“You really want to make the journey on foot?”
They're cleaning the crabs they caught that morning at Hateno Bay, cooled from their initial boil. It's messy work, so they sit outside while they crack them and pick them of meat, rinse them with fresh water, and toss the broken pieces of shell into the pot for stock.
“It won't be like the last time we went,” Link is saying. “It was high summer then, and the weather patterns were different, too. There weren't even any snows until we were halfway up the mountain.”
“You remember that?” Zelda tries to hide her grin by ducking her chin to her chest, but she can't hide it from her voice. “What else do you remember?”
Link stops what he's doing and makes a show of glowering at her.
“I'm sorry,” she says. “I can't help it. I'll get used to it eventually.”
“I talked back then.”
“Not like now.”
“No,” he concedes. “Not like now.” He takes another section of crab leg and cracks it in half. Zelda has to use pliers. He doesn't.
Zelda is sure that, eventually, she'll also get used to things like Link breathing and the fact that they're living in the world they saved, preparing supper on his front lawn.
She reaches out and lays her hand on his forearm. He's wearing an old threadbare shirt, sleeves rolled up past the elbow. His skin, even wet, is warm in the autumn sun. He stills when she touches him. “I need to do it,” she says. “The long way, no fast travel. To all three, at some point, but... Lanayru first.”
Link nods, not looking at her.
“Not in that dress, if that's what concerns you. It's a rag, anyway. I'll take something more suitable, and bundle up nice and warm for the trip. We'll take elixirs, too.”
He does look relieved at that. “When?”
“In a few days, I think. I'll need warm clothes, and boots... ” She sighs, taking her hand back. “And money...”
“I told you, what's mine is yours.”
“And what's mine is yours. Only what's mine happens to be a smoking ruin at the moment.”
“A ruin I did my best to plunder,” he says, giving her a little smirk.
She laughs. “You did, at that. Though you might have been good enough to grab some of my clothes while you were at it. Assuming there's anything left that's wearable. What I wouldn't give for those lovely winter whites of mine...”
“My offer stands,” he says.
“I know.” She brings the pliers to bear on a crab leg, cracking through the shell. “I'm just not quite ready, yet. But we will. Soon. There are many things I'd rather not leave to any looter intrepid enough to start testing the waters again.”
“There are a surprising number of them. Makes me kind of proud.”
“Of the looters?”
“Well, you know.” He shrugs. “Takes courage to do that. Lots of the people out there... they're strong. They do what they have to. So much has been lost, but... ”
“But they’ve never given up,” she finishes.
He smiles at her in a way that makes her want to reach out and brush her thumb along his cheek. As though she doesn't already want to do that all the time.
They make crab risotto, sweating aromatics in butter, toasting the rice, stirring in the simmering stock one ladleful at a time. “Couldn’t we add all the stock at once?” Zelda asks.
“We could,” Link says. “But we’d just be making rice.” He explains why as she stirs, and he's right – the slow additions turn it full-bodied and rich, as though she's poured a pint of cream into it. When it seems ready, she offers him a taste off the spoon, and her mouth waters to watch him savor it.
At the table, while they eat, she touches his arm again. She can't help it. He's changed to long sleeves, but it's still only cloth. No bracer or vambrace to guard him.
He goes still again. In those moments she knows he's waiting, to see what she'll do. She doesn't always know, herself. “I'm sorry,” she says, to her hand. “Does it bother you?”
His voice is soft. “Your rule to break.” Which isn’t an answer, and isn't precisely true.
“I told you, I'm not taking it, tonight,” Zelda says, the next evening. “It's been two weeks. You should sleep in your own bed.” She points a finger at him. “And you may as well stop the glowering. You aren't much good at it, anyway.”
Link apparently takes this as a challenge.
“That's really more of a snarl,” she informs him. “Mmm, no, that's more of a – ” Her jaw drops in mock outrage. “And that's not a very knightly gesture at all!”
His laughter rings from the walls as she picks the pillow up off the floor and thwacks him with it.
“Now there's no chance I'm sleeping up there,” she says, fluffing the pillow back into shape. “But if you want to sleep on the floor so badly, I don't mind sharing.” She says this with a casual nonchalance and a flipping sensation in her stomach. To illustrate her point, she drops the pillow back onto the pallet, then follows it. She crawls in, pulls the blankets to her chin and peers up at him.
