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They don’t speak much. Everything they have to say to each other feels too massive, as if Zelda will never find a handhold to get started. They should start planning for what to do next, but she, again, doesn’t know where to start.

And they’re both too tired to speak.

And they both deserve some rest before she throws them both into another scheme.

And they don’t really know each other that well.

And she’s too horrified by the state of Castletown to think straight.

“It’s kind of nice now,” Link says. “Without guardians everywhere.”

He hops over a low wall—no, the ruins of a building—and kicks a depowered guardian a few times before ducking under one of its legs and digging through its innards. He pops back up with a gear and holds it up to her with the most exhausted smile she’s ever seen.

She stares at him. Then she stares at what was once the skyline of the capital city.

He takes her elbow and guides her out of town, through fields and over hills that feel much steeper than they actually are. She wonders if she could do a study: actual gradient versus perceived gradient, where she asks people to estimate the angle of incline. She has to stop at the top with her hands on her knees, gasping for breath.

She hasn’t had much exercise lately.

Link pats her shoulder once, and goes on ahead, and when she’s caught her breath enough to look up, she sees him crouched in the tall grass below her, sneaking up behind a horse.

It seems like a very bad idea.

Her lips part to shout something, to warn him he’s too tired, too slow, that he’s going to get kicked in the face and then where will they be? But he runs and leaps and the herd scatters around him as the horse he’s on bucks and rears, trying to throw him. He’s low to its back, fists tight in its mane, shouting “Whoa, whoa!”

The horse settles, snorts, shakes its head. Its shoulders are tense, but it’s no longer trying to kill Link. He pats the horse’s shoulder and coos at it, then leads it haltingly up the hill towards her. He dismounts to offer her a hand, groaning unconsciously as he hoists her onto the creature’s back, then he hauls himself up behind her, far less nimble than he was a minute ago, when he practically vaulted onto a wild animal.

She’s never rode bareback before. She hasn’t ridden with someone else since she was a little girl. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands.

Link aims them toward Dueling Peaks, and the whole way there they cycle through dozing off under the monotony and jerking back awake.

#

They get to the stable just after sunset. He practically topples off the horse and pulls some rupees from his pocket—way too many rupees—and pushes them into her hands. “Get us two beds. Soft beds. And food.” His voice is like a sigh. “I think I’m going to keep the horse, so I’ll get her registered.”

The horse calmed as they traveled, and now it nuzzles Link’s elbow, shoving at his back.

“Is it a good horse?” she asks. It feels like a stupid question.

“She’s a good girl,” he says, which isn’t quite the answer she expected.

It feels like way too many rupees, and she wonders at first if, in his exhaustion, he handed her the wrong amount. But if so, that’s an easy fix, as she will just return the unused rupees to him. She then worries that perhaps he’s brought her somewhere very nice out of concern for what he would consider her aristocratic tastes. Maybe he thinks her a snob, which she certainly is not, and she will have to have words with him about how she's perfectly content to rough it, as it were. She couldn’t possibly spend his hard-earned money on frivolities.

As it turns out, renting a bed is…well…renting a bed, of which there are six in the main room. Also in that same room is a rowdy group of travelers gathered around a table, a young man tuning a lute in the corner, and a perilously thin salesman sitting cross-legged on the floor with an enormous bag on his back and a table folded out in front of him. One of the beds is already taken, its occupant dead to the world despite the din.

Maybe she is a snob. Just a bit.

She squares her shoulders and approaches the counter, purchasing two beds for the night and “specials,” which turn out to be salt-grilled fish, a couple bread rolls, and a glass of goat milk.

This uses up the money. Exactly.

Link looks pleased with the dinner. She can’t tell if he’s so tired that it looks like he has deep, purple bruises under his eyes, or if he actually has bruises on his face. The warm light makes it hard to tell. He sits on his bed with his food, and she follows suit, facing him from her own bed, balancing her plate on her knees. It’s a bit too hot to hold for more than a few seconds at a time and she pulls a few more layers of her dress between her plate and her knees. She has nowhere to place her milk and ends up setting it on the floor.

“I named her Horsey Porsey,” he says.

“You what? Who?”

“The horse.” He gestures towards the register, his mouth suddenly full of dinner roll.

“Oh.”

He swallows. It looks as though it hurts to do so.

She leans forward, lowering her voice. “This is a very expensive inn.”

He frowns. Chews.

“We just spent a farm worker’s average monthly income on beds for one night and two meals! How can this—” She freezes.

Link stares at her. His chewing has slowed, as if he thinks she might turn hysterical and violent and he fears he might need to restrain her.

Her face heats, and she lowers her eyes to her plate only to meet the dead-eyed stare of her fish. “My figures are a bit out of date, I suppose.” Her hands shake, and she tears up her dinner roll to hide it. “Inflation is not an uncommon phenomenon. I really should have anticipated it.”

She hears Link swallow, then place his plate on the floor. For a moment, she thinks he might bridge the space between them, kneel before her to force her to look him in the eyes, take her hands in his own, tell her that she is actually doing quite well for a time displaced young woman who has just finished a century-long battle with demon, and whose admittedly-few friends are all long dead, and who hasn’t used her vocal chords or seen the sun in a hundred years. It’s a perfectly reasonable mistake to make. They are both tired and should really get some sleep.

Instead, he picks up his glass of milk with a clink, downs it in three, noisy gulps, and places it on the floor beside his plate. He then falls back on his bed with a sigh. He’s just done with his meal. That’s all.

“I might sleep for three days,” he says. She looks up and his eyes are already closed.

She takes a breath and takes a bite of fish. It’s really quite good. Not that her palate is very discerning at the moment.

“Hey.”

She looks up. Link’s eyes are open again. He offers her a smile.

“We won.”

She swallows. Why does she feel like crying?

“Yes,” she says. “I suppose we did.”

He yawns. Then he’s dead to the world.

Chapter Text

The residents of Dueling Peaks Stable would later tell of the woman dressed in white, who, as the sun was rising, walked out of the stable and straight into the water.  They said she hadn't slept the night before, but rather she had curled in her bed and listened as the travelers talked.  Domidak said that listening to their tall tales and easy comradery was how she had first learned the language.  Before that night, she hadn't understood a word.  After that night, she was fluent.

It was said that as she walked, she shed her jewelry—stiff gold bracelets that stretched up her forearms and a solid gold necklace that arched between her collar bones.  She let them drop where they landed and marched across the gravel road barefoot.  Rensa pointed out that this was nonsense, and she'd done nothing of the sort, but these details did make for a better story.

She walked straight into the water, even though it was close to freezing.  Her stride never slowed.  She didn't hug herself.  She didn't dive in.  She just walked, eyes fixed ahead, water creeping up her legs, her chest, her neck, until she vanished from sight without a ripple.

There was a long silence, as if nothing had happened.  It had been an illusion.  An apparition.  The woman was a ghost, a spirit of sorrow.

Until she reemerged at the base of the shrine, hauling herself from the water to prop herself, half collapsed, on the ground.  She gasped for breath, her lungs too cold to expand.  Her dress was waterlogged, leaving great puddles on the stone of the shrine.   Her hair had slicked to her scalp and neck.  It clung to her back.  The cold had made her even more pale, even more ghost-like.

She rubbed at her arms, at first as if she was working heat back into them, but then with more urgency.  No one had missed how filthy she was when she'd arrived.  Not just regular travel grime and horse smell either.  She was covered in mud and grease and gore.  She smelled of panicked sweat and of the blasted stone up the hill on the north side of Dueling Peaks where rumor had it that a guardian patrolled.  She scrubbed at her arms to clean them of grime and dirt, to scrub away rain and tears, to scrub away memories.  She went after her skin with her fingernails, bringing up red splotches.  She moved on to her legs, scraping at her feet, her calves, her knees, then her chest and neck and face.  She tried to scrape at her scalp, but her braid was in the way, so she undid it.

A plait of hair broke off in her hand. 

From the stable where they were watching, Cima had gasped, slapping a hand to her mouth.  Prissen shifted uncomfortably and turned his back to avert his eyes (something he had not done when she'd started hiking up her skirt to get clean).  The girl must not have taken her hair from that braid in months.  She should never have tried to take it down while it was wet.  She stared at the hair in horror.  Then lowered it slowly.  Swallowed visibly. 

She took down the rest of her hair with more care, the frantic energy of her scrubbing now drained into a loss no one at the stable could explain, but they all felt it in the air and understood.

The sun rose and she scrubbed—her dress, her hair, her face.  She got in between her toes and under her fingernails.  Her hair started to dry with bulky crimps from her braids.  They defied gravity.  Even wetting, scrubbing, and finger-combing her hair hadn't made a dent in them.

The residents of the stable lost interest and went back to their business, checking on her sporadically.

She stared at the entrance to the shrine for nearly an hour.  That was the closest anyone came to going out and calling to her.  They all knew not to mess around with the shrine.

Eventually, she waded back out of the water and lay down on the grass, letting the noon-time sun dry her.  She didn't move.  In some versions of the story, she lay down in the grass and died.  Her ghost is still there.

In some versions, she was never alive to begin with.

But then Link finally woke up.  He bought some traveling clothes that were too big for her, and he couldn't find shoes that fit her, so she had to wear her strappy sandals.  Cima threw in a head scarf for free.  Link took out two horses and got them tacked up.  Only then did he call out to her, and only then did she rise.

 

#

 

Zelda lasts about fifteen minutes from the stable until she can't keep her questions to herself any longer.  "Where?  Where did you find the royal gear?  And where did you find this horse?  How did you manage it?"

He smiles, and it's infuriating.  "You like it?"

"I...I don't know."

His face falls a little bit, and even though she doesn't appreciate his smugness, now she feels ungrateful.

"It's just so strange.  Seeing it again."  It's so familiar in her hands, the way it lies against the horse's mane is so familiar that it's giving her vertigo.  But the leather is more worn than when she last held it, and worn in different places.  It has gone and had a life of its own while she slept.  And, as much as this horse looks like her old favorite (probably one of its descendants, if she has to guess), this is not her horse—a fact the horse refuses to let her forget.

"Thank you," she says.  "It's a kind gesture."  She smiles, making sure it raises her cheeks.  "It must have been quite the heroic quest!"

He smiles, but it doesn't touch his eyes, and he looks away.

She asks, "Where are we going?"

"Hateno Village."

Her heart seizes then speeds.  She fights down the need to take tiny, rapid breaths.  Of course.  They're headed east.  She should have known.  They'll be at Fort Hateno any minute—and before that, they'll be in the field, the battle ground before the gates, the final stand.

Link is unconcerned.

She murmurs, "I've never heard of a village of that name."

"I think it's new.  Relatively."

"Oh.  Of course."  She swallows, talks through the dizziness.  "New settlements would have risen up and others...fallen."

Her lips are quivering.  Or are her teeth chattering?  Her hands feel numb with cold, and she flexes them around the reigns.

The trees clear, and the battleground spreads before them.  The rusted and crumbling carcasses of a thousand guardians are strewn on the ground, rising up the wall of the fort like a frozen wave.  A cloud passes in front of the sun and something red moves in her periphery, and she can smell them, bile and grease and ozone, the smell of malice that she will never get off her skin, the smell of ancient artifacts, which she once found so exciting, so invigorating.  She's going to be sick.  She's going to die.  They're all dead.  She's killed them all.  And now Link—

She's running.  She's panting.  They're coming.  It's found her.  A pulse as its eye locks onto her, a pulse as her heart sinks.  It rushes forward.  She can't move.  It grabs her.

She screams.

It has her locked in a claw, a force presses against her eyes, blinding her.

"Shhh.  Zelda, deep breaths."

Link.  Link's dying.  She's killed him.

"The battle's over.  Listen to what's around you.  Tell me what you hear."

"It's charging for a blast.  Like a live wire.  A whine."

"That's your memory.  Listen with your ears now.  You're a scientist.  Tell me what you observe.  Here.  Now."

She's breathing too hard to hear anything.  She just keeps seeing a moment: the guardian climbing over one of its fallen brothers, which collapses under the weight.  A crumbling.  A crunch.  A scrape.

"I hear the wind," Link says.

"The wind."  She tries to breathe.  "The wind."

Birdsong erupts behind her, and she jumps so hard she almost unseats herself from the horse.  She's on a horse.  In the future.  Link is behind her, a hand locked over her eyes. He laughs.  Just a little bit.  She can feel it in his chest.

"That's a rainbow sparrow," he says.  "You hear it?"

"Yes," it comes out choked.  She's grasping at the sound, holding onto it for dear life.

"Good," he says.  He nudges the horse with his knees and they're moving again.  "Can you feel the sun? What else can you hear?"

She can feel the sun.  It's warm on her cheeks.  There's no sun in her memories.  She pushes them from her mind and focuses on her remaining senses.  She's a scientist.  She can observe.  "Hoofbeats," she breathes.  "And I can smell something floral.  And something...Hyrule herb and armoranth?"

"That's my soap."

"Oh."

His hand is warm over her eyelids.  She can feel his pulse in the palm pressed against her temple.  She can feel his breathing press against her back.

After the longest walk, the sun vanishes against her skin.  She tenses, but a moment later, Link drops his hand from her eyes, and she blinks at a forest.  They've passed the fort.

Link does not return to his own horse.

Chapter Text

No one gave much thought to Link riding into town with a young woman sharing his saddle. They all figured he was on one of his bizarre errands to escort her somewhere, and the young woman was probably paying him in mushrooms or boots or something.

“That boy would move a mountain five feet to the left for 15 rupees,” the people of Hateno joked.

Of course, the kid had managed to buy a house at an obscene markup. Bolson had bragged about it constantly before he moved up to Tarrey Town with his new fortune. And Sayge from the dye shop said that Link once pulled a sapphire out of his bag and used it to dye his shirt blue, only to come in a few days later, saying it didn’t suit him. So maybe there was something to taking every odd job that came across your path.

The folks in Hateno did think it was weird that his usual horse trailed behind him, and that he was riding a white horse decked in ostentatious purple and gold gear. Who did he think he was, the Damned King of Hyrule? But maybe that was part of his bargain with the young lady.

They made it just inside the town gates before turning towards his house, and—out of sight and out of mind—the strange pairing was mostly forgotten for days.

#

The second they step in the door of his house, Link strips off his shield and bow and sword, letting his various belts clatter into a pile on the kitchen table, which is the main feature of the room, and therefore of the house. Zelda lets her eyes wander without taking anything in. The Sheikah Slate and a quiver clatter to the table next, and then Link is stripping off his arm guards and his champion's tunic. Zelda stares unfocused at the way his undershirt drapes against his shoulder blades and ends up staring at the same spot even as Link turns around, stares at her, and takes her arm to guide her upstairs.

The stairs feel unnecessarily steep, and she can feel herself slow on the last few steps. Where yesterday it felt like she'd slept for a hundred years and would never need to sleep again, today it feels like she’s been awake for a hundred years and could sleep for an age to make up for it. She's dead on her feet, and Link has to set her on the edge of the bed.

The tiny clasps on her sandals give her more trouble than anything has ever given her before, and after trying and failing with numb fingers, she gives up. She's going to sleep in her shoes. But Link kneels before her, taking her ankle in hand. A moment later the tightness around her foot loosens, and her shoes clatter to the floor. She tries to remove her kerchief, but the knot is hard and tight, and she can't get her fingernails into it to pull it apart, so she ends up just pulling the whole thing down and off. Maybe it will stay knotted forever.

The bed is nice. Not too hard. The pillow not too fluffy. As Link presses her shoulder to get her to lie down, as her eyes become too heavy to keep open, she takes hold of his forearm and doesn't let go. He doesn't protest. Of course, he only has one bed. Of course, she's not going to let him sleep on the floor after he saved her kingdom. Of course, she's not going to sleep on the floor. She's much too tired for any of that nonsense.

She wakes from a nightmare of hot, rancid breath cocooning her body, of pink smog seeping under her closed eyelids, of the smell and the laughing and the laughing and the laughing. She gasps, and it’s dark and hot and something—someone—is restraining her, something is wrapped tight around her so she can’t escape. The air is thick and damp and she can’t breathe, and her rescue must have been a dream—a nightmare.

Until the thing restraining her shifts and mutters, “It’s a bad dream, Zel. Jus a bad dream.”

It’s Link’s voice. She’s in Link’s house. He’s snuggled up against her back and already asleep once more. Her hair and the sheets are clammy with sweat.

Link hugs her tighter, as if comforting, but then seems to realize how gross her side of the bed is, and he rolls over in his sleep. With shaking hands, she pulls off all the extra blankets, shifting them so they still cover Link, and she settles back under a thin, cotton sheet with a cringe.

She’s so tired.

She almost remembers when shadows slept behind her eyelids. Now every time she closes her eyes, she sees swirling pink and flashes of Ganon.

She wakes again briefly. There's soup on a low heat downstairs, sending rich smells wafting into the loft. At some point, Link must have woken long enough to make a meal. Now he’s passed out next to her again. He no longer smells of battle. His hair is damp, and he has on a fresh shirt, which is unlike anything she'd ever seen before: thin and simple and bright red with short sleeves. He’s swapped out their blankets too, and although her hairline feels stiff, it’s much nicer than it was. He has an arm thrown over her waist, and while his breath doesn't have the resonant growl that would qualify it a snore, it is deep and loud and exhausted. He still has dark patches under both his eyes.

She blinks sleepily a few times before rolling over and going back to sleep.

 #

The next time she wakes, it's to the stomach churning feeling of Calamity Ganon crashing down on top of her, and she's done with sleeping again for the next hundred years. Link is still dead to the world, one arm flopping off the bed, his knuckles dragging on the floor. There's a spot of droll under his face, and his odd shirt has ridden up to nearly his ribs.

Zelda heads down stairs as quietly as she can and spoons soup into a ceramic bowl. She finds it strange that Link has a complete set of eight matching bowls, then feels slightly ashamed of herself. Why shouldn't he have nice, appropriate dishware? He has a house, for goodness sake. But when did he have time to get a house? No, she shouldn't begrudge him. A home base must have been comforting and necessary, and it has come in handy now.

The soup is very very good. It goes down much easier than the other meals she's had since she left the castle. She doesn't have to force it down her throat, doesn't hesitate before each bite.  It's so nice that she suspects that Link noticed how...foreign she's found the simple act of eating. And isn't that embarrassing?

She sips another spoonful, and lets her eyes close in appreciation. Oh, how she'd missed Link's cooking.

The next order of business is a bath. She circles the cottage without catching sight of a tub or a well or anything that Link might have used when he bathed, so she extends her search wider. The bridge they crossed to reach the house stretches over a ravine with water at the bottom. It's a secluded spot with no easy way down.

By now her legs are tired, her muscles so unused to activity, that she lies down in the grass and lets the sun soak into her skin, lets it burn away the nightmares that encroach if her mind is less than blank.  It's like she's still fighting the same battle, only now the battle is letting her mind slide away from certain subjects. She marks the sun's path across the sky, shifting her face ever so slightly to follow it until she feels like walking again.

She ends up circling almost back to the village before finding her way down the hill to the pond at the bottom. Link mentioned something about soap, so she returns to the house to dig through the stores squirreled away in his kitchen until she finds a bar of purple soap and a towel that's never been used. Its dusty. But fluffy.

She makes it down to the pond before she needs to lie in the sun again.

If she's quiet, the wind is louder than Ganon's laugh, but that means she's not breathing as much as she should, and that gets her wondering if she breathed during her long, incorporeal battle, and maybe she's fallen out of practice.  The thought is a good distraction, and she spends about ten degrees of the sun's movement across the sky practicing her breathing.

She bathes, scraping off the stink of a hundred years, rubbing the bar of soap straight against her hair when she can't get enough suds, as if she's grinding powder with a mortar and pestle. She can still smell the malice, and she works at all the tiny crevices in her ears to try to find and remove the lingering smell. She scrubs her eyes, over and over and over, soaps every eyelash, digs into the corners of her eyes until they burn. If she wasn't so absolutely sure what a bad idea it would be and also fairly sure she'd be unable to get a good angle, she would force the suds under her eyelids. She pushes suds into her very nostrils and scrubs and chokes and splutters. After a moment of hesitation, she even shoves a handful of suds into her mouth and scrubs against her tongue and the roof of her mouth and the inside of her cheeks. She gags and splutters and rinses five times, and in the end her mouth tastes of amaranth and cilantro instead of bile and smoke and decay, so it's an improvement.

She needs another rest, and after she's mostly dried and dressed, she lies down again in the grass. The sun is lowering, and she realizes that she will be without it for the next ten hours or so, and the prospect seems horribly unfair.

She combs out her hair before the sun sets. It's a horrible mess of different lengths, but at least it's straight now. She ties it all up on top of her head and kneels at the edge of the pond to go after her nose again with the soap. She'll be damned if she allows the smell to linger forever. She suspects the stench is now coming from her clothes.

Link is still asleep, and she eats more soup, hoping he'll wake before she's done so she can ask him a question. She dithers over her...dinner? Does this meal count as dinner? She's lost track.

He doesn't wake.

She washes dishes.

He doesn't wake.

She makes noise as she thumps up the stairs, and he doesn't seem to notice, so she kneels next to the bed and whispers, "Link?"

"Hrumf."

"Link?"

He rolls away from her.

"Link." She prods his shoulder, and he pulls the blanket up to his ears.

She sighs. It's really not fair to wake him.

But there's no way she'll be able to sleep again, and there's nothing to do in Link's house to get her through the night. The thought of being alone in the dark with nothing to occupy her mind has her nearly in a panic. She needs a book or a project.

In a normal volume, she says, "I'm going into town to buy some things. Can I borrow a hundred rupees? I'll pay you back with interest."

He mutters something that sounds like, "Take three," and then doesn't respond again.

It's...disconcerting going through his wallet. Both that she's taking more from him, and possibly taking from him without his permission, and that she's required to take from him in the first place.

But she absolutely must find something to do.

The village is still active, even after the sun has set. All the stores are still open, and she peers at all the signs like the tourists used to gawk up at the castle. She mentions to the general store owner that she's looking for something to read, and the look she gets in response is confusion and disgust. 

Zelda panics. It hadn't occurred to her—but of course it's obvious—that items like paper might be difficult to produce with limited trade.  And if printing press technology has fallen into disuse, books would be rare and prohibitively expensive. With horror, she realizes her country might be illiterate, but then she remembers the signs in the street, and amends her hypothesis.  She soothes herself.  People can read.  People can read.

The main trade in Hateno (aside from the agricultural) seems to be textiles. Great vats of dye sit on the sides of the main thoroughfare and great banners of fabric are stretched out to dry. This she can work with, and a project occurs to her.  She stops in the tailor's shop. There's rust-colored cotton that brings out the red undertones of her hair, but looks a bit too much like blood.  There's a deep blue cotton/wool blend that the shop keeper calls, "Royal Blue."  Zelda's eyes slip away from it, rolling like a bead of water off a leaf. There's a sturdy brown that would be good for new pants and a slate gray that draws her fingers to touch it.  There's an emerald green that does wonders for her eyes. Or so says the shop keeper. Zelda takes several yards of the gray and brown and green, a bunch of clasps and cord and plenty of thread. As she's gathering her materials, she realizes that she has no sewing equipment, so she buys scissors and pins and chalk and springs for a nice set of needles.

She has the pattern sketched on the brown fabric before the moon sets. She has the pieces cut before the sun rises. The fabric is courser than what she’s used to, but her stitches are still small and neat and even. She still works quickly, although her hands ache from over-exertion and her eyes are itchy. She goes outside to work, to sit in the sun, and let the heat creep into her skin and soak into the fabric to warm her cramping hands.

Stitching is methodical.  Sewing the pieces together is an a miracle of geometry that protects her like a spell.

She has a pair of pants together— not hemmed or reinforced, but together before the sun sets again. And she creeps upstairs (oh, the stairs are steep!) to check that Link is still asleep before she tries them on. He’s still asleep. The pants fit.

She allows herself a nap at the table, but she jerks awake an hour later, and it takes another hour to get her head back on straight, to stop jerking at every shadow from the corner of her eye. The pants are ready to wear by morning, so she wears them.  They go down only to mid calf, so they look good with her golden sandals.

The top is much easier to make, a gray tunic that will wrap in the front, held together by a clasp on her left side.  She plans to make little cap sleeves. She’s aiming for simple. She’s aiming to blend in around town, blend into this new world, blend so well her memories forget that they have anything to do with her. Maybe eventually she will make an undershirt, but for now, bare arms seem a fine idea.  She has the pieces cut out by mid afternoon, and she takes her work down to the pond. Her eyes keep slipping closed and her shoulders ache and a headache lives right behind her eyes, but that headache keeps sentry between her and Calamity Ganon, so it’s acceptable. Her stitches are getting sloppier though, and that is not.

She jerks and stabs into her finger at a shout from above, her pulse suddenly rabbit quick. And there’s Link, shouting and leaping off the cliff and snapping open his paraglider.  She presses her finger into her mouth to stem the blood with her tongue before it can stain her new tunic.  Link closes his paraglider early to fall the last eight feet and land in a crouch, spinning to face her.

“Are you alright?!” His hair is a mess and he’s still in his soft, red shirt and loose pants. He’s not wearing shoes. From the startled look in his eyes, he’s still half asleep.

"Yes.  Of course."

"I couldn't find you."

She gestures around.  "I hardy went far."

He blinks at her, then down at her hands.  She holds up the new tunic, just a back connected to a right side and part of a left side at the moment.  "I'm making myself a new set of clothes.  When I'm done, I have plans to make a fashionable dress that I'll be able to sell.  Surely the level of craftsmanship I can provide along with embroidery techniques that haven't been seen in a hundred years—at least as far as I can tell—will provide a return on your investment from the loan you gave me."

He blinks at her again.  Then he rolls his eyes.

He rolls.  His.  Eyes.

Zelda is speechless, and almost flushes in outrage, before she reminds herself that she's working with gray fabric and not blue.  If she wants to be offended like a princess, she'll have to let in other things like a princess.

He looks her up and down again, his gaze too astute for her liking, so she raises haughty eyebrows and shakes back her hair in a way that doesn't work with her headscarf. 

"Did you sleep?" he asks.

"Yes," she says, primly.  "Although not for three days.  Not all of us have your level of endurance in such tasks."

He looks like he's about to argue with her, but he holds himself back.  She half wants him to argue with her, because he slept for three days and left her alone the whole time with her memories the way he left her alone for a hundred years with the real thing, and that's a terribly ungrateful thought, but she could really do with a fight right now.

Instead, he asks, "Do you need anything from town?"

"No, thank you."

"Don't wander too far.  I don't remember if there was a blood moon since the last time I cleared out the forest."

And then he's gone, trudging back up the hill and leaving her alone with the constant exercise of breathing and the constant endurance exercise in never letting her thoughts land.  Hopefully he put on shoes before going into town.

She's a bit aggressive with her stitching after that, and has to remove several due to unconscionable errors, so she gathers up her half-a-tunic and walks back to the house to sit on the front step because the walk has made her tired.  By the time she's rested, she's in a better mindset to continue her sewing, although she does have to go slower because her brain is a bit muddled and her fingers a bit inaccurate.  Just a bit.

Link returns just as the sun is setting with a barrel on his back that's wider than it is tall.  It turns out to be a bathtub, and once the lid is removed also turns out to be full of things.  Vegetables and rice for dinner and, for him, bundles of arrows.  For her, a toothbrush and hairbrush and a new bar of soap that smells less herbal than his. Three blank journals and a set of pencils in box with a knife for sharpening them.  She falls upon these with an enthusiasm that drowns out her earlier irritation.  There's a candle that he holds up under her nose.  "Doesn't it smell like honey?"  There's a bag of hard candies that there's no way she can eat and the thought of letting them sit on her tongue and ooze fruit flavor makes her tremble with nausea. She politely declines, and he shrugs and pops one in his mouth.  There's a roll of leather that she can use for a corset and a belt, if she gets supplies for leather working and doesn't mind wearing a belt made by someone with very little leather working skill.  There's folds of cream colored fabric and the dark blue fabric that she ignored at the store.  She continues to ignore it now.  There's a stack of head scarves in every color, the bottom of which is sky blue with little white flowers on it. 

"Got ya some tea, too," he says.  "It'll give you sleep without dreams."

She glares at him.

He pops another candy in his mouth, moves the blue fabric from the tub to an empty shelf inside, and hauls the tub around back toward the stable.

The tea is bitter, and the dinner he makes is creamy and savory.  She falls asleep at the table and wakes up twelve hours later in the bed in the loft in Hateno.

 

Chapter Text

 

Zelda designs a pulley system to lift buckets of water from the pond under the bridge.  These she'll use to fill the bathtub.  In the grass next to the cooking pot, she plans out the mechanism in her journal with sketches and measurements and force calculations. 

Link cooks rice balls.  Zelda is intently aware that he is studying her, running an experiment on what she will and won't eat.  She's more likely to eat rice than bread, which feels doughy and cloying in her throat.  She's only likely to eat more than a few bites if the protein hidden inside is shredded crab meat or fish.  She's more likely to eat if Link has formed the rice balls into geometric figures.  Triangles and cylinders and cubes so they no longer look like food.  He makes one rice ball that looks like a bunny, and he's so proud of himself that Zelda forces herself to finish the whole thing.  She must make a face, and he must notice, because the next meal is back to vegetarian rice triangles.

He likes looking over her shoulder as she sketches.  When she's done with her plan and pretty sure it will work, he helps her build her creation with wood from the forest below and nails he snags from the worksite of boxy houses across the ravine.  They dig a hole to brace a post at the top of the ravine, and Link pulls out an overly large hammer to slam a post deeper into the ground.  For the pulley apparatus, they use axles and gears Link has pilfered from guardians.  The mechanism works beautifully, but they still have to lug at least ten buckets from the pulley to the tub before the tub is full enough to use.  After ten buckets, the water in the tub is still not as deep as Zelda would like, but she's tired and declares it good enough, waving Link away when he tries to take over.  She starts plans for a kind of aqueduct that will pipe the water from the pulley system straight into the tub.  But her plans come to an ignominious end when she realizes she has no idea how to construct pipes. Can they make tubes out of hollowed wood? Can they carve pipes out of rock? Is there a way she can waterproof cloth? Can they hold sections together with mortar?

She lists any solution that avoids mentioning Goron City and the help that's readily available there. By unspoken agreement, they refuse to mention the world outside Hateno.

She is the worst inventor. And an even more horrible crown princess.

Link helps her construct wooden walls around the tub to make a bathing room at the back of the house.  He doesn't seem to mind that she's coming in and adding rooms to his home, and she reminds herself that the bath was kind of his idea anyway.  She holds boards in place while he nails them with his giant sledge hammer.  It's terrifying, but she feels like her arms are regaining their muscle mass.  She suggests they go into town to procure a hammer of a more reasonable size, but Link argues that the sledge hammer isn't even close to breaking yet.  She wonders what will happen to the sledge hammer shards hurtling towards her face when it does eventually shatter.

They agree that they'd both much rather have stone walls for the bathing room, but, just like the pipes, neither of them know how to make that happen.

Zelda designs a pump system that will make it so she doesn't have to haul the water up at all, but this is entirely theoretical.

Link leans over her shoulder again to read her journal and look at her designs.  She would find this irritating if not for the fact that he's assisting her in her work and needs to know what they're doing, and he also smells like the apple juice she managed to drink, so he blends into the background.  She likes him just being present, even if he doesn't say anything, and maybe that makes her selfish and needy, but there's simply no controlling these things.

He tilts his head until it leans against her shoulder.  Then he says, "I bet Purah has supplies you could use.  You should talk to her about this."

Her pencil freezes in its tapping against her page. 

She turns slowly to look at him, and he cranes to meet her eyes without lifting his head, looking only mildly curious.

"Purah," she repeats.

"Yeah.  Up the hill at the tech la—"

His eyes widen as he realizes his mistake.

Slowly—as this is not sinking in at all—she says, "There's a tech lab up the hill."

Link jerks from her shoulder and scrambles to his feet, reaching down to grab her hand and haul her up as well.  He vanishes into the house to fetch his sword while she flattens down the blue handkerchief in her hair.  They're walking at speed into town before he even has his sword properly strapped onto his back.

"I'm sorry, I didn't think—"

"Purah's still alive!"

"—She just never really has anything for me to do—"

"The building up the hill is a tech lab!"

"—So I don't visit her real often—"

"And she's living in Hateno!"

He cringes.

"Why didn't you say anything?!"

"I...forgot?"  He does look honestly apologetic, but that won't save him.

Someone she knew!  Someone she knew and who knew her!  Some normalcy!  She wants to throw her arms around it and cling.  She wants Purah to wrap Zelda in a hug and then share pointless castle gossip. She wants to drop onto the grass and hug her knees and never finish the trek up the hill. 

Perhaps this is a bad idea.

No.  No, this is right.

But she must prepare herself for the fact that Purah will have changed.  It's been a hundred years, after all.  Her personality has most likely mellowed from the personally invasive and ravenously curious scientist of her youth.  And Zelda knows she must brace for changes in her friend's physical appearance.  She must fortify herself to show no signs of shock or disappointment or sadness.  That would be the height of rudeness, and she's too thankful for a kind face (no matter how unfamiliar).  She cannot afford alienating her old friend.  (Don't say old friend!)  And they most definitely won't indulge in castle gossip.  And she must fortify herself against the distinct possibility that her friend does not remember her well.  Or at all.

But dealing with Link for the past week, she's sure she has that aspect, at least, firmly in hand.

Or perhaps she doesn't.  What would she do if Purah doesn't remember her?  Or remembers only skewed pieces of her.  Or remembers her as the failed princess who allowed their kingdom fall into ruin with her laziness?

That is most definitely what Purah thinks of her.  They should turn around.  They should move from Hateno altogether.  To a house further south, perhaps.

Or what if Purah has built Zelda up over the years, and then Zelda shows up like...like this? What if Zelda is a disappointment?  A disappointment yet again.

What if Purah expects her arrival to herald in a new era for Hyrule?  This is the end of their rest period, and she will have to face her destiny once again.  She'll have to face the crown and the throne and—and—

And she was...not enjoying her time in Link's home per-say, but it felt stable and calm and set and—and they hadn't finished the bathroom yet!

Link's hand squeezes her arm above the elbow, guiding her to a stop before a pond encircled by one of the switchbacks.

"I'm sorry I forgot," he says.  "I really am."

She waves it away, too agitated by her spiraling thoughts to even remember his lapse in memory.  Link has amnesia, after all.  Lapses in memory are to be expected.  "It's quite alright."

She wipes her palms on her thighs.  This is a longer walk than she's used to, even with pushing herself daily to exercise.  Would it be too cowardly to rest by this pond before hiking the last stretch?

Link is looking at her, his head tilted at an angle, his eyes reading her face like she's a book.  The wind brushes at his hair in a much more endearing way than it tugs loose stray wisps of her own. "We don't have to see her if you don't want."

A sigh burst from her cheeks so readily that it gives away her thoughts.  "No.  No.  She's a dear friend, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing her once again.  It would be rude—shameful almost—to not say hello."

"Then what's wrong?"

"Nothing is wrong."

He nearly rolls his eyes at her again.  She can tell.  But he shows restraint. 

Instead he says, "I never used to have to guess what you were thinking.  You used to do all your thinking out loud."

"Did I?" she asks.

"I assumed so.  What with how much you talked."

She gasps and shoves him.  Not hard, and he barely even sways away from her.  She huffs and folds her arms across her chest, which just makes him smirk at her.

"I mean," he continues, "it didn't seem like there'd be any room for you to do any thinking on top of all the thinking you were doing out loud."

She throws her arms from their folded position to plant them on her hips.  "I'll have you know that, despite what you may be capable of, I can hold a great many thoughts in my head simultaneously."

"Uh huh."

"Perhaps I'm speaking less frequently because you've become downright loquacious, and I hardly have space to speak anymore!"

He snorts.  "That's not it."  They're walking again, more slowly this time up the hill.  She has clear, wild view west, over Hateno and forests and fields, back towards Dueling Peaks so far in the distance they're blurred like a dream of far away places.

Under his breath, Link snickers.  "Loquacious."

She glares at him, and he grins at her.  It's much easier to be irritated his his foolishness than worry about her own problems.  She wonders if he does it on purpose.

The tech lab is a mess. It's lopsided and precarious as if whoever built it really should not have added that tiny house perched on the roof. Rickety stairs spiral up the outside to a giant telescope left to rust in the elements and a deck chair with a jaunty umbrella over it.

The castle's tech lab was a half dozen stone buildings full of the latest research, the most expansive technical library, the most complete pantry of samples and ingredients. There were dozens of researchers and assistants, there were couriers running on endless errands. At the end, money had been a non-issue, and every room unveiled a new marvel, a new wonder of engineering.

Zelda's jaw drops at the Prayer Frog wearing whimsical glasses, perched right over the door. Her religion has turned to kitch.

Link moves to throw open the door, but jerks to a stop and spins back to her.  "Shoot.  There's something else I should have mentioned."

Dread locks her legs in place. She's not sure she can take any more.  "What?"

The door flies open with a crash, and suddenly there's a little girl shouting at Link.

"Where have you been? It's been almost a week and not a word! Don't think I don't know Calamity Ganon was defeated! And you couldn't be bothered to let anyone know. I bet Impa thinks you’ve been kidnapped!”

The girl doesn't even come up to Link's chest. Her ruffled skirt flounces as she stomps her foot and shakes tiny fists. Her big, red glasses with eyelashes attached complete the wholly unintimidating look.

Link cringes anyway and offers a weak, "Sorry."  His eyes dart to Zelda.  He pulls his lower lip between his teeth.

"Sorry! He's sorry! You hear that, Symin? He says he's sorry."

Behind the tiny girl is a man frozen over the book he was reading,  His eyes dart between Link and the little girl, unsure if he should intervene or vanish into the shadows.

Apparently, the girl's question was rhetorical, because she has spun back to Link. "What took you so long? Where is the princess? Do you know how much work we have to do? Ah! There she is."

The little girl's attention is suddenly on Zelda, and Link takes the opportunity to step back as quickly as he can from the situation.

The girl's hands clasp together in front of her, and her unnaturally magnified eyes disappear as she closes them in a grin. "Your Highness!" She performs an elaborate, girlish curtsy. "Thank the Goddess. It's so good to see you finally safe."

Zelda's face falls back into her benevolent smile, the smile of years of practice. Funny how she can still make it do that.  Funny that it's almost comforting in its familiarity, and at the same time it makes her want to double over and clutch her stomach. 

"Thank you.  I'm glad the ordeal is finally over, and Hyrule is finally at peace."

The girl blinks at her, the action unnervingly owlish. Also like an owl, she swivels to face Link with an unnatural gliding movement of her head. She pins him in place a moment, then burst out of it with a stamp of her foot and a shout, "You didn't tell her! How could you not tell her? You are the worst, worst, worst!"

Link opens his mouth but chokes on what he ought to say.

The next second, the girl has a notepad and pen in her hand, muttering to herself as she scribbles, "...subject's logic and self-preservation skills deteriorating..."

"But what about you?" the girl asks Zelda. "You remember me, right? Or do you both have memory issues?"

Zelda stares at her a long moment, her neutral face slowly morphing into the one of shock that she promised herself she wouldn't wear at this meeting. "Purah?"

The girl grins and strikes a pose with her fingers framing her face. "Snap! You're way smarter than that one." She jabs a thumb over her shoulder at Link.

"Purah." An emotion rises up from Zelda's chest, an aching pressure on her lungs, a tightening on her throat as she takes in the sight of the girl before her. She has the same forking eyelashes as the woman she once knew, the same twist of her mouth as she smiled at someone else's expense. There's something about the gestures of her hands, the movements of her fingers that throw Zelda back to the tech lab that once was.

The woman before her is more familiar than anything else she's seen in this new world, and yet...and yet...just like everything else, she's changed. Just like everything else, the change couldn't have been anticipated.

"Purah," she breathes again. Her eyes are welling, and if she's not careful, tears will overflow, but Purah is already waving away whatever emotion has welled up.

"None of that. We've got way too much to do. I'm sure Link already showed you—no, wait, he definitely hasn't.  Bah, you're useless!  We attached the slate's search feature to the compendium, so if you have something in the compendium, you can see if it's nearby and hone in on it.  But I've been thinking we can hook that up to the map feature, and then you won't have to walk around dowsing for mushrooms.  But you're the expert, and I need your opinion on if the connection is sound.  And Link won't let go of the slate for more than twenty seconds at a time, so it's impossible to get any real work done, but now that you have it—don't you have it?  Where is it?  Link!   Give it to her, good grief!  And what are you wearing?" she asks Zelda. "That outfit is not fit for a queen!"  She says this last part with so much glee that she nearly cackles.

Feeling numb, Zelda follows to a guidance stone.

#

"She's a child," Zelda says as they make their way back down the hill after an afternoon spent elbow deep in ancient tech wiring, a nice dinner cooked by Symin, and promises to visit again the next day. "What happened to make her a child?" Zelda just can't believe it. She'd expected an old woman, but instead...

"Experiment gone wrong," Link says. "I think she just wanted to make herself not—you know—ancient. And for a while it worked and she was middle aged and youthful again. But then it just kept going. According to her journal, she turned into a teenager. Then into a child."  He shrugs.

Zelda shakes her head. "She always was reckless, I suppose. I wonder if she gave any thought to the possible side effects. Self experimentation is always a bad idea."

Link pauses by a lantern lit with a bright blue fire. The sun is setting in the west, washing the fields below them in brilliant gold and pink. It seems to sparkle.  The color makes her think she can smell sulfur, and she looks away to give her full attention to Link.

"She tries to make it sound like a whim," he says. His hair shines gold in the fading light.  "Like it's a big, silly accident. But I don't buy it."

"You think she intended to turn herself into a child?"

Link turns from the sunset to look her square in the face. "I think she was afraid that she wouldn't live long enough for me to climb out of the shrine of resurrection."

Zelda only just manages to keep her mouth from hanging slack.

His lips quirk in a way that's half-teasing half-heart-wrenching. "She had one goal, and she didn't want to run out of time before she could see it through."

The lantern flickers as the wind picks up, cold against Zelda's bare arms.  Link blinks a few times, then jerks his head towards the downward slope of the trail. Side by side and without another word, they continue down the hill.

 

Chapter Text

There are new functions on the Sheikah slate.  The Sheikah have had time to stew in the runes' existence, and Link takes the new features completely for granted.  Zelda feels cheated that the slate—her slate—withheld these marvels from her for so long, that they only decided to be useful when Link had possession of it.  Link, who—again—had no concept of how amazing the features were, and learned to use it by smashing rather large blocks into one another and dropping objects from great heights.

She doesn't hold it against Link (much), but it seems unfair that the ancient Sheikah or the Goddess or whatever force had a hand in it didn't deem her worthy to know the slate's secrets.

Not that she's obsessing over that.

But now that the slate is back in her hands, she dives into its mysteries with a vengeance.  When Link peels it from her hands in the evenings, swapping it out for dinner, she blinks blue lines from her eyes and straightens her shoulders and neck with a groan.

The slate can create columns of ice from even the shallowest ponds.  How shallow can they be?  She will need a controlled experiment.  And the columns seem to have more volume than the water from which they were produced.  She theorizes that the slate takes thermal energy somehow and converts it to...to...to what?  Mass?  That's impossible.  The slate is impossible.

No.  It can't be impossible.  It's just highly, highly advanced science.

The slate can produce bombs from nothing.  Endless, endless explosives from thin air.  They glow oddly, in a way where she half suspects they're an illusion, but their explosions are certainly real.  Link gets anxious anytime she puts her face too close to the bombs, inspecting their surfaces and fuse mechanisms from only a few inches away.  A smaller mystery is how they are detonated remotely. That seems infinitely useful, but that question seems minor in light of the bombs' very existence.

Link shows her the stasis rune back behind the tech lab.  He has her freeze a barrel so it converts all kinetic energy to potential energy as he wails on it with his sword.  And then it snaps all that potential energy back to kinetic energy and careens off the cliff to fly out of sight into the ocean. 

She blinks once into the distance.  When the barrel remained unmoving as Link hit it, she was impressed.  But now her mind is gone.  Her forehead wrinkles, and she takes a breath to ask a question.  It makes more logical sense than the bombs, but...but...but then she's shrieking.  Shrieking at Link.  At the slate in her shaking hands. At the barrel now eaten by the ocean.  It doesn't matter.  It's impossible!  How could it possibly exist?!  How had the ancient Sheikah invented it!?  And how had they lost such  tremendous power!?  Such loss of knowledge should be a crime! Her voice is so high pitched that Link is wincing, and even as she notices, she can't stop the stream of panicked dumb-foundedness that's expelled from her lungs.

