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On Propriety and Unconventional Avenues of Communication

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Chapter One: Zora's Domain

The day it started had been just like any other. Well, as like any other as could be expected after recently being freed from her hundred-year imprisonment in Hyrule Castle.

Zelda, with her appointed knight faithfully in tow, had just been to Kakariko to meet with Impa and officially announce Calamity Ganon's defeat. Her and Impa's reunion had of course been emotional and tearful, but they had not stayed long as Zelda had been eager to see what had become of her kingdom in the time she'd been trapped in the castle. Now, she and Link were on the road again, just the two of them, and everything was at once achingly familiar and brand new to the newly released princess; the land, the towns, and most of all, her appointed knight.

At first, Link had seemed just the same as before the Calamity; quiet and dutiful. He'd fallen back into their old pattern smoothly and seamlessly and his presence was something of a grounding force of familiarity in the wake a changed world. However, Zelda quickly began noticing new oddities in her companion, such as the way he now occasionally greeted passersby with a smile and how he more often chose to walk beside her rather than behind her. He still spoke very little, but he was more liberal than before with his use of body language. He was also more physical than he'd ever been in the past. With her, anyhow. He would take her hand to cross difficult terrain and sit close beside her when they made camp for the night.

In the beginning, Zelda had chalked this change in behavior up to his lingering amnesia. He probably just didn't remember the finer points of protocol and she wasn't about to refresh his memory. She was quite pleased by this new closeness between them. After a hundred years suffered without any kind of physical contact she was more than happy to receive it from the boy whose touch she'd yearned for even before the onset of the calamity. She just wished some of that initiative would translate into words. She was still no closer to understanding what went on inside his head. Just how much of their past together did he remember? What did he think of being reunited after so long? Was he content to travel with her or did he long for the freedom he'd enjoyed before she'd been set free? These were the questions that haunted her thoughts as they stabled their horses and began the long hike up to Zora's Domain.

The trek was tough but the riverside path was one of the most beautiful hikes in all of Hyrule and Zelda went out of her way to enjoy it. She diligently catalogued wildlife with the Sheikah slate and collected seeds and samples in a pouch on her belt. Link watched her work, his blue eyes following her as she climbed boulders to reach rushrooms and lifted stones hoping to find insects and reptiles. He said nothing, of course, but his attention was ever attuned to her, his eyes quickly finding hers whenever she turned her gaze to his face. Even when he walked ahead of her, his ears were alert, twitching when she so much as displaced a pebble with the toe of her boot. She sometimes wondered if her frolicking about wasn't causing him undue stress, but when she asked him about it he shook his head and continued on; his signal that the matter was closed.

They had safely passed Luto's Crossing and were circling around Ruto Mountain when Link abruptly threw an arm out, calling for a stop. Zelda's first instinct was to ask what was wrong, but one look at his face caused her to shut her mouth. His eyebrows were furrowed seriously over his eyes, which were trained ahead unblinkingly. It was then that Zelda heard what had made him pause. A low rumbling echoed through the ravine. It was a sound that Zelda had never heard before but clearly Link recognized it because his blue eyes narrowed and the corners of his mouth drew downward just slightly.

"What is it?" she asked in a low voice, hooking the Sheikah slate back onto her belt.

Link didn't answer. Instead, he motioned her forward with a finger and together they crept around the boulders that lay in their path until they reached a point where the path widened and the rocks became fewer. There, lying on its back and letting out great rumbling snores, was a creature Zelda had never seen before but knew from watching Link on his journey. "A hinox?" she breathed, her eyes widening at the sight of the great beast.

Link nodded. Silently, his hand reached over his shoulder to grasp the hilt of the Master Sword. He drew the weapon from its scabbard with a soft shiiiing.

He made to move forward but Zelda stopped him with a hand on his arm. He looked back at her with a curious tilt of his head. She cleared her throat and held out her unoccupied hand expectantly. He stared at her uncomprehendingly for a long moment before his eyes lit with realization and he pulled away to unsling the travel bag from over his shoulder. He handed it to her with a sheepish smile.

Zelda nodded approvingly and pulled the straps of the pack over her arms. Link was still unaccustomed to traveling with company and he often forgot to let her help shoulder the burden. He'd been reluctant at first to let her do any extra work, but she'd been insistent, telling him that there was no wisdom in weighing himself down in battle when she was right there to offer a hand. "Go on, then," she said, giving his shoulder blade a pat.

Now, this was the part where Link would normally nod and run off to neutralize the threat of the moment, but today, he surprised her by doing something entirely unexpected. His feet didn't move and his eyes remained on her face. His eyebrows furrowed slightly and his mouth tightened in a barely perceptible manner. He seemed to decide something and then he leaned forward and softly pressed his lips to hers. He lingered only for a moment before pulling back and rising to his feet. Without a word, he darted away, leaving Zelda to look after him with eyes the size of saucers and a rosy blush staining her cheeks.

The fight was brutal but not long. Link was as spectacular as ever, his sword flashing as he leapt and slashed and darted about the battlefield. The hinox never stood a chance. Link didn't even look winded when the great monster finally fell with a long, suffering groan. He didn't bat an eyelash at its corpse as he collected the treasures and weapons dropped in the scuffle and then turned to where she still hid and motioned for her to come out.

Zelda's face was still warm as she left her hiding spot and picked her way over to him. A million thoughts ran through her brain as she tried to decide how to respond to Link's bold action just before the battle. Did his kiss mean that he had feelings for her? He'd never shown such an inclination toward her before, though she had always hoped… Her flaming cheeks grew hotter as she joined him by the remains of the hinox. She opened her mouth to broach the subject but the question got lodged in her throat when Link drew suddenly near. For a single, heart racing moment she thought he was going to kiss her again, but he didn't even glance at her face. He merely slipped his hands under the straps of her pack and pulled it from her shoulders, replacing it onto his own.

Zelda could only watch in confusion as he began walking again, never once acknowledging what he'd done. After a moment's bewildered hesitation, she moved her feet to follow. Had she imagined his kiss? She remembered the feel of his lips on hers clear as day, but Link's behavior now had her completely perplexed. Had he forgotten? She knew he still struggled with amnesia to some extent. Could whatever blocked his mind keep him from retaining memories made in the present? She didn't think so, but then, she was hardly knowledgeable about the lingering effects of spending a whole century in the Shrine of Resurrection.

She held her silence for the remainder of the trip to the Domain. Though the questions crawled up her throat, begging to be asked, her anxiousness at his puzzling lack of acknowledgement of the kiss stilled her tongue. After a good half hour of deliberating in her head, she finally decided to simply keep quiet and treat the incident as if it hadn't happened. If Link felt like speaking about it, he would. Sooner or later.

oO0Oo

Zora's Domain was every bit as exquisite as it had been a century prior. The tall, sparkling waterfalls, winding chutes, and soft, blue lamps were just as grand and lovely as she remembered. There was one difference, though—one she noticed immediately—and that was the addition of a statue in the center of the Domain. Zelda's chest tightened and she swallowed a lump of emotion when she laid eyes on the carefully sculpted likeness of her old friend. "Mipha…" she breathed, hurrying over to get a closer look. The statue couldn't have been truer to reality. Mipha's elegance and grace were perfectly captured by the sculptor. Zelda felt a sharp pang of loss as she gazed up at it.

"My sister was a magnificent warrior," a voice spoke behind her. Zelda jumped and whirled around to face the speaker. The Zora was tall and strong and undeniably handsome. Link stood beside him, his calm eyes trained on her as they always were. The tall Zora grinned, showing off a mouthful of sharp, white teeth and spread his arms. "And who is this golden-haired vision of heavenly radiance? Could it be that I am in the presence of her highness, the goddess in mortal form who kept the calamity at bay for one hundred years—our very own Princess Zelda?"