His face is unreadable as he studies her, thumbs hooked into his belt. “You're still dressed,” he says.
She raises her eyebrows at him, and watches with profound amusement as color creeps like deepening sunset across his face. “I – that's not what I meant.”
Pity, she thinks. “I know what you meant.”
“I only meant that – that, you know, because – ”
“That I'm not yet changed for bed, so my getting into the pallet is an empty threat,” she says, giving him her sweetest smile. “Well, I'll have you know, Hero of Hyrule, that I plan on sleeping in my clothes, tonight.” Or out of them, if you would be so good as to assist me, she does not add.
Link sleeps upstairs in his bed, behind the curtain tacked to the rafters. Zelda twists in the pallet on the kitchen floor, in her clothes, weighing her various options, until well into the night.
“Absolutely not,” Zelda says. “Those are far too expensive. We can purchase something here in Hateno.”
“But the Rito ones are better,” Link says.
“That's like saying a golden chalice is better than a silver one. They'll both hold your wine just the same.”
“Silver tarnishes,” he says.
Zelda opens her mouth, then closes it again. “All right, bad example,” she says. “But my point stands. I'd rather conserve our resources just now. There'll be plenty of chances for extravagance later.”
Link puts a thumb to his lower lip, thinking it over, and the irony twists inside her, remembering the extravagance of that mouth.
And, once again, he goes along with her more sensible plan. They go to the shops, and she buys a very reasonably-priced set of cold-weather clothing – though they do pay just a little extra, so she may have it in white.
They don't buy boots. “Trust me,” Link says.
When they return to the house, he shows her.
“They'll be too large,” Zelda says, but tries the snow boots on anyway. They're actually not far off. Link's not what you'd call a mountain of a man, and she doesn't have the daintiest feet in the world.
“Close enough,” he says, prodding the toes of the boots, looking satisfied. “We'll put some padding in them. Trust me, they'll make life a lot easier for you.”
“And what of you?”
“I've got my Rito pair. I'll have to trudge a bit, but I'm faster than you, so it'll even out.” From anyone else, this statement might smack of condescension or conceit, but there's no trace of either. He shakes his head. “You don't want to know what I had to do to get these.”
He's kneeling in front of her chair, winding the laces of her left boot around his fingers and pulling them tight, so he can check the fit around her calves. When she doesn't say anything after his name, he looks up.
“I know what you had to do,” she says.
He forgets, sometimes, what she saw. Which was almost everything. “Shit,” he mutters, ducking his head. Then: “Not my finest moment.”
“On the contrary,” she says. “After so much time watching you uphold the knightly virtues of honor and propriety, seeing you engage in bit of cross-dressing subterfuge just about made my whole century.”
A small snort of laughter escapes him, but he doesn't raise his head.
“It's true. You were always so proper and disciplined. It was maddening. You've no idea how much it made me want to – ” she stops, realizing where this line of conversation has strayed.
He looks up at her.
He's not wearing the blue today, just simple travelers' clothing in shades of brown. It's hard to decide which color better sets off the blue of his eyes – the matching shade, or the complementary. She usually comes down on the side of whichever he happens to be wearing at the moment.
It's moments like these, the closest and most quiet, that are the most dangerous. Moments when she feels the pull as the pull of the earth. One can resist the earth's pull, if one is strong enough. One can climb and climb. For a while.
Zelda reaches out and curls her fingers beneath his chin and lets herself slip, just a little, just enough to let it draw her towards him. She moves with slow purpose, so that her intent is clear, that he might stop her if he so wishes.
He does not stop her. Nor does he advance. He remains perfectly still, save for a slight tremble, as she hovers two inches from his mouth.
She remembers that week of kisses in Kakariko, stolen in whatever spaces could be found among the watchful eyes of Impa and the villagers. Whispering to him that last evening, I'd like to see your house.
“Thank you for the boots,” she says, and doesn't kiss him.
Early the next morning, Zelda descends from the loft to find the Hero of Hyrule, the man who vanquished the Calamity and saved the world from eternal darkness, humming as he peels apples at his kitchen table. He holds them in his left hand, turning them against the knife held steady in his right, so that the peels come off in long, curling strips. There is no pile of peels to be found, and she knows that this is because they've all found their way into his face. This is likely how one translucent sliver of apple has managed to paste itself to his cheek.