Link herds her into Symin's care after that and makes himself scarce for a few hours until she calms down.  (It's just...everything all at once.  If it was just the stasis rune, she'd probably have been fine.  She's fine.  She'll be fine.)  But by the time he comes back, she's thrown herself into it, and although she's stopped shrieking, she's now lost in a sea of manic notes, with a pencil in her hand and one behind her ear, and she's got a tape measure nailed to the floor by her foot so she can see how far she's stasis-shot rocks across the room. Purah has whipped together a device with a spring and a plunger that she can pull back a measurable amount and with which she can exert a specific force, and she's been using it to flick rocks in stasis.  The pile of rocks is encroaching on Symin's neat area.

Symin tries his best both to be unobtrusive and welcoming.  He doesn't say much, for which she's grateful.  She also grows used to Purah.  She really is quite similar to the woman Zelda once knew—the woman whose behavior was already juvenile for her age.  And Zelda can so readily lose herself in her research that the world around her fades regardless of its terrors and absurdities.  And maybe that's why she's so eager to let the research drown everything out.  It's only every now and then when Zelda's brain feels the need to remind her, that she's shocked into remembering that Purah is a child and looks and sounds unnatural.

She lets the research drown everything out, but she still notices that Link is getting antsy.  She can see it in the way he has trouble standing still. Even when he's doing something like cooking, the way he bounces and stirs, the way he darts around, into the house for more ingredients, into the house for dishes, around to the pulley to get water while the meal simmers. Any noise has him snapping to attention, and anytime he goes into town, he comes back with a story of helping someone do something menial. He herded and then milked four cows yesterday, and came back with four jars of milk.  He's rounded up cuccos three times in the last two days. Each time he gets twenty rupees, and the last time he used a cucco to glide to the top of a house, where he found a treasure chest with a piece of amber inside.

"You stole someone's amber," Zelda tells him.

Link squints at the ceiling but can't bring himself to see her point of view.

The day she comes home and tells him that Symin heard of some bobokins causing problems down in the valley, he snatches up his supplies so fast he's practically running.

Link needs something to do. Perhaps, it's time to stop putting off the inevitable, time to admit she had rested enough, distracted herself enough.  Maybe it's time to finally reclaim her kingdom.

Her stomach cramps thinking about it.

When he returns that evening, smeared with sweat and monster guts, carrying a bag of monster innards and wearing the biggest grin she's ever seen on him, she's waiting at the table, the slate tucked carefully away, her hands folded neatly in front of her. Even though she's smiling faintly, the look of delight slips off his face, replaced with the look of dutiful blankness that he used to wear before the Calamity. It stings, but she hides her cringe. She deserves his old attitude while she's wearing her own princess face.

"I've thought about it," she says. "And you seem pent up here. Unhappy. It seems as if you're ready to begin adventuring again."

He wipes grunge from his forehead with his forearm and takes a seat across from her. With her choice of conversation topic, his posture loosens as if his strings have been cut. "You have no idea," he says.

She nods. "I honestly haven't given much thought to what our next steps should be, but I suppose we should—"

"Oh, I have plenty of ideas."

She blinks at him, startled. "You...do?"

"Yeah. Okay, first of all, I want to go back to the shrine of resurrection. You said there's some sort of challenge there, but I got too busy and completely forgot. Sorry. There's also a challenge in the Lost Woods. I don't know what that's about either, but the koroks mentioned making my sword stronger. Then Klinton, from Fang and Bone? He said he'd give me some medals for fighting all the big monsters. The Hinoxes and the Taluses and the big sand things, and I'm figuring that if there are no more Blood Moons they might actually stay dead."

It's a lot to take in, and it's all so different from her own vague thoughts to visit the scattered tribes of Hyrule and unite them under a single banner, to rebuild Castle Town, to pray at the sacred springs, to get back to her research on the Divine Beasts. In fact, her own plans don't form well enough to express event hat much until she hears of Link's plans to do something completely different. Her head spins. All she can latch onto is, "You mean a Molduga?"

Link snaps and points at her. "Molduga. I can never remember that."

"Link, I think most of these challenges were to help you become stronger, so you could fight Calamity Ganon. Will it still be worthwhile to pursue them now?"

"Why wouldn't it? And if I get stronger, then I'm going to get way better at killing Lynels, and I don't see how you can rebuild Hyrule with Lynels running around."

She has to concede that point.

He grins at her. "There's also treasure," he says. "I heard that somewhere, there's a rabbit hood."

She shakes her head as if shaking back her hair.  "And what is that?"

"I don't know. I think it might help me run faster."

Zelda tries to keep her eyebrows from wrinkling in too much confusion.

"And you can help. Oh, this will be great! You can help me find all the monsters, because I definitely don't know where all those Hinoxes are."

"Well, I hardly know where they are."

"No, but you're good at research and stuff. People saying, 'I heard there's a Hinox up that mountain. Or was it that mountain? Or was it a mountain where the light shines on it at a certain time of day that makes it look like a parrot?' You're good at that kind of thing. Riddles and stuff."

"I am?"

"Yeah. With your research and your logic."

She can feel the struggle to keep her forehead smooth getting away from her, and she takes a deep breath. "Alright. How—How should we begin with all...this?"

He thinks for a moment, drumming his fingers against the table. "I think I should go to the shrine of resurrection first. I can glowing-string-travel there and see what's up. The Great Plateau is hard to get to on foot, and I don't know what will be there, so it's probably best if you stay here."

She takes a deep breath through her nose and says nothing.

"I mean, if that's okay with you?"

"I'm quite capable of managing for myself for a few days." That's not true at all, but the thought of him thinking she needs constant supervision has her hackles up. As does the thought of him running off to adventure without her. Who does he think he is?

"It's just that I remember..." His eyes close as he tries to draw up the memory. "I remember that you gave me the slip one time, and I remember this...panic." He pats his chest as if that's a more descriptive method of communication than words.

She stares at him. One time? She gave him the slip at least a dozen times, but he remembers one. How much does he remember? Apparently not enough to remember that for over a year he was practically her shadow and would never dream of wandering off on an adventure and leaving her unprotected.

Unprotected from what? she asks herself. The war is over.  And since when does she care about being protected?

"When I'm done there, I'll come straight back, and we can head out to the Lost Woods if you like. So maybe you can see if you can find anything on Hinoxes and Taluses between here and there. I know there's a Talus up by Ralis pond. I already got him once, but then there was a Blood Moon." He shrugs.

"Right," she says. "Do you want to tell me about some of the other Taulses you've found?"

He reaches out a hand and for a moment she doesn't understanding him.  Then she blinks, pulls out the Sheikah slate, and hands it over. 

"I marked some of them," he says,

She stands to move around the table and watch over his shoulder as he pulls up the map function.  "Some?"

He cringes. "After a while I just got lazy." 

Of course.

He points at a marking that looks like a skull. "That's a Hinox. That's a Talus. Lynel."

"Well," she says, taking back the slate and faking a smile that he returns a hundred fold. "I'll mark these on a map of my own and see what else I can dig up.  Since...you'll be taking the slate."  She tries to keep that last part from sounding like a question. 

She succeeds, because he says, "And I'll pack!"  

He bounces to his feet. He's still disgusting from his last round of monster hunting.

#

Link is gone with a grin and a wave in the morning, standing out in the yard in front of the house, because he thinks it's rude to warp (he refuses to call it anything other than glowing-string-travel) from inside the house. Wearing his dirty boots in the house and tracking mud and monster guts inside is fine, but teleporting is gouache.

He vanishes, taking her Shiekah slate along with him.

She sighs as dramatically as she can, because there's no one around to see her. For the first time in a century, she's truly alone.

Link's bright red shirt sits on top of the stacks of clean, folded laundry on the kitchen table.  She decides to wear it for no other reason than that it's there.  It's a little tight.  But it must be tighter on Link, and he doesn't seem to mind.

She waits a solid two hours to show she can before taking her notes and her new map up to the tech lab. She doesn't want to look too desperate for company, but she kind of is. Being alone with her thoughts is not a pleasant experience, and maybe she should be grateful that Link has been so disruptive and entertaining lately instead of following her silently and letting her ramble.

Purah welcomes her in and sweeps her into a discussion of the experiments Zelda wishes to do on the cryonis rune. Purah talks for an hour before Zelda can bring up that she needs a map and a way to find Hinoxes, and—oh yes—that Link has absconded with the slate.

Purah swears.

They bring a map down from the wall, and waste no time drawing all over it. Purah grumbles the whole time about how there's functionality to mark the spots of monsters this on the slate and how if only they had the slate they could test her theories about using its searching capabilities.  Maybe they could hook it up to a tower and find all the monsters in a whole region. Maybe. Wouldn't that be great? If only they had the slate.

It's exactly what Zelda doesn't need.  

"What is he even doing with it?" Purah whines.  "Besides traveling, and he can do that fine without the slate.  He has a horse."

"There's a challenge," Zelda says with as much calm as she can muster.  "I'm sure the slate's abilities will come in handy.  We want him back quickly and uninjured, after all."

"He could do with some injury, if you ask me. Taking the slate.  When he knows we're using it!"

Before she can stop herself, she throws her pencil to the table.  "I am aware he took the slate.  Thank you.  I agree it is frustrating, but what do you expect me to do about it?"

Purah rolls her shoulders backwards and gives her a haughty look while wobbling her head back and forth in a way that would be devastating from a judgmental older woman, but looks ridiculous on a judgemental child.

Zelda ticks up her chin.  "I won't be able to do whatever I wish forever.  It's a fantasy, and it's good that it's being disrupted before I fall too far into," she searches for the correct word, waving her hand as she does.  "Unproductive patterns.  I am to be queen.  I must rebuild Hyrule.  I should not be canoodling about with the slate when there's work to be done.  It's more useful in Link's hands."

Purah stares at her, as if waiting for her to realize what she's just said, to make the connection to the voice of her father that still lives in her psyche.  As if she was not painfully aware of the origin of her outburst.  When Zelda's face remains stony, Purah gives a slow, drawn out, "Wooooow."

Zelda reclaims her pencil and returns to the map.  "I'm not in the mood, Purah."

"Well, that's obvious."

Zelda marks another spot from her hastily scribbled notes onto the map.

"You don't want to do that," Purah says.  "You don't want to do Link's Kill All the Monsters plan either."

Zelda sighs.  "It's necessary."

"Sure.  But it's boring."

That is very true.

Purah props her elbows on the table and leans her chin into her hands, already moving past any offense at Zelda's rudeness.  "Seems to me the question is: what do you want to do?" 

She needs to do so many things. She needs to inspect the divine beasts, see if she can get them functioning again. If her hypotheses are correct, a new pilot will ring them back to life. She needs to pay her respects to the various races of Hyrule and announce that she has returned and confirm that Ganon has at last been sealed, and she needs to do it in a way that doesn't make her look imperious. She ought to revisit the springs and thank the Goddess for giving her power when she needed it most, for giving her the strength to hold Ganon back for so long. It's only by the Goddess' grace that they succeeded in the end, and she needs to pay respects. She needs to rebuild the castle and reform the military and establish safe trade routes and appoint a council and plan her coronation.

Purah's reading her mind.  "Not what you think you need to do. Not what the king would want you to do, or what Impa would want you to do, or even what I want you to do. What do you want to do?"

"That hardly matters."

Puah shrugs.  "It's not like we're making plans. We're just talking. Having some fantasy time."

Zelda doesn't appreciate having her words repeated back to her.

But what does she want to do? She wants to bury herself in this tech lab, picking apart ancient machines and putting them back together. She wants Link to have his own Sheikah slate so he stops borrowing hers, and maybe (it's a long shot, but if we're talking about what she wants, then why not discuss long shots), just maybe, she could build a new slate, a second slate. She wants to not just revive the ancient technology enough to use it, but she want to use what the ancient Sheikah have given her to build her own technology. New technology. She wants to be able to ride to Kakariko without having a panic attack at the sight of graveyard of guardians.

At that she blinks. She lifts her eyes to Purah, who's waiting impatiently for an answer.

"I want to gather the remains of the guardians. They should all be brought to a single research station. Somewhere where they can be secured and studied."

Purah's eyes light, her chin popping off her hands.

"We should begin," Zelda says more strongly, "with the remains at Fort Hateno."

Purah has out her notepad, scribbling frantically and not looking at Zelda as she asks. "And where should we collect them all? Is it time to rebuild the old tech lab by the castle?"

"No," Zelda says. "Even if we rebuild Castle Town, if there's an army of guardians in sight—no matter how inactive—no one will want to repopulate it."

Purah hums in agreement, still scribbling. "Then where?"

Zelda's eyes wander the map. Her next thought is the North Akkala tech lab where Robbie is. Surely, he'd be thrilled at the idea of all the guardians coming to him. And it is a remote location. But on the other hand, it's a very long way to cart hundreds of guardian carcasses, and that would make the venture more expensive. And even though North Akkala is remote, it's also flat. If the guardians came back to life, they'd be far from any settlements, but they'd also be free to run wild. No, she needs somewhere secure.

With that thought, her eyes fall on the perfect spot.

"What's the state of the Forgotten Temple these days?"

Purah looks up from her notes and beams.

Chapter Text

A few days later, a light streaks across the sky. It’s a blue ball, larger than a shooting star, a trail dragging behind it. It comes from the Southwest and flies across the western sky to land to the north. Probably in Zora’s Domain, but there’s no way to tell. There’s no sound of impact. No shake of the earth.  No billowing cloud of evil rising beyond the mountains.

Zelda bolts up the last switchback to the top of the hill to see if she can spot the landing from higher ground. She races into the tech lab when she finds no evidence that the comet ever existed.

“Did you see that? There was a light in the sky. It landed near the Zora’s Domain. I think it came from the Great Plateau.”

“Let’s hope it was Link finishing up, so he can get his butt back here soon,” Purah says from the floor.

Zelda only now takes in the sight before her. Purah and Symin are frantically gathering up the papers strewn across the lab. There’s a bucket of soapy water and a rag abandoned half way through washing one of Purah’s chalk markings off the floor. The table is covered in books that were yesterday in precarious towers. Symin’s hair is slipping from its knot, or perhaps it was never put in its knot correctly in the first place.

"What's happening?" Zelda asks.

"Impa's happening."  Purah stands, but the pages in her arms are so off balance that they slip loose and fall.  She scrambles for them, but only manages to mix them more in the air.  In a whirlwind of paper, she stamps her foot and shouts, "It's not like I wasn't going to write to her!  Of course, I was!  She needed to know where you were and that the Calamity was over!  How was I supposed to know she'd want to come here?  She's never ever come here!  Even when she was younger, she never visited.  She hasn't left Kakariko in thirty years!" She drops to the floor in a flounce to gather up papers again.

The color drains from Zelda's face.  "Impa's coming here?  Why?"

Purah slaps her fists onto her thighs in exasperation.   "I'll give you two guesses!"

The leader of the Sheikah, who have sworn themselves in service to the royal family, an oath they’ve kept through a hundred years with an absent monarch, is traveling across the country to greet the last surviving member of the royal family and heir to the throne of Hyrule.  Impa is coming to guide Zelda through her coronation and Hyrule’s reconstruction, a process Impa has probably been planning for a century.

It's an accident.  Completely outside her control in a moment of weakness, but Zelda breathes, "Oh no."

Purah pauses her pouting long enough to give Zelda a pitying look, and that's enough to snap her out of her own self-pity. 

Zelda shakes herself.  Sets her shoulders.  Pushes down the tremble in her arms and the tremble in her voice.  "Well.  Then I suppose then we must make the place tidy."

Purah refuses to let them re-shelve the books unless they're re-shelved properly, the specifics behind which are a mystery to both Zelda and Symin.  Purah won't even let Zelda put them in the correct general area for more specific sorting later.  "Well, they must go somewhere!  They can't stay on the table!"  "I'll get to them!"  But Zelda does not believe for a second the Purah will get to them, not with how she's fussing frantically over a pile of journals.  And Zelda's heart cannot deal with her hands sitting idle.  She's balancing on a wire, ready to break down sobbing, ready to let loose an animalistic scream, and she has no idea which one will spring loose first.  She ends up hauling most of the books into Purah's room upstairs, where they'll be out of sight and Purah can shelve them more leisurely at a later date.  It's tiring work that leaves her breathless and causes her arms to burn.

Purah insists they can't put away the loose papers until she's sorted them, so Zelda and Symin spend far too long turning the work bench into a filing system, squinting at pages to make sense of them, then placing them in piles as best they can as quick as they can.  Once they're sorted (and much more organized than Purah's floor system), Symin puts them neatly into folders and Purah drops those folders haphazardly into a chest.  She has to sit on the chest to get it to close.

Purah refuses to let them remove the guardian hanging from a net on the ceiling.  That's probably for the best.  They'll only manage to hurt themselves trying.  Purah throws a fit, but eventually gives in to scrubbing the floor, but she follows Symin as he scrubs, making careful and annoying note of where her chalk marks were.  Zelda tries to stay out of the way, throwing herself into removing cobwebs from above the bookshelves and scrubbing the guidance stone and the work bench until they shine.

She won't be able to turn the blue fabric Link bought into a suitable dress before the Sheikah arrive.  There's no time and her hands are shaking.  Purah makes sure everyone knows what a strain it is to disrupt her frantic tidying, but she rushes upstairs and returns a few minutes later with Sheikah garb from her young-lady days.  Zelda doesn't ask how recent those days were.  With some alterations, it should fit.  Zelda leaves the Sheikah to their cleaning and takes off down the hill to start the adjustments as soon as humanly possible.

She runs so hard her lungs are burning.  She runs so hard she thinks she might be sick.  She runs as if she can outrun the future and the past and keep only the present for herself.

She stumbles into the house and pulls up short.

Link's supplies are spread over the table.

She takes a minute to pull her panting under control.  To swallow down her gasps and be quiet so she won't wake him with her embarrassing behavior.  When she has her noises under control (if not her heart rate), she sneaks upstairs to find him passed out on the bed.  He looks unharmed, not that she can really make an accurate assessment of his well-being from ten feet away.  He's not covered in blood, anyway.  He has good color in his cheeks.

The sight of him calms her heart better than her time gathering herself by the door.  He's back.  He's back safe.  Somehow, that makes things easier.

As she turns to let him sleep, his voice stops her.  "You're wearing my shirt."

His eyes are open. 

She runs her hands over her stomach, and says, "I like it.”  She takes a seat on the side of the bed, one leg folded up so she can face him.

"Does this mean your mopey gray phase is over?"

"What do you mean?"

"You made yourself the most boring gray shirt I've ever seen."

"I'll have you know, that shirt is very well tailored.  It's fashionable.  And functional."

His lips twitch.  "It was the color of a tombstone.  Like you were trying to blend in."

"I was trying to blend in."

He shakes his head.  "Blend into the dirt and let the ground swallow you whole.  And it didn't work anyway.  You'll stand out no matter what you wear.  You're too shiny."

She doesn't know what to say to that.

He taps his fingers against the hem by her hip.  "This suits you better though.  It's like you.  Vibrant."

He's looking at her then, as if he sees something in her that she doesn't. 

Heat rises up her neck and into her cheeks, and she turns away to clear her throat.  "Unfortunately, you won’t have time to get used to it."  She holds up the fabric in her lap.  It's become wrinkled in her hands.  

"Why not?"

She sighs and tries to smile.  "Because Impa is on her way."

He pops up on an elbow.  "Impa's coming?  Here?" 

"Purah received a letter this morning, saying she would travel to Hateno as soon as possible."

He calculates.  "She won't come alone, so they'll have to pack for everyone.  And—Impa actually is old—she won't make the trip fast.  Probably another two or three days at least."

"That was Purah's prediction as well."

He nods.  Then, "What does that mean?  Her coming here?"

"I don't know," she says.  But she does.  And so does Link.  It means that someone is finally going to insist she take the throne and deal with all the politics and weight and restrictions that that entails.  It means her life will refocus on her duty and the role she was born to play but didn't choose. 

She knows this.  She doesn't feel like talking about it.

"Scootch over," she says, dropping the Sheikah outfit to the floor and lying down on the bed, facing Link.  It won’t take her two to three days to alter the Sheikah outfit.  She can take a nap.  "How was your challenge?"

He smiles.  It's a funny thing viewed from so close.  There are nuances she's never noticed before.  It makes her want to see under what repeated conditions his cheek will twitch again.  The excited joy of new discovery and new experimentation makes her heart beat quicker.

"Good," he says.  "Real good.  A new pedestal rose up out of the ground in the shrine of resurrection and gave me a new weapon.  It was like nothing I've ever seen.  Kind of like a trident, but with a short grip.  When I picked it up, it was like it sucked all the life out of me.  Like the Master Sword, but worse.  I felt weak, and I had to fight camps of monsters like that.”

“And that was a good challenge?”

“Yeah.  Some new shrines popped up too.  They look different."

"Different how?"

"Like sharper.  On top.  They came out of the ground, so I guess they had to break through."

She thinks about that.  "Do you think they were always there?  Underground?"

"I don't think they magically formed two days ago."

She hates how much she doesn't know about the shrines.  It's haunting in a way, how they've sat untouched and undiscovered so for so very long.  How they are spread beneath all Hyrule, and how they'll never know if they've found them all.

"I saw a light in the sky this morning," she says.  "It seemed like it came from the Great Plateau.  Was that you?"

He takes the slate from his hip. He hadn't bothered to remove it, although the Master Sword is beside the bed and his boots are thankfully at the top of the stairs.  He rolls onto his back and holds the slate above them, so she can look at the map with him.  Four targets blink at them from the different corners of Hyrule.  They provide no other information but a location.  "There were four lights," he says.

"What’s at these points?"

"I don't know," he says.  He murmurs it.  As if it bothers him that he doesn't know.  Like he’d already be there, if he wasn’t…here. 

With her.

“Will you go investigate?”

She has to admit she’s curious. About the mystery of it all. About the lights in the sky. About the new shrines, shrines even Link has yet to step into. She would be much more interested providing assistance with shrine exploration than with monster hunting, but—

“I don’t think we should make any plans until Impa shows up.”

She takes a deep breath and rolls onto her side, bowing her head into Link’s bicep so she doesn’t have to face the world until...until after a nap. He rolls toward her as well, so her forehead is against his chest. He drops an arm over her, and she stiffens and sucks in a breath when something prods at her rear. He’s trying to slip the slate into her back pocket. That…won’t do. Without looking up (because her face is very red again) she takes it from his hands and slips it under their pillow.

His arm goes heavy over her waist. He presses his face to the top of her head for a moment before pulling back, leaving her reeling and frozen and trying to figure out if he just kissed her. No.  Surely not.  He takes a deep breath like a sigh, like he’s smelling her and doesn’t mind the scent of her hair.

She takes a hesitant breath in as well, hoping the scent of armoranth and Hyrule herb will ease her butterfly heart, will make sense of the quiet and the chaos she’s found here with Link.

Link smells like bomb arrows and monster guts.

#

The day they expect Impa to arrive, they go about their day as usual. Except Zelda dresses in her Sheikah dress.  It's in four layers of white cloth that used to have ribbons and sashes of purple and red, now dyed blue at the dye shop.  They match her hair kerchief. And now she and Link will match again, when he puts on his Champion's tunic, which is folded under his arm.

They head up the hill to the tech lab like always, except they do so with a silent tension building between them.  She wonders if Link feels as she does. Maybe he's disappointed he'll have to stand silently behind her again, to follow her everywhere and no longer run off on his adventures. She wonders if these days he's still capable of following.  She wonders if he even realizes that Impa will expect that of him.

Like always, Zelda heads into the lab, wildly hoping to get some last few moments with the equipment.  She doesn’t even know what she would do at this point.  Link peels off at the door, heading up the spiraling stairs to keep a look out.

Whatever restlessness she feels inside, is magnified eight-fold inside the lab where Purah and Symin are trying to figure out what to do with the furniture. Purah presses a rag into one of Zelda's hands, a spray bottle that smells of alcohol into the other and puts Zelda on window washing duty.

"Where's Link?" Purah asks.  "We have to offer Impa lunch!  Symin, get Link to make lunch!"

Symin slips outside and makes lunch.

Link charges into the workroom. "They're at the base of the mountain."

Everyone scrambles. Link's struggling out of his baldric to throw on his champion's tunic and then put the baldric back on as Purah pulls off Zelda's kerchief and the shrieks at what she finds beneath, which startles Link into drawing his sword, his half-strapped-on baldric clattering to the floor.

"WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR HAIR?!"

"IT WAS DAMAGED IN THE BATTLE AGAINST CALAMITY GANON!"

"THAT'S NOT DAMAGE, THAT'S AN ATROCITY!"

"THAT IS NOT HELPFUL."

"WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME SOONER? WE COULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING!"

"LIKE WHAT?"

Purah throws her hands in wild circles, spluttering for an answer. "I DON'T KNOW! IF I'D HAD TIME, MAYBE I WOULD HAVE HAD AN IDEA!"

It's then that something lands on her head from behind, and she spins to find Link’s hands hovering over her head.

"SNAP! PERFECT!"

When the Sheikah entourage arrives at the tech lab, Zelda will be wearing a diamond diadem, meant to protect against guardians.

He gives her a brief smile, and she clings to that moment of eye contact like she’s drowning and it will keep her afloat.

Purah shouts, "LINK! GO!"

Link sheathes his sword, which is still not on his back, and charges off the mountain, throwing himself into a swan dive before popping open his paraglider.  He has to meet the Sheikah and guide them to the tech lab instead of letting them stand around in the middle of town, drawing attention from the locals as they wait for Zelda to make a grand appearance or something.

It takes them an hour to climb the hill, and Zelda, Purah, and Symin stand in a little row right in front of the tech lab and watch their long trek.  There are four horses and two donkeys, and in addition to Impa, there are four other Sheikah.  Link leads them through town, obviously wishing they would move faster, trying his best not to get too far ahead of them.  That would be rude.  Eventually, one of the Sheikah steps forward to walk beside him, and they fall into a conversation where Link is using his hands a great deal.

"Did your letter include the fact that you're a child?" Symin asks.

"How rude!  Never speak about a woman's age."

Symin sighs and turns back to the slow progress being made up the hill.  "That's a no then."

"It wouldn't kill Impa to ask how my life is going, you know.  It's her own fault if she doesn't know."

"I don't think she would have thought to ask if you've de-aged yourself."

"No, but she could ask after my arthritis, and then I'd say, 'Nope!’  And she could say, ‘How’d you get it to go away?’ And I’d say, ‘Let me tell you!’”

Zelda zones out.  She lifts her face up to the sun and lets it heat her skin, lets it heat her hair until it's nearly uncomfortable.

Purah elbows her right before Link and his friend turn through the last switch back, and Zelda straightens her posture.  Her diplomatic, serene smile locks into place like a deadbolt.

Impa truly is ancient.  The donkey she's riding has a special saddle that looks a bit like a pagoda with cushions for her to sit upon and a cover, like an umbrella or a tent, to block the sun.  In her memories, Impa is taller than Zelda.  Proud and imperious.  This Impa has shrunk, her back bowed.  If she wasn't wearing her hat, she would probably be of a height with Purah.  Two of her Sheikah guards assist her in dismounting, and it takes her several steps before Zelda can recognize the imperiousness.

Link slips into place behind her.  He stands side by side with Purah and Symin who retreated a step when Zelda wasn't looking.

The other Sheikah form ranks behind Impa, who is looking Zelda up and down, searching for cracks in her royal figure and pleased that she finds none.

Standing before her, Impa bows low from the waist.  The rest of the Sheikah kneel, then bow all the way to the ground.  Anxiety rips through Zelda, so she tips her chin higher to counter it.

"Your highness," Impa says, her voice quavering, but full and carrying.  "We are overwhelmed with gratitude for your defeat of Calamity Gannon. You have lifted a great blight from this kingdom. We are relieved that you are safe and with us once more, and we are prepared for you to lead us out of the darkness and restore Hyrule to her former glory!"

Zelda bows her head in respect.  "Thank you for your kind words, and for your loyalty through so many difficult years."  She raises her head.  "Your faith in me is humbling."

"Long live Princess Zelda!" shouts one of the Sheikah.  It startles her. The rest join in in wordless cheers.

Impa smiles, and steps forward to take Zelda's hands in her own.  "Oh, my child," she says, lower, more conversational now.  More emotional.  "It's so good to have you back."

It's so like the Impa she remembers, and yet her hands and tougher and bonier.  Her voice is not the same.  Tears well up in Zelda's eyes.  "It's very good to see you, Impa."

Impa presses a hand to Zelda's cheek, and Zelda can't help but lean into it.

"Come," Impa announces.  "There is still much that must be done."

#

The princess was nothing like what Symin was expecting. For the stories passed down from Purah and Impa and Robbie, he expected her to sweep in like a ball of white light, for her to wave her hand and all the ancient tech strewn about the lab would magically come to life. He expected her to grace him with a benevolent smile in which he could feel the love of the Goddess and for her to announce that everything would be fine now. That she would take it from there.

"She had such a knack with the tech," Robbie always said with a sigh, implying that everyone else in his general vicinity was completely useless, and also couldn't she just finish the Calamity off already? What was taking so long?

"She was breathtaking," Impa always said. "So graceful. So brave. She walked into that terrible castle while red clouds billowed overhead without a single doubt in her mind, and it looked as if her feet never touched the ground."

"Of course, I'm going to wear this eye shadow," Purah once told him. "The princess told me it looks dramatic." She'd wiggled her fingers in front of her eyes as she'd said it. As if the princess had told her this last week and not ninety years ago. As if the princess was aware that the color made Purah's sagging eyelids look deeper and had confirmed that that was a good thing.

Like all good Sheikah, Symin was raised knowing his duty was to the crown before all others, knowing he would devote his life to the princess' service, that if asked to give up that life for her, he would without question.

He was not expecting the girl who walked into his lab that first day, half hiding behind Link, looking tired and worn like all the other Hylian girls in Hateno. He wasn't expecting her to hesitate. He wasn't expecting the swell of emotion that set her lip trembling. This golden woman of legend who had held back the darkness for a hundred years turned out to be a scared, confused girl.

It made him want to protect her, to guide her through this new world which must be so overwhelming. It made him want to cheer her, and for a while he succeeded with talk of the Sheikah Slate's performance during Link's adventures. The upgrades he'd managed for the basic runes. The way Link had managed to have the thing in his hands or on his hip twenty-four-seven without discovering that the camera could flip so he could take a picture of himself. She got so caught up in her questioning that she was suddenly writing away in a journal, appearing from the ether with her magic powers, or handed to her by Purah without anyone noticing. She interrogated Link about the towers, the questions coming too fast for him to answer more than one in three. Link seemed accustomed to the ferocity of her questioning, and she seemed content in the few answers he was able to provide.

In that moment, Symin had understood. The princess was brilliant, and the princess was driven. And, yes, in that moment she was beautiful—in his biased opinion.

They’d had a very fun week.

But then Impa arrived after her long trek from Kakariko with an entourage of Sheikah, who swelled into the lab and knelt at the sight of her. And the princess retreated back into herself, once again hiding away all the drive and enthusiasm that made her special, that made her glow. And Link turned quiet again. And Impa lay out the outline of what would happen to crown Zelda queen. For Zelda to reunite the fractured kingdom under her flag. Which officials she needed to meet with. What villages needed to be brought back into the fold. What factions needed to be brought to heel.  The castle, as the seat and symbol of her power, must be rebuilt immediately.

Symin knew better than to say a word. But he'd traded a look with Link, who stood with him against the back wall, his shoulders back and his spine straight and his champion's tunic thrown back on for the first time since he'd gotten back. Just like Symin, Link had known better than to say anything. But that one look had said enough:

They both preferred Zelda when she was not a princess.

 

Chapter Text

They will spend some time in Hateno preparing.  Zelda needs a few dresses, after all.  They must go through policy decisions with a fine toothed comb.  They must practice some speeches.  Then they will travel to Zora's Domain--Zelda and Link and three of the Sheikah escort--and Zelda will announce her presence.  She'll confirm that the Calamity is over, and she and King Dorephan will sit down to discuss how the Zora will fit in the new Hyrulian reunification.  Impa assures her that, for the Zora, the Calamity was not that long ago.  They have, of course, carried on under the assumption that Zelda would return.  After that, they will visit Goron City, Kakariko, the Rito Village, and Gerudo Town.

Zelda can feel a tension behind her, as if Link is trying to get her attention.  But, when she turns around, he is still as a statue, his face blank.

They end their discussions after the sun has long set.  Impa stays at the tech lab, taking over Symin's room.  Only one member of her entourage stays to wait on her.  The rest, along with Symin, head down to the inn for rooms.  Link and Zelda walk down with them in absolute silence.  The Sheikah are too respectful to speak to her.  Their footsteps are unnaturally silent.  Thankfully, they have the horses with them, who clomp and snrtle and clank.  Thankfully, Link is being especially noisy as he tromps down the mountain and into the inn to arrange accommodations.  She can't help but think this is a preview of their trip to Zora's domain: Silent and tense and lonely.

Once the rest of the Sheikah have disappeared inside and out of view, Symin offers her a smile.  He gives her shoulder a squeeze. She's been so grateful for even the smallest physical contact lately, it's embarrassing.

Link reappears.  They head home.  Still in silence.  But this one is more thoughtful and less that they aren't allowed to speak. Inside the house, she takes off the diamond tiara and digs her fingers into her hair, shaking it out from the roots.

Link hesitates near the door. 

"What is it?" she asks.

He watches her a few moments. Then, "I want to show you something."

 "Oh? What?"

He shakes his head and grabs for his bow and shield off the table. "Get dressed and meet me out front."

"Where are we going?"

"Akkala."

"We can't just—" but he's already stepped out, strapping on his equipment.

Zelda tisks. Akkala! That’s three days away. Impa has just arrived, and it's late, and he wants her to run off with him to Akkala of all places.

She changes clothes. She assumes that by "get dressed" he means into more causal apparel. Red shirt it is then.

"Should I bring my bag?" she asks, almost mockingly when she meets him out front. "Some food perhaps?"

He shakes his head. "Quick trip."

She honestly doesn't understand him some days. Most days.

Link has out the Sheikah slate, which lights the planes of his face in a blue glow. He leans in to show her the map, the two of them bowing their heads together. "It's a bit of a walk once we get there, but I'm hoping for good weather."

He slings an arm around her waist and pulls her to his chest, and she gasps as she crashes into him, her hands balled into fists and wedged between them along with the Sheikah slate. Her mind reels, and he's looking down at her from just a breath away, and her first absurd thought is, "Oh good," and her second thought is, "He could have done that much more gracefully." And then she's left to think maybe it's her who's making the moment awkward and uncomfortable, with her poor balance and her forearms pressed against his chest like a shield. She decides to pretend everything's fine and lets her eyes half close, her face tilts toward him, her heart races because maybe this is exactly what she needs after the day she's had and before the days that will follow.

He jiggles the Sheikah Slate between them, so it taps against her collarbone. "You should hold this with one hand."

She blinks at him, coming back to herself, and how he looks completely unaffected by their position, and he hasn't been planning some big romantic gesture, but instead—

She stiffens. "You want to warp there?"

He grins. From this far away, in the blue glow of the Sheikah Slate, it's breathtaking. "Glowing-string-travel is the quickest."

"Warping," she corrects. "But—Surely—"

"It'll be fine."

"You never said it could transport two people simultaneously!"

"I've never tried it before."

"But how would that even work!?"

"I don't know. I figured we could both hold onto it too, and we could hold onto each other, and it'll take us both."

"That's hardly scientific," she mutters.

He just shrugs.

"What if it doesn't work?" she asks.

"If it only takes me, then I can just glowing-string-travel—"

"Warp."

"—right back and we call it a night. But I think it'll work."

"What if it only warps me?"

"Then you come right back here. You know how it works."

She does. But. But this seems like something they should study in a controlled environment. Multiple test runs. Safety measures. Control systems. Her slate is a delicate instrument of unimaginable value with capabilities hitherto unheard of. And Link just wants to wing it. Link just wants to use her slate however he sees fit even though it's hers, and she's never even used it to warp before, and it’s horrible that her first time has the potential for dire consequences.

He lowers his head even closer to whisper, and her mouth goes dry for completely illogical reasons. "Come on an adventure with me.”

She stares up into eyes that are exciting and pulling and lit a completely different shade of blue from usual.

She gives in with a huff, squirming her arms out from between them, and, after a moment's awkward consideration, wraps an arm tight around his neck—so tight she’s practically on tiptoes, so close her cheek nearly touches his. She takes hold of the other side of the slate.

"Hold on," he whispers.

Her fingers bite tight into the fabric on his shoulder. She squeezes her eyes closed.

And then she's gone, the sound of humming energy in her ears and a bright light against her eyelids. For a second, she can't breathe. She can’t feel the ground beneath her feet, can't feel the slate in her hand, can't feel Link against her. It feels like walking into a freezing cave.  It feels like every part of her is infinitely far from every other part.

And then it stops, and she’s standing on solid ground, and there is actual wind in her hair, and Link's hot breath brushes her face, his shoulder under her fingernails.

He pulls back grinning even as her knees wobble beneath her. "It worked!"

The moon has just risen, lighting up a sloping hillside below them that wraps around a black pit of a lake. Zelda squints down at welcoming lights that float a hundred feet above the water.

"What's that?"

"That," he says, "is Tarrey Town." He steps off the shrine platform, pulling her arm so she follows him. "It's what the new Hyrule can look like."

She hurries to catch up, falling into step beside him, at which point he releases her arm. She’s disappointed. She scolds herself for the feeling.

"Usually, I'd glide down there,” he says, “but trying that with two people really does sound like a bad idea."

"I haven't heard of Tarrey Town."

"It's new. When I first came by here, it was just a rogue goddess statue and a bunch of boulders. But Bolson decided it would be a good place for a settlement. You should talk to him about your construction needs."

"And he built this town in the last year?"

"I helped."

She looks up and even though it's dark, the pride in his voice makes his smile abundantly clear.

"You?"

"Well, I financed it. And brought in the people they needed. It's a multicultural place. They've got the buildings and the infrastructure, but they also have shops and little families and events. They even had a wedding a couple months ago. It was bizarre. You would have loved it.” She has no idea what that means, and wants to know more, but he’s still talking. “Tonight, though, is the end of the work week, and so they'll have a party. They have a party every week."

As they come closer, and as she's listening for it, the sounds of music prickle at her ears. The sounds of laughter. Her pace quickens to get a better view.

They have to cross a narrow land bridge to reach the town. It's a bit daunting, but then the town center comes into view—the whole town revolving around a goddess statue, which greets them as they enter town and promises to bid them farewell when they leave. And it's crowded, more crowded than anywhere she's been in a hundred years, and she wonders how the population of Tarrey Town compares to that of Hateno or if Hateno is just more spread out and less prone to socializing. An accordion player runs off a jig, perched on a low wall beside a wooden dance floor. Vendors of mouthwatering kebabs and fruit frozen into cubes shout to passing customers. Dozens of people mingle with steins of beer in their hands. It feels like a fairy tale, like a different world, and she can't help the awe that's probably showing on her face.

"Link!" someone shouts, and then at least eight more people pick up the cheer. "Link!" And suddenly they're surrounded by people. A Goron is slapping a hand on Link's back so his knees nearly buckle, and a man with a bushy mustache and a tall, furry hat is shaking his hand with rapid enthusiasm. Suddenly, there are two small children hanging off Link, one in full piggy back, one hanging off his bicep as he listens to a Rito talk about a new shipment of arrows.

"This is Zelda," Link says, half-shouting over the crowd. Zelda. Not the princess.

And the crowd turns on her, shouting, "Zelda!" as a dozen people descend upon her to shake her hand and speak all at once. "What a beautiful name!" "Where are you traveling from?" "You came at a great time, the party's just getting started!" "Any friend of Link's—" "Have you tried the kabobs?"

Within a few minutes, she has a kebob in her hand. It smells delicious enough that she tastes it despite the fact that it's clearly boar, and she hasn't been able to handle the gameyness lately.

Everyone's smiling at her, and it feels completely unearned. They don't know who she is beyond Link's friend. They don't know she's royalty. They don't know her part in holding back and sealing the darkness. They're not even thinking of the darkness. Not tonight with the moon rising and the music playing, and someone said something about fireworks.

"I didn't know that voe had friends," says a Gerudo woman from over her shoulder. Zelda turns to face her, and the woman looks her up and down appraisingly. Someone presses a drink into her hand, and she looks over her shoulder to see that it's Link. The children are now battling for who gets to sit on his shoulders in a game of chicken with only one person on the bottom. He winks at her before turning back to his conversation, and Zelda's cheeks flame. It's not the best look when she turns back to the Gerudo woman, who smirks at her until Zelda's cheeks heat more.

"I know people who like him, and he does help a bunch of people, but people he confides in or spends time with...that's practically unheard of."

"Yes," Zelda says, "he's mysterious."

"So what's going on there?" The woman ticks a finger between Zelda and over Zelda's shoulder.

"Oh...I...don't...Well..."

"Well, if you figure it out, let me know."  The Gerudo woman smiles. "So.  Zelda."  She holds out the name, rolling it around to memorize it. "Tell me about you."

Zelda takes a bite of kebab so she can have a minute to think. She swallows the bite too fast, and it's too wide for her throat. It squeezes all the way down and lands heavy in her stomach. "I'm just...a researcher. From Hateno."

"What do you research?"

"Ancient technology. Sheikah devices."

The woman makes a face. "Does that mean you work for that old koot at the tech lab? That must be awful."

"Who, Robbie? He isn't so bad," Zelda lies. "I've never found him to be overly unpleasant."

The woman gives and exaggerated groan. "He's the worst. He came down here, all demanding, saying he'd traveled so far, and he needed a spot cleared to view the stalkers in their natural habitat."

"The stalkers?"

"The guardians? The ones that walk? The ones that chase you? There were a couple across the lake. Scurrying around. For some reason, he needed a whole set up to watch them, and then tried to get his dinner comped because it wasn't hot enough, and his room at the inn comped because his bed was too soft for him to get his eight hours of sleep. He also called me ‘sweetheart’ four times."

Zelda cringes and takes a deep breath. Then, rather than say anything against him, she takes another bite of kebab.

Which is apparently hilarious, as the woman throws her head back and laughs.

Link appears at her side, his face interested and questioning as he glances back and forth between them, hoping someone will tell him what they're laughing about. Zelda still has a chunk of marinated steak in her mouth, and she's determined not to hurt herself swallowing it this time.

"We were just talking about how Zelda's boss is a creep," the woman says.

Link lifts his eyebrows at her, but her mouth is still too full to answer the question he can't ask. Her boss?

She jerks her head north towards where she assumes the tech lab is, and that's all Link needs.

"Did I ever tell you about how the first time I met him, he demanded I strip down to my underwear, so he could look at my scars?"

Zelda chokes on her steak.

The woman shouts, "Eww! Gross! What did you do?"

Link shrugs. "Stripped down to my underwear and let him look at my scars."

The woman shakes her head in disgust. "He took advantage of you." Then to Zelda, "He took advantage of your voe."

She's still choking from the last time, so it's not like she can choke again. Link pats her back.

"Are you going to stand for that?" the woman asks. "You should kill him. You can borrow my sword."

"She can borrow one from me," Link says. "I have more."

The woman rolls her eyes. "No need to brag." Then she spots someone on the other side of the festival and walks away.

Link looks too smug. Zelda glares at him.

"I see you've met Rhondson," he says.

"I didn't catch her name."

"Come meet Greyson," he says, and leads her deeper into town. Greyson the Goron wants to talk with her about more than just Link and the hastily made lies she has to offer, and he answers her questions about Tarrey Town's construction. They're soon joined by Hudson, the man with the mustache who turns out to be the construction specialist behind the buildings.

"I've recently begun the planning stages of a project, actually, and I'd greatly appreciate your expert opinions," she says. They both lean closer, drawn in by her light flattery. "I'm sure you're aware that the darkness surrounding Hyrule Castle has recently been sealed, and this has left the guardians deactivated."

Hudson frowns and mutters that he hadn't noticed, but Greyson's face clears. "Oh! Is that why they all turned off?"

She tries not to show too much pride. "Indeed. But their remains are strewn all across Hyrule. I think it would be prudent to gather them all. Relocate them to somewhere where we can study them."

She can feel them both cooling to the subject, and quickly adds, "Somewhere defensible should they ever revive again. Somewhere we no longer have to look at them day in and day out, forever reminded of the years we lived in fear."

And again they're back on board. "Hmm. I don't know. Where did you have in mind to dump them?"

"The Forgotten Temple in Tanagar Canyon."

They consider this a moment, before Link says, "That's a good place. It'll give the Shekiah plenty of room to work." He nods at her, and she basks in his approval. For once, he actually looks impressed. She realizes that she hasn't mentioned this plan to him.

"You'd have to lower them down the cliff," Greyson says, rubbing his chin.

