. "Though I think she was glad for spring's return."

"As were we all," King Dorephan agreed. In the Domain, fragrant flowers were blooming, and the waters had lost their iciness. The great ice pillars of the waterfalls had broken, melted, and been washed away, until finally the waters of the Domain were growing warmer. "I've seen near three hundred of them and I still cannot get used to them."

"That bodes ill for the rest of us," Link joked.

The king's laughter boomed in the great hall.

"Just like your father," Dorephan said. "How comforting." He turned to Zelda. "I am sure you are in good hands."

"I am sure you're right, Your Grace," Zelda replied with a genuine smile, and Link stamped down the hot wave of pride within.

"Her Highness now needs only to awaken the power that is her birthright," Advisor Muzu said, in a tone that betrayed nothing but placid factuality. "And then we will all sleep soundly."

There was no describing the impetuous surge within, and no preventing the glare that Link shot the aged Zora advisor. Zelda's smile had wilted somewhat, and the look in her eyes had become one of strain.

It was Mipha's gentle touch to his arm that stopped Link from striding up to the Advisor and ripping his fins off one by one.

"Muzu," Mipha said, gently, "if I may advise the Advisor― her royal highness has proven her commitment with far more devotion and honesty than any of her Champions. Inheriting a machine is nothing like calling forth the powers of the gods. Please do not trivialize that which is being asked of her."

Muzu's expression changed, and he seemed startled by the soft reprimand ― a testament to Mipha's masterful, yet gentle command. Link was sure he could learn from her. "Oh― Of course not." He turned to Zelda, who had managed to school her expression into one of careful detachment. "Please accept my apologies, Your Highness. I meant no offence."

"There is nothing to forgive," Zelda said with a smile, but Link was fairly sure he wasn't the only one to notice the icy edge of her voice.

"At any rate," King Dorephan continued, ending the discomfort, "the task at hand has nothing to do with gods or powers." He smiled fondly at the three of them, Zelda, Link and Mipha. "Together you will fine tune Vah Ruta on the morrow, yes?"

"We will try," Zelda said. She turned to Mipha. "I'm told you wanted to decrease response times for commands?"

Mipha nodded. "We can discuss the details on the road up to the reservoir tomorrow."

"In that case," King Dorephan said, pleased, "let us sit down for a good meal. Work can wait. I want to hear all about my dear friend King Rhoam."

And once again, the topic of Zelda's inability was deftly swept away, ignored.

Later that night, though, when Link staggered back to his room ― if room it could be called, what with the great open arches and the curtains in lieu of doors ― he mulled it over, unable to think of anything else.

He removed his boots, loosened the cravat ― ghastly thing ― and rolled up his sleeve to study the lacerations on his arm.

"It's getting worse."

Startled, Link looked up. The princess was sitting on his bed, a vision in gauzy silks and foamy veils. She was scowling at him, at his arm.

"Something needs to be done," she said.

"What―" He looked about himself, certain the entire Hylian guard would burst in and accuse him of inappropriate behaviour. But the princess had intruded in his room, not the other way around. He was innocent. And anyway those knights, guards and courtiers were leagues away. All the same, when he finally did manage to formulate a full sentence, he hissed it, afraid to be overheard: "What are you doing here?" Then, as an afterthought: "Your Highness."

She rolled her eyes. "You have a curtain instead of a door."

"So do you," Link pointed out. "And you can't lock a curtain."

"They think I'm a failure," Zelda said. "All of them. Don't they?"

The change in topic was dizzying. Compounded with the effects of the ale, Link wondered he wasn't more nauseous. He hesitated, hating that there were no doors in Zora's Domain. He cast a look about himself, at a loss. Finally, realizing there wouldn't be any better privacy than this anyway, he sighed. "Who?"

"Everyone," Zelda said, bringing her legs up against her chest. She looked small, somehow, as though the great clouds of silk around her only served to dwarf her within them. "The squires. Your knights. The Sheikah. The people. Everyone."

Link's heart squeezed. "I don't know," he said, honestly. "I think most of them don't even think about it."

She said nothing. How long had she been there? After their lavish meal, Link had gone out to drink with Bazz, Gaddison, Rivan, Kodah― all those he'd learned to befriend years before. They'd talked well into the night, and Link had only returned now, as the moon reached its apogee. He was tired and just a little drunk. What time was it?

"You belong here," she said, after a moment. Her eyes, from what he could see of them in the moonlight, studied him, his Zora clothes, his inebriation. "The Zoras love you. Even Mipha―" She stopped herself, pressing her lips together.

"They don't think of you as a failure," Link said, softly. Their voices were quiet, and he was mostly certain no one was listening in, but he couldn't be sure. "Muzu is just an old busybody. You shouldn't listen to him."

"But he's right," Zelda said, and her voice cracked. "I am completely powerless."

"Don't," Link said, reaching for her.

Instead, it took all his willpower to stop himself. His fingers twitched against the film of her clothes, and their eyes met, green and blue, and his heart began to pound against his ribcage.

She hadn't moved, was observing him, wide-eyed, as though she, too, were waiting to find out what he would do, whether he would finish his movement, whether he would embrace her, crush her against his chest, hold her so close he'd feel her breath in his ear―

He pulled his hand back, trying to hide his tremor of longing, and for a long moment they stared at one another, a moment suspended in cold blue amber.

"Do you think I'm a failure?" She whispered, their eyes still fixed on one another. She still hadn't moved, his movement away causing a flicker of fear and doubt to dance in her eyes.

Failure? How could he ever think that of her? Memories of her flashed through his mind. Zelda kneeling, head bowed in prayer. Zelda poring over transcripts of ancient Sheikah texts. Zelda exclaiming over frogs and flowers in a field, and sitting with Link at his father's grave. She was the most determined person Link knew. And kind. And wholly undeserving of this hardship. And he loved her.

The conclusion, he thought, still made him deeply uncomfortable. Fueled by the ale, perhaps, and the lateness of the hour. But she was still waiting for his answer, her expression so vulnerable that Link knew he would say anything, do anything, to bring her comfort.

"I don't," he breathed.

She broke eye contact, looking instead out at the great waterfalls. Her chest was rising and falling fast. Was she holding back tears? "I don't know how much longer I can go on like this," she said.

"Like what?"

She was silent. Then, she stood, strode away, and she turned back, so that now the moonlight and the waterfalls gave her the appearance of Nayru herself, haloed in hair that looked silver in the night. "I must begin my pilgrimage."

Link found that breathing came easier now that they weren't so close, and the blood finally began to reach his brain again. "I can organize that―"

"As soon as we leave here."

He blinked. "What?" He shook his head. "No. A week won't be enough to get the message from here to Hyrule Castle and for the knights to join us." He ignored the stinging of his arm as he raised it to run his fingers through his hair. "Although I suppose they can meet up with us on the road―"

"Link."

He glanced back at her. She hadn't moved, still looking like a beauty, a goddess. His throat went dry.

"Zelda―"

"Link, please. Let it be just you and me."

He was at a loss for words. Did she know what she sounded like? Did she know what she was asking of him?

Did she know the treacherous shiver that ran down his spine when she said his name like that?

Finally, he cleared his throat, knowing defeat when he felt it. "We can do that."

The soft, sad smile that spread across her face made his heart ache. "Thank you." Then, she straightened, and her entire demeanour changed, newfound resolve giving her tone the sort of command that he was growing used to. "Now, then, why don't you sit down and show me that arm?"

He scowled. "I am not indigent."

"You're still in pain," she said, in a tone that would have been final with anyone else.

"I can handle it."

"Don't be stupid," she said, reaching for another bottle of disinfectant. Link recognized it by the dry smell of sterility, which began to waft immediately in the air.

"You know," he said, approaching, "calling me stupid isn't exactly―"

"Sit down."

He sat in the chair she motioned to, but wasn't done. "I'm just saying, calling me stupid could be construed as offensive."

She brought her hand under his arm, her pale skin contrasting with his light tan, and when she spoke, she seemed distant. "Could it now?"

She was kneeling next to him, the moonlight reflected in her green eyes, shuttered and unreadable, an elfin, shallow smile pulling at her pretty lips. She was trying to distract herself from her woes, and it was working. In that moment, Link felt more like a prince than he had all day. Kneeling by his side, she was less a princess and more a sweet nurse, less a goddess than a woman― and the sensation of her touch, as it always did, made a tongue of golden heat flow down his spine.

He was speechless. And also drunker than he'd realized, if he was having thoughts like this. Was this what his father had felt when his mother cared for his injuries after battle? No wonder they'd married.

Mercifully, she did not seem to expect a reply. She had turned to study his cuts, bringing a single candle closer to see better. Her lips were moving, as they always did when she spoke to herself, but no sound came out. Then, she soaked a cloth in disinfectant and gently applied it to his wound.

Link groaned, which earned him a silencing glare.

"You shouldn't have brushed it off for so long," she reprimanded.

"If you say so, dear," Link grumbled.

She froze. He froze.

"I mean―"

"It's alright," she said, hastily, dabbing at his wound some more. "I know I sound like a nag."

"That's not what I―"

"And I don't think that there's anything I can do about this," she continued. "Perhaps―" She hesitated, and her hand stilled. "Perhaps Mipha…"

"I was going to ask her tomorrow," Link admitted. "Once it was just the three of us."

Her hands moved away suddenly, leaving Link feeling strangely bereft. She was staring at his cuts blindly, and suddenly, in a whisper of gauze and silk, she stood, pulling away.

"That… is the better solution, yes," she said softly, closing the phial of disinfectant. She wasn't looking at him, focusing instead on her meticulous movements. A curtain of her hair fell before her eyes and Link ached to push it aside.

Finally, decisively, she turned to him and smiled ― a small smile, tired and worn, that did not reach her eyes entirely.

"I should get to bed," she said. "We have a long trek tomorrow."

"Princess…"

She averted her eyes, still smiling. "You should probably sleep off that ale." She hesitated, then managed a joke: "It would not do to appear before our sweet host with a raging headache."

Link groaned, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "I smell like a tavern, don't I?"

She let out a soft chuckle. "Don't worry. I won't tell my father." She gathered her skirts, rearranged them like a cloud of veils around herself. "Besides, you hadn't seen your friends in years. I hope they are well."

"They are," Link smiled, tiredly. "As irksome as ever, too."

"Now I see where you learned it from," Zelda said, the light teasing almost flippant, and Link snorted. She was still pretending at lightness, he knew, but he wasn't going to call her out on it. She clasped her hands together in front of herself, and politely added, "Good night, Sir Link."

"Good night, Princess."

She stood in his doorway for a moment, as though she wanted to say something, ask something, but finally she shook her head and pushed the curtain out of her way and disappeared into the darkness of the great palace.

Link sat in the dark for a long moment, reflecting. Now that the princess was gone, his words, their conversation, his actions all came back in a jumble, and he buried his face in a hand, the embarrassment almost too great to bear.

She knew how to play him like a fiddle. All she had to do was look at him just so, speak his name in that tone, and he agreed to accompany her, alone, on a long excursion to some Goddess Spring―

He was pathetic, he considered, pulling his clothes off. In just his undershirt, he could already breathe a great deal better, which only made him feel more foolish.

The Zora waterbed sloshed under him, and he struggled to find a comfortable position for a long moment, his thoughts a jumble, his heart rate rising every time he remembered her eyes, her lips, her touch.

He turned to his side, and almost scowled with frustration. The pillows smelled like her. Shutting his eyes, he didn't resist the urge to bury his face into them. He was only a man, after all.

That night, he dreamed of Zelda again, or rather, Zelda as she ought to be. The Goddess, not the woman, all in white, so blindingly pure that he felt an inkling of guilt for thinking she was beautiful in the earthly ways, too.

This time, the Goddess did not kiss his fingers. She ran a hand against his cheek, so warm that he leaned into her touch, and she combed his hair with her fingers, and for a moment she was so close he could feel his heart thundering against her breast.

But the look in her eyes ― blue, not green; Zelda but not Zelda ― spoke of a worry ageless and ancient. The urgency in her expression grew, and suddenly her fingers began to dig into his arms, into his shoulders, and she began to grapple at him desperately, gasping for air, crying out words he could not hear, her beautiful face contorted with fear.

He clutched her, panicking, her golden hair floating around them as though they were in freefall, and tried to ask her what she needed, what she wanted, how he could help― But the words did not come. He opened and closed his mouth, struggled to speak, and still no sound came.

She seized his face in her hands, eyes so wide and terrified that he found himself terrified with her, and suddenly her face transformed, tears began to roll down her cheeks, and, from deep within, she began to scream, the guttural cry visceral and awful.

And Link awoke to the dawn, heart racing, haunted.

"Are you alright?"

Link turned, ready to reach for his sword― but saw only Mipha, standing in his doorway, looking concerned.

He blinked at her, catching his breath. Then, mustering his senses, he nodded, gulped, and croaked, "Yes. I'm― I'm fine."

She didn't seem convinced, but she let the matter go. "You're late for breakfast." The corner of her eyes crinkled in amusement. "Though I'm told you were late coming in. Did the Big Bad Bazz Brigade keep you?"

Memories returned to his mind, and Link snorted. "As much as they could. Rivan baited me to a drinking contest. I lost. Gaddison will never let me hear the end of it."

Mipha smiled. "Well, we did have twenty rupees riding on you."

Link sat up. "I was unaware my drinking held any royal interest." He buried his head in his hands, groaning. "You must think I'm a lout."

"A charming lout," Mipha lightly comforted him. "If you have a headache," she continued with amusement, "perhaps a nice omelet? A thick slice of roast?"

Link groaned, stomach heaving. "No…"

"Whatever you choose," Mipha warned, still gently amused, "be sure to have it soon. We leave for Vah Ruta in an hour."

"Fine," Link mumbled. "I'll get dressed." He glanced at her, still standing in the curtained doorway, and narrowed his eyes. "You need to install doors in here."

"If you move in, maybe," Mipha said, with unusually charming flippancy. Her golden eyes caught the early rays of the dawn and she suddenly looked much wiser than her age. "We wouldn't want our guests to be uncomfortable."

Link flopped backwards on the waterbed, blinking blearily at the canopy over his head. "Thanks, Mipha."

"Don't mention it." A swish of a curtain, and she was gone.

The sunlight began to warm his feet, but Link felt cold. Staring up at the canopy, he could only remember his dream, and, in it, Zelda's grasp, her desperation.

Shutting his eyes against morning, he forced himself to focus. There was nothing to it, really. It was a dream. Just a dream. There were more pressing matters at hand. Vah Ruta. Mipha. His wound.

He absently rubbed at his sleeve, scowling. The pain was becoming familiar. He couldn't wait for it to go away.

"You need to ask her," Zelda whispered later that day, as they trekked up from the Domain and towards the East Reservoir Lake. She was once again dressed in her trousers and tunic, her skin now carefully hidden by cloth, and still this did nothing to make her less appealing.

Link looked away. Mipha was walking ahead of them, and no doubt could overhear any conversation they held.

"I will," he mumbled. Zelda whispering into his ear did something to his nerves, made him self-conscious. Mipha was perceptive. She'd need only to look at him to see… to know.

As though on cue, the Zora Champion turned, looking down at them serenely. Link sidestepped somewhat, moving away from Zelda, desperately hoping the flush on his cheeks would be attributed to the trek rather than any hot-blooded reaction to his princess.

But Mipha noticed. She noticed everything. Her brow furrowed, and Link avoided the inquiry in her gaze, looking elsewhere, anywhere ― the grass, the cliffs, the water below―

"Is something the matter?" Mipha asked.

Princess Zelda glanced at Link expectantly, but he set his jaw, and the girl scowled.

"Yes," she finally said, to Mipha, when Link did not make himself forthcoming. "Link is hurt. Could you help him when we get to Vah Ruta?"

Mipha blinked down at them both, her eyes darting between Link and Zelda, and the expression on her face changed and seemed to melt into a mute hurt. "Of course. I… I would never withhold healing."

Link glanced over his shoulder nervously, then shook his head. "It's not that," he assured her. "I just…" Once again, he looked behind them. Down below, Zora's Domain was glowing in the sun, radiant and blue amidst a deep mist of waterfalls. They were not likely to be overheard from this distance. "... I just can't have anyone knowing." He looked back up into Mipha's eyes. "A hero can't be crippled by a wound."

"You are only a man," Mipha softly said, though he recognized her admonishment for what it was. "No one would think less of you if you were hurt."

"They would," Link insisted, knowing deep in his gut that the silent fear would be the worst. No one would say it, but it would be in every thought ― if the hero can be hurt by such a little thing, what will the Calamity do to him?

He couldn't let that happen. He couldn't let anyone think he was less than capable. His entire life, the kingdom's peace, his role as the princess' protector, everything depended on his capacity to withstand anything, or at least to give the impression of it.

He glanced at Zelda. She was keeping her thoughts to herself, but Link knew with certainty that she, too, would have given anything to at least appear competent. She had not once questioned his need for secrecy. She understood his position as a matter of fact, as a matter of sympathy.

"You could take care of him while I fine tune the controls," Zelda suggested, breaking the miserable silence that had fallen upon them. She seemed uncomfortable.

Mipha nodded and her voice was unusually soft when she spoke. "Of course." Then, as though it pained her to say so, she added, "Perhaps― Perhaps in the future, you will not hesitate to ask me for healing when you need it, as soon as you need it." She glanced at Link, then looked away shyly. "I can keep your secrets."

Zelda smiled warmly, and it seemed like the sun had broken through the clouds. "We know it, Mipha." She nudged Link slightly. "But some here prefer to play tough."

Link's smile was lopsided. "Go on, blame me. The cripple."

Mipha was surprised into a soft laugh. She slowed, placing a clawed hand on his shoulder sympathetically. "I see now why your father once said you need constant supervision."

Link's lips pulled up in fond recollection. He smiled at the Zora Princess, and their eyes met in common memory. "He was an ass."

"He was a good man," Mipha said, the corners of her eyes crinkling, and Link found himself agreeing.

By the time they reached Vah Ruta, their conversation had moved on to their childhoods, and for a moment Link managed to forget he was in the presence of two princesses. Their conversation became loud, punctuated with imitations, stories and laughter. Their voices rose against the cliffs, bouncing over the water, echoing across the reservoir, and even those Zoras who were milling about looked their way with curiosity and warmth.

It was a beautiful day for walking, a great day for fine tuning the giant elephant that was Vah Ruta.

So why couldn't he shake the feeling that both Mipha and Zelda's smiles were… sad?


Once this whole thing is over, maybe things can go back to how they used to be when we were young. You know… Perhaps we could spend some time together.

Chapter Text

"Are you sure about this?" Mipha asked as she followed Link and Zelda down the steps towards the Great Zora Bridge. A crowd of the water-dwellers had gathered to see the Hylian princess and her knight off, and though Mipha looked outwardly serene, Link detected her concern by the slight furrow of her brow.

"I must," Zelda said, with a deep exhale. She was carrying her saddlebags and Link carried his own. She had never shied away from hefting her own possessions around. She placed the bags down at her feet and turned fully to the Zora princess. "My father expects me to begin my pilgrimage in earnest, and soon."

Mipha's golden eyes flickered with natural sympathy. Her small hands reached out to take Zelda's in her own, red scales against pink skin. "I will be present for the last spring, as tradition requires." She lowered her voice and leaned in with a smile that hid her worry: "But I do wish you had more guards with you."

"Nonsense," Zelda said, lightly, though that came with a shuddering breath. "Link is more than capable."

Link ignored that, pretending to check the clasps on his bags.

"The world is no longer as safe as it once was," Mipha said, squeezing Zelda's hands. "I will always worry."

Zelda smiled warmly and leaned in to place a sisterly kiss on her fellow princess' pale cheek. "Thank you, Mipha."

"If you need me," Mipha said, sincerely, "I will hasten to your side." She glanced at Link, then averted her eyes. "Do not be afraid to ask for me."

"We won't," Zelda promised. She turned to King Dorephan who was standing further back, beaming proudly. "Your Grace." She bowed her head in proper deference. "Thank you for having us."

"Thank you for gracing us with your presence," King Dorephan warmly said. "Let it be known Hylians shall be ever welcome in Zora's Domain."

Pleased, Zelda bent down to retrieve her bags. Link, for his part, bowed low to the King, who smiled upon him benevolently.

"And Link, my boy, be not afraid to return to us."

Link smiled, wondering if he'd ever have the opportunity. He turned away, finding Mipha waiting expectantly.

"Princess Mipha," he said, warmly, as he approached his friend. "Thank you for your hospitality. And your care." He flexed his arm at his side, but otherwise added nothing. His arm was strong once more, and Mipha's simple glance down indicated she knew what he meant.

"It is the least I could do," she said, smiling. She reached out for his hand, and squeezed it as she had Zelda's. "Link…" She hesitated, glancing at Zelda who was busy securing her bags, then looked back up at him. "Do you…"

He blinked. "Do I what?"

She chewed her lip, then finally seemed to steel herself with some resolve, and before Link could ask her again, she pushed herself up on her toes and kissed him gently on the lips.

Link froze. It was brief, ever so fleeting, and he worried at the longing he could feel in her, the hope and the heartfelt sentiment. His lips fell open as she pulled away, and he heard the Zoras around them cheer and tease. Blinking dumbly in the sunlight, he gaped down at the small princess, completely at a loss for words.

"It's alright," she said, softly, with a smile. Mipha's smile was always a little sad, but now he could see the sorrow plainly.

"I―"

"Don't," she bravely said. "Don't worry."

She looked back at Zelda, and Link followed her gaze, and found himself mirroring the Hylian princess' expression of mute astonishment. He turned back to Mipha, stammering.

"Mipha―"

She pulled away, taking a step back, and she straightened with a smile that felt somewhat strained. "I just wondered, that's all."

Link let out a nervous laugh. "Wondered?"

She shrugged, her golden eyes not quite meeting his, darting over other features of his face. "What a Hylian kiss felt like."

Good, proper Mipha. It was by far the most adventurous thing she'd ever done. Link found himself chuckling, rubbing his nape in embarrassment. "You caught me by surprise, that's all."

She laughed sincerely. "Good." She hesitated, glancing down at his bags, then said, "Well, then, off with you."

"Yes, ma'am," Link said, warmly, smiling down at his friend. "I would hate to disobey a princess."

Her teeth were pointed like a shark's, but she still managed to look gentle and sweet. "Be safe," she whispered. "Both of you."

He nodded, hoping she could see his earnest determination without having to give voice to it. A week with her and it seemed as though they were back to the sort of friendship they'd once had in his childhood, a friendship of silent understanding and quiet kindness. One could never accuse Mipha of being overly passionate or making the blood race, but there was a stillness to her that brought him great inner peace, and he knew he would miss her.

Retrieving his bags, he waved goodbye to dark-scaled Rivan, tall Bazz, and soft Gaddison, and Kayden and Kodah― and once he was sure they were satisfied with his salutations, he joined Zelda, who had already begun to walk down the Great Zora Bridge out of the Domain.

She was walking at a brisk pace, and Link jogged somewhat to catch up.

"There's no rush," he said with a smile, "we need only make it down to Goponga Village today."

She hummed in reply, barely even glancing at him.

"That is," Link continued, "if we take off running, we'll be exhausted. We do have at least four days of travel ahead of us to make it down to Faron."

"I'm not running," she said, though she did not slow.

Link frowned. She still wasn't looking at him. "Princess?" He asked, moments later, once they reached the end of the bridge, and she began to ascend the hill that would lead to the descending, twisting road along the Zora River. "Is everything alright?"

"Yes," she said, lightly.

But she wasn't smiling, frowning instead at the ground moving under her feet. Link frowned too, confused. She had been all smiles only moments earlier.

"Did something happen?" He asked.

She carefully began picking her way down the gravelly dirt road. "What do you mean?"

He hesitated, confused. "What do you mean, what do I mean? You're―"

"I'm fine," she said, still in that strange, light tone that Link now realized was pure artifice. But at least she paused and looked up at him, her green eyes unreadable, and she added, "Don't worry about me, Sir Link."

It was as direct an answer as he would get, but somehow it made him uncomfortable.

Still, he did not argue again, confused. Absently, his hand went up to his lips, still strangely tingling from Mipha's kiss, and he rubbed them gently, hoping to make the sensation fade. It didn't feel right, somehow, to speak to his princess with the feel of another woman's lips on his own.

Not that he was going to follow that winding thought through to its inevitable conclusion.

They descended the long and twisting road, making their way to the Lanayru wetlands and its rice fields and thin birch trees.

Goponga Village was built on one of the few raised areas of dry land in the wetlands, its abodes thickly walled, with peat roofs and muddy streets. The Stillwater Inn welcomed them warmly that evening, offering the princess one of their best beds and feeding Link large seasoned rice balls wrapped in paper thin leaves of nori.

But even over their copious meal, the princess still seemed distant. She gave only perfunctory answers, humming rather than replying, and she buried herself into her personal journal rather than make conversation.

She is dreading the pilgrimage, Link realized. What else could it be? He had thought not returning to Hyrule Castle would alleviate her worries ― she was never quite as free in the castle as she was on the road ― but apparently he would have no such luck.

"Faron will come first," he said, in his most comforting tone, after washing down his meal with a long mouthful of weak rice wine. "And while we are still before Faroresfall, too." He shot her his most optimistic smile. "Combining those two things, I'm sure Farore will grant you her boon of courage."

She looked at him over the pages of her journal, lifting her quill off the paper to keep the ink from blotting it, blinking in surprise. Then, she saw his smile, and she managed a weak one in return. "Your confidence is heartening," she said, though Link could feel her heart was not in it.

"You shouldn't fear the future," Link said. "You were Chosen, as I was. Your power will awaken."

She said nothing for a long moment, her green eyes reflecting the candlelight. They were alone in the hall of the inn, by the crackling fire, and for a moment Link did not blame Mipha for her curiosity― for wondering what it would feel like―

She frowned. "Did she―" She stopped herself and a flash of irritation passed over her features, though Link couldn't tell whether her irritation was at herself or not.

"She?" He prompted. "Farore?"

Her eyes dropped to the page before her, and Link leaned low over the table, as in confession.

"I cannot speak for Farore, though she is my patron goddess," he said, "but if any goddess has an open and kind heart, surely she does."

She sighed, exasperation evident on her face. "Theology isn't what I―" Her knuckles grew white around the shaft of her quill. "Never mind."

"You've been upset all day," Link said, earnestly. "I'm just saying ― maybe this pilgrimage is exactly what you need to do. You shouldn't worry too much until we get there." He flexed, hoping she'd laugh at him the way she tended to when he made a fool of himself. "I'm no wimp. I can get you there safely."

She wasn't happy, though, and she didn't laugh. "What happens afterwards?" She asked, her eyes searching.

"Afterwards?" Link echoed, confused. His arms came down. "Well, I suppose when Din's Day comes around, we make our way to Akkala, and the Spring of Power―"

"Not after Faron," she said. "I mean― I mean after the Calamity."

Link blinked. She had never brought the topic up. The concept of vanquishing the Calamity was, for now, a far fetched hope, and they had until now adopted the view that not speaking of it was the best way to handle everything. It was sometimes unpleasant ― a Vah Ruta in the room ― but it prevented them both from crumbling into shivering little balls of terror. "After the Calamity?" That was even more preposterous a notion.

"When ― if ― we win." She placed her quill delicately between her pages, sitting up straight. "What will you do?"

Link pursed his lips in thought, thoroughly uncomfortable. "Er… I don't know. Celebrate?" He wondered if that was the right answer.

"But…" She looked away, peered at the fire, then looked back at him. "Where would you go?"

"Go?" He echoed.

"Would you go back to Zora's Domain?" She asked, placing her cheek into her palm, and resting upon her elbow. She seemed to be making conversation, which was better than the silence she had affected all day, but Link saw a look in her eye he did not recognize.

He shrugged. "I don't know." He mused. "Maybe. Or I could become a sellsword." He shrugged. "Wherever I'm needed, I suppose." As they were now, he had no expectation that they would win anyway. Thinking of events after the Calamity was pointless. He swallowed hard. "Or I suppose I would stay in your service if the Crown will have me." He had never dared to ask what he would be granted in gratitude, should they win. He hoped for a lordship, maybe― something to make his holdings easier to fund, and to make his mother proud.

But the prospect was far away, and tied to something unthinkable.

She said nothing, her eyes distant. Then, she retrieved her quill and said, "I envy you."

He was surprised by this, leaning back against his chair. It creaked, and he wondered if he ought to stop with the rice wine. "Me?" He frowned. "Because…" He lowered his voice, hesitated. "Because of the Master Sword?"

She had scrawled a few more words on the page, but now she smiled. "For one. But no. Not at this moment." She looked up, and though the light was dim, he could see a measure of warmth in her eyes. "But your dreams… They're… small. Accessible."

"That's me," Link said, deadpan, "small minded."

She allowed a small laugh. "You know that's not what I meant. It's just… if I were to dream the same things, it would be much more difficult. That's all."

He sighed. "I understand." He made the wine swish in the bottom of his cup and scowled at it. "But if all goes well," he added with a hint of irony, "we won't live long enough to worry about it."

She shot him a mild glare, then reached across the table and plucked his cup out of his hand. "And that's enough wine for you, then."

He made to protest, but she merely brought the cup to her lips and downed what remained in one long gulp.

Then, breaking for air, she began to cough, her eyes watering.

"Oh," she rasped, "that…" She glanced around themselves, making sure the innkeep wasn't within hearing range, then she managed, "... that is foul."

"It's not that strong," Link said, smirking. "Lightweight, your highness?"

"And proudly so," she croaked, putting the cup down firmly. "Father says spirits will dull my ability to commune with the gods."

"You drink at banquets," Link pointed out.

"Two glasses of the finest Necluda wines do not a drunk make," she said, resting her temple against her fist. "Besides, I have to stay relatively sober to manage the opening dances." She shuddered. "I hate those. The eyes of the world on me and the risk of tripping on the hems of my dresses― give me slacks any day of the week."

"You hide it well," Link said. "When we danced it seemed as though you had not a care."

She flushed a little, and Link wondered if the rice wine hadn't finally reached her face. "Well," she mumbled, "I had you as a partner." She closed her eyes and buried her face in her arms. "I was so relieved you said yes. I feared you'd run the other way, screaming. I would not have blamed you."

"The thought crossed my mind," Link admitted ruefully. "But I mustered what little courage I had." He furrowed a brow and studied her, pleased at the honesty of their conversation. "If I may, what would you have done if I'd declined?"

She lifted off the table and fell back against her chair. "Oh," she exhaled, eyes lost in the rafters. "I'm not quite sure. I might have asked Revali. Or Misko."

Link's gut twisted. He'd suspected as much. "They would have said yes without hesitation. Why risk it on me?"

She didn't look down from the ceiling, but Link did see her cheeks flushing deeper pink. "I suppose I wanted us to begin the year on the right foot."

"Literally," Link said, grinning.

"Literally," she smiled, still refusing to look down and face him.

"Well," Link carefully began, "for the record, I approve of Revali as my second. Misko, for his part―"

She did look at him then, straightening, and seemed amused. "You don't like him."

"I don't like Revali either," Link clarified, and she snorted, "but of the two evils―"

"Oh, evils," she mocked, eyes filling with mirth. "They're in love, I think. The two of them. They mean me no harm."

Link's stomach rebelled against the idea. When he spoke, he found his voice was somewhat uncertain: "In love. You mean… with you?" He frowned. "And you know this? Did they― did they reveal themselves to you?"

She smiled, the fatigue of a long day of walking coming through. "No, Sir Link. They have said nothing." She shrugged a single slender shoulder. "But they are transparent." She scowled at him. "Unlike you, I might add. In any case, they will not hurt me. Do not worry your protective guard's mind."

He wasn't worried. What he felt was more insidious, more slithering, something green and ugly that had no place in a good knight's mind.

"Isn't Misko some sort of Sheikah prince?" Link asked, to ignore the twisting of his thoughts.

She smiled ruefully. "A poor one, but yes. His blood lineage is all that is respectable. If I survive the Calamity, I'm sure he will present himself as one of my possible suitors."

Her expression was opaque, her words light. Link found himself fighting the urge to argue. Stupidly.

"But," she added, perking up with a rueful smile, "if all goes well, we won't live long enough to worry about it."

She was throwing his own words back at him. Link laughed and ignored the way his heart seemed to fracture in his chest. It wasn't a pleasant feeling. Too many bad ideas mingled together all at once ― her tears at a silent altar of prayers, her lifeless eyes staring back at him as the Calamity consumed them both, or worse still, a silver-haired king whisking her up in his arms on her wedding day.

Not that her marrying Misko was worse than her dying. He just struggled to decide which morbid possibility caused him the most pain.

If she saw the change in his mood, she did not comment on it.

"I should…" She pushed herself out of her chair. "I should go to bed." She hesitated, glanced back at him. "Will you be staying up?"

"Probably not," Link replied, woodenly. "We have a long day tomorrow."

"Right," she smiled. "And you must, after all, see me safely to the Spring of Courage." She came around the table, collecting her diary and stoppering her inkwell. "You will need your rest."

He stretched, yawning. "Right." Besides, he had to be up early to run his practice drills. He had begun to incorporate a few of the techniques he'd gleaned from the book on heroes she had offered him for his birthday, and they were grueling. "I won't tarry."

"Please don't," she smiled.

"Your concern is touching," he said, with a smile.

He wasn't sure whether the smile she returned to him was actually sad, or if he was imagining it.

"Don't dream of your Zora princess too much," she teased and before he could reply, she was already making her way up the stairs.

There was no expressing what he really thought, no voice to describe― he rubbed his fingers over his eyes, exhaling.

He felt unsettled. What did he want? If they lived, she'd asked, if the Calamity fell― what then? Would he roam the kingdom? Settle down in Mabe Village with Ilia, as his mother wanted? Would he stay at her side, content with a few new honorifics, as she married someone? Someone else, that was ― Misko, if fate was cruel? The thought sent a new curl of misery through his stomach.

Habit had him forming the syllables of her name softly, like a prayer. It wasn't right, saying her name with any familiarity, and he'd trespassed many times already. But he couldn't help himself. The very feeling of her name on his lips felt better than…

Well, better than even Princess Mipha's kiss.

When he dragged himself out of bed the next morning, the day was overcast, dawn somewhere beyond the cloud cover, and he knew a rainstorm was on the way.

"That does not bode well," Zelda remarked when she joined him, later, and noticed the same weather conditions. "Should we revise our plans?"

"I don't think so," Link said, wiping the sweat from his brow. He had just finished his drills. "Spring storms sometimes last several days. We can weather through." He turned to her, and noted she was observing him coolly. "Unless you don't feel up to it."

She smiled, but it was perfunctory at best. "I can take it."