Zelda plucks the piece of apple from his face and deposits it in the compost bin.
“I was saving that for later,” he says, not missing a beat. An apple turns in his hand, red bleeding away to white. He places it in a bowl of water to await slicing, stuffs the peel in his mouth, and starts on the next.
“We're leaving tomorrow,” she says, seating herself at the table, “and you're making pies?”
“Not those kinds of pies. Hand pies.”
He pauses in his work to trace a circle on the board with his knife. “You make a circle of dough, fill it and fold it over. Fits in your hand. Good for travel.”
“Huh. That's convenient.”
“I know. I'd forgotten all about them. Uma reminded me. I'm making some extra to take to her.”
Of course you are, Zelda doesn't say, and props her chin on her fists as she watches him work. The knife makes a smooth whispering scrape against the apple's flesh.
Zelda thinks back to her introduction to this dining table. To the sound of breaking plates.
“I've changed my mind,” she says.
The peeled apple gets plunked into the water. “We don't have to go, if you don't want. Or did you want to postpone it?”
That's not what she means, but she doesn't press the matter. “How can I help?”
“You can slice apples, or you can roll dough.”
Zelda slices apples. She holds them by the stems, the way he shows her, cuts the flesh from the cores in large chunks, then cuts the large chunks into small chunks. “They don't have to be perfect,” he says, and that's good, because they aren't.
It's dangerous work, because the knife is sharp, and she keeps looking away from her fingers and over to him. His sleeves are rolled up, his hands are dusted with flour to the wrists, and the muscles of his forearms flex as he works the rolling pin. There's flour in his eyelashes and on the tip of his nose. In Zelda's mind, plates shatter.
“I've changed my mind,” she says, to the apple she's slicing.
They make meat pies, too. Zelda peels carrots and shells peas. Link takes a handful of peas and tosses them up, one at a time, trying to catch them in his mouth. He gets roughly one in three.
“You really should be better at that,” she says.
“Practice makes perfect.” He stoops and picks peas off the floor.
“You're going to rinse those before you eat them, right?”
He does, but she knows it's only because she told him to. He's eaten far more dubious things in his travels.
She'd kiss him anyway.
The pies are delicious. “I'm a good cook,” Zelda says, licking savory juice from her fingers.
“It's all fun and games until you're on crust detail,” Link says.
They check on the jerky drying out front. Link pronounces it ready. They remove the netting and collect it from the drying rig, making bundles and wrapping them in cloth.
Zelda thinks back to the shadows of leaves dappling Link's face in Retsam Forest; the steady tension of his body in the draw. Bringing the buck down in a single shot to the eye. Link saying, I'll have to field dress it now. Will that bother you?
I've watched you before. In the Minshi woods, on our way to Eldin.
The light of recall, dawning.
She starts gathering another bundle. “Do you remember when you used to procure this sort of thing from the castle kitchens, instead of having to make it yourself?”
His eyes take on their faraway look. She waits. “I liked the marinade they used,” he finally says. “We should make it that way next time.”
They bring feed to the horses and saddle them up for their daily exercise. Link has them so tame that they roam about on the property, grazing and drinking from the pond, without being penned. I go where you go.
Zelda tries not to glance over at the apple tree behind the shed. She tries not to remember that first afternoon, Link fetching an apple down for her, just shy of ripe the way she likes best, crisp when she bites into it. Link putting a hand to her jaw and kissing the juice from the corner of her mouth. The apple falling from her hand.
They ride out to the inn, where Uma likes to sit outside in the sunshine. Her tired, wrinkled face is transformed in delight at the pies. “They look just like the ones I used to make when I ran my shop!” She thanks them, and pats Link's hand. “And how are you liking your stay in Hateno, my dear?” she says to Zelda.
Here in Hateno, Zelda is known as that pretty blond girl who's named for the princess. The villagers don't pry, though she's heard more than a whisper of wondering conversation in regards to her origins, how long she might be staying, and how innocent – or not – her current sleeping arrangements might be.
“It's like a dream,” Zelda says, because it is.
They bring a few pies to Purah and Symin up at the lab. Symin takes Link aside to ask if he's seen a certain specimen he's found in a book.
“Change your mind, yet?” Purah says, with a giggle.
Zelda is better at glowering than Link.
Before they start back to town, they stand outside and take in the view. Distant water sparkles; a windmill turns. Western sunlight glows golden over the mountains.