Zelda's cheeks warmed at the handsome Zora's reverential greeting. "I-I am," she answered, clasping her hands together in front of her bashfully. She willed the redness in her cheeks away as she looked up at the Zora steadily. "And you must be Prince Sidon, Mipha's little brother." She smiled and stepped forward. "My, how you've grown."

Sidon's mouth curved downward into a surprised frown for all of four seconds and then his eyes opened wide and he bent down to get a better look at her. "Oh, heavens. We have indeed met before, haven't we! Please forgive my rudeness. It has been a very long time."

Zelda laughed and held up a hand. "There is nothing to forgive. As you say, it has been a very long time." Extending a hand to him, she offered Sidon a beatific smile. "I have come to speak with your father, King Dorephan. Would you be my escort?"

Sidon returned her smile with a grin more dazzling than a hundred suns. He bowed and hooked his arm with hers. "It would be my pleasure, your highness."

Zelda allowed him to lead her through the Domain to the throne room while Link followed silently behind, his steps light and almost noiseless. All around them, Zoras chattered and oohed as they passed. Everyone, it seemed, was excited at her arrival and eager to get a glimpse of her. Link also garnered a fair amount of attention, which he seemed completely unruffled by. Zelda imagined he was used to being fawned over, being the hero who had saved the Domain from Vah Ruta. He occasionally stopped to wave or smile at someone, but otherwise he kept his attention fixed on her and Sidon.

Zelda was a little apprehensive about meeting with King Dorephan due to her role in the demise of his daughter, but it turned out she needn't have worried. The king was gracious and understanding and though it was obvious that Mipha's death still filled him with sorrow, he directed no blame her way. Zelda was both grateful and slightly troubled by this as she had yet to forgive herself for the tragedy that had taken the lives of her champions. She wished he would blame her, at least a little, because in her own heart she still felt responsible.

"My child, the losses you suffered that day were far greater than any of ours," he said solemnly, his eyes kind. "I lost a daughter, yes, but you lost your father, your friends, your kingdom, and your freedom. For a hundred years, you fought to keep the calamity contained and in that time Hyrule moved on without you. I cannot fault you when I know in my heart that you did everything you could."

After that, the topic shifted to the primary purpose of their visit, Vah Ruta's mysterious cessation of operation. Zelda promised to check on the Divine Beast the following day and the king arranged to have rooms prepared for her and Link in the palace.

Days passed. Zelda inspected every inch of Vah Ruta but no matter how long she searched, she could find no reason for its suspended functionality. "How very odd," she said for the umpteenth time as she and Link stood on the elephant's back. Far below, Sidon swam about in the lake, entertaining himself with flashy aerial maneuvers and dives.

Zelda looked up from her Sheikah slate to watch him. "He's very different from Mipha," she observed, smiling at the Zora's antics.

Link nodded. His eyes followed the movements of the crimson figure far below but his expression betrayed nothing of his thoughts. Zelda hummed and turned her attention back to the Zora. "He's different but…I believe he would make a fine pilot for Vah Ruta, just like his sister."

Link turned those large, blue eyes on her and one of his eyebrows rose just a fraction higher than the other.

"Of course, that's if we can get this beast running again," she lent. "Though I don't suspect we have anything to fear from Calamity Ganon for at least another few thousand years, so perhaps I am getting ahead of myself?"

Link actually smiled at this and his change of expression caused Zelda's heart to give a little flutter. She looked down at her boots to escape the soul piercing stare of his eyes. She always felt as though he could see straight through to her every thought with those eyes. Could he see the way her heart beat faster and her breath came shorter when he smiled at her? Did he have any idea how soundly smitten she was?

Perhaps the more important question was, would he care? He was male, so surely the prospect of a girl being interested in him would be something he desired…right?

But then, when had Link ever been like other boys? Her heart sank as she thought about all the ways he defied the norms of not just his sex but his species. Who could say if he was interested in girls or boys or Zoras or Gorons or Lizard People or even if being with someone in that way was something he thought about at all. To the best of her knowledge, the only things she could say for certain were important to him were food and his duty as her appointed knight.

She stopped herself from sighing. It just figured she would choose the most difficult person in Hyrule to develop feelings for. She'd never been any good at taking the easy road.

"In any case," she spoke again, knowing he wasn't going to say anything, "I think we've done all we can here. For now, anyway. Perhaps visiting the other Divine Beasts will shed some light on the situation."

Link merely nodded and followed as she walked to the ladder that had been constructed to provide access in and out of Vah Ruta. She would go to King Dorephan and tell him of her plan to study the other Divine Beasts. Hopefully, they would help her uncover nature of the problem.

oO0Oo

They left Zora's Domain the next day. Sidon was disappointed to see them go and he promised that should they ever have need of him, they merely had to call and he would come. Zelda thanked him and she and Link bade the Zoras farewell, setting off to the North this time to begin the long trek to Death Mountain.

As they walked, Zelda passed the time by theorizing about what could have happened to Vah Ruta. She bounced her theories off Link as she always did, and while he never answered, it helped her just to speak her thoughts aloud.

The longer they traveled together, however, the more she began to wish that Link would break his silence. He hadn't breathed a word in at least a month, and even before that he'd only spoken five words to her since rescuing her from her imprisonment. Five words. That was what one hundred years of separation had amounted to. He'd been more vocal before the calamity. What really killed her, though, wasn't the fact that he wouldn't talk to her in particular, but that he was unwilling to voice his opinion on matters where his input could be quite useful.

Zelda knew Link was smart. It was easy for people to read his muteness as dimness, but she knew how calculating he was behind his silence. She'd seen him manipulate others on his quest and solve complex puzzles with ease. He was far from dull; always listening and quietly processing. She knew he had opinions about things and she wished he would share them with her. It seemed a terrible waste to keep all those thoughts to himself.

Sometimes she wondered if he was angry with her. Perhaps unlike King Dorephan, he did blame her for the deaths of their friends. She would understand if that was the case. He too had had everything he knew and loved ripped from him the day the calamity awoke. If he was being silent to spite her, then she wished she knew what to do to make him stop. She didn't want to be the reason for him not expressing himself. Although, she thought as she watched his back just a few feet ahead of her, he'd never struck her as the type to hold grudges. It seemed unlikely that he was maintaining his silence out of anger.

And he had kissed her. One didn't normally kiss someone they were angry with. Probably.

She was dragged roughly from her thoughts when Link's posture abruptly changed. He sank into a crouch and made a shooshing motion with his finger. Zelda shifted into alertness and immediately and fell into step behind him as he moved toward whatever had caught his attention. It didn't take long to find the beast. Or beasts, rather. A pair of lynels stood in the valley that opened before them, one white-maned and one silver.

Zelda sucked in a breath at the sight of the great cats and Link's jaw tightened as he fingered the hilt of his sword. The battle would not be an easy one. This time, Link didn't hesitate to hand over his pack. They both knew he wouldn't be able to fight two lynels while burdened with bulky bedrolls.

Once free of his pack, Link unfurled his paraglider. He planned to get the drop on them—literally. He moved to the edge of the cliff and was just about to kick off when Zelda stopped him with a hand on his forearm. He lowered the paraglider and looked back at her. Zelda's cheeks heated as her head filled with images of the last time she'd stopped him before a battle. She pushed those thoughts away. "Link…be careful. Please."

Link held her gaze with his own for a long moment. He didn't reply and he didn't nod; he just stood there and looked at her with those sky colored eyes. Zelda was just about to ask what was on his mind when he leaned in and carefully set his mouth on hers just the way he had on the road to Zora's Domain. His eyes closed and he lingered for just a moment before pulling away. This time, though, he paused to nod before turning away and jumping off the cliff.

