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I STOP TO SMELL THE BLOOD IN THE TREES AND FOR A MOMENT THE WORLD IS SO BEAUTIFUL IT BRINGS ME TO TEARS

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don't clap too loudly— it's a very old world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I ate the frog.”

Is the first thing he says to her in a hundred years, because he can’t stop staring at her hands, and his head isn’t working properly because he can’t stop staring at her hands, and he doesn’t remember what he had been planning on saying before he walked into the castle and killed two versions of evil incarnate in a room with a domed ceiling and a field with a domed sky, but he’s pretty sure. He’s pretty sure it wasn’t this.

“I’m sorry,” Zelda says. “You what?”

“I, uh.” He takes a step back, and then a step forward. Hyrule castle looms like a corpse behind her, hulking and majestic and dead. It distracts him, though not as much as Zelda herself, pale as winter and glowing behind a halo of sun. “There was a frog you wanted me to eat.” A hundred years ago. “You said it would be for an experiment.” A hundred years ago you told me to eat a frog and that’s all that I remember. That’s what’s kept me going all this time. When things got hard, when the weight of the curse you had given me grew too great, I cooked a frog in a pot over a fire.

She stares at him for a moment, her expression unreadable. “You’re more talkative than I remember.”

He panics. “Should I stop talking?”

“Oh no! No, just— how do I put it—”

This probably isn’t what she had in mind for their reunion. He feels the sudden need to apologize. He should have tried harder to hold onto himself while he was sleeping off the blood on his back and the world retreated into a corner to lick at its wounds, but it was hard. He didn’t know what he was doing. He doesn’t remember, actually. He doesn’t remember going to sleep, and he doesn’t remember what he dreamed of. That’s two question marks in one head, and only one answer to go around. There were two shadows on the wall, though they belonged to the same boy.

Zelda twists her hands together, almost as if in prayer. Her white dress billows heavily in the wind, covered in wounds from another century. “I’m sorry,” she says to his feet. “Please keep talking.” He nods, though she isn’t looking.

After a moment, they make their way across the trampled, dead-looking field to his horse, who’s had half of her mane seared off and looks like she desperately wants a carrot. He hauls himself onto the saddle, then holds out a hand to Zelda, who stares at it like he’s just offered her the rest of his lifespan. Then she takes it, letting him pull her up behind him, and her hand is so warm, and the sky is so blue, and everything is so strange, he almost lets go. Of the girl. Of the reins. Of his grip on reality, this new, unexplored reality, the carcass of the castle slowly growing smaller in the distance. When he walked into the sanctum with a plan to kill Ganon he had been thinking about how the stalhorses on Tabantha Snowfield run faster than the horses near Kakariko, how a bokoblin will choose a freshly roasted chicken over the skin of your teeth, how stables are a metaphor for family. Now all he can think of is angels.

She asks him where they’re going a little while later, and it’s only then that he realizes he doesn’t know. It’s a cool, starless night. No moon, no blood. His horse snickers at a boar by the side of the road, and Zelda tightens her grip on his waist. God, what have they been doing for the last hundred years?

“Home,” he answers. “We’re going home.”


::


The house in Hateno is a small and modest affair. This is probably the only reason Bolson and his construction company were willing to sell it to him at an equally modest price, with modest display stands for his modest weapons, and a modest bed beside which he hung a framed photograph of him and his dead friends. He’s fine with it, though. The only thing that really matters to him is the photograph, though there are now two living people in it instead of one and a half, and if Bolson had not graciously included a bedframe and mattress in his modest homemaker’s package, then Link would have slept on the floor. He says as much to Zelda, who blinks at him sleepily and throws a pillow at his face.

“Please don’t do that,” he says.

“Sleep in your own bed,” she replies.

He peels the pillow off the floor and pats the dust away before replacing it carefully on the bed. “I promised your father I would take care of you.” And Daruk. And Mipha. And Urbosa, who would kill me if she found out I let the princess sleep on the carpet. Like a dog, she would probably say, her voice low, her eyes slanted. How could you treat her like a stray dog? This is the princess we’re talking about. She deserves better.

He opens his mouth to say as much, but Zelda gets there first.

“My father is dead,” she says, her voice unexpectedly raw. She seems surprised at herself despite her best efforts, and clears her throat in an attempt to hide it. He finds himself overwhelmed with the sudden urge to hug her or blast a hole through the roof with his sword, but can’t decide on one, and ends up wringing his hands together behind his back while Zelda sits on the side of the modest bed in the modest house in Hateno, and presses the folds of her dress into a clump. There should be more he can do for her. What is it? If only Urbosa were here to tell him what it means when Zelda takes your hand like a promise, when Zelda pinches the side of your waist, when Zelda announces that her father is dead, has been dead for a hundred years, died a long time ago.

But Urbosa is dead too. The old world is gone, though its survivors have finally emerged from the twilit field. What now? Zelda rubs her eyes. He picks at a cuticle and holds his breath.

Despite her best protests, she agrees to the bed-floor arrangement. Zelda will sleep on the bed, because he didn’t think that far when he walked into the castle and defeated evil incarnate, and she doesn’t seem to care. Meanwhile, he will sleep on the floor. Which floor? The first floor, he decides, but when he tries to go downstairs he almost throws up. His heart’s uneasy, of course, but he had underestimated the side-effects of meeting an angel. Over the past few months, he had gotten used to getting mauled by things to the point where it had become part of his daily routine: get up, have a minor crisis about the fact that everyone you know is dead, have a minor crisis about the beautiful voice in your head, get mauled by a bear. Get mauled by a bokoblin who stole your spear. Get mauled by Mount Lanayru, which has a thing for spitting giant snowballs at him when he’s trying to talk to the Koroks in the region, pleading with them through chattering teeth to stop giving him more tiny golden shits and start letting him talk about his feelings.