He nodded. "You won't have much walking to do today, anyhow." He sheathed his sword and strode up to her. "We need only climb the hillside out of the wetlands to the Hylia River. I've arranged for the innkeep's cousin to rent us his boat."

Zelda's eyes crinkled in amusement. "How very chivalrous of you."

He shrugged. "It's a more straightforward path south than the roads, and the nearest stable is even farther. You don't get nauseous on boats, do you?"

"Not at all," she said. "But I hope you remember that the Hylia River joins Lake Hylia by falling off a cliff…?"

Link smiled. "Expedient, right?" He took a long swill of fresh water from his waterskin. "I'm told there is a little dock near Deya Village where we can tie off and continue on foot."

"Oh, and here I thought we would live adventurously," she joked. "I will retrieve my bags."

They found the boat already covered in anticipation of the rain, a thick leather tarp pulled under the boom. Good. The princess would have a place to keep dry.

Overhead, the skies loomed low, thick and pregnant with rain. A weak wind was rising, and the waters of the swift-flowing river were steely gray.

They were sailing with the current, though. Happily, that made for very little effort on Link's part, and the wind in the narrow sail helped them along.

"Where did you learn to sail?" Zelda asked, from below the tarp. The wind was whipping at her hair and she was using her free hand to hold her journal open.

"Are we back to the questions?" Link asked.

"Maybe," she said, placing the tip of her quill against the page and looked up at him expectantly. "Well?"

He hesitated, glanced down at her, then returned his attention downriver. "Actually, I learned yesterday, when I asked the innkeep for advice."

Zelda paled, tensing. "You're lying. Tell the truth."

"Cross my heart," Link said. He smiled down at her. "Going downriver is easy. I'm hopeless if we have to go the other way."

The princess braced herself against the sides of the boat, suddenly looking queasy. "You might have mentioned that earlier."

"Come now, princess, where is your sense of adventure?" He teased.

"Misplaced," she managed, closing her eyes as if in prayer. "Sorely misplaced."

They made it to Deya Village, though, without even a scratch. Even the princess gave him her grudging approval.

It was late afternoon. As they emerged from the Deya Inn after a quick meal, the world was quiet, the wind having died down.

"Any minute now," Link commented. He turned to the princess. She was contemplating the skies overhead, thinking. "We can stay here," he said, offering her one last chance. "Wait it out."

"No," she said. She was changed, now, her resolve strangely mixed with sorrow. "Din's Day approaches. I would much prefer to reach the Spring of Courage before Farore's season is over, as you said." She inhaled deeply. "To put all my chances on my side." Her eyes met his with sad determination. "Let's not waste too much time. We can wait out the worst, but we shouldn't stop moving."

Link did not argue. She had to be right, of course, but he was somehow sad at the idea of her trudging through the mud and the muck.

They had only just climbed up to Deya Village's tree of spirits, on its western hill, when the heavens opened. Down the rain came, thick and cold, as only spring rainstorms could be. Of common accord, they sought shelter beneath its boughs, Zelda finding a seat by the spirit statues, putting her bag down at her side. The entire world seemed to begin to shine bright green under the rain, and thick droplets pooled on the leaves overhead, dripping down on them wetly.

They waited, but the rain only intensified.

Zelda shivered. He glanced down at her, but she only shook her head. What thoughts was she fighting now? What fears?

Link glanced down south, where Lake Hylia and the edge of Faron's thick jungle awaited. What horrors would she be forced to face in that Spring of Courage? Or worse, what silences?

"You've been practicing new drills," she said.

Link drew his focus back to her. She was looking up at him with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.

"I have," he said. "From the book you gave me."

"Will you show me?" She asked. It was as polite a request as a crown princess could make it.

He nodded, removing his bag from his shoulder and unsheathing the Master Sword. It was becoming second nature now, the sword as natural to him as any of the short swords he'd once been so adept with.

The water pouring down was refreshing, in a way. He let the sword hang from his hand, at his side, inhaling deeply.

The Mind of the Wolf, Impa had insisted. Alert, dangerous, prudent. He felt himself sink into it with the familiarity of practice, and his arm came up of its own accord, a smooth movement, economical and strong.

As his eyes opened, he found Zelda's attention focused on him. She nodded in encouragement.

He began his practice dance.


 

"What if… one day… You realized that you just weren't meant to be a fighter? Yet the only thing people ever said was that you were born into a family of the royal guard, and so no matter what you thought, you had to become a knight. If that was the only thing you were ever told… I wonder, then, would you have chosen a different path?"

Chapter Text

Dracozu Temple, nestled in the very bosom of Faron, was a damp, dark, miserable jungle, from which sprung a wet, murky, smelly river.

"It could be worse," the princess quietly said, from across the campfire. She was looking up at the great stone dragon's maw, a structure made to look as intimidating as possible before the entrance to the temple ruins. "It could be water flea season."

Link grunted. His boots were soaked through from when he'd accidentally stepped into a knee-high pool of water that had been hidden from view by thick ground foliage. He'd splashed himself up to his waist, and he'd not brought a change of boots. So now the boots sat by the fire, looking damp and miserable, just like everything else.

Following the direction of his thoughts, he turned to the princess and attempted to summon a comforting smile.

"You shouldn't worry about it. I'm sure tomorrow will be better."

She was carefully prying burnt scales off her cooked fish and her voice was faint when she answered. "Yes… I suppose." She was carefully not looking at anything other than her dinner. She kept her face turned away from the dragon, and what lay within. Even still, Link could see her eyes occasionally sliding in the direction of the shadows before she forced them back to her meal.

In the deepening twilight, there was nothing visible beyond the great maw of the dragon. Even though he knew logically that they were safe at the temple, Link checked for the upteenth time to ensure his sword was in arm's reach. He'd made his princess find cover in an angle of fallen stones, leaving as little of her exposed to the dark of night as possible. He'd also planted thick, sputtering torches in a large circle around them, both to cast light and to ward off undesirable visitors.

He had stretched a blanket overhead, creating a bit of a lean-to that would protect her from the fat drops of rain and humidity that came from the thick foliage above, and ensured her pallet would be kept dry.

She had seemed both touched and tiredly amused by his efforts on her behalf, asking him where he would sleep. He'd assured her he would pull out his own blankets eventually, but knew, deep down, that there would be no sleep for him tonight.

The jungle was unfamiliar. It rankled him every time it produced the gargle of wildlife, the hoots and howls and cries of exotic birds, monkeys and other less savoury fauna. None of those sounds were familiar, none so comforting as the warbles, trills and rustles of the vast Hylian plains he knew best.

And there was another darkness in the jungle, too, a darkness that he could not attribute to the place itself, but rather to the grim thoughts that haunted his mind.

A glance at the princess, who had given up on her fish and was looking at the great stone teeth, filled him with frustration. She deserved better than this.

They had arrived at the Spring of Courage earlier that day. In the morning light, under a brightening sun, the jungle had not seemed so unwelcoming. Long rays of sunshine had slanted against the stone structures, the deep green of the jungle's glossy plants bringing relief, richness and musty smells. The Goddess Statue had smiled at them benevolently, as all Goddess Statues did, as though welcoming them to the octagonal spring where she had seemingly waited for aeons.

Zelda had gone off to change into her prayer robe, a white confection completely unfit for travel, and carefully approached the edge of the spring. To keep her from slipping on any moss, Link had dropped into the water, given her his hand and helped her down. The water was cool, but not cold, and he'd been relieved. He would have hated a repeat of that winter's great debacle. And for just a moment, as Link had stood in the spring with her and felt the insubstantial weight of her hand in his, he'd thought he'd felt some tingling sign that today would go well.

She had even smiled at him then, as though her own thoughts had followed in that very direction and found the same source of relief.

Then, to give her the chance to commune in peace, he'd stepped out of the spring and watched her wade carefully towards the tall Goddess Statue on its pedestal.

Farore, he'd implored. Please grant her your blessing.

The princess had prayed for hours, her hands joined in the most beseeching mudras, whispering without cease.

He had watched carefully, despite himself, as though the sign of her boon would be visible eventually, seeking every dapple of light, every breath of wind, waiting for the sign that Farore in her great benevolence had finally acquiesced, had finally granted her gifts.

But nothing came. Whatever sign he'd thought he'd felt, whatever blessing, must have been imagined.

As the day's shadows lengthened, the princess had grown quiet, her lips no longer moving, her hands no longer clutched as firmly as before.

And then, she had lifted her head, looking up at the Goddess, and her hands had come down.

Wordlessly, she had turned to him, eyes searching, full of a question that tore at Link's heart.

But Link had merely forced himself to smile. "Well, you've done enough for now, I think," he'd said, extending his hand. "Come. You can give it another go tomorrow."

She had been uncommonly quiet thereafter, uninterested in studying the rich flora around them. Her eyes had constantly drifted back to the great dragon's maw that guarded the Spring, her thoughts evidently circling a single idea, a single question, a single doubt.

And she'd barely eaten.

"Carrot?" Link asked, and her gaze snapped back to him.

"Hm?"

Link held up the roasted vegetable. She nodded, extending her wooden bowl to him.

"Thank you," she said. As she halfheartedly nibbled, the small crinkle between her eyebrows deepened. Link hated the sight of that crinkle. It only appeared when she was upset and trying to hide it.

"It will work," Link said gently, though he knew she didn't believe him. "You're the Goddess' chosen one. She wouldn't let you down in our hour of need."

Zelda did not reply. She was staring down at her carrot mutely.

"And Farore loves all living creatures," he added. "She won't withhold her blessing now."

Perhaps she knew he was trying to convince himself. Zelda picked up the carrot and forced herself to take a small bite, chewing slowly. Link hated seeing her like this. When she didn't reply to his overt attempts at conversation, she seemed deadened, so unlike herself, so like that cold, distant girl he'd once tried to hate, that it filled him with desperation.

"Besides," he continued, "if nothing happens tomorrow, maybe I can―"

"Link."

He blinked. She wasn't looking at him. Her eyes were somewhere between her bowl and the fire, the orange light playing against her skin, her hair, her clothes, casting her in dancing warmth. She looked vulnerable, painfully small, unfairly young. "Princess?"

"Please don't," she said, gently. "I know you mean well, but…" She shook her head. "It is my own doubts that I must overcome now." She exhaled shakily, and suddenly she was trembling. "Perhaps it is because I lack courage. There is nothing more you can do."

He fell silent. She was pressing her lips together.

Then, after a moment, she placed her bowl before the fire gently, and said, "It's getting late. I should try to sleep."

"Of course," he said, pushing to his feet and fighting the feeling that he was useless to her here.

He helped her up, walked her to her pallet, and made sure there was a waterskin by her head, and that she was comfortable. She removed her boots, her gloves, her mud-stained overclothes, and slipped between the blankets. The ground was soft, at least, Link thought to himself. He never failed to be impressed at the fact that she never complained.

"Will you be close by?" She asked, softly. She'd unbraided her hair for her prayers, and was now running her fingers through the golden locks in that way she always did that made Link want to do it for her. Tucked in her blankets, her shoulders slumped, she looked both very young, and far older than her sixteen years.

"Of course," he smiled, as cheerfully as he could. "I would be a poor knight indeed if I left you all alone."

Her green eyes were dark, veiled by a long day and disappointment in her efforts. "I broke your oath for you," she quietly said. "You owe me nothing."

That was true. But he could never leave her. Even without oaths, he felt utterly bound to her. Somehow, somewhere along the line, her safety and happiness had become more important than his own.

Even if the Calamity hadn't been bearing down on them, it would still be more important.

She was still watching him with those solemn eyes, and Link resisted the urge to take her hand. Instead, he smiled as softly as he was able. "I would protect you anyway, as I would any friend," he said, hoping she didn't notice the tremor in his voice on that last word.

She did smile a little then, though the expression did not reach her eyes. "Thank you."

When he was satisfied she was as comfortable as she would get, and that she was making an honest effort to sleep, he carefully moved back to the fire, which crackled merrily a few feet away.

He stared at the darkness beyond the fire for a long time, observing the way the scattered moonlight crawled across the jungle floor, his thoughts a jumble. He heard the princess sigh and shift in her blankets, her breathing deep and even. She was asleep.

He looked back at the dark maw of Dracozu temple. Now that she was asleep, now that she couldn't see his face, it was safe for him to doubt. Not her, never her. But he had the unsettling feeling that someone had missed something, that some important step had been forgotten. He felt, viscerally, that something had gone wrong.

Zelda was the incarnation of the Goddess, chosen to harbour the very essence of divinity. All the prophecies, all the soothsayers, all the scriptures and all the priests said so. So why were those gifts being withheld?

She ought not to be begging at altars all her life, he thought furiously. Would the Calamity come soon? Would it be years, decades? Would she be spending all of her days praying in vain, and all her nights stifling fear, shame and guilt? Would she be facing this injustice forever?

Would she ever succeed?

Even in the darkness of his thoughts, that treacherous idea made him sick. He stamped it down as one puts out a fire, fiercely and angrily. Of course she would. She had to. The alternative was… unthinkable. Unspeakable.

And yet as the night wore on, he was haunted by unceasing, horrible what-ifs.

It almost seemed as though the night whispered to him, from beyond the dark― the doubt forming, coalescing into its own form of evil, whispering that failure was inevitable, promising him untold miseries. He closed his eyes tight against the thoughts, banishing the ideas for moments at a time, then would reopen his eyes to feel them growing inside him again, like a relentless assault on his spirit.

Morning came upon them agonizingly slowly, lightening the jungle in such infinitesimal increments that Link found himself drowsy until at last the very first speck of sunlight reached his eyelids. He hadn't slept, but had managed to sit in a kind of half-alert doze. Even then, the dawn was painfully early.

When he opened his eyes, he found that the fire was weakening, so he put more wood on it. He would make scrambled eggs for her this morning, he thought with a yawn. Not now. Perhaps not for another hour still. He glanced back at her. She was a lump of blankets, her golden hair the only part of her still peeking out, and he was glad she had at least managed to find sleep.

He wiped at his eyes tiredly. The great maw of Dracozu still loomed nearby, but it was growing less worrisome by the moment, brightened as it was by morning. Beyond the great teeth, he could just make out the silhouette of the Goddess Statue.

And he tried not to glare at it.

Enough of that, Link told himself. Zelda would wake up soon, and when she did, he wanted none of his doubts to show on his face. She needed encouragement and friendship.

Shooting one last unhappy glance at the Goddess Statue, Link turned his back on the spring and grabbed his sword. Exercise. That was what he needed.

Princess Zelda stirred on her own about an hour later, turning around to blink at him blearily in the morning light.

"Good morning," he said cheerfully as he cracked two eggs over the traveler's pan he was heating over the fire. He'd heard the telltale lightening of breath that signaled she was waking up, noticed her twitching limbs in the blankets, and had taken it as his cue to put his sword away and start breakfast. She usually woke up hungry, and in his experience she rapidly became grumpy if she wasn't fed quickly.

If he was unusually attuned to her in the mornings, well, it came from a place of loyal friendship… and, prior to that, self-preservation. It had nothing to do with the fact that seeing her blinking at him like an adorable, sleepy kitten caused his heart to soften in his chest.

She grunted, rubbing at her face as she sat up. "Sir Link." She yawned, then frowned at him. Link suppressed a smile at the way her hair stuck out in every direction. "Did you sleep at all?"

"Some," he lied. "But the jungle makes me uneasy."

She observed him for a long moment, still frowning, and eventually decided not to pursue the matter. She sat up. "Anything to report?" She asked.

"Nothing. Coast is clear if you need to step away." He motioned to thick foliage behind the stones. "I checked not ten minutes ago."

She nodded, excusing herself, and Link busied himself with cooking. She returned looking slightly more awake, and she went to the riverside to plunge her hands in and wash her face quickly.

"I have more vegetables," he said. His delight at her morning bleariness was fading into a quieter concern. The longer she was awake, the more worried she looked, and Link desperately wanted to remove the crinkle from between her eyebrows. "And eggs. And a few slices of toasted bread."

"Thank you," she said, returning to sit cross legged near him. "Bit of everything, please."

They ate in relative silence. As they had during their meal the night before, her eyes kept flitting back to the dragon's maw and the Spring beyond.

"I wish I knew more prayers," she finally said, green eyes unmoving from the object of her thoughts.

Link eyed her as he chewed. "I thought you knew them all."

"Evidently not," she said, thoughtfully, her eyes filling with sorrow. "But," and here she perked up, giving him a smile that was only slightly forced, "Surely the Goddess must know, right? When she's needed?"

"Of course," Link said, though he was beginning to doubt, just as she obviously did. "I'm sure your power doesn't actually need specific words to be spoken. I should think it transcends time."

"Right," she agreed, though her smile was still somewhat hollow. "Nothing to worry about."

But there was plenty to worry about, Link concluded after she'd changed into her prayer dress and splashed into the water. That morning, once again, none of her prayers bore fruit. The sun reached its zenith and she was still bent in prayer, her dress still soaked from the day before, her fatigue beginning to show by early afternoon. Whenever he checked on her, she looked uncomfortable in the middle of the spring, and small, and incredibly lonely.

Link, for his part, was growing antsy. He kept his back to her, guarding her from any who would cause her harm. But this was clearly hurting her, and it was nothing Link could protect her from. As the thought flitted across his mind, not for the first time that day, his hands tightened on the pommel of the Master Sword, which rested tip-down against the ground.

This is wrong, he told himself once again, the voice coming from that part of him that seemed to guide far too many of his thoughts lately, that instinctual lupine barbarian inside, the part of him that he kept trying to suppress, the part of him that wanted to have her, to make her run away with him, that wanted to leave Hyrule to the demons.

Damn you, Farore, he prayed ― or cursed. She needs you.

He looked around: no enemies. Nothing in the woods. So he glanced over his shoulder. The princess was bowing for what felt like the hundredth time, and still no flicker of anything, no surge of power, seemed to manifest.

"Please," she whispered to the thick jungle air. Her voice broke and Link's heart broke with it. "Please, please, please."

But nothing happened.

Suddenly, her hands fell away from the prayer, and she turned to look at him from the water. Her eyes were angry, red, as though the exhaustion and disappointment were threatening to make her cry.

But she didn't cry. She just looked at him. "What did it feel like?"

He blinked and turned, relaxing from his guard stance. "Princess?"

She strode towards him, wading through the water. "When the sword chose you. What did it feel like? Did you hear Farore's voice in your head? Or Nayru's, or Din's, or even Lady Hylia's?"

She'd never asked about that day before. Link remembered it in fleeting images: kneeling on the ground, his fingers closing around the blade, the way he'd pulled, not really expecting the sword to give. The memories swirled through his head as he watched her approach, confused. "I― I don't―"

"I don't have a patron goddess," she said, her voice wavering, though to her credit she tried very hard to keep it loud and steady. She paused in the water, beautiful, vulnerable, afraid. "But you― you're a child of Farore. You pray to her, don't you?"

"I do," Link replied, feeling the sinking of his stomach as it dawned on him what it was she was asking.

"So what did it feel like?" She seemed to be grasping at words, frustrated with her inability to formulate a clear question. "When she― when she blessed you? When they all blessed you with the sword?"

Link swallowed. "I―"

"Please," she implored, and her hands balled into fists. "Please don't say― Don't say―"

"I felt nothing," Link answered, the shame and sorrow warring within. "Just a sword coming free of stone."

She punched helplessly at the water's surface, and the splash wrinkled the fallen leaves and moss, distorted the stones under her feet. "Damn it," she cursed, eyes filling with tears. Before Link could react, she turned away, stared at the Goddess Statue behind her, as though she refused to let him see her cry. "You said― you said Farore was the kindest. You said―" She took a deep breath, and he could hear the quaver in her voice. "You said she loved all living creatures…" She shivered.

"I'm sorry," Link said, softly.

"What more must I do?" She asked, but Link could tell, from the anger in her voice, that she was speaking to the Goddess Statue. She waded back, angrily. "What more can I do?"

"Zelda―"

"You made me your incarnation," she accused the Statue. "You told all of those people I was the one. Help me," she begged, her voice failing. "Please." She knelt in the water, bracing herself against the statue's pedestal. "I will do anything. Anything. Just give me a sign."

But no sign came. She didn't even seem to expect it anymore. She stood, soaked to the bone, and paced through the water thence, then back, and forward again.

"What will my father say?" She asked, softly. "What will all those courtiers think?" She was trembling now, shivering in that soaked, insubstantial dress. "As though anyone could possibly hope for better. I have never wanted anything more than this. I― Am I not brave?" Her voice hitched. "This is the Spring of Courage. Could I be lacking in― could that be the reason?"

No, Link thought, groping for words. She was the bravest person he knew. But he couldn't form the words, didn't think she'd hear them even if he could. He didn't know how to reach her.

"Zelda, you've done enough. Come out of the water," he tried.

"I will not! I cannot leave without Farore's blessing."

Link removed his still humid boots, left them on the bank, and dropped into the water, wading towards her. She paid him no heed, verbally running through scenarios, hypotheses, possibilities. She had a mind for it, Link knew, and that mind could and would run itself into circles if he let it.

Anger, dark and rich, surged through him. Enough of this, he thought. The possessive side of him, the ancient, howling side, wanted her to stop, wanted her to seek shelter in his arms, wanted her never to think of the gods again. That urge felt more like divine inspiration than any mantra, mudra or incantation.

He reached her in four slogging strides. "Zelda." He reached out, placed a hand on her bare arm.

She froze, turned to him, green eyes wide, and her breath caught. He, too, was surprised by the jolt that traveled through his fingers. He released her, as though singed.

"You―" He cleared his throat, focused. "You've done all you could." Then, more firmly: "It will have to be enough for now." He shot the Goddess Statue a glare he hoped the divinity would see. "No one could have done better."

"They will say I failed," Zelda said, angrily.

"And you will tell them your pilgrimage only just started," Link replied. "What do they even know? If any of those damn courtiers, if anyone in the world, really knows what to do, then they are bastards for not guiding you." He leaned in, tried to stifle the primal urge to lift her over his shoulder and disappear, take her away from everything. "You did all you could here. Trust me. There are two more Springs, and countless other efforts to contribute to. This isn't a failure. Only a setback.."

She peered up at him speechlessly, and Link wondered if he hadn't perhaps been a bit too insistent. Then, she managed a weak smile.

"You're right," she finally said, her voice raw. "Of course." She turned, looked up at the Goddess Statue. "There are three Springs. And much work to be done."

"Exactly," Link said, seizing on a lifeline. "And anything else in between might yet trigger your power. And we can come back next year, if necessary."

She didn't reply to that, though, her eyes still focused on the serene smile of the Goddess. It seemed to taunt them both, Link thought unhappily.

After a moment, she gazed back at him. "Will you come with me again?"

Her eyes were greener than the jungle, and so earnest it hurt him like a physical ache. Link swallowed hard. When she looked at him that way, he felt… Weak. Strong. Dizzy. Powerful. And angry for how much hurt he could see on her face.

She was just a girl. Just a sixteen-year-old girl, in a wet dress, with wet hair, a girl who slept out of doors, a girl who struggled to be respected, a girl with a keen mind, a sharp wit. A girl who struggled with a destiny that refused to cooperate… and yet even though she had no power, he felt utterly captivated by her.

How was it possible? How could he ever feel so drawn, so fiercely protective, so hotly bothered by her? Did she have the slightest inkling what she made him feel? He would follow her anywhere.

"Of course," he managed, proud that his voice came out steady and level. "If you need me there, I will follow you."

She smiled, but there was sadness to her expression. "Thank you." She reached out and smoothed her fingers against the hem of his sleeve, a friendly motion, and still the sad smile remained. "I'm… I'm sorry."

"Why?" He asked, genuinely confused, as she began to wade out of the pool. He followed closely, watching both their steps.

"You deserve a capable partner," she said, paying acute attention to her own movements. He could tell from the set of her shoulders that she didn't want to meet his eyes anymore. "A priestess with actual power. My failure will also be yours, if the Calamity rises."

He reached for her hand, and she paused, glancing back, hesitating, refusing to meet his gaze.

"Zelda." She still wouldn't look at him. The wolf inside growled. Link brushed it off, and focused on her. He stepped forward so that he was directly in front of her. "We won't fail. I won't let it happen. We'll figure this out."

She frowned. Despite herself, she was looking up at him again. He reached for her waist, and she inhaled sharply. With a single movement, he lifted and deposited her on the bank, then released her. Then, he pulled himself up, too, dripping water all across the stones of the shrine.

As she watched him, speechless for once ―and Link ignored the way his fingers tingled from the memory of her narrow waist ― he collected his belongings, his boots, and then looked back at her.

"We will not fail," he repeated firmly. The words seemed to rise out of the most primal part of him. "No matter what it takes. And…" he paused, searching for a way to give words to the fierce emotion swirling in him. "We're going to overcome this. Together. I'll keep you safe," he added. "No matter what."

He hoped she saw the determination in his eyes, but instead she frowned. She looked perplexed, like when one of her experiments gave her an unexpected result.

"You owe me no such thing. I broke your vow. If the worst should happen, save yourself and find the next incarnation of the Goddess."

Link smiled, unable to help the wave of exasperation and fondness that washed over him, mellowing the intensity he felt swirling under the surface of his skin. Sweet, naïve, silly, beautiful girl.

"There will be no other," he promised, as serious as any vow he'd ever made. "It's you. I live to serve you."

She flushed. The primal voice within him, still lurking close to the surface, liked that. It was good to know he could have that effect on her, even when he was soaked up to the waist like some back alley cat in the rain.

Which she was too, only that just meant her white dress clung to her legs.

And he was looking at them.

"Now come on," he said, gruffly, tearing his eyes away. They both needed a distraction."Those Guardians' control schemes won't get mapped out all on their own."

There was a smile in her voice when she spoke next, and some of the grief had faded from her eyes. Link was sure of it. "You're right. Sir Link. Thank you for reminding me."

And if she was smiling again, that was good enough for now.

Chapter Text

"... Don't you see― there's nothing more I can do! My hope… My hope is that you… That you'll allow me to contribute here, in whatever way I can."

"No more excuses, Zelda! Stop running away from your duty. As the king, I forbid you to have anything to do with these machines from this moment on, and command you to focus on your training. Do you know how the gossip mongers refer to you? They are out there at this moment, whispering amongst themselves… That you are the heir to a throne of nothing, nothing but failure."


 

Link slammed the door to the Guard's Study shut, relishing the way the displaced air blew parchments off his desk, sending them fluttering about the room.

Groose looked up from his conversation with Daka Au, one of the Sheikah assigned to the Order of the Guard. He seemed less than impressed. "Good afternoon, commander."

Link ignored that, striding over to his desk to retrieve the short stack of books he had kept there. A thin film of dust had settled upon the top cover, and he ignored the pang of guilt.

"Has the princess been flirting with the bard again?" Daka Au asked, his pale eyebrow rising.

Link turned on him with a glare. "Do not speak of her that way. We are sworn to her." He inhaled deeply, forcing himself to regain his calm. Then, with a more measured look at the Sheikah, he said, "And no. This foul mood is entirely of my own making."

"Well," Sir Groose said, stretching out his arms with a wince, "you're not about to feel better."

Link paused. He looked at the grim expression on Groose's face, and set the books down once more on the corner of his desk, focusing on them fully. His errand could wait. "Why?"

Daka stood at ease, in the stance used to report to superiors. He was a slim Sheikah, silver-haired and red-eyed, like all the others, but genial and firmly loyal, and he had not taken Link's reprimand to heart. "It happened while you were away, sir."

Link approached, and though Groose stood to give him the commander's chair, Link motioned for him to remain seated. The responsibility of command was better suited to Groose, who could take Link's ideas and actually convey them to the Guards in a clear and enthusiastic way. Link, for his part, felt better suited to one on one conversations and occasionally bringing down the disciplinary hammer. Besides, he was more often at the princess' side than in these offices. So rather than take the seat that was really his, Link came to lean against the long commander's desk. "I'm listening."

"The treasury was raided again. A large uncut topaz ― the king had intended for it to be made into a new crown for the princess ― and several opals. Not to mention a few collector armour items."

"And the amber," Groose added. "A full box of raw amber shards."

Link rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "Well. That isn't good. But it falls outside of our responsibilities."

"I said as much to Master Impa," Daka Au pointed out. "But she wanted me to let you know all the same."

"Thank you, Daka," Link said. "Is that all?"

"All for now," Sir Groose said. He nodded at Daka with a smile. "Dismissed."

The Sheikah saluted sharply, bending slightly at the waist in the way of his people, then left the study. He shut the door behind him, leaving Link and Groose alone in the large room. In the evenings, many of the Guard would congregate here around the hearth to read or talk, but in daytime they were more likely to be out and about, at arms practice or seeing to their duties.

When he was satisfied they would not be overheard, Link turned back to Groose. "Why did Impa want us to know about the theft?"

Groose slicked his hair back carefully, as he did when he was busy thinking. "Well, she has been investigating every possible Yiga lead she can these past few months." At Link's frown, he motioned tiredly. "Don't worry if you hadn't noticed. She has rightly been keeping this as quiet as possible, and you've been away quite a lot."

"Well, this robbery makes her look very bad. A guard posted by the treasury could make it all stop," Link grumbled. "I'm surprised she hasn't caught the culprit yet. Why'd she have Daka tell me? Does she want us to do something about it?"

"Well, clearly this Yiga investigation takes up all of her focus. Besides, it could be that she's just displaying good will, sharing information with you even if it isn't relevant to your duties."

Link blinked, then peered down at Groose in surprise. He opened his mouth, shut it, then said, "Oh. I hadn't thought―"

"What?" Groose said, grinning. "That you got through to her?" He laughed, the sound as boisterous as the rest of him. "You can't be so blinded by the princess that you didn't notice how well the Sheikah and the Hylians have begun to get along."

"I had noticed," Link said, defensively. "But I thought they were just… Playing nice."

"You thought they were putting on a show," Groose scoffed. "Well, that would be a feat. Even I like them now. With some exceptions." Misko, no doubt. The bard still managed to be insufferable. Few of the princess' guards enjoyed having the bard butt in and impede their duties.

Link was surprised to find himself in agreement: the Sheikah were likeable, given a chance to fit in with the rest of them. "Well, at least it won't all be for nothing, then," he muttered.

"What do you mean?"

The weight of the Master Sword on his back. The pounding in his head. Link pulled a chair and let himself fall into it. "Sir Groose, I am tired."

Groose leafed through a ledger, reaching the daily taskings. "I can have Sir Pipit take over until the night. He won't mind. You can take the next few hours off."

Link peered at him in silence, contemplating the bullish man, impressed with the change that had come over him in mere months. "No," he managed. "Not physically tired." He chewed at his cheek, then said, "It's not treason to disagree with the king, is it?"

Sir Groose's red eyebrows rose high towards his hairline. "Disagreement is fine. Disobedience, though―"

"I won't disobey him," Link grumbled, looking away. The sun's rays slanted through the window, lighting a column of dust motes, and his mood was still foul. "I just…" He rubbed at his eyes, sighing. It was no good, though. He could still see Zelda, standing still as a marble statue, clenching her fists helplessly, and he could still feel the frustrated, choked anger within. "Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest. Did Master Impa ever give you that lesson?"

Groose frowned with mild disgust... or was it disdain? "No. I did not have the privilege of lessons with the Sheikah Master."

"Well, she gave me that lesson once. I thought I knew what it meant." He hadn't though. Today was the proof of that. His voice deflated, weakened. "He cut her off from her studies."

Groose blinked. "What? Who?"

"King Rhoam," Link clarified. "Today. He told the princess she cannot study anymore. Not until her power awakens."

It was a testament to Groose's loyalty to their charge that the giant red knight's expression changed, filling with sorrow. "Oh."

"I had to kneel there," Link recounted, reliving the moment, "and say nothing. I can't even defend her from her own father." He turned his full attention back on his second. "She is doing everything, Groose. Everything she can. I've never seen a girl ―anyone― push so hard at something, all without help. She has kept hope for years." He swallowed, the pit in his stomach growing. "And I can't even do anything while her own father berates her. He has no idea the struggle she is going through. He just…" Link trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence aloud.

He just cut off her wings. Link clenched his fists against the armrests of his chair. He could still see the princess, defeated, a mere haunted shell of her former self, as she collected her books and artefacts, intent on returning them to the library, as ordered. She was broken, and he was helpless. It was the worst feeling he'd ever known.

Having watched Link trail off, Groose ventured, "What will she do?"

"We're leaving for Akkala tomorrow," Link said. "To visit the Spring of Power."

"Tomorrow is Din's Day," Groose said. "A day of prayer― a feast―"

"And she will pray," Link replied. "I'll make sure of it, as I always do. Morning and night, prayers without cease, without any reply. But if you think I will keep her here, forced to dance with the man who hurt her, watch her plaster on a smile to comfort the masses―"

"Alright, alright," Groose said, raising his hands in appeasement. He shot Link a look that Link wasn't sure he could decipher. "Settle down, there. I was only asking."

Link ran a hand through his hair. "Sorry." He exhaled slowly. "I know he's doing what he thinks is best. He thinks she doesn't take her duty seriously. But she does."

"I know," Groose said, sadly. "I've accompanied her to the prayers too." He leaned back in his chair. "But what if… What if prayer isn't the key?"

Link frowned. "Everyone says prayer is the key."

"But the previous Queen ― my mother says she never prayed at all. Or, rather, no more than any of us. And she had power."

"Well," Link bitterly said, "I won't be the one to bring that up to the king."

"I know," Groose said. "But still." He snorted. "Maybe Chancellor Cole has it right, and prayer is a complete waste of time."

"What do you mean?" Link asked.

Groose grimaced. "Nothing to worry about. Nothing as big as the hunt for the Yiga. It's just, for the past couple of weeks Chancellor Cole and the High Priest have been arguing about Chancellor Cole's refusal to even mutter a closing mantra during the consecration of food. Usually, Cole says worshipping the goddesses is a waste of time and energy. The High Priest disagrees. Then great discomfort ensues in the Sanctum." He lifted a great big shoulder in half a shrug. "Some of the Sheikah think it's a power struggle for the King's attention. Nothing useful for us."

Link barely hummed a reply, a myriad thoughts oozing through his mind. Then, at length, he said, "When did it all become such a mess?"

Groose snorted, lifting the quill from the inkwell and beginning to prepare next week's assignments. "It was always a mess. You just didn't notice until you were assigned to the princess."

There were a lot of things Link hadn't noticed before being assigned to Zelda. The way she curled up to read when no one was watching. The way she frowned when she wrote.