Zelda just watched him go, once again flustered and very confused. Now she knew she wasn't imagining things. Link had definitely kissed her and he had definitely been aware of what he was doing. What she couldn't understand was why he'd done it. As far as she knew, nothing between them had changed…and Link was…well, he was Link. Zelda had never been kissed before and she was fairly certain that Link hadn't either. Probably, her mind again supplied. She of course couldn't know for sure what all he'd been up to in his life, but knowing the kind of guy he was, activities involving girls and kissing seemed unlikely.

What in Hyrule was he thinking? She wanted to know the answer to that question with a special kind of desperation now.

Alas, Zelda's question was to remain unanswered. Just like the time before, when Link returned from his battle, he made no indication that anything at all different had happened between them. They carried on just as they always did and Zelda couldn't bring herself to be the one to broach the subject out of fear of irreparably altering their relationship.

No, that wasn't right. Her true fear, if she was honest, was that voicing her confusion would cause him to stop. While she was completely perplexed by his change in behavior, she welcomed any motion on his part to initiate acts of physical or emotional closeness with her.

And maybe it was also because whether at seventeen or one hundred and seventeen, she was a girl who wanted to be kissed by a boy.

So she didn't say anything about his kisses. She followed his lead and acted as though there was nothing at all strange about a princess being smooched by her appointed knight. And in any case, it wasn't as though he had done anything that greatly breeched propriety. The contact had been brief and chaste both times; nothing that would besmirch either of their virtue in the eyes of the kingdom or the goddesses.

So long as he didn't make a big deal of it, she wouldn't either.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: Goron City

To Zelda's slight dismay, they made it to Death Mountain without further incidents. A part of her had been hoping the trip would take longer to give her more time to get to the bottom of her silent knight. She knew that once they arrived in Goron City she would be kept too busy with her research to give adequate attention to the matter that had stolen her focus of late.

How funny, she thought as they walked up the path to the city, that once, she had resented Link for distracting her from her research, and now she was irritated with her research for distracting her from him.

As they passed through the Southern Mine, Gorons stopped hammering at ore deposits to watch them in awe. Just like in Zora's Domain, the Gorons seemed to know instinctively who she was, and as she and Link passed, many of them removed their hardhats and bowed low. Zelda was a little taken aback by this but she smiled and gave a little wave of acknowledgement.

Her and Link's greeting when they entered the city was enthusiastic to say the least. As a race, the Gorons had always been quick to adopt anyone who could earn their respect, and it seemed Zelda's century as Ganon's jailor sufficed to do just that. Every Goron she met greeted her as "sister" and everywhere she went, a new face would appear to thank her profusely for sealing Ganon away. Zelda was, admittedly, a little overwhelmed by all the praise, but she was touched by the Gorons' eagerness to welcome her.

It was as she and Link were hiking up to the Elder's hut that a hurtling ball of rocklike flesh came rolling down the hill directly toward them. It came to an abrupt stop just in front of them and uncurled to present a Goron dressed differently than the others she'd met so far. He had a shock of white hair that hung down his forehead and fastened around his neck was some manner of kerchief or hood in champion blue. Though she'd never seen him before in person, she recognized his face right away. He was the brave Goron who had helped Link in his quest to board Vah Rudania.

The Goron's eyes found her and he jumped in surprise as if he thought she might try to eat him. "Oh, man! Oh, man! They weren't kidding!" he cried, hopping back. He twined his fingers together nervously as he looked her up and down with an expression of awe. Zelda watched in bemusement as he delicately inched around her to stand by Link. Leaning down to whisper to her companion, he said, "Is that her? Is that really Princess Zelda?"

Link looked back at him, having to crane his neck even with the Goron hunched over, and nodded.

The Goron raised a hand to his mouth and looked at her in either fascination or distress—it was difficult to tell. Perhaps it was both. "She's so pretty," he stage-whispered. His black eyes seemed almost to shine as they roamed her form.

Zelda's cheeks heated at the compliment and she gave the timid Goron a friendly smile. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Sir Goron. I am Zelda."

The Goron jumped again and held his large hands up to his cheeks. "She called me sir!" He covered his face bashfully for a brief moment before taking a deep breath and composing himself. Link watched him in amusement. "It's nice to meet you too, Princess—I mean your highness. I'm Yunobo. I'm, uh, a descendant of the champion Daruk." He scratched the back of his head bashfully.

"Of Daruk?" she echoed. Her smile widened. "Then I am all the more honored to have made your acquaintance. Daruk was a fine champion. I know that any descendant of his can only be a Goron of incredible and indomitable courage."

Yunobo blushed brightly and hurriedly put up his hands. "No! No, that isn't true at all. I'm…I'm actually a coward, really."

Zelda shook her head and stepped forward to lay a hand on his beefy arm. "That couldn't be further from the truth. I saw everything from the castle. You showed tremendous bravery in helping Link reach Vah Rudania. Were it not for your assistance, Link may never have been able to board the Divine Beast and I might still be trapped in the castle with the Calamity." She smiled broadly and beckoned him down to her. He complied, albeit nervously, and she rose onto her toes to press a kiss to his round cheek. "Thank you."

If merely being in her presence was enough to reduce the shy Goron to a stuttering mess, then being kissed by her sent him right into overload. His face turned red as a cherry and he jumped at least two feet in the air—an impressive feat for a creature with the weight and density of a boulder. "Oh, goodness! Oh, man!" he cried, hopping from foot to foot. "I got a kiss from the princess! Me!"

Zelda chuckled as Yunobo turned his back on them and yelled, "Boss! You'll never believe who's come for a visit!" before curling into a ball again and hurtling back up the trail, leaving her and Link to follow at a more leisurely pace.

The meeting with Chief Bludo was much like the one with King Dorephan, though the two leaders had very starkly different mannerisms. Again, Zelda was thanked for her role in sealing Ganon away and the chief gave her full permission to investigate the Divine Beast as she wished. He even set her and Link up with beds at the inn free of charge. All the while, Yunobo stood off to the side, stealing glances at her and blushing. Zelda wondered if she hadn't gone too far with her kiss. The poor Goron could barely look her in the eye.

They ended up spending four days in Goron City. Zelda spent most of that time on the summit poking around inside the divine beast. Link, of course, remained at her side as her dutiful shadow. The heat was nearly suffocating, even with the fireproofing elixirs they made sure to take at intervals throughout the day, but Link, as usual, never once complained. Zelda had tried to get him to go back to the city and wait for her where it was more comfortable—Vah Rudania had been fully cleansed, so there was really no need for a protector—but he steadfastly refused. He always got a slightly panicked look whenever she brought up separating so she didn't push the issue. And she preferred the company, anyhow.

Though she gave it her best effort, she found nothing that would explain why only Vah Ruta had stopped functioning. Nothing at all seemed different between the two beasts. By the end of the fourth day she had to admit defeat. She would find no answers here.

That night, she and Link discussed their next course of action. Or rather, she discussed it and he listened. The original plan had been to go to Rito Village next and then Gerudo Town, but after seeing Vah Rudania, Zelda was beginning to think that checking all the divine beasts would ultimately be an exercise in futility and she said as much. What insight could Vah Medoh or Vah Naboris offer that Vah Rudania couldn't? As nice as it was to travel around Hyrule and indulge in her passion, Zelda knew that free time was not a luxury she could afford for much longer, particularly with nothing to show for it. She still had a very important duty to her kingdom. She was not merely a princess in name, after all.

She sighed as she lay back on her bed. Perhaps it was time to go home. Now that word was spreading that she'd been freed, it was going to look very poor if she didn't return to take her birthright. As much as she'd love to hand the throne over to someone else, she was the one with the blood of the goddess in her veins. Her line needed to continue.

Link was silent as ever as he stared up at the ceiling from his own bed. She rolled onto her side to look at him. She wished he would just speak to her already. She wanted someone to tell her what to do.

oO0Oo

In the end, she decided to continue her quest. Even if she learned nothing from the other divine beasts, it was still in her best interest to introduce herself to the leaders of all of Hyrule's races. And, she reminded herself, she would need to begin thinking about selecting representatives from the five races to be on her council. Better to start now while she had the time still to meet with each race properly.