"It'd be a big project," Hudson says. "There's probably a hundred of them just across the lake. And that's not an easy stroll over to Tanager Canyon."

"Plus a hundred more at Fort Hateno," Link says, "and a hundred more around Hyrule Field and the bunch up by the citadel. Plus all the ones scattered around the country. It might take years to find them all." He sounds thrilled at the prospect.

"Then perhaps we could start small," Zelda says. "Clearing the guardians from Hyrule Field would be a first step towards rebuilding Castle Town."

Hudson whistles. "Rebuilding Castle Town. Now there's a wild idea. Don't know who you'd get who'd want to live there."

"Really?" Zelda asks. "It's centrally located. It’s prime farmland. It would be an excellent center for trade."

"Maybe," Greyson says. "But it's still haunted."

"Haunted?"

Hudson clears his throat. "I don't know about Castle Town, but I'm all for throwing those guardians off a cliff. And if you want to put up the funds to build another town, as long as I don't have to live in it, you know who to call."

Greyson nods. "You'd definitely be able to hire some Goron workers to get the guardians out of the way. I can run it past the guys at the South Mine, see if there's any interest."

"Oh. Would you? That would be tremendously helpful. Thank you."

If Gorons could blush, Greyson probably would.

"We'll need carts. And horses. And perhaps a pulley system could be implemented to lower them into the gorge. And perhaps we could create a small portable crane." She wishes she’d thought to bring her journal.

Link's face twitches, and Zelda interrupts herself to say, "You have an idea."

He shakes his head. "You're the one having an idea."

"No. You have an idea, and you're not saying anything to let me have my moment, but you can't keep anything from me. Spill it."

"Vah Rudania," he says.

She blinks at him.

"The Divine Beast?" Greyson says. He scratches the back of his head. "Well, it did calm down recently."

"It's got those..." Link makes a claw gesture with his hands. "Feet."

"And a flat space onto which it can load the guardians," Zelda says. Her eyes have gone glassy picturing it.

"You wouldn't have to pay dozens of workers with carts and cranes."

"And it could climb down into the ravine with ease!" She's miles away at the gate of the Forgotten Temple, overseeing the unloading of the first delivery of disabled guardians.

She shakes her head and the image dissipates. "But we don't have anyone to pilot Vah Rudania. It powered down right after Calamity Ganon was defeated." Right after Daruk's soul ascended to rest with the goddess.

"I...might know a guy."

Link rubs the back of his neck, not making eye contact.

"Who?" she demands.

"His name is Yunbo."

Greyson nods and explains to Zelda, "Yunbo is a descendant of Lord Daruk. He's the boss' right hand. He's the one the boss always shoots at Vah Rudania to shoo it away."

As if that makes sense.

"He can use Daruk's Protection, and he helped me board Rudania in the first place," Link adds.

"And you think he could pilot Vah Rudania?"

Link shrugs. "He might lack some confidence, but he's got my vote."

"I don't know. Last time we...One hundred years ago, the champions were selected through intensive testing. I wouldn't want to give him the job based on his lineage and his friendship with you."

"I'm not even sure you can give away the position," Link says. "Vah Rudania belongs to the Gorons."

"Does it?" Greyson asks.

"Doesn't it?" Link asks.

"I don't know, brother. As long as I've known it, it's been our problem more than our weapon. Personally, I'd rather see the back of it. The boss might just give it to you if you ask."

"He might not if he knew what it could do. If he had a way to control it."

"It's not just a weapon," Zelda says. "It's a tool." How did she not see it before? This was how they were going to rebuild Hyrule!

"Maybe," Greyson agrees.

"I do wonder if the ground will be able to support her off the mountain.  The igneous rock can take her weight, and if she leaves footprint craters, no one minds, and there isn't any flora for her to destroy.  We'll have to be careful about the route she takes into Central Hyrule.  Or she may have magnetic buffers similar to those on Vah Norobis.  Her feet distribute her weight so she doesn't sink into the sand, you know."

Link sets his hands on her shoulders and steers her away with an, "Oooookay."

"Wait. I was in the middle of—" She looks over her shoulder to shout, "Thank you! It was a pleasure meeting you both!"

They wave goodbye, entertained by Link dragging her off.

"What are you doing?" she hisses.

He decides not to answer.

"I think this weight distribution problem is worth looking into,” she says. “I'd be interested to see the state of Death Mountain after she's stomped around over it for a century—" He stops frog marching her and turns her around to face him. "—We ran tests before and found she was able to climb a near vertical wall.  There was some sort of magnetic or suction force on her feet, but we never got around to studying it as we were more concerned with Daruk's control over the mechanisms—" Link's holding her hand and her waist to guide her around now, but they don't really seem to be going anywhere. "—And if she does have an issue, we might be able to borrow the technology from Vah Noboris—" Link nods, still looking her square in the eyes. "—And I have a theory about finding all the guardian remains. I think we can combine the Sheikah Slate's sensor with the towers of each region. Perhaps just as a Litmus test, but I think with some adjustment, we might be able to mark points on the Sheikah slate's map. That would also help in your quest to find all the Hinoxes—"

He's smiling at her.

"What?"

"I'm just glad you're inspired."

She beams and sighs with a great heave of her shoulders. "I'll admit, I haven't felt this enthusiastic in a while."

"I like it."

"I'm glad."

The music comes to an end, and they come to a stop, and everyone around them applauds, and Zelda realizes that they'd been dancing. She hadn't noticed.

Link drops her hand and her waist to clap too, giving her a look from the corner of his eye. He’s not going to get away with that. She throws back her shoulders and takes a step closer and parts her lips to demand a second dance where she’s actually paying attention and demand he at least acknowledge what a spectacular dancer she is from years of ingrained muscle memory.

"Pardon me."

She spins to see an elderly Zora, hunched over and wrinkled, wearing the heavy necklace of a priest.

"I was wondering if you would grant me a moment of your time."

"Of course," she says, smiling even as she tries to catch her breath and not glare at Link.

The Zora bows and extends his arm over towards a bench on the edge of town. She can feel Link just a few steps behind her. When she sits, Link turns away to give her the impression of privacy, leaning against a lamp post and gesturing at a passing vendor selling roasted nuts in paper cones. But he's guarding her. She bets he can hear every word. It's strangely like how it used to be. And also wildly different.

The Zora creaks and groans into the space beside her.  He takes several breaths before beginning his conversation.

"You're wise not to introduce yourself as royalty."

Her head snaps towards him.

A smirk plays at the corners of his mouth, the only parts of his mouth she can see. "Yes. I recognize you, Your Highness. We Zora can live quite a long time."

"I'm honored that you remember me," she tries, attempting to keep her balance and poise when she's so thrown off guard.

"Honor has nothing to do with it. You and your hero are infamous."

She can feel the color draining from her face.

"But I don't hold it against you. I'm one of the few who still remember and yet don't blame you for Mipha's death."

"That's enough, Kapson." Link's voice is quiet. It's not angry or hysteric, or any of the emotions bubbling up Zelda’s throat. But his voice does demand to be heard.

"I'm telling her she is wise," the old Zora says. "Wise not to declare herself queen of a country that no longer exists. She is wise not to come here making demands. She is wise to see that the world has changed, and the world no longer needs her." He turns to her then. She can't breathe. "And if you want my advice, you will continue to be wise. You've sacrificed quite enough. You've secured your place in legend. Now do your research. Wear your colorful shirts. I will officiate your wedding. But Hyrule needs no queen."

With that he stands, offers her a respectful bow, and leaves with his hands clasped tightly behind his back.

She stares after him until he vanishes in the crowd, and even then she can't take her eyes from the spot where he vanished. She feels numb all over. It must be getting colder. She should have worn something warmer.

Link takes the Zora's seat, but doesn't say a word.

She doesn't look at him. "This is what you wanted to show me, wasn't it?"

He takes his time answering her, picking his words with more care than he picks his swords. "I wanted to show you what the world is like. Today. The problems they have and the things they've achieved. You haven't seen it. I'm not sure Impa has seen it either."

The moon has shifted low enough that the stars have come out. She traces the constellation of Irsas, the Great Waterfall. It's still there. Still in the same place. "Do you think I should be queen?"

Again, he takes his time. "I don't think you should be queen if you haven't seen your kingdom."

"That's fair." She finds the hungry bear and the trickster rabbit.

"I also didn't think you should go to Zora's Domain without warning."

"That they hate me?"

"That some of them blame us. It's not all of them. And they've mostly come around about me.  And...they have their own monarchy that's functioned alone for a hundred years.  So do the Gerudo.  Expecting them to just hand over their autonomy is just..."

She can't find the Black Whale and it's making her anxious, so she turns instead to Link. "You don't like Impa's plan."

He hedges. "Parts of it."

"Which parts of it?"

"...All the parts?"

She sighs. "What would you have me do?"

"I don't know," he says. "Things that help people. Look at these people. They're doing pretty well for themselves."

They are. It's achingly true. These people do not need a queen. They don't need the castle rebuilt. They don't need to be ruled. They need to feel safe.

"Maybe..." she says, "when we go to Zora's Domain..." She holds up a hand to stop his protests.  "No, I need to go.  At least to pay my respects and poke around Vah Ruta." Link doesn't breathe a word. "But maybe on the way there you can clear the road of lizalfos. That would clear the way for travel and trade."  She nods.  "That would help rebuild Hyrule.  And I suppose you would enjoy yourself."

The smile that spreads across Link's face is lit from above by a bright yellow firework.

 

Chapter Text

They nudge at Impa from different angles. 

Zelda emphasizes that she has limited political power and very little to offer the Zora.  She has no army.  (You have the Sheikah!)  She has few resources. (The other races of Hyrule will offer up their resources!) She has no political connections.  (You are the crown princess and the blood of the goddess!)  If she goes to King Dorephan and makes demands that he bow to Hylian rule and he refuses (Why would he refuse?!), she will have no recourse, and she will seem weak.  They have all the time in the world now.  No evil is breathing down their necks, no clouds are massing over the castle. She should spend time proving herself to the leaders of Hyrule and earning their trust before they speak of reunification.  These things need not be rushed.  Rebuilding both infrastructure and relationships require time and care, and rushing them will only lead to sloppy work, prone to cracks.

Impa huffs and concedes the point.  And in Impa's impatience, it occurs to Zelda that she may have all the time in the world.  But Impa does not.  Impa may not see the fruition of her work and the glory of Hyrule restored.  She has waited for so long, and now that the moment has arrived, Zelda wants to wait more.

This realization does not stop her hands from shaking in her lap.  She just stood up to Impa.  She's never stood up to Impa.

And she did it by being misleading, manipulative perhaps, implying that she aims for reunification at a later date.  And while the many cultures of Hyrule would do well to band together, she's not sure what that will look like.

Meanwhile, Link emphasizes that he is enough protection for the princess, and they don't require a full entourage of Sheikah guards.  (It's for appearances!)  He points out that the Sheikah slate can transport both him and the princess instantaneously, making for more efficient use of their time and resources instead of caravaning across the country for a few days.  It can transport the two of them, but not a whole group.  Furthermore, if they glowing-string-travel (Warp) to the Veiled Falls, they will have a short and danger-free walk into the Zora's Domain instead of having to fight their way through the monsters along the path up the Zora River.  

When Impa refuses, Link does something that stops Zelda's heart. 

He pulls rank

"Ensuring the princess' safety is my sworn duty.  It was entrusted to me by the king.  I will not allow her to be put in danger."

And that...works.  ("Yeah," Link says.  "You should try it some time.  Impa likes hierarchies. ")

It's also an outright lie, because they have no intention of warping to the Veiled Falls.

Instead, once Zelda has Sheikah approved outfits, including a travel outfit in layers of blue and white with a corset and belts and new boots, and once she has thorough instructions that she'll only partially follow, they say their farewells to the Sheikah and warp straight to the top of Lanayru Tower.

Zelda gasps and shades her eyes.  They're so high up, and she can see so far.  It's better than standing at the top of a mountain, because there's not a cloud in the sky.  She scurries away from Link to look north-east and see how far she can follow the river's path, and then she's darting south-west to snap a picture of the wetlands.  She bounces on her toes and points and moves closer to the edge for a better view and a better picture until Link feels the need to grab the back of her belt and reel her back a few steps.

She spends time documenting the structure of the tower.  She can see the underside of the hinge of the movable arcs that swung up and out when the tower was activated, but she can't climb high enough to inspect the tower's canopy.  The tower seems made from the same material as the Divine Beasts, except for the stalk, which is a climbable mesh—possibly of the same material.  She tries to remove a small section for closer study, but Link refuses to give her a knife and asks her to not lie on the floor and lean over the edge, please. There's still some evidence of the tower's time hidden beneath the dirt, and she leans over to try to get a look at the tower's base and the enormous engine that must live there that ejected the tower so far from the ground.  But Link is pulling her back again, promising that they can check out the base of the tower later. 

It's just so amazing that she's standing here in a place she's only heard about in stories and seen on tapestries.  She didn't get to see them rise from the ground, and she wasn't the first to climb to the top and activate them and watch them change from orange to blue around her, and that still stings, but she will be the first in ten thousand years to understand how they work.  She swears it.

She sets to work at the guidance stone while Link hovers, trying to stay out of the way and failing.  There's a ice wizrobe bouncing around beneath the tower, so she uses that as a test case, setting the slate to search for more of the monsters, then uncertainly setting the slate on the pedestal. 

She's made a great many minor modifications with Purah, but she's not expecting anything to happen.  Nothing has ever happened before when she's tapped the slate to an activation device.  So she nearly jumps out of her skin when the pedestal sucks down her tablet, spins it around, when blue runes begin to trickle from the stalactite above to slash down onto her slate.  Link leans over her shoulder to look at the blinking markers of ice wizrobes.

"It worked," she breathes.

Link grins at her, and then she's grinning too, and then she leaps to throw her arms around him, bouncing on her toes.  "It worked!"  He bounces with her, and they're just jumping up and down until he pulls away enough to smack a kiss against her cheek without smashing their skulls together and pulls her hands from his neck enough to look at the slate.  "Mark it down!  Can you find more?"

"I—"

He unslings his bow from his back.  "I'm going to take care of this guy while you find some other monsters.  Don't fall.  I'll be right back."

And then he drops through one of the holes to climb down the tower.

...Okay.  This time, he definitely kissed her.  On the cheek.  Like a friend.  It's clearly just excitement.  Because they are both very excited for this new discovery.  In fact, it's a bit unfair of him to do something so odd when she's celebrating.

She scoots to the edge of the tower to peek down at him.  He has lowered to a balcony half way down the tower and takes aim with a fire arrow at the unsuspecting wizrobe below.

Zelda tries to shake it off and deletes the mark she just made for the monster Link's about to dispatch.  She sets the search function for electric wizrobes and runs the guidance stone again.

#

Once they have the locations of the major monsters—the hinoxes and lynels, the wizrobes and the one talus—in the Lanayru region, they warp down to the shrine across the river.  There's a cooking pot nearby and Link makes lunch, while Zelda stares up at the tower and takes more photos. She sits on the bank and takes off her boots to let her toes dangle in the water.  They eat grilled fish fresh off the fire and crepes filled with wild berries that Link just carries around with him. She tips her head back to let the sun caress her face. 

When Link pulls out another crepe and goes for seconds, she lies down spread-eagle in the grass and basks in the sunlight.

A shadow falls over her, and she looks up to find Link leaning over her. "Zelda," he says, his voice as serious as she's ever heard him.  It's disconcerting.  "You need to change."

Even in the warmth of the sun, her lungs freeze. Link's taken her out into the beautiful wild and given her a nice morning so he can give her a firm talking to about her behavior, and how he can't stand her constant moping or her talking or how she's always on the brink of a panic attack.

No, it's a bad dream. She's fallen asleep in the grass, and this is the kind of stress dream she has now. She hasn't had that tea that keeps her from dreaming for a few days.  That must be it.

He tilts his head, and his face is lifted from shadow enough to see his confusion. "I know it looks goofy, but there's a bunch of electric monsters ahead, and I really think you should put this on."

Oh.

She sits up and tries to cover her embarrassment with smooth and deft handling of all situations. "What is it you want me to wear?"

He holds out a black...stack of folded...clothing? Maybe. She runs a hand over it.  It's a horrible, malleable texture that snags against the pads of her fingers.

"It's rubber," Link says. "If you wear the whole suit, you're invulnerable to electric attacks."

She scoots forward. "Really? That could prove useful for work on the ancient technology.  I know Purah has been shocked a few times."

He nods seriously, and stands up, offering her a hand and then shaking out the top piece of clothing. "It'll be easier if I help you," he says. "Trust me."

He's looking at her pointedly, completely serious about helping her get dressed, and she can't help the heat that rises in her cheeks.

Surely, they're not doing this. 

Link waits.

Well, she will need to take off all her belts, but she surely won't have to take off all the layers of her outfit.  She tries not to make eye contact as she unclasps her belts and satchels and the corset around her ribs. 

Link takes them all, folds them away, and waits.

She reaches for the rubber clothing, but he pulls it out of her reach and gives her an impatient look.

"Surely it can go on over my clothes."

"No.  It really can't."

"We can at least try," she says and snatches it away from him.

It does not fit on over her clothes.  She can't even get her hand all the way through the sleeve.

"Are you quite certain this will fit me?" she asks.

"It won’t with that attitude."

"You said I wouldn't be in any danger on this trip.  There's no way this is necessary."

"You won't be in danger because you'll be wearing this outfit.  Your safety is my responsibility, so I need you to—"

"Oh, don't you pull rank on me."  She shoves the rubber suit back against his chest and grabs the hem of her blue over-shirt to tear it off.  He's still watching her though.

She narrows her eyes at him.  "Do you mind?"

"I'm helping."

"You are not.  Turn around."

He rolls his eyes and turns his back.  When she's certain he's not secretly watching her somehow from his peripheral vision or some distant reflective surface she hasn't noticed, she strips off her over-shirt.  After a moment's hesitation, her high collared, white undershirt follows, and she's left in her chest wrappings.  Her skin chills immediately.

"You can hand it to me now."

Instead of handing it over his shoulder, he turns, all business, and pulls her hand into the rubber, and she would be offended, but—oh wow, yes, that is unpleasant. Her only saving grace is that it's slightly too large for her, so they only have to do some moderate tugging to get her hand through the sleeve and then the sleeve tugged up to her shoulder. By the time the top is on, and all the buckles are in place and her gauntlets are on, she's completely forgotten to be embarrassed.  Now she doesn't want to take off her pants for reasons completely unrelated to embarrassment.

Getting the rubber tights on involves putting both her feet in and then tugging. The fabric sucks and rasps against her skin, and she is going to completely reinvent this suit if she makes it back to Hateno with all her skin. Link ends up grabbing the tights by the waist and lifting until her feet are off the ground and she’s finally clothed.

She's panting and hot and the suit is sticking uncomfortably everywhere she's sweating—which is everywhere.

And then Link pulls out the hat.

"No," she says.

He holds it out to her, still terribly serious about her safety.

"Surely this is unnecessary."

He shakes his head. "It only works if you wear the whole outfit."

"But—" She takes the hat from him and twists it this way and that. Perhaps from a different angle it will look less like a fish head.

That hypothesis is incorrect. From every single angle, she will look like a fish.

"Will I even be able to see?"

Instead of answering, he tells her, "This one's easy to put on."

So Zelda looks like a fish, and she's wearing black rubber on a hike, and the sun is no longer her friend.

Link gives her the Sheikah slate to hold onto, and she sets it for lizalfos, so they'll have a bit of warning.

"There are enemies all along the road. Camps of lizalfos and electric chuchus and those wizrobes further up. I can handle them, but you need to stay back. Out of sight. And under cover."

"Alright."

He pins her with a look. "Swear it?"

She rolls her eyes, but he can't see it from under her fish hat. "I solemnly swear to stay out of your way while you disembowel monsters and get shot at with shock arrows and generally make a large, gory mess."

He nods in satisfaction and draws his sword just as the Sheikah slate starts to beep for the first time. He holds out an arm to stop her, then silently proceeds forward alone, sneaking up the trail and peeking from behind a boulder.

Zelda ducks down as she promised she would, watching through some tall, pink grass as Link vaults over the boulder and into battle. There's the squawk of a startled animal, the clanging of weapons, wet, dull slicing, and Link's loud, final "Hiyah!" The Sheikah slate stops beeping. Finding new target. Link reappears on the road and waves until she comes out of hiding and joins him.

Ten minutes later, they do the same thing again.

Then again. And again.

By sunset, Link is flushed and cheerful, practically bouncing down the trail.  "I usually sneak around these guys," he says. "There's not much point if they just come back and come back stronger. I'll just climb the mountain and go around, or I'll warp straight to Zora's Domain. It's a challenge to have to fight every last one."

It doesn't seem like it's a challenge. He's not worn out in the slightest. She wonders if his heart rate has even increased with the exercise. She'd like to check. Run some tests. Press her fingers to his neck right under his ear, her fingers to the pulse in his wrist.

Link may be having fun, but Zelda stopped being worried or interested six enemy camps ago. She's busy now going through the Sheikah slate's shockingly incomplete compendium. What happened?! When she was in possession of the slate before the Calamity, her compendium was full. Every last entry. It was a point of pride. Now, all she can assume is that the memory was wiped, and Link has done a poor job repopulating it.

There's nothing for it then but to do it herself. Again. She holds her shoulders straighter as she comes to the decision. The slate can't even sense for electric kesse!

That, at least, is easily remedied. Maybe she's taking more chances than Link would like, poking her head out to snap photos of the monsters he's fighting. But the monsters are always entirely distracted by the swordsman leaping into their camp to notice her. At the end of each battle, she takes pictures of all the weapons the lizalfos have left behind, while Link goes through the monsters' stores and eats the monsters' lunch.

She goes through the pictures Link's taken, finding that his album is almost entirely full of photos of fruit and flowers, laid out on the floor of his house. He must have made some attempt at filling his compendium then. Just not a great one, and not one that notes where the ingredients can be found in the wild.

When the sun sets, Link insists they push on to a large lizalfos camp, where the road becomes a tunnel full of briars and the lizalfos have set up fortifications and watch towers. He thinks it'll be easier to fight them at night when he can sneak better. They might even go to sleep. Meanwhile, Zelda will stay in the road-turned-tunnel, surrounded by briars until he's finished, at which point they'll take over the lizalfos' camp for the night.

She waves him away, busy with her work. "Go have fun."

And he does.

She holds up the slate to light her way through the tunnel until she finds a space right before the brambles rise up and block the tunnel completely and right after a great hole in the roof. She has to step over a puddle, but she finds a dry spot. There's a short wall of spikes that blocks view of her if she sits down, and she's able to rest her back against the tunnel wall. As long as she doesn't make any quick movements or stick her elbows out too far, she's unperturbed by the spikes and quite well camouflaged. She's not going to move very much anyway.

She has her slate, and she's revived the note function, which it seems Link either didn't make use of or didn't know how to access. Now she can keep track of her field notes on the lizalfo behaviors she's observed so far and on the abundance of native flora compared to what she remembers of it from a hundred years ago. Except for the fish head, she's back in business.

With part of her brain, she listens for noise of battle. A horn sounding the alarm, warning that Link has been spotted. The sound of running feet overhead or the clashing of blades or the charge of a shock arrow. It's eerily silent above, and she keeps an eye on the slate's clock. Only ten minutes have passed.

She reminds herself that the silence is good. Link had intended to sneak around, instead of charging right in. And it has only been twenty minutes now. He might still be getting into position climbing a tree or crawling through tall grass or something.

She goes back to her field notes. If she keeps reminding herself of how little danger Link is actually in, it's easy to let herself relax. Let her mind wander.

It's easy.

Everything's fine.

After an hour, she hears a shuffle from down the tunnel. It's soft, like maybe a strong wind blew in some leaves. She holds very still, straining her eyes into the dark, waiting for Link's silhouette to appear.

Then she hears a croak.

She clutches the slate to her chest to block the light it might give off.

Another croak. It's hovering near the entry to the tunnel.

Without making any sudden moves and trying to block as much light as she can, she pulls up the slate and switches over to the stasis rune. A lizalfo pops on her screen, even through the black outlines of the brambles, it's marked in a yellow so bright that she can make out every scale, every twitch of its rolling eyes as it pokes around the tunnel, sniffing at the brambles, twisting its head. It opens its mouth and makes a soft "Rrrraaak."

There's a thick wall of brambles between her and the exit in the ceiling. She won't get there quickly, and even if she does, she'll still have to climb out up an almost vertical wall. Her quality hiding spot has her trapped.

But no. She's hidden, she reminds herself. She's wedged between bushes of sharp spikes, and she's wearing black. Even if it makes out her silhouette, she won't look human but like some kind of fish creature and therefore probably a trick of the light. If she's just silent and still, it won't see her. Maybe in a minute it will just turn around and go away.

Turn around, she prays. Go away.

She tries not to think about how it will smell her before it sees her.  How she's been sweating all day, and she's ripe as can be.

The lizalfo twists its head. Not quite in her direction, but close. Its eyes tick, back and forth and to the ceiling. It scrambles forward. Just a few feet. But it's so fast that the muscles in her arms seize.

It props itself back up on its hind legs, a long spear in its hand, and it stalks, pad pad pad pad, into the tunnel.

Zelda readies her slate, forcing herself to watch the monster stalk towards her on the screen instead of trying to see it with her own eyes in the shadows.

Doubting everything, she strikes.

Yellow chains burst from the ether, locking the monster in a stasis that won't last, won't last, she has no time—she switches to cryonis and launches a pillar of ice out of the puddle beneath the monster. The stasis breaks just as the monster crashes against the ceiling. A startled cry is dampened by the walls. It flails, pinned and injured, but not dead, and Zelda scrambles for the spear it dropped, stabbing with all her might up into the creature's neck.

Its eyes never find her, and, as she rips the spear out with a gurgle and stabs again, the creature's head rolls on its neck, and its eyes roll in its head, and its limbs all splay wide and stretching for one, two, three...With a sigh, it sags, then vanishes in a puff of smoke that smells like brimstone and reptile.

A noise from behind the ice and she jerks towards it, the spear raised to fight, to stab, to beat. 

Link is standing there with sword in hand, staring a bit dumbstruck at the column of ice between them.

She plucks the slate up from the ground and collapses the ice block, and Link is on her in an instant, holding her forearms and scanning over her figure, pulling the helmet from her head and tilting her face up to search her eyes.

"Did it hurt you?  Are you okay?"

"I—yes.  I mean, no.  I mean.  I think I'm quite alright actually."

He pats her down, looking for blood or out of place bones or who really knows.  He cups her face again, stroking her cheeks as if trying to reassure himself she's real and safe and alive.  Then he pulls her tight and crushes her against his chest.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

"Link," she breathes.  "Hey." She runs her hands up his back and squeezes. "I'm fine."

She realizes as she says it that it's the truth.  She could so easily tip over into panic, her hands gripping her hair, all the buckles across her chest ripped open to let the cool air in and her chest expand out. She's not baking to death in the heat of her own panic, even though she can picture it so readily.  She's not falling apart screaming and letting Link catch her as she slips to the ground.  No, she's...okay.  She's fine. She handled it—both the monster and the panic attack.

It surprises her.

He takes a breath like he's choking and drops his forehead to rest against hers. "I'm sorry."

She holds him tighter, only then realizing that she's still holding the spear in one fist.  "I got it."

“You did.  You shouldn’t have had to.”  He pulls her in for a tighter hug, and although she appreciates it more than she should—given the situation, and that she shouldn't entertain these kinds of feelings—there's something tapping against her face that makes it all less than perfect.

"What is this?" she asks.  She swats at it from over his shoulder.  It's some kind of earring.

He pulls away like nothing happened and plucks the rubber helmet off the ground where he threw it.  He's not looking her in the eye.

"Topaz," he says.  She sees now he’s wearing two of them.  They glint yellow in the dim light.

"What are they for?"

"…Lightning resistance."

"Lighnin—" She feels suddenly as if her soul has left her body once again.

He shifts his weight, ready to run for it.  

Very slowly she says, "Do you mean to tell me, that I'm wearing a giant, uncomfortable fish suit that it takes two people to put on, and you're wearing earrings?!"

"The suit is shock resistant and provides much better—"

"You just thought it would be funny!"

He stares at her, his mouth gaping for something to say.  He looks aghast that she could judge his good intentions so harshly. 

"But," he splutters finally, "Zelda, it is funny."

...

"That wasn't the right thing to say."

"No," she says.  "It was not."

He stares at her, his eyes still wide and his posture still poised to flee.

"Would you like to try again?" she asks.

"Yeah, I...umm...uh, you were really quick with the slate?  And you, uh, had good form with that spear?"

Zelda rolls her eyes and shoves the spear into his hands as she stomps past him.  She rips open the buckles across her chest to let her skin breathe in the cold night air.

 

Chapter Text

 

They stop before heading across the last bridge into Zora's Domain and have a quick clean up and a change of clothes. 

 She refused to put on the rubber armor this morning, even though it makes Link twitchy, and he's fought her on it the whole way here.  There was a time and a place for her bright red shirt, and hiding from electric monsters wasn't it.  Didn't the run in with the lizalfo last night teach them to be extra careful?  No.  It taught her that Link is a jerk, and he never gets to talk about what she wears again. 

He is right about the time and place part tho, and now that they're about to enter the Zora's Domain proper, she decides it's time for something less comfortable and goes for the white and sky blue ensemble again. She's still got her kerchief, so she still looks fairly dressed down. At least she thinks so. It's a good middle ground at least.

"Okay, diplomatic question," Link says as she's sitting on a rock, buckling up her boots. "Should I go in wearing the Zora armor or not?"

He's standing on the grass, holding his champion's tunic in one hand and an armor chest plate in the other.  He holds them out to her as if he's never dressed himself before.

She has no idea why it's an issue, but he seems concerned. "When I have trouble making decisions, I generally list the pros and cons of both," she says.  Yes, that sounds like she knows what she's talking about.

He looks at her a minute, unsure if he's supposed to speak or if he should wait for her to say more. She lifts her eyebrows for him to go on, and he sighs. "The Zora's armor might remind them that they like me, which is something you want, right? For them to like us? You? But then it might also remind them of Mipha, and I don't know if we want to remind them too much that she's dead the first time they meet you and you're...not dead."

She nods slowly, and swallows back her own discomfort on being alive and young when others are not. "Those are important considerations," she says. Then, "Where did you get Zora armor from anyway?"

He shifts. Turns away to look through his pack for a third shirt option. "King Dorephan."

That startles her. "The king? The king proposed to you?" This meeting might be even more awkward than she anticipated. She'd assumed he'd found some old armor in a chest in a lake. Or that he'd brought some Zora widow comfort after her husband's untimely death by playing her a song or bringing her fifty luminous stones, and in thanks she'd given him her husband's old armor.

"The king was...storing it for me."

"Oh!" she says. "Oh, it's from Mipha!"  That makes so much more sense. "I had no idea she'd finished it! I knew she was working on it, of course, but I didn't know she'd—You see, we had a bet going and—Oh! I owe Daruk fifty rupees!"

Link stares at her.

"Daruk bet that Mipha would propose to you first," she explains. "But I was sure it would be Revali."

Link's face twists.

Zelda sits up straighter. "Unless he did. Did he?"

He swallows hard. "What."

"You don't remember? How everyone wanted to marry you? It was very entertaining."

He shakes his head. "Revali hated me."

She rolls her eyes. "Is that what you remember? No, I hated you. Revali just had trouble expressing his emotions. And he was much better about it towards the end. Maybe he did propose and you've just forgotten?" She raises her eyebrows in question.

Instead of providing a satisfactory answer he says, "I don't think you have to worry about losing your bet."

"Oh, of course! Because Mipha never actually proposed, she just was intending to. That's a good argument."

He watches her, waiting, then says slowly, "Zelda, Daruk is dead."

Her stomach falls.

She had forgotten. For the first time in a hundred years, she had forgotten.

She looks away and the silence that falls between them is oppressive.

Quietly she says, "Wear your Champion's tunic."

She keeps it to herself that this means Urbosa actually won the bet. The Calamity struck before any of them found their courage.

#

People greet them as they arrive. Well, they greet Link. Despite his warnings that the Zoras resent them for their part in the death of their beloved princess, despite his living while Mipha died, Zelda sees no evidence of hostility.  At least in the people who hurry up to them.

She chances a glance at Link. Maybe it’s not the Zora who hate him so much as Link hating himself. But he’s smiling now, pausing on their straight shot to the throne room to speak to people, to listen to their problems. There’s a Lynel that’s back on one of the peaks. There’s algae disrupting the flow of a tributary. One Zora has a hacking cough that makes him too exhausted and feverish to fish. And has Link heard the story of the pearl necklace?

This is why Link is so beloved: Because he listens. This is how he’s earned respect across Hyrule. It would behoove her, she realizes, if she was as attentive to the people’s needs.

She pulls up the Sheikah slate as the second Zora who meets them talks, and she takes note of his grievances. He doesn’t notice her until she asks, “Which stream is this exactly?”

He startles as if he’s forgotten she's there. Then, “Lulu Lake. There's algae everywhere.”

“Does it glow bright green in the dark?” she asks.

He thinks a moment. “I don’t know. Haven’t been there in the dark. The algie’s long and skinny. Kind of see through.”

She nods. “Probably snail weed, but, of course, we can’t be sure until we’ve visited, or I’ve seen a sample. But if it is snail weed, it shouldn’t be too tricky to clear out. There’s probably been a decrease in the snail population, allowing the weeds to grow at an alarming rate. I’m sure we can tend to the problem.”

She smiles, and the Zora blinks at her, then at Link. Link hasn’t physically stepped back, but his deference to her is clear in his posture.

“Thank you,” the Zora says.

And they’re on their way to greet the next person who waves at them.

It’s not just that he listens, Zelda reasons. It’s that he follows through. He’s going to go kill that Lynel, and this time it won’t come back. He’s going to bring that sick Zora medicine or he’s going to go out and fish for him. Through his continuous helpful nature, he’s built their trust. They can count on him to follow through.

That will be the next step for her. Somehow it feels like a test that Link has arranged. He’ll stand back and let her fix the problems of these people. He’ll let her succeed and earn respect of her own. He’ll keep her from failing, but if he has to step in he’ll do a poor job of hiding his disappointment.

She just hopes he’ll fight the Lynel for her. 

What is she talking about? He’ll love doing that.

There’s a statue on the central promenade. In shining blue, Mipha looks like a ghost. Zelda remembers her in striking maroon and the blue of a champion. The statue is thirty-feet tall and armed as if guarding the Domain from attack, protecting her people. How she can look so fierce with such gentle eyes is astounding.

They pause in front of it, and Link bows his head and closes his eyes. Zelda lowers her head as well, clasping her hands together in prayer. Thank you, my dear sweet friend. I’m so sorry I couldn’t—

“Link!”

Speaking of looming maroon, the Zora who trots up to them forces her neck back if she dares hope to take him all in. He’s dapperly dressed with the teeth of a shark that he flashes in a smile that throws her off balance, and all she can say of his color is that he’s less bight than her red shirt.

He grasps Link’s hand and forearm in an enthused shake. “You grace us with your presence once again. I’m so glad your travels brought you through Zora territory. So glad. And you’ve brought company!"

"Sidon," Link says, "this is Zelda.  Zelda, this is Prince Sidon."

"Oh!"  She looks him up and down again, startled.  He's gotten much taller, but it doesn't seem polite to comment.  "It is an honor," she  says with a bow.

"Zelda?  Princess Zelda?  Then it's true!  The Calamity has been defeated."  He looks back and forth between her and Link, his face slackening in such a way that it seems his charming swagger is washed away in the wake of raw, honest hope.

"It's true," she says.

“We suspected when Vah Ruta shot its energy beam toward Central Hyrule.  And then the machine went dark.  Many celebrated that it had finally powered down and was no longer a threat, even though I assured everyone repeatedly that the beast had been tamed.  But I was concerned that all your hard work and bravery to turn Vah Ruta to our side was for nothing.  I prayed it was able to help you before it powered down.”

Link nods. “She helped tremendously.  The plan worked perfectly.”

“Excellent!”  Prince Sidon grins with another flash of his teeth, his exuberance returned.  “You successfully defeated the Calamity and saved the princess!  We must celebrate!”

“I wouldn’t say I saved her.  More like—“

“A feast!  Princess, you have not had a Zora’s feast in a hundred years. I assure you, our trade may have waned, but our hospitality and cuisine are just as impressive as they were a century ago. We must celebrate your victory!  And you must see my father.  Come!”

Link leans close to whisper behind Prince Sidon’s back.  “I rescued you.”

“You provided invaluable assistance,” she says primly.

He laughs, and she can’t help but smile back.

#

Once she meets some of the older Zora, Zelda starts to understand Link’s concerns about Zora resentment.  There seems to be a generational divide between the Zora who remember the state of things before the Calamity, and those born into the world post-apocalypse. 

The younger Zora are more accepting, not just of Zelda, but of the way things are.  They’ve never traveled much.  They eat only the food stuffs native to the region.  They don’t bat an eye at stories of monster attacks.

But then there are the older Zora, those who are of high standing, advisors to the king.  Over dinner, they speak only curtly to Zelda.  They watch her through narrowed eyes, and she overhears one mutter to another that she’s surely there to force them beneath her heel.  The two Hylians defeated Calamity Gonon.  Would they dare—could they possibly—threaten the domain?  They must speak to the king as soon as possible.

She holds down the panic that hardens her stomach, making it almost impossible to eat, and in response, she makes her face and her posture and her conversation as nonthreatening as possible.  She smiles at the elders and asks their names and wheedles to hear their stories, and her memory works overtime, trying to scrounge up anything she can remember about them.  She used to be very good with names and faces, and she plucks up an anecdote about two of the four elder Zoras sitting near her.  "Do I recall correctly that you had a lute?  Oh, it was marvelous, does he not play anymore?  That's such a shame!  He had a ballad abut a magic fish."  Two of the four Zora elders soften towards her.

She tries to eat a little of everything, but there’s just so much of it and she’s still not great at consuming food. Link helps by pretending to steal bits off her plate when she’s “not looking.”  The meal is laid out on long, short tables.  They all sit on cushions on the ground.  Link lounges with one arm draped over a bent knee, and when she catches herself analyzing just what makes the pose so attractive, she forces herself to no longer look at him.

He uses the opportunity to steal more food.

The king delicately avoids the topics of reunification and the hierarchy of monarchies.  He's glad to hear that her main concern other than paying her respects is to inspect Vah Ruta.  His reaction probably has more to do with the unexpectedness of her priorities than gratitude something is being done about the Divine Beast.  He's even more interested to hear about how Link cleared out the trail into the domain and his intentions to get that Lynel and that Hinox once and for all.  He sits up in interest as Zelda asks for his permission to relocate a small population of snails from the sleeping pools to Lulu Lake.  The king mentions that he's concerned for the structural stability of the reservoir.  It's no longer threatening to burst, but damage has surely been done.  And Zelda leaps at the challenge, pulling out her slate to take notes, mentioning that they plan to visit the Gorons soon and she would do her utmost to find a consultant.

The king relaxes completely by the end of dinner, and Zelda collapses into a bed at the inn that night, exhausted and satisfied.  

“We just might manage it,” she says to Link.  

“Manage what?” he asks, removing his boots.  Zelda hasn’t bothered with hers yet.

“I’m not sure.  Something helpful.  Something useful.”

He flops over, still fully dressed except for his boots.  “Yeah,” he smiles.  “We'll definitely manage something.”

#

Halfway up the mountain path, Link says, "You're like a sunflower."  They're headed for Vah Ruta and some mysterious location that Link "just wants to check out." It's clearly the spot marked in the slate after his trial, but if he wants to pretend Zelda can't read a map, he's clearly deluded and there's no point calling him on it.  His voice startles her, and she opens her eyes and spins away from the view to see him smiling at her from further up the path. "You'd follow the sun all day if you could."

She should feel embarrassed that she was caught, but instead she grins and hurries to catch up.

"The Zoras have a lotion," he says. "It'll keep your skin from turning pink."

She tests her cheek when he's not looking. It's warm to the touch. She's already sun burnt.

They circle around the reservoir.  By unspoken agreement, they bypass Vah Ruta, and they soon come to a set of three, black obelisks, set around a central pedestal. They look eerily like the pylons rising around the castle. Her pace slows as they approach.

Link's doesn't though. He rushes right up to them, and, before she can voice her concerns, he hops onto the pedestal in the center to inspect the first obelisk.

Nothing happens to him. No barrier of pink energy lights around him. He's not electrocuted or engulfed by black smoke. He doesn't fall to his knees in pain.

Even with her slow pace, she eventually catches up to him, leaning around to see what he's looking at.

"They look like maps," she says.

He nods, getting his face far too close to the dark surface.

She reaches out slowly to touch the structure with just the tip of her middle finger, to check that it's safe.

"It's just like the shrines and the towers," he says. He's moved on to the second map, so he's no longer facing her. He pretends he doesn't see her hesitation so that she may save face.

The stone is warm under her fingertip, then warm under her palm. He's right. It's just that strange, otherworldly stone.

She steps up onto the pedestal and stands next to him, pulling out the Sheikah slate to compare maps.

"This one looks like Toto Lake," she says, and he nods his agreement. She marks the spot with a beacon. Then does the same with the next two at Miaku Lake and out near Knuckle Island. "But why are these points marked? What will we find there?"  She half suspects that each spot has three more maps.

He's quiet, which she takes as him not knowing, until he says, "I should go alone."

Her head snaps around. "I beg your pardon?"

He's looking off into the distance, avoiding eye contact, when he says, "It'll be dangerous."

"I followed you up the path to Zora's Domain," she argues. "What is it that you think will be more dangerous than that?"

"I don't know."

"That is not an acceptable answer, and I thoroughly reject it."

"You have your hands full with Vah Ruta anyway."

"I am quite adept at multi-tasking."

"I don't know how much time it'll add to our visit here if I don't go take care of it while you're busy."

"Well it will have to add time, because I need the Sheikah slate to work with Vah Ruta, and I'm not sure it's safe to send you on this challenge without it, so we can't possibly do both at the same time."

He has nothing to say to that, but he's making a face like he's made up his mind to go without her—with or without the Sheikah slate, with or without her blessing.

"Fine," she says, tucking the slate back onto her belt. "As soon as you leave for one of the beacons, I'll just set out for one of the other two."

He whips around to gape at her, his eyes wide and panicked, and she lifts her chin and crosses her arms over her chest.

She doesn't know why she's insisting on this. The last challenge he faced was just killing monsters, and she's not at all interested in that.  However, this quest is related to the shrines, and he told her that the shrines are full of puzzles, and she is unparalleled at solving puzzles, if she does say so herself. And would it really be so bad for her to enter a shrine just once? She's been trying to get inside one for a century, and Link just waltzes in, activating them with her slate.

They are accomplishing so much together.  Does he not feel that way?  Is he so unsatisfied with the good work they're doing that he needs to run off on his own?

"But.  I mean.  Zelda," he says, looking a little bit desperate.  "It's a challenge set for the chosen hero."

Her spine straightens as if he's slapped her.

She says nothing as she turns and stalks off toward Vah Ruta. It's not the sun burn that makes her face heat and her eyes burn.

 

Chapter Text

"Zelda."

She startles awake, and it takes a moment for the inn to come into focus in the dark: the soft glow of the orb-like lamps on the bedside tables, the windowless arches looking out onto the pitch black domain, Link kneeling by her bed. She sits up, and his hand falls from her shoulder.

The innkeeper is asleep.  There's no moon. It must be very very late.

She pushes her hair back from her face with as much dignity as she can muster. "Have you come to apologize?" she asks. She tries to sound haughty, but also keeps her voice low, both out of respect for the innkeeper and the desire to keep their disagreement private.

"Come with me," he says.

"What time is it?"

"Early. We can make it before sunrise."

That sounds like the last thing she wants to do. Groaning, she flops back into her pillow and pulls her thin blanket over her head.

"Zelda," he hisses.

She refuses to respond. She's not going to help him. He was too rude, and then he spent almost all day beside Vah Ruta standing far enough away that he wouldn't have to talk to her or apologize and close enough to make it clear he didn't trust her not to hurt herself trying to measure how long a rope ladder she would need to reach the entrance to the Divine Beast. It’s kneeling, but not easily accessible.  

And then the second they got back to the Domain, Link vanished with her slate, leaving her alone at dinner with Prince Sidon, who did nothing but talk about how great Link is.

She thinks about faking a snore, just to get him to go away, but that would be a bit much.

She can hear him thinking, hear him rock back on his heels. She can see the shadow of his hand as he reaches for her sheet and uncovers her face. Uncovers her glare.

"There are guardians in the highlands," he says. His voice is so quiet, just a shifting of the air. She almost convinces herself that she imagined it. It's like a fear That resonates in her head. "They're still active."