And other things, too: the smarminess of courtiers desperate to ingratiate themselves, the cool disdain of those whose station would not be questioned, the tension between factions at court, the subtle trading of diplomatic blows and counters, the ever-so-delicate balance of courtesy. He'd once asked Impa to explain how to navigate such a battlefield, and she'd laughed at his request.

Observe, she'd shrugged. Observe and know there will always be someone sharper, someone smarter, and be sure not to get in their way unduly.

The princess had helped a little: the high court was a market. A market of favours, of threats, of promises, a market of station and power. The greatest mark of respect one could show was to defer to another's ambitions.

It was a subtle game, a game of whispers and insinuations. He would never grasp a tenth of it. But he was beginning to understand how the forces came together, clashed, resolved their disagreements, made the kingdom function. He would never be a skilled diplomat, but at least he could handle open negotiation.

Except when the other party was the king. There was no way Link would ever be in a position to sway the king's opinion, to convince him to give his own daughter a chance at escapism.

"At least when she had her books she had something to look forward to," he said.

Groose was still watching him, the look in his golden eyes strangely difficult to identify.

"What?" Link asked, irritated. He had always prided himself on being able to decipher his second in command before. "Go on, speak your mind."

"I don't want to overstep, but… has it occurred to you that you might be falling in love with her?" Sir Groose carefully asked, frowning the way Zelda did when she studied insects under those magnifying scopes.

Link glared, and ignored the terror that suddenly made his heart begin to pound. "Don't be ridiculous."

"No, it's not ridiculous," Groose slowly continued, like a man on a tightrope. "You spend every day with her, you travel with her, you watch over her, and she is a beautiful, bright girl― who wouldn't? Surely there are worse things than falling in love with the woman you're dedicated to protecting"

"Are you sure you're not speaking for yourself?" Link asked, forcing a smile.

"Suit yourself," Groose said, with a tinge of annoyance. "But I've never seen you in such a foul mood, not even after hearing just what the whole Calamity Ganon thing was."

And that was another thing. Link was beginning to have nightmares. The Goddess version of Zelda was beginning to visit his dreams more often, especially since their return to the castle. In those feverish nights, she was alternately cajoling and sweet, or horrified and in agony. The sight of her blue eyes ― the wrong colour, but still Zelda ― was a torment and the touch of her lips, like the sweet kiss of sunlight, and waking always came with breathless relief, trapped as he was between desperate longing and terror.

And sometimes, he dreamed of Zelda, just Zelda, the Zelda he knew, the Zelda that was his, not another's. Those dreams weren't ominous, though. Waking from them was always a bit more difficult.

"Calamity Ganon," Link sighed, at last. "What if it's all a misunderstanding? What if she's doing all this for nothing?"

Groose shrugged. "We poor mortals can't begin to guess at it." He perked up. "What if we kidnapped her and ran away, far away, to another land, for a few months?"

Link pushed himself out of the chair, shaking his head. "If I make the mistake of admitting out loud to thinking about it myself, be sure to have me removed for treason."

"Well," Groose said, with a hint of understanding in his eyes, "I still bet that if you need a subtle way out of the castle, Master Impa might be of use."

"Of course," Link replied, sarcastically. "Of course the Sheikah Master would help the princess run away from everything, from her kingdom and her duty."

"It doesn't need to be so difficult," Sir Groose said, not unkindly.

But it was, Link reflected. The longing was bad enough in his dreams. It couldn't be allowed to take over his waking days.

He collected the books once more from his desk. They were a selection of treatises on Sheikah history, a compendium of Hylian and Sheikah bloodlines and ancient rules, a tome on mechanical engineering and even a small beginner's book on the power of lightning and its possible practical uses. He had intended to offer them to Zelda after finding them in the market from a wandering merchant, and found himself sneaking glances through them, desperate to understand their appeal and uncover their mysteries, if only to keep up with her.

And there were the other books ― the books he had taken almost with shame ― the books on diplomacy and law, the books on long dead kings good and bad, and even a few philosophical works on the nature of a ruler's duty to its people. He knew why he had taken those, and he wasn't about to admit any of it to himself, let alone out loud. Not with how closely Groose was watching, and how much he'd already noted.

What would he do with these now? Gifting Zelda with the first set would now be open disobedience. And keeping the second set was romantic delusion.

"I'm sure you could donate those to the library," Sir Groose said, as though he could read Link's thoughts. The books had sat on the desk for weeks, and more than one knight had already expressed interest in the titles carved and gilded on their spines.

"I guess," Link said, feeling drained of all feeling.

"Or you could tell her you're keeping them for later?" Groose asked, raising his brows significantly.

Link paused, blinked, turned. Suddenly imbued with a gentle sense of bittersweet sadness, he said, "I suppose I could."

"Well, then," Sir Groose said, with finality. He retrieved his quill and made a vague shooing motion. "Don't let me keep you, Sir."

Rather than point out that he was commander, and thus could not be so summarily dismissed from his own assigned post, Link rearranged the books under his arm and gave his second-in-command the barest of acknowledgements as he left.

Groose was right, though, big and brutish though he might have seemed. Zelda would one day awaken her powers. She had to. And when she did, no one would begrudge her going back to her studies and interests.

And until she did, he would make sure the library's collection only grew bigger for her perusal.

He entered the library as a small set of scholars exited, deep in discussion about getting a mid-afternoon snack, and nearly ran into Master Kohga.

Unusually, Master Impa's second-in-command seemed preoccupied. His red eyes were unfocused, lost in the depths of his thoughts, and his handsome mouth was pulled into a faint scowl.

"Master Kohga," Link said, too close to avoid the salutation altogether.

The Sheikah Master looked up, apparently surprised by Link's approach. Strange. It was usually nigh impossible to surprise a Sheikah, let alone to approach one this much without being noticed. And Master Kohga was quite literally a master of his arts.

"Sir Link," Master Kohga said, his expression melting into a pleasant smile that felt somewhat strained. "I'm afraid I didn't see you coming."

Or hear me, Link mentally added. "Is something the matter?"

Master Kohga blinked. "Oh," and he laughed genially. "No, of course not. Sheikah troubles. Nothing to concern yourself with."

Link took a step closer, his voice barely above a murmur. "Yiga?"

Master Kohga seemed startled. Afraid, even. "What?"

"Are you having any problems with the Yiga?" Link asked. "Because if you are, you need only say the word…"

The relief on Master Kohga's face utterly transformed him. "Oh!" He managed a weak laugh. "No. No, no." He reached out and placed a firm hand on Link's shoulder. "Bless you, boy, but we will handle those damned Yiga, no matter how threatening."

And yet only a few months ago, he'd been so sure the Yiga were no threat at all, Link observed. He kept this to himself, though. A change in posture on the matter was no small thing, but he'd be of no use pointing it out. "Should I drop by the Sheikah Sanctuary later? Maybe a new report might be in order. I was away in Lanayru, then Faron―"

"I meant it," Master Kohga said, pleasantly. "You should forget all about the Yiga. You'll never have to deal with them."

"But―"

"Honestly, boy," Master Kohga said, in a tone that, though pleasant, was beginning to sound slightly condescending, "you should focus your attention on any strange men intent on keeping the princess away from her prayers."

The attack was meant to prod Link away, and Link had read enough about diplomacy to recognize the warning for what it was. A sensitive topic, then, those Yiga. Link couldn't blame Kohga for feeling that way. But using a months-old threat ―of revealing Link's inappropriate interaction with Zelda that night, so many months ago now― seemed an extreme escalation.

Taken aback, Link forced a smile. "Duly noted," he said, peaceably, hoping to soothe Kohga's irritability. "I believe I will."

Master Kohga was back to his usual pleasant self, all trace of irritation gone so smoothly that Link wondered if he hadn't imagined it after all. "I hope she appreciates you as much as you deserve," he said, teasing. "I'm told keeping sole watch on the road can take its toll."

Link frowned. "Well, I won't be alone when we depart tomorrow― six of her guards will be coming with me."

Master Kohga's expression was undecipherable, the small smile not reaching his eyes. "Good. Very good." Then he excused himself, pleading a headache.

As Link stepped aside to watch the Sheikah Master leave the library, a strange sensation came over him, a discomfort, old and familiar, that spoke of something ancient, something evil.

Blinking at the feeling within, Link shook himself back to reality. Evil? Honestly? Master Kohga was odd, but he'd ever been loyal to Hyrule, just like Master Impa. Still, as Link turned on his heel to continue on his way, the sensation would not leave him. Unshakeable, distant, like the strange feeling of a full moon's light, like the discomfort of being watched by a wild animal in the woods, something within him ― that felt unsettlingly like a wolf ― warned of danger.

Shaking it off as much as he could, he stopped and glanced up, to the gallery lined with even more books, and found Chancellor Cole and High Priest Auru arguing again. No doubt about the Chancellor's refusal to pray. Faroresfall was upon them, and it would be followed on the morrow by Din's Day. Two holy days. Even Link and his men, on the road, would take the requisite time to bathe and make the appropriate venerations.

Judging by the animation on their faces, there was no doubt their disagreement was as fierce as Din's own fire. Link didn't envy High Priest Auru. Keeping the nobility in line was undoubtedly the least rewarding responsibility he had, but the court had to lead by example.

Chancellor Cole, short though he was, still turned away, leaning on the balustrade, as though disgusted by something High Priest Auru had said.

His eyes met Link's, and Link was surprised to see hate in them. Could it be hate? Surely not. Link had never shown anything but deference… It seemed to be a day of strange behavior. First Master Kohga, now Chancellor Cole. Maybe the fight between the king and the princess had unsettled Link more than he―

"Sir Link?"

Pulling away from the unsettling sight of Chancellor Cole's expression, Link turned to the princess. The sight of her strengthened him as surely and faithfully as a plant was nourished by the sun.

"Princess," he acknowledged, trying to will away his distraction and focus on her.

"Are those―" She motioned to the books in his hands. "Are those from my own collection?"

She was carrying her own books, evidently with the intent to return them to the library's shelves, and Link's heart sank. She seemed small, a shadow of her real self.

"No," he replied, uncomfortable. "I― These are mine." He shifted their weight in his arms, glancing briefly up at the gallery to see the Chancellor still glaring down at him, at them. He focused on the princess again. "Well, actually, I had intended them for you."

Her green eyes were limpid, and he was gratified to see a flush of mild gratitude suffuse her cheeks. "Oh." She swallowed. "I don't recall―"

"You never asked," Link smiled, sheepish. "I just… I thought you might like them. But now…" He sighed. "Well."

"Indeed," she said. Even her voice was small.

Link straightened. "But you can come to the library any time you like once your powers awaken," he reminded her. "And they will be right here, waiting for you."

She looked up at him, and once again Link worried at his inability to properly decipher expressions today. It might have been sorrow or gratitude, self-pity or… There was a name for the look in her eyes, Link just knew it. There had to be. There was no way his entire chest could feel so tight, his breath so constrained, from a look without a name.

"Thank you," she said.

"And if you have any recommendations of books for me to borrow ahead of our pilgrimage to Akkala," Link added, hoping she grasped his intent, "I would welcome them."

Now he was almost positive she looked grateful. It was enough to warm him to his toes, to make him feel the heat of summer even in such a cool, drafty room. And more gratifying still, she finally mustered a smile that reached her eyes for the briefest of moments, their shared friendship bringing light on a day of difficult blows.

He followed her to the head librarian's desk, setting his books down. As the aged librarian went to his stacks in order to retrieve his records, she picked up the treatise on the philosophy of ruling, a single blonde brow rising to her hairline, shooting him a look of amusement, and in that moment Link was confident she would make it through.

" 'A ruler must be kind," she read out loud, picking from a page at random, " 'as well as generous and honest, for it is in the service of the people that rulers are appointed and honoured.' " She shut the book, peering up at him. "Are you trying to send me a message, Sir Link?"

"I wrote you a letter on page ninety-one," he said, as deadpan as possible. "A Treatise on Terrible Poets and their Advances."

She flushed to her ears, eyes wide as she glanced around, worried he had been overheard, and her voice was barely a murmur as the librarian returned. "Honestly, Link."

His lips quirked up, pleased to hear his simple name on her lips. "Don't worry. I bought the book for myself. I was curious."

"Curious?" She asked. "What? On The Philosophy of Governance?"

"Why not?" There was no need to tell her the truth on that matter, no need to explain he dreamed of things a simple knight had no business dreaming about. "I have a command now. No one prepared me for it. I need to catch up."

"Oh," she said. There was something to that little sound, the inflection of it, that made him glance at her. She was running her fingers over the gilded lettering of the cover, and he watched her finger trace the engraved spine. "I almost thought…" She stopped herself, snorted, and tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Well, I'm not at my brightest today." Then, glancing over her shoulder, she said, "I should actually return to Misko, terrible poet though you claim he is. He promised to cheer me up."

"Cheer you up?" Link asked, trying desperately to keep his voice level, to seem only mildly invested. The bard was indeed there, and Link didn't miss the glare the Sheikah prick sent his way. Well, good. He could interpret that without too much of a struggle, and returned it fiercely.

"Hm, he composed a song for me."

"Oh," Link said, snorting. "Nothing less."

"Don't be like that," she said, primly. "He's quite good. It will be a waste if he doesn't get an apprentice one day."

Briefly, Link wondered if he was too young yet to get a squire. Probably. Maybe... Probably.

"I should…" She ran her hands longingly over the books, clearly hesitant to leave. "I should go."

"Give the bard my regards," Link said, still perfectly aware of Misko's glare. He glanced back at the gallery and found that Chancellor Cole and High Priest Auru were gone, as was, mercifully, the disquieting sensation of being in the presence of evil.

There was really something to be said for the princess' presence, he considered. She managed to make him both strong and weak at once, and she could erase unease even when she was sad. She even made him feel triumphant for every second she spent in his presence rather than the damn silver bard's.

Princess Zelda was looking at him strangely again, and he shot her a quizzical look. Then, mysteriously, her cheeks flushed and she excused herself.

As she rejoined the Sheikah bard, Link fought against the sudden disappointment of her absence. He made a fist to keep his twitching fingers from reaching out. That would be dangerous.

I should have kept her here. Made something up.

But that wasn't the protector in him speaking. It was the man.

His eyes fell to The Philosophy of Governance, and a surge of shame washed over him. He glanced back at his princess ― his princess, golden and fair, bright and good ― with that other man, silver-haired, silver-tongued and blue-blooded, and he felt a wave of crushing defeat come upon him.

Who was he kidding?

Plucking a book at random from the pile ―A Study of Sheikah Lineages, of all things―, he placed it on top of The Philosophy of Governance.

Misko's harp began to play, the tune elegant and light, a song that belied love and admiration, and even Link was stunned to hear the feeling in it. It was full of hope and longing, a sentiment Link knew all too well, and for a moment he found himself not actively hating the bard.

Which was preposterous, and clearly a sign someone had poisoned his porridge this morning.

Because if he found himself empathizing with Misko, of all people...

Shuddering in horror, Link left the library, desperate to whack a few training dummies to the ground.

Chapter Text

"Morning, princess!"

Zelda smiled at the cheerful welcome from Rozel, the Lurelin village elder. He had looked up from the fish he and a few Zoras were grilling, interrupting a discussion about the best way to sear the scales.

A few paces later, Teba of the Rito pulled away from a conversation with Goron miners and bowed low. "Good morning." She smiled at him warmly, then again at Yunobo when he waved, mouth full of rocks.

Impa was in deep discussion with Elder Uma, but they both nodded at her in greeting.

Zelda's eyes swept over the crowd that always invaded Kakariko Village in the mornings. She was getting better at handling it, but only in small doses, and was still learning to deal with how difficult it could be to find someone in a crowd.

She was standing on tiptoes when a slim brown hand with gold bangles appeared in her field of view.

"Princess."

Blinking, she turned to look down at Makeela Riju, the young Chieftain of the Gerudo. The girl was short and small-framed, but there was something about her that spoke of grace and steel and promised strength and beauty when she came of age.

"Chieftain Riju," Zelda said, and nodded an acknowledgement to Buliara, the chieftain's tall and silent shadow. "Forgive me. I didn't see you. I was…" Her voice trailed off, and she glanced through the crowd fruitlessly. "Well, it doesn't matter."

"You were looking for Link," Riju guessed, rightly, and Zelda tried not to flush. Was she that transparent? "I saw him competing against Granté at the archery range. Their scores are neck and neck right now."

"Oh." That felt familiar, Zelda thought with a smile. She had blurry memories of Link and Revali competing similarly. While quite drunk.

Come to think of it, she had been quite drunk too. Not her proudest moment. She'd have to tell Link about that soon.

"In any case, I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time," Riju said, formally, pulling Zelda back to the moment. Then, to Zelda's surprise, the Gerudo chieftain inhaled shakily.

"I'm sorry," Zelda said, dispelling her recollection and turning to the girl fully, with concern. "Of course. Is something the matter?"

Riju's posture crumbled. "Oh," she said, slightly embarrassed, "no. That is… I hoped you wouldn't mind. I'm looking for advice."

"Advice?" Zelda began to weave through the crowd, motioning for Riju to follow, until they were out of the main thoroughfare and in the shade of tall pines. From here, Zelda knew, she'd see people passing, including Link, but would be out of the way. Surely they all had to return to this area in preparation for tonight's first council...

"Yes." The little Gerudo smoothed her skirts uncomfortably. "I've asked around, of course. Teba of the Rito was very practical, which I appreciated, but Yunobo of the Gorons was less than certain. And Prince Sidon―" She sighed, glancing at Buliara with a funny little smile, "Well, Prince Sidon was more interested in Gerudo culture than in advising me. Keeping his attention was almost impossible."

Buliara's frown, which seemed a permanent fixture on the tall guard's face, deepened, and then she shifted her weight somewhat. Riju giggled.

"Yes," Zelda conceded diplomatically. "The Zora are always interested in intercultural relations."

"Well, I think Buliara greatly impressed him," Riju said, and her guard scowled.

"Ridiculous," Buliara said, firmly.

Riju shrugged a narrow brown shoulder and shot Zelda a companionable smile that reminded Zelda painfully of Urbosa's own smirks. "I liked him well enough. Anyway," she continued, clearly relaxing, "I then asked Link, but he said you were far more qualified to help, so…" She inhaled again, deeply, and confessed, "I gathered up my courage and here I am."

"Gathered up your courage?" Zelda echoed, somewhat amused. "Am I so terrifying?"

Riju grimaced. "I should say so, Princess Zelda, heir to the throne of Hyrule, daughter of King Rhoam Bosphoramus, Chosen of the Goddess and Vanquisher of the Calamity."

Zelda smiled gently. "I never liked the sequence of titles myself. Besides, I'm told you've already accomplished a great deal as chieftain; at your age I was still praying at statues and causing my father an untold amount of despair." She forced herself to focus on the Gerudo girl to avoid reflecting on that.

"You're kind to say so," Riju said, "although Link has been instrumental in large part. The Gerudo owe him a great deal, as do all the peoples of Hyrule."

That, Zelda knew, was true. She, too, owed Link more than he would ever know.

A tiny curl of sorrow filled her now, remembering that Link as they all knew him and Link as he had once been were two different men, torn asunder by the Calamity, irreconcilable despite her best efforts. No spark of recognition seemed to shine in his eyes, no frown of memory, and no matter how often they sat under the apple tree revisiting the past, nothing returned to him.

And every time he denied having the memories she told, a part of her wilted inside, grasping desperately for the increasingly vain hope that he would suddenly gasp, and turn to her with a familiar light in his eyes, and… and…

And what? Embrace her?

Skies, seas, stones and sands― perhaps then, then she could finally tell him the truth.

"I'm sure he's right," Riju was saying, and Zelda forced herself to pay attention. "He said you would know about taxation better than anyone."

"Taxation?" Zelda repeated, surprised.

Riju sighed. "I want to have permanent settlements built around Gerudo Town, for male visitors." This was a new idea, Zelda thought, but the gesture would be welcomed by outsiders. "So far, we've been rather hostile, and I fear it has been daunting for traders. But to raise new buildings and supplies, we'd need to levy taxes. If you could advise me on ways to justify a tax increase―" She shrugged, a single brow rising in question.

Zelda pursed her lips in thought. "What's wrong with telling them exactly what you just said? As long as the funds levied are used properly and produce tangible results, your people should have no reason to complain."

"It's more complicated than that," Buliara said, and Riju nodded. "Chieftain Riju is young."

The young Gerudo's golden eyes turned to Zelda, asking her to understand. "They think of me as... as a mascot, a sweet symbol, and not as a leader." She shook her head. "I know I have what it takes, but convincing my people is another matter entirely."

Zelda could sympathize with that. "Surely, that will change with time. Have they been disrespectful?" She asked both women.

"They wouldn't dare," Buliara growled.

"But they may think it," Riju corrected her. She turned to Zelda. "Your blessing could change all that."

"My blessing?" Zelda echoed.

"To drive Vah Naboris," Riju clarified. "If you could make me Champion, I know they would stop treating me like a child. They'd begin to see Lady Urbosa within me."

She looked impossibly young. It was all Zelda could think. She, too, was guilty of looking for Urbosa within her, and seeing her in the red of her hair, the colour of her lips, the tan, the clothes. But the resemblance ended there, she told herself. Urbosa had been as a mother, or a wise sister. Riju was still a child.

So how could she condemn her to being the driver of Vah Naboris, which had been Urbosa's tomb, and adding the responsibilities of a Champion to it all? "Riju…"

"No," Riju said, her voice firm, and Zelda was taken aback. "Do not refuse me just yet. They'll all be asking you for their blessing too, and they all have their selfish reasons." When Zelda merely looked confused, Riju straightened. "Teba wants to measure himself against Revali, and Prince Sidon wants to honour his sister. Yunobo just wants to become brave for once. My reasons are no less valid."

Zelda blinked. "Are you saying―"

"They're all going to beg you for your blessing to become the next Champions," Riju explained. "Teba wants to drive Vah Medoh, and Yunobo would like to conquer Vah Rudania. Prince Sidon―" Her shoulders dropped, and she sighed, her exasperation clearly controlled, a feeling Zelda knew only too well. "I know they're all older than me, but I am no less capable. Please. Link said this would be difficult for you, but… We're all volunteering."

Zelda inhaled deeply, feeling herself tremble. Of course Link had warned them of how difficult this would be. "Do not misunderstand me, Riju," she said, softly. "I know you probably have what it takes. I just… I'm afraid for you. Becoming a Champion is an honour and a curse. Being chosen for Vah Naboris was the reason Urbosa died."

Riju's expression softened, and, surprisingly, so did Buliara's. "I'm sorry, princess. I hear you and Lady Urbosa were close."

"Very," Zelda said, with a sad smile. "And I see so much of her in you― not all the time. But you're strong, I know that, just as she was. Sometimes I look at you and I…" Her eyes flickered to the deep red hair, the golden bangles. "... I miss her terribly." She shook her head. "Becoming a Champion would surely help you politically, but you should not beg for my blessing lightly. I know my heart will be heavy when I grant it."

Riju's breath was baited. "But you will grant it?"

Zelda's heart squeezed, and when she spoke her voice was faint. "The Divine Beasts will need Champions... So yes."

Riju's whole demeanour melted, and suddenly she looked even younger. "Oh," she exhaled with palpable relief. "Thank you. I will make myself worthy, I swear it."

Zelda sighed. "I pray you never have to." She exchanged glances with Buliara, and the guard's shuttered expression mirrored her own. Severe and quiet as she was, the Gerudo warrior evidently cared a great deal for her charge.

"Will you grant your blessing to the others?" Riju asked, evidently finding solace in her victory. "Teba, and Yunobo, and Sidon?"

"If they ask it of me," Zelda said. "Though I pray they, like you, are never called to duty."

Riju's expression saddened. "Master Impa mentioned the horrors you underwent. And Link's journey, too. But you vanquished the Calamity," she reminded her. "Sealed it away."

In the far corner of her mind, Zelda could almost conjure up the Calamity's hateful presence. It was familiar, too familiar, after having spent a hundred years in its company. "I know." There was no use lingering upon it. What remained in her heart now was a shadow, a scar. It wasn't real, no matter how real it still felt.

Riju seemed uncomfortable. With a glance at Buliara, she began to worry at her hands. "Link said I ought to wait before I asked. I'm sorry if this caused you pain."

Slowly, as through a fog, Riju's words finally registered. "Link said that?" Zelda asked, frowning. "When?" And more importantly, "Why?"

And… Just how much had Link and Riju discussed recently? Zelda was so often absorbed with different matters that she hadn't noticed him having any in-depth discussions with the other leaders― how had it all escaped her notice?

Furthermore, it was unsettling how perceptive he was about her moods while remembering so little of their past. She had always known him to be observant, but she hadn't thought he'd retained that much of the skill after losing all his memories.

"He said you were still mourning," Riju continued, adding further proof to Zelda's conclusions. "And that there was still a lot for you to process." She seemed embarrassed. "I've said a lot. Maybe it was out of line." She managed a gentle smile. "He clearly cares about you, and I want you to know he is not the one who put me up to this. Please don't be upset with him."

"I couldn't be," Zelda said, sadly. "I want him to live the quiet, peaceful life he deserves." His consideration for her own feelings was already more than she had expected.

Riju's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and suddenly she looked older, wiser, than ever before. In that moment, Zelda saw Urbosa in her with such painful clarity that it stole her breath away. "A quiet, peaceful life, you say?" She asked, almost teasing, and that too was terribly familiar. "Is that what he wants, too?"

"Why wouldn't he?" Zelda asked, surprised. "Don't you think he's earned it?"

"Oh, he's earned it," Riju agreed, her smile elfin. "And so much more, I think. He's asked for very little as a reward. Doesn't that seem strange to you?"

Not particularly. Link had always been the most unselfish person Zelda had ever known… sometimes to her very great irritation.. "Some things never change. Link has never expressed any desire for more than what he was given." Sadly, she thought.

Riju's red brows rose high, but she did not reply to that, because in that moment Link, accompanied by Granté and several Sheikah, Rito and Hylians, finally appeared in the crowd. They were teasing each other and grinning, and they all seemed to have lost their shirts. Their chests were covered in sweat, and Zelda was sure that the Sheikah and Hylians, at least, were showing off for the women around them. Even the Rito seemed to be preening. But Link... he was just smiling, open and warm in the sunshine.

It was rare to see Link so free, so willing to engage with others. Zelda found herself aching.

"Did he look like that before the Calamity?" Riju asked, leaning in slightly. Looking down at her, Zelda was reminded of Urbosa once more, the teasing all too familiar.

"He had fewer scars," Zelda said, trying to keep her voice even and only partly succeeding.

Riju let out a low breath. Buliara, behind them, shook her head, muttering to herself.

"And he was… just your knight?" Riju finally asked, the question absolutely transparent.

Across from them, Link was clapping Granté on the shoulder and bidding him a temporary farewell. The two of them would be at the council meeting tonight.

The pit in Zelda's stomach grew, the result of watching Link as he stretched and chatted amiably with those around him, and remembering cold air, furs under her fingers, a feeling of a warm breath fanning against her throat

At that very moment, as though he could sense where her mind was wandering, Link turned, his blue eyes bright in the sunlight, and met her gaze. But Zelda knew he couldn't know. He couldn't possibly. And if she were honest, she hoped he'd never know, never remember. She wasn't sure she'd be able to live with the shame.

Still, there was no denying that when he looked at her that way, when the whole world seemed to fade around them, it was almost― almost―

Riju cleared her throat. "Well, I suppose that's an answer too."

Zelda looked away from Link, heart racing. "I need to go. Prepare for tonight's council."

There was no mistaking the smile on Riju's face, but she relented. "So should I," she agreed. "So please, don't let me keep you. Thank you for your help."

"Of course," Zelda replied, politely, but her mind was already far away, somewhere between fearful anticipation of the meeting to come and horrified recollection of what had been, hands-down, the most selfish thing she'd ever done.

She managed to circle around Link's admirers, though she could feel his gaze tracking her. They would have to speak again soon to continue the telling of the last summer, but it would have to wait. Mercifully, because with uncomfortable memories fresh in her mind, Zelda was dreading it.

Impa's home had been cleaned thoroughly for the occasion of the first council meeting. Paya had refreshed all the candles in the lanterns and rearranged all the cushions into an egalitarian circle. Impa, for her part, had donned her most elaborate cultural attire, the red details embroidered along every hem and cuff. Paya, too, had brushed her hair to a lustrous white shine, and cleaned everything, down to the heels of her shoes.

So when Zelda descended the steps, dressed in the best Hylian dress she had managed to locate, with pink on her lips and Sheikah liner on her lashes, she at least felt that she fit in.

Even with very select invitations, the main room felt cramped. The circle of cushions could seat only those who were actual emissaries and representatives of their people. She saw Yunobo of the Gorons, Sidon of the Zora, Riju of the Gerudo, Teba of the Rito, Granté of the Akkala Sheikah, Uma of Hateno, Rozel of Lurelin, Tasseren of the nomad horse tribes, Hudson of Tarrey Town, Symin of the Necluda Sheikah―

And her hosts, of course, Master Impa of Kakariko, seated on her cushion, with Paya next to her, a writing tablet carefully tucked on her lap.

Link, for his part, was sitting on the steps, as though he wasn't sure whether he belonged in the room. He had also brushed his hair and donned his best Guard's attire.

It was surprising to see him in that uniform. She had almost forgotten it― how and where had he recovered a set that hadn't been eaten by moths?

And why did it make her feel so warm?

It had to be the room. There were so many people all finding their seats...

Yes, Zelda thought as she found a seat for herself, the room was cramped, and yet…

There were no jovial mayors from countless Hyrule field villages, no austere people from Hebra, no elfish loners from the Great Hyrule Forest, no proud representatives from the Faron tribes― and she knew why.

They were gone, dead. This vital assembly was all there was left to go forward into the future.

Zelda's eyes met Impa's. The old Sheikah crone seemed to be thinking along the same lines, the memories of colourful courts and happy ballrooms fading to this plainly decorated room, the myriad cultures and offerings reduced to these uncertain people in their best travel wear, the laughter and music now a scattering of whispers and nervous chuckles.

Zelda felt Link's eyes on her, and took a breath before meeting his gaze. His blue eyes were unreadable, as always, but the steadiness he radiated brought her a small measure of comfort.

The moment could have lasted less than a second or several minutes, she was so drawn in. Still, it would not do to be caught staring at the hero of Hyrule.

"Good evening," she said instead to Elder Uma, who had just settled into her seat next to her, breaking the thread that Link had woven with his eyes.

"Welcome," Master Impa said, her old voice carrying through the small room. "Welcome to all." She managed a toothy smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "Welcome to the first of many reunions in this― the first month of true peace in an age."

A rustle of cloth rippled through the room as eyes went either to Link or Zelda, and Zelda managed a thin smile. Link's expression was unreadable. Perhaps he was waiting for the looks to move away, or perhaps he had erected impassivity about him like a cloak of confidence once more… It would not be the first time he did so.

"There is much to discuss," Master Impa continued, "as you all know too well. And we cannot hope to cover everything within a single evening." Next to her, Paya was scratching at parchment carefully, making note of those assembled. "But we shall endeavour to make this into a historic moment. At long last, Hyrule may begin to look to the future."

"Hear, hear," Sidon said, and a few people clapped, and Zelda felt her heart grow warm with gratitude.

"There is much to discuss tonight, and many concerns I'm sure you all wish to bring to this assembly. Let us strive to be fair and organized. I'm sure you―" Master Impa blinked, and all eyes turned to Yunobo, who had raised his hand shyly. Impa's brow furrowed, but she indulged the Goron youth: "Yes, Yunobo, descendant of Daruk?"

Yunobo swallowed hard, nervous. "I just wanted to say…" He shot a glance around the room, and managed a wavering smile. "Um, it has been very nice to meet you all."

He hadn't meant to manage it, Zelda knew, but the tension in the room evaporated, and Sidon, next to him, towering over the crowd even while seated, clapped the Goron's shoulder heartily.

"Likewise, dear Goron!" He closed his hand in a determined fist. "Let's do everything we can to make these meetings productive!"

"I'm sure we can resolve most issues satisfactorily," Teba agreed, and Riju, next to him, smiled, catching Zelda's eye with youthful optimism.

"I, for one, would like to thank our gracious hosts for their hospitality," Tasseren of the horse tribes said, straightening his fur lined coat. "We have traditionally been left out of governance discussions."

"Indeed," Elder Uma said, as Rozel nodded, "there were days in my parents' and grandparents' time where all we ever saw of government were the tax collectors. Why, whenever we needed to fix a road in my village, we had to do it ourselves!"

"As did we," Rozel concurred. "It will be good not to struggle when our crops don't come through."

The conversation drifted naturally to the past few decades, which had been experienced in the shadow of the Calamity. Though she had heard several such stories over the past few days, Zelda listened with rapt attention. Her people had lived an experience that greatly differed from her own or Link's, punctuated with good and poor harvests, roving packs of monsters, deaths and births. All Zelda had known had been the stagnation of imprisonment.

Her father's time was fading out of living memory, she noted with a lump in her throat. Those who had been children at the time were now elders, and with them the memory of governance, taxation, policing and courtly rules was warping upon itself, becoming almost a thing of legend.

And all those who had lived those times were almost forgotten, too.

"Speaking of which," Granté said, drawing Zelda's attention away from the ache in her heart, "much as that topic tends to cause great irritation, we ought to discuss the creation of a national treasury." He nodded to Zelda charmingly. "If we wish to reform an army and have a steady seat of government, that is."

This elicited a new wave of conversations, though this one was much more defensive than nostalgic. Catching Link's eye across the room, Zelda tried not smile at his raised brow. He had clearly been thinking along the same lines as her: it seemed that a hundred years had been enough to give the people a sense of autonomy, and the prospect of further taxation was unattractive, even, as Sidon pointed out, in the pursuit of the greater good. No wonder Riju had dreaded the topic. Now Link was fighting a strange little smile of amusement.

"Let us not get ahead of ourselves," Master Impa sternly said, interrupting the protests. "First, we must decide what form this government will take." She sent an apologetic look towards Zelda. "You understand, princess, I'm sure, that a century has gone by and many peoples have grown content with greater independence. This council may return to the ruling methods of old... or it may not."

Zelda smiled, ignoring the way her heart pounded and the uncertainty that still flowed through her veins. This council would decide her fate as much as Hyrule's. "I understand. Do not let my presence impede you from doing what is right for the people."

She was surprised, when the conversations reprised, to see that Link had not stopped looking at her. She felt herself flush. He was studying her as one studied a particularly interesting species of butterfly.

"I think," Sidon eventually said, thoughtfully, diplomatically, with a glance at Zelda that she struggled to decipher, "that no matter which government system is adopted, we should still agree to remain united, all of us, in the defense of Hyrule."