She and Link said their goodbyes to the Gorons the next morning. Zelda would have liked to have stayed a few more hours to explore the city but she knew that the trip to Rito Village would be a long and rough one and it would be better to maximize the amount of ground they covered today.

Unlike Zora's Domain and Death Mountain which were fairly near to each other, Rito Village was way off in the west of the Hebra region, nearly three times the distance. After careful consideration, Zelda elected to take the Northern route. They would skirt around the Great Hyrule Forest and then cross into the Tabantha Tundra and pick up horses at the Snowfield Stable. From there, they would simply follow the road the rest of the way to Rito Village.

Zelda let out a breath of relief as they finally left Death Mountain and its sweltering crater behind. The active volcano may have been a paradise for Gorons, but Hylians were definitely not built to remain in that kind of climate for any extended period of time, even with the help of elixirs. Moreover, now that it was once again just the two of them, she no longer had to maintain the illusion of a respectful distance between herself and her appointed knight. She could once again sit close beside him at mealtimes and share food with him and talk his ear off about whatever struck her fancy without anybody worrying she was being improper.

It took the better part of the day to hike back down to the base of the mountain. The descent was hard on her legs but the view on the way down was phenomenal. She could see nearly all of Hyrule, including the ruins of the castle that had been her prison for the past one hundred years. How wonderful it was to be free at last; to be able to once again taste fresh air and enjoy the company of other living things. Sometimes she'd thought she'd go insane in that place, all alone in the dark with nothing to keep her company but the ever-present guilt at having led her father and all her friends to their deaths. She never wanted to experience that kind of loneliness again.

Link surprised her when he drew close and laid a hand on her arm. Only then did she realize that she'd wrapped her arms around herself and was squeezing so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. He followed her gaze to the castle and then his eyes returned to her face. His tawny eyebrows furrowed and his lips parted and for a single, glorious moment Zelda thought he was going to speak to her, but then his jaw tightened and instead he simply nodded. Zelda was about to be very disappointed—he was going to say something; she knew he was—but she was distracted from her disappointment when he leaned forward and kissed her softly and sweetly.

Zelda's arms released their tight grip to fall slack at her sides. She wanted to respond somehow but she didn't know what was appropriate. She was still wildly unused to being kissed. Link pulled back and looked into her eyes seriously for several heartbeats before the line of his mouth relaxed and he moved the hand on her arm to give her shoulder a pat. He seemed satisfied, like he'd accomplished some kind of goal.

Zelda blinked back at him. This was the third time now that he'd kissed her. Would he explain this time, she wondered? She waited for several breaths in anticipation but then—no, he was turning away and continuing his walk down the mountainside.

Zelda gaped after him. Was he doing this on purpose? Was he playing some kind of prank on her?

Her eyes widened. Or could it be…that she was the one acting strangely for thinking that what he was doing was odd? Perhaps kissing was something that was actually…common? She'd been raised in the palace among Hyrule's nobility so it could be that this was simply a social custom she was unfamiliar with. The explanation seemed much more likely than her reserved knight pranking her.

The more she thought about it, the more sense it made. Link didn't seem like one for overt romantic gestures, and aside from the kisses his behavior was the same as ever. Moreover, Link had always treated her with the utmost respect; never stepping out of line or knowingly behaving in a manner unbefitting his station. His kisses confused her because they seemed so out of line with his usual strict professionalism, but if they were actually platonic—just an everyday gesture of fondness or respect or even gratitude—then it all made sense.

Zelda followed her knight with a new skip in her step. She had a theory now, and with a nice long hike to Rito Village ahead of them, she had plenty of time to gather data.

oO0Oo

They set up camp just across the river from the Great Hyrule Forest to the North. There would be no stables or Hylian encampments until they reached Tabantha, so they would be spending the next few nights sleeping under the stars.

In truth, Zelda enjoyed camping. She felt impossibly free sleeping in the wilderness where there were no rules and no expectations and the only witnesses to her admittedly less than princess-like behavior were squirrels and Link—neither of whom were going to go tattling to anyone.

While Link laid out the bedrolls, Zelda busied herself arranging wood for a fire. High above, the stars twinkled in great brushstrokes across the heavens. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the moon was large and bright. It was a perfect night for camping. When Link finished with the bedrolls, he used some flint to light her log pile and dug some apples and mushrooms out of his bag for roasting.

Zelda perched herself on a log and watched her knight slice and skewer the fruit with her chin in her palms. Watching Link was never boring. He performed every action with a natural grace that captivated her. It was clear that he took a lot of care in his work, whether that be swinging his sword at monsters or shish kabobbing mushrooms, and while that used to annoy her—he just had to be good at everything, didn't he?—she couldn't help but find it an incredibly attractive quality in a man.

Zelda's cheeks heated as she realized where her mind had gone. There she went thinking of Link in an inappropriate manner again. Somewhere in the afterlife her father was surely laughing at her. When he had first announced to her that he was appointing the chosen hero as her personal knight, his eyes had held a sly twinkle. "Now, don't go getting any ideas," he'd warned in a rare moment of humor. "He's quite the handsome young man."

Zelda had, of course, proceeded to swear very insistently that she would never, ever do anything like developing feelings for a knight who she neither required nor wanted. She said that she would put up with him for the sake of the prophecy but she had no intention of going out of her way to be friends with some goddess-touched brat who'd had his destiny handed nicely and neatly to him by a tree.

And now… Well, suffice to say she'd done some growing up since then.

"Link," she called to him, partly to distract herself from her thoughts. "You, um…you ate like this often during your travels, correct?"

Link looked up from his work and nodded once, meeting her eyes with his steady blue ones.

Zelda fidgeted under the weight of his gaze. "You know, you're quite good at cooking. It's a very handy skill to have. Have you ever considered doing something with it?"

Link looked at her blankly.

"You know, in the future," she clarified. "Now that the calamity has been sealed away you must wish to start thinking about what you want from your life."

A look of comprehension appeared on Link's face. It was followed quickly by one of confusion. He looked down at the Master Sword lying on the ground next to him and then back up at her and his eyebrows knitted together.

Zelda read his message loud and clear and her own eyebrows rose. "Surely you don't intend to remain a knight forever. Eventually you're going to want to move on. Find a girl…settle down…" she trailed off meaningfully.

Link stared at her as if she'd just told him the sky was green.

Zelda lifted her chin from her hands and gestured incredulously. "For heaven's sake, Link. Do you intend to remain a knight until you're old and gray?"

Not that she would mind if that was his intention. She was certainly in no hurry to see him go. But to live his whole life in service to her…that seemed a bit much after everything he'd done for Hyrule. He deserved to live a happy, peaceful life.

"Until I die."

His voice was so quiet she almost missed it. In fact, Zelda wasn't sure at first she hadn't imagined it, it had been so long since she'd last heard him speak. But the way he looked at her, so sure and serious, she knew the words had come from him.

"Pardon?" she said, despite having heard him clearly. She was just so surprised to hear his voice. She sometimes wondered if he hadn't gone permanently mute.

He cocked his head and his hair swayed with the motion. "My service to the crown will terminate with my death," he said simply, his voice soft and almost unfamiliar in her ears.

Zelda stared back at him in amazement. She found herself quite unable to decide what to react to, his words or the fact that he had at last broken his long silence. Not only was this one of the longest strings of words he'd ever spoken to her, it was the first full sentence she'd heard out of him since before the calamity. Her heart leapt in joy at being treated to a sample of his thoughts—if only a tiny one—though she found his answer a little concerning.