She's up, grabbing for her pants and pulling them on while still under the blanket, planting her feet and lifting her butt and tugging. As soon as she's thrown off the blanket, he hands her her red shirt. While she shoves her feet into her boots, he gathers up her supplies. As soon as she stands, he cinches a quiver around her waist, and she uses those few seconds to finger-comb her hair, which she ties up while they walk.  As soon as her kerchief is in place, Link hands her a bow.

By then they're to the long, crystal road out to the mountains, and they're alone until they meet the guard at the end of the road.

Link replaces the arrows in her quiver with a bunch of blue ones. Ancient arrows. Ten of them.

He drops the diamond circlet onto her head. She supposes she should be glad that he's not trying to con her into wearing his clunky ancient armor.

“Exactly where did you see them?” she asks.

He pulls out the Sheikah slate, pulling up the map. He points to the site of the first marker.

“One of the trials,” she says. “That can’t be coincidence. Do you think the trial somehow shielded them from deactivation?” His elbow bumps against hers with every step. Their faces glow in the same blue light of the slate.

He shakes his head and tucks the slate away, his expression vanishing into darkness. “They weren’t there before. They just appeared.”

“Since Calamity Ganon’s defeat?”

“Since I activated the trial.”

“Perhaps they were summoned by the trial,” she speculates.

“I think they are the trial.”

She thinks on this a moment as they take a switchback. She realizes she hasn’t seen a single monster since they left the city. Link must have spent the night clearing their path. The thought reactivates her earlier irritation with him.

“Let’s assume for the moment that these guardians are not controlled by Calamity Ganon. It’s a reasonable assumption since we are aware that he’s thoroughly sealed away. This leaves several possibilities. It could be that these guardians can be controlled by us, just as the guardians were before the Calamity. I can think of a few reasons why these would revert to their earlier programming when the others did not, but they all feel like flimsy hypotheses. The more likely possibility is that these guardians are controlled by the trial. These guardians work in service of the shrines.”

Link pulls the Sheikah slate back out, flipping to the compendium. He shows her a guardian variety she’s only seen deployed from Vah Rudania.  “I think you’re right. They pop up in the shrines pretty often. And it’s like they’re there as a test. Pretty sure they're controlled by the old mummy Sheikah monks, and being inside the shrine somehow kept them out of the Calamity's control.”

“Are the guardians in the shrines still active? Do they still attack even after you’ve completed the shrine's trial?”

“I don't know. I’ve never gone back for a second round. I destroyed most of them, and I’ve got no idea if they ever resurrected. I don’t know if they would have come back even with the blood moons.”

“But it’s something we could test. If there are still functional guardians about, there might be a way we could restore them all. We may be able to turn them back to our side."

Link jerks to a halt.

She turns back. "What?"

She expects him to have sensed a monster ahead, but instead he says, "You want to turn a guardian to our side?"

"Of course. Isn't that why we're out here? To capture one for further study?"

"I—No! No. We're out here to destroy them."

"What? Why?"

"What do you mean, Why? Because they want to kill us."

"That's why we need to alter their programing."

"Zelda." He scrapes a hand through his hair, pushing back his bangs. "That's...a much bigger project than I was picturing."

"What were you picturing? Why bring me out here if you had every intention of turning them to scrap?"

"I thought you might want the chance to take one down."

"Me? Why on earth would you think that?"

"I thought it'd be cathartic."

"Cathartic!"

"Yeah. You know? Show them who's boss."

She stares at him. It's too dark to really do so, but she stares at him anyway.

"Zelda, you can't get the guardians over to our side. Even if you could. Nobody's going to like it if you try. Clearing them away is one thing. Letting Robbie study them in a cave is one thing. But they turned on us once and no one's going to trust they won't do it again."

"Did you bring me out here just to lecture me? I'm very tired of this pattern, and I do not appreciate it."

He groans and covers his face in his hands. "I just thought you'd like to shoot at a guardian."

"What about me makes you think I would enjoy that? You are absurd."

She continues up the next switch back, Link hurrying after her. As they crest the ridge, Link crouches behind a rock, signaling her to do the same. A handful of sentries circle the area, and Link watches them as if he's already memorized their paths. Zelda watches too. They're the only functional guardians she's seen since the Calamity, and the pink glow scrawled across their metal sides causes her stomach to drop.

She twists to press her back against the stone. She closes her eyes and tries to breathe, but waiting for her is the stalker rearing over her, powering up with a whine, its eye glowing brighter, brighter, ready to explode.

No. Stop this. Stop this and listen.

She opens her ears, listening for running water and wind and animals, but the guardians are actually there and they're actually humming and she can't escape the noise.  She can’t escape.

The nearest sentry explodes.

She spins in time to see the shrapnel fall. Link ducks back down next to her, griping her shoulder and looking her in the eye. He has his bow in one hand.

"I'm fine," she says. She's aware that she doesn't sound it.

He watches her, and for a second she thinks he's going to call her on it. But then he looks away, peeks back over the rock. Then he takes her wrist and pulls her along, around the perimeter of the area the guardians patrol.

He gives her a boost up a small hill and nods at the closest sentry as it passes below them. "Aim for the eye."

Her hands are shaking.  "You're perfectly capable of doing it yourself."

"Yeah, but I got the last one," he says, shifting his eyes to look at her without moving his head from his monitoring of the sentries' movements.

She knows Link. Kind of. For him, killing the guardians is about keeping Hyrule safe. Her doing the deed is about nothing more than her and her panic attacks. Showing them who's boss, as it were.

It feels like a failure. She's letting this opportunity to understand and control the ancient technology go to waste because she's such a coward. She isn't brave enough to face the guardians and her fear won Link's argument for him. They were never going to make the ancient technology to work for them a hundred years ago, and they're never going to work for them now. She never should have even tried.

She huffs, and unslings her bow, drawing one of the ancient arrows from her quiver. Her hands are still shaking, and she pulls the bow back to put enough strain in her arms to hold steady.  Link shifts to murmur in her ear. "Did you see how it pauses when it reaches the end of its route? It's about ten meters away."

She waits as the sentry comes closer, closer, closer, and she holds her bow string, waiting, waiting. Her arm trembles. The sentry stops, swinging slightly as its momentum carries it. Maybe a second before she's really ready—but then when is she going to be ready?—Zelda lets her arrow fly.

The sentry splutters and sparks, then the fans holding it aloft fail, and it topples from the air, crashing against the ground and shattering into a thousand parts. When it explodes, it looks much more fragile than the search and destroy weapon she knows it to be.

Link is grinning, then taking her wrist again, boosting her up a boulder to take the next one from even higher ground. His eyes sparkle as he asks, "Want to get this one with bombs?"

Bombs are much less precise, as more than half the time she misses the sentry completely and the bomb rolls away down the hill to explode a barren section of grass. When she does manage a direct hit, the sentry only swings in the air, makes a spluttering noise, then shakes itself off and carries on with its business. She keeps expecting it to swivel, to aim its beam of light up at them and for her stomach to sink as she's caught in its light. Surely it knows where they are. It's not like they're being sneaky. The only advantage they have is height. But it doesn't look up.

She doesn't care for the bombs as much, but Link thoroughly enjoys himself, undisturbed when the bombs roll off and pumping his fist in the air when the sentry finally explodes. "Bombs are free," he explains as he hops down from the boulder to collect scattered guardian parts.

She takes out the last sentry with an arrow, and before it finishes exploding, the ground is shaking, and she's gripping Link's forearm. His hand grabs at the small of her back to keep her balanced. A cloud of dust billows up and the ground cracks and splits as a black spike bursts through the surface, growing taller and thicker until a shrine sits where there was previously bare space.

She stares at it as the earthquake subsides and the dust settles. The shrine is shaped differently from the others, sharper as if its shape helped it breach the earth.

Link doesn't look surprised, but he does look excited, and he jogs over, activating it with the slate in a motion she's done a thousand times without results.  She has always been hesitant with the action, but he moves as if he’s not thinking about it. The orange glow from the base of the shrine turns blue and the door unfolds. She never knew how it would open, but she has always assumed it would move as a single piece of rock, lifting into the ceiling, or rotating around to one side. She never expected it to come apart into bands, which swing in alternating directions. When she edges closer, she can see no sign of what was once the door.

"I..." Link says. He's paused before entering the shrine. "It's like the last year has been nothing but surprises. I haven't had any idea what I'd find around the corner, or what I'd run into next. Monsters or swamps or malice or a settlement or mushroom trees. And I realized that whenever I was retracing my steps, whenever I went back somewhere I'd been, somewhere I knew, even if I knew it was full of monsters and cliffs, at least I knew something. At least it felt familiar. At least I knew what I was doing.

"And after you sealed Calamity Ganon, I was kind of excited, because I could show you around. I was the expert and I could guide you, and wasn't it great that you were only now showing up when I wouldn't look like an idiot in front of you. And I know things are unfamiliar for you and I know that's uncomfortable—believe me, I know—but...I can help with that too. This is still something I know. Sort of. Does that make sense?"

She nods slowly.

"But with these trials...It's all new again. And this time it's new but you're here."

"So...are you trying to tell me that you're embarrassed? You don't like me to see you when you don't know what's coming?"

He shakes his head. "I don't like not knowing how to protect you. All I remember about protecting you is that I was always terrified I'd mess it up." He shakes his head. "I can't mess this up."

She tries to hold her insides together, to keep them all from melting. Instead she clears her throat. "I never wanted to be treated as if I were made of glass. What's the point in keeping me safe if I can't even live my life, if I can't help my people?"

He looks so conflicted that it's amazing that there are situations in which he's able to look so blank.

"Besides," she says. "It wouldn't be that much of loss now. I'm not royalty anymore."

The look he gives her could freeze time. Slowly and deliberately enough that she could stop him if she wanted, if she had any idea what he was doing, he reaches out a hand.

And shoves her.

With a squeak, she loses her balance, throwing out an arm before catching herself, righting herself, and storming up to him to shove him back with both hands in retaliation. She doesn't hold anything back, but he's braced for it and barely moves.

He's grinning at her again. He reaches out, holding a hand to her in invitation. When she takes it uncertainly, he hauls her up, and doesn't let go of her hand as he pulls her into the shrine.

"I'm so serious that you have to stay behind me, though." He pulls her close and braces an arm around her waist, and she startles as the floor beneath them lowers into the ground.

Chapter Text

 

Zelda is convinced that the platform that lowers down into the shrine could change civilization as they know it.  Imagine how tall they could make buildings if they didn't have to consider stairs.  How does it work?  Is it magnetic?  She doesn't see any tracks for it to run on. Link has to pull her away from it to show her the shrine's other marvels, but while she was distracted, he scouted ahead and judged there to be no danger, so he's not that put out by her obsessive behavior.

The shrine has a high ceiling with an artificial light source that she desperately wants to investigate.  She keeps taking pictures of it, but they don't come out quite right.  In contrast, below them is a bottomless pit.  It's a bit horrifying, especially since the walk way they're on seems to be held up by prayer and whatever force raises and lowers the platform.  She digs through one of the pouches on Link's belt until she comes up with a handful of acorns, which she throws into the pit.  They vanish into the dark and never make a sound to indicate they've hit the bottom.  When she finally gives up waiting for the sound of impact, she straightens from leaning over the edge and turns to see Link looking at her completely aghast.  He's not mad she dug through all his pockets without asking, violating his personal space.  He's mad that she would waste food so thoughtlessly.

The walls are the same material as the divine beasts and the towers.  "Yeah," Link says, "you can't climb them."  Somehow it does not surprise her to learn Link has tried to climb the walls.

If he had managed it though, she would demand to know if he ever investigated the light source in the ceiling.

It's not worth dwelling on too long, because there's a ball that must be guided into a hole.

"How do you know that's our objective?" she asks.

He sighs.  "Because that's always the objective."

Link hands over the slate, because it’s quite the puzzle.  He gets too close to watch over her shoulder.  He really has no sense of personal space, but it’s fine.  She can admit to being a bit socially awkward as well, so she can’t really fault him.

She had no idea she could use the cryonis rune on running water, or that she could make the pillars protrude horizontally.  Link has no answers to her hundred of questions except unhelpful shrugs, so she stops asking him and goes back to just asking herself.

She gets the sphere into the bowl-like divot, and the runes on both turn blue, and Link gives her waist a squeeze (he's been bracing himself there so he could watch her work) and a door opens, and now she understands what Link meant earlier when he referred tithe “mummy Sheikah monk."  She startles at the sight of him.  How long has he been sitting there?  Is he asleep? Is he dead?  Is he a well-formed statue?  Has he been watching her attempts to put the ball in the hole?  Because if so, Link really should have warned her.  She would have done a much more efficient job.

She circles the dais, searching for answers.  She takes pictures.  She leans in and squints, getting her nose as close as she can to the blue energy wall surrounding the monk.

Link waits.

"What now?" she whispers.

Link hops up the stairs and presses his hand to the energy barrier, which shatters into a thousand pieces, causing her to startle again and lift up and arm to cover her face.

And how does that work?  Will anything shatter it or only Link’s hand?  Is its purpose to preserve the monk?  Is it only an illusion?

The monk doesn't move.  But there's a voice.  In the air?  In her head? And then a purple orb of energy enters Link's chest.  He doesn't seem concerned.  As if this happens to him all the time.  As if he's expecting it.

The Sheikah monk dissipates (adding credence to her energy-wall-as-preservation hypothesis) and she and Link are teleported, and Zelda is standing before the entrance to the shrine, blinking in the afternoon sunlight.

She could sit and think about the millions of discoveries she's made in the past few hours.  She needs to get all her field notes into her journal as soon as possible.

But Link grins at her and says, "Where to now?"  And there are really too may options to choose.  The world is suddenly so large.  And with the way Link is smiling at her, it somehow doesn’t feel overwhelming.

#

Link is talking to a pair of Zoras, both young women of the generation that thinks Link is a hero who saved them from Vah Ruta's tantrum, and isn't it sad how his romantic, cross-cultural love story ended so tragically?  They touch his arms a great deal as they talk to him, and Zelda hangs back to watch from across the promenade.  She doesn't want to intrude.  Or, no, she does, because it seems in questionable taste to flirt with Link in front of Mipha's statue, but she doesn't want the Zora to think she's disapproving.  She doesn't want anyone (including Link) to think she's restricting his socializing in any way.  He can surely make his own choices.

Since she has no interest or say in his actions, there's no reason not to join them.  She's interested in hearing their discussion, and it's about time for them to leave on their morning excursion to Vah Ruta anyway.

Link smiles at her when she approaches, and tells the Zora, "I'm sure we can make that happen."

"Really?"  "Truly?"

He laughs and squeezes one of the hands clutching his forearm.  "Of course.  It shouldn't be a problem.  Right, Zelda?"

"I'm sure we'll try our best, but I would like to know what I'm agreeing to."

The Zoras laugh.  One of them detaches from Link to clutch at Zelda's arm, leaning in close with a face full of hope. 

"Since the Calamity is over, we've decided it's time to start our families.  We want to lay eggs as soon as possible!"  The other Zora nods her enthusiasm.  "It's Zora tradition for us to present our husbands with a gift when we've come to this decision.  We were thinking, and we decided it would be a wonderful idea to make our husbands an exotic delicacy.  To symbolize the new world our children grow up in.  Link was telling us about cake!"

"Can you imagine?" asks the other Zora.  "A world with access to flour!  And butter!"  She bounces with excitement.

"And exotic fruit," Link adds.

It takes Zelda aback, but she keeps all evidence of her surprise well hidden beneath genuine warmth.  "Congratulations!  What a tremendous decision.  You must be so excited."

The Zora grins so big her eyes squeeze closed.

Link says, "I told them we could hop down to the stable and let everyone know the road is clear and that the Zoras are very interested in trade. Especially trade that involves foreign food."

"That's a wonderful idea.  We must encourage the Zora to send their own traders out as well.  You have so much to offer!"

"Maybe I'll go myself," the first Zora says, removing one hand from Zelda's arm to tap her chin in thought.  "I'm a freshwater clam digger by trade.  I wonder if there would be a market."

"It certainly wouldn't hurt to find out."

"We'll head down later and tell them to expect you," Link says. 

"Thank you!  That's so kind of you.  Isn't he kind?" the Zora asks Zelda. 

She hums in agreement. She is heart-warmingly proud of him for this quality.  Not that she can claim even the slightest bit of responsibility, but still.  She's proud to have such a compassionate and generous companion.

"He'll help absolutely anyone who asks him," the Zora says.  "Ha!  But you know that already.  He helps you tremendously!"

She might not cover her surprise at that very well.

But Link is detaching himself and Zelda from the Zora, who immediately cling to each other.  He bids them farewell and guides Zelda away, his hand on the small of her back.

"You ready?" he asks.

She forces a smile onto her face and agrees.

Of course Link helps her.  He helps her more than he helps anyone else.  He helps her through panic attacks and nightmares.  He helps her not make a fool of herself in this new political climate in which she finds herself.  He keeps her safe from monsters and loans her defensive equipment.  That's hardly a revelation.

But...it's just surprising to realize that he would, and does, do the same for anyone. 

And doesn't that sound self-involved?

#

It's snail weed that's clogging up the pond.  With the reintroduction of snails, the water is flowing again in a matter of days. And it just so happens that the snail weed, when cooked, is a terrific decongestant, which does wonders for the sick Zora.

The site of the next challenge is just down the waterfalls, where a spinning blue wheel hovers in the air like a target.  Link stops by the edge of the water, his eyes roaming up the falls.  Then he grabs his Champion's tunic by the back of the collar and yanks it off over his head.

Zelda circles the target, taking pictures, but somehow it always turns to face her.  Does it sense her presence, or is it playing tricks on her mind?  Why is it focused on her instead of Link, or can it face them both simultaneously?

"Does it look like a circle from your angle?" she asks.

Link's shirtless now and about to pull down his pants, so she averts her eyes back to the glowing circle. Who even knows what he's doing.  Link has no sense of propriety. It’s very lucky she’s the only one around, or this could be embarrassing.  For whoever he’s with.  Link is probably incapable of feeling embarrassment and might not notice a travel companion’s discomfort.

"What?" he says. "Yeah, it’s a circle.  Why?”

She crouches to look at it from below, but again it tilts to face her.  The glow reminds her of when they warp.  “Interesting.”

Link is now in his underwear digging through the pile of supplies next to him.  

She can't take it anymore.  "What on earth are you doing?"

With an "Ah ha!" he pulls out the Zora armor and holds it up to show her.  "What do you want to bet I have to swim up that waterfall?"

She looks up at the falls, then back at the circle.  "You only think that because of where you're standing.  From my angle it looks like you'll have to dive off the cliff."  She gestures through the circle.

Link hops a bit as he gets his greaves pulled up over his hips.  He shakes his head.  "Definitely the waterfall."

"Probably the waterfall," she corrects.

His grin disappears into his Zora armor.  Once it’s on, he stretches a bit until it all falls into place.

It's a good thing she's already sunburnt and a good thing she has this spinning blue thing to pretend to look at.

Link clanks up next to her, now wearing a helm that adds angles to his face. He has all his equipment back in place, and he holds out his hand to request the slate.  Only begrudgingly does she hand it over.  He bounces twice before he runs, dashing straight through the circle. She half expects him to vanish, to be teleported away, here on this side of the circle and gone on the other, but instead there's a pop as the trail of a firework leads to the appearance of a new blue circle.  

At the base of the waterfall. 

Of course.  

Link dives into the water, and then he's skimming up the falls, blasting through circle after circle, target after target.

He disappears over the top of the falls, and she scurries backwards to see if she can catch a glimpse of him.  She shades her eyes and briefly spots him at the top of the next set of falls, but then he vanishes over those too. 

And then she's alone.

She sighs and briefly debates what ought to be done.  She could scale the cliff to catch up to him, but that sounds unpleasant.  There's a trail that leads to the top of the falls.  She knows because they just came from there to inspect the progress of the snails. She reaches for the slate at her hip to look at the map, but the slate isn’t there.  Link has it.  She has no map.

She turns back toward the Domain, trying to trace the path they took to get here.  Should she head back by herself?  Should she head up to the top of the falls and the snails by herself?  Should she sit here and wait for Link to finish the shrine that will surely appear after he's finished the external trial?  They should have discussed this better.  Made any sort of plan.  And now she's getting irrationally irritated that he would abandon her, which is nonsense.  Mostly nonsense.  She frowns toward the Domain.

But then Link is whooping from overhead and he drops from above, folding away his paraglider to land next to her.

"I told you it was the waterfall,” he says.  The helm shades his eyes in such a way that he looks mischievous.  He looks up to something.  He looks dangerous.  “What did you bet me, again?”

“I did not bet anything.  You had a logical hypothesis, which I would hardly presume was incorrect.  I was simply reminding you not to get ahead of yourself making assumptions.”

“You’re too smart,” he says. 

Then he taps her forehead.  He simply bounces his finger off it. 

She startles, but he’s already pulling out the slate to give it back and show her the new shrine to which they can warp.

“I had to activate it without you, so we can warp there, but I didn’t go inside."

He wraps an arm tight around her waist, and she reminds herself that he is a tactile person--perhaps an internalized remnant from his time with the Zora, who are also affectionate.  She wraps an arm around his neck and teleports them both.

#

The shrine involves lifting boxes and climbing up them to reach the monk who is definitely watching everything she does.  Thankfully, she excels at switching between the slate's various functions, and decodes the logic of the trial with ease.

All the climbing involved is a different story.

Link, meanwhile, can't seem to make heads or tails of what she's doing, and keeps making suggestions as if he's trying to go somewhere completely different (as if there are options) or as if he fully intends to return all the blocks to the floor for no apparent reason.  You would think with how she's explaining everything she's about to do, he would understand the next steps, but he either can't hear her while he's wearing his helm, he doesn't trust her judgement, or he honestly doesn't understand the magnesis rune.  

When she slides the final box into place, Link is so surprised and delighted that he barks a laugh and punches a fist in the air.  the next thing she knows, he's swooping in to kiss her cheek.  "You got it!"

She tries not to blush.  It doesn't mea anything. 

And of course she got it.  Honestly, he's so strange.  She's honestly worried now that there is something wrong with him.  Aside from the memory loss and the recklessness.

As soon as they're out of the shrine, she pulls his helm off his head and checks his hearing, snapping her fingers on either side of his head. 

"Um.  Zelda?"

"I'm worried there's water in your ear canal from your race up the falls.  If so, it may cause you to be prone to infections." 

She then checks the size of his pupils for any odd dilation or discrepancies in terms of size, which would indicate a concussion.  They look fine at first, the same as usual, but as she watches, his pupils widen.  His face softens.

She suddenly realizes how they're standing.  That she's cradling his face and looking deeply into his eyes.

Hastily, she moves one of her hands from his cheek to his forehead as if checking for a temperature.  "I think you're getting sick." She drops his face and scurries back to give herself space to dig through one of her pouches.  "Here," she says, handing him some snail weed.  "Eat this."

She turns away and starts the trek back to the Domain.  "We should get lunch before warping to the stable.  Are you alright to walk back to the Domain, or should we warp there as well?"

"M ood."

Link's mouth is full of snail weed.  Clearly, she's letting her imagination get the best of her.  She spends the rest of the walk silently listing reasons she should not be attracted to Link, who is obligated by fate and shared trauma to spend time with her, and who is far too much of an oblivious duffus anyway.

#

Zelda has Vah Ruta turned on.  The warp point works so they've folded away the rope ladder.  All the pods are blue.  The main control unit is whirring.  But Vah Ruta won't move.  She won't stand from her kneeling position.  Her trunk won't rise.  She doesn't expel water into the air or produce flying blocks of ice that are so similar to the cryonis rune that she knows there must be explanations waiting like treasure somewhere inside the beast.

But she won't move.

"She needs a pilot," Link says.

"Do we want to speak to the king about recommendations, or do you have someone in mind already?"

He frowns.  "Sidon would probably do it if we asked."

"That's why we cannot ask."

"Exactly."

She sits back on her heels from where she's knelt before the main control unit.  She pulls the slate into her lap and scowls at it.  She has a map, but according to Link, when he was last here he had controls to raise and lower Vah Ruta's trunk.  Those controls are now missing, and there's now a message in the corner that says, "Searching.  Searching.  Searching."

Zelda's seen the message before.  It was there before Mipha came aboard.

"We should speak to King Dorephan.  Ask how he wants to proceed.  As you said: she belongs to the Zora.  We can't designate a pilot for her without Zora input."

He hums agreement, and looks up at the ceiling as if he might spot a new switch that activates Vah Ruta's higher functions.

"The question then,” Zelda says, “is if we can leave Vah Ruta unattended until we find a suitable pilot.  It wouldn't do for someone unsuitable to stumble in and bond with her while we're away.  Perhaps the Zora would be willing to post a sentry."

"Let's hope so."  But Link looks concerned by the whole idea that Vah Ruta isn't secure.

"Do you have a better plan?" she asks.

He sighs.  "No.  You're right.  We should talk to the king."

She puts away the slate and looks around Vah Ruta as well.  The sunny brown walls are almost cheerful.  It looks the way she remembers it, when the Sheikah first excavated it: full of potential yet unrealized.  It's hard to picture it crawling with malice.  It's hard to believe it is Mipha's tomb.

"If the king doesn't know who to appoint as pilot, we don't have that much more to do in Zora's Domain."

"Just the last trial."  He says, "Then we'll have to head home."

"Yes," she says.  "Home."

#

She accompanies him to the last challenge. They cut east out to Akkala, deciding to take the day trip and come back tomorrow instead of teleporting closer. They're not exactly avoiding Impa. they're just taking their time. The trip is relaxing, climbing the Zora ridge and then hiking through the fields of Akkala. She takes the opportunity to get better pictures for her compendium, pausing their hike to crawl on her belly for a close up shot of a fox, holding still in the tall grass until the birds come right up close.

But as soon as she can smell the sea, as soon as they approach an area of the unknown, a tension starts to build in Link's shoulders. He grows quieter, more alert. Maybe he used to always be on alert, and it's only now that he's relaxed that she's able to notice the difference.

It's almost shocking when they approach the cliff face, and, instead of a monster, they find a couple of camping Zora. The instructions are straight-forward even if they don't make sense: at sunrise, follow the sun. It sounds like a leap of faith, and they spend the last few hours of daylight on the beach, collecting crabs and catching fish. Link tries to show her how to spear one, standing close behind her to guide her arm through the throw.

She misses completely.

Instead, he shows her how to use bait and then stand, very still until the fish come close enough to catch. She only slips into the water once, but even then she manages to hold onto her catch. They cook it for dinner back up with the Zora. Link tries to talk her through the process of filleting, but she makes a mess of it. Her fillet is shredded and thin in places and still has scales in others. It's probably filled with bones. Luckily Link caught four other fish. He takes the one she caught and eats it himself, and he does not mention what a small portion it is. He doesn't even discreetly pull bones out of his mouth. She wonders if she did a better job than she first thought, or if he's eating fish bones to save her feelings.

"I'm going to take care of that stronghold down there," he says, nodding north to a floating fortress just off a spiral isthmus.

"In the dark?" she asks.

He smiles, and it's dazzling. "No time like the present."

And as foolish as it is, she might be a little bit in love with Link.

"You sleep," he says. "You'll be safe here." He shoots the Zoras a look as he speaks. It's downright threatening. But the Zoras laugh and assure him that, of course, they would be honored to care for the princess in his absence.

When the morning comes, the sun rises over the ocean, and Zelda huddles under a blanket and watches the beauty of the wild.  She listens to the quiet of the wind.  And then Link takes a running start and leaps off the cliff, snapping open his paraglider and heading for the sun.  The moment is so surreal, that it feels like he might actually make it.  When he disappears into the distance, she wonders if he did. 

It's hours before he reappears, trotting over from behind them, from the opposite direction from where he vanished, from a shrine somewhere back on the mainland.  He holds out a hand to pull her to her feet, pulls her close, and brings her with him as they warp away to the final trial.

 

Chapter Text

The Zora guards spent the whole week on high alert.  They watched the comings and goings of the princess from the corners of their eyes.  They kept tabs on her movements around the region.  They tightened their grips on their spears whenever she stood before the king.

"She has no army to threaten us," said one elder.  "If she makes any demands, we'll simply call her bluff.  She can't force us to do anything."

"She has an army of Shiekah," said another elder.  "And she's protected by the Hylian Champion, who single-handedly destroyed the Calamity.  If we threaten her, are we prepared to go to war?"

The guards did not move except to dart their eyes at one another.  They weren't part of the discussions.  They were just the ones who might die if it came down to it.

The king put an end to the discussion with an unsatisfying, "Let us hope it doesn't come to that."

So the guards had no definite orders.  No clue what to do if the moment came.

But the week passed, and it didn't come.  There was no mention of Hylian taxes or renewed oaths of fealty.  There was no whisper of her coronation or even the words "High Queen." And what kind of High Queen rolled up her pant legs to wade into a pool and pluck out acceptably plump snails?  What High Queen climbed all over the reservoir taking "pictures" and measurements with sting, making calculations by hand in a notebook?  What kind of High Queen sat by the cooking pot and taught the young people to make "carrot cake?"

What kind of High Queen wore clothes like that?  Was that the fashion a hundred years ago, or was this some new trend in Hateno?

It started to feel like the threat wasn't coming.  Like she was a normal young woman with a strange fascination for engineering.  The guards desperately wanted to relax, but they couldn't let themselves.  The whole week felt like they were working the day before a Feast Day.  But they couldn't let their guard down, because what if that was the devious princess's plan?  Luring them into friendship and a false sense of security.

Watching as they were, they knew something was wrong when she walked into the throne room with her shoulders braced and a determined and guilty look on her face, like she was going to ask something distasteful and she knew it was wrong, but she was going to ask anyway. 

The king stiffened on his throne.

She came to a halt before him, Link a proper two steps behind, and she bowed her head in respect.  "Your Highness, I'm afraid I have something delicate I wish to discuss with you."

The king took in a bracing breath so loud it shifted the air.  He bowed in return, in resignation, and said, "Best to get delicate situations over with, Your Highness. Attack them head on."

The guards could see her swallow before she said, "Vah Ruta is at full power, but she will not be functional until she has a new pilot.  I'd request that you select a new Champion, so that I may assist them in making the connection with the Divine Beast, and aid them in learning to control her."

The king blinked, taken aback by the unexpected discussion topic.

"You wish me to pick a new Champion?"

"Yes, Your Highness."  She bowed her head once more, an unnecessary gesture in terms of protocol, but respectful and appreciated nonetheless.  "I know it is a difficult choice.  But Vah Ruta belongs to the Zora.  The decisions should be yours."

The princess was handing over a Divine Beast to the Zora.  With Vah Ruta at their command, they could surely take on the Sheikah army.  Did this mean no attack was coming?

The guards could only guess what went through the king's mind in the long pause that followed.  Weighing political power and the power of armies.  Weighing the princess' generosity against the odds that this was a trick.

But after considering all this, his decision boiled down, as always, to his daughter.  "I will not pick a new Champion," he said.  "Vah Ruta has and always will belong to Princess Mipha, the Zora Champion."  Then louder, his voice declarative, he said, "The Divine Beast will be a monument to what was lost in the Calamity.  And a monument to the victory that defeated it."

The guards allowed their shoulders to relax.

#

By unspoken agreement, Zelda and Link walk out into the highlands after their disappointing meeting and before the celebratory dinner that's hastily planned for the evening.  She flops down into the grass on her back and allows the sun to bake her arms and face, bake away her failure.  The sun is usually so good at reminding her that joy exists.

Link lies down beside her.  He's on his belly since he still wears the Master Sword on his back.

She understands the king's decision but can't help but think it's short sighted.  He could never replace Mipha, but she's not asking him to do so.  She's asking him to find another Zora Champion, and being the Zora Champion was only a part of who Mipha was.

What does it mean that the Zora want to power down Vah Ruta?  What if they're the only group without a Divine Beast?  It might change the power balance of the country, putting the Zora at a disadvantage.  And if it does, what could be done to mitigate that?  What if this is setting a precedent?  What if the Rito want to take Vah Medoh apart for scrap?  What if the Gerudo want to bury Vah Noboris back in the sand?  How can she rebuild Hyrule as she's planned without the aid of a single Divine Beast?  She'll never be able to study them in detail!  So much knowledge would be lost!

Link's voice is braced when he says, "You did the right thing."

Zelda moans and crosses her arms over her face to hide.  "I didn't fight for her!  I didn't even try to save Vah Ruta!  I didn't try to change the king's mind at all!"

"But you let him make the call.  That's important."

"I should have been able to do both.  I'm a disaster!"

"Yeah, but not because of this."

She groans again.

And what must Link think of her?  He's going to watch her power down Vah Ruta, watch the light fade from her consoles, hear the pitched hum of her engines lower as she dies, as Zelda kills her.  Mipha's pride and joy will forever be her tomb.  The Divine Beast will never help to heal the wrongs of the Calamity.  This monument to the past shows that the Zora will never move forward, will never embrace the future of Hyrule that Zelda envisions, the future Link showed her.  Will they ever move on and finally forgive Link?  Will he ever forgive her for letting them treat Vah Ruta this way?

"How can you even spend time with me?" she asks.  "There's no possible way you enjoy my company.  You know I hold you under no obligation, right?"

"I spend time with you because you care," he says.  "You care so much about people you've never met, and then you meet them, and you care even more."

"Caring is not the same as helping."

"So dramatic."

"Yes!  I'm dramatic and bitter and self-loathing and self-centered and ignorant.  I've made your life miserable.  My very presence makes you anxious. And now, completely against your wishes, I'm following you about on your adventures, forcing my company upon you."

He shakes his head.  "You're too hard on yourself."

"I'm most certainly not.  You're simply far too forgiving of me."  She lifts her crossed arms over her head to peek at him.  "I'm serious, Link.  Your oaths to protect me are no longer binding.  I'd never hold it against you if you left."

It would hurt, of course.  Not only does Link assist her through her panic attacks and her nightmares, not only does he provide her with shelter and protect her from monsters and guide her through this foreign world, but there's also the heart-twisting longing that looms within her heart that would make his absence stab all the more deeply.  But he will be better off without her, and if she truly loves him, she should grant him that.

He squints at her.  "Do you need alone time? Why are you trying to get rid of me?"

"I'm not—"

"You are.  I thought we were past you wanting me to go away.  What about me is making you this upset?"

"What?  Nothing!  You're perfect!"

"Pft.  I know you think all kinds of judgmental stuff about me."

"I do not."

"Yes, you do."

"That is quite the assumption."

"No, it's not. You just went on a long rant about all the things you judge about yourself.  I doubt your opinion of me is any kinder."

"That's different."

"Is it?"

"Of course.  Just because I hold myself to high standards, doesn't mean I hold others to those standards.  I would never judge anyone else as harshly as I judge myself.  That would be cruel."

He gives her a smug look, like he just proved some kind of point.  She responds by glaring at him and covering her face once more.

"I'm lazy," he says.

"You are not.  You're the most active person I've ever met."

"But I slept for three days after the Calamity."

"You're entitled.  I was only upset because I didn't like being alone."

"I'm forgetful."

"That's hardly your fault."

"I track mud into the house, and I smell like a brawl."

"That's...true."

"And I'm reckless."

She throws her arms in exasperation, letting them bounce against the grass.  "And yet over-protective at the same time!  How is it possible?  It's mind-boggling."

He grins at her, like she's endearing.  "See?  You're judgy."

"You're infuriating."

"But you like me anyway.  We’re both annoying.  That's why we work well together.”

He takes her hand in his, threading their fingers together.  Pivoting her arm at the elbow, he lifts their hands.  "You’re such a weirdo," he says.  "And I like spending time with you."  He presses a kiss to the back of her hand, and even in the sun, her skin erupts in a full body shiver. 

"Even when you're doing whatever mood this is," he adds, using their joined hands to gesture at her.

#

They walk to Vah Ruta, even though they're going to have to warp from the ground to get inside anyway.  They're dragging their feet, not quite ready to power down the Divine Beast, not quite ready to return to Hateno where Impa will learn how bad Zelda is at following directions.  They walk because they're both aware that there's another challenge waiting for them at the Divine Beast, and Link's not going to warp into an unknown situation.

They get about fifty feet from Vah Ruta, when Link abruptly stops.  He stiffens.  He sucks in a breath.

"Link?"

He doesn't move.

"Link?"

His eyes have gone glassy.  He's not blinking, just staring at Vah Ruta—no, through Vah Ruta.  Zelda’s chest cramps with fear.

"You're scaring me.  Please say something."

But he's gone.  He's just gone.

Zelda's hands have gone numb.  Her vision telescopes sickeningly. A panicked burn builds in her stomach, needing to heave itself out, and she knows it's the power of the Goddess rising up to fix this.  She forces it down, tries to force herself to calm, but her hands are shaking when she lifts them to Link's face, strokes over his cheeks to reassure herself that he's there.  Right there.

She wants to scream and shake him back to himself.  She wants to press a kiss to his lips like waking him from a spell, but she knows that if that fails, it will break her.  She wants to be brave enough to let the challenge play out, because that's obviously what this is.  It's the challenge.  Just the challenge.  She should trust Link handle it and to return to her.  Trust Link enough not to drag him back.

She strokes over his cheeks again, checking and checking and checking that he hasn't gone cold.  That he's not dead again in her arms.

He comes back to himself with a gasp, and she supports him as he stumbles, one hand on his arm, one hand on his cheek.  "Link?  Link?"

"Zelda?"  He blinks, squeezing his eyes closed and batting to clear them.  When he finally focuses on her, his hands grab at her waist.  "Are you alright?"

 

"Me?  You're the one who—who—You were just standing there!  Staring into space!  I didn't know what to do!"

She must sound more frantic than she means to, because he pulls her close and hugs her.  She buries her face against his neck, to smell him and feel his pulse rapid against her nose, as if he's just run a mile.  He's alive, it says.  Alive alive.

"Breathe, Zelda.  It's okay."

"Of course, it's okay.  I'm just—I—you—"

"I'm fine too."

She collapses against him at that.  Maybe she shouldn't press this close to him.  He'll be able to feel how hard her panicked heart is pounding.

"Where did you go?" she asks.

He hesitates before telling her, "I fought Waterblight Ganon."

"What?" She pulls back to run her hands over him, checking that he's alright.  Is he alright?  "Where?  How?"

"In my memories."  He looks up at Vah Ruta, almost as if he's zoned out again. “I was…” He swallows, then says.  "I beat him."

"Good," she says.  “Good.  Well done.”  She tells herself that she's not shaking.  She is not.  She tells herself that Link's the one who needs comfort now.  Not her.  She tightens her grip on the back of his shirt and tries to radiate comfort to the best of her abilities.

He strokes her hair.  "I'm so sorry I left you.  I didn't know that would happen."

 

"It's not your fault, of course.  We knew there would be a trial here, and—and I'm perfectly fine.  Really.  You didn't leave for long.  Thirty seconds maybe."

 

"What?  No.  I was gone hours.  I..."  He tightens his grip on her, pulling her onto her toes.  "Good.  I'm glad I wasn't gone long."

 

The time dilation and the manufactured hallucination both draw up a million questions.  She gives away how worried she was by not asking a single one.  Link doesn't seem to mind too much.  He just holds her, maybe taking as much comfort from her presence as she does from his.  Possibly.  Most likely not.

From somewhere over her shoulder, there's a trickle of music.  Link turns his head to look but doesn't pull away.  He rests his cheek on the kerchief in her hair.  She steps back after a moment, forcing a smile onto her face.

"I'm glad you were successful once again," she says.

He still looks disconcerted and disoriented, but he makes a face and says, "I didn't have the right equipment.  That's why it took so long."

"The vision changed the equipment you had?"

"It made it so..." He shakes his head again.  "Come meet Kass."

"Who?"

Kass is a vibrant blue Rito playing an accordion further around the side of the Divine Beast.  He startles when he notices them approach.

"I've been roosting here, so I could come to better understand the Zroa Champion, Mipha," he says.  "I hoped that nearness to the Divine Beast she controlled could help me finish my teacher's song."

"Your teacher?" Zelda asks.

"Kass is the apprentice of the court poet," Link says.  His tone says he's proud of himself for being able to share that information with her, but it's clear to her that he has no memory whatsoever of the court poet or he would not be so pleased with himself.

"Would you like to hear the song?" Kass asks.

It's the kind of song that reaches inside the stiff protection of her ribs and yanks at all the tender parts inside.  She's drawn into it even before she realizes it's about her.  It's so vivid.  She can see it as if it happened this morning.  Mipha's voice as she faced her destiny and her doom.  The warmth and grief in her eyes.  The easy way she held her trident.  The way she twisted and skimmed through the water, the way she flew and spun, elegant and precise and artful.

She wonders if Link can see the scene as clearly as she can.  She gives him the illusion of privacy and keeps her face turned to the musician as Link turns to Vah Ruta.  His head lists to the side, as if he can still hear Mipha's voice.  He presses a hand to his chest where it aches.

He turns to her and asks, "You ready?"

Mipha’s life did not turn out as she had planned, but she faced it with grace and made the most of it.  Zelda can at least try. 

"Yes," she says.

Chapter Text

"Well," Impa says, "I would call that quite the success!  You succeeded in the two most important tasks: fostering a relationship with King Dorephan, and opening trade to the Zora Domain.  I fear the deactivation of the Divine Beast was to be expected.  Don't be disappointed."

They have rearranged the tech lab so Impa now has a tall stack of pillows to sit on.  With Zelda and Link both standing, she is at their eye level.

Zelda nods rather than argue.  She was worried that Impa would be angry with her, so she should accept this praise even if it feels like it's for the wrong reasons.

"It was a success," Zelda agrees.  "And if that's all, I would like to speak to Purah a moment."

"Of course, Your Highness.  And if you don't mind, I would like to speak to Link."

Zelda and Link exchange looks.  She's baffled but unconcerned.  He looks like a little boy who's just been called to his headmaster's office.  He widens his eyes at her in an attempt to convey that he has no idea what he did wrong.  It's so endearing that she says, "Of course."

As she walks past, he mutters, "Traitor," but his cheek twitches toward a smile and he lifts his chin to face Impa.  Zelda allows herself a grin as no one can see her, then lets it spread when Purah charges up to her outside.

"Did you try the tower?  What happened?  Tell me everything!"

"It worked!" Zelda says, pulling out the slate.  "We were able to find all the large monsters in the Lanayru region, and Link was able to dispatch them."

Purah snatches the slate away to see it, but with all the marks now erased, it looks no different from last time.  This does not dampen her excitement.  "I knew it!  The towers must have an even more powerful honing system than the slate, but I bet they work the same way.  Whatever way that is.  Did you try to locate deactivated guardians?"

"No.  But perhaps if you could lend us your expertise?"

Purah cackles.

Zelda’s excitement falters when Link rejoins them.  His expression is hard.  He tries to wipe it away when he sees Zelda watching him.

"What is it?" she asks.

"Nothing."

She gives him a skeptical look.

"We'll talk later," he says.  "I need some time to think."

That doesn't sound good at all.

Her sense of foreboding only increases as Link stays on edge. He lifts his head at every odd noise.  He's still fully armed, and she catches him looking out the tech lab window twice.  He's the one to suggest they go to Hateno Tower, even though just that morning he gave what could only be described as an ode to taking a nap in his own bed.

Before they leave, he turns to Symin and asks, "Are you armed?"  Symin slips a cruel looking scythe from the small of his back. Only Zelda finds this surprising.  Link nods, and then nods at a Sheikah named Dorian, who's standing behind them, and then he warps Symin to the tower first.  He ferries over Zelda second, and she realizes as he releases her and disappears again that even with Link elsewhere, she has had at least one Sheikah watching over her. 

He finally warps to the tower with Purah, who refuses to warp any way other than on piggy-back.  Link paces at the tower, sweeping his eyes across the ground below them, then circling back to brush his fingers against Zelda's back where she’s bent enthusiastically over the guidance stone, then out again to watch over the countryside.  He stays at the top, even though there's a whole encampment of moblins right below them. 

"I'll get them later," he says.

It doesn't bode well.

He lets them stay as long as they want, without hurrying them along at all.  When it's time to head back to the tech lab, he ferries Purah and Zelda, and then it seems as though he spends a long time at the tower alone with Symin.

Although they locate plenty of monsters in the region, they have no luck pinpointing the guardian remains, but Purah has some ideas and will keep working on it.  She'll probably have it before they leave for Eldin.  She's fairly sure, anyway.  She has a good feeling.

Back at home, Link's still on edge.  Zelda gets out the emerald green fabric and starts planning a new tunic.  She sketches in her journal beside the cooking pot while Link cooks.  He's constantly looking up like he hears something, and when the food is ready, he insists they eat inside at their "very nice dining table."  She rolls her eyes at his excuse to get them indoors and pushes the fabric she's spread over the table to the side so they have room to sit.