"Agreed," Symin said, speaking up for the first time. "Historically, Hyrule has never been stronger than when its people were united as one force."

It was Granté's turn to ask who would finance such a force, and for Riju, at Zelda's side, to point out that every region already relied on a local army, or at least on some form of watch. It would be a mere formality, she argued, to transform those fighters into soldiers of Hyrule.

Soldiers. The memory of her guards, of the Order, suddenly returned to Zelda's mind, and with it the veritable ache of their absence, their fall.

She did not give a voice to her pain, though she did catch Riju's concerned glance once, and did her best to school her face into unreadable regality. Truthfully, the idea of an army unsettled her, just as the prospect of naming new Champions did. Hyrule had ever been well protected from outside invaders, shielded by canyons, mountains, desert, or sea on all sides. Needing an army was undoubtedly a precaution, but it did not feel like a happy decision to make.

Not to mention, Zelda considered, the fact that despite having fought the Calamity for a hundred years, she probably had the least practical experience of anyone in the room in matters of tactics and war.

Despite her best efforts, she glanced at Link. He was still observing her quietly, his hands joined with intertwined fingers. It was unsettling now, and they stared at one another across the room. She wanted to dare him to speak up, and it seemed, in his own way, he was waiting instead for her own voice to make itself heard.

So Zelda turned away again, trying to focus on the conversation once more.

It was then that Prince Sidon cleared his throat.

"I would like to propose a formal motion," he said.

Master Impa conceded this, and Paya raised her chin from her parchment to listen attentively.

Standing, Prince Sidon took the center of the room. His crimson head nearly brushed the rafters. "As many of you know, I am one of the eldest of this assembly." He inclined his head to Elder Uma and Chief Rozel, who chuckled good naturedly. "And as such I have seen first hand many of Hyrule's ups and downs in matters of governance. Not only its supreme ruling monarchy's efforts, but also the chaos that followed its downfall." His golden eyes darted to Zelda, but he did not linger. "And," he added, evidently unusually uncomfortable, "having discussed this with several of you, it appears evident we must never again open ourselves to such instability."

There were a few murmurs of assent in the room. Zelda felt like there was a ball of lead in her stomach. She had always assumed Prince Sidon would be her ally. She did not want to impose herself as queen, but she had hoped…

She had hoped the council would at least ask.

Even if she still couldn't be sure what her answer would be.

"Furthermore," Prince Sidon added, raising a clawed finger, "the past century has allowed Hyrule's peoples the opportunity to self-determinate. This is a great step forward, and should not be retracted."

Now several more vocal agreements could be heard. Uncertainly, Zelda's eyes met Link's across the room. His expression was unreadable, and she could not quiz it out before Sidon continued.

"However," he said, finally turning to Zelda, and she was forced to stop looking at Link, "there is also no denying that governance under a single entity ensures stronger commonality."

Granté cleared his throat, and Zelda saw him exchanging a look with Link. When Sidon turned to look at him, the young Sheikah man smiled in amusement. "We all agree, Prince Sidon. Please, make your motion so I can support it."

There was a rumble of laughter from the assembly. Zelda knew that diplomatic talks had begun ahead of this first meeting, but she had not expected actual motions to have been planned out so closely. She felt somewhat outdone.

Next to her, Chieftain Riju reached out and squeezed her hand familiarly. Surprised, she caught the girl's gaze, and the Gerudo leader smiled encouragingly.

"It's alright, Princess," she whispered. For a fleeting moment, Zelda wondered why the girl felt any urge to comfort her at all. Anyway, wasn't it Zelda's role to see to the girl's wellbeing, as Urbosa had once cared for her?

"Right," Prince Sidon said, clapping a fist into his open palm. "I propose a council of Hyrule's peoples, wherein each race ― Rito, Gerudo, Zora, Goron, Sheikah and Hylian ― will have an equal seat."

There was a round of applause, and Master Impa raised a hand to quiet them all down.

"Is there anyone in this assembly who will second―" She sighed when Granté's hand rose over his head. "Very well, Granté of the Akkala Sheikah is seconding the motion," she said, for Paya's benefit. "We can now submit this initial proposal to a majority vote."

To Zelda's astonishment, all hands but hers, Master Impa's and Paya's went up. Like them, Link did not participate, having only an honorary presence in the room, but the near unanimity of the decision took Hyrule's princess aback.

Many eyes turned to her, and Zelda pretended at serenity. Deep down, though, she was struggling for air.

Was it the panic of uselessness she felt, or the elation of freedom?

Prince Sidon seemed pleased at the general approval, and he regained his seat.

"A council of peoples," Master Impa said. "I imagine this council would include six representatives?"

Another hand went up, Yunobo's this time, and Master Impa gave him the floor. He pushed himself to his feet, but in his shyness, it seemed he refused to stand straight, his slouch nevertheless making him taller than most in the room. "I would like to propose that this council also have a… a… a big boss?" He scratched his head. "Someone to guide the council and see to its management."

"With the understanding that such a role would not undermine the authority of the proposed representatives," Master Impa said, "does anyone second this motion?"

Both Tasseren of the horse tribes and Elder Uma raised their hands in support. Master Impa inclined her head at them in acknowledgement, and Paya continued to scratch at the parchment.

"We may now proceed to a―" Master Impa's eyes narrowed as a flurry of hands raised up in the air. Her wrinkled mouth pursed into a scowl. "It might behoove the lot of you to wait on due procedure."

"Sorry Granny," Elder Uma said, with a twinkle in her eye. "The majority has it and the motion passes. Get with the times."

Even Zelda couldn't help but giggle at this; Master Impa, for her part, was stifling a smile by trying her best to look forbidding. Still, the motion was passed, and conversations resumed.

They didn't need her, Zelda realized. They had gone without her and the royal family for a century now, and would self-determinate quite well on their own. It was… encouraging. And heartbreaking.

She listened, as through a veil, as the assembled leaders agreed on a council structure. The Zoras, Gerudo, Gorons and Rito were each a single political bloc, but Granté, Symin and Master Impa agreed they would need to reconvene amongst themselves to discuss a proper representative to send to the council on behalf of the Sheikah.

For a moment, there was discussion about whether council representatives should be nominated, elected, or granted the title by inheritance. As far as Zelda could tell, each people would choose based on their own cultural mores― the Gerudo would likely tie the role directly to the task of leadership, whereas the Gorons would probably be more inclined to vote. It seemed the Zora King would delegate the task to a worthy Zora of his choosing, and that the Rito would decide based on merit.

It took Zelda a moment to realize the Hylian people representatives were conspicuously quiet on the matter. Lurelin, Tarrey, Hateno and the horse tribes were participating, of course, sharing their opinion or expressing approval for the decisions of the others, but none seemed willing to speak of their own representation.

Hudson of Tarrey Town was assiduously listening to Granté's opinion on voting, while Chief Rozel of Lurelin was in a deep whispered aside with Yunobo. Elder Uma, though, was clearly choosing not to look at her, and Tasseren, when she caught his eye, flushed under the deep tan of his skin and looked away in embarrassment.

What were they doing? Were they hiding something?

Did they not dare admit they wanted someone else than Zelda? If that was the case, she almost wanted to excuse herself, to let them choose their path without shame.

And stepping away would also allow her to lick the serious wound to her pride…

Which was silly, really, because she had never sought the throne before. The only reason she feared not having it, she reasoned, was that it now opened up an entire world of possibilities to choose from, a prospect almost as daunting as being crowned again or returning to the Castle.

Her eyes, inevitably, returned to Link. But he wasn't looking at her anymore. He was looking at Riju, next to her, his expression intent but otherwise indecipherable.

A spark of confusion pulled at Zelda's heart.

Especially when Riju, catching Link's gaze, suddenly cleared her throat, attracting the attention of the assembly. Forcing herself to look to the Gerudo leader, Zelda was surprised to notice a little smile on the Gerudo chieftain's face.

"I think," she said, "that we are forgetting something. While we are on the topic of selecting our representatives, would it not also be wise to choose their leader?"

There was a shuffle in the room, a rustle of clothing and murmurs of assent. Riju uncurled her legs and stood, stepping into the circle and standing tall. In that moment, she was all Gerudo pride and control, and Zelda was impressed to see no hint of her uncertainty.

"I would like to propose a motion for your consideration," the girl said, and Master Impa nodded.

Link's eyes were still sharply trained on the Gerudo leader, and Zelda ignored the inappropriate worm of jealousy. He wasn't like that, she promised herself. He was merely paying attention, like all the rest of them.

"I think there is no question," Riju began, "that we have all proven ourselves capable of self-governance. And there is no doubt we can work together."

This was met with a mild chorus of agreement.

"And there is also no question that our people trust us to lead them with wisdom and grace," she continued, bowing her head when Prince Sidon let out an enthusiastic 'Hear, hear!'. Then the Gerudo girl turned to Zelda with a sweet smile. "And we are fortunate," she added, "that we have in our midst the very incarnation of those two qualities."

Oh.

All eyes turned to Zelda, and she felt her cheeks grow warm to see their smiles. "Riju…" she said, suddenly taken with emotion.

"I would like to motion for Princess Zelda, daughter of the late King Rhoam Bosphoramus, to be our council's first leader." She politely demurred to Zelda and added, "For a fixed term that is yet to be determined. Her knowledge and experience in matters of state will surely be precious to ensure a proper beginning for our efforts."

Teba of the Rito, on Riju's other side, inhaled, raising his hand in anticipation.

Master Impa noted the Rito's movement, but she said, "No need to speak, young Teba," she said, and her eyes were crinkled by a kind smile. "I will second this motion myself."

Teba's eyes narrowed, but he was smiling too. "Very well, Sheikah Master. And I suppose this, too, will be voted into rule by this gathering?"

He guessed right, judging by the show of hands that then followed.

"We will need to adjourn soon," Master Impa said, noting the guttering candle in her timekeeping lantern. "And reconvene on the morrow. Unanimous," she then added, for Paya's sake, and the Sheikah girl smiled with delight.

Unanimous. The word echoed in Zelda's mind. They had unanimously decided to grant her a position of honour. Not the role she had expected, as leader of the Hylians, but a role of greater diplomatic importance.

Glancing at Chief Rozel and Hudson of Tarrey Town, she was surprised to see them both looking at Link.

Why were so many of the Hylians looking at Link?

The realization came to her in a flash.

They were going to choose Link. Link, who had been their saviour. Link, whom they all knew better and with greater respect.

And Link, she saw when she looked at him, knew. He didn't seem the least bit surprised. How? And why? Why was he doing this? Did he even fully understand what he was doing? Indeed, why was he involving himself at all? Did he not want to retire, to fade into a quiet life? His presence tonight was meant as an honour, not as a requirement. All he had to do was sit in silence, then he would be free.

Was he truly comfortable with what the Hylian leaders would soon ask of him? She hated that she could not interpret his expression.

As though he could hear her questions clearly, he met her eyes, unwavering, as full of resolve as he had been on the day of his knighthood, and straightened. For a moment ― just a brief moment ― he looked like the Commander he had once been, capable and true, and Zelda's heart squeezed in memory.

She had seen him like this before, once. It had shaken her to the core, like a key in a lock, opening up a host of new thoughts and possibilities. And it still managed to make her feel as vulnerable as it had the very first time.

Looking away and forcing her breathing to remain controlled, Zelda swallowed hard. She would have to tell him about that day, too. She tried not to close her eyes in anticipated embarrassment. His old self would likely have gloated a little at her discomfort. This new Link, though… Who knew what he would do?

As the conversations around her became less focused and Master Impa announced the end of the meeting, Zelda found herself in desperate need of fresh air.

She slipped away and made her way to the open porch around the house, and inhaled a deep gulp of air.

He didn't remember, she reminded herself. What she was seeing of him now was simply the deep nature of who he was: effective, willing to serve, and devoted to Hyrule. She felt a little irritated. Couldn't he, for once, not be so impressively competent?

"Excuse me," Riju said, appearing at Zelda's side along the outer gallery, "where are you running off to?"

"Nowhere," Zelda said, still thinking. Did Link truly understand what he was getting himself into? Was it what he wanted? Because she had fought very hard for him to be free. If he was going to let just anyone bully him into further service to Hyrule, he had another thing coming.

"A woman who just got elected back into the role of Queen shouldn't look this upset," Riju said.

"I wouldn't be Queen," Zelda reminded her. "Only council leader."

Riju shrugged a slim brown shoulder, and the bangles on her ears, neck and wrists rang lightly. "So we ran out of time. Don't worry, we'll amend that tomorrow, unless you choose to resign. You still can, you know."

Zelda gently glared at her. "This isn't funny."

Riju rolled her eyes, an expression so typical of her age it almost made Zelda forget she was trying to be upset. "I knew we should have gone slower. I told Sidon, but he wouldn't listen."

"Slower?" Zelda echoed, frowning suspiciously.

Riju let out a clear laugh. "Of course. Do you honestly think we all waited until tonight to discuss what we wanted for Hyrule? We're all eager to move forward."

Zelda rubbed at the bridge of her nose, a movement she had long ago learned from Link and his exasperation with his Order squires and knights. "And you did not think to tell me you had rehearsed all this?"

Riju exhaled. "Well, it was made very clear to us that we shouldn't. We were told, on no uncertain terms, that you are still recovering from the Calamity, and that you would need time to process and decide for yourself. Hence," she added, with a decidedly teenage tone, "my suggestion to Sidon that we needed to go slowly." She exhaled, the exasperation rather obvious. "But you know him. He's at full intensity, all of the time."

Did she ever.

Riju was telling the truth, Zelda decided, choosing to trust her gut feeling. And in that view, what she was saying made sense. All these leaders were in Kakariko, in many cases days of travel away from their respective hometowns and peoples; it would have been foolish to wait for the official start of the meetings to begin discussing their respective futures. In their place, Zelda would have done the exact same thing.

And in a way, she was glad they had withheld their wish to make her council leader ― nay, reinstate her role as ruler, even if only in title ― until tonight. Now that she was facing down the barrel of that particular cannon, she feared her gut would twist into knots.

As for recovering from the Calamity―

"Was it Master Impa who said I needed time?" She asked, frowning.

Riju blinked up at her. "Impa? No." Her expression changed, then, into something between amusement and incredulity. "Can you imagine her ordering anyone other than a Sheikah around? Honestly, Princess."

Then whom? Before the words of inquiry could be properly uttered, Riju excused herself and rejoined the others, who were chatting, their voices congratulatory and excited.

Through the crowd, Zelda caught Link's eye. He was standing apart from everyone else, enjoying a quiet moment of cool evening air. In his guard's uniform, he looked like a moment stolen right out of her rich and elegant past: proud, capable, strong, and upsettingly handsome, the kind of man her female attendants and fellow courtiers would have whispered and fawned about, a mystery prince, perhaps?

But when their gazes met, there was a look in them that was more familiar than that, a look she had only truly seen once before, from up close, a look he had given her that last summer, that she had sworn she would never think about again.

His look was a promise, something that made her weak at the knees, something that spoke to her very nerves like a sweet whisper.

She turned away, the confusion tearing at her memory. HowWhy? She thought she'd kept her grief well to herself in her retellings. And still he understood her loss and her pain. But how? She wanted so badly for him to remember. She wanted to share her pain with him, to bear his own upon herself, if need be. But he didn't remember.

So, how could he look at her in ways that evoked memories so sharp, so vivid?

It was unfair. So unfair. So painful, too.

She shouldn't have been surprised when she felt him take up position next to her. The sensation ran along her exposed skin like electricity.

"Would you continue the story tomorrow?" He asked quietly. She hadn't spoken to him all day, and she hated how warm the tones of his voice felt as they shivered down her spine.

"Before the council meeting?" She asked, lightly.

He nodded, but his blue eyes, when she turned to look at them, flickered with a spark of… She couldn't tell. Humour? Guilt? Confusion?

She shook the question off. She was being ridiculous. Link could no more help being beloved of the Hylians than she could have helped being born to the royal family. He was earnest. He always had been, and what she saw in him surely reflected what she felt herself: fear, delight, apprehension, anticipation.

"I expect tomorrow will be a day of even more revelations. Should I congratulate you on your future appointment?" She asked, lightly. "Or should I scold you for not taking your hard-earned retirement?"

Now his eyes narrowed, and he studied her some more. "Nothing is decided," he said.

So he understood what she meant. He knew the Hylians would choose him as their council representative.

She was about to argue when, to her astonishment, his finger came up and ran a trail of burning electricity down her bare arm, touching her so lightly she might have dreamed it if her every sense hadn't been screaming about the sensation. "Tomorrow morning," he repeated. "Under the apple tree."

And then the sensation lifted. She didn't have time to let out a single strangled word before he was already gone, back into the crowd, to make polite conversation.

He would be the end of her, Zelda realized. There was no escaping him.

… Maybe he didn't have to know everything about that last summer. She could tell him about the Spring of Power. She could tell him about the Sheikah and the Yiga. She could tell him about her birthday. She could tell him about their visit to Lanayru―

She could feel her breathing grow shallow. No. Not all of Lanayru, she swore to herself. Certainly not. She was hoping to maintain at least part of her pride.

Besides, she considered, watching Link smile down at Elder Uma with familiar benevolence, he didn't have to know.

… Right?

Chapter Text

"… still, the holy powers have proven deaf to my devotion. Please, just tell me… What is it? What's wrong with me?!"


When Link and Zelda returned to camp, both soaked to the waist, no one questioned it.

At least, not out loud.

But Link could feel the eyes on him like burning brands, and imagined that he felt something ― doubt, maybe? ― lingering in the air like smoke.

He sent Zelda into her tent, asking her to change back into dry, more comfortable clothes, then turned back to face the quiet knights and Sheikah shadows. They had camped at the bottom of Ordorac Quarry, the flat carved out surfaces ideal for raising tents. Overhead, the stars twinkled brightly, coldly, unfeeling. But near the fire, the night was pleasant, the bright glow casting deep, black shadows on the quarry walls around them. Crickets chirped, as though to cast off the heat of the day that had just ended.

And Link dared his Order of the Guard to say anything.

Mercifully, they didn't.

When Zelda re-emerged, they all shuffled aside to make space for her, and she quietly accepted a slice of toasted bread with jam.

Then, to Link's surprise, she forced herself to look at the circle of firelit faces and said, "We will try again tomorrow."

And something twinged in Link's chest. He watched his princess take a small bite of food, satisfied she was still eating, and heartbroken she was putting on such a brave face.

Lady Ashei's eyes met his across the fire, the dark pools reflecting fire light, and Link was sure that for a moment he saw sympathy in them. Next to her, Shae Rokee, one of the tallest and most aloof Sheikah women in the Guard, pursed her lips.

Then, to the surprise of even her own people, Shae met the princess' eyes and said, "This prayer business is ridiculous, highness." When her neighbours gaped, she bristled and glared around, daring anyone to contradict her. "What? It's true. Her highness is even more devout than the High Priest!"

"Be quiet," Kah Maag gently warned. He was the Sheikah leader for the expedition to Akkala. What he lacked in manners, though, he made up for in sheer skill.

But Shae, it seemed, was not done speaking. "This is a farce. Master Impa told us that you have been training for years, highness. Years! With nothing to show for it! " She looked around the fire at the bewildered expressions on her fellow Guards' faces, then shot an angry look at the tunnel that led to the Spring of Power. "What more do the gods want?"

Link sensed the princess tense up.

Then, Lady Ashei casually threw her chicken bone into the fire, where the fat crackled. It looked to Link as though she was scowling. "It is a farce."

"The other day," Squire Niko said, shyly, in the resulting silence, "I heard Lord Dracozu say― Well," he flushed, glancing at the princess. "He was suggesting other ways for you to, ah, awaken your powers. I told him to mind his tongue. But maybe he's right. About prayer not being the way, I mean," he added hastily.

An echo of his conversation with Groose returned to Link, and he bit the inside of his cheek to refrain from commenting.

"Ugh," Sir Jakamar said, in his usual drawl, "Lord Dracozu isn't worth the pavement he walks on. I once saw him yell at a maid because she was dusting too loudly." He turned to the princess, all reassurance. "So we all know what his opinion is worth."

"Did you get in trouble?" Shae Rokee asked Niko.

"Not with the Order of the Guard's escutcheon on my chest," Niko said.

"You know who's worse than Dracozu?" Young Sir Keet said, leaning in conspiratorially. "The Chancellor."

Lady Ashei snorted. "Well, tell us something we don't know."

"No, I swear," Sir Keet continued. His mouth twisted in apparent disgust. "It's all the priests talk about these days. Did you know he hasn't shown up to prayer in months? Months! And our princess prays every day." He looked over at the princess and smiled. Link thought he looked almost proud of her. "Your dedication is an inspiration, princess. Any lesser person would have given up by now. Even my dear old mother, who was the most devout woman in my village, would have given up."

"I can't imagine Chancellor Cole having a mother," Squire Niko said, shuddering. "Imagine the Chancellor without a mustache."

There were a few sounds of mild disgust around the fire.

"I think that what we're all trying to say," Shae Rokee spoke into the sudden silence, the fire of her indignation somewhat dimmed, "is that if anyone should be given a rest, it's you, princess."

Princess Zelda managed a small smile. "Thank you, Shae. But I will not run from my duty." Silence fell over the camp once more, and Zelda looked down at the remaining scrap of toast in her hand. And then she added, softly, "Even if it is a farce."

It seemed the air suddenly cleared, and there were a few soft cheers of agreement.

"So it is," Lady Ashei said, appraisingly, as she lifted her mug of weak ale in a toast.

"Indeed," Sir Jakamar said. "And let no one claim otherwise."

Zelda smiled at them, her green eyes glinting in the firelight.

But she wasn't there, really. Link watched her subtly drop the remainder of her toast in the shadows behind her, her appetite gone once again, and though she wore a smile, she still rose to her feet shortly after and excused herself for the night.

As the group of knights continued to converse amicably, the tension now gone, Link's eyes followed his princess all the way to her tent. He watched the shaky way she untied the flap, watched the unsteady, uncertain jitter in her movements― and then she closed the flap behind her, and was out of view.

Around the fire, the conversation shifted. Now the voices rose high into the night, all worry forgotten, and Link sat at the edge of the shadow, longing to join her, to let her cry in his arms, if only so she wouldn't be alone. And the longing ached, pulled at his conscience.

But he couldn't. She had decided to put on a brave face, to make a joke of it, to remove the burden of fear from her guards. He would have to honour that.

Still, he couldn't taste the ale he was served. His thoughts kept returning to the Spring of Power, to the sorrow in her voice. When she had begun to cry―

What was it about his princess that had captured him so wholly? It wasn't just that she was pretty. He'd known ― still knew ― so many pretty girls, and not one of them had ever seized his attention so steadily. And it wasn't just her intelligence, sharp though it was.

Was it that she needed him? That couldn't be it. Sometimes he felt utterly useless, standing at the edge of a spring and listening to her voice begin to falter, and then rise to tearful panic.

What's wrong with me, she'd asked. His heart still squeezed to think of her question, of the strain in her voice, the way she'd curled upon herself, as though nothing could possibly comfort her. He'd been unable to help himself, especially when her first sobs had echoed across the pool of water. He hadn't even thought twice about it, letting himself into the water and wading over to her.

She'd heard his splashes, knew he was approaching, and in the moonlight, he'd seen the tears in her eyes as she turned.

So he'd reached out, and she'd buried her face into his shoulder.

Even now, Link felt the rage Shae Rokee had expressed at the gods. What more did they want? How could they be benevolent and still put their servant through such torment? How could they withhold their blessing in the face of such despair, such prayers? How could they say nothing and let their most faithful worshipper doubt herself, think herself imperfect?

How dare they?

But he hadn't voiced any of those thoughts. He was becoming quite adept at keeping quiet. He'd let her muffle her cries into his shoulder, the sobs wracking her body with quaking heaves, and he'd said nothing.

He couldn't even look at the statue of the Goddess. He was afraid he'd begin some sort of angry tirade. And that would help no one.

To think of the hope Zelda had expressed on the way here… She had been in such high spirits, her relief at not being in Hyrule Castle for Din's Day almost palpable. She had struck up conversations with all of her traveling companions, great knight or not, had teased the squires and bantered with the Sheikah shadows. The road had been pleasant, cheerful, and had Link agreed, he did not doubt one of their companions would have broken out into some bawdy wayfaring song.

On the third day of travel, when they reached the familiar high road that forked towards Eldin, they'd even discussed how her horse didn't trust her anymore, ever since her reckless descent on that same road the year before. She'd explained it nickered all the time, and tended to stray off the road at its leisure, and how irritated she was with it.

She'd even threatened to have it stripped of its royal gear.

"It's because you're doing it all wrong," Link had said.

She had feigned outrage at this declaration. "Well, don't hold back, tell me what you really think."

"You're spooking your horse," Link had explained. "It doesn't trust you anymore. And getting angry won't help it feel any safer."

She'd huffed at this, but with that glint in her eye that said she didn't mean it. "I'll have you know that I give it only the finest oats."

"That's a start," Link had conceded. "But it's not enough."

She had insisted that, if he was such an expert on horses, he would have to show her just what to do. And he'd agreed, the warmth in his chest like a heady balm.

But now? His eyes darted back to the quiet tent. He didn't have to be clairvoyant to know she was crying in there. It killed him to be sitting out here, helpless, foolish, utterly incompetent.

And angry. So angry. He looked up at the sky and its countless stars and inhaled a long, slow, steadying breath, and tried not to curse any gods out loud. Or worse, curse the king, and his foolish, stubborn desire to put his own beloved daughter through this pointless pilgrimage, this ridiculous façade of a crusade.

Unable to sit still any longer, he stood, pleased that no one particularly noticed, and strode over to the princess' tent. It was quiet, but he knew she was still awake. So he sat next to it, hoping his presence, even through the canvas, would help.

From within, her disembodied voice warbled a weak, "Link?"

He settled in, cross-legged, and grunted the affirmative. He wasn't sure he could summon words right now, anyway. Not with the beast within him roaring.

She fell quiet for a long time, as though this was a satisfactory answer.

Was it pathetic? Link wondered. Was it pathetic to want to be so close, so often? He hoped not. Besides, as Groose had pointed out so recently, there had to be worse things than being in love with the woman he was charged to protect. Of all their problems right now, surely that was among the least terrible. Loving her in secret harmed no one. Well. For now.

Sometimes, especially when he saw her teasing or touching other men, the tiny worm of jealousy needed to be stamped down. But that was nothing, he reasoned. It would be worse when she found some prince to marry. Then he'd be damned in truth, cursed forever to wander in the shadow of a luckier man.

But as long as she didn't know, then he wasn't hurting her. And though he knew it was all a delusion, he found comfort in the stirring of his own imagined futures, in the remote possibilities that he could conjure― if he earned a lordship through his heroic deeds, perhaps― like killing the Calamity, if it came…? Or if he could make his fortune as a wandering mercenary…

In all those dreams, of course, she always waited for him. That part always made him want to snort in derision. He already knew a woman who was waiting for him, and Ilia was sacrificing too much in vain. Not that she'd hear it, and not that his mother would tolerate it. How could he ask the same of Zelda? It would be presumptuous at best, completely insane at worst. Princesses did not wait for lowly knights, wielders of sacred blades though they may be.

And what life would they lead, anyway? The princess would one day be queen. What would he become? He wasn't cut out for ruling. Not in the way the Castle required, at least. He hated having all eyes on him, and though he was working his way through books on public policy and taxation, if only to have something, eventually, to talk to Zelda about, there was very little he felt confident enough about to actually manage himself.

Oh, he was becoming an apt commander. With Groose to serve as the actual right hand, Link could focus his efforts on overarching goals, could refine means to achieve those goals, and he was even becoming adept at expressing his ideas clearly and in a way that secured enthusiasm and loyalty.

But it was a taxing effort, one that Groose handled much more naturally.

When he really imagined the perfect future, he wasn't sitting on a throne. Instead, he was wandering the land with his wife ― always blonde, always green-eyed ― administering justice and helping people wheresoever they were needed. And he would sleep under the stars with her, if need be, and never feel he was poor.

Yeah. Maybe he was pathetic.

Inside the tent, Zelda stirred, and he felt her shuffle at little bit closer. When she spoke next, her voice seemed to come from just the other side of the canvas. "... Thank you."

Link frowned. "You don't need to thank me." Especially not when he knew how useless he was right then.

"No," she said, softly. Her voice was nasal, small. She had clearly cried and her nose was stuffy. "I mean, thank you for letting me cry on your shoulder."

I should be in there with you, he almost said, but bit back the reply with every last ounce of his battered propriety. "I wish I could do more."

"You are doing everything you ought to be doing," she whispered, through the canvas. She sniffled. Around the campfire, someone made a bawdy joke, and jeers rose with laughter. Zelda's voice was small when she continued. "I'm glad to have a friend with me."

She didn't know the warmth she created within him with those words. She couldn't see the way his throat worked around a sudden and unexpected lump. Clearing his throat quietly, he said, trying to keep his voice level, "That truly means a lot, princess."

"I'm doing my best out there, you know," she continued, as though to convince him. "I swear I am."

"I know," he assured her, gently.

"I don't want you to…" Her voice faltered, and for a few moments she seemed to be wiping at her nose, though Link couldn't be sure. "I don't want you to think less of me."

Link snorted. "If anything, your perseverance only makes me think better of you by the day." He leaned into the canvas, though he did not dare to pull the flap aside, and his next words came out softly, fervently. "Zelda, they're right. What you're doing is absurd, and your commitment is admirable. No one deserves godly favour more than you."

To his surprise, a small, pale hand reached out from the flap, and found his knee.

"Thank you," she said, solemnly. She still seemed on the verge of tears. "... Sir Link."

His hand came down to hers. As usual, a jolt of familiar warmth traveled through his fingers, and he squeezed her hand reflexively. Then, earnestly, his voice barely above a whisper, he said, "I live to serve."

She hiccuped. He felt her stir, sniffle, and eventually the sniffling subsided.

And then her fingers relaxed, and moved from his grip.

Not far, of course. She still only had one hand out of the tent, invisible in the deep dancing shadows of their camp, and it was still clinging to his own, but those fingers loosened, began to dance along his wrist, then down to his palm. They traced each of his fingers, one by one, as though she were studying them, committing them to memory. They caressed the back of his hand, tracing its contour, and pressing against his thumb.

Numbly, Link let her. If her feathery touch strayed just a bit higher, to his pulse, she'd know the effect she had on him. And still, he dared not move.

"You have calluses," she whispered.

"From training," he said, hoarsely.

"Do they hurt?" She asked.

"No." He swallowed when her index began to caress one of them, on the cushion of his palm at the base of a finger. "I don't even think about them anymore."

Her voice contained a smile now. "I don't have any. I suppose I really am a sheltered princess."

"Well, I like your hands just as they are," Link said, before he could stop himself.

Her movement stopped, and for a moment her fingers rested in his open hand, like so many butterflies about to take wing.

And then she pushed the tent flap ever so slightly, and their eyes met, green and blue in the shadows. Something in her eyes felt like the beginning of a fire.

"Link," she started in a whisper, and then she hesitated, and Link's heart raced, a mix of terror and hope too exquisite and awful to describe beginning to stir in his gut.

It was mad, of course, this hope that seized him. Why did it fill him so completely? What would she say? For a moment, he thought he might almost guess, that it might actually be exactly what he was hoping.

Was it weak of him to want to succumb, to just lean in, and pull her to him and press his lips to hers? Just his lips, it didn't have to be anything more...

Of course, there was no doubt a single taste of her lips would never be enough. Letting the spark in would only ignite what was already there, desperately suppressed.

Did she see it in him? It was wrong and inappropriate, and it went counter to what all good knights did, felt― were. There was no place in the world for it, no relief to be had, and he had to learn to live with it.

As though she could sense the emotion stirring within him, Zelda pulled away suddenly, an expression on her face that could have been duty, or discipline― or regret. Her fingers hastily retreated with her, the flap falling back into place, and within the tent he heard rustling and mumbling, and the occasional sigh.

Oh, damn it.

"Zelda…" He tried, pushing down the rise of self-loathing.

"I should sleep," she whispered, all in a rush. "I think… I think maybe the day has been a bit much. I… Thank you for sitting out here with me. But you should go back to the fire. Or sleep. I'll be fine."

Sleep. Link grimaced.

There would be no sleep for him tonight. He was still breathless, his heart still pounding.

And there was an undeniable sting, too. Had she not been about to say something? Or had he allowed himself to read something in those clear emerald eyes that was all wrong? Was he now so far-gone, so completely disconnected from reality, that he was beginning to imagine longing in the face of a friend? A friend, she had called him. A friend. Nothing else. Anything else was a leap. A lie.

He was doing this to himself, he knew. Building up false hopes. Only a fool would do something like that. He was a knight, and she was a princess. There were oceans between them.

But his hand still tingled where she'd traced it, a sure sign it hadn't all been some trick of the mind. Did she even know the effect she had on him? Surely not. If she had, would she have done it?

Why had it seemed to him, for one hair's breadth of a moment, as though she had wanted― as though she had wanted him to push the flap aside and bring her in close, and drink directly from her lips?

He was going mad.

He ran a shaky hand through his hair, and managed to summon his voice. "Right. Of course. Try to get some sleep. I'll be in the tent beside yours if you need anything." Then, hesitantly, he added, "Good night."

"Good night," she meekly, hastily replied, her discomfort coming out with a squeak.

That did not feel very good. But it could have been worse. He could have made a grave mistake tonight. A grave, tempting, terrifying mistake. Instead, she'd stopped him right before he could get any bad ideas into his head.

Small blessings, he surmised, bitterly, as he curled up in his pallet.

But he did not sleep that night, and, judging by the stirring in the tent next to his, neither did his princess.

Chapter Text

On the day Link finally managed to escape from his duties, summer was everywhere. It was in the strong perfume of garden flowers, in the incessant buzzing of insects, the constant hum of the distant market, the strange dusty, muggy heat that clung to his clothes, and the ever present sweat that beaded on his forehead.

He had found a secluded corner of the Castle gardens to hide in, though. It was a terrace, with garden chairs and benches, under the thick cooling shade of a chestnut tree. It was on one of those benches that he gently placed his stack of books.

Gingerly, with the nervous energy of secrecy, he picked the first book from the top and cracked it open, the leather spine loosened by the heat.

Market Economics, he read, by Elder Archivist Oshus. A study on the forces driving supply and demand.

Glancing around to ensure no one could see him, he delved into the pages, earnest in his determination to decipher their contents. These concepts, the old librarian had assured him, were simple enough for any beginner to understand, if they applied themselves to it. That had been a comfort.