After a moment's struggle, she finally said, "Link…your loyalty is admirable, but your oath was to my father. You are not bound to it any longer. If you wish to leave, you may."

"I do not wish to leave." He spoke quickly and with a tone of finality that caused Zelda's heart to skip a beat. She was, of course, very happy to hear that he wanted to stay. There was no doubt as to her feelings in this regard. But his quickness to sign off his whole life to her when he'd hardly had a chance to live it worried her. To her knowledge, Link hadn't taken the position of her knight because he'd wanted to. He'd done it because it was his destiny and it was asked of him. The two of them had become close, yes—even good friends—but that didn't change the fact that Link had put his life on hold to fulfil his role.

Zelda stood from her log and crossed the few feet between them to kneel down next to him. Link watched her silently, his eyes never leaving hers.

"You had a life before," she spoke again. "You must have had dreams of your own. Are you sure you don't wish to return to it?" Unable to help herself, she lifted a hand to his face and delicately caressed the smooth skin of his left ear.

Link held perfectly still, letting her touch him as she pleased. She hoped it was because he didn't mind and not that he felt he couldn't say no to her. She'd never allowed herself to touch him intimately like this and she relished in the feeling of his skin under her fingers. He was beautiful, both in body and spirit, and often she found herself desiring to bask in him—his presence, his touch, his attention. He probably had no idea of the power he held over her.

"I do not wish to leave," he repeated, his voice stronger this time. Zelda let the sound wash over her, committing it to memory. Who knew when the next time would be that they'd have a conversation like this.

She made a show of sighing and then smiled warmly. "Alright," she conceded. "I much prefer you here with me anyhow." She offered him a playful wink. "Who would listen to me ramble on and on if you were to go? I daresay most others would leave after a week."

To Zelda's delight, the corners of Link's lips rose and his eyes crinkled into a smile. Her heart swelled at his look of genuine mirth and she hurriedly stood so that he wouldn't see the way her cheeks heated. Using her hands to pat the dirt from her knees, she said, "You know, I think our supply of water is running low. Lake Mekar is just nearby, so I'll go see about filling our canteens while dinner cooks." Teasingly, she added, "If that's alright with you, that is, sir knight."

Link shoved his finished skewers into the ground by the fire to roast and stood as well. At first, Zelda thought he was going to come with her, but instead he drew a short blade from his belt and handed it to her. She understood the gesture right away. 'For your protection,' his eyes said.

Zelda slipped the knife into her own belt and rewarded him with a grateful nod. Just as she turned to go, he caught her by the arm and pulled her gently back. The look in his eyes was one she was quickly becoming used to seeing and her heart sped up as she recognized what was about to happen. This time, however, she was feeling emboldened by their conversation and so she took the initiative and leaned in. Link met her half way and his lips found hers, feather soft and warm. This time, she thought she understood. 'Take care,' he was saying with his kiss. Zelda pulled back and smiled at him again. She would.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: Rito Village

It was from that day on that kisses between Link and Zelda became a thing.

Whenever they had to separate for any reason—be it Link going off to fight monsters or Zelda scavenging for fruit and herbs or even when one of them went to bathe—it became a ritual for them to share a kiss. And it wasn't just when they separated. Sometimes, Link would give her kisses when she wasn't expecting it; when she did something nice for him or when he was particularly happy about something or when the guilt struck and she became sad about the life and friends they'd lost. Their kisses had many meanings; stay safe, good luck, thank you, I'm sorry—it seemed that to Link, kissing was another form of communication. A way for him to speak to her without using words. She was still unsure if this was a normal thing or just a Link thing, but it didn't really matter. It was something that worked for them and it was nice.

Of course, aside from the kisses, nothing else of note changed between them. Link was otherwise as diligent and dutiful as he'd always been. He took his job seriously and he didn't show any indication that he intended to alter this behavior. Zelda was of two minds about this. On the one hand, she was comfortable with the relationship they shared and was reluctant to see it change. Link was the only tie she still had to her old life, and more than that, he was her closest friend. He was her rock; the one she could count on to be there for her no matter what. But on the other hand, a large part of her wanted them to be even closer. She wanted him to see her as a woman, not just as the princess of Hyrule. She wanted each kiss to be a promise. Beneath each 'stay safe' and 'good luck' and 'thank you' and 'I'm sorry' she wanted his kisses to mean 'You mean the world to me.'

But that was too much to ask, even for the princess of Hyrule. She could ask him to protect her and she could ask him to fight for her and she could even ask him to die for her, but she couldn't ask him to love her. She and her father had taken many things from him, but she would never take his freedom.

The day they finally arrived in Rito Village, Zelda couldn't have been happier for something to at last take her mind off her appointed knight. Rito Village was breathtaking. The architecture was rustic but charming and the air was filled with song. The Rito themselves were just as lovely as she remembered, their plumage colorful and a delight to look upon. The place was so unchanged, so nostalgic, that she nearly expected Revali to drop from the air right in front of her and indulge in his cherished pastime of laying into Link. He didn't, of course. Revali was yet another friend who was long gone.

As they climbed through the village up to the elder's hut, Zelda was surprised to see the youngsters of the village come out of their houses and eagerly flock to Link as though he were some kind of celebrity. "Big bro Link!" they chorused, flittering around his legs. "Is that the princess? Did you rescue her? We saw Vah Medoh fire a big beam of light at the castle! That was you, wasn't it?" They hopped around him like a miniature rainbow of unbridled excitement.

Link greeted each new face with a smile and a fond pat on the head and alternated between nodding and shaking his head at their questions. The children didn't seem bothered by his nonverbal replies and they twittered enough amongst themselves that his voice wasn't missed.

By the time they reached the top of the village, Zelda was sure Link had collected every child in town. They hung on him in wonder and to Zelda their chatter sounded like a song all its own. Link, too, looked genuinely happy to be surrounded by so many adoring faces. He hadn't stopped smiling since they arrived. He had always seemed less guarded around children. It was heartwarming to see him drop his mask and let his true feelings shine through while in their presence.

They were greeted at the top by a large, blue Rito and a more lithely built white Rito. The blue Rito chortled merrily at the scene made by Link and the chicks. "Link!" he greeted her knight, having to raise his voice to be heard over the chatter. The children quieted at the sound of his voice. "You've returned to us safe and sound." His calm, slanted eyes found her and widened. "And Medoh above, with the princess in tow! Your highness, it is an honor." He stepped forward and bowed before her with the kind of elegance only the Rito possessed.

"I knew it! She is the princess!" one of the children piped up behind her, and the chatter began anew.

The white Rito joined his fellow and bowed as well, placing a wing over his heart respectfully. "Your highness. We bid you welcome to Rito village. It is indeed an honor. I as well as many of my fellow warriors were raised on the wings of your legend."

Zelda motioned for the two to rise. She smiled at the white Rito and shook her head. "The honored one is myself," she said. "I watched Link as he quested to free the Divine Beasts from Ganon's control and I know that you risked much to help him." She bowed her head and placed a hand to her breast, mirroring his action from before. "I thank you, brave warrior."

"Teba," he said, the severe line of his beak softening. "I require no thanks. It was Link who freed Medoh."

Zelda turned to the blue Rito next. "And you," she acknowledged him, "I saw your face many times throughout Link's journey. You led him to many hidden shrines with your songs."

The Rito looked momentarily surprised but he recovered quickly. "Kass, your highness. I am nothing more than a wandering minstrel with a love for song." He reached out and took one of her hands in his large wing. "That I would look upon you with my own eyes… My teacher is at last able to rest in peace."

Zelda raised her eyebrows curiously. "Your teacher?"

The Rito chuckled. "Oh, forgive me, your highness. Let me explain. My teacher was a Sheikah poet who worked in your very own court. It was his dearest wish to make certain Link didn't fail in his quest, for your safety was ever on his mind. He'd been quite taken with you, you see, and he was devastated when you returned to the castle to face the Calamity alone."