Link makes enough marinated wood pigeon for both of them, and a bass for her if she's not feeling up for game fowl.  She tries the pigeon, and it's delicious enough that she goes back for a few more bites, but then her stomach gives a squeeze and she turns her attention to the vegetable side dish. 

"The Yiga went into Kakariko again," he says.  His face is serious, and he takes care not to eat while he speaks—although he does still eat, so it can't be all that serious. 

She blinks. The Yiga tribe were cult followers of Ganon, who spent their time trying and failing to sabotage the Divine Beasts, and trying and failing to assassinate her and her father. They didn’t fail for lack of trying.  She hasn't thought of them at all since the Calamity's defeat. She's not sure anyone Before thought of what would become of them if the Calamity rose. It didn’t seem to matter much.

Zelda can only assume that they gained power with the Calamity. They gained power with the Hylian army no longer keeping them in check. She can only guess how angry they are after their century of backing the most powerful force in the kingdom has come to an end.

"They usually stay out of towns," Link says.  "But Kakariko is different.  They like to mess with the Sheikah."

"I would assume there's bad blood there."

"Yeah," he says.  "This time, they snuck into Impa's house.  Clearly no one was home, because they're both here, but they didn't steal anything, so Dorian's assuming that it was an assassination attempt."

Fear grips at her chest.  "They wanted to kill Impa?!"

He looks at her a moment, then shakes his head ever so slightly.

"They...wait.  What are you saying?  They want to kill me?"

"They really don't like you."

"But..." She searches for the right words to express her dismay.  Why does she still have to deal with this?  She lands on the bizarre choice of, "Why not?!"

Link's serious face melts. His lips twitch again.  "I've no idea."

She huffs.  

"The point is that they've heard you're around.  They know you sealed the Calamity.  Now they know that you're not in Kakariko."

"And it won't be long before they learn of the large contingent of Sheikah in Hateno."

Link nods.

She sighs and puts her face in her hands.  "What's your plan that I'm not going to like?"

"I think you're way too vulnerable here.  The Sheikah up the hill are too far away to be backup if anything happens, and unless you want them to move down here—"

"I don't."

"—Or you want to move up to the tech lab—"

"I'd rather not."

"—then it's just me protecting you 24/7."

"That...You’re right.  That’s unfair."

"I don't mind," he says.  "But sitting around here, waiting for the Yiga to find us, and knowing I'll be on my own when it happens—"

"No, of course.  You're...You're right.  That's far too much to ask of you.  I should move up to the tech lab, or...or maybe a couple Sheikah could join us here.  Maybe a rotating guard?"  Maybe they could stay outside?  She and Link will have to alter their sleeping arrangements in a hurry otherwise.  Not that she's embarrassed or doing anything wrong, but she will definitely get a lecture, and there's no way she can get through it without lighting on fire from blushing too hard.

Perhaps the real reason she doesn't want the Sheikah around is because she wants Link to herself, and that's...not really a good reason.

But Link holds up his hand to stop her from jumping into making plans.  "Or," he says.  "I know you want to take some time to rest, and that you have plans to work on the slate's search functions and get your aqueduct built for the bathing room and make a new dress—"

"Tunic," she corrects.

"—But I suggest that we move on to Eldin as soon as possible."

"How soon?"

"Tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow!  We're not prepared!  We need...fireproof elixirs.  Lots of fireproof elixirs."

"You could wear my flame breaker arm—"

"No."

"No.  Well. I'm pretty sure, the Yiga won't follow us into the heat. They definitely won't look for us there first.  So what I suggest is that we go to Foothill Stable.  There are plenty of fireproof lizards around there.  We can gather up enough to make a whole barrel of elixir for the trip into Eldin. And while we’re there, we at least won't have the Sheikah down the road, drawing all the attention.  They'll actually be drawing attention away from us."

"And towards our house."

He frowns.

All her muscles seize, and she hurries to correct herself, "Your house. Sorry!  Your house." 

She thinks she might throw up.

But he doesn't seem to understand her humiliated state and gives her a confused look. "Zelda, I really think we need to move on tomorrow."

She looks around the little house.  His house.  She'd been looking forward to being home, spending some time here.  Some time when she doesn’t have to socialize or be engaging.  Some time devoted only to the silly projects she’s made for herself.

"Yes," she sighs. "Of course."

 

#

 

After so many days passing out exhausted into her bed at the Zora inn, Zelda once again has a hard time falling asleep.  There are noises outside the house.  Noises inside the house.  They tug at her long ears, as she waits for the sound to come again, come again but closer.  She listens for footsteps in the dark.  She listens for an assassin on the roof.

It's absurd to be worried.  What are the chances they will pick tonight to attack? (She refuses to allow herself to answer that question.)  What are the chances that there's a Sheikah guard on the roof, keeping watch despite her protests?  What are the chances an assassin gets into the house without waking Link, and what are the chances that Link isn't actually asleep behind her?

He seems asleep.  He's breathing deeply and evenly, his chest rising and falling against her back.  His arm draped over her waist is boneless.

She tries to calculate how many fireproof lizards they'll need.  Then how many smutherwing butterflies—the best way to get an elixir potent enough to get to the volcano.  But the butterflies are only found in areas where they'll need a less potent elixir to catch them, and if they stay for a week and a half, with potions that last six hours each, for two of them...

"Zelda, go to sleep."

She squirms around in his arms to face him.  Peering up into his face in the dark, she can just make out that his eyes are still closed, his face still lax.

She says, "We'll need one fireproof lizard every six hours for each of us, that's eight a day.  If we stay for two weeks that's one hundred and twelve.  That's an absurd number.  Do you think it's possible to create traps for them?  Or put out bait?  I wonder what they eat."

Link's breathing is still deep and even, his breath fanning against her face, but he's now stroking soothing circles into her back.  "It sounds like what you're saying," he says, "is that you're not going to sleep anytime soon."

"For more potent elixirs, we'll need two smutherwing butterflies each for a six-hour dose.  If we only go to the volcano for one six-hour trip a day that's only twenty-eight butterflies, but they are difficult to catch.  Unless something has changed.  Has that changed?  Perhaps we should construct some butterfly feeders to lure them in."

"I can hum you a lullaby if you want."

"We used to have several in the castle gardens.  For attracting butterflies, you know, so they could be admired.  Not so they could be captured and turned into elixir.  But if we're going to encourage trade into Eldin, it would be a good idea to make accessible the resources necessary to do so."

"I can heat up some milk for you.  That's supposed to be helpful."

"But—oh no—what if by harvesting smutherwing butterflies we reduce their population too sharply?  I wonder if anyone has already done a population study.  Perhaps we could breed them! I've never done something like that, and it is slightly outside my realm of expertise.  And it sounds tedious.  Did you meet anyone on your travels who might be interested in butterfly husbandry?"

"I think we still have some of that sleepy tea."

"And how many monster parts have you accumulated?  With what you currently have and what you gather on the way to Goron City, will we have enough, or will we need to visit an encampment before we visit Death Mountain?"

Link groans and flops over onto his back, pulling both his arms from around her to rub his face.

"I'm sorry," she says.  "I'll be quiet again."

"Nope.  Nope.  Get up."

"What?"

"If you're not going to sleep, then let's at least do something useful.  Get dressed."

A few minutes later, they're standing outside.  There's no moon, so it's strangely dark, casting her quiet town into forms she can't recognize.  Link is fully armed, and the strangeness of that too makes her shiver.

They head north, towards town and through it, and it's not long before she can see the glowing purple balloon.

"This is Kilton," Link says before they get too close.  "The guy's a weirdo.  Don't let him frighten you too much.  But also don't get too comfortable."

In the little house under the balloon is a man with skin as gray as a silver moblin.  Zelda can't tell if he paints himself that color, or if he's eaten something that hasn't set well.  His hair is falling out, and she doesn't want to make judgements about how bulbous his eyes are.  He's wearing green, scaled gloves that make it look like he has lizalfo hands.

He greats them with a ringing, "Woo Whoo!" and leans over his counter to thrust his face in Link's direction, taking several deep sniffs.  Zelda feels a full-body shudder coming on, but Link doesn't even blink, much less pull away in disgust.

"You've got monster parts on you!"

"Sure do.  I'm going to need twenty-eight monster extracts."

There's a light in Kilton's huge eyes.  "I have the extract if you have the mon."

"What's mon?" Zelda asks.

"It's currency, only used at the Fang and Bone," Link says.

That sounds pretty worthless to Zelda, but then Link starts pulling out Lynel guts and exchanging them for mon, and then it makes more sense.  And also less sense.

When Kilton turns away to lovingly place the monster innards in a chest, Zelda leans in to whisper, "What does he do with them?"

Link leans toward her as well.  "Let's pretend he studies them.  Or he's like an apothecary.  He does make monster extract."

"What's monster extract?"

"It's very special," Kilton says, turning around with his arms full of small, purple vials.  "It's the most delicious spice, made of delicious monsters.  You can put it in food!  You can put it in elixirs!  It has amazing benefits."

"This," Link says, holding up a bottle, "will make a fireproof elixir that lasts thirty hours."

"What?!  How?"

She snatches the bottle away from him to look at it from the side.  Slightly viscous.  Of unknown color because it seems the bottle itself is purple.  Leaving behind tears on the inside of the glass like legs on a fine wine.  She looks at it from the bottom and notes some light sedimentation.  She un-stoppers the cork to waft the scent towards her, and immediately gags and covers her nose in the crook of her elbow.  Her eyes burn.  It smells like pure alcohol.  Maybe Link just hallucinated this thirty-hour elixir duration.

"Ah ah ah!  That's my little secret.  But if you ever need more, you know where to find me."

"You've got monster masks, right?" Link asks, and Kilton excitedly pulls out a series of terrifyingly constructed monster heads, each to be worn like a hat to confuse monsters into not attacking you.

"No no no, he's got it all wrong," Kilton says. "You wear them so the monsters accept you as one of their own.  So you can bond with them!  So you can become one of them!"

Link is holding a lizalfo hat with one button eye coming loose.  Zelda leans in for a better look.

"Do they actually work?" she asks.

Kilton says, "Yes!" as Link makes a so-so hand gesture behind the lizalfo hat so Kilton can't see it.

Link holds up the hat and raises an eyebrow at her.  "Say the word, and I'll buy this for you."

She manages to say, "No, thank you," in a way that doesn't offend Kilton too much, but conveys to Link exactly what she thinks about that plan.  The smile Link cracks warms her chest.

Besides, she could make a much more accurate mask herself if she put her mind to it.  Those seams are so poorly done!  Those fabrics are a patchwork!  She almost wants to offer Kilton her sewing services just to put an end to shoddy workmanship.

"I was wondering, though," Link says.  "You wouldn't happen to have a Yiga clan outfit, would you?"

Zelda jumps when Kilton screams, "Yiga!" pounding his hands against the counter and jumping with irritation.  "I collect monsters."

Link holds up his hands in surrender and hands the lizalfo hat back.  "Sorry.  Sorry.  You're absolutely right.  My mistake."

On the walk home, she says, "I can't believe you were about to dress me up like a Yiga clan member."

"They basically just wear what the Sheikah wear, except red.  That outfit's downright comfy.  Maybe we could dye it for you."

"I don't know what to do with you sometimes."

"Just trying to help you relax.  Don't think for a second that I believe you're losing sleep over butterfly husbandry."

"You're the one worrying.  I'm just worrying because you're worrying, and you've convinced me it's something worth worrying about."

"Would it help if I kept watch tonight?  Let you sleep?"

"No," she says.  Snuggling will definitely help more than having him hover and remind her there's danger.

"Well, there's something else I want to show you," he says.  They've just crossed the bridge over the ravine, and he stops and points to the roof of the house.

For a moment, she can’t tell what he wants her to look at.  But then there's a shape there, only just visible as a more solid kind of shadow crouched beside their chimney.  She squints, and the shape becomes a person, becomes an assassin.

But Link squeezes her arm.  "That's Paya keeping watch."

She barely manages to breathe again.  "You trust her?" she asks.

"With my life," he says guiding her back to the house.  "And, more importantly, with yours."

Chapter Text

Zelda is very good at catching lizards, if she does say so herself.  With just a bit of quiet, patient observation, she knows three different spots near the stable where the lizards frequent.  She doesn't mind waiting, and doesn't mind sneaking up on the creatures, crawling forward a foot at a time through the dirt and dust.  Her knees are stained red-brown by mid-morning.

Link believes the best way to catch lizards is to outrun them, so he does a lot of charging and diving and coming out of a roll with a terrorized lizard held up over his head in victory.  By noon, Zelda has caught ten and Link has caught six, and Link declares her the victor of a game they weren't playing and focuses instead on killing monsters. 

He dispatches the ice wizrobe right beside the stable, and Zelda hangs back and catches a lizard.

They stroll down into the canyon, and Zelda lingers behind, taking her time so she doesn't slip on the incline, and catches a lizard.

He fires an arrow into a skull shaped cave, causing an explosion, and Zelda grabs a lizard that runs from the noise.

He pops out of the next camp with an amber in one hand and a new claymore in the other.  Zelda pops up from behind a rock with a lizard in each hand.

They have all the lizards they'll need for a two week trip by the time the sun sets, and they take turns at the cook pot--Zelda mixing the next few day's worth of elixirs and Link cooking up some curry pilaf. 

As Zelda stoppers the last elixir, a woman nearby gives her a dirty look.  Zelda is not at all used to people giving her dirty looks, and at first she's pleased that no one here knows her as the princess.  (The knowledge of who she was didn't cut out all the dirty looks, but it at least hid them.)  But then she starts to worry that perhaps the woman is in the Yiga clan.

"She sells fireproof elixirs," Link says in an undertone.  His eyes sparkle as he looks up at her, bent over the cook pot.  "You're putting her out of business."

"Oh!"  She looks down at the bottle in her hand.  This is the opposite of encouraging trade and entrepreneurship.  But on the other hand...  "I certainly sympathize.  But I'm hardly going to stop what I'm doing."

"Yeah, you're done now anyway."

"It's not as if I'm selling our elixirs to other travelers.  She's losing out on our business, but no one else's.  We're not even sharing our recipe."

"And it's not like you're rubbing it in her face by making elixirs ten times as powerful as hers."

"If they're more powerful, that's your doing, and ten times seems an exaggeration.  And I'm still not sure I believe this thirty-hour nonsense.  And I am not rubbing it in her face!"

He smiles and holds out spoon for her to taste the pilaf.  She tries it and nods her approval, and he reaches out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.  It may not be blistering yet this low on the mountain, but it is hot, and her hair has started to frizz and escape her kerchief, especially after all of today's lizard gathering.  She hurries to right it, and as she does, she accidentally locks eyes with the elixir woman.  Her look has turned even dirtier, and Zelda realizes it's not her elixir making skills she's rubbing in the woman's face.

She darts a look at Link and then away, and bends low to fix her hair and hide the sudden heat in her cheeks.

#

Link is going to get every last lizalfo on Death Mountain. It's a more difficult journey than their march to the Zora Domain, where the road twisted and turned and there was plenty of cover and plenty of places for her to hang back out of sight.  The path into Eldin is made of long, straight stretches with almost no cover. They can see the lizalfos from far off, and it's still an unanswered question if the monsters can see them or not. Link does an awful lot of charging ahead.

The path is not as defined on the volcano as it is in the Domain. Monsters appear below and above, and Link drops off the trail to get some stray chuchus on a lower level, charging back to get the next group up ahead.

He seems almost disappointed that the guardian that used to block the path is now deactivated. He frowns down at it, before sinking into a crouch to dig through its innards. He hands screws over his shoulder for her to take, and when he's done, he pats the machine's side before pushing himself up.

"Want to check out the tower?" he asks.

Of course she wants to check out the tower.

The region seems to be populated mostly by taluses and wizrobes. There's only a single hinox out beyond the volcano.

"Should we check for lizalfos?" he asks.

She cringes. "We could. But I suspect there are so many that to mark them all would take us hours and require more pins than the slate has."

Link frowns out at the mountain, at the trail ahead. "I just want to make sure we get them all."

"Why not make a couple passes first? Come back in a week and see what you've missed."

He grins at her.  Then he plucks up the slate and adjusts it himself.

Zelda hasn't paid much attention to the monsters in the compendium, and she hasn't noticed before that Link has pictures of Yiga clan mambers.  He sets the guidance stone to search, then steps back to let the blue liquid run its course.  He smirks, holding it up so she can see there are no new marks.

"That's why you took so long picking up Symin the other day.  Did you find any then?"

"No," he says, handing the slate back to her.  "So who knows?  Maybe it doesn't work."

"It works."

"So confident," he teases.

"Of course."

At least, she's confident until they have to descend the tower.  There's no good way to warp to the bottom.  More than once she falls on Link as she reaches a platform, but he catches her around the waist each time and sets her on her feet.

#

They reach an intersection, with one branch trailing down towards the lava. It's clearly not the path, but it's also just the kind of place the lizalfos would gather. Up ahead, the path is enclosed on both sides by looming walls, and it seems the path itself is blocked at the end by a wall of cooled lava flow.

Link stops, assessing the situation. She can't really fathom what kind of dilemma he's having. Does he want to clear out all the lizalfos so badly that he'll take a detour? The plan was to walk to Goron City and clear the monsters on the way. Is he worried that she won't be able to scale the lava flow, and therefore he's looking for an alternate route? She checks the map, trying to see what he's thinking. She startles at the pin ahead.

There's a talus blocking the path.

She leans around Link's shoulder and squints to try to make it out, but she can't tell which batch of lava is the monster.

"There." He points.

The pointing is not helpful.

She asks, "Are we going around, or am I hanging back?"

"If it sees you, it'll throw flaming boulders at you."

"Naturally."

"But the best place to hide is over there, and I just know some lizalfo is going to wander up the second I'm not paying attention."

She sighs.

"I should have bought that lizalfo hat," he sighs.  "Or let some of the Sheikah come with us.  I don't know, do you want to just warp the rest of the way?"

She scowls at him. "We know I can handle a single lizalfo.  I've got ice arrows and the slate. "

"These lizalfos breathe fire."

"And I am currently fireproof."

He sighs, "Zelda."

She unslings her bow, nooks an arrow, and ducks down behind a rock, lifting her eyebrows at him until he groans, scrapes a hand through his hair, and pulls out the biggest sledge hammer she's ever seen. "I'm buying all the hats as soon as we get to Goron City," he mutters.  Then he darts off to take down a rock monster, probably intending to defeat it before he changes his mind that leaving her is a bad idea.

The ground shakes as the creature rises from the ground, and Zelda sneaks a peak intending to snap a better picture for her compendium. But...it's much larger than she expected. And it's molten. And it's slamming a fist down towards Link, who's back-flipping away, and shooting it with an ice arrow so it's fire goes out in a poof. He jumps up the monster's back in two quick leaps, and he spins the sledge hammer over his head for momentum before letting it fly, spinning around and around, and she can hear the monster's deep, shocked grunts with every hit against the ore deposit on its back. She can feel every strike through the ground.

She can also see the creature revving up to fight back. The way steam rises from its surface. The way it braces its arms against the ground. It's ready to light back on fire, and Link is still spinning, so, so close. It's almost down. He's racing against time. One hit. Another. The beast growls.

Zelda pops up from behind her rock and puts an ice arrow through its head. With a groan like a rock slide, it falls back on its face. The deep rumble sends a shower of pebbles down from the walls. Link hits it four more times, and then it explodes beneath him in a cloud of purple smoke. Gemstones rain from the sky, and Zelda walks up and plucks up a ruby as big as her head.

Link narrows his eyes at her.

"What?" she asks, tucking away her bow and adjusting her quiver like a prim princess, expecting some new lecture that she knows she'll ignore and he knows she'll ignore.

"That was nice shooting," he says and drops an opal into her hand.

They stand there a moment, caught up in looking pleased with each other.

Even though she's surrounded by lizalfos, even though she just watched a lava monster try to kill her protector/friend/roommate person, even though she's dirty and sweaty, she thinks the elixir woman at the stable was right to be jealous.  Everyone should be jealous.

 

Chapter Text

The Gorons of the Southern Mine approved of Link's new buddy. The new little Hylian was inquisitive and enthusiastic about all manner of mining procedures, no matter how boring or pedantic. She swelled with excitement for the work they had done and the work they could do, bouncing excitedly it a way the Gorons found delightfully strange.

Gorons don't bounce.

She wanted to know about smelting and iron working and stone work. Could they build walls? Could they build roads? Could they build bridges? Could they build pipes? She tried to take notes in a journal made of paper, but the pages caught fire in her hand, and she squeaked and tossed it to the ground and stomped on it and shoved it away in her pack before it could light again. She then pulled out Link's strange Shiekah device and took notes on that as if she hadn't been slowed down at all.

None of the construction projects she suggested made any sense. Yeah, they could help her build a wall or a building out of bricks or stone, but why not just be out in the air? It's so nice out. Yeah, they could fix a bridge, but that seemed like a thing you'd do if you wanted to cross a river, and that sounded like a big expedition to somewhere cold with bad food. Who needed that? And, yeah, they could help her make her pipes, easy peasey, but it sounded like she wanted to move water around, and what was the point of that?

Not that the told her any of this. The eccentric Hylian had eccentric plans, but her excitement was contagious and she was very kind about the whole thing. Let her have fun constructing her weird Hylian inventions. To each their own.

#

Zelda wakes in a blind panic, with Ganon's hot, damp breath squeezing her tight.  She gasps but can't breathe as flaming embers of malice flutter before her eyes.  It's dark and close and hot and he's suffocating her, just as he's suffocated her every day for a century, and she clutches at her throat.  He's laughing, laughing, laughing, and she wants to scream but she's choking.

Zelda?  Zelda?

She's drenched in sweat and there's malice everywhere.  It floats before her eyes and it's all she can see and it eats at her skin.  It grabs her face, hot and tacky, and she cries out and jerks back.  Ganon's laugh is a roar in her ears, louder louder until the demon is just screaming.

Cold grabs her face this time, and she squeaks in shock, but it's holding her firm and she can't pull away. It holds her jaw, hooks under her ears. Malice isn't cold.

"Zelda, close your eyes."

Malice isn't cold.  She closes her eyes, tries to focus on the cold, but she's still gasping for breath, her chest heaving and tight and stabbing.  Cold fingertips brush the back of her hair line.  Cold thumbs hold her cheeks.  Cold fingers find the soft places under her jaw.

"That's it.  Breathe."

The hands on her face are warming as she sucks the chill from them.  One hand vanishes as she tries to slow her breathing.  It reappears refreshed and chilling again, and she shudders as it cups her face.  So so gently.  The warm hand disappears, and she leans into the cold.

He switches hands again and again, chilling one while the other comforts her.  He presses his palm to the back of her neck.  He presses his palm to her chest, cupping the base of her throat between thumb and forefinger, calloused finger draining the heat from her collarbone.  He presses a palm to her forehead, and her face smooths under his care, her face tilting back and her lips parting, and slowly, slowly, she remembers.

Link.  Eldin.  They made camp at the Southern Mine.

She tries to place herself. Tries to observe. Use her ears. Hear what's actually there.

But what's actually there is a heat like Ganon and the crackling sound of malice.

And the cold.  The cold she can latch onto.  The cold isn't in her memories, but it's here.  Now.  In the future.

"I'm slipping a hand down the back of your shirt.  Alright?"

She nods, and he rolls forward for a better angle, slipping a cool palm down her spine to rest between her shoulder blades.  She lets out a breathy whimper, and opens her eyes.

"There you are," Link says.  His voice is quiet.  He smiles at her, but there's concern on his face.  He's trying to hide it.  His eyes are the wrong color.  They're flat black and sparking with orange as they catch the fire.  They're not blue at all.  She shuts her eyes before her stomach can twist.

He has a frost blade in his lap, and he's clutching it with his free hand.  It must hurt to be so close to it.  She wants to be closer to it.

"Did the elixir stop working?" she asks.

"Nah," he murmurs.  "Just a panic attack."

She snorts.  It's undignified.

He shifts to change hands, pulling her hair over her shoulder as he sends cold down her spine.  

She bows forward to rest her forehead on his shoulder.  Her face is tacky with evaporated tears.  She lets the chill of the blade rise up to cool her face.  She wants to take it and tuck it under her armpit, where it will burn so cold, where it'll cool her whole body.  She wants to lie down again and clutch it to her chest.  If someone had told her a hundred years ago that she would want to snuggle with a giant, frozen sword, she would have scoffed at them.

"I'm such a mess," she moans.

"Hey, you're back to feeling embarrassed when you shouldn't be.  That means you're feeling better."

In a small voice she asks, "Do you have any water?" She tries not to whine when he pulls away to shift through his stuff.  Her head still rests on his shoulder, and the blade still radiates cold below her, but the heat reclaims where his hands held her.  It takes a while for him to find the bottle of water.

"Careful.  I dropped an ice arrow in there."

He did.  The fletching sticks out of the jar, which grows colder as she holds it.  She has to shift the arrow to the side to drink.  The water's lukewarm as it hits her tongue.

When she's done, she rests her head back onto his shoulder.

"It's just...the heat.  It's like..."

He waits for her to finish.  It's unlike her not to finish.  But she can't bring herself to describe the Calamity's breath with words. 

Link knows what she means anyway.  "Do we need to warp out of here?" he asks.  "We can go to Rito Village first."

"No.  I just need to...I need..."  She needs to cool down, which is impossible, because she's surrounded by fire.  Everything's burning.  Her city is burning, and she's walking into it, and she's lifting a hand—

She grabs the ice arrow out of the empty bottle and presses the flat of the head against her breast bone.  She hisses at the painful cold through her thin, red shirt, but the sting snatches her thoughts away and keeps them from spiraling.  Link pulls her kerchief from her hair, eases the arrow away from her, and wraps it up to protect her before handing it back.  It's not nearly as potent, and now her wild hair is free for all to see.  She glares up at Link from her spot against his chest.

He is unmoved.  He slides a cold hand to the small of her back under her shirt, and she shudders and closes her eyes, focusing on just his hand and breathing.

#

The Gorons roll up and greet them when they enter Goron City.  They just do it individually, unlike other places where Link and Zelda had found themselves in the center of a swarm.  Only half of the Gorons ask for things or let them know about problems.  Mostly, they're just glad to see Link and meet Link's new friend.  Those who do have issues that Link and Zelda could solve mostly talk about how the monsters are back at North Mine.  Perhaps once they resolve that, the Gorons will open up about their other areas of concern. 

Zelda's secretly relieved that the Gorons seem so relaxed.  She's still jumping at movement out of the corners of her eyes.  She spins to find nothing there but lava she mistook for malice.  She's not sure how well she would have dealt with a dozen Gorons pinning her in, squeezing into her space, telling her of a thousand horrible problems.

Link leads her to Bludo the boss' house, where Bludo slaps his shoulder in greeting, and even though the boss seems on the frail side for a Goron, Link's knees still almost buckle.  Zelda has such a strong sense of double vision, of the past and the future plying out before her eyes in exactly the same ways, that it's Daruk before her, ready to throw back his head and laugh like an avalanche, that she lowers her eyes to look at the floor to disrupt the vision. 

"This is Zelda," Link says, rather than introducing her as the princess.  She's not surprised that word of who she is hasn't reached the Gorons.  They just opened the path to the city behind them, and the Zora have even more trouble than Hylians getting here.  Hopefully, the Zoras won't spread it around too far.  Hopefully, if they do mention it, the rest of Hyrule will dismiss the notion.

The boss peeks at her with one squinted eye.  "The famous Zelda," he says.  Then he complains about his back.  Zelda adds it to her short list of complaints.  She bets the Gerudo have something that would help him.  They used to have a thick paste that they would rub on sore muscles, and it would heat and heat until the muscles eased.   It smelled awful and medicinal. 

She wonders if Link might have some squirreled away on his person at this very moment.

"We figured when Vah Rudania shot that big ol' explosion towards the castle and then shut down, that you'd beat that Calamity something fierce," Bludo says.  "Well, Yunobo was convinced it was you, any how.  Kept going on about it.  So, yeah.  Not surprising to hear."

"Zelda helped," Link says.

"Did you? Well, good job, little brother!"

It takes Zelda a second to realize he's speaking to her. "You're—You're too kind," she says.  She ducks a short bow and rallies.  "And now that the Calamity is over, we're hoping to rebuild some of the deteriorating infrastructure.  It would be immensely helpful if we could ask for the Goron's expertise in these areas."

The boss seems almost interested in the Zora reservoir repairs.  He scratches his chin and stares into space and says, "Hmmmm."

He's less interested in renewed trade and the mail system that Zelda wants to bring back once the roads are safe to travel.

He scoffs that they want to bring Vah Rudania back online.

"They say it used to protect us once," he says.  "But I've never seen it do anything other than stomp around and make trouble and then shut itself off."

"With a new pilot, I believe she can once again be a force for good."

"And that new pilot would be you, would it?"

Zelda pulls back in surprise.  "I...Of course not!  We've never even considered anyone other than a Goron for the role.  We'd hoped that you would have a recommendation.  Someone with strength of spirit and a kind heart, a champion like Lord Daruk."

"No one's like Lord Daruk," Bludo mutters.  "They don't make them that way anymore.  But you're trying to get me to say Yunobo.  Don't pretend you're not.  Fine.  Take him.  He's the only one who'd be even slightly interested.  He's been going on about the old beast anyway.  But if he blows up anything important, that's on you."

Link grins at her, but Zelda doesn't know what to make of this.  Can they truly have a Champion who has only the grudging support of his people?  Although she herself was never technically a Champion, she supposes the same could have been said about her.  Does she really want to put someone in the embarrassing position she once held?  But then again, the stakes now are much lower.  It's not life or death and the end of the world.  

"What do you think about what Bludo said?  About how no one is like Lord Daruk anymore?" Zelda asks over dinner.  The Gorons let Link cook on the big grill, but she can tell how disgusted they are with Hylian food.  "Perhaps in the interviewing years, Daruk's legacy has been embellished.  Now he's some kind of mythical figure."

Link shrugs and talks between mouthfuls of curry.  "He was a great guy."

"Oh, unquestionably.  He was a tremendous leader and a brilliant warrior.  He was a true friend.  But he was not without fault.  It seems as if those faults are no longer a part of his story.  Now no one can live up to him."

"Faults like what?"

"Like...not that he was a coward, but he worried.  And those worries distracted him.  They ate at him.  And—surely you must remember—he was kind hearted, but that meant he sometimes had trouble being decisive."

"Sounds like Yunobo," Link says. 

"It just...it worries me to think of what they might expect of new Champions. How they could ever live up to expectations."  She worries what the stories say about her.

He takes another bite and chews as he squints out over the cityscape. Zelda's trying not to look at it, focusing instead on her dinner.  "You know what I remember?" he asks.  "I remember that he liked me.  I don't remember very many people liking me."

"What?"

"I mean, I get that my memories are spotty, and they all have the inevitable apocalypse as a background.  The king and Urbosa had bigger things to deal with than me.  And Revali was...well...Revali.  And you were..."

"I was me?" She gives him a self-deprecating smile.

He returns a real smile.  "You were you."

Then he's looking back at the city again.  "But Daruk, he was kind.  He was affectionate.  He liked me and didn't care who knew it."

Zelda watches him for a long moment as he shrugs and eats more curry.  She turns to try to see what he sees out over the lava and leans her shoulder against his.

Chapter Text

The other Gorons may not be excited for Vah Rudania's return, but Yunobo is not like other Gorons.

Yunobo taps the tips of his fingers together when he's concerned.  He shifts, almost hopping, from one foot to the other when that concern grows into anxiety.

He wears the emblem that Daruk used to wear.  Not just the same design, the same emblem.  He cradles it in his hands when Zelda asks about it, and says it was a gift from his father.  The emblem holds together a light blue bandana the size of a table cloth.  It's close to the garment Zelda made for Daruk before the Calamity.  It's so similar that she's done at least four double takes, catching sight of him from the corner of her eye, her brain startling at how the colors have stayed so vibrant before she remembers.  But it's not the same cloth on which she once worked.  The embroidery is a different design.  Not as detailed. (Not as neat.)

Sometimes she catches herself staring at him, catches herself designing a new sash for him more like the one Daruk once wore.  Or would Yunobo rather continue to wear something around his neck and shoulders?  However he wears it, she will have to make it attach to the emblem better than the messy square knots he's currently using. 

Sometimes she catches herself staring at the curve of his cheek or the dent in his elbow.  The resemblance strikes her in unexpected ways.

They head up the volcano, climbing as close to the Divine Beast as they can get.  Vah Rudania's back half is still inside the crater, and in her current position, the floor is too steep to be usable.  The warp point is sideways, and therefore also unusable until they can adjust her positioning.  Her head and front feet are outside the crater, and Link bursts into the air in a gale of magical wind to make sure there's a landing point around her shoulders.  Zelda calculates how far that landing is from the ground, how long a ladder they'll need.

It would be much easier to do calculations in her journal, but all she has is the slate, where she can only write numbers in rows instead of columns. She makes do.  Yunobo leans over her shoulder to watch her, and she holds it out to show him her notes, talking through the math.  He makes a face and scratches the side of his head. 

"Wow.  You're, like, really smart. Aren't you?"  He drums his fingertips together.

They can't use a rope ladder like they used to reach Vah Ruta.  They need a ladder that will not instantly burst into flames.  "Perhaps made of chain instead of rope," Zelda says.

"Oh!" Yunobo straightens.  "Oh!  I can help with that!"

He takes her to the forge in town and shows her how to make links and chain them together.  She peers around his arm to watch, and he tries his best to explain what he's doing as he does it.  The other Gorons in the forge chime in when words fail him, but for the most part, they're pretending to mind their own business.  Yunobo pinches each hot, thin rod of iron into a ring--an unusually delicate procedure considering the size of his fingers. 

"You're quite skilled at this," she says.

He rubs the back of his neck and refuses to meet her eyes.

Link squeezes her arm, confident that she's settled and safe and not in need of him or the slate.  Then he trots off to the North Mine to deal with the monster problem there.  Zelda doesn't mind.  She has her hands full.

It takes some creativity to figure out a way for her to mimic Yunobo.  She ends up with over-large, thick gloves and a pair of tongs in each hand, and she manages to coordinate her movements enough to close the rings together--although she can't do so without jutting out her elbows and biting her lower lip.  Yunobo strings a dozen links together in the time it takes her to do one, but she just learned this today, so that seems reasonable.  The other Gorons in the forge relax as she shows herself to be not completely useless, and they stomp up to lean in over her shoulder and watch her work. 

Their advice comes more often.  They pick back up a murmured conversation, and Zelda realizes that they must have stopped talking when she came in.

One Goron hums a song, a tune picked up in harmony by a second Goron, and then a third.  Yunobo hums a bass line, although all the parts could be described as bass lines.  Zelda's not sure if joining them would be welcomed.  Her voice is probably too high anyway.

After consulting Zelda's notes, the Gorons adjust the original plan of two chains connected by rungs of metal rods.  The design is now four chains supporting wide, rectangular steps that can be anchored to the mountain at an angle to form stairs that will better support their weight.  And by "their weight" they mean Yunobo's weight.

"That sounds a bit permanent," Zelda says.  "I'd hate for you to go through so much trouble constructing this for it to be unusable the moment Vah Rudania moves."

The Gorons unanimously dismiss this.  When the Divine Beast moves, they will simply melt what they made down to make something else.  It's not like this will take too long or be too difficult.

Then someone suggests hand rails, and then they're making hand rails.

Link returns as the sun sets, at which point Zelda and all four Gorons in the forge are working on the stairs.  Link nearly laughs at her, wedged between four humming boulders, all of whom are doing delicate pinching movements with their fingers.  They look like a funny knitting circle. 

Then Link frowns at the mess they've made.  "You do remember that I have to carry this up to the Divine Beast, right?"

This sparks a debate over if they should shoot the ladder-turned-staircase at Vah Rudania with a cannon.  Or if they should haul it up with a pulley system.  Zelda is firmly on the side of the pulley system.  So then they're designing a pulley system, and Link is shaking his head and going to make dinner.

She doesn't want to sleep.  For some reason, her brain accepts the excessive heat from the forge, but once she's outside, the flashbacks start.  The inn is too confined, too dark, the bed too hard, even though the close quarters of the forge aren't any better in that regard.  Maybe it's because in the forge she's never alone.  Maybe it's because when she's in the forge, she's active.  She's not staring at the ceiling, trying to not remember.

So she stays up and works.  She's much ore helpful putting the pulley system together than she was making chain.

The last Goron yawns, hangs up his tools, and gives her shoulder a light squeeze goodnight.

Link threads his fingers together and leans forward in his seat to rest his elbows on his knees.

She pretends she doesn't notice the pointed look he gives her.

"It really doesn't get any cooler at night," she says.  Her face is probably the same color as her shirt, which is slicked with sweat.  She'd pay her own weight in diamonds if she could remove it without anyone judging her.  (And by "anyone" she means Link, because the Gorons probably wouldn't even notice.)  She thinks about asking him if he'd perhaps just not look at her, but then again, that much bare skin would probably be shockingly unsafe near the forge.

Link digs through his supplies and comes around the work bench to drop a sapphire circlet over her head.  It's...slightly better.

She must doze a bit then, because she just stares into his eyes for far too long.  "You've had an active day.  You should sleep," she says.

"You should sleep," he counters.  "The Gorons have a massage package at the inn.  That might help."

She narrows her eyes at him.  "How painful is it?"

He doesn't answer her, and her frown deepens.

He slides the axle from her hands and pulls her to her feet before frog marching her from the forge.  "Come on, grumpy.  Come have sweet dreams about math."

"I'll have sweet dreams about getting to use my journal again," she mutters.

She's up before the sun the next day, and once Link has made breakfast, he's off to destroy a talus.  Zelda's hair almost catches fire, and she braids it all back and up, protecting it all with her kerchief.  She's covered in dark smudges, and Link's gone ten minutes before she rolls the hem of her shirt up her midriff.

One of the Gorons takes some scrap and pounds and bends and chisels it into a thick bracelet, at which point he presents it to Zelda.  She likes the unfinished edges.  She likes how rough it feels against her wrist.

Word has already spread from the stable that the road to Goron City is clear enough for brisk travel, and the first Hylian travelers arrive by mid-morning.

Zelda has spent long enough in the forge that the Goron's change in demeanor is clear.  Their low ruble of conversation tickles to a stop. They straighten, as if trying to make themselves taller or trying to crane their necks enough to watch the visitors.  They're not watching the newcomers--a pair of Hylians in brown traveling clothes, with large packs on their backs--but the whole attention of the forge seems to pivot as the visitors walk past the forge and towards the inn.

After the visitors settle, they make lunch and eat it in almost the exact same spot she and Link eat each night.  Their legs dangle over the edge of the cliff, as if they're sitting on the edge of a river bank rather than a stream of lava.

Buliara leans down and rests a hand on her shoulder to rumble into her ear.  He thinks he's whispering, but his voice is too low for secrets.  Luckily, the Hylians are far away.  "Why do they travel together if they don't like each other?"

"What makes you think they don't like each other?"  They seem perfectly amicable to her.  They're sitting side by side and chatting, although she has no idea what they're talking about.

"They don't touch," he says.  "At all.  It's strange, goro.  Do you think one of them has a contagious disease?"

She laughs.  "No.  Hylians just don't touch each other as often as Gorons do.  We believe giving each other space is a sign of respect."

He frowns down at her, then at the arm he has draped over her back.  For a moment, she thinks he might pull away, but instead he says, "But you're not like that."

"I know that physical contact among Gorons is a sign of trust.  I'm not offended at all.  I'm honored.  You don't need to change your behavior in the slightest."

He hums, still looking confused.  "But, brother, you and Link touch all the time."

Her face feels very warm.  Because she's in a forge on Death Mountain.  "Yes.  Well," she says, and returns to her work.

By the time they're ready with the pulley system to install the stairs, several more Gorons have become invested in the project.  They're not invested in Vah Rudania.  They're invested in the construction.  They load everything onto a cart and haul it all up the volcano, where they clear some space and set up a temporary camp.

Link is absolutely boggled that this has become such a huge project, but Zelda's excited by the level of involvement.  While he frowns up at the Divine Beast, Zelda hugs his arm and bounces with excitement.  "It's happening," she whispers.

It takes all day to get the pulley system in place.  They have to haul a cannon closer to shoot Yunobo up to the landing point.  He clutches the largest part of the pulley to his chest.  It takes all the next day to get the stairs anchored and stretched, with a dozen Gorons hauling on chains from below, with Link and Yunobo hauling from above, with Gorons hammering the anchors to the ground and latching the stairs to Vah Rudania with specially made hooks.  When Zelda finally scales the Divine Beast, she's welcomed by a hazy view of all Hyrule on one side and the inside of the volcano on the other.

The inside of the Divine Beast is a cave.  It's pitch black and empty and echoing with the floor a hundred feet below them.  She's still reeling at the sight of it, but the Gorons are already planning internal scaffolding.  The stairs stay in place.  The pulley system is moved to lower things into the beast's belly.  More Gorons arrive to help.

Yunobo leans in with a grin and says, "We haven't had this much fun in years!"

#

Zelda dreams that Link is kissing her neck.  He has her pressed against a wall inside Vah Rudania.  He's dressed as he's been dressed the last few days, working outside Vah Rudania: his hair is up like a desert voe, and he has nothing across his chest but the belts that hold his equipment in place.  His hands burn trails down her sides.

She wakes up still inside the Divine Beast, where she's taken to sleeping because it's infinitely more comfortable and she has fewer panic attacks.  They've been setting up platforms that hang from the ceiling and provide access to the control units.  Half way down there's a wall-now-floor that once divided the beast into two rooms and now acts as a base camp where Zelda sleeps.  The Divine Beast is climate controlled, which is something she'll have to investigate once Vah Rudania is turned on.  Is it just a function of the material from which she's made?  Is there some sort of cooling system in the walls? Anyway, it's a decent temperature inside, and the only thing on fire is the string of lanterns they've put up for light. 

Well, the lanterns and her face, because even now that she's awake, Link is still kissing her neck. 

Sometime in the night, he has snuggled his way half on top of her and nuzzled his face up against her neck.  He twitches in his sleep.  Chapped lips flicker over her pulse point. His fingers spasm against the small of her back.  His breaths are shallow and uneven, catching in his chest and catching against her skin.

At least he's wearing a shirt.

She lies very still and lets herself imagine for a moment that it's real.  That he's not just having a twitchy dream, or if he is that it's at least a dream about her.  She imagines for a moment that he's not just a snuggly guy with a sense of personal space he clearly picked up from the Gorons.  She imagines that he loves her with a passion, instead of loving her because they're bound by destiny and trusting companionship and shared trauma.  She imagines she's the reason his breath catches.  She imagines his hand dragging down to her thigh.

She decides to get an early start to the day.

 

 

Chapter Text

They have every control panel on Vah Rudania activated except the main control unit.  It's on the outside, down her back, and they construct a kind of cage that can be lowered down with the pulley system.  They've reinvented the pulley system twice, and it can now be operated by a single Goron.  It's as close to the platforms that lower into the shrines as they're going to get with their current level of technology, and Zelda is pleased with their progress.

The bars are far enough apart that even Yunobo can reach through, but close enough together that Zelda won't fall out, even when Vah Rudania moves.  Which she will hopefully do once they've activated her and partnered her with Yunobo.

The cage sways and shudders as Yunobo hops from foot to foot.  "Oooh," he moans.  "But what if it doesn't work?"  He tugs the emblem at his throat back and forth, rasping his bandana against the back of his neck.

Zelda smiles up at him, and wraps an arm around his elbow.  "If it doesn't work today, then we will try again tomorrow."

The rasping picks up speed.  "But what if it doesn't work tomorrow?"

"Then we will try again the day after."

"But what if you get tired waiting for Rudania to like me?"

"Why on earth wouldn't she like you?"

Instead of answering, he moans again.

"Well, that's just silly," she says.

"She's lucky to have you," Link says.  "I bet she knows it too." 

He shoots Zelda a wink.  Only someone with a total lack of control over her emotions would blush at something that makes so little sense.

The cage jerks to a halt.  It does that every time.  She's yet to figure out a way to prevent it.  She half suspects that the Goron handling the crank is not stopping as gently as she has requested, but she can't complain as he is doing her a great service working the crank at all.  Although, he's certainly not doing as much work as the previous models of the pulley system required.  The current model has a twenty-to-one mechanical advantage.  And she developed the breaking system, so he no longer has to brace the crank in place, preventing the cage from lowering further, or dropping a few sickening feet, or falling into the lava while they work. 