Several hours later, though, he felt no closer to actually grasping the true relationship between unemployment and demand. His scowl had become fixed, his brows furrowed in concentration, as he found himself rereading the same sentence over and over. Still, no matter how often he forced himself to dissect the words, no meaning seemed to erupt, no understanding seemed to spark.

Straightening, he forced himself to take a breath, blinking in the late afternoon sun. There was no need to get upset, he reminded himself. He had read previous works on trade and society concerns from cover to cover and had not struggled. This marriage of the two realms was simply more difficult to understand.

Placing the ribbon marker on his page and shutting the book, he decided to switch topics. Lifting Leadership, Warfare and Tactics, he recovered his previous marker and continued at chapter twelve, which presented a real-life example on managing subordinates. This, Link considered, was a sight easier to handle. He always dealt better with concrete examples, and the techniques suggested by this book had already helped him take on more direct leadership responsibilities, tasks he had until then preferred to leave to Groose.

It was while he was contemplating the virtues of negotiation that an all-too-familiar voice interrupted him.

"Well, well."

Shutting his book, he glanced up at Urbosa, who was hefting a large wooden box that clinked with glassware.

"Urbosa," Link greeted, embarrassed. He stacked his book on the pile and repositioned himself to hide them.

She ignored that, moving the crate to her hip. "And I was worried you'd actually left town. Did you know I had to ask your second where you were, and he told me you were not to be disturbed?" She harrumphed. "As though those orders apply to me." Then, her green eyes narrowed and she smiled slowly. "Although, now I see why one might choose to hide."

Link rubbed his nape, which was slick with idle sweat. "Some of these things are useful in my role as captain of the Order―"

She waved his words away, as though they were no more than a hot wind to be fanned off. "Of course, whatever you say. Now, are you coming?"

Link frowned. "Coming? Coming where?"

"To the picnic," Urbosa said, readjusting the weight of the box on her hip. She seemed utterly unperturbed by the heat. Well. Of course she wouldn't be bothered by it. Even in the winter, days in Gerudo Desert had been painfully hot. "What, did you think I have all this wine and ale just for me?"

"Picnic," Link echoed, dumbly. "What picnic?"

Urbosa rolled her eyes, her warm voice betraying just a hint of amusement. "For our little princess."

Link wracked his brain and could not fathom what she was talking about. The princess' birthday was not for another month. And, given the failure that the Spring of Power had been, she had been subdued, quiet and reclusive ever since their return from Akkala. He had dutifully shielded her from the worst of the gossip, had given her a wide berth to choose how she wanted to handle the matter, but in the end, there was a pall over her that only time would heal.

Or so he hoped.

"I don't know if―"

"Oh, no," Urbosa said, raising a finger in amused warning. "I won't hear it. We've all heard the news about Akkala. It's on King Rhoam's face wherever he goes. And she has not had the opportunity to celebrate Din's Day and unwind, so if you tell me there isn't a reason to arrange this, I will call you a liar."

"I mean," Link said, when she finally allowed him to speak, "I don't think three people will be able to get through that crate. I'm not much of a drinker."

Urbosa snorted. "We'll have to see about that. But don't worry, I've made sure Mipha, Revali and Daruk would be here too. They're up in the princess' private quarters, but they should be making their way down to the gardens any minute." She raised a deep red brow. "Perhaps you should stash those books somewhere they won't see."

"I have nothing to hide," Link said, covering the titled book spines with a hand despite himself.

Urbosa made a noncommittal noise. "Right. Well, don't just sit there. Come help me."

He was curious, sure, but first, he had to dispose of the evidence, so he stopped to pass the books off to a passing squire, politely asking him to deliver them to the Order of the Guard's rooms. He then hurried off after Urbosa, who had commandeered a gazebo in the gardens, some ways off from the main roads and courtyards. It was surrounded by a high hedge that would protect them from the worst of onlookers. In the late afternoon, a covered table under the gazebo was piled with glasses and finger foods ― bread rolls, cut meats, vegetables, sweets― enough food for ten people.

"How did I not hear about this?" He inquired, surprised to see how much forethought had gone into the private event.

Urbosa placed her crate of bottles on the corner of the table, shrugging a tanned shoulder. She was utterly unaffected by the ambient muggy heat, dressed in her traditional Gerudo garb. Link found himself wishing there were an equivalent for men. In his Champion's tunic and trousers, he felt uncomfortable.

"I told Revali, who was supposed to tell everyone."

Link rolled his eyes. "Well. That explains it."

Urbosa's eyes crinkled at the corners, though Link couldn't decide if that was from amusement or irritation. "Well, when I saw you were not at your post, I came to find you." She crossed her arms. "So. Leadership, Warfare, and Tactics, huh?"

Link peered up at her, as wide-eyed and innocent as he could. "Well, no one coached me to become a leader. Until last year, I was supposed to be just another soldier."

Urbosa shook her head. "And you didn't think to ask the princess for help? Or me?" She let out a disbelieving sigh. "Even Mipha or Revali might have been useful."

"Oh, yes," Link said. "Revali. The same Revali who tried to exclude me today?"

Urbosa made a noncommittal sound, then turned away, smiling at something over his shoulder. "Oh, good, there's the other crate."

The kitchen boy was clearly struggling with the box of bottles, but he rallied under Urbosa's smile and placed it near the table. Two dozen bottles of wine, Link concluded with mild horror. For six people.

"We can't fight the Calamity if we're dead from liver failure," he told Urbosa with concern.

"Of course not," she said, in a flippant tone that did not reassure him in the least. She tipped the kitchen boy, then sent him on his way.

In the slanting rays of late afternoon, the boy ran past his very own princess with a hasty bow, and Zelda watched him go bemusedly. Link couldn't be blamed for looking at her instead of the boy. In the orange light, she was dressed in a pink dress, one of her lightest, without sleeves, with her hair tied up high and away from her nape. Her cheeks were pink too, no doubt from the heat…

She looked exactly like the reason he'd been studying so hard.

Over her shoulder, Daruk had also turned to look at the kitchen boy go, but Mipha was looking back at Link, and she waved at him gladly. Revali, for his part, seemed somewhat less cheerful.

"Princess," Urbosa said, striding over to her protégée and kissing her forehead. "So glad you could make it. I hope you're hungry."

"I am," Zelda said, softly. She noted Link's presence and shot him a quick smile, then turned back to her Champions. "But you should not have gone to all this trouble."

"Don't be silly," Daruk said, gruffly, rubbing at his nape. "We are your Champions. It is our duty to protect you, especially when the world seems against you."

Zelda's green eyes filled with emotion, her body fighting against a big heave. She lost the battle with herself, and threw herself into her Goron Champion's comforting arms and squeezed. Her slender arms could hardly embrace even a fraction of his massive body. Looking at her Champions in turn, she said, "Thank you."

Once they were past the niceties, they settled around the table, sheltered from view by the remoteness of their location and the hedge, and dug in.

It was not a formal meal, for once ― they shared from the same plates, passed platters around, poured for one another, and did not stand on ceremony. Even Link, who had been unsure of the initiative, felt better to see his princess cheer up, eventually laughing at one of Mipha's understated jokes.

It helped, of course, that every time Zelda looked away, Urbosa would refill her wine glass.

Link did try to glare at the Gerudo Champion, but the warrior would have none of it. Every time Zelda turned back to her glass, she was mystified to see it full.

"What am I drinking?" She eventually asked, as they sat, bellies full, in their garden chairs. The afternoon was turning to sunset, the sky a bright orange hue and the clouds a mix of bright pinks and pale blues. "It feels like static tingling down my throat."

"Voltfruit wine," Urbosa said, pouring herself and Mipha another glass. "Doesn't it feel nice?"

Zelda hummed in agreement, focusing on Revali and Daruk, who were discussing the weather in their respective provinces.

"Does summer get even warmer in Eldin?" Revali asked, his mood much mellowed by alcohol.

"Not really," Daruk said. "I think the volcano keeps things pretty steady."

"This," Urbosa said, stabbing a finger into the tabletop, "is the perfect time of year for sand seal races."

Revali turned a sardonic eye on his Gerudo counterpart. "You mean even more stifling hot than usual?"

"Actually, yes," Urbosa said. "Because summer is sand seal mating season."

Zelda perked up. "I would love to race sand seals!" And Mipha nodded, cradling her wine glass mutely.

Urbosa was evidently delighted by this. She began to describe, in depth, the techniques for handling the sand-swimming creatures, as well as the ways to win the affections of their very own specimen.

"It's all in the feeding," she assured the two girls, who were listening raptly.

"Sealiously?" Link asked.

Urbosa shot him an annoyed look, though Mipha stifled a giggle. "Be careful, swordsman," the Gerudo Champion warned.

"I'm perfectly sealious," Link swore, his wine glass lifting to his lips. "Convinced, you might say, that they are the best."

Before Urbosa could reply, Zelda raised her glass in agreement. "Yes, you've sealed the deal!"

Urbosa groaned, but Revali snickered and even Daruk hid his laughter into his fist, pretending to cough.

"What?" Zelda asked, confused. Mipha patted her shoulder gently.

"Don't you mind them, princess."

"I wanted to ask," Revali spoke up, changing the subject, "Urbosa, you mentioned a card game the other day―"

"Rich Voe, Poor Voe," Daruk filled in. He furrowed one of his thick brows. "Did I say that right?"

"You did," Urbosa said, "but I don't know if you deserve it now." She raised her nose petulantly. "Maybe I'll keep the rules all to myself."

"Oh no," Zelda said, her voice muffled by her wine glass. Her green eyes were wide, and Link couldn't help but chuckle, hiding behind his own glass.

It appeared drinking wine only made Zelda more earnest. He hadn't thought that was possible.

"I know the game," Mipha said. "But in Lanayru we call it Big Fish, Little Fish."

That rang a bell. Link frowned. "Isn't that the game you systematically trounced us at?"

"Of course I didn't," Mipha commented, her expression carefully neutral. "It's a game of luck."

"And strategy," Urbosa said, smiling. Then, having apparently given up on pretending to be irritated, she retrieved a pack of cards from her basket and began to distribute the hands. "Let's begin with a practice round, and the end rankings will decide who begins next."

Rich Voe, Poor Voe was, Link found out, exactly like Big Fish, Little Fish, which was exactly the same as Asshole, a card game played in taverns by drunken squires.

The game was founded on rankings― the first player to get rid of all their cards was named the winner, and assigned a title of the group's choice, such as King, Rich Voe, Big Fish, or some other winner's nomenclature, and titles were assigned in turn, with lessening importance, until there was a final player remaining with a handful of cards. The loser was then titled Poor Voe, Little Fish, or Asshole, depending on who one was playing with.

Wisely, Link did not share this last moniker with those around him, unsure about how well they would welcome the dubious honorific.

On the first round, it was Daruk who ended up as Rich Voe, and Revali as Poor Voe. But each round changed the rankings and by the time the sun had set, they were arguing about the merits of rankings, their cards moving to the table with familiarity as wine continued to flow. Between rounds, Link and Daruk had lit some of the lanterns in the gazebo.

"Well, there's a place for everyone in this world," Daruk said as he played a pair of fours. "And I won't begrudge a game that allows its players a fair chance at a given rank."

If only it were that easy, Link reflected, from his seat as the second lowest rank, next to Zelda, who had squarely lost the last round. She didn't seem to mind, though, her good mood bolstered by a slow but steady flow of wine. She had occasionally turned to Link to ask for his advice on what cards to play, which somewhat defeated the purpose of the game, but he'd done his best to give his most honest counsel. After Zelda had won a couple of rounds with his help, the other Champions had forbidden him from giving any advice at all.

This had not, apparently, kept Zelda from trying to get his help, and she'd begun to resort to silly, obvious tactics meant more to annoy her opponents than to get actual help: she'd stretch and lean into Link to whisper, or she'd get up for a bite and make gestures in secret behind their backs that Link was utterly unable to ignore...

All in all, she was being absolutely―

"... You're seally," Link slurred, when she stage-whispered her next question, perfectly aware that the other Champions would overhear her. She seemed to find more entertainment from this than anything else, and was giggling to herself delightedly. It was heartwarming to watch, and no one was making a genuine effort to stop her.

In fact, Urbosa was outright hiding her laughter behind her own cards.

"Nonsense," Zelda mumbled, straightening. "I am perfectly sealious." She mock-frowned and pouted. "Calamity-sealious."

It was the first time she had ever made any joke about the Calamity. Link glanced around the table: both Daruk and Revali were chuckling, and Urbosa groaned with disgust. Mipha, though, was studying the princess with her usual sad eyes. And Link knew why: the mockery cut to the heart of a problem Zelda had refused to discuss since her return from Akkala.

Her continued powerlessness.

"And with that," Zelda continued, ignoring the reactions she had caused, "I think Link will soon be King. I mean, Rich Voe."

Link glanced down at his hand. She was right. He was going to win the next round, given he was going to lay down a hard-hitting sequence of twos, kings and knights. He looked up at Zelda, who grinned at his elbow, and drunkenly brought his cards closer to his chest.

"You are a cheater," he accused, squinting.

She shrugged, smiling too prettily to make him angry. "And I'll be next," she added, to the others. "Unless any of you can defeat a four-queen hand."

The other Champions let out a symphony of sighs and groans. "Fine," Daruk relented, once both Link and Zelda had revealed their hands. "That makes Link the Rich Voe, Zelda the Chancellor, and now we'll be fighting not to be Poor Voe."

Leaning back in his seat, Link quietly watched the four Champions battle it out. Next to him, Zelda was happily enjoying their jabs and underhanded comments at each other.

Although the sun had set, the sky was still purple, and the heat was going nowhere fast. It was a comfortable evening, with the warm glow of lanterns and the cozy secrecy of their meal. Soon, though, the stars would come out, coldly shining in the still summer night.

With his belly full, his mind merrily drunk, and the beautiful girl next to him placing a wrinkled paper crown on his hair, Link felt, for the first time in a long time, simply content.

Turning to Zelda as her hands let go of the paper confection on his head, he caught her eye.

Something leaped in her throat, and she froze, a warm smile on her lips. He couldn't help but look at that pink mouth... but only for the briefest of moments. Soon, he was forcing himself to focus on her eyes, which shone green and happy in the lantern light.

Would she look like this during a wedding banquet, pink and sweet, at her husband's side and surrounded by friends and merrymaking? Could that husband ever keep himself from kissing her every time he turned to her? Because at that moment it took him every ounce of willpower not to.

He forced himself to look away, to focus on the other Champions, and caught Mipha's look, shooting her a smile he hoped did not betray his thoughts. She returned it, still with that sad undercurrent that was so typical of his Zora friend. He wondered if he oughtn't check in with her, later, make sure she was alright.

"I saw the bard this morning," Revali said, and Link snapped back to reality.

"Really," Zelda said, amused. "Revali. Don't just call him 'the bard'. He has a name."

Revali snorted. "None I'd allow out of my beak." He won third place, allowing himself to relax and focus his full attention on his princess. "Honestly, Princess, why do you give him any attention at all?"

Zelda shrugged a bare shoulder, suddenly embarrassed. "Misko is kind to me." Then, defensively, "Besides, I don't know that many men who are eager to sing me songs. I know he can be silly, but…" She looked to Link for support, but Link did not give it. "I don't know. I suppose it's nice for a girl to feel pretty from time to time."

"From time to time," Link echoed, dumbly. Was she kidding?

"Don't you mind them," Urbosa said, to her princess, scowling at one of Daruk's plays. "They'll never understand."

As Mipha won fourth place, she, too, turned her full attention on the conversation. "It's perfectly natural for anyone to want compliments."

"But… Misko?" Revali asked, incredulous.

Daruk won the last struggle, and Urbosa was officially named the Poor Voe of that round. As she begrudgingly collected the cards, she said, "Do not insult the boy. He is very handsome. That silver hair."

"The lovely music," Mipha added, enjoying the growing frown on Revali's face.

"The arrogant, smarmy smile," the Rito Champion added, embellishing his voice with a fake sigh of longing.

"Misko understands court," Zelda said, smiling shyly. "I can talk to him about lords being terrible, and he'll commiserate with me. I know he's not your sort of person, but he takes care of a side of me that…" She sighed.

"That is elevated and courtly," Mipha finished.

"Yes," Zelda said, avoiding their gazes. "It's not romantic."

"Of course not," Revali said, deadpan, in a tone that betrayed how little he believed that. "Maybe not for you, but if that bard doesn't feel romantic―"

Daruk slammed Revali's back in a hearty pat, and the Rito spluttered in shock. Cheerfully, the Goron Champion said, "Well, fine. We can talk gossip, too."

"I'm sure," Zelda said, stifling a laugh.

"No, really," Urbosa agreed, having shuffled the cards. She was beginning to pass them around again. "We can talk about lords, too. Like Chancellor Cole. Have you heard he hasn't been to prayers in months?"

"I have," Revali said, bored. "Though why anyone should care―"

"The Chancellor should lead by example," Mipha said. "Which he is not."

"I can't blame him, though," Zelda said, collecting her cards carefully. "And anyway, these days, I'm praying more than enough for half the kingdom."

"We swore we would not talk about that tonight," Urbosa said, in an attempt to comfort her princess.

"Well, why not?" Zelda asked, organizing the cards in her hand. "It's all I do. I don't have the same luxury of leading my people around, like you all. All I do is pray."

Next to her, Link finished stacking his cards, and he shot his princess a sympathetic look. She didn't notice, her eyes too focused on her strategizing. That was a blessing, at least. The words were casual. There was no pain for now.

"Has your father at least stopped reprimanding you for doing too little?" Mipha asked, softly.

"Yes," Zelda replied. She traded her weakest card to Daruk, who gave her his strongest, as Link and Urbosa traded their respective two weakest and two strongest cards. Then, sighing, she said, "I don't blame him, you know. It's true my studies were taking up a lot of my time. And every passing week without some form of awakening only makes me feel a greater urgency. Perhaps it was wrong of me to seek that escape."

"You spend all your time in the shrine," Urbosa admonished. "It's already the middle of Din and you haven't even lost your winter blemish. Link, it's you."

Link had been too busy studying his princess to remember it was his opening play. He put down a single ten.

Zelda played a knight, then sat back, pensive. "You know, it's true I miss studying and exploring. But the hardest part is not having an excuse to sit in Robbie's lab, or follow Purah through the gardens looking at insects." She exhaled sadly. "I miss them, and all those researchers."

Link could empathize. He often reflected on the events that had led him here, surrounded by Hyrule's best hopes. Sometimes it seemed overwhelming.

"I miss being a squire," Link said.

Five sets of surprised eyes turned to him.

Blinking, Link put his cards down and said, "I mean, not that I don't appreciate knighthood, or that I don't like your company." He caught the amusement in Zelda's face and felt himself flush. "It's just… I was just another squire, once. I don't know that any of us will ever go back to that."

The Champions and his princess fell quiet, contemplating.

"I suppose not," Mipha gently said. "But there is something to be said of being part of this companionship."

"There is," Link said, warmly.

That, according to Urbosa, merited another round. Before long, all their glasses were topped off, and they were back to good-natured banter, the cards going to the table in quick succession.

The more Link drank, the more the conversation seemed to flow quickly. They talked about the Order of the Guard, exchanged stories about some of the knights and Sheikah shadows. They argued about the merits of exiling Lord Dracozu rather than putting him into the stocks. They tried to decide whether the constellation of the Bow was, in fact, pointing directly to Faron Woods.

They debated about whether lullabies were art, and, by extension, whether everything was art, including food. Link had firmly defended this position, although Revali derided him for it. They reminisced about their childhoods, shared or not ― Zelda's winters in Gerudo, Link's years in Zora's Domain, Revali's visits to the Castle ― teasing out the fuzzy details that their memories could no longer picture clearly. They wondered if their shared memory of a terrible batch of Farore's Day cakes had, in fact, made them all sick, or whether they'd simply eaten too many.

They talked about their parents and lineages, though Link had little to contribute on the matter. They loudly sang some old shanties and ballads, reinventing the lyrics to feature the more annoying courtiers of their acquaintance. They shared stories of holidays, childhood misadventures and short-sighted sorrows.

Night was well and truly settled-in when Revali reminded Link of their unsettled archery score, and Link had agreed to settle the matter once and for all.

Somewhere, the bells rang the eleventh hour, which meant they'd been drinking for at least six of them. Even so, Link was surprised to find himself wobbling as he stood.

Mipha and Zelda were holding on to one another, clearly unsteady on their feet. Link and Revali, for their part, had to rely on one another to keep a steady course towards the barracks. Arm under wing, they argued about their skills, slurring and bleary-eyed, passing those late night guards, knights and squires that were preparing for the rounds and the night watch.

It was no surprise that they attracted attention. It was rare to see all five Champions and the princess in such a state of merriment. Soon, they had an audience of guards who were either on their way out to town, or in for the night. Gathering in the courtyard, more than one tried to dissuade them from manipulating weapons in their state of inebriation, but Revali dismissed them all.

Link knew Revali would beat him at archery. But he didn't care. Somehow, over the course of the evening, Revali had buried the war axe. He was still an arrogant, insufferable prick, but at least the taunts seemed to come from a place of reluctant companionship. Link could work with that.

"Well," he said, in reply to Revali's promise to humiliate him, "at leasht it won't be shelf-inflicted."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Revali mumbled. "You could still piss yourself."

"Har," Link replied, intelligently. He then disengaged from the Rito and turned to their audience. "Will anyone else be competing in thish contesht of shkill?"

No one offered themselves up on the altar of sacrifice, and Link watched as Revali approached Zelda, who was smiling, and bowed low, begging for her favour.

She did not look at Link when she answered Revali: "Of course," she said, with all the happiness of inebriation. "The winner gets… Hm…" She screwed up her face in thought, clearly struggling to imagine a fitting boon.

"A kiss?" Revali said, gently, his voice deeper than usual.

Zelda flushed. She brought a hand up to her mouth and laughed. "Well, if you insist."

Link felt the ground sway under him, and in that moment he hated that he was drunk. Sidling up to him, Urbosa raised a brow, her amusement palpable.

"This must be killing you," she drawled, clearly entertained.

Link watched as Revali bowed even lower in deference, feeling the green devil of jealousy curl into his stomach. And he looked away. "Of course not."

"Don't be upset if he wins," Urbosa suggested. "He loves her very much. He needs this." She took another sip, directly from a wine bottle, this time. "I'm actually surprised you don't tease him relentlessly about it."

Link checked on the tension in his bowstring. "I can't do that," he said, morosely. He couldn't look at Zelda. He definitely couldn't look at Revali, who was prancing proudly, perfectly aware that the actual archery was a mere formality.

"Sands," Urbosa said, under her breath. "So much honour." And she took another swill.

"It's not honour," Link corrected her somberly. "It's sympathy." Then, stepping forward to disengage from the conversation, although he did hear her chuckling warmly, he pulled the string, practicing his movement. It wasn't the same practiced elegance Revali would have. Even when he was drunk, the Rito's talents were legendary.

Still, their audience cheered. Around the courtyard, lanterns had been lit, and if they hadn't woken anyone up, it was just a matter of time.

If the entire castle didn't know about their drunkenness until now, it soon would.

"Ten arrows each?" Revali asked, lightly. The feathery bastard barely seemed bothered.

"Of course," Link replied gamely. "Best three shots. What do you say?"

"Sounds fine to me."

They allowed some of the squires to fetch them some quivers, and Link hopped about from foot to foot to limber up, though it was all pointless. At this stage, his goal was to avoid complete humiliation. Their audience would report back to his fellow knights, possibly even to his Order. He had to give it his best shot.

"Here's a tip," Revali said, leaning in. "Imagine the bull's eye is your favourite Sheikah bard."

That actually helped, Link considered, once his first four arrows were in his target. He'd messed up a little at the beginning, but he was at least all in the red. Revali's marks, of course, were much more clustered together, absolutely stunning, even at a hundred paces. But Link still had a few arrows to go. He might yet catch up.

He wondered what Zelda's kiss would taste like. That was a mistake. His arrow hit the border of the center. That was no good.

"Oh, come on," Revali said. "Are you trying to let me win?"

"Shut up," Link mumbled. "If I'd known, I'd have stayed sober."

That was a pitiful excuse, and they both knew it. Revali was just as smashed as Link was, swaying on his feet and sometimes catching himself with a well-placed bat of a wing, but he was still perfect in his mastery.

And, in fact, the more the arrows flew, the more Link's stomach sank. He managed to keep his aim in the red, though, which would at least safeguard his honour among the guards and the knights, but Revali's aim was far superior, almost unearthly in its accuracy.

As Revali's final arrow landed, a cheer of celebration went around the courtyard, and Link was forced to concede the victory. He shook his Rito counterpart's wingtip, smiling as well as he could, and congratulated him.

"You held up much better than I expected," Revali admitted, under the loud exclamations around them. His eyes held something in them that Link had not seen since their early childhood: respect.

And though he would not get a kiss from Zelda, he supposed that was better than nothing.

"You earned your victory," Link said as kindly as possible, the words sour on his tongue.

"But your reward will have to wait," Mipha said, breaking in to the conversation. Blinking, the two competitors turned, looking over her shoulder.

Nestled against Daruk's side, Zelda was sound asleep. The big Goron seemed both warmly happy to serve as a pillow, and yet strangely unsure of what to do. Next to him, Urbosa had just finished polishing off her third bottle of wine. The Gerudo sure knew how to pack them in. She was the least inebriated of them all, too. Even Mipha looked bleary-eyed and pale.

"Are you alright?" Link asked his Zora friend, reaching out to steady her. Revali, for his part, headed over to check on their princess.

"I'm fine," she said. Her golden eyes went to Link's hand on her arm. "And I can stand, too." Bravely, she showed him, and his hand moved away. She glanced back at the princess, observing, as did Link, the way Revali gently tucked a strand of Zelda's golden hair behind her ear. "We should get her to bed. It might be wise if King Rhoam didn't see her like this."

"Right," Link said, feeling himself sober up somewhat. "The King. I'd almost managed to forget about him."

"He's doing what he thinks is right," Mipha gently reminded him. "Just like everyone else."

Link couldn't dignify that with a reply. As the crowd of watchers dispersed, they rejoined the other Champions. "Would you mind carrying her, Daruk?"

The big Goron was already lifting the princess into his arms. She mumbled something and brought her arms around the Goron's neck, burying her face into his shoulder like a child. Daruk did not miss the resemblance, and his face broke into a big, goofy, watery smile. Urbosa, for her part, motioned for Daruk to follow along.

Together, the quiet procession began to make its way back to the castle, following along darkened corridors and half-lit sconces. Even though his last drink had gone down something like an hour earlier at least, Link still felt quite drunk. He and Revali continued to exchange jabs, with Mipha reminding them to keep quiet every couple of paces.

They went up stairwells until they found their way to the Royal Quarters. There, Urbosa seemed pleased that her protégée was safe, and told them she was going back down to clean up the gazebo. Revali, clearly aware his chance at a kiss had passed, volunteered to help.

So it was that Link opened Zelda's bedroom door, Mipha pulled aside the curtain, and Daruk set the princess down on her bed. Then, both male Champions stepped out, allowing Mipha to help Zelda into her nightdress.

Yawning, Daruk brought a big hand to his mouth and said, "I think that's it for me." He blinked at the long hallway that connected all of the upper crust's rooms, including the tiny room that was Link's bedroom, right next to Zelda's. "I guess I can leave her in your hands?"

Link snorted. "I am in no state. I have one of the Guards covering her door tonight."

"Hm, that's probably for the best," Daruk agreed, blinking tiredly. He put a massive hand on Link's shoulder. "Well. It was a good night, I think. Glad you could make it."

Link smiled. "Likewise, Daruk."

They exchanged weary smiles, then the Goron slowly stumbled his way back down the hallway. Behind Link, Zelda's door opened, and Mipha emerged, looking as tired as Link felt.

"Is she―"

"She's sleeping," Mipha said. "Soundly." She managed a smile. "I guess Revali will have to wait for that kiss."

"If she remembers at all," Link said, hoping she wouldn't.

Mipha looked up at him with a sad smile, her scales blood red in the torchlight. "I think she will. She always remembers everything." Her hands grasped his. "I'm sorry."

Looking down at their clasped hands, Link frowned drunkenly. "Am I that transparent?" He asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

Mipha's gaze was a mix of sadness and amusement. "Maybe I've known you long enough."

Looking down at the Zora princess, Link found himself feeling a hint of sorrow, too. "Please don't tell me I'm an idiot. I know it only too well."

She squeezed his hands earnestly, and held on to them for a second more before releasing him. The remaining burst of healing warmth seemed to say she understood.

That didn't make him feel much better though.

Pushing herself up on her toes, Mipha laid a gentle kiss on his cheek. "Good night, Link."

"Good night," Link whispered.

She gathered her Champion's cloth around herself and pulled away, padding down the carpeted hall back to the stairwell and her own quarters. Link watched her go, watched her cross paths with the Sheikah shadow who would be on duty tonight.

He was inordinately relieved to see the silver-haired Sheikah arrive. He was, he knew, mere minutes away from falling asleep on his feet.

"Good evening, sir," his Sheikah shadow greeted. Link returned the salute tiredly.

"Evening," he said, blinking against the inebriation to try to remember the shadow's name. "Anything to report before I pass out, er...?"

"No, sir," the Sheikah said, through the cover on his mouth that was part of their uniform. His red eyes were cheerful, though. "That was quite a commotion you stirred up down there, sir."

Link snorted, feeling the yawn take over his entire face. When he recovered, he dismissed the comment absently with a wave of his hand. "Bad weapons discipline," he reminded him. "Do as I say, not as I do." Then, swinging open his bedroom door, he managed a final politeness: "Good night..." He lifted a finger, trying to remember the shadow's name and failing. Rather than end on that shameful admission, he retreated to his room.

He shut the door behind him, removed his boots, and fell face-forward on the softest pillow, which lay atop the softest bed, and he shut his eyes. Too bad for getting changed. He was too tired for that. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe never. This pillow, he knew with absolute certainty, had such magnetic pull… He'd sleep the sleep of the dead tonight. Hm…

The question kept bugging him, though, the frown pulling his brows together in the folds of his pillow case. Really: what was that Sheikah shadow's name again? His muddled thoughts oozed sluggishly through his mind, but he still couldn't weave them together into something coherent. It would bug him until he could remember.

He and Groose had done the scheduling together this week. Who had he assigned tonight? Oman Agana? That man outside wasn't Oman Agana, though. Or… Was that tomorrow? Yesterday?

Skies, this was irritating. What was that Sheikah's name, damn it? He struggled to place the man's eyes. He had always prided himself on learning to recognize them quickly, especially after so much time―

The thought came upon him like an arrow to the gut.

He didn't know the shadow's name. That meant…

He wasn't one of his. He wasn't one of those Sheikah who were part of the Order of the Guard.

And if he wasn't, then―

A sudden burst of strength made him push himself to his feet, stumbling backwards, dizzily, in his room. His vision was blurry, his senses dulled, and yet his heart was pounding harder than ever, the paranoid thought drowning everything else.

Yiga.

Running to his door, he swung it open, and rushed back out into the hallway.

Chapter Text

Link knew he was too late even as he charged into the hallway, slipping on the carpet that bunched up under his sliding bare feet.

Fool. I've been a fool.

He scrambled to Zelda's door, and his stomach sank to see it ajar. His vision narrowed, his hearing dulled, and something within began to ache with desperation. He couldn't get through that door fast enough.

The panel slammed against the wall, and he pushed the curtain in front of the door aside with such haste that it partially tore away from its rod, slumping to the side. The room was dark, poorly lit by a single bedside candle, and it cast deep dancing shadows he could scarcely pierce even as he squinted.

He didn't even have his sword.

And yet that didn't matter. As he desperately tried to adjust to the darkness, he knew that he was able to fight hand to hand, that he would rip the very insides out of whoever dared― whoever dared to touch what was his― his

The whisper of metal against leather was all the warning he got. He ducked, lunging to the side, and blinked as his eyes struggled to make out the shadows in front of him.

Two shadows― and they were tangled together. Link's heart seized with fear, but neither was Zelda. They moved too fast― too soberly, he thought with a guilty lurch…

A muffled grunt, and one of the shadows crumpled to the floor.

And then something grabbed onto Link's arm― He turned, panicked, to stare directly into Zelda's terror-filled eyes.

The relief that overtook him was almost debilitating. For a moment he was utterly frozen, reflecting the very expression on her face, a mix of fear and desperate solace. Without thinking, his hand reached up to cup her cheek, his gaze traveling her entire face, examining every inch of her that he could see in the penumbra, the fear and adrenaline making them both shake, until he was satisfied she was unhurt. And then, suddenly aware of how close he was holding her, and how little she was wearing, and how their lives were still at stake, his hand dropped away, and he took in a deep, strangled gulp of air.

But he still kept her close, the need to do so as vital as breathing, and grabbed a poker from the nearby fireplace, tucking her behind him. She didn't protest.

Turning back to the commotion, he saw that the taller shadow ― and now that his eyes were growing used to the darkness, he saw it was Sheikah ― forcing the other into submission with firm, economical movements.

He knew that posture. Better yet, he knew from experience the pain the shadow on the ground was feeling.

"Impa?" He hissed.

A single flick of the head indicated he had been heard, but otherwise the Sheikah was still busy forcing the Yiga assailant into submission.

The Yiga jerked suddenly, to escape, and suddenly, a crack resounded in the room. Zelda let out a yelp. Link, for his part, cringed, and moved to shield her from the view. The Yiga stopped struggling completely. Once Impa was satisfied that the fight was over, she straightened, her traditional fighter's outfit making her just another shadow in a roomful of them. And her red eyes came to rest on Link.

"Is she safe?"

Link stepped aside just a little bit, allowing the Sheikah Master to lay eyes on her charge, and Impa nodded, assured that Zelda, though horrified, was alive and untouched.

"Good," she said, in that usual curt tone of hers. Then, she smiled and focused on Link. "Good job, too. You burst in right after me. Did you see him enter?"

The shame of having nearly slept through his princess' assassination took him. "No. I just… Couldn't remember his name."

Impa turned the Yiga attacker over, noting his disguise as a Sheikah guard of Link's Order. "Because he isn't one of yours," she observed. She still seemed impressed. "You managed to identify he was a stranger just from his eyes? Not bad."

"How did you find him?" Zelda asked, shaking. She was still swaying and confused, the alcohol mixing with fear.

Impa cleaned her blades on the corpse's borrowed attire, then sheathed her weapons. "I've been trying to track the Yiga in the Castle for months now. When I realized that nothing seemed to draw them towards action, I asked Champion Urbosa to create… an opportunity."

Link felt himself sway, the voltfruit wine beginning to dissipate due to adrenaline. Still, his thoughts weren't nearly as hazy as they had been earlier. "You baited them. Using us." He hoped she heard the accusation in his voice.