Zelda is not daily routine. Zelda was the girl in the dream, then a face in a photograph, and now Zelda is sleeping in the house in Hateno with her hands pressed up to her cheek, breathing softly. He’s overcome with emotion, though if you asked him to tell it to you, he wouldn’t know how.

And as for the matter of her hands, were they always this lovely? Impa didn’t tell him what to do after he saved the girl, though he knows she’ll want to hear about it from him and not the Sheikah warriors she has spread out throughout the kingdom, keeping an eye on their dying gods. Impa wanted him to look forward, which meant knives and teeth and forests full of bodies. She didn’t tell him what he could or couldn’t do in the presence of the sun, and he, having spent his whole life sitting in a dark room, didn’t think to ask. In retrospect, he should have. In retrospect, he should have asked Bolson to build two beds. But the thought didn’t occur to him, just as it didn’t occur to him that his heart might not be the dead thing the world told him it was, and so he never did.


::


“I had a dream.”

He flips the eggs. “About what?”

“About a world where I made it in time.” Zelda peers over his shoulder. “Are they done yet?”

“Almost, if you could please—”

“—Ah, excuse me—”

She dances out of the way of the big cast-iron pan, which he holds in one hand while he reaches for the plates with the other. In her haste to create space she walks into the counter and winces, bending over to touch the side of her foot.

“Oh. I stubbed my toe.” She sighs.

After breakfast he goes to look for Uma. He finds her sitting under the same old tree beside the bridge, cradling a cup of tea and humming along with the cicadas. Uma is the only person in Hateno who remembers the Calamity as a name with a face, and not a dream. She also had a daughter once, whom she lost in the years after the Calamity, when the rice fields had not yet begun to flourish, and the winters were long and cruel.

He asks her quietly about the weather, which she tells him is her favorite kind. Spring’s never felt quite so lovely, she informs him, as she pries open an old dresser and leans forward to peer inside. He holds her cup of tea with both hands, the mellow sweetness of chrysanthemum tickling his nose and making him sneeze.

After a moment, she returns with a set of clothes in the signature Hateno blend of oranges, blues, and warm, earthy browns. She places them carefully on his head and then retrieves her tea before he has the chance to drop the cup.

“I hope your friend is taking well to Hateno,” she says warmly. I hope I have a friend, he thinks with his heart stuck halfway up his throat. He’s barely keeping himself together, in pretty much every sense of the word, but he thanks her all the same, and means it.


::


He did, in fact, eat a frog. Several times. Once on the Great Plateau, after the spirit of the old king had left him to fend for himself with a pickaxe and half an apple, and again while he was in the Hebra mountain range, because it was too cold out to hunt and one had hopped into his pack while he wasn’t looking and died there. Then there was another time, at one of the stables up north, where he met a traveling salesman who offered him a stamina-boosting trick for ten rupees. The first time he obediently closed his eyes, and could only describe the texture in his mouth as ‘soft, with hints of viscosity’. He returned several weeks later, ran away on his horse immediately after making payment, and was mildly alarmed to discover that he had not in fact been presented with a breadstick, but rather a leg. A very long leg. With joints. And skin. And a big, webbed foot.

Once, while sitting on a raft headed out to sea, he considered hurling himself into the water. It had been raining for several days by this point, which itself wasn’t a problem as he had come to quite like the sound of rain bashing on the outside of his tent with bloody fists, but this rain was relentless. Like a ghost which tries to kill you and fails, and, in a fit of bitter resentment, resolves to throw rocks at your window each night for the rest of your life, the water got into his boots and it got into his eyes and then it got into his pack, which spoiled all of his carefully-preserved meat and caused the stopper in his bottle of milk to rot. Under the present circumstances, all the game had either gone off to find shelter or been washed away by the floodwaters. There was nothing for him to hunt, and nothing for him to eat. His stomach growled faithlessly.

While stumbling along some beach or another, he bumped into Kass, who told him about some treasure further out at sea. He looked blandly in the direction that the parrot pointed out for him, and found his eyes drawn to the island that lay beyond it.

“I’m going to go there,” he said.

“I hope you find good treasure,” said Kass.

“Yeah,” he said.

So he hauled himself onto a raft (he was too shy to ask the people in Lurelin for help, and too proud to talk about his circumstances) at the crack of dawn and began to blast a Korok leaf at the sail. And then he got tired. He sat down.

He leaned over the edge of the raft. His reflection in the water was gray, because the sky was gray, and the sky was gray because it was raining. He had begun to shiver again, but he had spent most of the week shivering anyway and so didn’t pay it any attention. His hair was matted to his forehead, and there were bags under his eyes. One of his piercings was smarting; it must have gotten infected.

“What if I just stopped trying,” he suggested to the sea, which ignored him.

What was the point of it all, anyway? All of his friends were dead and the girl in the photograph was stuck in a castle in the sky. He didn’t remember a single thing about the first seventeen years of his life. Only the things that happened in the last three months, only the things that were deemed important, and even those he remembered in fragments.

Like what if he had a sister. What if his father had been kind to him, or doting, or an alcoholic. What if he had been in love with someone, and what if he had had a heart, and what if he had cared. It was hard to discern the world’s sympathies for him when he spent most of his time alone. Sometimes, at night, he drew a face on the rock-wall and gave it a name.

“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m tired, and I’m hungry, and I feel more dead than alive, even though I’m the only one still breathing.”

But the sea continued to ignore him. The wind continued to ignore him. The rain continued to ignore him, pelting at his wet shoulders with wet hands and wet teeth, clawing at the skin on the back of his neck, telling him to go to sleep and stay there. Eventually the raft drifted of its own accord to the shore of the island he had spied in the distance, and then some thousand-year-old mummy stripped him of all his belongings anyway, so it no longer mattered that he had nothing in his pack or his head or his heart, as long as he was able to replace it with something new.