The activation terminal for the main control unit is in the most awkward place possible, facing towards Vah Rudania's tail.  So it is underneath the bulky control unit. To get underneath it, they lower past the unit on the right, then a loose chain is lowered down to them around the control unit on the left.  Zelda uses the magnesis rune to grab it and bring it closer, so Yunobo can secure it with a locking hook onto the top of their cage.  Link gives a sharp whistle, and both chains tighten until they are settled right underneath the console.

Zelda hops up on a crate put inside the cage just for her to be taller.  She takes a deep breath, and looks down at Yunobo.  "Are you ready?"

He tugs one last time on his bandana, then snaps his arms to his sides and straightens his back to attention so quickly that the cage sways.

She smiles down at him, and lifts the slate over her head, slipping it through the bars, and placing it against the terminal.

The terminal lights blue.  Then the whole unit glows, an eerie blue washing over their faces.  Strands of light arc and swirl from the unit, whispering through the air, flying towards her.  They feel almost tentative when they approach, and she steels herself against them and pulls the slate to her chest.  No, she thinks at them.  Not me.

The strands pulse back, then twist away, circling now with another target in mind, circling now towards Yunobo.  He stiffens, sucking in a breath.  He twists his head to follow a strand that darts behind him, then swings back around as another approaches from the other side.  The strands look intelligent, interested, but shying back.

Her grip is painfully tight on the slate, and she prays to the Goddess, prays to Yunobo, let them in.  Let them in.

Yunobo swallows.  He jerks a nod.  En mass, the strands attack, stabbing into him from a hundred directions, then darting back to the surface to wrap every inch of his body in glowing blue light.  It's like warping, but Yunobo can still move.  He twists about to watch the designs tracing over his chest, lifts his arms to watch the blue scrawls erupt over his hands.  He chokes on a whine, and—just like that—the light flashes and fades.

Zelda can't move.  But Link shifts, and that grabs Yunobo's attention enough to look up at them.

"Did...Did it work?" Link asks.

Yunobo blinks at him, then lifts his eyes to Zelda, his lips pressed tight together as if he might cry, his eyes begging for her verdict if it worked or not.

"Close your eyes," she says.  As he does so, she hops down from the crate.  "Reach deep inside you and see if you can feel a part of yourself that has grown stronger."

He frowns.

He searches.

Zelda trades a look with Link.  She's technically the expert, but that doesn't mean she understands all this.

"Now ask Rudania to move," she says.

"Whaa—"

"Send your thoughts to her and just ask." 

In a soft voice, Link adds, "Like you're praying."

Yunobo frowns harder.

He prays very, very hard.

A hundred feet beneath their feet, Vah Rudania's tail swings.

#

Yunobo has pulled Vah Rudania out of the volcano and leveled her off.  He's opened the windows on her back and side so it's no longer pitch black inside.  All the strung lanterns toppled and went out the moment the Divine Beast's back straightened.  The Gorons safely abandoned their camp at the lip of the volcano.  With their successful mission completed, they've all headed home.

As long as they patrol the rim, Yunobo can manage to keep the Divine Beast level, but the moment they adjust their grade at all, the floor slants and the debris of the ruined scaffolding scattered inside the beast begins to slide.  They close the windows again until they can get Vah Rudania further down the mountain and unload everything.

Link invents a terrible game using the magnesis rune to stack all the former scaffolding against one wall like a cross between a house of cards and a block tower.  He then sees how loud of a noise his constructions can make when the Divine Beast inevitably lists to the side.  She half expects Yunobo to be mortified.  But, after a terrifying moment, he laughs, and then together Link's building things and Yunobo is knocking them over.

They like their version much more than Zelda's, where she arranges the debris in neat rows and has Yunobo walk Vah Rudania around without letting anything slip out of alignment.  Or, at least righting her before the mess can slip all the way to her other side.  It's a good exercise, she thinks, and perhaps she can develop some more after Yunobo masters this.

It's dangerous to be inside Vah Rudania no matter which version of the game they're playing.

After trial after trial, Link suggests they spend the night back in town.  He does it with a very obvious lift of his eyebrows.  Let's give Yunobo some time to figure things out on his own, those eyebrows say.  Alone time without you breathing down his neck.

And...yes, of course.  Vah Rudania is not hers.  She has a partner. A partner who can get anxious if Zelda's watching him too closely.  A partner who needs practice and maybe some chances to make mistakes while no one is watching.

It's just...walking away feels very strange.

"What do you say we take tomorrow morning off?" Link asks as he releases her waist after warping to the shrine above the city.

"What?  Why?"

"Because you've been working on the Divine Beat for two straight weeks."

"No, I haven't.  It's only been..."  She stops walking to frown at him and calculate.  Well, yes, it was a bit difficult to judge time from inside Vah Rudania, and her sleep cycle might be a bit off, and taking a potion every thirty hours is a very odd routine.

"It can't have been two weeks," she says.  "We would have run out of elixir."

He stares at her.  For a long time.  Waiting for her to realize that he's been making it himself.

"Oh.  Oh, Link, I'm sorry.  I really have been single minded, haven't I?  Oh no!  I've fallen so far behind catching fireproof lizards!  You're right, I should take tomorrow morning off and replenish our supply."

"For the love of the Goddess, don't catch any more lizards!  We have so many lizards.  We will never run out of lizards.  We have fewer butterflies, but still way too many butterflies.  That's not the issue."

"Then what is?"

"That you need a break."

"But we just got Vah Rudania functional!  This is a pivotal moment!"

"A pivotal moment for Yunobo.  It's a pivotal moment for you to go with me to check out that map thing."

"What map thing?" she asks.

"You know.  The challenges.  First we go look at the map things, then we go do some challenges, and then we get some new shrines.  Probably at the end I'll fight Fireblight Ganon again and have to...That challenge."

She gasps and covers her mouth with her hand.  "I'M SO SORRY!  I completely forgot!"

"I know you did."

"I'm so sorry!"

"It's fine."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

"Because I haven't had any free time either."

"But you got all the taluses, right?"

"And the Wizrobes.  I did those last week."

She groans.  "I'm sorry."

"You can make it up to me tomorrow."

Neither of them mention how he could very easily have done the whole challenge alone. It would have been easier than arranging to bring her along.  It would make him less anxious if he didn't have to worry about keeping her safe.

As they descend to the city, they look down at a commotion.  There's a whole group of Gerudo in the center of town.  Now that the roads are clear, all sorts of people have been coming into town.  There's an energy to the exchange that Zelda finds worrisome, and as they get closer, they see that the Gerudo are arguing with a small group of Gorons.  Link's posture shifts.  He doesn't reach for his sword, but his intention is clear.

"I've never been so insulted!" a Gerudo shouts.  "The rest of the Gerudo will hear about this.  We'll never return to this place."

"Excuse me," Zelda says, slipping her way between the shouting woman and her friends and the Gorons who shrink in on themselves the louder her voice rises.  "Hello.  Is there a problem here?"

Apparently the Gorons have been referring to the Gerudo as "the tall Hylians," and Zelda has to explain to the Gorons (her voice loud enough so the Gerudo can hear every word she says) that although they're the same species, Hylians and Gerudo come from different places and have distinctly different cultures.  She doesn't want to get into the long history of mistrust and the power dynamics between their people, so she just explains that by calling them Hylians, the Gorons are implying that the Gerudo's beautiful homeland and their rich traditions are not as important as those of the Hylian's.

The front most Goron nods slowly.  Even if he doesn't quite know how to fix it, at least he knows he did something wrong.  He uncurls from his position practically hiding behind Zelda, and presses a fist into his palm, bowing to the leader of the Gerudo.  "We meant no disrespect to you or your men.  Our apologies, brother."

Every Gerudo grabs for a weapon.

Zelda throws up her hands.  "Wait!  Wait.  Wait."  She explains to the Gerudo this time that the Gorons have no concept of gender, which is beyond baffling to the Gerudo.  It's also baffling to the Gorons, who say, "We don't have what now?"  The Gerudo aren't quite sure they like that they're in a city with no women.  They decide amongst themselves that it's really more like the Gorons are genderless and just using male-centric language for some unfathomable reason.  It is therefore the Gerudo's duty to teach them female-centric language and correct their misguided ways.

The leader of the Gerudo spreads her arms and addresses the Gorons, "Sav'saaba, sisters!  Thank you for welcoming us to your beautiful city!  We look forward to learning everything about your wonderful people!"

The Gorons are still lost, but glad the Gerudo want to trade with them again and that they've stopped shouting.

Zelda rubs the bridge of her nose.

#

With the huge influx of visitors, the inn has hung up hammocks to provide extra beds.  The hammocks are made of a coarse orange fabrics, each with a different triangular pattern around the edges.  They all have clunky metal hooks to connect them to the walls.

Even with the additional bed space, there's only one hammock left.

"I guess we'll have go back to Vah Rudania after all," Zelda says.  "I'm sure Yunobo would understand."

"We'll take it," Link tells the inn keeper.

"What?  No.  We can...camp in the shrine above town."

Link walks further into the inn, unstrapping his equipment to tuck it under their designated hammock.  She does not follow him.

"They're made to hold Gorons," Link says over his shoulder.  "One will definitely fit the both of us."

The inn keeper nods enthusiastically.

Link removes his boots and clambers into the hammock.  For a second, she's convinced that it's going to spit him out onto the floor, but he manages to get settled.  He's beaming like this is the best thing that's ever happened to him, and Zelda swears if he tries to get one for their house, he's sleeping in it alone and she's claiming his bed as her own.

He stretches out the sides, to open it up and hold it steady, and then gestures to the spot beside him with a jerk of his head.  Around them, a dozen other visitors are getting ready for bed.  Brushing out their hair.  Climbing into their own hammocks.  Murmuring quietly among themselves.  None of them are giving her or her situation a second thought.  She huffs and takes off her boots.

She manages to climb in, but the hammock—predictably—rolls them towards each other.  She scoots down so her face is pressed to the soft part of his shoulder.  One of her legs ends up between his. Link's body temperature is cooler than the air around them, so it would almost be comfortable if not for the fact that she likes this far too much and is therefore holding her body as tense as possible.  When he lets go of the hammock sides and wraps his arms around her, the sides close in around them, giving the illusion of privacy.

He grins down at her from two inches away, like he's made some kind of point about being cozy.

She really wishes he wouldn't, because her mind is already spinning with terrible visions.  His open joy just seems unfair.

"I bet I can...Watch this!"  He shifts his weight, rocking his hips and twisting his shoulders and flexing his abdomen until their whole hammock is swinging back and forth, a couple feet to either side, far higher than is probably safe.  She grabs at both the hammock and his shirt.  He looks as if he's never had more fun.

"Stop that!"

"Why?" he asks.  But he does stop.  Their swinging slows without his enthusiasm pushing it on.

"This inn is full.  People will think—"  She cuts herself off.

He blinks at her.  Suddenly, there's a glint in his eye.  Suddenly, there's a smirk peeking around the corners of his lips.  "Think what?" he says innocently.

She gives him a glare.  If he thinks that will get her all flustered...well, he's correct, but he doesn't need to know that.  She answers bluntly, "They will think we're having sex in here."

"No, they won't."

"Yes, they will.  How could they possibly not?"

"Because they can all hear you talking about how we're not having sex."

She glares at him.  He tries so hard not to laugh that he has to bite his lip.  Zelda purposefully doesn't look at it. Holding in the laugh has his chest and abs contracting against her.  She pretends she can't feel it.  "Go to sleep, Link," she says, pointedly closing her eyes and pressing her face to his shirt so he can't look at her.

Their hammock comes to a rest. Link settles around her.  Zelda releases a long, shaky breath.

"Hey, Zelda?"

"What?"

"Do you want to have sex with me in a cramped, makeshift hammock while eight Gerudo ladies listen in?"

At least three Gerudo ladies answer, "Yes!"

Zelda says, "I'm leaving,” but he tugs her closer before she can topple out of the hammock, and presses a smile to the crown of her hair.  His whole body shakes with silent laughter.

Zelda wakes in the morning after one of the longest sleeps she’s had since she left the castle.

Chapter Text

Once again, the spot on the map is an obelisk that gives them three more maps.  Even though they can see the obelisk from the city, they have to circle a lake of lava, so it takes most of the morning to get there.  Zelda spends the time brainstorming new exercises for Yunobo.  It's actually refreshing to get away from the Divine Beast for a time.  It's nice to look around and see greenery in the distance. 

She hasn't done much hiking lately, so that's less nice.  Her legs burn and her lungs burn.

She catches five more lizards, much to Link's annoyance.  "In twenty years, you're going to have a hut out here," he says, "just made out of lizards.  You'll have some creepy, weird hat and sunken eyes, and you'll never go outside.  And I'll come visit you and your lizard children, and you'll give me some quest about finding lost lizards or getting food for the lizards or something."

"What nonsense," she says, tucking the lizard into her satchel.

He reaches a hand back to her, helping her up an incline.  "Hyrule is full of eccentric people who've taken it a step too far.  This is how it starts."

"At least you'll visit me in my lizard hut."

"Only if you offer good rewards for your lizard quests."

"Fireproof elixirs.  So many fireproof elixirs."

The time alone helps Yunobo.  His mastery over Vah Rudania has improved.  Slightly.  He still can't keep the Divine Beast level, but at least she's no longer sliding down the side of the volcano.  Now she places each foot surely.  She still leans to one side or the other, but it doesn't feel as if she's in danger of falling over. 

Zelda won't admit that she worries the Divine Beast will roll onto her back and, like a turtle, be unable to rise.  Zelda pictures the beast's feet waving in the air.  She pictures the Gorons trying to make a lever long enough to flip her, but eventually giving up.  She pictures having to tunnel to the main control unit to turn off the beast.

So Zelda is very glad to see these improvements, however minor.  She showers Yunobo with praise, with reassurances that the great Lord Daruk himself had difficulty mastering the Divine Beast.  Vah Rudania might very well be the most complicated beast to control! 

Yunobo is relieved.  He's ready to continue their training and get even better.

Link frowns and says nothing, which is almost worse than if he would just spit out whatever is bothering him.  It's amazing that he can be at his most judgemental when he says the least.

They practice getting a feel for the roll and tilt of the floor from inside.  Yunobo can see where they're going from the great lizard's back, but standing by her head doesn't give him enough of a sense of how much and how quickly the floor slants when Rudania's legs move up an incline.  To practice,  they're not walking except to shift the beast's legs back and forth, rocking her enough to tilt the floor.  He opens the windows so they can see, and she has all the debris moved to the other side.

Zelda supposes that if they use Vah Rudania to transport anything, they will have to strap down their cargo, as the floor tilting at an angle is a given.  However, with practice, she has faith that Yunobo can keep it to a minimum.  Or at least know the extend of the slant.

It feels like they're making progress.  Not much.  But progress. 

Yunobo takes a step back just as the floor is swaying, and he trips.  He windmills his arms to catch himself.  And suddenly the Divine Beast leans.  It's as if one of her legs has given out.

The floor shifts beneath her feet, and—just like Yunobo—she throws out her arms for balance, and for a moment, she's got it. But the floor keeps tilting, and Link shouts, "Stop!" And then she's sliding. She slips to her butt, and then she's flat on her back, rolling onto her side and scrambling for purchase. But there isn't any. The walls, and now the floor, are unclimbable, and she won't stop until she comes up against a wall turned floor, which should happen in a couple seconds. At least all the scaffolding isn't going to fall on her.

She looks down and chokes, because instead of a wall and a bruising halt, she's headed for a window. Below her is only lava. She's headed straight into the mouth of the volcano.

Link is screaming. She tries to roll. If she can manage another few feet to the left—

She grabs for the window's edge as it brushes past her fingers. The floor is gone.

A snag at her wrist, and she jerks hard to a stop, pain jolting through her shoulder. She hangs. She looks up. And Link's hanging too, one hand grabbing the window edge, one hand locked around hers.

Her grip slips.  Just a fraction.  But enough. They have just a split second, just enough for horror to wash across Link's face. "Zel—"

And she's free.

The lava rushes towards her, the heat pressing at her face, and it's so hot and so bright that she squeezes her eyes closed, and the heat snatches away her tears. She's going to die. She's going to die. The rushing fall snatches away her scream.

The impact feels as if it comes from the side, and then she's numb all over, and she's not breathing. It feels like she's hit something much harder than lava, and the pressure on her chest is so heavy it's like a physical weight, and suddenly she's so so so cold, as if lava's too hot to understand.

She opens her eyes to the clear blue sky of the Spirit Realm.

She's flat on her back on some sort of stone ground, and there's a cold wind and birdsong. Did she die? Did she just die? Iced panic rips up from her stomach to her throat. Before it can tear loose in a scream, it's clogged by the weight pressing against her chest.

She looks down just as Link looks up, and his face is so ferocious that she doesn't know if the emotion that clenches her insides is terror or lust. She's shaking so hard that she's certain it's residual terror. His eyes are wild—fierce and dangerous like a beast poised to consume her. He's breathing hard and sweating and he tightens the arm around her waist, pulling her closer, pulling his weight more fully on top of her with an intention that makes her dizzy. He pulls the slate from her hand, tossing it aside, and threads his fingers hard and secure through hers, pinning her arm near her head, holding her tight to the stone.

Did they warp? Did he catch her?

It may be heightened emotion twisted into lust, but that's still lust.

Link drops his head to her sternum and pants, his breath hot and damp through her thin shirt, and Zelda has to drop her head back, stare at the sky, and breathe before she presses her thigh even tighter to his hip. She's hot all over and shaking all over, and her free hand is fisted so tight in Link's hair that it must be painful.

She stares at the sky and says, "I feel into the lava."

He says nothing. His whole frame surges with every breath, his shoulders expanding and contracting, his chest heaving against her own with every gasp.

She...really likes that.

Very much.

"Goddess," she breathes. She needs to calm down, but there's no possible way she can calm down after that.

"I'll kill him," he growls. And, yes, she disapproves of that, but at the moment a much larger part of her squirms at the roughness of his voice, rocks toward the protectiveness in his tone. And that part of her moans.

He misinterprets her embarrassing noise as criticism. "He's done. He put you at risk. He doesn't have control over Rudania. We'll find a different champion."

"It was an accident," she says between pants. "He's probably already beating himself up more than you ever could." And besides all that, Yunobo's presence is completely unwelcome in her thoughts at the moment. Link shouldn't eviscerate him, but also she's a bit angry with the Goron herself, and she doesn't appreciate feeling the need to defend him. "Can we not talk about it right now, please?"

He looks up at her. She can just see it out of her peripheral vision, because she keeps her eyes on the sky. His voice softens as he says, "Fine. Later." Then he lowers his head again and squeezes her tighter.

Her mind flies in a thousand different directions anticipating how he'll press his lips to her collar bone through her shirt, how he'll drag himself up, sliding against her just a few delicious inches to press his lips against her neck, how his fingers will tighten in hers.

"AHEM."

It's not a throat clearing. It's a person saying ahem. "Ex-cuse me! What do you think you're doing?"

Link looks up, then groans and pulls away, sitting back on his haunches. Zelda doesn't care for that at all, and just stays flat on her back. She nearly died. And now Link's not even celebrating her alive state. She's allowed to not move for a minute.

Link lifts a hand in an annoyed wave toward the woman standing on the other side of a ring of wild flowers. "Yeah, we're fine, thanks," he calls.

The woman's scowl only deepens, her fists tight against her hips. "The flowers are weeping!"

Zelda blinks at her. Very slowly, she sits up.

"We didn't touch the flowers," Link calls, then mutters a few uncharitable things under his breath. He reaches past Zelda for the slate and tells her, "I didn't look where we were going. I just...figured anywhere..."

"It's fine."

"Umm." He rubs his eyebrow and frowns down at the slate. "We should take a minute before we head back to the bridge. Can't warp straight to Rudania, or we might fall right back in the damned...Or maybe we should head back to Goron City. Let Yunobo find us." He's developed a stressed line between his eyebrows. She can't drag her eyes from it. She wants to soothe it under her thumb. She wants to soothe it with the flat of her tongue. Sit up on her knees and take his face in her hands and lick him. He'd taste of rock salt. Then she'd twist and pin him to the ground.

There is something very wrong with her.

"But where to go now? Somewhere not on fire. Somewhere with no monsters. Another tower? Maybe...no, too cold..."

"You're babbling."

"I'm thinking out loud!" he yells.  "Decisions are hard!" His eyes are wide with delayed panic.

She snorts. The snort catches in her chest and bounces around until a hysterical giggle bubbles up. The laugh is painful, and she clutches at her ribs as it gains momentum. She doubles over and laughs.

Link is frozen, his eyes wide. His gaze bounces from her to the slate and back. He has no clue what to do, and no clue what to make of her. He's reached the edge of his attractive decisiveness.

It's hilarious.

She crumples to the side, laughing. There's hair in her face! And it would be her luck to survive a hundred years locked in battle with Ganon only to die falling into lava because a Goron slipped! And of all the places Link could have warped, he picked somewhere where there's a woman shouting about flowers (which she's doing again)! And she's seriously considering jumping Link right here, right now!  And he's trying to calm himself down by thinking out loud!

He's desperately searching the slate now, his eyes scanning in a blind panic, his fingers darting around as he searches, searches. She plucks the slate from his hands. Her laugh has turned silent, too strangled to make noise, as she finds a shrine and pushes herself up and into Link's lap, wrapping her arm around his neck. He grabs her waist and the slate on instinct, and she warps them to Akakla overlooking Tarrey Town. There she plants a kiss to the crease on Link's sweaty forehead. She lets her lips compress against his skin. She makes a wet, smacking sound upon releasing him, and she topples off him to cackle about it and the startled look on his face.

#

She does eventually stop laughing, but she does not stop shaking.  She steps down from the shrine to lie in the grass.  There's grass against her skin and a cool wind, and instead of the heat pressing in on her from every direction, it now comes only from the sun.

After a long time, Link comes down to sit beside her.  She's not ready to look at him yet.  For the most part, she has herself back under control, but she's not ready to talk about it. 

"I know you're going to want to go back up there, so I'm not even going to bother suggesting you stay behind." Link pauses.

Zelda says nothing.

"So I have an idea," he continues. "What if we made a harness for you, and we could tie you to the main control pannel. I learned about it in Lurian Village. They tie themselves to the masts of their ships if they get stuck out on the ocean when a storm pops up. It won't get in your way at all."

"Will you be wearing a harness as well?" she asks.

"I—If it makes you agree to do it, yes."

If her eyes weren't closed, she would roll them.

"Or we could wait," he says. "Let Yunobo practice.  You've done your part, and now it's up to him to practice. When he's got it, then you can come up without needing to be attached to anything."

"What?"  She sits up to face him. "No! I'm the expert. I've done this before. This is the whole reason I'm here. If it's just him up there, he'll never get anything accomplished. Especially since I'm sure he's terrified now."

"He'd be less terrified if we aren't there."

"No. We both know he'll be doubting himself now.  The best thing for his moral is if we get right back up there tomorrow.  Otherwise, we're going to have a serious Yunobo problem."

Link frowns and looks away in embarrassment.

"And besides that," she says, "who's going to decide when he's 'got it?' You? You'll never think he's good enough."

"What? Of course, I will. I'm not that mean. He'll get it."

"He'll get it enough for you to trust him with my life?"

He opens his mouth, but then words fail him. "Well...He...Eventually!...Maybe."

She sighs. "Link."

He flops back onto the grass and groans.

"Why don't we just bring Vah Rudania down the mountain?" she says. "It'll be messy bringing her down, but we can manage it.  We'll have to do it eventually. And then if I fall, I won't fall into a volcano. It'll just be fifty feet."  Fifty-four feet, seven and a half inches. But who's counting?

"High enough that you'll still die when you hit the ground, but low enough where I won't have time to catch you."

"Then why don't I just hold onto the slate at all times in case I need to warp? It was a fluke anyway that you were holding it."

He makes a face like his cooking came out too bitter.

"I'll be very careful about my environment. Stand clear of windows.  And Yunbo understands the stakes now, and he'll be extra careful as well. It will be fine."

"You're willing to risk falling again?"

"I..." She sighs and lies back against the grass. The sky above them is light blue and cloudless. "It wasn't like this last time. Even with Daruk's control issues, no one was ever injured. No one ever thought I'd be unsafe on a Divine Beast."

"Now you won't find a person who does think they're safe. They've been a menace for a century. Everyone's scared of them."

"And I don't want to be like that," she says. She rolls to turn to him. "Are you scared of them? You've seen them at their worst. You have few memories of them before they fell into the Calamity's possession. Are you scared of them too?"

He thinks a moment, staring up at the sky. "No. I'm not scared of them. They're dangerous, but they're useful. Like a sword. I'm just scared your enthusiasm is blinding you." He looks over at her. "If you don't know how to handle a sword, it's all fun and games until you cut yourself."

"Alright. Then let's be rational about this." She sits up and flips her hair back over her shoulder. "Approaching the situation with a clearly thought-out plan is a necessary safety measure, and it will alleviate Yunobo's guilt and get us back to a decent working relationship. So! Like learning to use a weapon, we must identify the dangers. In this case: falling. We can limit falls from happening in the first place by being aware of our surroundings and using your lifeline idea. But we should also have a set procedure about what to do in the event of a fall happening. Now, you're not worried about yourself falling. Why is that?"

"Because I can just—" His eyes lose focus. For a moment she thinks he's stumbled into another trial, or he's having a memory. But then he pushes himself up to face her and says, "I have an idea."

"Oh?"

"We're going to get you a paraglider."

#

When they warp back to the Bridge of Eldin, Yunobo is waiting for them. He's hoppin back and forth, shifting his weight between his feet and muttering, "Oh no, oh no, oh no."

He's doing this from atop Vah Rudania's head.

Zelda startles at the sight of him.  The Divine Beast is looming over the shrine, it's head lowered for Yunobo to get a good look.  "How did—"

"You guys!"  He leaps off the Divine Beast and lands, wrapped in Daruk's protection before them.  His landing blows a wave of dust in their direction, and Zelda cringes back, raising an arm to cover her eyes.  Then she's knocked off her feet, swept into a bone crushing embrace.  "I saw you warp, but I was still so worried!  Are you okay?  Are you hurt?  I'm so so so so so sorry!"

"We're quite alright," she says, but it comes out strangled, because her face is smooshed against a boulder.

Yunobo sets them both back on their feet and gives them an appraising, anxious look.

"I'm sorry to have worried you," she says, resting her hand on his giant one, which now covers her shoulder.  "We spent some time coming up with some safety procedures for when we return tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?"

"Yes, of course."

If she's honest about it, it will be terrifying to step back onto Vah Rudania, and she's not certain she can do it without having a panic attack.  That would be terrible for Yunobo.  Perhaps her desire not to hurt him, her need to keep it together will get her through.

She turns to look up at the Divine Beast.  "You got her down the mountain!"

"Yeah.  I mean, I don't know how bad she was tipping, because I just kind of..." He rubs the back of his neck.  "I just ran.  Without thinking.  I knew you'd come here, and I knew I had to get here as fast as I could, goro."

Link surprises her by saying, "You've been over thinking it."

"I guess so?"

"Well!" Zelda says.  "This is tremendous progress!  And now we'll be able to practice on ground with a shallower grade."  She gets out the slate to find the best place to put her for the night.

Chapter Text

Zelda has Link's paraglider set up on a work bench in the back of the forge. She sketches it in meticulous detail. Measures every part. Folds it and refolds it and folds it and refolds it.

The Gorons throw themselves into helping her construct the frame.  They've been a bit down after the completion of their scaffolding project, so even though it's a little thing, they're glad for something out of the ordinary.  Zelda uses this to mention the other infrastructure projects she has planned, and they're starting to come around.  They spend some time looking at the pictures she took of the East Reservoir in the Zora's Domain, and the Gorons in the forge talk about the logistics of getting there long enough to decide it sounds like a lot of work.

Link's glider is made of wood, but it doesn't light on fire because—as Link says—"a ghost made it." Zelda doesn't have that luxury, so they construct a light, flexible frame of carbon-aluminum alloy. Rohan, the blacksmith, shows her how to heat the rock, how to pour it into the mold, then how to hammer the molten metal into shape. He does most of the work, but the small pieces he tells her to try turn out well, and he seems pleased with her work. They have to try several times before they achieve the perfect alloy, but neither of them mind that much. 

Link has to pull her out of the forge and off to Lake Darman for the next challenge.  She spends the whole trip there explaining the work she's done with the glider.  As they're searching the shore for signs of glowing blue markers, she explains the Goron's mentality of "if it doesn't work the first time, we'll just try again."  They follow through on this with resounding consistency, but Zelda cannot wrap her mind around it enough and it surprises her every single time.

"It's a good way to go about things," Link says.  "You try, and you mess up, and you learn for when you try again."

Or you can do it right the first time, she thinks.  Out loud, she asks, "Is this how you approach fighting lynels?"

Without a hint of irony, he says, "Pretty much."

The ground begins to tremble. The lake bubbles and surges, a thick wave swelling onto the shore so Zelda has to scurry backwards. A hot wind picks up, whipping at her clothes.

From the lava rises the most massive talus Zelda has ever seen.

The heat intensifies, and for a moment, they can do nothing but stare at it. Slowly, carefully, as if it can only see her if she makes sudden motions, Zelda lifts the slate and snaps a picture. Still slow and careful, she sinks to a crouch behind a rock.

Link looks surprised, but not scared. He’s still standing there, staring at it. Despite Zelda’s very careful maneuvering to avoid notice, Link uses a perfectly normal voice at a perfectly normal volume when he says, “That’s a big monster.”

"Link?"

He takes his eyes off the monster to look down at her.

"Please stay alive enough to learn from any mistakes you make."

He grins at her, takes a big breath, and runs towards the rock behind which she's hiding.  He leaps up onto it and pushes off with one foot, launching himself into the air. It's a good thing she gave him his paraglider back.

He doesn't make any mistakes.

In the shrine, they have to shoot a cannon at a target. She watched the Gorons shoot a cannon, of course, but she had to keep most of her questions to herself since they were in the middle of shooting Yunobo and a large piece of equipment at the Divine Beast to install the stairs, and her questioning was delaying the installation. Link promised the take her to the North Mine to look at those cannons, an offer she promptly forgot once aboard Vah Rudania.

So now she climbs around, sketching, measuring, climbing inside to poke at the various parts. How does the cannon apparatus rotate? What keeps the explosion contained to the inside of the cannon? How far can it shoot? And that will probably change depending on the angle of incident. Can they change the angle of incident?

Link demonstrates how if the bomb is set off at just the right time as the cannon swings around, it will hit the target. It opens the door, but Zelda is unsatisfied. Surely there's a way to place it in the correct position and fire it while it's not moving. How ridiculous! How is this useful?!

Success here leads to an even more elaborate set up involving a tunnel that rotates in the air at Zelda's command of a device like a Armillary Sphere. "Absolute nonsense," she says, her eyebrows pinched together, her whole body leaning to the left to properly align the thing.

Link agrees with a hum and fires off the cannon again.

#

Despite how they've had to adjust the carbon-aluminum ratio a few times to get the heft of the glider just right, Zelda manages to complete the frame in just a few days. The beams of the frame flash when they catch the light. It folds away neatly. It pops open with ease. It holds its shape no matter how much she pushes on it or presses on it or drops it or throws it or kicks it.

Next is the fabric. Logically, they should go to Hateno for it, as there's little to be found in Goron City. But Zelda doesn't want to go back until their work in Eldin is at least at a decent holding point.

"Why not?" Link asks. "We can just glowing-string-travel. We'll be gone an hour, and then we'll be right back."

"But..." She bites her lip. In a small voice she asks, "What if the Sheikah spot us in town buying fabric?"

"What if they do?" he asks, honestly not following her. "We can just tell them what we're doing."

"But...I'm not sure they'd approve of me spending my time building a paraglider. Or even using a paraglider. What does that have to do with politics?"

"It's about your safety aboard Vah Rudania. They'll appreciate that you're being safe."

"Or," she says, "it will clue them in that there's a safety concern. And what if they start to doubt you and if you're taking my safety seriously—which I know you are, and I know I don't make it easy for you and I know that even you think I shouldn't be up there even though the paraglider was your idea."

"So you're mostly worried that they'll agree with me and tell you to stop and you won't be able to twist their arms as easily as you twist mine."

"I—"  She swallows and looks away.  "What if they tell me to stop working on the Divine Beasts?"

He's silent for a moment, then comes to sit next to her in their hammock.  His voice is gentle as he says, "They won't.  And if they do, you'll just ignore them."

"But it will still hurt.  I understand it's foolish.  I just..."

"You can't help being afraid."

They sit in silence a moment.  Is there some way she could make a cloth substitute?  The Gorons do use cloth, they just don't sell any, so maybe she can find out where they got it.  Perhaps one of the Gerudo traders is selling some.

Link says, "It sounds to me like we’re in need of a stealth mission."

"Oh?"

He grins at her and boops her nose with a finger, and she rears back and swats him away, rubbing the tip of her nose to make it stop tingling.

He digs through his stuff to pull out his Sheikah armor. It takes a while to get all the fiddly leather armor plates and all the wrappings in place. He has some trouble finding the wrappings that go around his wrists. Zelda uses the delay to appreciate the way the fabric is tight around his forearms, something she usually can't see under the wrappings. Finally ready, he tugs the big wrap over his nose and sets out into the night.

Twenty minutes later, he drops the royal blue fabric from their house into her lap. "The shrine here is a bit of a hike," he says, then starts to unwind the wrappings around his face.

"I..."

He pauses to look up at her.

She winces.  "I don't suppose you brought my needles?"

He surprises her by grinning. "Oh, this is a real quest now!" He covers his face again and dashes out of the inn.

"Bring my whole kit!" she calls.

#

The next challenge is in Darb Pond, where between assertions of their manliness and shouting about being beefed up, a couple of Gorons tell her that Lord Daruk himself used to train here by standing in the lava. Therefore, apparently, Link needs to stand in a glowing blue circle out in the middle of the lava pond.

Link immediately strips off all his equipment and grabs for his flamebreaker armor. While he's climbing into his tin-can-like pants, Zelda uses the slate to move a pair of metal boxes out into the pond in hopes he'll stand on them rather than try to swim out there or something equally ridiculous. "Thanks. That's good thinking," he says. With his chest plates surrounding him, he has trouble bending in to kiss her cheek, but he does it anyway before he puts on his helmet and runs, clunking and crashing, off their little outcropping. He glides to the boxes, and the next shrine appears.

He does not like this shrine. In fact, she can say with absolute assurance that he hates it.

She doesn't put together that all of the shrines in the Zora's Domain were water themed until she realizes that the shrines around the volcano are fire themed. In this one, it seems they have to use the magnesis rune to move around another metal cube to block jets of flame so that they can progress. Simple enough, but Link vibrates with anxiety.

He pulls off his helmet and lets it clatter to the floor, then he clanks to the floor and pries off his metal boots. There's a large gear mechanism that unlocks them from the leg coverings. "Okay.  Put on my armor. The whole set."

She makes no move to put on his armor or help him remove his gear.  "It won't fit me," she says.

Link unlatches some clasps at his waist and wriggles out of his pants. They remain the same shape even when he's no longer occupying them.

"I'm going to trip over my feet," she says. "And I won't be able to see through the helmet. This feels more dangerous than not wearing it."

"Just put it on."

"I really don't think it's necessary."

"Fine. Then it's not necessary. It's a favor. That you're doing for me." He pulls at the straps on his sides to loosen them.

She hesitates.

"There's no one here to see how goofy you look."

"There's you."

He waves this away and hefts the chest plates over his head. When he reemerges, he says, "I've already seen you at your worst."

Maybe he means that to be encouraging. But it is not.  It is mortifying.  Even though it makes no sense, all she can think to splutter is, "You what? When?!"

He gives her the most confused look he's ever given her.

"I—" She strokes back her hair. "But I look alright now, right? No. I most certainly don't and haven't for weeks.  I basically live inside a cave when I'm not sleeping inside an abandoned mechanical beast. But this can't be my worst.  When have I been at my worst? I know I wasn't at my best during the Calamity when I let absolutely everyone down, and I was dirty and bruised and panicked and sobbing.  And I know I treat you poorly during the months after you first claimed the Master Sword.  Or do you mean my panic attacks? Or I suppose you have seen me sleep and seen me just after I wake with bad-haircut-bed-head and morning breath."

She desperately needs an answer to this question. It burns far worse than the fires before them.

He comes up to her with his chest plates tucked under one arm and puts a hand on the side of her face.  It calms her.  Get her to refocus.

"Your terrible-haircut-bed-head is funny.  And your morning breath is not so bad."

She considers this a moment, then nods. "So I am at my worst when I'm having a personal failure."

He rolls his eyes and shifts his weight, clearly wanting to take her face in both hands.  But he can't because he's holding his enormous armor that she's definitely not going to wear.  "What will it take to get you to wear this?  What can I promise you?  Is there any way bribery is an option?"

Her first response is, No, I'm not wearing that.  But then his thumb brushes over her cheek, and he's looking at her so intently, and she thinks that maybe if he kissed her, if he dropped the armor he's holding and takes her face in his hands and pulls her close, then maybe she'd wear it.  But then that's coercion, and she can't do that to him (because she has no doubt that he's just that serious about this armor situation), and it wouldn't be real anyway, and she'd just end up more befuddled and sad. 

And she's taking too long to come up with something, just staring at him and imagining things that are embarrassingly inappropriate.  She needs to say something.  Something.  Anything.  Right now.  Can she ask him to talk to Impa for her?  Should she ask for sword fighting lessons or something along those lines?  Should she demand a week in Hateno once they're done in Goron City, so she can work on her many, unfinished projects?  Should she ask for something she neither wants nor needs, just to get it over with?  Amber?  A nice dinner?  Flowers?  Maybe he could kiss her?

His posture deflates.  She's taking too long, and this looks really bad, she looks like she so desperately doesn't want to wear his armor that she can't be bribed.  She so desperately doesn't want to wear it that she won't even do it to relieve his anxiety.  The intensity in his eyes has faded to defeat, the pressure of his hand lessening. 

She still thinks the armor is a bad idea, but she can at least do him the service of showing him what a bad idea it is.

Before he can pull away, she huffs and grabs the chest plates from him.  Or at least she tries.  It's heavy and awkward.

He perks up immediately and helps her lift it over her head.  It sits heavy on her shoulders, and the hole for her head is so big that it sits in an awkward place against her shoulder bone.  It's stuffy inside, but it's also only as hot as her own body heat.  "You owe me a bribe," she says as she adjusts the gloves.  He's lucky she's been working in the forge with huge Goron gloves.  "I just can't think of anything right this second."

"Sure," he says, holding the pants to make it as easy as possible to step into them. It's still not easy.  "Rain check."

#

Two days later, Zelda has a royal blue paraglider and a harness she'll wear on Vah Rudania that isn't too unwieldly. She's thinking of embroidering something on the fabric of her paraglider, but she hasn't decided what, and she doesn't have the time to do it right now anyway.

They practice over the hot springs of Lake Ferona, standing on a little outcrop so they can glide out into the water. He has them switch paragliders at first. "It's not that I don't trust yours," he says. "It's just that I know mine works."

She rolls her eyes, but then he's standing right behind her, guiding her hands to lift his glider, his palms tracing over her arms. "Hold it up over your head. Just like that. And you've got to hold on tight. Keep a small flex in your arms. Don't just hang there or you won't be able to steer, and then you'll fall. You'll feel a strain in your arms and shoulders here. And if you're airborne long enough it'll start to cramp your fingers. So be aware of how much longer you can hold it."

The glider over their heads is like an umbrella, creating sense of privacy she hadn't felt in the open on the bank of the lake, even though they're the only ones around. The heat of him behind her rivals the heat rising off the water. She can feel the worn places where his hands have held this glider. She turns her face to him, and he's right there, just a breath away. His eyes are bluer than the water, and she wonders what it would be like to sink into them: so warm she'd turn light headed, her skin sweating and the sweat evaporating.

She snaps around and clears her throat. "Anything else?"

"It's easier to hold it so it doesn't catch the wind, but if it's not catching the wind, that means you're falling. Falling is the easiest thing to do. You'll feel it when the wind catches. It'll pull. Don't let go when it pulls."

"Alright."

"You ready?"

She swallows and nods. She's been excited for this. But now that she's here (on this very small hill) she starts to question what she was thinking.

"I'm ready."

He leans even closer and whispers against her ear, "You've got this." For a moment, his lips hover over the tender spot right below her ear. She squeezes her eyes closed, praying that he'll kiss her, that she won't embarrass herself when he does, and that she'll someday very very soon get her emotions under control.

Instead, he bumps his forehead affectionately against her temple. He ducks away, nudging her waist in encouragement as he releases her. She shoves down her idiotic disappointment, takes a deep breath, sets her shoulders, and runs.

The paraglider catches before she's ready to leap. It lifts her straight off her feet, and she has to remind herself not to hang limp. She has to actively pull herself up. And then she's over the water. She's gliding. She's airborne! She can see the whole stretch of the hot springs, reaching out in either direction. And as she twists to get a better view, the glider naturally turns, and then she's experimenting, pulling into a wide circle until she can see Link again back on the outcropping. He waves, then runs towards the edge, popping open her paraglider over his head and sailing into the air. It holds up beautifully, although there's a bit of fabric at the back on one side that flutters too much.

He catches up, gliding around her in lazy circles.  A laugh bubbles up from her chest, and she swerves back and forth in a drunken zig zags until she runs out of altitude at the base of the outcropping and lands in ankle high water. The paraglider keeps going, tugging her forward until she nearly topples over. Link splashes down beside her, grabbing her elbow to steady her, and she snatches her paraglider from his hands to make adjustments.

"It pulls to the—"

"To the left. Yes, I saw." She gives the fabric a few sharp tugs where it's attached to the frame at one corner, scooting it a good half inch. Then she's clambering back up the outcropping to try it herself.

There's no flapping this time, and no distinct pull. The grips bite into her hands more than Link's did. Her glider is more responsive, meaning she has to be careful with her motions, but also she can maneuver with less force. She's also more easily swayed by a sharp wind. Only once she's run through her assessment, does she realize that she's flying—flying!—with a paraglider that she's built herself. Her industriousness has given her the sky.

She aims back towards Link, but skims the surface of the water well before reaching him. It's deeper here, and she hits the water and folds her glider before she goes under. The hot springs burn and bubble up her nose. The odd temperature, the odd density of the water makes it disorienting, and she resurfaces gasping.

Link is splashing towards her through waist deep water, but he slows his mad dash when he sees her appear. She treads water a moment, then makes her way closer until her foot finds a rock and then another, and then the water’s only up to her chest. He takes the glider from her, and she uses her free hands to remove her kerchief, duck her head back under the water, and slick back her hair.

"The maneuverability is amazing!" she says. She takes back her glider and pop it open once more to inspect it. "I'd be curious to see if it still works while wet, but I suppose it won't take long to dry in this heat. I feel we could move to higher ground with just a few more test flights here."

She heads back towards the outcropping to try again.  She gathers up the hem of her red shirt and wrings out the excess water.  It immediately sticks back to her skin.  Her collection of belts to hold the slate and her equipment are so waterlogged that they hang heavy and lopsided off one hip.  She wipes her hands on her thighs as if she can wring water from her pants.  "I see what you mean about arm strength.  But surely I can find some exercises that would improve my obliques and trapezius.  I bet the Sheikah will know.  Or do you—" 

She startles him when she turns.  He looks as if he wasn't paying attention, as if he zoned out staring somewhere in the general area of her aforementioned obliques.  His eyes jump up to her face when she spins on him. 

She frowns at him.  "Are you alright?"

"Yeah," he says, shaking it off and trudging after her.  "I was just...thinking."

"Oh?  Do you know of some exercises to improve those muscle groups?"

"I was thinking that right now you're definitely not at your worst."

She grins at him and gathers her wet hair to wring it out and twist it over one shoulder.  "You're too kind.  But I would like to know how long I can glide before I become too tired to continue.  That's not something I want to sneak up on me."

"Sensible," he says.

"Naturally."  She scurries up the rock face to launch herself off again.

 

Chapter Text

Yunobo does best piloting Vah Rudania when he makes physical movements to guide her.  To begin the beast marching forward, he holds up an arm and karate chops it down as if he's pointing her in the correct direction, as if he's giving her momentum.  To stomp the beast's feet Yunobo slams a fist downward, as if he's punching an invisible table.  To bow the beast's head, he presses his palms together as if praying, and slowly bows them forward.  To keep the beast level as she walks on an incline, he holds both his arms out to the side, as if he's balancing on a tight rope, and then he bites his lip, stares at the horizon, and sweats.  Zelda didn't know Gorons could sweat.

The movements are unnecessary, but they help Yunobo, and therefore they are a perfectly fine way to learn.  Perhaps he'll ease away from them later when he gets more comfortable.  Or perhaps he won't.  The only problem is that a stray movement and a wild response to that movement is what sent Zelda falling into the lava, so it is something on which to keep an eye.