Impa looked irritated. "Of course I did. You are the only thing they care about. Killing you―" She shook her head. "I posted myself on the princess' balcony. I thought they would enter that way. I never thought they'd disguise themselves as one of your guards."

A sinking feeling settled into Link's stomach. He contemplated the Yiga's disguise. "You think my Order has been infiltrated?"

"Not necessarily," Impa said. "You didn't recognize him. He isn't one of yours, uniform or not." Her expression changed, and for once she stopped looking certain. Her brow furrowed, and she said, "I was sure. I vetted each and every one of them, personally…"

Link was about to ask another question when Zelda's door slid open, and Master Kohga walked in.

Taking in the ripped curtain, the Yiga corpse, Master Impa standing over it, and Link shielding Zelda in the corner of the room, the Sheikah Master's jaw dropped open, and he took an instinctive step backwards. Then, collecting himself, he raised a brow: "I take it I am a little late to the party?"

Impa frowned, saying nothing, so Link allowed himself to speak the first question that came to his mind: "Master Kohga? What are you doing here?"

Kohga approached, peering down at the corpse. "I heard there was an attack. I am a dutiful servant of the Crown, and came to the rescue." He kneeled, pulled the mask aside, and revealed the face of a young Sheikah, whose expression had frozen into one of mild horror. "But I see my presence was unnecessary."

"Who is that?" Link asked. "I think I've seen him before, but I really don't think he's one of mine."

"Because he isn't," Impa finally said, her voice dripping with ice. Her red eyes went to Kohga's handsome face. Even in the candlelight, he seemed pale. "I rejected this one's addition to your Order of the Guard."

Link could feel his eyebrows go up, and Zelda's grip on his arm tightened. "Why?"

Impa's gaze hadn't left Kohga, who seemed surprised by the venom in Impa's voice. "Because of his closest associations," she said.

Kohga looked mildly offended. "Really, Master, I don't know what put you in such a bad mood." He forced a smile. "Rejoice! The princess is safe."

Zelda's grip on Link's arm was now like a vise, and her nails began to dig into his flesh. He flinched and turned to her, wondering. Her green eyes were fixed on Kohga, and she finally found her voice: "How did you hear there was an attack?" She asked, her voice smaller than usual, but no less regal.

"Yes, dear pupil," Impa asked, still as cold, "please. Enlighten us. I warned no one of this plan, and Link did not have time to warn anyone, let alone call for help. How did you know there would be an attack here tonight?"

There was a knock at the door, and Sir Osfala peered in, accompanied by Oman Agana ― the Sheikah shadow Link had actually assigned for the night. Both of them looked utterly bemused by the disarray and the lateness of the hour. "Er… Is everything alright?" Oman Agana asked. "I think there was a bit of a mixup on the assignments, and we've only just untangled them―"

"It's my fault," Sir Osfala said, immediately, firmly. "I took Oman out to drink―"

"Master Kohga," Zelda interrupted, her voice stronger now. "How did you know?"

The question was no longer a question. It was an accusation. And Link finally began to understand.

The Sheikah Master ― no, Link amended mentally, as the fog of wine finally lifted properly, the Yiga Master ― seemed at long last to be out of words. His lips kept opening and closing, and his red eyes darted between Master Impa, who had tensed imperceptibly into what Link knew was her attack stance, and the princess' face, where she was hiding behind Link's bare shoulder.

It happened at once, so quickly that Link might have been too slow to react if his hackles hadn't already been raised. From within his belt the Yiga Master retrieved a tiny sliver of a blade that flashed yellow in the candlelight, and he lunged directly for the princess.

Bracing himself, Link raised the poker, but Kohga did not make it all the way. Master Impa had leaped too, as had Sir Osfala and Oman Agana.

It was the young Sheikah guard who made it to Kohga first, lunging inelegantly to seize the man's legs, tackling him to the ground. Both of them let out a sudden whoosh of air, and instantly Master Impa and Sir Osfala were upon the Yiga Master, pinning him to the ground. They struggled for a moment, until at last the blade in Kohga's hand clattered to the carpeted floor, and Master Impa had pressed her own blade to the pulse in his neck.

"Give me one good reason," she hissed, and the Yiga Master froze, the struggle leaching out of him like meltwater.

"I take it," Sir Osfala calmly said, from where he was holding the Yiga Master's other arm, "that this is the leader of our little offshoot?"

Master Impa did not respond. She linked both of her prisoner's hands behind his back and hauled him to his feet, so that both Sir Osfala and Oman Agana could dust themselves off.

It was Oman who seemed most troubled. His red eyes were full of anger ― but under that, Link saw hurt too.

And despite his better judgement, Link understood. Master Kohga had been a fixture of the Castle-dwelling Sheikah, a man who, until recently, had been the only jovial connection between his people and the rest of court. He'd been pleasant, and funny, and firm in his teachings. He'd been a mentor to over half of the Sheikah at court, and a strong voice in Kakariko.

And he'd betrayed them all, leading a shard of his own followers for… for what? To hurt their princess? To unmake a kingdom? Why?

It was Zelda's gentle touch that brought Link back to the moment. He realized he'd been gripping the poker so hard that his hands were in pain, his knuckles white and his entire arms tense. Glancing at her, he forced himself to relax. She was fine. Pale, but fine.

"It's over," she whispered, as Master Impa finished tying Kohga's hands together. She had written quick wards on his forehead to block his ability to work his particular shadow skills, then stuffed a thick cloth into his mouth to keep him quiet.

Now Impa's clipped voice finally rose again in the darkened room.

"Sir Link," she said.

Link did not reply, but when her eyes found his, he was paying attention.

"You must guard her well. And you must guard her yourself."

Link nodded. Then hiccuped and shook his head.

"Yes. I mean, no― I mean, I'm drunk." No doubt Impa didn't trust anyone else, but… "We need someone else. Someone to help me keep her safe."

Impa studied the two members of the Order who had burst into the room. Clearly deciding that Oman's lack of hesitation during Kohga's attack spoke more than any words, she inclined her chin towards the Sheikah man.

"You," she ordered, and Oman Agana straightened. "You will stay here. You will help the Hylian Champion protect the princess, as is your sworn duty." Her eyes filled with a sudden, fleeting sorrow, yet when she spoke her voice was steady. "Soon this may well be the safest room in the Castle for a Sheikah."

Oman Agana looked ill. "Master Impa― if he has other followers―" His eyes found the corpse of the Yiga assassin on the floor. "What'll happen to the others? The good ones?"

Impa glanced at him, her red eyes assessing him in the space of a second. What was going through her mind? Link wondered. Was she deciding the fate of his Guard? Trying to determine the guilt of every single one of her people?

Oman Agana seemed to understand that there would be a division, a fracture of his people. And the man guilty for the separation was right there, in the room with them. He glared at Master Kohga, who could only listen.

Link's stomach sank. There would be bloodshed tonight. And, as soon as word made it to Kakariko, there would be bloodshed there too.

Rather than think on the inevitable horrors to come, Impa turned away from Oman Agana and focused with sharp clarity on Sir Osfala. "Rouse the blacksmith. Ask him the names of all the Sheikah who asked him for blades in the name of Kohga. That should narrow it down for him."

"And then what?" Sir Osfala said, his expression grim.

"And then we will rout them," Oman said, angrily. "Kill them, if necessary."

"We will do no such thing," Master Impa warned, her voice like ice. "The Sheikah do not act on a whim." Her eyes darted to Zelda, almost imperceptibly, and Link suddenly felt like she was fighting against herself. "We will be the hand of justice, not vengeance."

Sir Osfala seemed to think this answer satisfactory, because he immediately turned on his heel and left, carrying the Yiga corpse with him. Oman, for his part, seemed somewhat chastised, but when he spoke, his jaw was still tense. "Yes, Master Impa."

Master Kohga's brows drew low, but he was in no position to speak, and anyway Master Impa was hauling him off, back over the tattered remnants of Zelda's curtains, and through the door. Casting one last look at Link, she said, "Brace yourself. This may be the hardest night you've had in a long time."

Link nodded grimly, and shut the door behind her.

The Castle was a big place, though, and once Impa was gone, it quickly fell quiet again. Did anyone else know what had transpired?

They soon would.

Turning to the princess, he said, "You should try to get some sleep."

She snorted, landing on her bed with a bounce. "That's not going to happen." She brought her legs up against her chest and wrapped her arms around her knees, and her eyes went to Oman Agana, who was still staring at the closed door with a haunted expression on his face. "Excuse me… Oman?"

The Sheikah blinked, turning to look at her, seemingly surprised to be called by name. "Yes, Princess?"

Pleasantly, the princess motioned to one of the upholstered armchairs in front of her fireplace. "Please, you seem pale. Have a seat."

The simple casualness of her offer seemed to completely disarm the Sheikah, who obeyed, stunned. Link, from his position by the door, tried to hold in a grimly amused smile.

"And Link," she said, with an ease he began to realize was leftover inebriation, "you should probably fetch your sword."

He was still holding on to the iron poker. His eyes went to Oman Agana, who had slumped into his seat, eyes lost. Then, they went back to his princess, who was still sitting on her bed.

She looked irritated. "Your room is right next door. We will be fine."

Link finally relented, rushing to his room to retrieve the Master Sword. When he returned, he found Zelda seated in the armchair next to Oman's, asking him if he wanted a refreshing cup of water.

Checking the darkened hallway one last time, Link shut the door and locked it. Zelda glanced up at him, her expression faltering for the briefest of moments and revealing the worry in her eyes, but she hid it once more and turned back to Oman Agana, who was trying to refuse his princess' kindness.

With automation born of months of experience, Link went to each window and door, checking their latches and securing those that he could.

He was about to secure the last window when a large, familiar shadow landed unevenly on the balcony outside.

Revali was still drunk, but the focus in his eyes matched the one he'd seen during their archery contest.

"Is she alright?" He asked, without preamble.

Link stepped aside to show the princess behind him. She was going around the room, lighting candles. Spotting Revali, she waved pleasantly, though her smile did not fully reach her eyes.

Satisfied, Revali turned his attention back to Link. "Urbosa and Daruk have moved to the stairs up to your hallway, for added protection." He looked irritated. "I wish Urbosa had shared the plan ahead of time."

"We needed to look authentically drunk," Link said, though he shared the Rito's irritation.

"Hmph." Revali shot his princess another glance. "The Castle will be in turmoil tonight. Be on your guard."

"Always," Link replied. Then, when the Rito nodded, he shut the window, and watched Revali dive back into the blackness of night.

And there was turmoil that night, Link observed, though it all felt strangely distant from the confines of Zelda's large rooms. There was some clamour, far below, and a great deal of movement in the courtyards, as far as Link could tell from the roused torches moving to and fro, but it was removed from their immediate surroundings, dulled and muffled.

Somehow, that made things worse.

Pacing back and forth, because he knew there would be no sleep tonight, Link found himself wrestling with a pit of anxiety in his gut.

It had been such a nightmare getting his Hylians and his Sheikah to finally get along, had required no small amount of cajoling and soft bribing, and often Zelda's own insistence, before they could finally begin to trust one another― And now this would rend all their efforts asunder, would return the Sheikah to their guarded secretiveness, and the Hylians to their snarling suspicions.

Worse were the creeping doubts. His Order of the Guard had been half Sheikah. He'd never gotten around to Kohga's recommendations, but there was no telling how many had slipped into his watch regardless. How many times had they contemplated sneaking in, killing Zelda, and sneaking back out?

Taking a deep, quiet breath, Link ran his hand through his hair, stretching his neck in a fruitless attempt to relieve the growing tension.

They were my Order, he thought, hurt. Something he had built from nothing, based on a single ideal. And Kohga had ruined it. How many Sheikah had he corrupted? How many would Link still have under his command tomorrow? Would anyone ever trust them again?

In the big red armchair, Oman Agana was quiet, occasionally sighing and running a shaking hand through his white hair. Perhaps he, too, was contemplating the future of his people. It had to be worse, Link thought. They were his friends. His kin. His blood and bloodied relations. Link had been their commander. Oman had been their comrade.

It was no use contemplating it, Link thought, but there was nothing else to think about in that long stretch of night.

Zelda, for her part, seemed to drift in and out of awareness, alternately sitting and lying down on her bed. She didn't get much sleep though, Link knew, because every so often he would catch her green eyes tracking him in silence, her expression unreadable.

At last, it seemed the clamour began to quiet, just before dawn. The sky was still deep and dark, with only the barest paling of the horizon in the east.

By then, Link had joined Oman in the armchairs, fighting against sleep. Zelda had drifted off, her soft breathing barely audible over their shoulders.

"Commander," Oman finally whispered. "Will you send me away?"

Link blinked at his Guard quietly. In a similar whisper, he said, "No. Why should I? You saved your princess tonight."

Oman Agana couldn't even look at him. "They told me my shift had changed. I didn't even question it. I almost failed her. And you."

Link had long since stopped being drunk, but the guilt of nearly doing the same due to inebriation did not sit well with him. "We both nearly failed her," he said. "But that was part of Impa's plan. If we hadn't, she'd still be in danger. And… and you proved yourself. In spite of your mistake, you were there when she needed you. That's… That's all that matters," he said, as much for himself as for the young Sheikah. He glanced at the princess over his shoulder. She was sleeping the sleep of exhaustion, her breathing slow and even. "She is all that matters."

Oman Agana did not reply to that, and the haunted expression in his eyes remained until the sun rose and the first rays of light began to cast long shadows outside.

Rising from his seat, Link stretched. The Castle had been silent for over an hour now, and he wanted to see if it was safe to go. No one had come knocking again.

Padding over to the door, he checked once more to make sure the princess was soundly asleep, then unlocked and opened the door.

Blinking in the morning light, Link was sure for a moment that he was dreaming.

The entire hallway was lined with Hylian knights and Sheikah shadows, all standing at attention, in multiple rows facing away from him, towards the stairs. Next to the door, Urbosa and Mipha were both speaking to Groose in low tones. When they noticed Link emerging, shutting the door behind him, their grave expressions lightened in welcome, but did not lose their businesslike focus.

"What is going on?" Link asked, whispering, the confusion evidently written on his face.

"Reporting for duty, sir," Groose said, and Link finally saw his expression clearly: it was a mix of fierce determination and unabashed pride.

Glancing at the ranks of knights and shadows, Link felt something tighten in his chest. Some of the Guards were turning to glance at him, and their tired resolve shone in their own wan smiles.

Forcing the words out, Link asked, "How many?" How many of their own numbers had they lost to the night's hunt?

Looking at his ranks of familiar faces, he found himself wondering if there were any of their number missing at all ― he couldn't tell, the exhaustion and emotion beginning to meld into confusion. They all seemed to be there, but there was no way of telling.

He turned back to Groose and repeated his question. "How many were traitors?"

"None, sir," Groose replied, and next to him Urbosa's own expression was a smirk of pride.

The answer didn't register at first. None? None at all had been ejected from the Castle by the night's upheaval? It seemed― It seemed impossible.

He turned to the other Champions. Somewhere down the hall, he could hear Daruk and Revali talking, their familiar voices recognizable but otherwise too distant to understand. Mipha gave him an encouraging smile. "None?" He echoed.

"Oh, don't misunderstand," Urbosa said, her warm voice dripping with bloodthirsty vengeance. "Plenty of Yiga were routed from the Sheikah quarters tonight. No doubt Kakariko is still dealing with the division as we speak. But we expelled them. Impa is interrogating those whose loyalty is still in question, but all those you see here―" she motioned to Link's ranks of smiling Guards, "―are in the clear."

He looked at their faces in turn, amazed. Touched. Blown away. "None were Yiga?" Link echoed again.

Kah Maag, who was among the elder Sheikah of the Order, turned to salute, his stance a request to speak. Link motioned for him to go on. "We are willing to restate our commitment," Kah said, his expression carefully neutral. His words were accompanied by firm nods from the other Sheikah in the ranks. He was a proud one, though, and Link knew it cost him to even suggest such a thing. "We are devoted to her Highness, and have sworn to lay down our lives in her service."

"Sworn once," Link said, his chest filling with glowing pride. He kept his emotions under control, though, desperate to show himself worthy of their loyalty. "And evidently," he continued, looking at all his Sheikah in turn, "once was more than enough."

Kah Maag did not reply, but the line of his mouth turned upward for a split second, and his jaw tensed as though to keep from thanking him.

"Have you been here all night?" Link asked, still fighting back his amazement.

Groose shrugged. "We all trickled up here eventually, in the wee hours. Impa had warned us not to disturb her Highness, and that you and Oman Agana―" He nodded to Oman, who had also emerged and joined the ranks of his fellow Sheikah, "― were watching over her."

"And Revali watched from the outside, too," Mipha added, softly. "Though once their cover was blown, most of the Yiga didn't fight at all."

"Ran away like the cowards they are," Urbosa said, coldly.

"But you were ready," Link said, turning to his men and women. Many nodded, or smiled, or merely lifted their hands to their chests in salute.

"We'd have to show ourselves worthy of your command," Groose said, crossing his arms over his large chest with pride.

Link swallowed the lump in his throat. To the assembled knights and shadows, he raised his voice slightly and said, "Rather, this morning I find myself doubting that I will ever be worthy of you." He licked his lips as they chuckled good-naturedly, then took a deep breath. "I― I know I don't talk as much as I used to― that I keep my distance. But I am proud," he assured them. "Very proud of you, and this Order, and all that we have accomplished."

They were looking at him with rapt attention. Link wondered if he'd ever once addressed them as a group, let alone spoken this long to any assembly before. Now both they and he were looking at each other in surprised wonder.

"You… You have all shown yourselves to be true, honourable, and valorous. When the dust from last night settles and the peoples of Hyrule look to the Castle for guidance, they will see us, Hylian and Sheikah, united for the sake of our princess and our country." He felt his chest fill with honest, glowing pride. "This accomplishment is proof that together, we can overcome anything." He pressed his lips together, then finally acknowledged it. "I have never been prouder to see you. All of you." He yawned, ruining the effect of his words. "I hope some of you are better rested than me. The princess is in need of fresh guards."

They allowed themselves a light rumble of relieved laughter. None of them were standing at attention now. It seemed the night had changed something in them; now the Hylians and Sheikah were standing together, not apart, exchanging rueful smiles and tired, friendly claps.

Link turned to Groose, who was smiling with the same glowing pride. Without waiting for additional prodding, his second stepped forward, calling the attention of the troops to re-establish a proper schedule. Not for the first time, Link was glad he'd chosen the giant red-haired man to help.

Glancing around, he saw Urbosa and Mipha were smiling too, watching the Order of the Guard decide on duties for the next hours with a degree of enthusiasm they'd never demonstrated before.

Suddenly, he saw her. In the narrow door jamb behind the Zora and Gerudo Champions, wearing a robe to cover her nightgown, Princess Zelda wasn't looking at Groose. Her eyes were on Link, her expression still unreadable, though for a fraction of a second it seemed Link was struck with Urbosa's own lightning. It rushed through him, energizing him, granting him courage he hadn't even thought about.

So he straightened, hoping she saw, hoping she understood. Could she ever? Would she ever know the books he read, the purpose of his efforts?

Would she ever think him worthy?

She inhaled, her soft lips drawing apart― and suddenly, even as her cheeks grew their own lovely shade of pink, her green eyes filled with a strange fear, a fear that seemed so achingly familiar to Link, because he'd been living with it for months now.

Her pretty pale hand went to her mouth, her flush now rising all the way to the tips of her ears, and her chest heaved ever so wonderfully in her robe, so that Link couldn't help but smile.

Maybe that smile was a mistake, because she seemed alarmed now― and she shut the door right then. He could almost picture her on the other side, leaning against the door pane, trembling, breathing hard, bringing her hand to her chest and feeling the pumping of her blood through her heart. He knew, because his own breathing was shallow and his own pulse was racing.

And though the night had been terrible, and there were difficulties yet to overcome, Link had never felt so blissfully triumphant.

Chapter Text

Zelda found him just after dawn, in the Castle stables, as he was brushing down his horse.

"You never told me what you named him," she said.

Link looked at his horse, a mild-tempered, white-stockinged bay stallion that he'd tamed sometime during his squirehood. It stared placidly back, chewing on some of the fresh hay that Link had put in front of him while he worked.

Then, he looked back at Zelda, who was observing him from the wide open stable doors. She motioned to one of the Sheikah shadows at her side that they were dismissed, her cheeks pink, her expression an intriguing mix of nervousness and determination.

And then they were alone. All the stablehands were at breakfast. That caused a thrill to run down Link's spine. She hadn't been alone with him in a little over two weeks. There were multiple reasons for that ― some of them perfectly valid. For one, the upheaval among the Sheikah and the subsequent tensions had increased the number of guards Link had assigned to her, even and especially within the Castle. For two, the insanity that had followed the arrest of Master Kohga, whose ongoing trial was as perfunctory as the law allowed, had caused a massive influx of curious courtiers and visitors all eager to get their eyes on a real traitor, the first Hyrule had known by face and name in many, many years, which kept Zelda rather busy with polite conversations everywhere she went.

And for three, she had avoided talking to him directly since that morning.

He wasn't frustrated, though. The flush on her cheekbones told him that she didn't hate him, and the furtive glances they often exchanged seemed enough to make his heart run quicker than usual.

He thought he knew why she was nervous about him. It felt like some bizarre victory, coursing through his blood like dizzying wine.

Turning back to his horse and ignoring the pounding of his heart, he said, "Horse."

"Horse?" she echoed, flatly, and now he could imagine the blush turning to an irritated flush. "You named him Horse. Really?"

"I can tame them," he said. "Not name them."

"Evidently," she said, approaching. She was in her traveling clothes, her hair braided back and away from her face. Her hand came up to caress Horse with affection. "Well, look at you," she cooed at the great big placid dope that Link knew his horse was, "I think your master doesn't love you the way he should."

"Please. I feed him and brush him," Link said.

"Courage," Zelda said to the horse, ignoring Link, as she often did. "I think your name is Courage."

Courage the horse looked down at Zelda, then huffed, his tail shooing away some flies.

"Courage?" Link repeated, frowning.

"Why not?" She asked, lightly.

"Courage," Link said again, deadpan.

She smiled, and Link felt his resolve begin to melt. Turning away, he began to brush Courage's coat vigorously.

"You've had him a long time," she said, from the beast's other side. Her tone was leading, though, and Link wondered where she was going with that line of inquiry.

"Yes," he said, hoping Courage wouldn't feel this was the appropriate moment to drop any manure.

"And he's always been well-behaved."

"Yes?"

She peered around Courage's head, scratching the sweet dimwit's nose. This seemed to please Courage immensely, because he snorted softly, pushing against her fingers for more. "And I seem to be stuck with a horse that will never love me again."

She was talking about her pale-cream gelding, the same horse she had greatly upset last autumn on her mad descent from Eldin. The trust had never truly returned afterwards, and Zelda's mount had been easily spooked and temperamental since.

"He's just afraid," Link said.

"Well, you're the expert," she said, smiling.

Link paused in his brushing, glancing at her. She was… She was smiling at him. Charmingly.

Very charmingly. Too charmingly, given how assiduously she'd avoided openly smiling at him until now.

"Yes?" He asked, trying to infuse his voice with suspicion even as his pulse kicked up.

She approached, and Link tried not to let his hopes get away with his reason. They were alone. Alone in a stall, sure, next to a simple-minded horse, but she was closing the space between them― was she really― would she―

"Please help me," she pleaded, clasping her hands together in front of her in imploration. "Please? Wisdom won't even have any of my apples anymore."

The plain request jarred him back to reality, bringing his racing mind to a screeching halt.

"Wisdom?" Link echoed, raising a brow, desperate to hide the direction his thoughts had been going.

"My horse," she said.

"Yes, I gathered as much," Link said, recovering. "I'm sensing a theme." He leaned out of the stall, looking left and right. "Any giant red horses in here? I think I can guess what you would name it."

She rolled her eyes. "Link, please."

The nearness of her was making him dizzy. He wanted to tease her some more, just to watch her blush. But she had a look in her green eyes that spelled doom. It was a sweet vulnerable expression, earnest and helpless, and damn it, but he couldn't resist a damsel in distress.

How the tables turned.

Exhaling, he said, "Of course I'll help."

She perked up instantly, clapping her hands together with excitement. "Oh, thank you!"

"But," he said, raising a finger in warning, "you have to do as I say."

She flushed and bit her lip, an inkling of uncertain distress transforming her face into an expression of vulnerability. It was a pretty look ―one that flattered his ego― but he had to dispel her fears.

"No matter how silly it sounds," he explained.

"Oh," she said, and her blush deepened, gratifyingly. "Right." She shook herself, cheering up. "I defer to your greater experience."

Oh, this was trouble, Link told himself as she left to retrieve Wisdom. He was in trouble.

Looking up at Courage, he said, "Behave yourself, now. Understood?"

But Courage merely eyed him with mild disgust. Link couldn't blame him.

As Zelda brought Wisdom out of its stall, the horse seemed reluctant to follow. It huffed, dragged its hooves every other step, and occasionally pulled at the lead. Zelda shot it a little glare, then avoided a hard push from its nose.

Before Wisdom could bowl her over, Link clucked his tongue, reaching out gently, grabbing the lead and pulling to bring Wisdom's eyes level with his. Scratching at the pale cream coat on his nose, he studied the silly beast, running his hand along its mouth, feeling, reaching, examining. Its ears were clean, its eyes were clear and limpid, and its mouth had no sores. Its mane was meticulously braided― he shot Zelda a look at this, and she smiled brightly.

Turning back to Wisdom, he positioned himself alongside, checking its hooves for any stuck rocks the stable hands may have missed, and found none. Its coat was shiny and healthy, well-brushed and clean.

So Link came back to look the horse in the eye, and sternly said, "Look at you, in perfect health. You have no reason to be so ill-tempered."

The horse nickered in disagreement. Link rolled his eyes.

"So you had one bad day, months ago."

Wisdom tried to look away, huffing, but Link held him fast.

"Don't look away from me," he said, chiding. "You think you can get away with being mean this long?" He shook his head when Wisdom stomped a hoof. "Well, you don't." He ensured the royal bridle was correctly fastened and the bit properly positioned. "You've been getting bribed with apples and oats all winter and spring, and most of summer, too. I think you've become spoiled."

Wisdom took great offense at this, snorting derisively, but Link held him steady.

"You heard me," he said, "spoiled. And by Hyrule's own princess, too." Did the horse even know what Link would have done to say the same?

Next to him, Zelda was watching the one-sided conversation with bemusement.

Link came back to look into the beast's inky eyes and his expression softened. "Well, you have no reason to be afraid anymore." He motioned for Zelda to approach, which she did, cautiously.

Seeing her getting closer, Wisdom whinnied softly, trying to step away, and Zelda hesitated. But Link reached up, scratched Wisdom's nose, and began to hum his usual song for horses, that he'd learned during his childhood in Mabe Village. Once the gelding was motionless again, Zelda came closer, standing at Link's elbow.

Still humming, Link nodded for Zelda to retrieve an apple from one of the feed bags hanging between stalls. Then, reaching for her hand as he held Wisdom with the other, he made her hold her palm open and out.

If she felt the same jolt run up her arm as he did, she did not show it. Instead, her ears grew pink and her green eyes met Wisdom's with fearful anticipation.

And Wisdom, good boy that he was, plucked the apple out of her hand and crunched merrily, nickering softly with gratitude.

Link went to the horse's neck, rubbing it comfortingly. "See? She's not too bad once you get to know her, right?"

Zelda shot him an irritated glance, but Link didn't care. Before Wisdom could finish its bite, he grabbed Zelda by the waist ― she yelped― and he put her up in her royal saddle. And for once, Wisdom didn't balk.

"How did you do it?" She asked, with wonder, as Wisdom huffed once and began to sniff at Link to find more apples.

Casually pushing the big searching nose away, Link shrugged. "When a horse is skittish, you soothe it." He turned back to Wisdom, who was still snorting at him, and ran a hand on its neck. "That's the only way it will know how you truly feel."

"I've tried that," she reminded him with a smile that was both amazed and annoyed.

"No, you've been afraid of it," Link said, meeting her eyes. "Stepping backwards and hesitating. He's learned you're afraid, and he's picked up on that. Horses are smart. They know what's in your heart. So don't be afraid of him. You have to stay calm to stay in control. If you feel like you can't find that calmness, soothe him," he suggested. "And through him, find that peace within yourself, too."

Her lips parted, but for a moment she seemed without words.

Then, softly, she asked, "Is that the key? To being the best horse tamer there is?"

Her eyes were so green. Link wasn't sure he should keep looking at them. So he turned away and mumbled, "No, the key to that is to not fear broken bones."

She burst out laughing, unexpectedly, her laughter filling the stables and making horses peek out of their stalls, ears raised curiously.

It also made Wisdom irritable again, and he sidestepped in discomfort. Link clucked at him once more, pulling him back to attention.

"Oh," Zelda said, her voice dropping in guilt, "I've scared him, haven't I?"

"No," Link said. "He's just being difficult." Glancing up at his princess, he said, "Are you up for some riding?"

She perked up, the smile on her face genuine, the hope and relief surprising him. "Oh, yes! Please tell me you can afford to take the day. If I spend another moment in this castle, I will scream."

He'd guessed as much. She was a bookworm, a recluse at heart. The influx of visitors had been grating on his nerves too. The princess running away for a day would come as no surprise to the Order, and given how little she and the King spoke now, King Rhoam likely wouldn't care, as long as she performed her daily prayers.

"I'll send a quick note to Groose so that we don't trigger some castle-wide manhunt," he said. "And then we'll go."

As soon as the nearest shadow had taken his message ― with a smirk Link had forbiddingly scowled at ― he retrieved Courage, saddled him up, and they exited the great stables. Together, they began to amble their way down the road out of the Castle. To ensure Wisdom didn't dart, Link remained close, ready to reach out and grab his lead if needed.

As they passed by the entrance to the deep Sheikah Sanctuary, Link spotted a group of Sheikah chatting amongst themselves.

And Misko among them.

Zelda waved at the bard, who stood immediately and bowed.

So he hadn't been thrown out with the Yiga, Link contemplated, sourly. That was a shame.

As though aware of Link's thoughts, the Sheikah bard shot him an irritated glare. Jealousy, no doubt, Link considered. One did not go riding alone with the princess every day. But he didn't respond, keeping his face as blank as he could.

When they were further down the road, out of earshot, Zelda's shoulders slumped. "This Yiga business has been difficult for the Sheikah." Screwing her lips, she added, "Most of Misko's songs lately have been mournful."

Clucking at Wisdom to prevent the horse from veering off the path, as it clearly wanted to, Link said, "The Yiga wanted to kill you."

"I know," Zelda sighed. "But it really has divided Misko's people. I can't blame him for the sorrow he feels." She was silent for a moment, then said, "Sometimes I have nightmares about that night."

Link shot her a worried glance, but she was staring at the pommel of her saddle.

"Only instead of the Yiga's neck snapping, it's mine he's breaking." She straightened, shuddering, and her green eyes came up to gaze at him. "I owe you my life, once again."

"It was Impa," Link said, "really…"

"Of course," she said, flushing. "Only… I was happy to have you shielding me."

He hoped she didn't see him swallow the lump in his throat. She had no idea, clearly. No idea that standing weaponless in the path of a blade was the only way he could have possibly prevented his own set of nightmares.

Turning to focus on the road and the gate into the town, he said, as lightly as he could, "Well, I can be useful sometimes."

She snorted, waving to the guards at the gate, who were saluting. "Yes, clearly I owed you the benefit of the doubt much sooner than I gave it." She sighed, her shoulders slumping, though she was smiling. "If I get a chance to start over, I will do better next time."

He smiled too. "Good, because that lesson applies to your horse, as well. Don't go running down steep mountain paths again. It's terribly dangerous for your horse, and for you, and for my peace of mind."

She groaned, leaning forward in the saddle, and Wisdom flicked his ears with irritation. "Oh, I know. I keep going over it in my mind. I was so upset― only now I can't quite remember why I acted so rashly."

They reached the gates into the fields. Around them, the market was lively, the early morning already beginning to fill with chatter and freshly-baked bread smells. But out in the fields, summer was ripening the crops, and the grasses were mature, and the trees were their usual deep green.

Link inhaled deeply, and even their horses perked up.

"You really do fare better in the wild," Zelda observed, and Link thought he heard a note of fondness in her voice.

He merely smiled. "How do you feel about a good gallop?"

She seemed to contemplate the idea. "Will it help me make Wisdom happy?"

Wisdom, Link thought, looked antsy: the appeal of the road was too tempting to ignore, even with his least favourite person on his back. "I think if you keep soothing him when he feels the urge to stray…"

It was all the incentive Zelda needed. She pressed her legs into Wisdom's flanks, and she was off among merchant carts and other startled travelers. Surprised, Link followed closely, intent on keeping Wisdom's temper under control.

They alternated trot and gallop for hours, reaching the Regencia river and pausing to let their horses drink deeply. Then, of a single mind, they got back into the saddle and continued south along the river, exclaiming at jumping fish that raced alongside, releasing the reins when they felt bold.

With her hair in the wind and her cheeks flushed with heat and excitement, Zelda had never looked so carefree.

Even Wisdom, for all that he'd begun the day on the wrong hoof, eventually warmed up enough to enjoy obeying Zelda's gentle commands.

Together, they followed the river for several more hours, leaving deep hoof marks in the river's sandy gravel shore. By mid-afternoon, they reached the Gleeok Bridge after stopping into the Coliseum town for a quick meal. When they got back into the saddle, they settled for a slower pace, the better to enjoy the summer's heat.

"I don't think we've ever covered this much ground in one day," Zelda said as they followed the road west towards Manhala Bridge.

Link was inclined to agree. "We'll be back at the Castle very late," he said, an inkling of guilt beginning to grow. "I hope you don't get in trouble."

Zelda exhaled. "Later is better, really." A cloud of irritation passed over her face for a brief moment, but it was so sincere that it comforted him. She seemed to have forgotten to be shy, and it warmed his heart. "I truly think if I had spent a single more day cooped up within those walls, I would have gone mad."

Link readjusted his seat in the saddle, saying nothing, pleased to have her speak so openly. As expected, she took this as an invitation to continue.

"It's all the little things, really," she explained, as he listened. "It's how I can't seem to take three steps out of my quarters without being hounded. It's how the entire trial seems to have taken over the Castle and everyone has an opinion to share about the outcome it should have― especially Chancellor Cole, who has been utterly insufferable for weeks now, telling my father lies about my lack of devotion being the reason for Kohga's attack, which is frankly rich, coming from that unpleasant little..."