::


A few weeks later she’s standing in the kitchen and staring at the vegetables in the pot, humming to herself, while Link rearranges the condiments on the table. She’s swaying from side to side, holding up the ladle like a sword. She seems happy.

He leans back in his chair until he can just about see the top of her head. 

“What song is that?” he asks, casual as a house on fire.

A pause. Something clatters to the floor.

Picture two figures in a forest full of thorns and teeth. Picture the knight carving a path through the trees, the princess stumbling behind him, his clammy hand tight around her wrist, their feet bruised and dirty. It’s raining, of course, because it’s always raining in the dream. They’re being chased by mechanical monsters with knives for eyes. And they’re tired, both of them, so tired they could hurl themselves into a pond and drown there, but instead she walks into a tree. The bark scrapes the length of her forearm like a kiss, tearing at her skin and pouring blood down the back of her hand. Something clatters to the floor. Something breaks.

Picture the old dream, the one he knows like a memory, the reason he’s less afraid of bears than people.

He whirls the chair around to the sight of Zelda’s hand in the fire, her posture rigid, her face hidden by a curtain of hair.

“I’m sorry,” she says, crestfallen. “It’s just—”

He’s on his feet and halfway across the room before she can finish her sentence, pulling her away from the counter, reaching for the faucet with his other hand.

“—It’s the first time you’ve asked me a question since you found me,” she says quietly. The skin on the back of her hand is bright red. If Urbosa were here, she would tie his arms and legs to four horses and then ask them to run in four different directions, and he would die in such a memorable way, it would eclipse even the deaths of all his old dead friends, who were trapped in machines with voices for a hundred years while their bodies turned into dust. If Urbosa were here then he likely wouldn’t be, would be in the next room, his ear pressed to the door, his heart pressed to the roof of his mouth. It’s a good thing, then, that she isn’t.


::


It’s spring, so the water from the faucet is cold enough to cut yourself on. The water from the faucet is cold, so it should sting on skin as red as this, but Zelda doesn’t say anything as he holds her hand under the stream of water, his thumbs resting on the curve of her wrist, his eyes searching her blank expression for. A sign? A reason? Why the ladle on the floor; why the hand in the fire?

“It’s fine,” she finally says, brushing her hair behind her ear with her unhurt hand.

“No,” he says before he can stop himself, bristling a little, feeling slightly outrageous. “It’s not.”

Zelda looks somber for a moment. Then she hiccups a laugh. “We’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we?”

Yeah, I remember when you [the path that leads to Hateno is wet and winding] and I [your hand on the back of my head was cold and dying], he wants to say. But he would be lying if he did, because he doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember anything except the sixteen stories she left him, sixteen shards of a seventeen-year-old life. If she’s referring to something funny, then he’s missed an opportunity to make her laugh. If she’s referring to something important, then it’s no wonder he can’t seem to bridge the gap between the frog and the girl, no wonder his head hurts like someone stabbed it with a pitchfork and forgot to take it out, no wonder Hyrule still feels so far away, even as he milks the chickens and he chases the cows and he collects the eggs from the bears. He turns this thought over in his head as he goes for the medicine cabinet, which he had not asked for and Bolson had installed as a courtesy. Despite his best efforts, the blood on his back never quite washed away.

She’s gone by the time he closes the cabinet, and he begins to feel that telltale sickness in his stomach, the sudden urge to throw up. He walks briskly out of the house in Hateno, salve and bandages tied to his wrist, his heartbeat ringing in his ears. The moon is a crescent tonight. Hateno rises and falls with each breath, pressing flowers into the palm of his hand. He folds each one unevenly in half.

Zelda’s halfway up the ladder when he finds her. He waits for her to get onto the roof before he starts heading up, and is surprised all the same when he reaches the top of the ladder, and finds her face inches away from his.

“I didn’t know you had a ladder,” she says pleasantly. “Why did you follow me up here?”

She smells like Goron spice and sun. He is three seconds away from plummeting to his death. This is nothing he is used to, and a part of him thinks that if he knows what’s good for him then he will never get used to any of it. Not the silent, dead castle, not the long black shadow of the future, not the girl.

She leans back after a moment. He breathes out. Half an inch of space will not keep either of them safe.

Zelda watches him retie his ponytail expectantly.

“So?”

The ladder is from the Great Plateau. He found it at the back of the Temple of Time days after the old king asked him to climb to the top of the ruined structure and revealed to him that he was, yeah, the old king, and that all of his friends were dead, and that he would have to get the girl out of the castle before she could even think to save him, and by association, the rest of the world. At that point he was still naive enough to think defeating Ganon would take a stick and an apple and a really fast horse. He had also not yet learned of the myriad ways in which he had failed everyone he had ever cared for, and so spent his days wandering from place to place, pointing at bugs in the leaves and laughing. The ladder pissed him off. Who put it there? Why didn’t the old king tell him about its existence? What was the point of leaving a ladder behind the statue of Hylia when you could’ve put it in front, so stupid soulless people like him could use it to reach the end of the story faster? He returned to it much later, after he had purchased the house in Hateno, and yanked the whole thing down. Hacking it into four sections with a pickaxe he stole from a bokoblin (it had probably belonged to him first anyway), he piled all of them on his horse and then walked through Hyrule field, past Fort Hateno, all the way back to Bolson, who stared at him like he’d just asked him to kill a man. What do you mean you want me to fix this ladder, he asked. I mean I want you to fix this ladder, he replied. So Bolson did.