Well.  That's not entirely true.  She doesn't mention it, but there's a second problem: several of Yunobo's movements are so close to those that Fireblight Ganon used to implement to control the Divine Beast, that it's and absolute miracle she hasn't had a full-blown panic attack.  Although she does avert her eyes quite a lot, and leaves several of the exercises to Link, and one time she did claim that she has to relieve herself and then emptied her stomach as soon as she was out of sight and then hugged her knees and shivered for a few minutes.

Yunobo does better with the exercises Link invents than the ones Zelda invents, probably because hers are more difficult maneuvers requiring greater focus and patience and precision, and Link's are more about making Vah Rudania look like she's dancing.  Zelda further suspects (but won’t voice) that Yunobo might do better with Link's exercises because Link calls them “games.” Yunobo does best when the games have a point system and he can challenge himself to beat his high score.

For the past week, she's guided Yunobo in the evenings, standing by the beast's feet and shouting up instructions, or standing with Yunobo on the ground while he practices his movements without Vah Rudania.  They talk about his successes and struggles.  They brainstorm new exercises.  She provides boundless encouragement.

But Yunobo does best when Zelda is able to be with him on Vah Rudania.

And that's where they are now.  Finally.  Finally! Yunobo takes them up the volcano to the last challenge location at the very rim.  Zelda bounces with excitement to finally be back on the Divine Beast. The ferocity of her smile is hurting her face.  Her glider is tucked away against her back, and she's latched to a wire tether that's latched to the main control unit.  

Just as she is excited, Link is excited to get to the final challenge.  With Zelda hooked to the control unit, he doesn't even get over-protective until they reach the summit, at which point he stiffens, and his eyes start darting around, watching for how she's most likely to slide away.  But Zelda puts herself more clearly in Yunobo’s sight line and beams at him, praising his progress so he won’t notice Link doubting his capabilities.  They carefully circle the rim of the volcano, so slowly that it would probably be faster to walk. 

The glowing target comes into view—the electric blue color at odds with the dark reds and browns of the mountain.  It feels alien, like a splinter, like it most definitely does not belong.  Link is ready to charge off the Divine Beast and follow the target on its merry chase, but she holds him back and makes him participate in Yunobo's next exercise of lowering them to the ground.  Link checks his arm bracers.  Vah Rudania lowers her head, forming an awkward, but manageable staircase down her neck and cheek, with a rather large—yet still manageable—drop at the end.  (Zelda's thinking maybe a portable ladder.  It's only eight feet, so the paragliders make it a non-issue, but Link argues that if they need to use the paragliders anyway, then why bother?)  Zelda has to unhook herself from her tether from the main control unit, and she over-exaggerates being careful as she walks down the beast's neck. 

Link is too wound up to notice.  He bounces on the balls of his feet to wait for her to catch up.  He checks his arm bracers.  He pats down all his pockets to make sure he has everything.

When they reach the target, she once more wants to study it.  She snaps a picture as Link sizes up the situation.  "Make sure Yunobo keeps the warp point on Rudania level," he says.  "I'll come back for you once I've activated the shrine, and we can warp back to it and do it together, but I don't know how long it'll take.  If I'm not back in two hours, get a ride back to town with Yunobo."  He pauses then, second guessing if that's a good plan after all.

Instead of commenting on that (actually very reasonable and well explained) plan, Zelda pops open her paraglider, arches one eyebrow at him, and takes a running start toward the target.

Behind her Link swears, and a moment later, he's caught up with her.  She grins at him.  He frowns at her.  Then she leaps off the summit just before passing through the circle.  Her paraglider catches over her head, and a second later, Link breaches the first target and a light guides them towards another, further down the mountain.  There's a deep ticking in the air, their time counting down.  The heat pushes at her sail.  It's harder to lower her altitude, as if she weighs less here. Link pulls ahead of her, swinging through the target, and leading them to the next. 

She keeps up fairly well for a while, her laugh caught in the hot wind.  For the first few targets, she has to actively avoid them, staying out of Link's way and not activating them herself lest she ruin his trial.  But then she needs a breather and pauses to catch her breath and rub at a stitch in her side as Link charges on ahead, swinging through another target.  She follows him leisurely after that, keeping him in sight, but circumventing some of his theatrics darting through tunnels and approaching the lava.  Her feet hit the ground beside him a few moments after the shrine has finished rising from the ground.

“You can do all the challenges in Tabantha yourself.  How about that?”

She shrugs, immensely pleased with herself and strokes her hands over her glider as if she’s inspecting it.  “Perhaps I will.”

“I bet they’re all wind challenges with gaping pits.”

“That sounds perfect for my newfound capabilities.”  Then, “How deep do you think the pits go?”

He doesn’t like that at all.

Speaking of gaping pits, there’s one in their current shrine. Once inside, they stop to watch its workings. There's a kind of conveyer—a track from which dangle cubes with climbable sides. Apparently, Link is to hop onto one of them as it passes, then ride it to some unseen destination. It's unseen, because the conveyer wraps around a corner and vanishes behind a wall, but between them and where the block disappear from sight, there is a wall of flame. Link could only pass it if he's holding one specific side of the cube.

"You need to sit this one out," Link says.

"Agreed. I have no interest in this at all."

"Because who knows what happens next? Definitely fire coming from the other side. Probably a guardian. Probably I'll have to jump from one moving block to another."

"That sounds exhausting."

"I just don't think you have the arm strength. We don't know how long you'll have to hold onto the box, or how fast you'll have to climb around."

"Link," she says. "Are you listening to me? Because I'm agreeing with you."

"And I think—You’re what?" He looks down at her in confusion.

"I'll stay here and study this conveyer belt. Do you think there's a pulley system inside? How is it powered?" She eases towards the edge and tries to get a look inside the conveyer through the gap at the bottom. She pulls out her journal and takes a seat on the cool floor.

"Okay," Link says slowly. "So I'll go on ahead and when I'm done I'll just...Wait are you sure?"

She looks up from the beginnings of a rough sketch. "Yes. Carry on. Have fun."

Instead of hopping onto the next box, he shifts his weight. "Because if this is some trick to get me to let my guard down so you can follow along behind me—"

"Link!"

"Fine. Okay. Stay safe. Please don't leave this platform."

"Please don't fall into the pit."

He frowns at her once, then takes a running jump onto the next cube. He maneuvers around so he's safe from the fire, then the block twists so he's out of sight, then it vanishes behind the wall.

It's entirely possible, she thinks as she lies down on her back to look up at the track, to put this kind of conveyor system to work outside. What if there had been one of these leading from the base of Death Mountain to Vah Rudania?  If the cubes were like carriages she could have climbed into and then just been carted up the mountain.  That would have saved so much walking and so much time.  What if they could have put their equipment for the scaffolding inside one of the carriages instead of hauling them all in a cart?  Perhaps something like this could go from Goron City to the base of the mountain.  That would make it far easier for the Gorons to aid with reconstruction, as the qualm they kept returning to was the very valid concern that it was too far to haul everything they would need.

Could there be a use for this in Herba?  Link said, no one really lived in Herba anymore, apparently.  But maybe they could.  Was there a use for this in the Gerudo Highlands?  No.  She was going about this the wrong way, looking for a problem to solve with a new invention instead of trying to find a solution to a problem that exists.

She counts the seconds that pass between cubes.  She estimates the speed of the track. When Link defends the elevator from outside, he sits next to her with a sigh and watches her sketch as detailed a diagram as she can get.

#

There’s only the final challenge left: to go to Vah Rudania and for Link to most likely battle Fireblight Ganon in his mind. While he was excited to see what the previous challenges had in store for him, his approach to this one feels more like resignation.  Not only does he delay leaving the last shrine, but he is tight lipped and tense jawed when she finally packs up.

In her time holding back the Calamity, she was distanced from the world, following it only as blurred moments when the Blood Moon was highest or that ring like a bell that snatched her attention when Link rose from the Shrine of Resurrection.  She was most attuned to the castle, to those fools sneaking in for treasure and dying in the courtyard.  Calamity Ganon was most attuned to the abominations that had possessed the Divine Beasts.  Ganon wanted her to see these.  He used his connection to show her, to torment her.

It saddened her a bit, towards the end, when Link spent only a day or two in each Divine Beast, only a day or two in the places where she could see him.

The Calamity wanted her to watch as the phantoms kill Link, as her hope for the future was extinguished, and they watched those battles intently, their own battle easing so he could taunt her with every blow Link took, so he could mock her every time Link dove out of the way.  At the moment it became clear that Link would win, the Calamity would howl and renew his struggle against her with a vengeance, and her attention would be pulled away, and then the Divine beast would fall from Gabon’s control, and the beast would be as blurred to her as the rest of the outside world.

She's more familiar with Fireblight Ganon than she is with the state of Gerudo Town or the new leadership hierarchy of the Rito.  But she's mostly familiar with him as he stomped Vah Rudania around Death Mountain, alone to rage, and constantly looking for a way to be cruel and vindictive.  So divorced from any of the fallout outside Vah Rudania, it was a bit like watching an endless temper tantrum.  She watched Link's battle, but it's hard to judge how frightening it would be to face the phantom.

She reaches for Link's hand as they ascend up the elevator, and she asks, "Is Firblight Ganon that distressing?" It’s not a dig against his courage, but a genuine, hesitant curiosity.  Link has never before dreaded facing a monster.

He shakes his head and waves off her concern.  "No.  He's not all that bad.  I don't think I'll have any problem fighting him."  He thinks for a moment, lines of blue light rolling down his body as they rise.  "But I bet the monk isn't going to give me a maneuverable weapon.  And I'll get worse armor.  And I really hope I get arrows."  He frowns.

"Well," she says.  They're approaching the top of the tube now.  "You'll probably have some time to prepare yourself emotionally.  It's not like you have to face the final challenge right this second."

The ceiling opens above them and they rise out into the sunlight to the entrance of the shrine.  And there, standing over them, is Vah Rudania.

Yunobo waves from the Divine Beast's back, then cups his hands around his mouth.  "I FOLLOWED YOU DOWN THE MOUNTAIN!"

Link sucks in a breath, and when Zelda whips around to face him, he's already gone, his eyes glassy and unblinking, his face slack.  Zelda blows out a measured breath, then adjusts herself to face him.  She takes his elbows in her hands to catch him when he comes back to himself. 

She counts in her head.  One one thousand.  Two one thousand.  Three one thousand...Ten one thousand...Twenty one thousand...

"ARE YOU GUYS OKAY DOWN THERE?"

Thirty one thousand...Forty one thousand...Sixty one thousand...

"LITTLE BROTHER?"

Eighty one thousand...One hundred one thousand...

"SHOULD I COME DOWN OR SHOULD I LEAVE AND COME BACK LATER?"

One twenty one thousand...

Two hundred one thousand...

Two sixty one thousand...

"BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE HAVING A MOMENT, AND I DON'T WANT TO INTERRUPT, GORO."

Three hundred one thousand...

Link stumbles and Zelda catches him.  He blinks again and again to clear his vision.  "Shh.  I've got you.  You're back."

"I'm..." He's shaking.  He sniffs.  "Yeah, okay."  When he swallows, it looks like it hurts.  "I...I got him."

She smiles up at him, trying to be supportive, but he drops his eyes and looks away before pulling out of her hands entirely.  She tries not to feel hurt.

He looks up at the Divine Beast, then cups his hands around his mouth and shouts, "YOU MADE IT DOWN THE MOUNTAIN."

"I DID!  Wooohoo!"  He pumps a fist into the air, and it's genuinely surprising that Vah Rudania doesn't move.

There's a shout from the west, and they lean to get a better look down the path.  Yunobo turns and lifts a hand to shield his eyes from the sun.  They watch as one of the Shiekah jogs up the path.  When he gets closer, she recognizes him as Dorian from Hateno.  He's winded, and he uses the moment he takes to bow to her to catch his breath.  "Your Highness."

"Master Dorian.  Is everything alright?"

He shakes his head and straightens from his bow.  "The Yiga have made a demand."

Before she can ask what sort of demand, Link has slipped in front of her, his hand on the hilt of his sword.  She gapes at him and parts her lips to ask what he thinks he's doing, but neither of them are looking at her anymore.

Dorian holds Link's stare for only a moment before his posture sags.  "I need your help."

Link takes a very deep breath.

 

Chapter Text

The story is told in half-sentences and meaningful looks. But as far as Zelda can make out, three days ago, a member of the Yiga clan approached Dorian while he was alone on patrol.  This in itself is worrisome, because it means the Yiga knew all about the Sheikah presence in Hateno and they have been waiting and watching and growing impatient for Zelda and Link's return.  The Yiga made Dorian an offer: in exchange for him turning over the princess to them, they would release his two small children

Zelda covers her mouth.  She isn't sure how it's possible to feel cold at the base of Death Mountain. 

Yunobo, who jumped down to join them, probably follows this story even less than Zelda does, but he puts his over-large hands on her shoulders to comfort her obvious distress.  The protective size of him is comforting.  In a nervous flash, a red barrier shimmers around them, then flickers out.  That's comforting as well.

Link shows no signs of being horrified, no signs of being shocked.  She realizes that that's because he's not.  He rolls his head back in exhaustion or frustration and says, "This can't keep happening."

"It's different this time," Dorian says.  "This time they did more than threaten my family.  And this time I came to you for help before I did something I'd regret."

Link is silent a moment, then nods.  "We'll meet you in Goron City.  We have to pack before we leave."

Dorian gets out the first guttural sound of a protest.  (Zelda would protest too if she didn't feel it in her bones that she needs to back Link up on this.  Present a united front.  She can argue with him about it later.)  But Yunobo voices his dismay first.  "You're leaving, Goro?"

She turns and attempts a smile.  "It appears we must."  She pats his wrist.  "We won't be gone for long.  And you've come so far already.  It seems you hardly need us looking over your shoulder all the time."

He leans in and attempts to whisper.  "I don't like this." By this he clearly means Dorian.  Then he jerks his head towards Vah Rudania.  "Do you want us to come with you?"

It's...not the worst idea.  The Yiga would surely think twice about further acts of violence if confronted with a Divine Beast aiming a laser into their stronghold. 

But the Divine Beasts should be more than weapons. 

And she's not sure how quickly or safely they could get Vah Rudania to the desert.

She smiles at him.  "You have the heart of  true Champion, Yunobo.  And the heart of a true friend.  Thank you, but we'll handle this, and you'll perfect your bond with Vah Rudania."

His dark eyes look wet as he says, "Stay safe, Little Brother."

"May the Goddess smile upon you, Brother."

Yunobo wipes his nose on a forearm as they part, and Link slips an arm around her waist before reaching over to give Yunobo a fist pound.  His hand is comically small next to Yunobo's.  He glares at Dorian, ensuring he isn’t going to leap at them, then warps them away.

He grabs her hand and pulls her into town the moment she once again has feet.  "Come on, we need to get you packed and out of here before he gets here."

"What?  We’re leaving?”

“You’re leaving.”

“Why?"

"Because, first of all, it'll be a very tempting offer to hand you over.  You going with us out to the desert to rescue the girls is basically you walking into the Yiga's hands."  They're at the inn, and he's digging under their hammock, grabbing their stuff.  She helps him by strapping on her bow and quiver. He starts separating their clothes, tossing her few belongings into a bag without folding them.  "Secondly, there's no way in hell you're coming with us to the Yiga stronghold.  It's too dangerous.  For all we know it's a trap for both of us." 

"So suspicious," she mutters, although she's only putting up a fight for the comforting familiarity of it.  She doesn't want to waltz into the Yiga stronghold either.  That sounds terrifying.  She doesn't even want Link to go.  She shoves down the clothes in the bag, so he can cram her sewing kit and some of her new Goron-made tools on top.

He flicks the clasp on her bag to close it and looks at her with burning eyes.  "Also, it's entirely possible that the Yiga foot soldier who threatened Dorian is full of it.  We only have his word that the Yiga have the kids at all. But Dorian ran straight here and led that foot soldier to us, and we're going to be attacked any second."

Her eyes widen.  Her hands are shaking.  Link passes her bag into her hands and wraps his arm back around her waist, pulling out the slate to warp.  He's in too much of a hurry to step outside to warp like he usually does.  It feels like her shoulders are shaking, her lungs are shaking.  The way he holds her close is comforting, but she knows he's going to let go soon.  He's going to let go and throw himself into a wild rescue attempt against the Yiga with their glinting scythes and their faceless masks, the sign of the Sheikah inverted in blasphemy.  She can hear the way they laugh as they attack.  Link's going to face them to keep her safe, and she doesn't want him to.  She wants him safe and sound and with her. 

The burning magic of the Goddess, the need to throw everything into protection rises up her chest like bile.  She swallows it down and asks, "Where are we going?"

"The safest place I know."

#

Paya had a habit of channeling the emotions of the people around her.  When Impa was anxious, Paya was anxious.  However, her grandmother hid her anxieties with grace and Paya did not, so everyone assumed Paya was an over-sensitive mess. Maybe she was.  No one else had sympathy anxiety.

But everyone was anxious, and Paya was about to vibrate out of her own skin.

The princess and Master Link had been gone for far too long.  Were they delayed?  Had they run into trouble?  What was an acceptable amount of time to go without word, an acceptable amount of time before they sent a search party?

Then Dorian went missing. To take matters into his own hands and check on the princess? Did he abandon the Sheikah? Was he murdered by the Yiga? Had he fallen somewhere and was lying helpless, praying to be found?

And Purah's patience was running perilously thin.  She shrieked at Paya for tidying her papers.  She shouted at Impa until Paya had to run outside just to be able to breathe.

And then the messenger arrived from Kakariko. Another Yiga attack. This time successful and horrible in that they’d kidnapped Cottla and Koko.  So clearly they’d taken Dorian as well. But why?

And what should they do now? They should regroup to Kakariko.  They should mount an attack against the Yiga stronghold. They needed Master Link. They should wait for him.  They should send a messenger. 

Paya itched for definitive action, for a task.  That’s how you kept the anxiety at bay. If you can’t run to Eldin and find the princess, clean a floor. Feed your grandmother. Practice your sword work.

Of course, it was then that Master Link slammed into the tech lab.

He looked ragged and over-heated, as if he’d just stepped from a hot house, but his eyes were so fierce and piercing that Paya dropped the stack of books she was sorting against Purah's wishes.

“Link!” Impa said. “You took your time in Eldin.”

He ignored her. When his eyes locked on Paya, it was as if everyone else in the universe ceased to exist. He only had eyes for her. Paya stopped breathing.

He crossed to her in three strides and said, his voice low and dangerous, “I need your help.”

“What’s happened?” Impa cried. “Where’s the princess?”

Link didn’t even blink. He just stared into Paya’s face, awaiting an answer.

“I...I...” She swallowed and nodded, as if there were any doubt whatsoever. “Yes.”

He whipped out the Sheikah slate. “Take hold of this.” She did. And then he pulled her into his arms, so they were pressed shoulder to thigh, so she could see the sharp clench of his jaw.

She gasped, and that gasp was snatched away as they teleported away. She’d seen him do it, of course, but she never could have imagined the way her skin turned to wind and fizzled away, never could have imagined the terrible lightness of not existing.

She clung to him when they reformed, under green tinted shade in a bright forest. When he stepped back, the princess was waiting for them, her hands clenched together in prayer, her face stricken.

She also looked as if she’d stepped out of a hot house. And possibly rolled in some dirt while she was at it. Instead of her tiara of diamonds and laurels, She wore a kerchief to hold back her frizzing hair. She had on a dirty shirt that clung tight to her frame and shone a brilliant red where it wasn't smudged. Paya dropped into a terrified bow. "Your Highness."

"Tell me about the recent Yiga attacks," Master Link said.  His voice was an order.  Direct without an undertone of resigned irritation like her grandmother used when she told Paya to go clean something.  His voice reminded her of weapons training with Cado.  Her back straightened into attention, her training locked into place, and her stutter caught in the back of her teeth.  "A messenger from Kakariko arrived two days ago.  The Yiga attacked the night before.  They broke into Lasli’s house and kidnapped Koko and Cottla, who were staying with her.  It was four against one, and she was knocked out, but they left her there, and she's recuperating.  At the same time as the attack, Dorian vanished from Hateno without a trace.  We searched for him, but when the messenger arrived, we assumed he'd been kidnapped as well.”

"What are the Sheikah's plans now?"

Embarrassment overtook her.  "We have been...in-in-indecisive."

Master Link nodded in such a way that she could feel the eye roll he tried to hide. But his irritation wasn’t with her.  It was mutual irritation that they shared just between them.  He understood her frustrations.  “I'm going to rescue them.  I need someone to stay with the princess while I'm away."

The princess muttered something about not needing a baby-sitter, and Master Link—in that same decisive voice—reminded the princess that Paya wasn't a babysitter.  His tone softened as he looked at her, "You don't like being alone."

He went up to her, and they gripped each other by the elbows. He pressed his forehead to hers, and she took a deep breath. "It's going to be fine," he said.

"I know. Of course, I know." She let go of his arms enough to shake out her hands, and for a moment so much magic sloughed off them that it sparkled in the air, like she was flicking water from her fingers. "It's just...this place..."

"It's the safest place in Hyrule. The Deku Tree will keep you safe, no one can get in, and I trust Paya."

Paya's heart swelled so much she worried the emotions would leak out through her eyes.

"I'll be back before you know it. Don't combust while I'm gone."

"I make no promises. I might just to spite you."

He pressed a kiss to her forehead, then pulled away, turning back to Paya.

He came close enough to grasp her arm and lower his voice. "You're safe as long as you stay in the glen. The fog in the forest makes it so no one can get in.  There's shelter and food inside the Deku Tree.  But if I'm not back in three days...you'll need different plans. The koroks will guide you out of the forest. If I don't come back, I don't know where in Hyrule will be safe.  The princess will have ideas. "

Paya nodded, even though this was too much. Wherever he was going, he shouldn't go. She nodded even though she had no idea what a korok was, and still doesn't really understand to this day.

Link leaned in and pecked a kiss to her cheek, which flamed so hot she almost missed it when he said, "Keep her safe.  Even if you have to stand up to her."

Then he warped away.

The princess shook once more, like a spindly tree in a fierce wind. Then she doubled over and vomited into the grass.

Paya had no clue what to do, and it took a moment to dart forward and rub her back.  Because of her kerchief, she didn't need her hair held back.  The retching noise made her nauseated, and she forced herself to look away with a grimace, forced herself to make calm, shushing noises.  The princess rolled away an collapsed onto her back with a groan, shivering in a cold sweat. 

"I'm sorry," she said.  "It's as if...as if the magic inside me wants to burst out.  It wants to blast across Hyrule like a comet and slam into the Yiga's hideout."

Paya nodded as if she understood.  Then she hurried off.  She assumed the "Deku Tree" was the massive tree in the center of the glade, and sure enough there was an entrance to a hollow, where she found a ceramic cup, which she filled with water.  The princess was still lying of the forest floor, her eyes closed.  Paya helped her sit and drink, then guided her to stand and then into the hollow of the massive tree, where there was a thin bed that she helped the princess onto.

"This is an interesting knit," the princess muttered.  Her fingers traced the weave of the blanket, which seemed to be made of leaves and moss.  "Or is it knit?  It's not crochet and doesn't seem to be from any kind of loom with which I'm familiar.  I wonder what method was used here."

"Pl-Please rest, Your Highness."

Paya hurried away, throwing herself into scouting the glade.

#

Zelda pictures Link warping to the shrine above Goron City, only to find himself surrounded by a dozen Yiga. She pictures him narrowing his eyes and setting his jaw, setting his stance as the Yiga sway closer like snakes coiled to strike. She pictures them falling upon him before he can even draw his sword. She pictures the Yiga lying in wait at the base of the mountain, waiting to fall upon Link and Dorian where they can attack without use of fireproof elixirs.

#

There were four entrances to the glade—far too many.  The setting sun vanished as she stepped from the glade.  The air turned cool, murky.  Shadows danced through the mist, just out of sight.  She stepped too far away and the fog surrounded her, choking her.  She couldn't see.  She took another step, and the mist cleared, and somehow she'd completely turned around and was now facing back into the sunlit glade.  Paya did no more exploring after that.

The princess wasn't sleeping.  She seemed to be diagramming the odd blanket in a journal.  Paya suggested a bath.  There was a little spring-fed pond behind the shrine.  And the princess looked as if she could use it.

"Yes, that's a good idea," the princess said, marking her place in her journal.  "It's difficult to get a bath in Eldin.  They only have hot springs, and you can scrub off the grime and the soot and the grease, but as soon as you step out, the sweat is right back.  And, I'll admit I have lost track of time lately."

Paya didn't know what to do but nod.

"My foot is asleep," the princess announced.  She extracted her legs with far too much care from under the blanket.  It concerned Paya.  Was there something wrong?  Had she hurt herself?  "They all just climbed up here and fell asleep in a pile on my feet.  It feels wrong to disturb them when they're so sweet.  Their little snores are comforting."

This concerned Paya even further.

Paya found the princess a blanket she could use as a towel and a set of clean clothes—the sky blue set that her grandmother prepared for her—and it didn't escape Paya's notice that the princess gave them a disappointed look.  As the princess de-robed at the pool, Paya turned her back and leapt up the great tree, from branch to branch to knot, until she was high enough to leap to the top of the shrine, where she sat with her back to the princess and kept an eye on the glade.  She listens intently as the princess splashes, unsure what she should listen for, but praying she knows it when she hears it.

#

 

Zelda pictures Link sneaking towards the Yiga stronghold.  She pictures him going ahead of Dorian, so he can take the brunt of whatever befalls them.  She pictures Dorian silently picking up a rock.  Holding it over his head.  Bringing it down.  She pictures Dorian taking the Master Sword.  How it will bite into his hand, and he'll toss it away with a hiss.  Then perhaps he'll kick it over a cliff.  She pictures him taking the slate from Link's hip.  Activating it.  Searching through her notes, through her pictures, through her maps.  Trying to find where she is hiding.

#

The princess washed her hair three times.  She scraped at her skin so when she reappeared, she had a pink, over-scrubbed look to her face.

There was a triangular platform in the glade, surrounded by a scattering of blue flowers.  It was within sight of the shrine, so they would know the moment Master Link returned.  The princess hesitated before stepping onto the platform and sitting cross-legged, opening her journal to sketch the flowers.  "These are called the Silent Princess," she explained.  Then explained a great deal more.  Paya listened, because not-listening was not an option.  She didn't follow all of it, and realized at some point that the princess was rambling in the most elegant way imaginable.  Eventually, the monologue faded, but she continued to sketch. 

Paya hurried off to start dinner and wash the princess' clothes.

The princess didn't eat much of the mushroom soup Paya prepared.  At first, she thought this was because the soup was awful.  She didn't have much to work with.  And she wasn't an expert chef like they must have had at the castle.  But she was alright!

"It's funny," the princess said.  "I think Link has been adding more and more curry to our meals.  Now food seems odd without it.  Also it's not boiling.  Isn't it strange how we can grow used to the most odd things?"

#

She pictures Link in manacles, in chains.  She pictures him glaring from inside a cell.  She pictures the Yiga throwing him in a pit.  She pictures him bound up in rope and hung upside-down from the ceiling, his face growing more and more red and more and more puffy as he rotates slowly.

#

The princess didn't sleep that night.  She sat on the narrow bed and sketched dumpy creatures with leaf-like masks.  She said their shaking sounded like the rain and that she hadn't heard the rain in weeks. 

She spent the next day on the platform, sketching design after design that she considered embroidering into her paraglider.  Flowers and oak leaves and mountains and dragons and birds.  She couldn't settle on one design.  None of them were good enough.  She asked Paya's opinion, but it wasn't Paya's place to tell her the birds seem a bit on-the-nose.  The princess was unhappy with Paya's non-committal answers, and instead asked the stones beside her as if they might have an opinion.

"I most certainly will not embroider a picture of you, you scamp!  How presumptive!"

Paya's forehead wrinkled in deeper dismay.  Had the princess' time fighting the Calamity broken her mind?  Is this why Master Link brought her to the solitude of Hateno rather than bringing her directly to Kakariko? 

She swallowed.  Whatever the princess had been through, it was a sacrifice for her people.  For that, Paya vowed to protect her, even if that was protecting her against others finding her strange.

#

Zelda pictures Link in Kakariko at a funeral for two little girls.  Two little girls he wasn't fast enough to save, because he had to take Zelda somewhere safe and provide her with a Shiekah guard.  Two little girls who died because the Yiga wanted Zelda.  She's been to the graveyard in Kakriko, so she can picture this much more clearly than she can the Yiga hideout.  It's a vivid image.

She can see it raining.

#

The princess didn't even attempt to sleep, but instead sat by the glowing pea pods that lit the various entrances to the glade.  She inspected them, measuring and taking notes, poking them and massaging them and asking questions to the air.  She thought they might be a better light source for the black interiors of the Divine Beasts.  Do they grow elsewhere?  Can she pluck one?  How fast do they grow back?  Can they only grow in the Korok Forest?

Paya had no answers.

The princess' speech slowed, her movements growing clumsy.  Dark smudges appeared below her eyes.  Paya guided her back to bed, but she lay awake and stared at the ceiling.

The next day, she decided to embroider a pattern of stars and gears and flowers.  It was lovely.  All her designs were lovely.  And her embroidery skills were exquisite.  Or at least would have been had she slept at all. 

They both jumped at every sound, expecting Link at any moment.  The princess would glare at fallen tree branches and snapped sticks.  "Could you please stop that?" she more than once asked the air.

The princess spent that night pacing.  Round and round the great tree.  She muttered to herself, and every time she passed where Paya had sat herself, she caught a portion of the princess' thoughts.  She was going through worst case scenarios with Link's rescue attempt and explaining to herself that none of them were really that dire.  "He would simply climb out of the pit.  He would love that..."  "Fooling the Yiga into letting him loose in exchange for bananas..."  "He would call on a dragon, who would bring lightning that would electrocute him, but also break his bonds...."  "And he could utilize Daruk's Protection..."

Paya let her pace.  She had no idea what else to do.  Her anxiety rose with every quickened circuit the princess made around the tree.

The princess pretended to work on her paraglider the next day.  The final day.  They spent most of their time staring at the shrine.  The princess kept zoning out, she was so tired.  Paya should have started the conversation about what they would do, should Link not appear.  But her heart squeezed so painfully each time she thought of it, that she couldn't get words out.  They trapped themselves in her throat.

The princess frowned at the shrine, and finally set down her work in a huff, clasped her hands together, and twisted to face Paya.  Instead of anything Paya expected her to say, she asked, "Do you think it's odd the way Link shows physical affection?"

"Wha-What?"

"Link.  He kisses people.  And leans on people.  And hugs a great deal.  More than most people.  More than is usual.  I find it comforting and endearing, but I wonder if other people feel the same way."

"I..."  Paya's face heated past endurance.

The princess frowned and straightened.  "Did he make you uncomfortable?"

Paya averted her eyes.

"Well.  That is simply unacceptable.  I'm sorry for his behavior, and I will make sure he apologizes as well.  I'll speak to him and it will never happen again."

Paya nodded.  "That's-that's for the best.  I get-I-I..."

The princess waited.  Patient.  Interested.  Concerned.  People did not often wait for Paya to express an entire thought.

Paya took a deep breath and patted her chest over her heart.  "I-I know he doesn't mean...he doesn't...he's not trying to start...an-anything."

The princess nodded.

"But it..."  Paya blushed harder.  It was almost like they were having a normal girl conversation rather than waiting to find out if their friends were dead and if they had a safe place to travel.  That spurred her to tell even more of the embarrassing truth.  "I don't dislike it.  And that's-that's not the-the best."

The princess nodded again.  "I feel the same," she admitted.  "I will speak to him."  Then again, like a promise, like a prayer, "I will speak to him."

The sun started to set behind the leaves, twilight inching in on the glade.  As it grew darker and darker, the princess reached out and set her hand over Paya's.  Paya twisted to thread their fingers together.

"What will we do?"

"Keep going."

"Go where?"

Paya thought a moment.  "R-Rito Village?"

The princess' head tilted.  "That's a idea."

The circle before the shrine lit, and they both startled, then jumped to their feet.

Master Link took shape before them, a child in each arm.  They all had a hand of the slate, and the girls blinked around at the forest, then scrambled to the ground and flew into Paya's arms.

The princess had her mouth covered again. 

Master Link collapsed to sitting and sighed, asking, "What'd I miss?"

The princess threw herself at him, nearly knocking him over, burying her face against the side of his head just as Paya pressed her nose to the tops of the girls' hair, breathing in dust and relief.

 

Chapter Text

Paya is incensed. When the full story comes out that Dorian was blackmailed by the Yiga and that he abandoned his post to run off and find Link instead of being upfront with Impa, she's too angry to form words. Her anger turns into a stream of consonants and rapid pacing. She can't fathom Dorian's behavior. Zelda's heart goes out to the man, but Paya is adamant that real Sheikah would sacrifice anything.

This world view makes Zelda horribly uncomfortable.

They're talking only after the girls have collapsed in relieved, boneless heaps, and are tucked away in the bed. Zelda, Link, and Paya stand outside in the night, trying to keep their voices low as Link and Paya discuss if they have the authority to kick Dorian out of the Sheikah for failing to do the one job every Sheikah has: protecting the princess. Link doesn't, but Paya does. And will. As soon as she gets her hands on him. Zelda attempts to soothe her with some questionable tea that one of the koroks brings to them, but Paya's too wound up to drink it. Zelda sniffs it and thinks that might be for the best.

"Why don't we re-frame it," she says. "Dorian’s parting with the Sheikah will be less of a demand of exile and more of a voluntary measure to protect his family for good. If Dorian and the girls go into hiding, the Yiga will no longer threaten his children, and he has shown that their safety is their highest priority. With Dorian in hiding, the Yiga can no longer use him against us.”

Link thinks on that and nods. He likes Dorian, and he gets why he would protect his family first. Link's mostly irritated that something like this has happened more than once, as if he's disappointed Dorian hasn't learned from past events.

It doesn't escape Zelda's notice that, in front of Paya, there's no mention of the previous incident or incidents. Link is keeping those to himself, probably for Dorian’s benefit.

The plan now is for Link to help Dorian set up a new identity and a new home in Tarrey Town. Zelda makes a list of everything they will need, then tears the page from her journal. Money. New clothes. New names. Hair dye. They'll need to retrieve a scant few sentimental items from their home in Kakariko. They’ll need to decide who knows what.

Link also needs to go pick up Dorian, whom he left waiting somewhere in the desert while Link warped the children to safety. Link shows no signs that he's in a rush to retrieve him. If you ask Zelda, both Link and Paya are acting uncharitable—almost petty. But it seems ungrateful to say so.

"I'm sorry to ask you to babysit," Link says, walking a bit away from the Deku Tree for the barest scrap of a private conversation.

Zelda waves him off. "Don't be ridiculous. They're asleep anyway, so it's hardly difficult."

Link grins at her.

"Just don't make a habit of it," she says.

"You missed me," he says.

"Of course, I missed you. I was worried sick. But it's over now, so shoo."

"I missed you too."  And then he warps away.

Despite her lack of bed, Zelda sleeps, snuggled up with a pile of koroks on the floor by the fire. The koroks twitch in their sleep, their bodies rattling so softly it keeps nightmares at bay.

The girls are clingy and tearful in the morning. Paya tries to get them to play tag (apparently a favorite) while Zelda cooks mushroom omelets, but they would much rather each claim a lap and clutch at arms and necks and shirts. Zelda's proud that she manages to cook one handed without burning anything.

Sometime in the night, Link stopped by to drop off instructions written in Gerudo and dye that will turn the girls’ hair dark brown. From the wording of the instructions, Zelda can tell that the woman who wrote the instructions thinks Link is an idiot. The dye looks like mud and stains clothes, and the girls will not let go of whoever's holding them, so they all end up standing in the pool in waist deep water in their underwear, rubbing butter into the girls' foreheads and ears and the backs of their necks so the dye doesn't stain their skin. Then Paya holds both girls, while Zelda massages the dye into their scalps while wearing a pair of gloves that instantly turn rust red. The color gives her pause, but they keep going. They cover the girls' hair in Zelda's least favorite kerchiefs and let the dye sit until lunch. When they wash it out...the girls have red hair.

"It was supposed to be brown!" Zelda says, checking the instructions again. "Did I mistranslate something? Did I miss a step? Perhaps the red comes through more strongly when you start with white hair."

It doesn't look bad. Just...unexpected. And different. The girls are almost unrecognizable, especially when Zelda braids half their hair back instead of putting it up in Sheikah knots.

The girls still aren't ready to play, but they're more talkative. Zelda tears pages from her journal, and they spend some time coloring. Then the koroks help her get a set of spherical seeds together so they can play marbles. Then they make flower crowns. Then Zelda runs out of ideas, and it's only midafternoon, and the girls don't like her scavenger hunt idea and they don't want to hear about pulleys or elevators or smelting. Paya finds a large piece of tree bark and scrounges up some berries they can use as paint equivalents, and has the girls paint a picture, which she will then carve into a hundred pieces and have them put back together again as a puzzle. This turns out to be both uninteresting and a lot of work for Paya. Maybe Zelda can quickly sew together a couple of dolls? Children like dolls, right?

The girls are overly-relieved to see Link when he appears again in the afternoon with new clothes for the girls. Maybe its lack of sleep, but he's downright startled by the girls' new hair. The girls announce that they like the new braids. They don't mention the color, but they don't say they hate it, so Link shrugs. Dorian hasn't had time to dye his hair yet. Link leaves with the rest of the dye and a sparkle in his eye, like he's looking forward to not telling Dorian about his future red hair.

Zelda doesn't like the way the girls' clothes fit them and takes it upon herself to do some tailoring. This leaves entertaining the children to Paya, who takes the marbles and invents a game called "How Far Can I Throw This?" It's a success.

Link interrupts dinner to announce that everything's as ready as it's going to be, and he's ready to take the girls to see their dad. Ready to take them to see their new home. They cry as they hug Paya goodbye. It's hard to tell if they realize they'll never see her again. Link sweeps a kid onto each hip, gives Zelda an exhausted smile, and warps them away.

An hour later, he's back, ready to take Paya back to Hateno, where she can report everyone's safety and the cover story that Dorian was injured, and Since he is no longer able to keep up with his duties, he has retired a remote beach near Lurian Village.

Paya startles when Zelda hugs her goodbye.

The solitude of the forest is almost peaceful after a long day trying to keep children engaged, but she can feel panic creeping in, as if it’s rolling into the glade with the fog. Thankfully, Link's not gone long, and when he returns, he flops down beside her to lie on the floor with a groan. He closes his eyes. "We should forget rebuilding Hyrule and start a business offering transportation services using the slate. We'd be rich in a week."

"You would have to charge people for your services."

"Don't tempt me.”

She smiles down at him, the tightness in her chest finally loosening completely. “Have you eaten?”

“No.”

“I cooked.”

He opens his eyes. “You did?”

He sits up and serves himself everything that's left of dinner.

"We bought the house from Hudson instead of Bolson, so it was a decent price," he says between mouthfuls. "This is good.”

“It’s fine.”

He shoves her with his shoulder, then just leans against her. “The girls have their own room. They like that. They wouldn't let go of their dad though. He carried Koko on the walk from the shrine, and she fell asleep before we even got into town."

"They wouldn't let go of Paya or me today either. It made dying their hair difficult."

Link grins. "Dorian's hair is even redder. We had to go to a stable out in Tabantha where he could get it cut really short. And he shaved. He looks weird, but not half bad."

He drops his empty bowl to the ground and lies back again with a groan. She scoots down as primly as she can to settle beside him, and he stretches out an arm, inviting her closer. She flicks her hair out of the way and snuggles into his side, resting her head on his shoulder, where she can feel the warmth of him. It's distressingly good to have him back. She ought to be more embarrassed that she's so pathetic.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

"Yes. I just worry for you, and when I worry...I guess my sealing powers think they're being called upon. And without anywhere to go they just...” She makes a meaningless gesture with her fingers. “They make me itchy."

He nods as if he knew that. "Did you sleep?"

"Yes."

"Enough?"

"Did you sleep?" she counters.

"No."

"Sleep now then."  She closes her eyes and snuggles into his shoulder. She smells much nicer than she did when they were sharing the hammock, and she'd feel pleased with herself if she wasn't now a bit embarrassed about the past.

He taps her lower back. "Come on. Don't fall asleep on the floor."

"We won't fit in the bed. It's too small."

He scoffs and pulls her groggily to her feet. They don't both fit in the bed, so he levers a hip under hers and pulls her half on top of him. She's not going to fight about it.

His body doesn’t soften the way it usually does when he dozes off.  His breath stays shallow, as if he’s trying not to disturb her.  She looks up at him, and he’s frowning at the ceiling, a hand on his forehead, pushing back his bangs, his elbow in the air.  She glides her hand up his chest, his neck, to his face to stroke his cheek.

He blinks and then starts talking.  "Koko and Cottla dug a little...indention under the bars of their cell.  Not very deep, because they're so little.  The Yiga didn't even notice.  But it let the girls escape.  Koko said they got out three times.  She said one time they made it half way through the canyon before they caught her, but I don't know how she would know that.  When they caught her the last time, they put a manacle on her.  Around her middle, because they didn't have anything small enough to go around her wrists or ankles.  I had to pry the damn thing open with my sword."

His fingers trace high on Zelda's waist, soothing the stretch where the manacle would rest.

"But Cottla, she's good at hide-and-seek.  She hid and the Yiga couldn't find her, and I couldn't find her.  I looked everywhere.  In holes and behind crates and behind tapestries and under tables.  I had to look for her while also hiding from the Yiga.  I looked for days.  I didn't know if she was even still inside the hideout.  Maybe she got out and she was in the canyon or passed out in the desert or freezing in the highlands.  Or maybe they'd just killed her.  And the time limit I'd given Paya was creeping up.  And the Yiga knew Koko was gone, and they were out looking for her and Dorian, and they were going to find them any minute, and they were starting to notice that I was moving things around inside.  I was going to have to leave without Cottla.  But I didn't know if I could.  How could I leave her there?”

He sighs, his eyes still on the ceiling.

“But you found her,” Zelda says.

“I found her.  I was ready to just take on the whole Yiga clan, so I could shout for her to come out.  But then I found her.  Under a wood decking.  Probably a two-foot clearance between the decking and the ground. People had been walking over her for days.  I’d walked over her a dozen times.  Getting her out without getting caught was a nightmare.”

She strokes his cheek again.  “I’m grateful.”

He looks down at her.  “For what?”

“That you saved them.  That you were brave.  That you care.  It’s my fault they were put in danger, so I'm grateful you brought the situation to a successful conclusion.”

He shakes his head slightly.  “It’s my fault.  If I’d just sent Dorian into hiding after last time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“The Yiga would have designed a new threat.”

“But not one involving children.”

“Not on involving Sheikah children.”

He pushes the hand on his forehead over his eyes.  “We need to do something about them.  I thought they'd scatter without a leader, but now they’re worse than ever.”

“Later,” she says, her fingers brushing his cheek.  “This was a victory.  Celebrate it. At least for tonight.”

His eyes are bright as he looks at her—looks at her so long and so candid that she ought to look away.  He looks at her as if he can see everything about her, and yet he doesn't look away.  And she lets him look.  And the longer she holds his eyes, the tighter and thicker and the air grows around them, the more inevitable this moment feels.  Her hand slips from his cheek to the back of his neck, ready to guide him in when he moves.  But he doesn’t.  And it’s painful.

“Zelda,” he breathes, and she shivers at the sound of her name on his tongue.  “There’s a korok on your head.”

From right beside her ear comes, a rattle and a “Twee hee!”

Zelda shrieks and jerks away, throwing a half dozen koroks off the bed.

Chapter Text

Link explains that over the past year, he's been playing hide-and-seek not only with Cottla, but also with the koroks.  When he finds a korok, it gives him a korok seed as a prize.  What is a korok seed?  It's better not to ask.  Link then gives these seeds to Hetsu, the largest korok Zelda has ever seen, who has spent the past few days up in the Deku Tree's canopy, where "The music rings every which-y way!  Shakala!"  In exchange for korok seeds, Hetsu enchants Link's many pouches so he can magically store more and more weapons.  But even after reaching the uppermost limit of how many swords he can have, Link continued to find koroks and gather seeds.  How many more?  It's better not to ask.

Before they leave the forest, Link coaxes Hetsu down to the ground and spends an overly-long amount of time negotiating for Hetsu to put those extra seeds towards enchanting the pouches on Zelda's belt.

"This way you can carry more bows," Link explains.

"Could I carry more books?" she asks.  "Or journals?  Or samples?"

"Shakala!  Ample sample!"

Link raises an eyebrow.  "Does that mean yes?"