She stopped herself, inhaling deeply to regain her calm. Link didn't say anything. He was just glad that Chancellor Cole wasn't part of his daily life, and that Kohga was under Royal Guard jurisdiction. If either of them had been under Link's control, or the Order of the Guard's, it was likely blood would have been spilled.

"And that's all without mentioning the absolute madness that is tearing the Sheikah apart." She inhaled. "I heard they want to force Kohga's wife and child into exile. I don't agree, but I can't suggest anything better, and anyway it's not like my opinion matters much." She sighed, deeply, then said, "And soon, it won't matter at all. Kohga's sentence will be announced tomorrow, and then he'll fade into oblivion."

Link frowned. "They're announcing his sentence on your birthday?"

She looked at Wisdom's mane absently, her mind evidently elsewhere. "No, Sir Link," she finally said, softly. "They are announcing his fate on Summertide." Her green eyes rose to his face, inscrutable. "And your princess' birthday is after tomorrow, on Nayru's Day, remember?"

"You know what I mean," Link said, insistently. "And even then, it's a gloomy thing to do right before a major feast."

She didn't reply, falling into silence. They were following the road towards Safula Hill now, the sun low on the horizon. The trees to the south were deep green, and the rocky hillside was casting a long shadow. There was peace here, with not a single sign of danger. For that, at least, Link was grateful.

"Isn't it strange?" She suddenly asked, over the deafening song of cicadas. "It's been a year."

Link blinked at her. "What?"

She smiled, glancing at his blue tunic. "Since you became Hyrule's Champion."

Link peered at her for a long moment, a strange mix of emotions churning within. She looked as beautiful today as she had seemed particularly awful last year. And she had grown, too, not only physically ― if one or two inches could be deemed significant ― but emotionally. Every day that passed, it seemed she was less and less a girl, and more and more a woman. And it seemed, too, that she was becoming more of a queen with time, commanding more respect, or at least attracting more deference.

Zelda had obviously changed, but Link wondered if he was different, too. If he really wracked his memory, he was sure he could recall the insecurity, the fear, the resentment. He could recall his squire's gear, and his fellows' jests, the panic of feeling the Master Sword ― now such a natural extension of his own body ― come loose.

He had grown within, too, maybe not so obviously as she had. He still felt the road ahead would be long, and that he had too many shortcomings to list, and he feared he would remain as he was forever. But he was stronger, no doubt about it, and quieter, more subdued, for all that he'd been a very outgoing child.

"A year," he said, in wonder.

Had he done enough? He wondered. Surely his efforts to learn, his desperate need to catch up on an education that he now felt was sorely lacking, his constant urge to read, to observe, to practice― surely those would one day lead to proficiency. Surely his journey to adulthood was not yet at an end.

Surely he still had time, he thought, quelling a fear that he was doing too little. And, meeting Zelda's eyes, he forced himself to feel sure of it. Yes, they both had time. They would have time to become better. He would grow stronger, and she would awaken her powers ― she might even have time to hone them, if the gods were good ― and together they would one day be a formidable team, able to vanquish any foe.

Surely.

But looking upon Zelda now, at her peculiar, sad smile, and the way she was looking at their surroundings so wistfully, he felt a strange panic within. Why? Why did he suddenly feel that time was running short? Was it her growing up? He knew he wasn't the only one to notice she was growing more beautiful by the day… Was that it? Was he afraid she'd slip away?

Before he could say anything, she turned back to him.

"You know," she said, "I didn't want you to become my knight."

Link tried not to snort. "That was no secret," he said flatly, gratified to see her smile.

"Well, I was wrong," she said. "And I think it's time I admitted it."

"You already did," Link reminded her. "In Gerudo."

She had pushed him away, and removed him from her service, and then told him he could pledge his fealty later, on his terms, when he deemed she was worthy once again.

Perhaps, Link thought, it was soon time to pledge himself again. He certainly thought of nothing else but her safety, and lived for the moments where she would glance his way, or smiled those secret grins that were seemingly just for him. And sometimes, in the late evenings, after her prayers, when he got to sit in her company, he tried very hard not to speak the many truths that crowded his mind or his heart. Maybe pledging himself again was only right.

"It feels like a lifetime ago," she was saying, looking up at the sky, and Link came back to the moment. "I was truly arrogant. I could have lost a true friend and never known it."

"You mean me?" Link asked, strangely touched.

She turned to him in amused surprise.

"Of course," she exclaimed. "Who else?" And then she tilted her head, eyes wide and playful, her pink lips pouting the way they did when she was trying to wrap some courtier around her finger. "Or are we not friends, Sir Link?"

His mouth went dry.

Trickster, he wanted to accuse in between heartbeats.

Had she learned this from the Gerudo? Was that imperceptible flutter of lashes rehearsed?

Was he ever going to find his voice again?

It was unfair. He had seen her flirt before, but he'd never been on the receiving end of the full force of her efforts. Now that he was, he could no longer mock those courtiers she had bamboozled.

He forced himself to focus. Of course they were friends. Just friends. Friends who innocently rode together, who exchanged secret grins only when no one was looking. Friends of circumstance, who were mindful of their respective stations and respected the boundaries of society.

"We're friends," he croaked.

The playful pout vanished, replaced with a triumphant smile, and Link knew with certainty that all the time she spent in devotionals was a complete waste of her natural talents.

Elated and frustrated all at once, he fell silent, wrestling with himself, trying to calm the madness in his blood.

She began to hum to herself, and Link recognized the song for horses he'd taught her, and suddenly the heat inside him began to fade, replaced with warmth, a fullness of the heart that made him want to hold her close.

He was going to pledge himself again, he swore to himself. He'd say the words once more. Just to her, with no witnesses. Not today, though. He wanted to wash off the dust and dirt from the road. He wanted to be in full knight's attire, and to kneel before her properly.

And he wouldn't get a moment of her time tomorrow, on account of the trial. Nor the next day, when they departed with the other Champions towards Lanayru on the final leg of the pilgrimage.

But maybe after their return, he thought, he could plan it out properly. And when all the madness had quieted down, he could take her aside, and say the words to her again.

He stifled a private smile. Yes, that felt like a proper plan.

They still had time, after all.


"Tomorrow... is my seventeenth birthday. So then I shall go, and make my way up the mountain."

Chapter Text

Summertide dawned grey and rainy.

Between the cobblestones, puddles were forming, rippling under fat raindrops that soaked wood and thatch, glistening on tile and glass.

At the head of his Order of Guard, Link stood at attention, feeling the water drenching him through to his underclothes, plastering his hair to his forehead. And he ignored the misery his men and women radiated behind him.

Next to him, Sir Groose stood just as still, his expression grave.

On his other side, close enough for him to protect her bodily, Zelda wore a deep blue dress, which in the rain had become so sodden it seemed almost black. Her hair was matted and heavy with water, but she, too, stood silent and dignified. A flicker of her glance was all the acknowledgement he would get of his look.

In the middle of the courtyard, standing amidst brand new wood chips, a tall scaffold had been erected. The construction had happened overnight ― the urge to avoid building gallows on Dinsfall, the day before, too great an imperative to ignore.

When its dirty job was done, Link knew, the gibbet would be torn down, burned in the Castle's many fireplaces, to be forgotten before the arrival of Nayru's Day tomorrow. Hopefully it wouldn't smoke too much, and would not last until morning.

Summertide really was the perfect time for an execution.

On his high chair, King Rhoam wore the black robes of Hyrule's high judge. He had demanded that Hyrule Castle's bells ring a knell of warning in the early hours, so Link had awakened to the dreadful sound of half-muffled ringing. And he'd immediately understood, as all of the Castle and surrounding town's inhabitants had, what it meant.

Master Kohga would hang today.

Standing at attention as he did, Link still couldn't believe King Rhoam had dared it. Indignation lanced within Link with every repetitive dull gong, the muffled clappers no longer producing the high clear sounds of joy and celebration but rather the dampened mournful echo of death.

On Zelda's birthday.

Stealing a glance at the king, Link tried not to glare. Next to Rhoam, Chancellor Cole looked utterly bored. High Priest Auru, for his part, was wringing his hands, but did not seem inclined to discourage the king. It was reasoned that there was no better day to handle such unpleasant business than on the one day a year where no Goddess was worshipped.

Other lords and nobles stood behind them, each more preoccupied with their position relative to the king's throne than with the reason for their presence in the rain. And Link hated them a little for it.

On the princess' other side, the rest of court stood still ― his fellow Champions, Misko the silver bard, and the rest of the Sheikah ― as well as the lesser folk further on, the guards, the squires, the scullery maids, the cooks, the stablehands.

And across the courtyard, by the Castle gates, a cordoned-off area had been prepared for townsfolk to enter the Castle grounds and bear witness. Many had come despite the rain, standing still and loyal to their king, hushed and intimidated.

How many of them were there? Link wondered. The entire Castle had emptied, it seemed, and several hundred men, women and children stood here in the rain, waiting.

After what seemed like too long, the bells stopped ringing, the last echo fading into the din of rainfall.

And King Rhoam raised his hand, motioning for the condemned prisoner to come forward.

Master Kohga had been scrubbed clean, Link noted when the prison guards brought him out. He had been divested of his traditional Sheikah attire and put into simple trousers and a white shirt, and his hair had been untied. It fell in wet, white tendrils around his handsome face.

But he walked tall, proud, despite the hissing and shouting from the crowd.

And though Link despised the man who had tried to kill his princess, he found himself angrier still at the indignity of watching him die this way, under the hateful cries of the masses, and on this day, of all days. Master Kohga had been a calculating, manipulative bastard, but he had also been a friend in his own way, had taught him to appreciate the Sheikah when the Sheikah themselves had failed, and had inspired many of his fellow squires to make themselves impressive.

He had to die, of course... But not like this. Surely there must have been a better way.

Master Kohga, though, did not seem to hear any of the insults screamed his way. He climbed the scaffold with as much dignity as could be had while gagged and bound at the hands.

When Link had enquired about the man's family ― his woman and his boy ― Daka Au had whispered that Master Impa, who was conspicuously absent today, had gone to Kakariko to try and save them from the rage of the other Sheikah. The crimes of the father, after all, were not the crimes of the son.

And hopefully, he'd been told, the son would be entrusted to the care of distant relatives, and would never know the horror his father had tried to visit upon Hyrule. If all went well, the line of the Yiga would fade and die out with Kohga.

Still, watching Master Kohga climb the steps to his noose, Link found himself wishing Master Impa were there. She would be back in a few days, he had been promised, but that did little to help. In her absence, the Sheikah watched him ―Impa's pupil and the leader of so many of the Castle's shadow folk― for guidance.

He had no guidance to give. All he felt was numb anger.

As Master Kohga reached the top of the steps, King Rhoam stood. A new hush fell upon the assembly, broken only by the downpour from the heavens. Raising his hand in salutation to his people, the king's powerful voice boomed through the drumming rain. "People of Hyrule." He lowered his hand, but his voice did not falter. "You stand witness today to the hanging of convicted traitor Kohga of the Yiga." He turned to the Master who watched him placidly, and said, with a barely concealed snarl, "Kohga, you have been found guilty of treason for attempting murder against the heir to the throne of Hyrule, plotting to overthrow the royal family, and warmongering."

Kohga, to his credit, did not react. He had likely guessed his fate at the same time as the rest of them, when the first bell had rung in the grey dawn.

"Having been offered a last meal and final cleansing," King Rhoam continued, "you will now be hanged by the neck until death ensues. You have been asked to write your last will, which I hold here."

The King lifted a single folded sheet of parchment. It was quickly growing wet in the rain, and Rhoam put it away.

"It shall be honoured," he announced, perfunctorily. Then, his speech complete, he turned to the on-duty hangman, whose identity had been masked with a thick hood.

There were four possible executioners at any given time in the Castle, Link knew, and they always performed their duties under the protection of a mask to prevent targeted reprisals.

"Master executioner," the king said, officiously, "please discharge your sad duty with honour and expediency."

Link had been impressed by Master Kohga's composure until then, but it cracked when the noose went around his neck. Though he could not speak or gesture, the handsome Sheikah ― Yiga ― flinched, becoming rigid, and his eyes visibly watered.

Link clenched his jaw. His gut was full of lead, but he had to watch. Looking away would be a sign of weakness. Worse, in cases of treason, shows of sympathy could be damaging.

It was as he was forcing himself to focus, to think not of his emotions, to enter the Mind of the Crane, that he felt a small, cold hand touch his, the fingers achingly familiar.

It was a single moment, fleeting and barely noticeable whilst all eyes were on Kohga, but Link nevertheless glanced at Zelda, next to him, and saw she was peering at him with an expression that was carefully empty. Her green eyes were full of water ― rain, he decided ― and she seemed to beg strength from him, to demand his courage.

So he straightened imperceptibly, returning the look with fierce bravery, and together they turned back to the gallows, jaws clenched, fists closed, indignation in their hearts.

Master Kohga was standing as tall as he could, but Link could see the quaking of his shoulders, the weakness of his confidence.

There was a moment of silence as the hangman checked the knots and catches, then made a single mudra of godly devotion. It was time.

The entire courtyard had fallen silent, the only noise now the thick patter of rain and the creaking of wood as the executioner stepped back.

Link inhaled. Exhaled. Mind of the Sage. Calm. Quiet. Distant.

To his credit, Master Kohga did not make a single sound when the hangman pulled the lever and sent him dropping to his death.

Next to Link, though, Zelda made a tiny, choked sound. A cheer rose from the townsfolk as Kohga hung at the end of his rope, swaying back and forth, no sound erupting from the gag. Mercifully, Link thought, feeling sick to his stomach.

It was several minutes of waiting, and then it began to happen― the man's body began to ripple, the reflexes of strangulation beginning their work. The convulsions were weak, though, and Link forced himself to breathe. It would be another few minutes before he was still and the hangman could begin to check for a pulse. Link just had to hold out until then. And then, when the King left, they would all be dismissed for the day, and he could go be sick behind the barracks.

Eventually, the cheering began to die out, the victory short-lived, replaced with the base horror of death.

It took another few minutes for the King to request a check of the pulse. The hangman, who had come down the steps of the scaffold, reached for Kohga's swaying ankle and stood still, silently counting, feeling, palpating.

"Come on, man, just call it," Sir Groose, next to Link, mumbled under his breath, the discomfort as intense for him as it was for any trained warrior taught to fight and die in the field of battle.

After a full minute of waiting, the executioner stepped away from Kohga's limp body and turned to the King, bowing. His duty was complete.

King Rhoam nodded, and he began to clap, his appraisal of the hangman's professionalism creating a ripple of half-hearted claps from the assembly. Link and his guards did not clap. Neither did Zelda.

It was then that King Rhoam came down from his elevated throne, eager to get out of the rain. Overhead, the death knell resumed, more insistent and cacophonic than its previously measured, slow beating. A happy funeral, Link thought to himself with disgust. There was no qualifying the swirl of emotions within: relief, perhaps, but sadness, too, and a twinge of disgust at himself for that sadness.

With the King's departure, they were all dismissed and free to go about their business. The body would be ushered away by the coffin-makers for measurement, and the scaffold would be destroyed for firewood.

When Link turned to look at Zelda, he was surprised to see she was already almost gone from the courtyard, her hasty escape slowed by courtiers and slippery cobblestones. All it took was a glare from him and the sycophants left her alone. She escaped to the Castle's dry interior, which was still mercifully empty for now, collecting the thick mane of her hair and squeezing out the water onto the carpet with no care for any who might be watching. Her stride did not break. Link glanced back at Groose, who motioned for him to go on. The Order of the Guard would be well in his care.

He did not miss the looks of the other Champions either ― Revali's glare, Mipha's sadness, Urbosa's deadened eyes, Daruk's concern.

He hastened after Zelda.

He found her in her quarters, fighting with her drenched overcoat. She was pulling at the sleeve ineffectually, clearly running out of patience.

"Princess."

She turned to him suddenly, as though ready to scream at the intruder to leave, when she recognized him. Deflating, she said, "Oh, good. Your help. Appreciated."

Shutting the door behind him, he approached her quietly, seizing the soaking wet trim of her overcoat sleeve and holding firm. With a few frustrated tugs, she finally wrenched free, then managed to squeeze out of the other sleeve.

Stumbling away with the force of her struggle, she caught herself on an armchair. For a moment, she stood there, frozen, with her back to him. Then it seemed the morning caught up to her and she slowly crumpled, her hair covering her face in a matted curtain.

Dropping the soaked overcoat to the tiled floor, Link strode forward, pushing his own wet hair out of his face. Wordlessly, he pulled her into the circle of his arms. She let him, hiding into the crook of his shoulder and heaving with sobs.

They fell to the floor in a tangled, soaked mess, and Link felt her deflate in shuddering breaths, his heart aching. Firmly, he tucked her head under his chin, feeling his rage at the king and his selfish delight at their proximity combine into a storm of misery not unlike hers. She smelled of rain and incense, of ink and something that was strictly Zelda, indescribable and comforting, and he tried to memorize it, aware that this moment was fleeting.

Eventually, she caught her breath and began to quiet down. With a bitter smile, she croaked, "Happy birthday, Zelda," to his elbow.

He merely held her closer, relishing the feeling of her small frame in his arms. It was wrong, he knew. But it was right, too, if he told no one.

After a moment, she pulled away without a word, unable to look at him, and he let her go. It was time for both of them to change into dry clothes. She would need a maid's help. And he would tell no one of this moment of weakness on both their parts.

She did not say anything when he excused himself, did not remark on his return an hour later. She had changed into a dry day dress and was pulling a brush through her freshly cleaned but tangled hair with great frustration. Her maid had clearly given up on trying to help her with it, and turned to Link with a look that begged for his assistance. But he shook his head and wordlessly stepped aside to show her the door.

When the relieved maid was gone, he shut the door again and stood at ease, silent. Outside, the rain continued to hammer against the windows.

"You know," Zelda said in the resulting silence, "you're the only one of my male guards to stand guard inside my room."

Link caught her gaze in the reflection of her mirror. "I can leave, if you like."

She shook her head. "No, please stay," she said, deadened.

A new silence fell over them, punctuated only by the scratching of the princess' brush in her golden hair. This, Link knew, was a daily struggle for her. She often braided her hair for exactly this reason, to avoid the mess and the annoyance.

"I had a nightmare last night," Zelda said.

So had Link. He'd dreamed that she was angry with him, that she had turned to Misko for protection. He could still see her in the bard's arms, smiling lovingly, could still feel the fracture in his heart. The bard had transformed into a storm of smoke tendrils, twisted and mottled, but Zelda had seen none of it, had smiled at her beloved with tenderness that had been like a knife to the gut.

Just a dream.

"I saw a woman in white," Zelda continued, when he didn't reply. She knew his silences were often invitations. "She wanted to tell me something, but I… I couldn't understand her. No matter how I tried. I prayed and prayed and prayed, but still her voice did not come to me." The brush dropped away from her hair, and Zelda looked at her reflection in the mirror, then at his. "Not a surprising dream, all things told."

"Dreams are just dreams," Link said, though he remembered the pain and fear of his own.

Zelda nodded, but he could tell she wasn't convinced. Then, rather than look at his reflection, she swiveled in her chair and turned to look at him directly. "I hate hangings," she declared, voice weak.

Link removed the Master Sword from his shoulder and brought the scabbard down to rest, point first, on the floor. "So do I, Princess."

"Especially birthday hangings," she whispered, turning back to her vanity.

It was uncouth to speak his mind about the king's decision, so Link said nothing. Instead, he tried to change the subject to happier matters. "So. You're seventeen today," he said. He forced himself to smile. "May I be the first to make my best wishes?"

She groaned in embarrassment. "Please don't be so formal. You sound like Misko. He missed his chance to dance with me on Farore's Day, and again on Din's Day, so he tried to catch me before the hanging to ask for my first dance tomorrow." She sighed. "He's a good man, but I swear… 'O most beautiful of divinities, please grant me the indescribable honour…' " Her eyes went to her lap. "I don't think I have a birthday celebration in me, let alone a holy day's prayers. I'm glad we're leaving for Lanayru tomorrow morning."

Link was glad too, if only because it would once again deny Misko a dance. It was an ugly thought, though, and he did not share it out loud.

"I wonder," Zelda said, wistfully, "if I will be allowed to properly celebrate my birthday on Summertide one day." She leaned against her vanity and sighed. "Maybe when my powers awaken... I could stop hiding the truth."

"What would you do for your birthday?" Link asked, seizing the opportunity to be positive.

She smiled at him, but there was an edge of tiredness to it. "Would it be silly if I said I want cake? And a ball. A proper ball. Not a Nayru's Day celebration, where the first dance goes to a priest. I want handsome men to beg for my favour," she added, when Link couldn't help but chuckle. "And a beautiful dress." She trailed off, putting her chin into the palm of her hand as she leaned on the vanity. "And friends to laugh with. And my father." Her voice cracked, and she wasn't smiling anymore.

Link's own heart cracked to see it.

"He'll come to his senses," he said, hoping it was true. "He just needs time."

She didn't reply immediately. Then, after a moment, she quietly said, "I'm sure you're right."

She turned back to her mirror, and resumed brushing her hair in silence. Outside, the rain still poured.

"It's almost noon," Link said. "Should I ask the kitchen to send your meal here? I have to step out and handle a few matters for the Order, but I can assign a guard of your choice in the meantime."

She nodded. "If you don't mind― I don't think I can handle any gossip right now, so a private meal sounds wonderful. And give the guards a day off. I'm sure the other Champions will be happy to join me." She forced a smile. "We can begin discussing tomorrow's journey."

Yes, Link thought. That was a good plan, keeping her out of the public eye when she was vulnerable. And the other Champions would understand her melancholy, unlike anyone else. He half-bowed to excuse himself.

A few hours later, the rain still hadn't stopped. He found himself frowning at the scrawlings on the parchment in front of him. Somehow, in the course of Impa's absence, confused Sheikah had decided to start sending him updates on their peoples' affairs, including their investigations into the treasury thefts. Still no leads, the update said.

Link found himself rubbing the bridge of his nose. He kept forgetting about the treasury. He'd been so sure the Yiga had been responsible, though. But apparently a few more items had been found missing, no matter how many new locks were being put on the door. No sum of great consequence, which was the only reason the treasurers were not complaining to the king, but still an insult to Hyrule.

As Link released the bottom of the parchment, it furled again over his fingers and he watched the roll oscillate on the desk, his mood sour.

Next to him, Groose was discussing siege weapons with a few other knights, and a group of Sheikah guards who weren't on duty were quietly playing a game of chess.

There was no apparent reason to feel as he did, but still… When had things all gotten so muddled? Impa gone, Kohga dead, Link in charge of the rank-and-file, and the morning's execution hanging over the castle like an ill cloud. Something didn't feel right.

Leaning back in his seat, Link forced himself to find the Mind of the Crane. It was habit now to recede here, to seek his center. From here he could think on the outer world as much as his inner world, could try to pinpoint where the unease originated.

The castle had been in upheaval ever since Kohga's arrest. But even now that the man was dead, disquiet had settled around Link like a cold fog. Though the mood in the castle was subdued - from the execution and the rain, and the conflict between the Sheikah and the Yiga, and even from the strained relationship between the princess and the king - Link's instincts were prickling.

The beast within him was restless. Pacing. But why? The problem with that part of him, though, was that it expressed feelings more than rational thoughts, impressions rather than solid conclusions.

Something was wrong. Something that gave Zelda nightmares. Something that gave him nightmares. It couldn't be Kohga's phantom. The man had been alive until this morning. So what was wrong? And more importantly, how could he fix it?

As any good warrior should, he focused on his options, which were few.

For one, he could ignore it.

For two, he could attempt to right all the wrongs he perceived in hopes that it would make the problematic sensation go away, including mend Zelda's relationship with her father, find the treasury thief, put the bard Misko in his place, unite the Sheikah under a proud standard once again, force Hyrule's court to finally behave with honour, convince Zelda to marry him, rule until his death with a gentle and just hand, and defeat the Calamity if it arose.

Or, for three, he could just take Zelda to Lanayru and hope it was all fixed by the time they returned.

Groose pulled him out of his thoughts by leaning in and clearing his throat.

"Yes," Link said, blinking back to the moment. "I'm listening."

Now that he was done chatting with the men, Sir Groose had approached him alone, his helm under his arm. He was on his way to the parade grounds to ask the trainers when they could reserve some practice time in the yards. "A quick question," he said, his big chest puffed as he stood at attention. "It's the princess' birthday tomorrow."

It was on the tip of Link's tongue to correct him, but he instead said nothing and motioned for Groose to continue.

"And some of the knights and shadows wanted to know if it would be inappropriate to offer her a birthday gift before she leaves for the Spring of Wisdom."

"A gift?" Link echoed. He couldn't help a bemused smile. "Whose idea was it?"

Sir Groose rubbed at the back of his neck. "Well, several people came to me about it, and I was already thinking about it myself." He sighed heavily. "But we didn't want to give anything that would be… unacceptable."

Link was about to ask what he meant when his second-in-command pulled out a small rectangular box from his pocket. It was covered in deep pink velvet ― not an expensive colour, but close enough to the royal family's costly rich blues and purples to pass ― and when Groose pried it open, the box revealed a set of elegant earrings in sapphires and gold.

It was a spectacular gift. Far better than what Link had planned, and far more expensive than he could have afforded, even with a guard commander's pay. He looked up at Groose with surprise.

"How did you manage to afford this?"

Groose smiled. "We all pitched in. The jeweller swore it was a unique design, and begged us to give the princess his finest compliments. We were thinking of offering this on behalf of the Order."

"We?"

"All of us," one of the Sheikah chess players clarified, having looked up from the game to watch.

Link shook his head slowly, impressed, though he was worried he hadn't thought of it himself. "I have no objection, and neither will she, I'm sure. She'll probably be happy you did anything at all."

"We could also wait until after her return," Groose said. "I know you're planning an early departure tomorrow morning."

That was true. It might be better to keep any formal gifts on hold until they knew the results of Zelda's prayers at the Spring. He'd be able to gauge whether she was in the mood for niceties.

There was, of course, a bit of selfishness involved: Link's gift, for all the effort involved, was far less impressive. Knowing now what he was up against, it was better to give it early and have some effect than to give it late and seem… rustic.

"Right," Link said. "That sounds like the right way to go."

And after that, he wanted to swear himself to her once more, to add to his otherwise small gift.

Thinking of that gift now, sitting hidden away in the corner of his room, Link felt a sense of trepidation. He wanted to give it today, but he feared Zelda's sadness would make her less receptive.

Well, he had to try.

"I'll be up early tomorrow," Link said, to Groose, who had tucked the box away, satisfied with the plan. "So I may miss you on my way out. You have the noon shift and onward, right?"

Sir Groose squinted in thought, then nodded slowly. "If I recall correctly."

"Right," Link said, stacking all the parchments on his desk into neat piles ― documents to archive, items to action, papers for consideration. "I've left only a few documents that can wait," he said, looking over his notes. "And I've done the schedule for the next five days so you can focus on the rest. Squire Herschel is sick again, so he won't be accompanying Sir Linebeck on duty this week. If you could give the opportunity to another squire, I'm sure the Guard Captain would appreciate the gesture." At Groose's nod, he continued, "And as far as the treasury goes, it will have to wait for Master Impa's return. I'll ask her about it after tomorrow ― we're stopping in Kakariko for one night before climbing Mount Lanayru."

Sir Groose nodded, relief evident on his face. "Have you had time to look over the applications from other knights?"

Link had. And he'd approved none. It was a good thing none of his Guards had turned out to be Yiga, but he would now wait for the Yiga threat to be formally done with before he ever took on any newcomers. "We'll have to see about it when I return," he said, noncommittally.

Sir Groose seemed to understand. "Yes, sir."

"I think that's it," Link said, standing and stretching his back. "You've handled my absences before, so do as usual."

His second snorted. "Yes, sir."

As Sir Groose took his leave, Link stopped by the other knights and shadows to wish them well while he was gone, just in case they didn't cross paths before the morning, then returned to his quarters.

He found his gift in the corner, right where he'd left it. Looking down at it seemed to turn his insides to jelly.

In the princess' quarters, next door, the Champions were still chatting, entertaining her as well as they could.

And Link realized he'd be unable to give Zelda her gift if there was an audience. He didn't want to risk teasing.

So he picked up his practice gear and made his way down to the barracks. He could hit a few dummies or other knights. Work up his courage. Pray the other Champions would be gone when he returned…

He returned to his quarters after the evening meal bell, having bathed and wiped off the grime of practice with no improvement for his frayed nerves.

He sat on his bed, looking at his innocuous gift, noticing that the rain outside had finally begun to fade into a light drizzle. That was a comfort. Hopefully they wouldn't depart in the rain tomorrow morning.

Still, the anxiety inside did not wane. He would have to forge ahead the old fashioned way: with terror.

He was surprised out of his thoughts by an unfamiliar knock at the door, and opened it to find a scullery maid bobbing a curtsy.

"Sir Link," she said, blushing. "Her highness was hoping you'd join her for a late supper, if you're not too busy."

Busy. Link tried not to laugh, or turn to Zelda's door, where the princess was most likely listening, when he articulated, "Thank you, I will be there shortly."

The maid didn't even bother to relay his message. Link chuckled and shut the door, ignoring the ball of nerves in his stomach.

Busy! The princess of Hyrule asking if he was too busy for her! That was rich. There was very little he wouldn't have dropped in a second for her, and once this was all over, he would have to make sure she knew it.

He was gratified, when he knocked at her door, to see that the Champions had excused themselves sometime during his absence. She sat at her private dinner table, drinking some more of Urbosa's voltfruit wine. There was an additional place setting, so he assumed it was for him. He placed his wrapped gift carefully on the edge of the table, and did not miss the surprised lifting of her eyebrow.

"Did you… bring me something?" She asked, suspiciously.

"Of course not," Link said. "I just like to gift wrap my cold cuts."

This did bring out a laugh. Her mood seemed slightly better than it had been earlier, possibly due to the cheerful company she'd had, or due to the wine. Probably both.

She confirmed this when she raised her glass and said, "I should warn you I have a head start."

"Are you sure you don't want the others here?" Link asked in spite of himself, accepting her invitation to begin eating ― it was a plate of fried vegetables and meats, seasoned just like Link enjoyed them.

"I told them to prepare for tomorrow. Besides, I can talk to them on the road. They insisted I have a guard with me, and I thought I should have a friend. Welcome, Sir Compromise."

Link mulled this over for a moment, then shrugged in acceptance. He oughtn't have liked the warm way her calling him a friend made him feel, but there it was. No use fighting it.

"Last year," she observed, "we fought on my birthday. And then I had supper with my father. This year," she continued, clearly in the throes of wine, "it's my father I'm no longer on speaking terms with, and you that I will have for supper. Over for supper," she corrected, hastily, before Link could even notice her mistake.

Somehow, her rectification only made Link hold in a smile. A slip of the tongue, less inappropriate than it was painful, really. And the possibilities it evoked made him glad he was sitting down.

He'd have loved to be Zelda's supper.

No. Focus. Spear the carrot, eat the carrot. Pick the lettuce, eat the lettuce.

"I, uh, have tried to read another collection of odes," Zelda continued, desperate to change the subject. Her cheeks were flushed, perhaps in part due to the wine. "But I think if I read another poem describing the delicate elegance of spring, I will throw myself out the window." It was her turn to poke at a carrot. "I miss my proper books."

"Are poems the only thing you're still allowed to read?" Link asked, frowning. "Really?"

"The only thing I dare to read," Zelda said. "I don't know if the librarians report my choices to my father, but at the very least I get quizzed by every noble and courtier I come across. Especially Chancellor Cole. That little imp has been insufferable lately. When he saw my selection, he implied I should have picked a prayer book instead. The nerve of him." She narrowed her gaze and chewed. "The hypocrisy."

Link had to agree. It was presumptuous for anyone to counsel the princess on her powers unsolicited, let alone the least devout person in the kingdom.

"But enough of my griping," Zelda said, interrupting his thoughts. "Please, tell me about your day."

So Link took his time. He explained what he'd done that afternoon, and told her who he'd scheduled where ― even in Zelda's absence, the Order of the Guard helped out with the rest of the Castle's watch. He described his uncertainty about taking on any new guards for now. He told her about the treasury, and how Impa had been evidently too busy to handle the matter, even if it was very likely that the perpetrator was Sheikah.

They discussed the value of unique, ancient clothes, as well as the market value of precious stones. She explained how gems were appraised in detail, and Link found himself asking about lightning, explaining the book he'd read on the matter. Did she think lightning could be harnessed?

This topic had filled her with joy. She had pulled her chair closer to his in order to speak in low tones ― the better, she explained, to avoid being overheard talking about her research. She had described the sheer power of the heavens, the very real and painful effect of electric shocks, the multitude of possible uses it could have if only, she mourned, there was a way to store the power generated.

They talked for a long time, and Zelda's mood improved more when the rain finally stopped and a few lingering rays of sunset broke through the thick clouds. When the maids came to clear away their meals, she resumed talk about books ― only this time she discussed legends and songs, the kind that told ancient stories.

They talked about their favourite childhood fairytales, whereupon Link swore he had believed in fairies for the longest time, and Zelda confessed she had dreamed of being swept off her feet by a prince.

"But that's actually… possible for you," Link said, squinting at her in confusion.

She blushed. "Well, yes, but my expectations have adjusted."

"Why should they need to?" Link had asked, prodding despite himself, his amusement at her line of thinking too great to ignore.

She took a long sip of voltfruit wine, then promptly changed the subject to the matter of martial skills. Link described his latest training routine, and she confessed the only proper exercise she got was horse riding, walking and dancing, the latter of which was less and less appealing with every passing day without her powers.

"Because your partners keep pestering you?" Link asked.

She shrugged.

"But you like dancing," Link continued, "right?"

"I do," she admitted, and her face broke into a shy smile that made her look uncomfortably pretty. "But we can't dance today," she added, and the smile vanished like the sun over the horizon. "Because it's Summertide, and music is frowned upon on Summertide."

It was probably the wine, Link reflected, but in that moment he felt strangely comfortable. Comfortable enough, at least, to allow the words out of his mouth without trying to stop them: "We don't need music."

She looked at him with indulgent amusement. "Of course we do. Dancing and music go together."

Link pushed back his chair. "Well, I don't need music, at least."

She watched him stand, and her smile changed into a look of confused amazement. "You want… to dance? With me? Without music?"

He strode over to her side, bowing with the obnoxious flourish of so many courtiers, a movement so unlike him she actually grimaced. "Oh, Light of this Court," he said, "it would be the greatest of all honours if you would grant me the tremendous gift of your generous presence."

She made a gagging noise, but when Link straightened, she was observing him, clearly torn.