Zelda laughs so hard she almost falls off the roof. She gets right up to the edge of it, leaning over the side with her face in her hands while he scrambles to keep her from toppling over. She only let him wrap up her arm because he was talking, because according to Zelda he never did much talking, but maybe he’s said too much. He’s embarrassed. Defeated, he lies down.

There’s a star, just above the crown of trees at the other end of the village. He reaches out idly, trying to pinch it between his thumb and forefinger, but his fingers brush against skin instead of sky.

Zelda, half-goddess, half-miracle, turns her face into the palm of his hand for the briefest of moments, like a butterfly alighting on the surface of a pond. The cicadas sing ballads. His breath stops in his lungs and dies there.

“I like the ladder.”

“Oh.”

“Please keep it.”

“Oh.”

“You know,” she says, still leaning over him, close enough that if he gave her hand a tug, she might fall right out of heaven. Her head is tilted, her hair falling into her eyes, splaying across the tiles on the roof like a satiny strip of sun.

“What?” he asks hoarsely.

She smiles at him like a secret.

“I—”


::


He used to be in love with her. As each piece of his sixteen-part past was returned to him and the last day of his life emerged slowly into the light, it dawned on him like a horse falling out of the sky that he had been very lucky to be her knight, that he would have willingly given his life for her, and that he did. Only his final, heroic act of sacrifice failed to accomplish anything meaningful in spite of his best efforts. He had died with her hand cradling the back of his head, his tunic wet with blood and tears, believing that the ending could be salvaged still. Maybe this is what it takes to reach happiness, he thought dizzily. Maybe you have to be pushed to the end of the line, before you can start walking back towards the center.

But when he opened his eyes, it was to a world which had not moved an inch from the precipice. His back was covered in scars, water streaming down his skin like blood, and his head was so light, he worried for a moment that if he stood up too fast it would float right off of his shoulders. The only thing that remained was old skin, the thin aftertaste of fear, and a bone-deep anxiety that wouldn’t come off no matter how many times he threw himself into the river. The only thing that remained was a voice in his head, calling his name through the dream, reminding him that there was still something that could be salvaged from the fire.

He used to be in love with her, though it took him a while to admit it, because being in love with her meant admitting that he had failed not only on a prophetic level, but on a personal level that cut to the wound at the center of his chest. It was a matter of survival in those first few months. Him, or a kingdom. His selfish and worthless pride, or the world.

Naturally, he chose the world.


::


“Let’s say you’ve been asleep for a hundred years and when you wake up you’ve lost all your memories, but you chase after fairies and you dig up shrines and you defeat the big bad monster like you’ve been told to, because a girl told you to, and because you were in love with her. And after defeating the big bad monster she comes back, and you take her back to your house, and you fry eggs for her. But she’s not the person she was a hundred years ago, because she spent a hundred years in a dream. And you’re not the person you were a hundred years ago, because you forgot everything you could possibly forget, and then you got mauled by a bear. And yet when you look at her, every time you look at her, your chest hurts so bad you think you might be dying.”

He looks up from his breadstick. “Am I dying?”

“No,” Beedle says very seriously. “I think you’re stupid.” Beedle retrieves a string of petrified armored beetles from one of the pockets on his back, and holds it abruptly in his face.

“You can fall in love with someone twice, you know.”

Link wrinkles his nose. “How do you know?”

Beedle sticks the lower half of a beetle in his mouth. “I’m five hundred years old.” He bites down. “I know things.” Chews thoughtfully. “I’ve eaten things, too. Things you’ve never even dreamed of.

“Point is, Link, you’re being stupid. Get it together. The world’s not ending anymore.”

“Oh,” says Link. He watches Beedle eat the rest of the beetles. There are five in total. He doesn’t have to chew very hard, which is weird.

He turns Beedle’s words over in his head. Beedle has a point. The world isn’t ending anymore. The world isn’t hanging on by a thread, waiting for the boy in the story to haul it back up the side of the cliff. They hauled it back up, him and Zelda and their old dead friends. They hauled it out of the well. And now look at the flowers.


::


Once, while sitting on a raft headed out to sea, he considered hurling himself into the water, but here’s the other half of the story. He had recently been into the castle again, up to the princess’ room, where he found, among other things, a moblin, a bow, and a single Silent Princess, growing at the end of the hallway. He also found a diary, which he really shouldn’t have read. He shouldn’t have read the diary. It’s common courtesy. It’s the mark of human decency, respect of personal privacy, respect for the dead, et cetera. But he did.

So he hauled himself up to that tower in the sky, and he mistimed several guardian laser parries before finally getting one right and yelling in triumph and getting a beam to his ass for his efforts, and then he cried, standing over that tattered old book while a cold wind blew in through the man-sized hole in the wall. He had spent so long working towards the abstract idea of salvation, he had forgotten that salvation was also, inextricably, a person. A girl with the hands of Hylia, praying in a castle in the sky, stuck in a hundred year cycle from hell. She had thrown away everything so he would float back out of the water with his face to the sky, and he couldn’t even remember how to shoot a bear without getting his face clawed off. What had he ever done to deserve this? What had he done for her?

The answer was he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything. The conversation they had about skin-deep secrets, the day it was raining and she told him about the hypothetical nature of failure, the morning of her seventeenth birthday, as she slid the gold cuffs onto her wrists and strode grimly out of the castle, her shadow clinging to the wall like it could keep her from leaving if it did. Did he even say happy birthday? Did anyone bring her candles? Did she make a wish, and if so, for what?

He felt suddenly angry, and disappointed, and lonely. The fireplace was full of rubble and the table was covered in dust. The bed frame had collapsed, probably at the very beginning of this whole mess, and the mattress was sunken in like a face with no flesh, the sheets torn, the gold trim reduced to tatters. This place used to be a sanctuary. Now it wanted him dead. He wiped his eyes furiously, though there was no one there to point at him and laugh. He wiped his eyes with the back of his clumsy, scarred hand, pulled the diary shut, and walked back out, into heaven’s line of fire.