Zelda's eyes widened. There was only one man Kass could be talking about. "Sheik," she breathed, her hand rising to her mouth. "Sheik was your teacher? He survived?"

Link freed himself from the throng of miniature Ritos to join them. He fell into position easily at her side. He shared a nod with Teba before turning his attention to Kass.

Zelda's mind was reeling. The poet the Rito spoke of was hardly the type to take on a student. She'd known the young man well. He'd been a cousin of Impa and Purah and she'd always loved listening to him perform on his lyre. He'd been a kind boy, if a bit reclusive.

And what had Kass said? That he'd been taken with her? Zelda's other hand joined its partner at her mouth and she blushed fantastically. She'd had no idea he felt that way about her.

"He did. And he was," Kass replied, respectfully ignoring her embarrassment. "He was a fantastic teacher. His dedication to his craft and to the crown was moving to all who knew him. I only wish that he had lived to see you returned safely to us."

"Sheik…" she said again, moving her hands from her mouth to twine them in front of her. "To think that he felt so about me. I… I never suspected…"

She could feel the gravity of Link's eyes on her and she looked to the side to see him watching her calmly. Had he known, she wondered? Did he remember the poet with the gentle voice and crimson eyes who the denizens of the palace could always rely on for a bit of friendly advice? She felt a great ache in her chest knowing that Sheik had cared for her enough to dedicate the rest of his life to seeing that she would one day be rescued and she had never known.

"It is a matter of the past, highness," Kass said smoothly. "I know in my heart that he has found peace with your return." He stepped around to her other side and laid a wing on her lower back. "Now, then. You were on your way to meet the Chieftain, were you not? Allow us to escort you."

oO0Oo

Later that night, as Zelda and Link were settling into their beds at the inn, Zelda fished a candle from her bag and set it in a small saucer upon the windowsill. A light breeze ruffled her hair as she looked out over the scenery below. "Link," she said softly, turning her face her companion. "Might I borrow a piece of flint?"

Link said nothing. He merely handed over the desired object and Zelda used the knife he'd given her several days prior to strike the flint and light the candlewick. At Link's curious stare, she said, "It's for Sheik. I know it's not much, but I wanted to do something to honor him."

Link, as usual, remained silent. He looked at the candle and then out the window to where Hyrule Castle lay just beyond the mountains. He stared out in that direction for a long time. His expression didn't change at all, but Zelda could tell he was deep in thought.

"Link?" she questioned, hoping she might get lucky he would decide to share his thoughts with her.

To her immense surprise, he did.

"I remember him," he said, his voice as quiet as ever. His blue eyes flashed back to her, every bit as unreadable as always.

Zelda started in surprise at hearing his voice again so soon. "You…you do?"

Link nodded slowly. "I remember thinking…" He trailed off as he apparently struggled to find the words he wanted to say. His mouth fell closed and his eyebrows pinched together.

"You remember thinking…?" she prompted, trying to ease the words out of him.

Link exhaled and his brow smoothed out again. "…that he was a lot like you," he finished. He seemed relieved to have said his piece and she could almost see his desire to speak retreating back into him. She doubted she would hear his voice again this night.

"Like me?" she repeated, considering his statement. She cast her mind back in time to see if she could find any points of similarity between herself and the quiet Sheikah, but she had trouble fitting their personalities together in any cohesive way. Sheik had been withdrawn and soft spoken and, well, poetic. She, on the other hand, had been acerbic and hot tempered and not at all eloquent where Link was concerned. "I think your memory is still largely incomplete if you think I had anything at all in common with Sheik," she informed him with a small smile.

Link surprised her again when he returned her smile with what almost appeared to be a knowing glint in his eye. But he let the matter drop and instead of answering, fell back onto his pillow with a soft plop. Zelda mock scoffed and reached across the space between their beds to poke him in the arm. "Don't think I don't see you playing coy, good sir knight. Just what are you referring to, then?"

Link turned onto his side to look at her and Zelda tried not to be charmed by the way his hair splayed across his pillow. He gazed up at her wordlessly for a long moment and then he raised a hand to tap his temple. As she watched curiously, he moved the hand downward to do the same to the area over his heart.

Zelda's eyebrows rose. She understood what he was trying to say, but she still didn't follow his reasoning. "If you say so," she said skeptically.

Link just smiled again and closed his eyes. In a matter of moments, his breathing evened out and his face relaxed.

Zelda scoffed for real this time and pushed her blankets down to snuggle into her own bed. Ever the adept at weaseling out of a conversation, she thought, staring at her knight's peaceful face.

The flickering light of Sheik's candle combined with the soft light of the moon was like a blanket of serenity that caused her own eyelids to droop, and soon enough she was asleep as well.

oO0Oo

The next day, Zelda returned to her research.

Vah Medoh was, in her opinion, the most curious of all the Divine Beasts. She knew that it was able to fly through the air by using the same technology that once kept the city of the Sky People afloat, but just how that technology worked was, and probably always would be, a mystery to her.

While she and Link explored the ancient structure, members of the Rito tribe flew about and watched in fascination. It had been a hundred years since the beast had been safe to approach, so she could understand their curiosity. Some of the braver ones even landed on the top to do a little poking around of their own, though it seemed nobody but her and Link were gutsy enough to actually enter.

The beast's innards were much the same as Ruta and Rudania. Once again, Zelda found nothing to explain why only the one had ceased its functions.

"I just don't understand it," she thought aloud as she and Link finished scouring the last room. She sighed and hooked the Sheikah slate back onto her belt. "Is there something obvious I'm missing?"

Link, of course, didn't answer. He was just outside the door in the main atrium and she saw him cast his gaze around the chamber with a slight frown.

"I mean, I know it's nothing to beat myself up about," she continued. "The Divine Beasts have always been mysterious, and they've always acted at least partially by their own will, but it's just so strange. I wish I could make sense of it."

No sooner had the words left her mouth, that the softly glowing console in the room with them abruptly flickered and went dark. Zelda blinked. Curious, she walked back over to it and bent down to inspect it. How odd. She pulled the Sheikah slate from her belt and held it over the console but there was no reaction. The machine remained dark and lifeless.

"Princess."

Zelda turned at the sound of her knight's voice. All at once, the air was filled with the low hum of a machine powering down. She joined Link in the main chamber and her eyes opened wide when she saw that like the console, the whole place had gone dark. "It can't be…" she breathed. "This one, too?"

She hurriedly lifted the slate and opened the map function. The schematic of the beast was still loaded and in working order, but the dots marking the locations of the consoles had grown dim. Link watched over her shoulder as she attempted to access the beast's controls from the slate but no matter what she tried, Medoh remained unresponsive.

Zelda looked back at Link and shared a look of grim understanding with him. Knowing any further attempts would be useless, she slipped the slate back into its place on her hip.

Just like that, they'd lost another one.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Gerudo Town

They remained in Rito Village for two more days so that Zelda could discuss matters of governance with the Elder before setting out again. There was still one beast left, and who knew if it was still operational. Teba had agreed to fly to Death Mountain to check on Vah Rudania and would meet them in roughly a week outside Gerudo Town to relay his findings.

On the morning of the fourth day, they hiked back down to Rito Stable to pick up horses for the journey to Gerudo Desert. It was with a heart full of wistfulness that Zelda watched Rito Village shrink into the distance as they rode away. Just one more Divine Beast and then she would have to at last return to the castle to take up her duties as sovereign. Who knew when she'd get to travel like this again. Not for a very long time, she was certain.

They rode all day, only stopping for a light lunch, and managed to make it to the Tabantha Bridge Stable just as the sun was beginning to sink beneath the horizon. Link paid the innkeeper for two beds and proceeded to use the cookpot out front to prepare a meal of pepper steak and herb sauté for their dinner. It really was amazing, Zelda thought, what that boy could do with just a cookpot and a few ingredients, but he did love food more than anyone else she knew.