And then she gently slipped her hand into his. A shock ran up his arm that he tried to suppress.

Suddenly quiet and solemn, she stood, following him as he backed up into the cleared out floor between her work corner and the fireplace. Something like wonder began to unfurl inside him, filling him with sincere emotion that she had accepted his offer.

The mood had changed, the silence somehow more dangerous than the most passionate music. He could hear every one of her soft breaths, every rustle of fabric, every step. He feared she could hear his very heartbeat.

She allowed him to reach for her waist, and she straightened, as any good dancer would, their chests coming so close they brushed ever so slightly when they inhaled at the same time.

And though Link was focusing on his posture, when he looked up into her green eyes, all rational thought was gone.

From up close, she was vulnerable, real. He could see tiny flecks of darker green in her eyes, and could see the tiny creases in her pink lips, he could see the faintest smattering of freckles across her cheekbones, the impossible length of her lashes. He could trace the contour of her cheekbones down to her chin, see the rosy tint of her skin, notice the stray strands of golden hair that had fallen out of her braided crown.

Swallowing hard, he tried to force himself to commit every sensation, every observation to memory. What else could he do? Would he ever have another moment like this one? She was a grown woman now, fit for marriage if she chose. Perhaps the next man to see her like this would be her husband.

Lucky cursed bastard, whoever that would be.

Her eyes flickered between his, and her lips quivered before she pressed them together into a smile.

"Well," she whispered, her breath fanning against his jawline, "I believe you must lead, Sir Link."

In the silence, he took a step. She followed, her eyes on his, intent on dancing to the best of her ability. It was the same dance as the one they'd performed on Farore's Day, but without an audience the experience was less transcendent and far more… mortal. Knee-weakening. Captivating.

She followed him with her usual, natural ease, and he led with the same meticulous effort. They turned on the carpet, then stepped back to the flagstone floor, moving along the room in the simple silence of rustling movement, moving to a pace and a tune that Link was sure he could hear, if he listened closely enough.

And she was soon smiling, breathless with the delight of moving, absorbed by the moment as much as he was. It was such a lovely sight he caught himself returning the smile, unable to help himself.

She tapped his shoulder once, so he allowed her to move out of his embrace, turning under his arm, extending into the middle of the room, before gently returning to the cradle of his elbow, and he leaned her back, holding her firm, so that she could extend her hand backward over her head and touch the floor, laughing breathlessly.

She had never been more beautiful than she was in that exact moment.

When he pulled her up and her eyes met his once more, her smile faded slightly, replaced with a look of vulnerable confusion.

They weren't moving anymore. All Link could hear now was the deafening rumble of blood in his ears, the deep pounding of his heart, the rush of air in his lungs.

And that desperate, hopeless emotion he kept pushing away was everywhere, running through every fiber of his being.

Her hand moved on his back, her lips parted, the confusion on her face mesmerizing.

Suddenly, her lashes fluttered. She looked away. He allowed her to pull out of his arms. She braced a single hand on the back of an armchair, exhaling shakily. And she glanced back at him, and her chest heaved like she wanted to say something, and then she let out a nervous breath, and Link knew that she was thinking what he was desperately trying to remember: princesses need princes, not knights.

"Um," she finally managed, as jovially as possible, even as Link struggled to find his own voice again, "I― uh― I didn't think dancing without music was possible."

"Just…" He was breathing hard, as though he'd been running. "Uh… Just testing the hypothesis."

"Right," she let out a breathy laugh. "It's mere scientific procedure." She wrung her shaking hands together. "And I think the results are… er… conclusive."

Skies above, seas below, he wanted to kiss her. He desperately wanted to kiss her. He had never wanted anything this desperately in his entire life.

He needed to get out of this room and her apartments. He needed to dunk himself in the moat. He needed, more than anything, to get out of her immediate vicinity.

Mercifully, she seemed to decide that lingering on the moment was dangerous, because she brought her hands together and forced some cheer into her voice. "Well, Sir Link, I notice you still haven't unwrapped your cold cuts."

Her eyes were sparkling with humour and hope he would follow her lead, and the need Link felt faded somewhat, replaced with pained but fond amusement. "Because I lied. Those aren't cold cuts."

She feigned shock, raising a hand to her chest. "No."

Link strode over, ignoring the way her proximity made him feel warm, and plucked the small gift off the table. "I know. Knights should never lie." He held the box in his hands now, wondering why he hadn't settled for some pretty jewellery too. "I should be cast out."

She scoffed. "Don't be ridiculous. How would we defeat Calamity Ganon without you?" She raised the back of her hand delicately to her forehead, and added, "I fear we shall have to put up with you for a while yet."

Link managed a nervous laugh, but it lacked sincerity. It seemed not a day went by without one of them mentioning the Calamity. It hung over them like the veil of Summertide itself, all year long, dampening their joys, deepening their sorrows.

If the very nature of the Calamity was simply to ruin their day, Link considered venomously, it was succeeding. He could never think of it without a pit of panic in his gut, nor without imagining Zelda in its grasp, helpless, and him too weak to save her.

"Link?"

Blinking, he looked up at his princess. She had caught his train of thought by the look on his face and now mirrored his grim expression, the moment of humour completely gone.

"I apologize for bringing the matter back to the table," she said. "I just… I seem to think of little else lately."

He thought of little else too, when other matters didn't take over his focus. "That makes two of us," he breathed. In his hands, the wrapped box was growing heavy, and he shifted his weight. "But," he continued, hesitantly, "we don't have to let it ruin your day." He extended his gift to her with his heart pounding in his ears.

She accepted the box with a gentle smile. "Thank you." She traced the paper and added, "I hope you know this wasn't necessary."

Link was too tongue-tied to reply. It was, in his humble opinion, absolutely necessary.

She gently unwrapped the box on the edge of her dining table, revealing the box within and the small note of address, which she plucked off.

"To a friend," she read, "from a friend." Her eyes lifted from the card and met his, with a strange emotion in them that he didn't recognize, and she gave him a brief, shy smile before returning her attention to the box.

She lifted the cover, and Link shifted his weight nervously. She then retrieved the object within with both hands, raising it out of the box and looking at it with growing confusion.

"A pot of dirt," she said, now eminently baffled. She turned the pot delicately on itself to study the patterns on the clay. Now her eyes jumped to his with dancing amusement. "A pot of dirt, Sir Link?"

He couldn't help but chuckle, too. He had known it would look silly at first glance.

"It's not just a pot of dirt," he explained, and she placed it on the table with a look of keen entertainment. "It's… it's a gift of hope."

Her eyebrows went up to her hairline, and she stifled a laugh. "Indeed?" She asked, and he found himself smiling in return.

"I turned the clay myself," he explained, and now her smile faded, and she looked at the pot with a new expression that might have been surprise… or admiration. "From clay Urbosa gathered in Gerudo desert. The dirt itself," he added, "is from the finest fields of Tabantha, courtesy of Revali. I mixed in some of Daruk's Death Mountain ash, for fertilizer, and watered it with Mipha's pure Zora's Domain springwater."

Her smile was completely gone now, a strange new emotion on her face that made her eyes glisten. "And―" she started, but her voice cracked and she took a moment to compose herself. "And," she reprised, "what should I expect it to grow?"

Link licked his lips, feeling both proud and foolish at once. "Well," he said, embarrassed, "I, uh, I went out to the field and collected a few bulbs―" He cleared his throat. "And I hope I did it right― I asked the gardeners for help, so if it doesn't work you can blame me for not following their instructions properly― but with time, if I did everything right, then maybe we'll see it grow a Silent Princess or two." He pursed his lips, rocked on his heels back and forth, and added a nervous, "Hopefully."

Her eyes went to the innocuous-looking dirt, her expression unreadable. Instantly, Link felt ridiculously embarrassed. He really ought to have brought jewellery. This had been a bad idea.

But when she looked back at him, she looked utterly vulnerable. "A gift of hope," she repeated.

"Right," Link said, seizing on the desperate idea that she wasn't completely appalled. He strode forward and motioned vaguely to the pot. "I know it's never been cultivated before," he said. "And I know you said that no one has managed it yet. But…" He was struggling with his words, his tongue tripping over itself. "But," he continued, firmly, "just because it hasn't happened yet―" He looked her in the eyes, and now he saw the warm green of fields, and her lips parted. "―Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it will never happen."

He fell silent, peering at her with the burning hope that she would understand his meaning.

She did. Her eyes watered, and one of her hands went to her mouth, and she inhaled with a shudder. Her gaze fell to the pot on the table, and she was silent for a long moment.

Then, eventually recovering her ability to speak, she said, "I… There's a shelf in my laboratory―" She motioned to the tower outside, and the parapet that lead to it. "It sits under the window that looks west, and grows warm from the afternoon sun." She pressed her lips together, then relaxed and gave him a warm, grateful smile. "I think that is where it will fare best."

He was tongue-tied. Somehow, they were close once again. She was looking at him with sincere appreciation, a look that he wanted to remember forever.

He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to reach for her and pull her in and kiss those lips and run his hands through her hair… He wanted to hold her, to feel her on him, to know what she looked like waking up in the morning. He wanted to discover her, learn every part of her, every thought. He wanted to touch, just touch, just gently―

It was fortunate that at this moment one of his Sheikah knocked at the door, ready to take up the evening guard.

"Reporting for duty, your highness," Shae's cheery voice called out.

Duty. Gods damn it all to the darkest, deepest circles of the dark realm―

No, he reminded himself. Good knights did not think this way. He needed to get out.

"I―" He straightened, clearing his throat. "I, uh, I've held you up. I should―" He looked away, trying to still the racing pulse in his veins. "I should finish preparing my saddle bags for the trip tomorrow." He didn't know where to put his hands, so he gestured lamely. "I'm... glad you like my gift."

"I do," she said, her smile growing fixed, nervous.

"Good," he said, backing up, striding to the door, and twisting the doorknob. He paused, looking back at her. "Uh― Happy birthday, Princess."

She shot him a small, genuine, sad smile that turned his insides to jelly, so he turned on his heel and escaped, startling Shae, who had been leaning against the door. With an embarrassed nod, he acknowledged the Sheikah guard and strode away firmly. It didn't help that he noticed a tiny smirk on her face as soon as she recovered.

He needed to down a hearty tankard of hard ale.

After all, what else could a good, proper knight do?

Chapter Text

The summit of Lanayru was the least welcoming location for a Spring Link had seen so far. Even at the trailing end of summer, right at the doorstep of autumn, it was impossibly cold up there, with actual snow and ice, and a wind that bit right through their furs like a whip.

So when he saw Zelda wondering how to change into her prayer dress without getting frostbite, he put his foot down.

"You can pray in full winter clothing," he said, trying to keep the indignation out of his voice.

She shot him a little scowl that did not have the full effect she had hoped, because she was far too cute when she scowled. "I must prove my devotion," she said.

"If this is the Spring of Wisdom," Link argued, "then maybe this is a test, because only fools will strip down to a simple dress to pray in this weather."

She pursed her lips with frustration, glancing between him and the evidently frigid waters before them.

"Or," Link continued, "maybe you don't need to be in the water, and Nayru, being a goddess, can hear you even if you're a few feet further away."

She huffed. "Sir Link, I must."

"No," he said, firmly, "because if you do, you will definitely die of cold, and then we will be no better off." And as for himself… He didn't want to think about it.

She was annoyed. "Don't you have firewood to collect?"

"Not if I'm going to find you half naked in an icy spring upon my return, I don't," Link replied.

Her cheeks got redder than strictly because of the cold. "I am capable of handling it. I've bathed in icy springs before."

"I remember," Link said, irritated.

"You―" She turned to him with an indignant glare. "And you interrupted my prayers, if I recall."

"You're welcome." Then, getting back to the matter at hand, he said, "If you put a single toe in that water, I will toss you over my shoulder and we are going back down the way we came. It will be too bad for your prayers." He shot her a pointed glare. "I mean it."

The day's climb would have been all for nothing, but that was just too bad.

Actually, the entire trip would have been all for nothing, and they would have importuned some of Hyrule's most prominent people, but what was a little disturbance if Zelda lived?

"For the record," Zelda said, "I disapprove." There was no denying the relief on her face, though.

Once he was confident she was not going to endanger her health or her life, Link left his belongings next to the overhang where he intended to erect their tent and followed the path back down to the mountain side, where some thin, scraggly trees evidently managed to wrench a few weeks of life from the mountain's perpetual cold.

Sprinkling a few replacement seeds into the frozen ground, Link then began to pull at branches and cut down the smaller trees, and returned once he had tied together three bundles of wood.

He was dismayed, upon his return, to find Zelda had changed into her prayer robes anyway ― and a shiver of horror ran down his spine at the discomfort that must have been ― though she had then covered it up with her coat.

Dropping the wood next to their belongings, he cleared his throat. She shot him a startled look, quickly replaced by a guilty one.

"You could have waited for me to build the fire," he admonished.

"But then you would have been there," she said.

It was his turn to feel strange warmth in his cheeks.

"Right. Well." He grunted and turned to focus on stacking wood into a neat pile, choosing not to think about it. She was a grown woman now, able to make her decisions. And the sooner he built this fire, the sooner she'd be kept warm.

She kneeled at the edge of the water, preparing for the first mudra, and Link chipped at his flint in firm strikes, the silence upon them muffled by the snow and the low clouds.

"Gracious Goddesses, I thank you for the gift of Hyrule's Champions." As she murmured her first, soft prayer, Link let his memory return to that morning. After a relatively dull journey to Kakariko, they'd set out that morning for what had turned out to be a surprisingly eventful day. Link and Zelda had been accompanied by the Champions that morning, which had been more than a blessing. A lynel had surprised them as they'd exited the Lanayru East Gate, and Link had barely had time to shield Zelda from its arrows.

With a roar, Urbosa and Daruk had charged at the beast, which had stunned Link and Zelda both. Revali had rushed over in a swift beat of wings, and Mipha had passed by them with far less urgency, pausing to ensure they were both unharmed before continuing towards the fray. She'd pulled her trident from her back and adopted her fighter's stance, then smiled at them.

"Leave it to us," she'd said.

What a ballet of graceful fury they had been. Link had merely stood in front of Zelda, stunned by the protectiveness the four Champions had demonstrated. Daruk's powerful blows matched the incredible strength of the lynel, and Urbosa's sure strikes had been lightning fast, matched only by Revali's swoops and true aim. Mipha had remained on the outside, so graceful it seemed she was dancing as she moved from one to the next, healing their wounds, her trident only surging forward to strike when the lynel made the mistake of opening its guard.

In minutes only, the lynel had let out its final roar. It crumpled to the ground in a broken heap, and Revali had shot it between the eyes with near medical precision, putting an end to its agony.

As she'd stood behind him, Zelda had asked in a soft voice, "Did you know they could fight that well?"

Link had suspected, but never seen the Champions in proper action against a real foe. He shook his head. "I could only assume, or they would not have been selected."

She'd smiled softly, and Link's traitorous heart had fluttered at the sight. "I'm pleased." But then her eyes had drifted up to the mountain, and the smile had faded, leaving Link cold. "I only wish I were worthy of such Champions."

The four of them had returned with evident concern, ensuring both Link and Zelda were fine, and Link had ignored Revali smugly pointing out his central role in protecting the princess. Someone had to be the shield, Link figured, and glory was Revali's greatest desire. He could have it.

"You are worthy," Link muttered now, striking his flint with unnecessary force, and a splinter of stone landed on his unlit pile of wood.

Though Link had tried to keep his voice low, she apparently heard his brief outburst, because she paused in her prayer.

"I don't feel it," Zelda mumbled. Her eyes went to the Goddess Statue. "Hylia doesn't seem inclined to bestow her blessing upon me."

It must have been on her mind all the way up the mountain, Link thought. Either that, or their friendship had drawn them so close that they were beginning to follow the same patterns, their friendship bringing them close together in mind and spirit. Something within twinged at the thought.

A spark ignited the straw before him, so Link began to blow at the tongue of flame gently. Then, looking up, he said, "You haven't asked for her blessing here yet." Quoting her own words, he added, "The next moment could change everything, right?"

She nodded, but did not seem satisfied by his answer. Link couldn't blame her. The concern in her eyes was obvious. She was afraid. Afraid of new rejection.

And he couldn't blame her. This was an austere place, unwelcoming in every way. One did not feel like there were any gods here, let alone benevolent ones. The cold bit through their clothes, whipped at their hoods, nipped their exposed skin ― her nose, his ears.

But at least Link was going to keep them both warm, he thought with some satisfaction. The fire was beginning to catch, slowly licking at the wood and blackening it. He placed his pack in the way of the wind to shield his sputtering, growing fire, then began to unpack the tent. It would do little to keep the heat, but it would shield them from the worst of the wind and it would protect them from falling snow, which was better than nothing.

Behind him, he began to hear Zelda mumbling her familiar mantras, and he noted with a glance that she had finally brought herself to praying in earnest. She was kneeling in the snow, and had anointed herself with a single triangular smear of spring water, which was better than actually bathing in the icy pool.

He looked up at the statue of the Goddess, still smiling blandly at nothing in particular, and made his own quiet imploration: Grant her your blessing, damn it. He had grown more and more irreverent with every passing Spring and was working hard on showing none of it, so rather than string additional curses, he turned back to his stakes and began laying out the tent's foundation for anchoring.

It took him a little under an hour ― it was always faster with additional hands, and he had none of those. When at last the tent was up, shielded by his chosen overhang and slightly warmed by his merry fire, he stood back and observed his work with satisfaction.

There was something godly in the simple things. That had always been his mother's opinion, at least. A well-executed task, done with meticulous care, could bring anyone closer to the gods. She had found her religion in every studiously laid stitch, every carefully prepared meal. His father, for his part, had converted to this idea after meeting her, and would find his inner peace from repeated drills, precise jabs and swipes of the sword. They had not practiced at altars, except on the holiest days, and yet they were, and had been, faithful and happy in their own way.

Turning to look at Zelda, Link's heart squeezed.

She had not budged from her position, though she moved her arms and hands into the ever-repeating cycle of mudras. Her ears were red, bitten by cold, and her breath came out with every whispered word like a thin cloud. Her dress, where it was visible under her coat, was stiff from the snowmelt freezing into the fabric.

And still there were no signs from the gods.

His mother would not have stood for this, Link considered, returning his attention to the food they'd packed for the evening. It was neatly tied up in a Sheikah cloth wrap: a gift from Impa, who had welcomed them the night before in Kakariko. It had been the first time Link had visited the village, and he'd been surprised by how normal it was: there had been elders and children, and vegetable patches and animal pens… He'd only ever known Sheikah in the prime of their fighting age, tutors and martial artists all. He'd never given much thought to their childhoods or their old days.

Somehow, Master Impa had managed to locate Master Kohga's son, although she'd had to imprison the boy's mother for dissidence. Unsurprisingly, young Kohga ― a surly, quiet infant if ever Link had seen one, and one whose inherited name would bring him no respite for the rest of his days ― did not take being separated from his mother with much joy. Zelda had asked whether it was wise to divide the family, her heart evidently concerned for the boy's well being, but Master Impa had been intractable.

Treason, she'd argued, is treason.

Looking at his princess praying now, Link wondered whether such stubborn refusal to bend on rules wasn't the most dangerous thing for everyone. It was unhealthy for Kohga, son of Kohga, and it was painful for Zelda Bosphoramus, and it cast King Rhoam in an unpleasant light― and it seemed no one enjoyed it, least of all those around them who had to look on helplessly.

Once again, he found himself struggling against the inner calling to pull Zelda away from the Spring, to embrace her, to hold her close―

No. That voice, he argued, was no better than the wolf's. Sure, the wolf was animated by baser instincts, and this urge seemed to come from someplace higher, someplace better, but it was still a bad idea. He had a knightly duty to serve the king, to guard Zelda, to protect the kingdom, to ensure its princess awakened her powers. Anything that detracted from that, no matter how divinely inspired the idea seemed, was bad.

Still. If he looked at the fire just so, he could almost see two lovers embracing, mad for one another, and he wasn't going to deny he felt absurd longing at the thought.

Rubbing at his eyes, he forced himself to return his full attention to the food he was mindlessly unpacking. Over there, Zelda had just finished her sixth devotional, and had begun a seventh, though he could tell from the strain in her posture and the frustrated way she muttered her final mantra that it was not imbuing her with anything other than impatience.

Eggs, Link discovered, pleased with the choice that had been packed for them. They would be filling. He pulled out a travel pan and let it sit in the fire to begin heating it up. And vegetables ― those, he knew, would be nice with a tiny drizzle of oil to help grill them to delicious, crispy perfection. Some thoughtful Sheikah had already chopped them up into convenient slices. He'd have to thank whoever had done the work on their way back to Hyrule Castle.

He spent the next hour or so focused on food preparation and cooking, ignoring the growing tension from Zelda and his own helplessness at her plight. He couldn't linger on that. He could help by being helpful ― she'd be hungry and cold when she inevitably stopped for the night, and he would make sure her pallet and plate were ready.

By the time Zelda finished her twenty-first imploration, the sun had set. Or Link was fairly sure it had set. The thick cloud cover and the ever dimming daylight told him what little they could. Keeping an eye on the food, he had begun to plant more torches around the camp to ward off the cold and the night.

He had crunched his way through the snow with his final torch, intent on planting it near Zelda, when her pale hand darted out and caught the hem of his coat.

Blinking down at her, he saw an expression he was becoming all too familiar with.

She was trying to look carefully vacant, ferociously neutral, but there was no disguising the anguish in her eyes. In this fading light, with all the grey and white around them, they were the colour of dull moss, save for the tiny hint of unshed tears.

"I…" She paused to collect herself, then mustered the words to continue. "I can't."

Her fingers were trembling, though Link couldn't guess whether it was due to emotion or the cold. Reflexively, he planted the torch firmly, as hard as he could into the frozen ground, then plucked her fingers from his coat and held them in his own. They were like icicles, and he wondered whether she'd continued to anoint herself with springwater.

Squeezing them, as though to will some heat back into her, he kneeled at her side. "It's getting late, and you shouldn't be praying on an empty stomach. Come on."

She didn't fight him as he gently pulled her up, though she came stiffly, both from having kneeled motionlessly so long and from having been exposed to the biting cold. Once again, Link struggled not to glare at the Goddess Statue.

"I've made eggs," he said, as cheerfully as he could. "And nice seared veggies, just the way you like them. They should warm you right up."

She came to the camp silently, but he was pleased to see her curling up over the fire, inhaling deeply of the smell of food, and her hands went out against the heat, turning this way and that, as though to thaw the blood in her veins.

She began to shiver gratefully. "Oh," she said, her voice tense as she smiled through chattering teeth, "I had almost forgotten what heat felt like."

He didn't miss her weak attempt at humour, and seized upon it like a lifeline. "Wait until you remember how great a full belly can be."

She smiled at him softly over the flames, and though it only partly reached her eyes, Link was pleased she hadn't fully given up.

Gingerly, he motioned to the trunk of a fallen tree by the fire where she could sit. Around the campfire, the snow had melted and the ground was soggy. The tanned leather hides in the tent would shield them from the worst of the meltwater, but for now they had to avoid sitting on the ground. "I hope you don't mind burnwater as a drink," he said. "Or I could melt some snow if you'd like."

"Oh, no," she said, the shivers abating, though her voice was still tremulous. She had grabbed a blanket and wrapped it about her shoulders, forming a small lump of cloth and golden hair. "I need the burnwater."

"Atta girl," Link flatly joked. "There are some lumberjacks in Hebra tonight who are proud and don't know why."

"You flatter me," she replied in kind, her hand poking out of her blanket to accept the flask he was handing her. "But I need something bracing right now. After… after failing. Again."

He'd hoped she wouldn't go back to the subject, and yet he couldn't blame her. It was all they could possibly talk about on the peak of this godforsaken mountain. They wouldn't have even come otherwise.

"I won't insult you by saying it will be better in the morning," Link said, settling at her side to keep an eye on his cooking. "I think we both know by now this Spring business is for show."

"I still had hope," she gently said, the firelight casting dancing shadows on her face. She had softened now and her smile was melancholy. "I know it was foolish, but I kept hoping that this third Spring would do the trick. I had hope that I would come down the mountain triumphant, that at last I could look my father in the eye."

Link couldn't reply. His throat had closed in mute sympathy, the bittersweet admission pulling at his heart. He watched her take a long swig of burnwater, then pull away with a disgusted scowl. She didn't spit it out, though.

"Sometimes," she continued, her voice raw, "I wonder if the gods even listen to my prayers, or if they listened to my heart and found me wanting."

Now Link did frown, the pain dispelled by indignation. "They wouldn't dare," he growled.

She shot him a surprised glance, startled by the intensity of his words. "Link?"

It was on the tip of his tongue to say everything, to admit his every single thought, every single emotion that had grown within him over the past few months. When she looked at him with such wide limpid eyes, he felt as strong as an ox and as disarmed as a newborn. It made his heart race in ways it had no business doing.

So he forced himself to turn to the food, to divide it into two equal plates. "Do not speak of yourself as though you are unworthy. It's unfair to your efforts, it gives too much credit to the gods, and it simply isn't true."

She clearly hadn't expected him to voice that opinion, because she watched him with a strangely amazed expression that made him feel she wasn't royal at that moment, but instead a woman that was entirely too real and approachable.

And, suddenly aware she was staring at him in the most unprincesslike fashion, she turned back to the fire and took another hard swig of alcohol.

"Here," he said, as she began to cough. Her eyes watered, but she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and accepted the plate he was handing out.

"Thank you," she croaked. Soon, she was digging in, as primly as a princess could with a spoon and a plate on her knees. She'd placed the flask of burnwater between them. She didn't even wait to stop chewing to look at him and say, "Thish ish really good."

"Hunger is the best spice," Link said, smirking. She didn't dignify that with a reply, too busy eating to bother with niceties.

She was right, of course; despite his joke, he'd managed to pack some quality spices in his bags, and he was glad of it. The meal he'd prepared was almost as good as something he'd have cooked at home, so it didn't last long on his plate. Or hers.

When the food was down and the flask was back in her hand, Zelda sighed, looking at the flames in front of them with her usual hint of melancholy.

"It's always easier to be sad with a full belly," she said.

"Glad I could help," Link said, taking her plate and his and rubbing them in the snow to wash them.

She watched him wash the dishes thoughtfully, her hands cradling the burnwater on her lap. "You've been more than helpful," she finally said, after a contemplative silence.

He glanced up at her, and was too embarrassed to hold her gaze. Focusing back on his scrubbing, he managed an ineffective, "Oh?"

"Hm." She took another mouthful of burnwater. This one didn't seem to hurt as much as the previous ones, and she gulped it down with only a slight grimace. "I fear I haven't expressed my gratitude properly before."

"You don't need to," Link said, embarrassed.

"I still should," she said. "I have forced you to go all over Hyrule with me on pointless errands. You have been uncommonly― unfairly obliging."

I live to serve, Link thought to himself. A small smile pulled at his lips, and a sad, helpless feeling pulled at his heart.

"What's more," she said, shuffling closer, nearer to where he was working, "you have been incredibly supportive of me, even though I've done very little to earn your kindness."

"It's what friends do," Link said, stacking the clean plates back into his bag. "I want to think that, if the roles were reversed, you'd have done the same."

"You mean, if you were a prince?" She asked, her brow furrowed.

He glanced up at her, surprised by her proximity. The neck of the flask rested on her lower lip, and she was looking at him speculatively now, like he was some interesting roadside lizard.

"If I were a prince," he started, the words hot on his tongue, "I―"

The words choked on his tongue, forced back down into silence as he realized how close he was getting to making some uncomfortable, highly inappropriate confessions.

"You… what?" Her expression had changed now, the flask falling away from her lips, and though she eyed him with the same curiosity as before, her tone seemed… different.

"I'd―" No, he couldn't do it. It was inappropriate. He was her knight, her servant, her shield, and he needed to remember it, damn it all. He took the flask from between her hands to take a long, painful mouthful of burnwater. It blazed a trail of liquid fire from his throat to his stomach, but Link found he'd not renewed his courage. Instead, he managed to croak, lamely, "I'd need a friend, too."

She accepted the flask when he returned it, but she did not drink from it. Instead, she looked at him with a strange sadness. "Right," she said, faintly.

She turned back to the fire, and for a long moment silence stretched between them.

The clouds did not go away. The snow kept falling around them, muffling every sound, so that it seemed they were nestled into a world entirely their own, quiet and isolated, filled to the brim with words unsaid. Link could almost feel palpable sadness, confusion and halted hopes in the air. Not for the first time, he hated himself for loving her.

Now that she was closer to him, he could feel her nearness like a second fire. It burned against his sleeve and his side, and as she sat restless, her leg kept brushing against his, and her foot laid so close to his own...

She was invading his thoughts, of course. But now even his physical space was taken up by her proximity, by the smell of her hair, the sight of her condensated breath, the pink that suffused her cheeks, that coloured the tip of her nose, the tip of her ears. He could scarcely breathe without feeling her own breathing. He could hardly look anywhere without catching some sight of her.

He tried desperately to focus on the fire, but it did little to help. The flames were still dancing, twirling together, intertwined like lovers in the throes of bliss. And next to him, he was acutely aware of her every single movement, every sighing breath, every blink.

"I don't want to leave this mountain," she finally said, and he was forced to focus.

"Why not?" He managed. "It's freezing up here."

She wasn't looking at him. She was looking down at the flask in her hands, and the fixedness of her gaze told him she was holding back tears. "Because if we leave, then I have to tell them."

"Tell them?" Link echoed, though he knew what she meant the moment the words were out of his mouth.

Her lip quivered. "That I'm a failure."

Maybe it was the gulp of burnwater sitting in his stomach like lead. Maybe it was the muffled silence around them. Maybe it was that she looked so small and helpless that it called to something instinctive within him.

Either way, he reached out and pulled her hands so she had to turn and look at him. Now she was crying, the warm tears rolling down her cheeks. He couldn't help it― his thumb went up to wipe at her cheek, and he looked into her eyes, hoping she saw the concern he felt. "Zelda."

She was trembling. She let go of the flask, and it rolled to the ground. Her hands were cold in his. Her eyes were full of heartbreak, searching, and he hoped he could say what she needed to hear.

"Zelda," he repeated, his voice raw, desperate as he was to be earnest. "You aren't a failure." He frowned, tried to find the right words of comfort, and managed something that he hoped was close enough: "You're strong. Everyone who truly knows you has expressed nothing but amazement. You persevere where anyone else would have given up. You have given your time, your energy and your health for a purpose that would have made lesser Hylians run for their lives."

Again, a fat tear rolled down her cheek, so he wiped at it firmly, gently. She was staring at him, transfixed, desperately eager for comfort. It broke his heart.

"I don't know what you need to do to awaken your power," he said. "But I know that there is no worthier person in Hylia's sight. You mustn't despair. Just say the word, and I will ensure my Order of the Guard never allows another naysayer near you. You don't have to hear them or see them ever again. I can protect you, if you'll allow it."

Her hands squeezed his on their knees, between them, but Link could only continue to watch her face, to hope against hope that she would allow him to shield her from the worst.

"You're kind," she whispered. She was looking down at their hands. "I'm sorry it took me so long to see it." Her eyes lifted, and she looked at him searchingly. "Link…"

To his surprise, her hand dropped his and came up to his cheek. He leaned into her touch before he could even think to stop himself, and her expression softened, her lip trembling.

Suddenly, she leaned in even closer. Suddenly, both her hands reached for his face, cupping it. Suddenly, she was all around him. Suddenly, Link found himself looking closely into those eyes he'd spent so many months studying, and he felt a pulse of madness threaten to take over.

Vulnerable, he reminded himself, desperately. She is vulnerable. But she climbed into his lap, straddling him, and his eyes kept straying to her pink lips, because they matched the flush of her cheeks. And they were so close he could feel her breath mingle with his own.

His heart was racing, and judging by the feverish flush of her cheeks, so was hers.

Oh, it was hard to be good when she looked at him that way. There was a darkness in her eyes, a desperate need that he could feel echoing down into his bones. How could he fight it when she was right there, so close, so pliant, so like the hundreds of dreams he'd had for months now?

"Link…"

His name came out as a soft breath, hot mist in the cold air, with a tremor of longing he'd never heard from anyone before, a gentle prayer that unmade him completely.

But Link did not act on this. He did not reach up to bring her face down to his. Princess Zelda, like a proper princess, pulled away and went to sleep. And he guarded her as a proper knight should. And they did not speak of it again.

Cross my heart, Sir Link, nothing untoward happened that night.

Chapter Text

Link's hand came up, interrupting Zelda's narration.

The sun was setting over Kakariko Village, casting long shadows along the twisting paths. But Link wasn't looking at the view. His expression was shuttered.

"Link?" She asked, fighting to maintain her composure. Her mouth was dry, her heart was racing.

He frowned, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, Zelda saw an awful look on his face.

"You're lying," he said, the accusation soft, and all the more striking for it.

"What?"

He looked at her, really looked at her, with an expression she had not seen in a hundred years, a mix of honest hurt and confused frustration.

"Lying," he repeated, enunciating clearly. "You're lying."

Her first reaction was indignation. It was the reflex of a princess, something ingrained and proud. But it had not a foot to stand on.

The next emotion was guilt. Of course she was lying.

Of course they'd not gone straight to sleep. Of course they hadn't.

The final, lasting emotion, though, was confusion. He hadn't indicated any remembrance until now. So how did he know she was lying?

Did he― Could he―

The dawning realization felt like ice in her veins, flushing all the way down her back, and for a moment she was speechless.

He remembered. There was no other explanation.

Suddenly a hundred different fleeting thoughts, a thousand infinitesimal instincts came to her mind, a myriad moments she'd wondered, confused, whether Link's meddling into the affairs of Hyrule and this new council were truly the work of a man suffering from amnesia.

But they couldn't have been. And what a fool she was not to have seen it. It was in his eyes now, even as he studied her with a look of betrayal she had never wanted to see.

Feeling a blush of shame creep up her face, she buried her face in her hands, in some weak attempt to hide from his unwavering gaze. "Oh, by all the gods, Link… I'm sorry."

He didn't reply. When she peeked up at him through her fingers, she saw that he had looked away, his eyes skipping over the rooftops like a stone on a lake. And now his expression was somewhat more steely, like he was containing some deeper hurt.

When he finally spoke, his voice was raw. "You said that, too. Back then."

It wasn't fair. The indignation inside was boiling, a confused mass of her own betrayal and the embarrassment of having been caught in a lie. And what a lie! She couldn't have been more dishonest if she'd told him the sky was red.

She tried desperately not to let her eyes water, then managed to croak, "How long have you been able