::


He takes her to the Kochi dye shop on her request, but Sayge gives them a name and an address and herds them out of his store, and so they find themselves in Tarrey Town again, exchanging nods with the people he tricked into leaving their old lives behind while Zelda describes her old outfit to Rhondson, who takes notes on her husband’s arm in erasable ink. Several days later, a new set of clothes arrives in Hateno by donkey.

He helps her do her hair, by which he means he holds a mirror behind her back and she does her hair, occasionally instructing him to tilt it several degrees in one direction or another, but it’s the most useful he’s felt in weeks, and when she’s pulled on her gloves and done up the buckles on her boots, she stands up and does a little twirl. It’s a perfect replica. She’s glowing. Rhondson is god. 

“I feel like I could defeat Ganon,” Zelda tells him.

I already did that, he thinks. He nods. “You probably could.”


::


“So, are you going to do something?” Beedle retrieves a string of soft-shell crabs from his pack.

“Do I have to?”

Beedle waggles his finger at him disapprovingly. “The question is, do you want to?”


::


He has a dream where she falls from Shatterback Point. He runs as fast as he can down the side of the mountain, cutting his palms on coral and bruising his knees on the wet rocky path, but when he gets to the bottom, no one’s there. You were too late, Muzu tells him, stroking his beard somberly. You tried to reach her, but you let go, and then you were too late. The water in the lake is bright as blood. The sky crackles silently above Muzu’s vacant eyes. A voice emerges from the lake.

You let me die, the voice says. I saved the world for you, and you let me die.

He wakes up sweating. He curls up on his side, bracing for the cold, hard floor against his cheek, but Zelda’s slipped one of her pillows under his head while he was sleeping. She’s murmuring in her sleep, something about fruit halves and grams of sugar, her hand dangling over the side of the bed clenching and unclenching itself earnestly, kneading imaginary dough, cutting imaginary apples.

“Zelda?”

Too soft. He won’t call again. He refuses to. In a moment of weakness, he reaches for the side of the bed, but stops just shy of her hand. Beedle’s bright, angular nose appears before him, carrying with it the wisdom of his ancestors. What do you want to do, Link, Beedle’s Nose asks him. What do you want?

I want to pull her out of the burning house, he thinks. Is that too much to ask for?

Moonlight trickles down her throat and vanishes under the collar of her tunic. His chest implodes and his heart bursts into a thousand tiny pieces, as he wonders how it is that planets were made before people.

Beedle’s Nose is indifferent. What burning house, it asks. Where’s the smoke coming from? Look around you, Link. There’s smoke, and fire, and windows with broken glass. But who’s still inside?


::


Uma’s hundred-and-ninth birthday arrives on the coattails of fall. On her insistence, they keep the decorations sparse and the cake disarmingly large. Streamers are put up and butterflies corralled into glass menageries. A traveling band with a bit of a reputation further west is invited. There are three musicians with ocarinas and one with a cowbell, and all of them are wearing pink overalls and big yellow sun hats which hurt to look at for too long, unless you work for a construction company, in which case you want to look at them forever. After Bolson has finished taking down all of their contact information on his forearm (they prefer to be called for via messenger pigeon, but if you don’t have one then a snail is fine as well), Zelda drifts across the grass to stand in his place. She’s wearing a white dress, borrowed from Uma, who said it would complement her eyes. Uma was right. The dress is made from a thin, glittery fabric that billows around her ankles and makes her look like she’s floating. Like a fairy in a forest clearing. Like a cat perched at the top of a clocktower. Their conversation lasts for several minutes. She says something, and the others laugh. The guy with the cowbell pretends to look embarrassed.

Everyone else at the party is dancing, including Uma, who is holding hands with a small child in a green frog-suit and swaying like a palm tree in the wind. While Zelda keeps the ocarina ensemble preoccupied, one of the adults in the village has gone and retrieved a guitar. He begins to play a warm, meandering tune that reminds Link, distantly, of grassy fields and white skies.

“Are you not going to dance?”

He looks down. Nebb tugs at the edge of his tunic with one hand, pulling him in the direction of the crowd.

He squats down. “I don’t have anyone to dance with.”

“You can dance with me. Duh.”

“I don’t know how to dance.”

Nebb looks at him like he’s stupid. “Then learn.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“What if you meet someone who does, and you like them too much to say no?”

He squints suspiciously at Nebb. Nebb’s atrocious bowl cut hasn’t grown any less atrocious with time, though it does have the effect of making him look far less menacing than he would be if he were bald or sporting a mohawk. The boy knows too much for someone so small. This cannot do. If this goes on, he will reveal a secret to the gods, and then they will kill him for his hubris.

“Shhh,” Link says to him, holding a finger up to his lips. He digs around in his pockets until he finds a piece of honey candy, wrapped in a palm leaf and tied together with twine. “Take this, and go dance with someone else.”

Nebb gives him the Stare of Judgment, but takes the candy. “You’re terrible, Link.” He sticks out his tongue. “Bye.”

Then it’s back to demolishing the cake, which he’s still not convinced Uma didn’t order expressly so that he would have something to do with himself during the course of the evening, as the dancing progresses from cheerful to insane and a small group of guests begins to construct a spaceship out of empty wine glasses. No one else has gone for thirds, though a handful have gone for seconds. There’s a big fondant chicken perched on the highest layer. He sucks on his fork thoughtfully. He wants it.