"I hope you won't stop cooking when we return to the palace," she told him as he plated their food. "It would be a terrible shame for such skill to go to waste."

Link smiled at that. "I wonder," he spoke, much to her delight, "if my princess doesn't keep me around for my cooking more than my prowess in battle."

Zelda smiled so wide that her face split nearly in two. A joke! Certainly, she had seen Link's dry wit in action while she watched him from the palace, but never before had it been directed at her. He'd never been anything but composed and professional when he chose to speak to her. She wondered if this change meant that he was finally beginning to think of her as a friend who he could be at ease around instead of the highborn and untouchable daughter of the king.

"Don't be ridiculous," she replied, schooling her expression. "I keep you around for your pretty face and no other reason."

Link's hand faltered as he scooped veggies onto his own plate and a piece of carrot fell onto his steak instead of beside it. It was an uncharacteristic moment of clumsiness and Zelda was about to make a teasing remark about it but a glance at his face stopped her. His cheeks and the tips of his ears were tinged pink and he was looking up at her with just his eyes. Goddesses above, he was actually blushing.

"I'm joking, of course," she said, taking his plate from his hand and starting toward the stable's campfire with a self-satisfied smile on her face. Two milestones in one evening! At this rate, she might even make him laugh one day.

That night, Zelda went to bed with a heart full of contentment. Slowly but surely, she was drawing Link out of his shell. Lately it felt like every day she was one step closer to achieving her goal of hearing him speak freely.

o0o

The next morning when they woke it was raining. Zelda was a bit put out by this but they had a schedule to keep and that meant rain or shine, they had to continue on. So it was that she and Link donned their hooded traveling cloaks, mounted their horses and rode off into the gloom.

The downpour remained steady all the way to the Tamio River and didn't show any sign of letting up. Despite their cloaks, the two were well and truly soaked to the bone as they crossed the Jeddo Bridge. Even their horses seemed miserable in the unending deluge.

Still, they pressed on. Zelda was determined to make it to the Outskirt Stable before dusk so that they would have somewhere dry and warm to sleep.

That was not to be the case, however. Just as they were rounding Satori Mountain, the dark sky lit up like a guidance stone and they were nearly deafened by the booming clap of thunder that followed. Zelda scowled up at the sky as she used her left hand to soothe her spooked mount. "Of all the rotten luck…" she grumbled, wiping rainwater from her eyes with the hand that held her horse's reins.

Link pulled his horse up next to hers and looked at her expectantly from beneath his hood, waiting for direction. Another flash of light lit the sky.

"We'll need to find shelter," she conceded with some reluctance. "A cave or some ruins. Anything to provide cover from this storm."

Link nodded and without even pausing to consider the problem turned his face to the West. "South of Satori Mountain," he said, his breath puffing out in the chill air as he spoke. "There are some rocks." He motioned for her to follow as he spurred his horse into a canter.

Their destination wasn't far, thank the goddesses. Link steered his horse into a wooded area and proceeded to follow what looked to be a natural path through the trees. After a few minutes of riding, they came to craggy area that sported a single cave-like hollow. When they drew near, Zelda saw that it was actually a short tunnel.

The cave-tunnel wasn't large but it was spacious enough that they could stand without crouching and deep enough that they didn't need to fight for space. It would be adequate for waiting out the storm. Zelda shivered as her sopping clothes clung to her like a second skin, bleeding the heat from her body. She shucked her cloak and dug in her pack for her only spare set of clothes, the white dress that Impa had so kindly had cleaned and mended for her. It wasn't the warmest of garments, but it was dry.

Link saw what she was about to do and dutifully turned his back. This was an old ritual for them and one he clearly remembered. Zelda smiled as she peeled off her blue and white tunic and pants and pulled the dress over her head. Only when the fabric had fallen into place did she move on to her undergarments. She trusted Link completely, but she'd still rather not risk being fully naked in his presence.

Being in dry clothes did wonders to improve her mood. She set her sodden tunic and pants to the side and slid down the cave wall with a sigh of satisfaction. Link determined that she was finished and turned back around to dig in his own pack. Following her lead, he pulled out a green traveler's tunic and a spare pair of trousers. Zelda didn't move from her spot, but she turned her face away to give him privacy while he changed.

When he was done, he plopped down beside her and together they listened to the storm rage on just feet away. Zelda sighed again. If she'd known they were going to get caught up in a lightning storm she would've elected to remain at the Tabantha Bridge Stable. There, at least, they could've waited out the storm in comfort instead of huddling under a rock. "Would that I had the blood of a weather god," she grumbled. "Not that I'm ungrateful for the power to seal away evil, but being able to stop the rain has many more practical uses. Think of all the time I'd save."

"Lose," Link corrected, his soft voice surprising her as usual. When she looked back at him, he was smiling wanly. He lifted a lock of her golden hair demonstratively. "About a century."

"Okay, yes," she conceded. "But at least I'd be dry."

Link's smile widened just slightly and he leaned his head back against the stone. He took a deep breath and his eyelids fell shut. She wondered if he intended to catch a nap while they waited. He, at least, did not seem put out by the storm.

Zelda scowled one last time at the pouring rain before following Link's lead and leaning back against the tunnel's wall. She supposed it could be worse. At least here she didn't have to keep up appearances. The stablefolk were lovely, but being a princess on display quickly became exhausting. After a century of being out of the public eye and not having to abide by court etiquette she was finding the transition back to her old life slightly more difficult than she'd anticipated.

However, she thought as her stomach growled, there was one perk to resting a stable, and that was easy access to a cooking pot.

Link's eyes opened at the noise and there was a twinkle of amusement in them as he looked at her. Zelda's cheeks reddened. "It has been several hours since breakfast," she defended, laying her hands over her stomach.

Link said nothing. He simply pulled his pack onto his lap and rummaged around for a moment. As Zelda looked on in surprise, he withdrew several rice balls wrapped in banana leaves and two slices of carrot cake.

Zelda's eyebrows shot up and she raised her fingertips to her mouth. "Link… What's this? When on earth did you find the time to make these?"

Link just shrugged and handed her two of the rice balls. He unwrapped one for himself and took a big bite.

Zelda looked down at her own rice balls in wonder. Link would've had to wake up early to prepare so much food. But that wasn't what confused her. The question on her mind was why. There was no reason for him to have prepared food ahead of time unless…

She looked back at him sharply. "Link… Did you know that a storm was coming?"

Link looked back at her with those too large blue eyes of his and chewed his food wordlessly. His expression revealed nothing of his thoughts. This, of course, was confirmation enough for her. "You did," she accused. She pegged him with an incredulous look. "Why didn't you just say something? We could have waited at the stable and avoided all this…" she waved a hand around at the storm and at their wet clothes, "…this."

Link finished his rice ball and tossed his banana leaf out into the rain. Instead of answering, he flopped back against the wall and sidled up next to her to lay his head on her shoulder. He folded his hands in his lap and looked up at her with an unaffected expression.

Zelda shook her head exasperatedly. "I just have no clue what's going on inside that head of yours," she said, turning her attention back to her rice balls.

It took nearly two hours for the storm to calm enough for them to conceive of continuing again. However, neither noticed when the thunder and lightning finally stopped as they had long since dozed off. Only Link stirred as night fell and he woke only long enough to rearrange them into a lying position and pull out his Snowquill tunic to use as a pillow before returning straight to dreamland.

oO0Oo

The next morning when they woke it was sunny. Link packed up their things while Zelda enjoyed a breakfast of leftover cake and they set out again merely an hour later, still garbed in their spare clothes.

They rode hard the whole day to make up for their setback and passed the Outskirt Stable completely by. The ride was long and grueling but they pushed all the way through the Gerudo Wasteland and managed to make it to the Canyon Stable just after dusk.