Then Link is no longer looking out at the mountains, but at her. He reaches out and touches the backs of his fingers to her cheek. Zelda doesn't breathe. She thinks that if they'd been in darkness, the spark of that touch might be visible to the eye.
He only weakens this way when there are others close at hand. Purah and Symin just inside, possibly sneaking peeks at them from the window. Alone, but not too alone.
When he touches her hair, Zelda breaks. She turns in to him, locking her arms around his waist and burying her face in the crook of his neck. She knows she shouldn't, but the draw is too strong. And anyway, she's changed her mind.
Alone, but not too alone, and so he weakens just a little more, enclosing her in his arms. A sigh escapes him. Being this close to him again constricts her throat.
Zelda thinks back to that first evening in his house. Up until late, making supper, making tea. Making plans. Link walking her up the stairs, insisting she take the bed. I have extra blankets. I'll be fine.
A goodnight embrace, as when they'd part at nighttime in Kakariko. Her arms around his neck. One of his hands high on her back, in her hair. Being held to him. Being held.
A goodnight kiss. Another. Brushing her thumb along his cheek. One more.
Tumbling to the bed.
Link's hands at her bare breasts. His mouth at her neck. Sparks behind her eyelids. Stop. We have to –
Here on the hill overlooking Hateno, fully clothed, they part with just as much reluctance, and Zelda swears she hears the sound of breaking plates.
It's almost a full day's ride to Kakariko, so they get started early. They wear high-necked garments of a Hylian cut against the autumn chill. Zelda feels a pang of sorrow when Link closes up the house, but reminds herself they'll be back. They saddle the horses, and Link gets the saddlebags loaded.
When Zelda is mounted up, Link hops up onto the picket fence next to her, balancing on the soles of his boots, putting them at eye level. Her heart races as he glances about. Then he takes her face in his hands and kisses her for the first time in seventeen days.
A chaste kiss. Soft. Sweet.
Until she opens against him and makes a needy sound in the back of her throat, and feels the sound he makes as that breaks him. She clutches his collar, hanging on for dear life, as he curls his tongue into her mouth.
His breath is hot on her face when they part. “One more,” she pleads, and pulls him back in.
It's three more, and the state in which this leaves her makes the first few miles on horseback rather interesting.
There's still the occasional monster once they get past the woods; for the most part, sad stragglers weakening with time. So when they spot an actual band of five Bokoblins near the road, Link leaps from his horse and charges like a wolf into a pack of hounds. The monsters screech and regroup, pressing back in, their own brand of simpleminded ferocity a strange caricature of courage.
Link's ferocity is anything but simpleminded. His face is a study in focus as he takes them on – one at a time, two at a time, tricking them into attacking each other when they think they've outflanked him. He saves the strongest for last; a snarling brute with striped silver skin, wielding a massive club. He dances around it, harrying it, dodging its wild swings and pressing in with a lightning rush of strikes. Zelda sees the disappointment when the creature slumps to the ground and Link turns about to find himself unopposed.
At times like these, Zelda is reminded of who he is, if indeed she ever can forget. The spark is always there, inside of him, when he sleeps and when he eats and when he flings flour onto a board. A handful of kindling with an ember at its heart, awaiting one strong breath to burst alight.
On the side of the road is a patch of wildflowers, a common variety of autumn-blooming aster. Link selects a fresh-looking bloom with bright white petals, then approaches her horse and hands it up to her. He watches her tuck it into the braid beside her ear, takes a slow, deep breath, then turns and jogs back to his horse.
Zelda nearly dismounts and runs after him.
Kakariko is much the same as they left it. Villagers greet them warmly as they dismount.
“Princess Zelda,” Paya says, rising from her prayers before the row of short statues, dipping in a hasty bow. “Master Link. I was not expecting your arrival this evening.”
“We're only staying for the night,” Zelda says, smiling at her. “We're on our way to Mount Lanayru. I must commune with the Goddess, and with the spirit Naydra.”
This is the sort of thing to which Paya can relate, and she seems to relax a bit, though she shoots an uncomfortable glance at Link. “Of course, your Highness. I shall ready my room for you immediately.”
“I'll not hear of it,” Zelda says. “I've imposed far too much upon you, already. Link found the inn quite comfortable when we were here last, and it will more than suffice for me as well.”