Last week they went up north, in search of forgiveness. Despite their best efforts and the gift of crabs and crocuses they brought along, their reception in Zora’s domain was cold and gray. It reminded him of the way they had received him when he first stepped out of the rain and into the blue glow of the domain’s hallways, armed with only the knowledge that he had been sent to prevent a tragedy that had already happened. He didn’t yet know that Mipha was dead. He thought he could still save her. They called him failure and fool and living reminder of Hyrule’s downfall, laughing at him in a language called mourning. He had thought they had forgiven the Hylians and their king for letting their Champion die, especially after he walked out of Vah Ruta with a black eye and a bloody nose to show for it, especially now that the evil had been defeated. Apparently the knight by himself was tolerable. The knight and the princess, together, made things too raw. Too immediate.

“Mipha’s dead,” they said. It was a Tuesday.

“I’m sorry,” Zelda replied.

Tomorrow they’re headed for Goron City. He closes his eyes and wills away the taste of sweet cream and berries, tries to picture the winding path up Death Mountain, the grooves hammered into the ground, the rubies in their metal caskets. Flame-resistant armor is a given, so it’s a good thing he bought two sets on accident last winter. He wants to trap a few fire lizards in a bottle and bring them back for a friend. As for what he will say to Zelda before he hands her off to the city’s protectors, their hands half an inch apart but not touching, never touching, there isn’t much. Goron City will be better, he thinks. He licks the cream off his fork. It’s sweet.

“What are you thinking?”

He opens his eyes. Zelda looks at his plate, then the cake, then his plate again. She points at the chicken. He shrugs.

“I was thinking that I hope Uma lives forever.”

Someone has invited the dog onto the dance floor. He isn’t trying very hard to keep to the beat of the guitarist, who has been joined by two of the ocarina players with brown hair and blue eyes, but he doesn’t have to. Spinning very fast in a circle is actually the smartest dance move of them all. There’s no beginning, so there’s no end.

Zelda plucks a berry from his plate. “It’s not very fun, to be honest,” she says, chewing thoughtfully. “Living for that long.”

He watches the dog chase its own tail and she watches him watch the dog, though neither is aware this is happening. “Sorry, I didn’t know. I was asleep.”

The dog is easily the best dancer in the crowd. He experiences neither shame nor hubris, and is thus freed from the stresses and seasonal anxieties of being known by others who might fear him or like him. He also runs very fast.

Zelda punches his shoulder weakly, her hand lingering, her eyes soft. “That’s a terrible joke, Link.”

He pinches the inside of his wrist. “I’m trying my best.”

“So am I.”

After a beat, the dog who has been invited to the party to spin in tight circles on the dance floor and be a nuisance to the other guests goes careening into the rotisserie chicken. In a wondrous, gravity-defying moment, the chicken sails not away from the dog, but towards him, flying in a swooping arc over his head at a height of several hundred feet above the ground. The plate clatters to the floor before the chicken can find its bearings and, awoken by its war cry, people scramble into action, evacuating themselves to the other side of the buffet table or under the veranda with their legs between their tails, until Uma is standing alone on the grass, still swaying to a song only she can hear, still smiling.

The chicken reaches the highest point in the sky, pauses for a heartbeat, then pitches downwards. She catches it. The crowd goes wild.

And then Zelda is tugging on his sleeve, like Negg, but not like Negg, because Zelda walked out of the mouth of the monster, because Zelda left her hand in the fire, because Zelda looked at the miserable, vulnerable world that he had yelled at until his voice was hoarse and dying and even the pigeons were something fiercer than him, that he had tended to with clumsy, scarred hands in spite of all the dead things on the ground, and decided to stay.

“God,” she says, her eyes bright. “Link, look. In the sky.”


::


Picture two figures in a forest full of night. Picture the princess carving a path through the trees, the knight stumbling after her, her hand tight around his wrist, their feet fast and flying. The sky is clear, of course, because someone pulled the mourning veil off its head and threw it in the river. They’re chasing after a column of light, poured by the hand of Hylia from the heavens. And they’re tired, both of them, so tired they could hurl themselves into bed and lie there, half an inch apart, watching each other in the dark with waiting on their tongues, but instead he trips on a branch and goes down, face-first, into the dirt. She doesn’t realize he’s let go until he lets go, but when she turns around he’s already pushed himself off the ground. Hands and knees and boots digging into the grass. The woods outside of Hateno are still teething.

The princess gives him her hand, and he stares at it for a moment like she’s just offered him the rest of her lifespan, and then takes it. He’s fine; of course he is. It would take much more than this to kill him. It would take another hundred year cycle of pain. She points at the column of light. It’s still there. Still glowing.

So they keep going, picking their way through the undergrowth, climbing over branches and pushing boulders out of harm’s way, doing what ghost children like them do best, which is pointing at something in the distance, and then chasing it. Chasing hope. Following it back to the center.

And when they reach the place where the sky has spat out the blood in its mouth, the knight gets punched in the face with nostalgia. He caught a falling star once, when he was all alone and the world was grim and unknowable. Then he gave it to a fairy, in exchange for less blood on his tunic, in exchange for stronger teeth. He approached heaven from afar once, a solitary figure burning darkly against the pale yellow water, but there was no way for him to go home when all was said and done, so he pinched the inside of his wrist and kept walking.


::


The thing is you can’t go from swinging a sword around and dreaming about dead people to waking up and frying eggs and searching for ways to heal the cracked earth beneath your feet. Not that fast. Not that goddamn fast. You can’t just flip a switch and not be scared anymore, not wake up sweating anymore, not wake up wanting to hold her hand. Fear is a country and you’ve lived in it all your life. There’s a reason kingdoms keep such a close eye on their borders. You’re either in, or you’re out. Make up your mind. Pick up your sword. Save yourself.


::


The star fragment is stuck in a tree. Zelda wants to climb it and he wants her to stop; naturally, she wins. She hauls herself up the trunk while he circles the bottom like a hawk with an anxiety problem, waiting to catch the star, or the girl, or both. But neither comes pitching out of the sky. The dream stays just out of sight.