"Yes!" Hetsu shouts. "The princess needs to carry her book-a-looks!"  Then he does a dance.  Zelda claps for him when he's done.  Then she claps again for the next expansion.  And the next.  They're there a while.  Zelda reaches the limit of how much Hetsu can help her before they run out of korok seeds.  Link won't meet her eyes.  She tries to do the math to figure out how many seeds Link has found and how much time he's spent on this, but the mind reels.

She redistributes all her things, packing them away, and she's ready to set out to the Rito Village, when she catches Link finishing a conversation with the Deku Tree and staring wistfully at the plinth for the Master Sword.  "What is it?" she asks.

He shakes himself and turns to her.  "Nothing.  Are you ready?"

She narrows her eyes, trying to figure him out.  Then she remembers, "There's a challenge here that you wanted to do!"

"Yeah, but I can do it later."

"Or you can do it now.  We're already here."

"We can glowy-string-travel here anytime.  It's fine."

She argues, "A month ago you were looking forward to this."

"And two days ago you were worried sick I was leaving you to fight the Yiga."

"But that was the Yiga and rescuing endangered children.  This is just a shrine trial."

He blinks at her.  "You know I can still die doing a shrine trial, right?"

It probably should have occurred to her earlier, but...no, she had not considered that possibility.  She frowns at him.  Does this mean she should be worried about him more often?  Link regularly throws himself at wizrobes, so worrying about him every time he's in danger seems like it won't go well for her.

"If I may interject."

Zelda startles, but Link doesn't, and they turn to look up at the Deku tree.

"If you should fall during the Trial of the Sword, you will simply be returned here, having failed the trial."

"So I won't be dead dead?" Link asks.

"Perhaps I shouldn't have told you that.  With foreknowledge of the consequences, you may not take the trial seriously."

Link scoffs.  "I thought we knew each other better than that."

The Deku Tree says nothing.

But Link's frowning again.  "Aren't you in a hurry to get to the Rito Village?"

"No," she says.  "Do your trial."

"Do you want me to bring you somewhere first?  I can take you back to Death Mountain.  Yunobo's right, he and Vah Rudania can protect you as long as you stay onboard.  Or I can take you to Hateno and you can stay in the tech lab with the Sheikah."

"I'm fine here."

"Do you want me to get Paya?"

"Link."  She takes his face in her hands.  "I'll be able to get some work done.  This is important to you, so please go."

He still hesitates.  "I don't want you to be lonely."

Her heart melts in such a way that it wells up in her eyes.  "There are hundreds of koroks here, and if I figure out how to farm glowing seedpods before we leave, we'll be better off inside Vah Medoh."

He doesn't know what she's talking about, but he says, "Okay."  Zelda takes a step back, and he takes out his sword, turning it to plunge it into the pedestal.  He takes a breath, then disappears as if he's warped away.

Zelda stares for a minute.  The sword is back where she set it a hundred years ago, so eerily similar without its master that she shivers and looks away. She promised Link that she’ll be fine.  "How long will he be gone?"

The Deku Tree answers, "It is impossible to say."

She nods, sighs, and heads off to chop down a glowing pea pod.

#

If she plants a pea from the glowing pea pods and waters it thoroughly, it will sprout in about an hour.  It reaches full size, complete with a pea pod containing three peas of its own, within four hours.  Once removed from the pod, a seed will glow for another six hours.  Once it has dimmed, it begins to glow again if exposed to direct sunlight or if submerged or doused with water.  She is in the process of testing how the durration of sun exposure relates to how long it glows on its own, how many times one seed can be recharged, and how long she can go between recharges and have it still work.  All these experiments will need to be repeated outside the Korok Forest.

The koroks are not unhelpful during her experiments.  (They even told her about the water trick.)  But they do like getting off topic in their chattering, and they like to take the freed peas and carry them away, forcing Zelda to stop her work and chase them.

While her experiments run, she sits by the sword plinth and works on embroidering her paraglider.  In the mid-afternoon, the koroks hit a specific rhythm that triggers a memory of malice bubbling and popping, the sound of the wind in the trees reminding her of the constant, full roar of Ganon’s breathing.  She goes to find Hetsu, who pleads with Zelda to dance with him.  She teaches Hetsu and the koroks to waltz, which they do poorly but with enthusiasm, and they teach her a song with words that change each time you sing it.

When night falls, Zelda makes herself dinner and brings it out so she can continue to sit by the sword.  She wraps the blanket from inside the Deku Tree around her shoulders.  The sword glows like the silent princesses beside it.  With no one around, she removes her kerchief and tries for the first time to braid her hair into a crown the way she used to wear it all the time.  It doesn't work.  Chunks of it are still too short, and they stick out of her braids no matter what she tries.  She dozes off to the sound of the koroks singing.

Link reappears at about four in the morning in a swirl of magic as the strings of his form bind together.  He's in the same posture he was in when he vanished—head bowed and both hands gripping the sword. As soon as the color comes back into his form, he unfreezes. He straightens, the sword coming free. 

He topples over backward.

"Link!"

She throws off her blanket and clambers to his side, taking his face in her hands. "Link! Are you alright?"

"Yeah," he groans. His eyes are closed and his chest rises and falls in great waves. He's spread-eagle, the Master Sword still held tight in one hand even as it's thrown out at a careless angle. He coughs. "There was a Hinox."

"A Hinox? You had to fight a Hinox?" But he fought Hinoxes all the time. They almost never even bruised him, much less took all day.

He flops his arm onto his chest, squeezing her hand, which is over his heart. "It was like—" He coughs again. "—Eventide Island all over again. They took all my stuff." He sighs. "Zelda, I like having my stuff."

"What stuff?" Knowing Link, that could mean anything from foraged food stuffs to heart containers, from bundles of wood to the magical gifts he received from the champions' spirits. From the way he's gripping the Master Sword, she has a pretty good guess it was the sword.

"All my stuff. No supplies. No weapons. They even took my pants. I hate it when they take my pants."

"You fought a Hinox naked?"

"I fought a lot of things naked."

She has no idea what to say to that.

He squeezes her fingers again and opens his eyes enough to grin up at her. "But there's a pair of pants at the end. In a chest. And a cooking pot. I wasn't in good enough shape this time to keep going, but I'll do better next time."

"Next time?" She's not sure that's the best idea.

With a groan, he hauls himself to sitting upright. "Yeah. I did the first part, but there's definitely another, and I'd bet a hundred rupees there's another one after that. Maybe I can skip the first part. I need to go back and finish, but I just..." He adjusts his grip on his sword. "I'll do better next time." He grins up at her again. "Look!" He holds the sword out for her to see.

She's not sure what she's looking at. It looks like the Master Sword.  She's been watching it all day.

"It's more powerful now. All the time. Not just when there's malice around. The next round, I'm going to get it even stronger."

He reaches for her, and she helps him to his feet. He manages to stand on his own, but she keeps hold of his hand anyway. He threads his fingers through hers.

"It's late," she says, guiding him towards the Deku Tree. "You should sleep before you go back in."

"And eat," he says.

"Of course."

"I should take a defensive elixir right before I go back in. A really strong one. I can't bring it in with me, but maybe the effects will still work."

"I'll see what I can do."

"I know what I'm doing this time," he says again.

#

Link gets a few hours of sleep, then goes back into the trial.  He's gone for nearly two full days, during which time Zelda finishes her paraglider, makes herself a simple dress out of the green fabric she bought a month ago, and plants a small orchard of peas.  The koroks like watering them.  They teach her the knots they used to make the blanket.  It reminds her of how the wires inside the guardians are bound together.

She tries not to think about Link running around naked in a shrine.  He’s probably cold.  Maybe she can make him a blanket!

It’s almost midnight on the third day of his trials when he reappears.  She catches him before he falls to the ground. His body hasn't changed, but there's an exhaustion under his eyes, in the hollow of his cheeks. He looks like he ought to be covered in bruises and grime, like his tunic should be wrinkled and dirtied, his hair a mess of sweat and dirt. But it doesn't. He looks as put together as he looked yesterday morning.

She wedges her shoulder under his armpit, and holds him up with one hand on his chest and one on his back. For a second she thinks he might be dead, or passed out. Her heart cramps more than it pounds, a constant, panicked flutter.

Then he sucks in a breath and cringes, and her whole body sags in relief so much she almost drops him.

"Link?"

He grins down at her. It's tired and loopy. "Guess what?"

"You did it?"

He grins at her. It's the one that spreads slowly over his face and makes her legs weak. He squeezes her in what is unquestionably a hug rather than a need to keep his feet. "I did it," he says, and presses a kiss to her temple.  

She promised Paya that she would speak to him about the kissing.  She'd forgotten how frustratingly tingly and confused it makes her.  She ought to be irritated with him, but he’s back and he’s tired, and she’ll speak to him tomorrow and settle everything.

He re-sheathes his sword and heads toward the Deku Tree with a contented sigh, Zelda still tucked under his arm.

"First there was wind everywhere, and then I had to fight in the dark, and then there were a bunch of guardians. Then it was thundering, and then it was hot, and then it was cold and I didn't have any pants for that. Then I shot a lynel. And then—then it just got ridiculous."

She presents him with food she cooked. It's extra hearty, and the koroks assured her that it was "scrummy." She's not sure she trusts their judgement, but Link eats it with a soft smile, and says nothing about how bad it is, but then maybe he's just being nice.

As soon as he's done, he falls back onto the bed she ought to have been using these past few days. He moans as his back pops.  Then he snags her wrist and pulls her down on top of him and closes his eyes.

It’s unfair. Unfair how her heart squeezes at the smallest sweetness.  Unfair how he’s asleep within minutes and she lies awake, wondering how on earth she should handle this.

#

"Before we go," she says as he's packing his things the next morning, "could we take a walk? There's something I wish to discuss with you."

He gives her a look that says her words came out far more ominous than she intended, and she gives him a beaming smile to soothe his worries. It doesn't seem to work, because he still looks distrustful, but he sets down his shield and follows her out of the tree.

She smiles up at the sun and clasps her hands behind her back to show that she's enjoying herself. There's no problem here. Just a friendly walk and talk between friends who are friendly.

Link is watching her more than where he's going, looking wary as if he expects her to spin around and stab him at any second.

There's no putting him at ease, so she charges right in. "I've been thinking."

He waits.

"You should be more careful about the ways in which you show affection."

His eyebrows pinch together in confusion. They stop walking between a pair of tree roots taller than she is.

"I'm not at all offended, but others might be. Physical contact of the sort you've been preforming comes with specific connotations. With certain assumptions. People may assume that you're trying to establish a romantic relationship. Or a sexual one. So if you're unprepared for that, I think it best you not kiss people who don't understand the situation."

His face has shuttered into his unreadable, blank look.

He must not understand her. She will have to explain further. "It's really nothing to be embarrassed about. Or ashamed of. We all need physical contact, especially after long bouts of solitude. And you're unused to traveling with a companion. I understand that it's a friendly gesture, but I know you quite well at this point, and other people may not understand that it's no more than a display of joy and comradery. Other people may not understand that, so I think it best that you not kiss other people."

"Not kiss...What other people?"

She shrugs with her hands. It's a little frustrating that he's not understanding. "I don't know. Yunobo, or the people of Tarrey Town, or...Paya, or the women who work at the stables."

His lips twitch towards what could be considered a smile, his posture loosening ever so slightly. "Is this about how I kissed Paya on the cheek?"

"Not entirely. Paya understood, but we both agree that you should be more cautious. People might misunderstand, and that might make things awkward. That might jeopardize your relationships or our mission as a whole." She nods emphatically until she has a thought. "Unless, of course, youyou wanted to pursue a romantic relationship." She doesn't care for that idea. In addition to her jealousy, Link agrees to practically anything anyone suggests that doesn't involve Zelda's safety. People will surely take advantage of him. "But if that were the case, I think you should discuss it with me first, so I can properly vet them and make sure they have your best interests at heart."  It would be difficult, but she would do that for him if he really wanted it.

His smirk has vanished, his posture tightening again. He crosses his arms over his chest.

She's annoyed him. He's right, of course. He can make his own decisions. "Not that you need my approval! I just want you to know that I'm here to offer emotional support and help you navigate these awkward social situations."

"So what you're saying is that you don't want me to kiss anyone but you?"

She flushes and looks away. "Well, when you say it like that, you make it sound like...I would be jealous."

"Would you?"

"That's—That's not what this is about."

"This is about how apparently you tolerate it when I show you affection, because you think I'm socially inept and don't know what I'm doing."

"You're not socially inept. Obviously, you're very personable and people greatly enjoy your company."

"So you're assuming I'm just handsy."

"Handsy is so crass. I'd call you physically affectionate."

"And I should tone it down."

"Exactly!"

"You don't want me to kiss you again."

"I—Oh. Well you could if...if you felt...motivated to do so. I assure you, it doesn't bother me."

He huffs and refuses to look at her. "If you don't want me to try to kiss you again, I won't."

"I..." This conversation is getting away from her.  Clearly, she doesn't not want that. But if she says that she does, then that makes her just as bad as those women she's warning him against. "What do you want?" she asks.

"What do I want?" He stares at her like that's an unreasonable question. "Zelda..." When she gives him her interested, patient look, showing she's listening—she's trying!  She really is!—he scrapes a hand through his hair in exasperation. "I want to listen to you go on a rant about technology I don't understand, and I want to help you get gears and pulleys for your inventions, and I want you to use me for your experiments, and I want to help you bring Vah Rudania down the mountain and across the fields to move things around that don't need to be moved around. I want you to boss me around until I'm too old to argue with you. I want to cook for you, and I want to keep you warm every night in the house we live in together. I want to wake up every morning and watch the way your eyelashes flutter when you sleep."

He throws his hands in the air. "I want all that, and if that's all you'll give me then I'll take it and I'll never say another word. But since I haven't been clear, let me spell it out: I want you. I want to know what—what your hips feel like in my hands! I want to know what it tastes like when you moan into my mouth. I want to know what makes your breath catch, and I want you to press me up against a wall and have your way with me, and—yes, Zelda—I want to kiss you. And I get it, okay? I know it's hard for you, and I'm trying to give you space, because I know you loved—you loved me from Before, but I'm...I'm not him anymore, and I'll never be him, and I don't want to be him, because I like the way I am now, and the only thing that sucks about being me is that you love him. And I get that that must be awful for you, but I just hoped..."

"Wait." She holds up her hand to stop him and the endless waves of confusion. None of this makes sense. What is he even saying? Where does she even start? "You think I was in love with you Before?"

He freezes. His eyes widen as the color drains from his face. "You..." He blinks, replaying through the few memories he has. In a small voice he says, "Your powers woke, because...you loved me?"

Her face heats. "Well. I mean. I certainly cared for you. A great deal. And your death was very upsetting..." She doesn't know where she's going with this.

He speaks slowly, as if questioning every word. "But, Mipha said..."

"What did Mipha say?"

He swallows. "She said her magic worked better when she thought of someone she loved."

"When did she say that?" That would have been helpful!

"I...guess she didn't really?"

She stares at him.

He stares back. She's never seen him look so boggled.

"Hokay!" He snaps his fingers and pops a fist into his palm to make a rhythmic pop pop thwack, and then he lets both hands swing back to his sides. "So! I was wrong about that. No more kissing. Got it. Good talk. I'm just going to go..." He points in a random direction and starts to walk away with a purpose.

"Wait. No. Link."

"Look, I'll just be gone a...a bit. Just let me lick my wounds and feel like an idiot, and when I come back, we can pretend this whole horrible conversation—"

"Let me finish."

"I'd really rather—"

"Ugh!"

She stomps up to him, grabs his hands, and presses them tight against her hips. He sucks in a breath, his fingers jerking as if touching her burns him. She holds him in place and glares at him until he stills. A moment later, he closes his eyes, presses his forehead to hers, and lets out a shaking breath.

She revels in every point of contact as his palms sink into her flesh, as his fingers spread and then squeeze. He said he wants her. He wants to touch her. And this must be what it feels like to be electrocuted, because her whole body's trembling with want. She drags her hands up his arms to his shoulders and digs her nails into the fabric of his shirt.

She has to swallow before she speaks, and her voice still trembles as she says, "You'll have to wake up much earlier if you're going to watch me sleep."

"Zelda," he breathes. He sounds pained. "Please don't if you don't mean it."

"I mean it."

"You just said—"

"It doesn't matter if I loved you Before. I'm sorry I got caught up on that. It's how I process. It doesn't matter, because I love you now."

"I've been kissing you for weeks to see if you're interested, and you're clearly not. You just told me not to kiss you."

She pulls away enough to throw her hands in the air. "Because you give me these little, teasing cheek pecks! They take me by surprise! And clearly you don't mean anything by them or you would have—you—I don't know! It's torture! I'd rather you not kiss me at all, if you're not going to do it properly. At least then I won't be embarrassing myself getting so wound up all the time!"

He takes a moment before he says, "Properly."

"Yes!"

Another moment. When he speaks again, she can hear the smile in his voice. "Those cheek pecks get you wound up?"

She glares at him.

His eyes are burning, and she's on fire. "You really like me," he says. "Now? Not just the me from before?" His voice is low and rough, and it makes her shiver.

"Well, right now you're being very annoy—"

He kisses her. Hungry and desperate and violent as they clutch at one another, his hand in her hair, and her chest pressed to his, and his breath hot against her cheek. She clutches at the collar of his shirt, pulling him down, closer. Her arm wraps around his shoulders as if they're about to warp away, and his thumb traces soft and frantic arcs along her cheek. And he's ducking down and pulling her up onto her toes, and she's pulling him tighter, wrapping her arms more firmly, and he's shifting his stance, and they're moving, writhing, pressing back and forth in a roll of power passing back and forth between them, trying to pull more and more and more from each other.

She breaks the kiss in a gasp, throwing her face to the sky, and he's instantly sucking wet, opened mouth kisses to her neck.  Her heart pounds like the ocean in her ears, and her skin sings as she tries to get closer.  But there’s another song, one that he catches before she does.  His lips slow and his ears perk and his hands slow, and she tries to calm her breathing to hear what danger he’s noted.

It’s cheering.  And whistling.

Hundreds of koroks are sitting on the great roots around them, hovering in the air, twirling through the grass.  One of them starts shouting, "Oo lala!" and the rest pick it up like a verse sung in a round.

Link tightens his hold on her before she can jerk away in embarrassment.  His breath is still heavy as he gasps into her ear, "How much of a sin is it to kill a forest spirit?"

The puff of his words against her ear makes her shudder, and she groans and reclaims his mouth.  If she were to shove him up against the tree root, she would check off every want on his list.  Koroks be damned.  They'll get bored in a minute anyway.

Link laughs silently against her mouth and pulls back enough to escape.  "You want to get out of here?"

"Desperately."

He hikes an eyebrow and says, "Oo lala!"

She glares at him.  He kisses her again.

Chapter Text

They warp to the Tabantha Bridge Stable, with the plan to make their way to the Rito stable on horseback, clearing the monsters as they go, just as they did with the Zora's Domain and Goron city. They'll most likely arrive too late to visit the Rito Chief, so they'll spend the night at the stable and head into town in the morning. Zelda secretly hopes that their progress will be swift, and they'll be able to sleep in Rito Village tonight, but she knows it's a long shot and not worth mentioning or hurrying.

While Link gets the horses ready, Zelda shades her eyes and looks out at the canyon, like a great gash that stretches as far as the eye can see. It has probably changed in the last hundred years, but not in ways she can perceive. The Great Tabantha Bridge, however, is shockingly alien. It's a disaster. The wood has faded and rotted away to create holes in the floorboard. The guardrails—once crafted so precisely that you couldn't find the nails or see the edges between slats—are now bound haphazardly together where they exist at all. The bridge was once so solid that they Hylian cavalry could march two abreast without slowing or breaking ranks, and the bridge wouldn't even creak. Now she's not sure it will hold her weight, even if she eases her way across, one wary step at a time.

She's standing slack jawed, gaping at the bridge, when Link appears.

"What happened?!" she demands.

"What do you mean?"

She gestures at the bridge with her whole arm. "The bridge! It was a marvel of engineering, and now...the are holes!"

"Yeah. Watch your step."

She rips her attention from the bridge to stare at him. "You're not suggesting that we cross here."

He looks confused. "I thought that was the plan?"

"Is it even safe?"

He considers her a moment, then braces his hands on her shoulders and bends down to look in her eyes. "There wouldn't be a stable here, or all the travelers if the bridge wasn't usable. It might not look pretty, but it's held up through the Calamity, so it's not like it'll fall apart the second we step on it."

She doesn't care for this at all. Just because it hasn't collapsed yet, doesn't mean it won't. Has anyone tried to make repairs over the last hundred years? Yes. She can see places where someone has bound the bridge together with rope. Why didn't anyone warn her about this? Why isn't this a higher priority?

"We should adjust our schedule and fix this bridge before continuing on to Rito Village."

Link guides her around to the side of her horse—the white stallion again, but this time without the royal gear. He cups his hands, offering her a step up, then hefts her into the saddle as she continues to talk.

"I know we've been putting off getting funds for larger infrastructure projects, but perhaps this would be a good time to return to the castle and raid the treasury You could clear a path through the castle instead of clearing a path through Tabantha." And she could hold down her panic attack at setting foot back inside her prison.

Or maybe she can't.

Link's only response is to plant a kiss on her knee. It's the only place he can reach. It's so sweet that her chest tightens and her stomach twists, but then he walks away and pulls himself onto the back of a blue spotted horse. When he's ready, he glances over at her, and he must catch her frown before she tucks it away and busies herself getting accustomed to the reigns, because his face bunches in confusion, then smooths in understanding. "I didn't do that properly, did I?"

"You did not," she says.

He grins and guides his horse a few shuffling steps closer to her and leans too far out of his saddle. "Sorry. What about this? And this? And this? And this?" He sprinkles the side of her face with tiny, gnat-like kisses until she squirms away with a squeak and presses a hand over his grinning face to shove him back. As soon as she drops her hand, he leans close again. "No?" His voice lowers, softens, his eyelids growing heavier or just lowering to her lips. "What about this?"

He kisses her, tender and warm, and he lingers until she sags into it, until she forgives his ridiculousness. He pulls back enough to speak, but stays close enough that he brushes her lip, feather soft, with his own. It sends a shock down her spine.

"Better?" he asks.

"Better."

There's a flustered, light-headedness working its way from her face to her shoulders and lungs. She refuses to turn and see how many people at the stable are watching them. She feels a bit like her horse is judging her.

Link's eyes glow with pride and mischief as he pulls himself upright and sets his horse off across the bridge. Zelda follows, not fully comprehending that she's done so until her horse is fully on the bridge, which creaks and sways but does not collapse under their weight.

"This is a disgrace!" she says as they pass a rotting hole large enough for her whole horse. She pulls out the slate to take pictures. "It's hazardous. Someone could fall."

"Yeah, and then it takes all day to climb back up."

Zelda stares at the back of his head, because she's absolutely positive this means Link has fallen off this bridge.

"The Gorons could certainly help make this structurally sound once more, although they don't work with wood, so what they would build would be less repairs and more tearing this down and constructing a new bridge. I don't know. This must be fixed immediately. But it's also a cultural landmark. And a feat of engineering! Look how well it's held up over a century even without decent repairs! I can't believe we've lost the knowledge and skill sets to repair this in the Calamity. On top of the loss of life, the deterioration of our technology and the loss of cultural sites are tragedies. And to lose this too...I don't think we can in good conscience replace it, unless we made an exact replica...I wonder if that would be possible." Her heart is beating a bit too fast for her liking. She's dizzy, but then maybe that's the vertigo from looking down through the holes into the sickening drop below. "Do you think Bolson Construction could help? Their taste levels are questionable, but their constructions are at least stable."

Link looks over his shoulder, blinks at her once and says, "You know, I'm positive you were in love with me."

She startles. "What?"

"Before. You were in love with me. Hearts in your eyes. Head over heels."

She scoffs. "You're clearly mis-remembering. And I thought you found it upsetting that I supposedly loved you."

"It's still upsetting. But seeing how you're so deeply in denial about it, kind of means I'm winning."

"You're winning?"

"You can't admit you love him, but you can admit you love me, so that means you love me more than him."

"Him?"

"Me."

She shakes her head in slow confusion, but he has turned back around and can't see her. He probably knows what she's doing anyway. "It's not like you're two different people," she says.

He doesn't answer.

"It's like...have you ever had a friend who you didn't see for a long time, and when you met them again they'd changed, but they're still the same? It's not as if they became unrecognizable. It's as if they grew up, as if they've had experiences without you. But you still find yourself sinking into old rhythms and old comforts. Have you ever experienced that?"

"Not that I remember."

"Well, it's like that. You're recognizable, but you've been through a great deal, and you've grown up, and you've changed. There's nothing sinister in it."

They come to the end of the bridge and fall into step side by side. Link points up at a plateau above them. "You yelled at me there."

She yelled at him a lot of places, so she believes him even if she can't recall the particular incident. She tries to hide her embarrassment of her behavior by saying, "Clearly it was because I was in love with you."

"Hmm. Maybe, but I don't think so. I'm pretty sure it was after that."

He has no idea what he's talking about. He leads them to the tower, then dismounts, hands his horse's reins to her, and runs ahead to clear the camps of moblins. Zelda follows behind at a distance. It's almost like she and the horses are having a leisurely stroll, it just that there's metal clashing and a lot of running footsteps and grunting ahead of them.

She meets up with him at the base of the tower, where he has a streak of dirt down his side from a dodge that turned into a roll. He's wrapping ribbons and threading feathers into his hair, and when she dismounts, he abandons his work to dig through his pouches and hand her a circlet with a ruby the size of her eye. "It might be cold up there," he says. The unfinished ribbon on the right side of his face, starts to unspiral. She tucks the circlet into a pocket, and before he can protest that she needs to wear it, she takes over rebraiding his hair. He did a fine job, it's just that she can do it faster. (And maybe she wants to touch him. A little.) He holds very still, barely breathing, head lowered for her, and she tries to ignore the way his eyes never leave her face.

When she's done, she hurries through unknotting her blue kerchief and shaking out her hair and settling the circlet and putting the kerchief back on. Again, she ignores the way Link watches every move of her fingers, the way he still doesn't seem to be breathing.

He steps close to warp, pulling her flush against him, her chest to his, his arm warm and possessive around the small of her back, and they've done this so many times, and yet—

She has trouble pulling her eyes from his enough to look down at the slate and warp them to the top of the tower.

The moment they reform in the wind and the chill, as if he started the movement before they warped, his lips seal against hers. She hums into it, and wraps him close, one hand dragging into his hair, one hand dragging down his spine. He tucks the slate into place at her waist, then tugs her belt to pull her hips closer. Closer. They can't seem to get close enough.

She blames legs. They don't press together in a satisfying way.

Link solves this problem by half-toppling to the floor, his back against the guidance stone and Zelda in his lap, where she can squeeze his thighs with her own. She likes that tremendously.

She loses herself in the pliant rhythm of his mouth, and the warm trails of his hands over her skin. She loses herself in mapping the back of his neck, the hills of his arms and shoulder, the dip of his sides with her palms. She maps: here he shudders, here he sighs.

She shivers, and he pulls away, and her lips are swollen and tender, and she wants to trace her fingertips over his to see if he feels the same. It takes him a few tries to force words from his throat. "We're going to be so late."

She looks up to find the sun, and—oh goodness! She springs to her feet, or at least she tries to but she gets a tangled and one of her legs has fallen asleep, so she stumbles her way to standing, and tries to catch her breath and smooth back her hair and remember what she was doing. The slate. Right. Yes.

She sets it to search for hinoxes, then forces herself to calm while the guidance stone runs. Link makes his way to his feet with much more grace, but he also took his time. He stands behind her, hooks his chin over her shoulder, and slips an arm around her waist. She swallows and refuses to look at him. She searches for taluses. Link smacks a terrible, pecking kiss under her ear, which makes her both excited and grumpy, so she shoulders him away. He laughs and backs off so she can use her brain again.

They mark the major monsters, and then paraglide down. They circle the tower round and round in spirals that grow tighter when Link grins at her and suddenly it becomes a race. Zelda laughs, her legs swinging outward as he makes a sharp turn. Zelda makes it to the ground first, but Link lands directly on his horse's back, which startles it terribly. "Whoa! Whoa! It's just me."

 

Link kills a talus and some moblin camps and some lizalfos, and they arrive at Rito Stable after nightfall. Much later than they had intended. Zelda's over-enthusiast travel plans are blown to pieces. Link says nothing and doesn't even give her a pointed look, but she knows what he's thinking.

Accordion music wafts over the stable, and as she dismounts she catches sight of Kass, the wandering bard.

Link greets him with, "You're so close to home!" and the music falters to a stop as Kass turns to them.

"Oh. I didn't see you there."

"You should pay more attention to your surroundings while you play. If I was a monster, I would have bit you."

"True. True. I get lost in he music." Kass eyes Zelda over Link's shoulder, then lowers his voice to something private. "There's something I've been meaning to speak to you about. I have a song that I need you to hear."

Link's posture shifts with Kass' change of tone. He's more attentive. More serious. Zelda wonders if she should leave. Maybe she can take care of the horses while they talk.

"Thank you," Kass says. "I wanted to talk to you about my teacher. He was of the Sheikah tribe, and he was the court poet to the Hyrulian Royal family. At the time, there was a beautiful princess, who was apparently close in age to my teacher. Even though she did not return his affections, my teacher fell in love with her."

"Oh really?" Link asks. Again, he's not looking at her, but she can feel his attention like a spotlight, and she can tell that he's going to use this to tease her later.

He clearly has no idea that this isn't even remotely news to her. The court poet was embarrassingly obvious about his affections, and it annoyed absolutely everyone. He wrote a ballad once about how Zelda was trying her best, which he most likely wrote with the best of intentions to defend her, but it just ended up emphasizing her failures. In song. To everyone. And to top it off, it was catchy, so the whole court was humming it for months. Zelda avoided him at all costs. When he was around, both Link and Urbosa had a tendency to puff out their chests and make themselves look taller and then glare at him until the poet got nervous and excused himself. Urbosa would tch and then say something rude about the young man, but Zelda was never sure if Link was doing it consciously or not. The court poet's crush got so bad that Zelda's father pulled him aside at one point and told him to tone it down or find other employment.

She was hopeful that if she didn't reclaim her role as princess, this kind of attention would stop. It's irksome to learn that she was wrong.

"Yes," Kass says. "But the princess only had eyes for her escort, her knight attendant. My teacher was consumed with jealousy. The knight was neither nobility nor royalty, and—in my teacher's eyes—unworthy of her affections."

Link hums in understanding. Zelda can feel the smugness radiating off him.

It's nonsense. The poet clearly needed an excuse for why Zelda did not return his affections, and decided to blame Link. A romantic rival was more poetic than a princess who would rather not be embarrassed by epic songs about her failures.

But Kass idolizes the man, and she can't say any of this in front of him.

"And then the Calamity struck."

Link becomes more serious. Zelda finds herself doing the same. She steps closer.

"My teacher believed that the hero would reappear to beat back the Calamity. He poured his belief into a song. That song is what I need you to hear."

Link nods. Kass plays. Zelda slips her hand into Link's.

It...still doesn't mean she was in love with him.

Chapter Text

"Is it true?"  "Vah Rudania's alive again?"  "What happened?"  "How?"

The moment they step onto the main island of Rito Village, a swarm of feathers descends upon them.  At least three Rito children are gripping Link's legs, and it's hard to count how many adults have surrounded them.  At first Zelda thought they were glad to see Link, hoping he would fix their various problems, but it seems they only have one thing on their mind. 

"Fyson flew in to tell us."  "I thought you defeated Vah Rudania."  "Is Vah Medoh going to come back to life too?"  "You said we'd be safe."

"Whoa whoa whoa," Link says, holding up his hands, and trying to get the Rito to calm down and stop talking over him.  "Everything's fine."

"How is everything fine?"  "Vah Rudania's back!"  "He said it's stomping all the way down the mountain."  "Is it coming for us?"

"I'll explain everything if you just—"

"Did you make it come back to life?"  "If Vah Medoh turns on again, we're banishing you."  "You lied to us."

Link groans in frustration.  To Zelda he says, "I'm just going to talk to Kaneli," and grabs her wrist before trying to push through the crowd.  Zelda slips out of his grip, throws back her shoulders, and faces the crowd, who seem to notice her for the first time.  Their surprise that Link isn't alone gives her a split second of silence in which to speak.

"About two months ago, I'm sure you saw Vah Medoh shoot an energy beam towards the castle, and then power down completely.  That was Vah Medoh doing her part in sealing away Calamity Ganon, assisting Link—"

"—and Zelda," Link adds.

"—in defeating the evil for good.  We've come here to confirm that the Calamity is finally over, and to see what assistance and resources you require for reconstruction."

"What does that mean for us?" asks a Rito with light purple feathers.

"It means that the guardians have deactivated.  It means that there are no more blood moons, so when we kill monsters, they stay dead.  It means we can reopen travel and trade.  We can rebuild.

"As for Vah Rudania, the Divine Beasts powered down because, with their duty complete, the spirits of their pilots ascended to the spirit world.  We reactivated Vah Rudania with a new Goron pilot.  That's why she's traveling around Death Mountain.  If you will allow us, we can reactivate Vah Medoh, connect her with a pilot, and then she can be a tool for the Rito."

The crowd stares at her for a long moment, during which Zelda doesn't dare to breathe. 

Then they explode.

"What sort of tool?"  "If the Gorons have a Divine Beast, we need one too!"  "It just flies around and shoots things.  That's not a tool.  That's a weapon."  "Why did the Gorons get theirs first?"  "Who's going to pilot it?"  "You mean a new Rito Champion?"

Link snags her wrist again, and this time she lets him pull her up the stairs.

#

The crowd obeys some unspoken rule and does not enter the elder's home while Zelda and Link are speaking with him.  Instead, they hover on the landing outside the door.  They can hear every word, but don't make a sound other than to whisper to one another.  Unlike the Gorons, they are very good at whispering. The wing feathers held up to cover their words do an excellent job.

Link is back in his Champion's tunic today, and Zelda is back in her blue and white outfit.  It's cooler here, and the long sleeves aren't so bad.  They look like a proper delegation again.

Unlike the crowd, Kaneli is calm and slow to speak.  He nods as he listens, then strokes his beard and thinks before responding.

"Of course, we must have our own Divine Beast," he decides.  The crowd outside shifts in agitation or excitement.  "The question is how we will select a Champion."

"You may want to see who would be interested," Zelda suggests.  "People have feared the Divine Bests for so long, we've had trouble finding willing candidates."

"You think no one among the Rito would be interested in carrying on the legacy of the great Champion Revali, in being the next pride of the Rito? You think no one would be interested in honor and glory because they are afraid?"

Zelda bows her head.  "I did not intend to imply cowardice.  For that I apologize.  I mean that, in our experience, people doubt the efficacy of the Divine Beasts."

Kaneli hums.  Then he lifts his voice to address the crowd.  "Who among you will be the next Rito Champion?"

There's a great shifting of air, and Zelda turns to look over her shoulder.

Every single Rito, including the three children, has a wing raised in the air.

#

When the crowd disperses—mostly to gossip about how the next Champion will be selected and who they will be—Zelda and Link decide that their first step is to get Zelda some cold weather clothes.  It's too cold for her to even visit Vah Medoh as she is, and even though he insists they can make it work with the clothes he has, she insists that if they're going to stay here for any length of time, she wants her own clothes.  His sleeves are too long for her, and his pants are too narrow.  Besides, she doesn't want him to run off to Herba and take the pants she needs with him, effectively grounding her from the Divine Beast.  Link seems content that at least she's willing to buy clothes.

She used to have a beautiful snowquill coat, and she asks the shop keeper if making something similar would be possible.  It is.  But it will take a month.  She doesn't that kind of time.  Link puts in an order for it anyway, then buys her a snowquill tunic with red lining.  It's so wonderfully soft that it makes her want to rub her face against it.  When she puts it on, it's warm like a soothing hearth.  She makes a note of how much it costs in the back of her journal, where she's keeping track of how much money she owes Link.

He rolls his eyes at her, just as he does every time she makes such a note.  He knows better than to argue with her, most likely saving his energy for the moment she shoves a wheelbarrow of rupees at him.

"With the coat and the circlet, you should be good to go."

"The circlet is yours."

"You can have it."

"It's yours."

"I've got the snowquill headpiece.  I don't need the circlet." 

She stares at him, because that sounds an awful lot like her borrowing his clothes.

"It's a gift," he says.  "Do you want me to wrap it for you?"

"That's not necessary."

"I haven't upgraded it as much as I should have," he says.  "Because I never use it."  Then to himself, he says, "I could probably take care of that tonight and you can have it tomorrow morning."

There's a pair of Rito clearly waiting for them outside the store, although they're both doing a poor job of pretending they're not.  Zelda takes the opportunity to end her current conversation, and nudges Link to get his attention.

"Hey, Teba," Link says to a fierce looking Rito with a high crest of white feathers.  He greets the green feathered Rito with, "Hey, Amali."  She holds her shoulders back and proud, and she has hoops like earrings that frame her face.  "We saw your husband at the stable.  Did he come home?"

She rolls her eyes, and says tersely, "No.  Can you make an announcement saying there's an age limit for the Champion Trials?  My daughters all want to do the trials, and they're already fighting each other over it."

Link startles.  "Champion Trials?"

"Or whatever you call them.  Whatever test you're coming up with to pick the Rito Champion."

Link doesn't respond.  He seems so taken aback that he can't move, and the only way Zelda knows he's not having a memory is that every few seconds he blinks.

"Well," Zelda says, "it does make sense that Vah Medoh's pilot must be an adult. But, although we can restore power to the Divine Beast and help the new pilot bond with Vah Medoh, the final decisions on how the pilot is chosen should be left to the Rito."

Teba sounds frustrated as he cuts in.  "But surely you have ideas.  If you're the expert, you know what trials Revali went through to prove himself.  And you know what kind of skills are needed to pilot it."

It seems this is why he's been waiting for them.  He wants to know what the trials are.  Zelda didn't know there would be trials until a few seconds ago.

"We will think on it and discuss it with Kaneli over dinner," Zelda says.  She bows her head in respect and dismissal, takes Link's hand, and moves past the two Rito.

"You have an idea," she hisses as they head down the stairs.

"I have an idea.  What time do we have to meet with Kaneli?"

"Sunset."

He narrows his eyes at the sun and calculates.  "I think we can make it, but we have to hurry."

Once they're off the main island, they stop and warp to a a shrine just south of the village on the other side of the lake.  He rushes through clearing a moblin camp.  Then he runs back past the shrine, slowing to squeeze her arm and wipe sweat from his forehead, and then charging off in the other direction to dispatch a hinox more quickly than she thought possible.  Zelda stays out of sight near the shrine, but also takes some photos of the nearby ruins.

When he's done, he reappears, handing her a bandana that's supposed to help her climb faster.  She stares at him, but he's half turned away from her to strip off his tunic and his undershirt, and so now she's staring in appreciation instead of bafflement.  He pulls on a loose-fitting shirt with even shorter sleeves than her red shirt and a baldric covered in carabiners.  He brushes his hands over his front to make sure everything's lying flat, then looks up at her, clearly surprised that she's still standing there, stupidly holding his bandana.

"Yes!  Yes, of course.  Why wouldn't I—Wait.  No.  We're climbing something?  Why are we climbing?  Why am I climbing?"

He reaches for her, holds her head in both hands to hold her still, then reaches back, his knuckles brushing the back of her neck as he unknotts her sky blue kerchief.  "We need to check the obelisk.  It's going to give us the next trials, and then we can adjust those to pick a Rito Champion."

The kerchief comes loose, and he switches with her, and before she can tie up Link's climbing bandana herself, he's fixing it in place.  He knots it behind her head instead of under her hair, but she doesn't make a move to stop him.  She's enjoying the closeness, even if Link does smell like hinox and boy sweat.  She's enjoying the attention, even if it's more attentive to the back of her head than to her.

"Do you think that's appropriate?  Giving them your trials?" she asks.

"I'd do them first.  And we wouldn't include the shrines."  He steps back and turns toward the rise to the south.  "But it's more than appropriate.  I think it's destiny.  I think I'm an idiot for not seeing that this is what we should have done from the beginning."

Zelda frowns, but follows him to the base of the cliff, where he looks up with his hands planted on his hips.  "Want to paraglide up?"

"Um..."

He drops to one knee, squeezes his eyes closed, and a burst of wind shoots up around him.  It whips at her hair, at the cuffs of her sleeves, and Link grins at her, then pops his paraglider open.  He's yanked into the air to hover high over her head.  "Come on," he shouts. "It won't last long."

Zelda fumbles open her glider, then shrieks as it's nearly torn from her hand.  But she holds on, and when she opens her eyes, they're in the air, Link hovering near her, checking on her, before sailing to the cliffside and finding a handhold.  She slams too hard into the cliff face, but manages to get a handhold and haul herself up the last five feet.  When they reach a flat surface, she plants her hands on her knees and catches her breath.

Instead of pointing out how much she does not want to climb a mountain, she rubs her forearm where she hit the cliff and asks, "What do you mean destiny?"

"Remember the Goron Blood Brothers?  The manly ones?  They talked about how Daruk used to train in the lava.  And paragliding out into the ocean with just the sun and faith to guide you, that was something Mipha did.  These are trials the Champions did."

She shakes her head.  "But they didn't.  The castle didn't...arrange elaborate trials for Champion contestants.  No one told Daruk he had to stand in lava to pilot Vah Rudania.  I was involved in the decision making process regarding the Champions.  I would know about something like that."

He frowns.  "You said there was a selection process."

"There was.  But it wasn’t this."

"Maybe these are just...things they did that make everyone see them as Champions?"

She studies him a moment.  "You're convinced of this."

"Very."

"Well."  She straightens, not looking forward to the rest of the climb.  "I suppose there wouldn't be anything wrong with using them as a template."

He sighs and smiles at her. 

"Within reason," she hurries to add.  "I don't know how several Champion candidates could all fight an enormous talus."

"We can find several taluses!  Everybody gets one. Points for speed and style. You ready?"

She nods and readies her paraglider once more.

#

There's a wizrobe atop the mountain, and while Link hurries to take care of it, Zelda approaches the obelisk and the Rito troubadour standing nearby.

"Oh!  I wasn't expecting to see you there...Zelda."

She doesn't acknowledge the odd emphasis he placed on her name.  "I'm surprised to see you here.  I would think you'd be with your family."  She thinks she's seen Kass' children.  She only saw three children at a time, but they kept changing color.  She wants to guess there are...seven?  Perhaps not all of those were Kass and Amali's.  "I think they miss you."

He sighs.  "As I miss them.  But, sadly, my task is not complete.  I must finish my teacher's song."

Link comes up beside her, smelling a bit like ozone.  

 

"I'm working on a song to honor the Champions.  My teacher left it unfinished.  So I'm here, near my home, to see if I can understand the Champion Revali.  Would you like to hear it?"

Link nods, and Kass sings of the three trials towards which the obelisk will point them. 

One, shoot the flame dragon's horn. Two, race down a peak rings adorn. Three, shoot four targets to win. Champion, the trials begin!

She can picture all three of the trials.  Link is, yet again, right. This is how they're going to choose the next Rito Champion.

#

They barely make it on time for dinner.   The sun sets as they explain their plan and receive Kaneli's blessing.  By the time the reach the inn, Zelda's arms and shoulders are aching and her eyes itch with exhaustion.  She collapses into bed and rubs at a knot in her neck.  The bed beside her sags as Link takes a seat beside her.

"Thanks," he says.

"For what?"

"For going along with this plan.  I know it doesn't make sense.  It just...feels right."

He's staring out the windows a the night sky, his eyes troubled.  She reaches up to stroke his cheek.  "Something's bothering you."

He shakes his head.  "Just not looking forward to Windblight Ganon again."

She hums in sympathy and guides him closer.  When he looks down at her, his eyes soften, and he braces a hand over her shoulder to lean down—

a wildberry hits the side of his head.

He blinks in surprise, and looks up at the inn keeper, who is rearranging things on her desk as if she didn't just hurl a fruit at one of her customers.

He raises his eyebrows at the inn keeper, then down at Zelda, who has both hands clamped over her mouth in an attempt to contain her flaming embarrassment.

"I suppose I should go to bed," he says.

She nods, unable to speak.  He gives her a soft smile and leans down to press a soft, lingering kiss to her forehead.  He receives another wildberry to the head, but it bounces off and doesn't bother him.  He murmurs, "Sweet dreams," and it's so warm that her fist clenches in his shirt.  She has to take a deep breath before letting him go.

Zelda hates wildberries now.  And inns.

She wakes in the morning to a parcel beside her face on her pillow.  It's tied with gold ribbon and wrapped in a kerchief of warm Rito fabric with a red patterned edge.  Inside is the ruby circlet.  It glows brighter than it did yesterday.