But it's Paya who won't hear of it, and she looks close to tears before Zelda relents. They watch as she hurries off and up the stairs, to get things ready.
“Now I feel terrible,” Zelda says. “I should have sent a – ”
Zelda's mouth goes slack.
A letter, she was going to say. Even though there hasn't been a post in a hundred years. Even though one of her primary goals in her plans to rebuild is to establish one.
She comes back to herself to find that Link is looking at her, and has taken her hand. “It's easy to forget,” he says.
In the middle of Kakariko Village, under the watchful eyes of the villagers, Zelda rests her head on Link's shoulder and sighs into his neck.
Later, when he departs for the inn, and Paya is out at the statues finishing her prayers, Zelda sits with Impa drinking tea.
“I've changed my mind,” Zelda says.
Impa's expression is steady as she sets down her cup. “How soon?”
“Soon. Upon our return, if it's up to me.”
“Hmm.” Impa picks up the teapot and refills Zelda's cup, then her own. “Well. It would appear I owe Purah fifty rupees.”
The journey to the East Gate is a passage back in time: up the slopes of northern Kakariko, past the ancient shrine, past Cotera's fountain, on to the Promenade. The rhythmic clop of hooves sounds on flagstones as Link draws his bow, his aim as deadly as a hundred years past, picking off the last of the straggling monsters that linger here.
Part of Zelda almost expects to find her four Champions waiting at the gate when they dismount. She pauses, her hand reverent on the stone, remembering. “It must have been so strange for you,” she says, “reliving those memories, not knowing of anything that led up to them.”
“It was strange,” he says. “But I wanted to remember.”
They lead the horses as they proceed into the valley. Always on foot, from the gate.
“Huh. That guy's still here,” Link says, as though he's speaking of a man sitting on a stump outside a general store. When she looks, she sees what he's referring to is a white-maned Lynel.
Zelda expects Link to charge, but he doesn't. Instead he unhooks the bow from his back and pulls an arrow from his quiver with a strange, rounded head. When he nocks and draws back, a glowing blade emerges from the arrowhead and locks into place with a hum.
The arrow flies. The Lynel dies.
“That Robbie knows his stuff,” Link says.
When they're close to the pass to what is now known as Naydra Snowfield, Zelda can already feel the icy chill rolling down off the mountain. The temperatures up there are no joke. It gets to twenty below in some places – maybe colder now, with autumn underway. Apparently Link wasn't exaggerating.
In a stand of birch trees, they change into their warm clothing.
During the first few days of Zelda's overnight stay in Hateno, they took on the practice of stepping outside when the other needed to change. On the fourth day, Link borrowed a ladder and tacked a tarp to the rafters, screening off the loft. A fine enough idea.
Or so Zelda thought until that night, when, ten feet below her and essentially in the same room, she heard the clear and distinct sounds of Link undressing for bed.
They turn their backs, now, but that's not much help, either.
Zelda removes only her outer tunic. The remaining layers, and her trousers, stay in place as she pulls the thick winter layers over them. She throws herself into this task, and into the lacing of the snow boots, as though Link were not three feet away from her, shucking his trousers in a stand of trees.
It would be so easy to turn around. Just as it would have been easy to descend those stairs and descend with him to the kitchen floor. Not necessarily onto the pallet.
Does he imagine her, too, when she undresses in the loft? Does his mind paint him a picture behind the screen? Does it go back to that first night, to finish what they started? Does he imagine her naked in his bed?
It's hot here in the valley, where a chill rolls off a mountain of ice.
The horses stay behind. “They'll stick around in the valley,” Link says. “Plenty of grass and water for them. “Otherwise they'll go back to Kakariko.” All the essentials are in their packs.
Before Zelda shrugs on her pack, she buckles on a shoulder belt, and Link secures the flameblade to her back. Even sheathed, it's like having her back turned to a potbelly stove.
“Remember, if I have to draw, keep your head down and to the left. It takes a few seconds to ignite, but I don't want to take chances.”
“You take chances all the time,” she says.
“With my neck. Not yours.” His tone is light, but his face is serious as he reaches out and draws the white hood up around her face. Then his bare fingers trail along the thick braid draped over her right shoulder. The fingers stop before they reach her breast, though the braid does not. The hilt of the sacred sword gleams over his shoulder. Beneath his brown hood, his eyes are a lesson in color theory.
“Ready when you are,” he says.