“So that’s what star fragments look like,” she says later, her voice muffled by the sound of crickets. She turns it over in her hands, running her fingers along each point and indent. “They’re warm.” Smells it curiously, then wrinkles her nose. “No smell.” Tries to break off one especially thin-looking point with little success. “Sturdy.”

She spends ten minutes staring at the star. He spends ten minutes staring at her. She gets bored, puts the fragment on the ground, and looks up. He looks away.

“The party’s probably over now, huh.”

He nods to his left.

A sigh, very small, very lovely. Like a firefly under a bridge. “I didn’t get the chance to dance with anyone.”

Beedle’s Nose is staring at him from a gap in the trees like the red eye of the devil. It’s singing a nursery rhyme he doesn’t remember learning. What do you want/what do you want/what do you want. Link! Link! Open your eyes!

He has to break every bone in his body just to turn his head three inches to the right, but for the first time in this life, this new life, this second chance at everything, he gets it right. Zelda’s knees are drawn to her chest, her head pillowed on her arms, her gaze heavy on his face.

He sucks in a breath.

“Do you still want to?”


::


Dancing without music sounds reasonable in theory, but generally requires one party to be exceptionally good at keeping count while the other has to be in possession of at least a rudimentary grasp of the steps. This is, of course, assuming that there are redeemable qualities to both parties. For example, if one is the knight from the fairy tale who has spent his whole life swinging sharp objects at people, and the other is the princess from the fairytale who has spent her whole life praying sharp objects find their way to the right people, then there may not in fact be anything redeemable between them. Her counting is off, his hands are clammy. Her voice is wavering, his feet are too slow. It’s disaster after disaster after disaster, first the champions in their divine beasts, then the castle, then the king on the Great Plateau, a knife through the heart, et cetera.

Dancing without music sounds reasonable in theory unless you’ve spent the last three months of your life chasing angry moose down mountains, so it’s a good thing no one’s here to laugh at them. It’s a good thing they’re alone, surrounded by starlight, half an hour by foot from Hateno, village of lights and wonder.

Spring has come and gone without them. The night is young and the air is cool and the forest is sweetly indifferent to his tendency to crash into inanimate objects. This would be embarrassing if he left himself think about it, but more importantly it’s unfair, how neither of them knows what they’re doing but Zelda can smile her way out of a clumsy turn, how he has to keep his hand on her waist but hers is doing an elaborate dance on his shoulder, how every time she leans in and her hair parts down her back, a sliver of neck peeks out and steals the lungs right out of his chest. He is going to die trying to keep his hands to himself or they are going to fall off the edge of the forest and into a ravine with no bottom. There is no option to walk away.

“You’re a terrible dancer,” she says, smiling up at him from under her lashes.

He chews on his lip. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s fine.” He twirls her and her dress floats up past her ankles like a cloud of tiny stars. “I like you anyway.”

He walks into a tree. Decides that’s not enough. Slaps himself generously across the face, hard enough to leave a mark. Decides that’s not enough. Kneels on the grass, letting go of her hand, to look for a stick that might help him end things faster.

“Link?”

It is too much and too little all at once, and therefore unbearable. He is going to fall off the edge of the forest right now. He tries to stand up just as she begins to bend down, reaching for his shoulder. They fall off the edge of the forest together.

Oh god. Oh fuck. Oh no. They’ve fallen off the edge of the universe together. Her face is in the crook of his neck and her hair is stuck to his clothes. His skin is on fire and his butt is sore and he’s dying. Hylia, can you hear him? There’s a name for the place children go after they leave this world. He’d like to know what it’s called now.

“Hey,” comes the small, muffled voice. Her arms are on either side of his waist, and they’re trembling. “Can you say something?”

He looks up. Always up, always forward, towards knives and teeth and forests full of bodies. Always past the blurry face in the dream, to the nightmare that follows after. Someone will tell you when to breathe. Someone will tell you when to swing your sword. Someone will tell you when it’s all right to stop being scared of everything, and start looking for angels.

Like right now. Like right-right-now. Your heartbeat fluttering in your throat. Your throat an ocean of knives.

Eight weeks and three days after he walks into the castle and defeats two incarnations of evil, first in a room with a domed ceiling, then in a field with a domed sky, he steps out of the burning house, and finds himself face to face with the sun.

He presses his cheek against her hair. “Do you want me to?”

“Yes,” she sighs. “Yes, I do.”


::


He tells her about the way the world looks from atop the back of a bear and the gray of the ocean from a raft and the conversation he had with her dead father about how cooked apples taste sweeter. He tells her about the first time he shot an arrow at a bomb barrel and the second time he shield-surfed down a hill and how Urbosa made him promise to take care of her, even in death, even after it. He tells her about being so lonely it hurt to breathe and being so bad at breathing he passed out in a river, and being so hurt he had to be saved by a stranger on the road, tied to the back of their donkey like a piece of merchandise and carried to the nearest stable to be burnt back to life. He tells her how no one believed he was the boy in the story, even when he pulled out the sword, even when he showed them the blood on his back. He tells her about how the stalhorses on Tabantha Snowfield run faster than the horses near Kakariko, how a bokoblin will choose a freshly roasted chicken over the skin of your teeth, how a sword is a metaphor for forgiveness. He tells her how a hundred years ago she told him to eat a frog, and he never forgot about it. Not once, not ever. Walking through the Breach of Demise, looking for Koroks in Fort Hateno, praying for her heart at the Spring of Wisdom, he never stopped thinking about the damn frog, and by extension, the girl.

The first thing she says is why didn’t you tell me all of this earlier? The second thing she says is why the hell didn’t I ask? She presses a hand to his forehead, pushing his bangs out of his eyes and glaring at him. The third thing she says is that she really wants to see a stalhorse, and the fourth thing he says is he’ll take her there one day, and the fifth thing she does is cry. Big, heaving sobs. Arms tight around his shoulders, tears smearing the front of his shirt, while he pretends he isn’t half as insane, gives up, and resolves to hide his face in her hair forever. And it’s dramatic as hell, it’s an ancient tapestry on a wall in Kakariko, but hasn’t it always been that way? Haven’t they been through enough shit to justify the heartfelt reunion, the face full of tears? If the conversation they had in the field outside the castle was a blueprint for what it looks like to meet someone you wanted a hundred years ago, then this is the aftermath of that war. Do you remember me? Of course I do. Do you love me? Of course I do. Ask me a question, any question. Crack my chest open.

“To make things very, very clear,” Zelda says, wiping her eyes furiously. She’s pushed him flat onto his back and the light’s not hitting her face so he can’t make out her expression, but he can imagine the pinched brow, the bitten lip. “I didn’t fall in love with you because you were conveniently there, like, I don’t know, an armchair when you’re tired, or a glass of water when you’re thirsty.” Her hands on his chest are very beautiful, even in the moon-lit dark. “I didn’t take one look at the prophecy and think to myself, well, if I’m going to tie my happiness to someone then it might as well be him.”

Now he’s the one who’s embarrassed. He brings a hand up to cover his face but she tugs it away. Takes a deep breath. Counts to ten, probably, maybe fifteen, maybe a hundred.

“I fell in love with you,” she says, softly, each word falling from her lips like a star, each star plucked from the highest point in the heavens. “I don’t even know why I fell in love with you.” She fists her hands loosely in his shirt. “It just happens, you know? One day you look at the boy with the stupid pretty hair, and you think to yourself, oh no.”

His head is spinning so fast he feels like the dog at the party. Maybe he is the dog. Maybe he finished eating the cake and shoved the fondant chicken in his mouth and then he passed out, and had to be carried back to his house, and had to be laid gently on the unmade covers.

He gathers his thoughts.

“I’m not a very good person,” he says quietly. “But if you would have me, I would gladly give you my life.”

“You’ve already done that once, Link,” Zelda says, laughing with the sun in her mouth. “Do something else.”

What do you want, Link? Open your eyes. Save yourself.

“Okay, then. Can I kiss you?”


::


His name is Link, and he died once when he was seventeen. It was pretty traumatizing. He got slashed several times across the back with some very sharp weapons, and then he got mauled by a forest full of screaming metal, and then he collapsed, right in front of the person he was supposed to protect, who ended up protecting his dead body by the skin of her teeth. Because he died. Somewhere between the laser on his chest and her hand pressed against the seal of the sky, his body made one last stand against the stark inequalities of the world, and he died.

The only reason he knew his name was Link when he woke up was because it was the first word she said to him. “Link,” she said. “Wake up.” He concluded through logical reasoning that “he” must be “Link” and that “Link” had to “wake up”. So he did. He went traipsing around Hyrule with a ladle and a pot lid, seeking out places from a photograph and trying to find ways to bring every four-legged animal in the land to a stable, but he never really felt like “Link”. He felt like a corpse that had received a very shiny, very thick coat of paint. Half-here, half-there. Half-me, half-something-else. What else? A bird, maybe. A horse.

One day Link got bored and decided that he was going to defeat all the forces of evil. He fought his way into the castle, where the guardians shot lasers at his earrings, and he fought his way past the lynels, who hissed fire and called him rude words, and he fought his way into the sanctum, where he met the asshole who had put him through all this shit in the first place. And he kicked his ass. And he kicked his other ass. And the asshole died. His name was Ganon.

Ganon dying brought Zelda back to life, because the law of equivalent exchange governs half of the children in this world, while the devil gets the rest. The devil got to him: his life will always carry the weight of hundreds of thousands, he will always feel like lead for the first three seconds after he wakes up. But it didn’t get to Zelda. Zelda got the other bargain, the one where your dead father dies but you get your knight back. One or the other, left or right. In the end, you always have to choose.

And he’s still pretty traumatized. And dying at the age of seventeen with a sword still stuck in your hand is pretty traumatizing. And the Zora are still mourning and the Gorons are still eating rocks and the Gerudo still think he’s just a really short girl, which he can live with, which he doesn’t particularly mind, but the trauma has a place on the shelf now. And the shelf is in his house. And the house is a modest one, with modest display stands for his modest weapons, and a modest bed beside which he’s hung a framed photograph of his friends. But some things are different, even if the foundations stay the same.

No more rafts on gray seas. No more sleeping on the floor. No more standing in the burning building, and wondering why the shadows aren’t moving. No more shrines full of dead monks. No more monsters full of dead bodies. No more waiting for someone to tell you when to breathe, when to stop, when to get mauled by a bear.

Pick up your sword, boy. Now put it down. Now pick it up. Now put it down. You’re going to be doing this until the day that you die. Are you all right with that? Are you all right with your god?

[Thank you for helping my sister.][They say the leviathans died thousands of years ago.][Get me a horse. A big, strong horse. Any horse.][BROTHER. THE ROCKS ARE READY.][Find me someone whose name ends with ‘-son’.][I’ll sell you rushrooms for diamonds. Fifty-five for one.][Have you heard of the story of the bird on the mountain?][Do you already have someone special in your heart?][They say if two people visit this pond, they’ll be together forever.][Do you believe in miracles?][Do you believe in magic?][Do you believe in me?]

[I believed I would see you again.]

 

 

 

It’s a cruel, unforgiving world. People die and don’t come back. But you did.

Now get up. Someone’s waiting for you.