Zelda slid down from her horse with a weary exhale and her legs wobbled when they touched the ground. Her whole body felt like jelly.

Maybe it was the way she was dressed, still in her white prayer gown, but she and Link garnered a fair few more stares than usual as they handed their horses over to a stablehand and purchased beds for the night. Zelda was admittedly a little embarrassed to be seen in so little coverage by strangers, but her weariness was such that she didn't dwell on it. By tomorrow, her traveling clothes would be fit to be worn again.

She elected to cook dinner to give Link a break—and also to test her own skills—though Link stood by all the while regardless. He seemed just a little agitated—she could read the barest unrest in his bearing—though she hadn't the foggiest idea what was bothering him. She didn't worry about it, though. If there was one thing she knew about her appointed knight, it was that his mind was always working. Whatever was occupying his thoughts could be something entirely unrelated to anything going on in their immediate vicinity.

Dinner was a simple poultry pilaf that Zelda thought turned out well, all things considered. She wasn't much of a chef and Link rarely awarded her an opportunity to cook, but she was capable enough to make simple dishes. They ate by the fire like usual and Link seemed to enjoy the meal. Although, she privately thought, Link would probably enjoy anything so long as it was edible. He sat close beside her—closer than he normally would when in public—and in the end it was this that caused her to wonder if something wasn't in fact amiss in their surroundings.

Surreptitiously, she glanced around. Nothing struck her as being out of place for a stable. Aside from the besandled shopkeeper with the large, beetle shaped pack and the elderly man off in a corner eagerly stuffing his face with rushrooms, nobody seemed particularly suspicious. Just a bunch of normal travelers doing normal traveler things. A woman standing near the horse stalls noticed her looking and approached with a smile. "Hey, traveler. You like cooking?" she asked in a friendly manner.

Zelda returned her smile and nodded. "Yes. Though I don't have much occasion to do so," she admitted.

The woman made a noise of understanding. "If you'd like, I can share some recipes with you," she offered. "For example, hot buttered banana—"

The woman was abruptly cut off when the tip of a familiar platinum-white blade silently came to rest at her throat. Zelda started in surprise and whipped her head around to look at her companion. "Link! What in the goddess' name are you doing?"

To her further shock, the friendly woman let out an annoyed "tch!" and glared at him. Her whole demeanor changed in an instant. "As expected of the Princess' pet hero," she spoke scathingly. Before Zelda could so much as blink, she'd jumped back and in a burst of smoke her form transformed into that of a Yiga foot soldier.

Link was on his feet faster than a bolt from a crossbow. All around them, inn patrons cried out in surprise and turned to look at the commotion. The Yiga assassin pulled out a duplex bow and jumped into the air, her arrows aimed right at Link.

Link didn't bat an eye. He dodged the arrows with ease and before the assassin could recover, he lunged forward and struck with his sword. The foot soldier didn't stand a chance and was soundly caught in the barrage of strikes that followed. Link's slices were brutal but careful. He aimed to maim but not to kill. Faced with his unforgiving onslaught the overwhelmed foot soldier had no choice but to retreat. She popped out of existence with another puff of smoke and a pained yelp.

Link watched the spot where she disappeared with eyes that were uncharacteristically hard. His mouth did not frown, but Zelda could feel the irritation radiating off him like a dark aura. It lasted only a moment, however, and then his usual air of calm returned. Ignoring the clamoring of the people around them, he sheathed his sword and returned to the fire to take his seat beside her. Wordlessly, he plucked his discarded bowl from the ground and resumed eating.

Zelda, still somewhat shaken from the unexpected attempt on her and Link's lives, clutched her bowl tightly in her lap and looked at her knight apologetically. "Forgive me, Link. I did not realize that she was a Yiga spy."

Link paused in bringing another spoonful of pilaf to his mouth and his eyes found hers. He looked at her hard for a drawn-out moment and then his gaze flitted to the few patrons still talking excitedly about the attack. Seeing that their attention was otherwise occupied, he gave her a short nod and leaned in. Zelda met him halfway and they shared a very brief kiss; just a small peck with the message that her safety was his only concern and he was glad she was unharmed. Following the kiss, he returned to his food with no one the wiser to the knight's breach in protocol toward his princess.

o0o

The night passed with no further incidents and the next morning they woke at dawn to embark on the final leg of their journey. They bade farewell to their horses and set out on foot for the Kara Kara Bazaar.

The morning was clear and bright and Zelda could see the oasis in the distance as their path transitioned from rock to hot sand. The walk from the stable to the Bazaar wasn't a long one and only took about two hours. Heat resistant elixirs made the trip almost pleasant, were it not for the powerful sun trying its darnedest to burn her skin to a crisp. She ended up draping her prayer dress over her head to protect her face while Link looked on in quiet amusement from beneath his traveling hood.

Much like the other towns they'd visited on their journey, the Kara Kara Bazaar hadn't changed much in the past hundred years. The inn still towered over the oasis and the palm trees still swayed under the sun, their tops heavy with fruit. The faces of the vendors were different but the wares for sale were the same.

They spent a couple hours shopping around and enjoying the coolness of the oasis spring before taking lunch under the shade of some palm trees. Many of the vendors and even some of the travelers passing through recognized Link and Zelda heard many wondering whispers speculating about who she was and why she was traveling with him. It was apparent from the reactions of the people they'd met along their journey that Link had made some kind of name for himself as a lone traveling swordsman, so Zelda wasn't surprised by the whispers. Right now she was just happy to be able to travel without everyone in Hyrule knowing who she was.

After lunch they hit the road again. From the Kara Kara Bazaar it was only another three hours to Gerudo Town and a largely uneventful trip if one stuck to the road. They encountered no trouble but Zelda could see the occasional shadow of a Lizalfos lying in wait for unsuspecting adventurers.

With nothing to bar their progress, they reached the town by midafternoon. Zelda was a little confused when instead of going straight to the gate, Link veered off in the direction of a nearby shrine, but when he pulled his pack around and began pulling out wads of colorful cloth she understood. She watched in amusement as he disappeared behind the shrine and reappeared a few moments later garbed in billowy purple pants and a teal halter top.

"That's right. They don't allow men into the city," she said as he rejoined her. She gave him an amused onceover. The outfit was lovely, but on him it just looked silly. While Link did sport a more graceful and slender figure than many men, he still lacked certain assets that would have helped in filling it out. She fingered one of his sleeves, examining the material. "This really works?" she asked, looking back up at him. "Nobody suspects anything?"

Link just shrugged and fastened the veil over his mouth.

Though she'd seen him garbed this way before from the castle, it was a different kind of experience seeing it up close. Her first thought, in all honesty, was that he had very nice skin. She was a little jealous, actually. Her second thought was that it was fun to see him dressed in clothes other than his champion and traveler's tunics. It felt almost like seeing another side of him. Perhaps later she could persuade him to model some of his other garbs for her as well. She knew he'd accumulated quite the arsenal.

They made their way back to the city gate where two Gerudo guards stood vigilant. Zelda felt a pang of sadness as she looked past them to the bustling city beyond. The last time she'd been here it had been to visit her dear friend and near-surrogate mother, Urbosa. Of all the comrades lost on that awful day a century past, Urbosa's death had hit her the hardest. She used to think Urbosa was infallible. She'd never known a stronger warrior or a soul more kind. She'd been like family to her; a rock in the windstorm of turbulence and doubt that was Zelda's life before the calamity. As splendid as Gerudo town was, she knew already that it wouldn't be half as enjoyable without Urbosa at her side.

They passed through the gate without incident. The guards didn't bat an eye at Link's disguise. Zelda imagined it probably helped that the Gerudo were a muscular race. They didn't seem bothered at all that her companion sported abnormally broad shoulders for a woman of his size—and abs.

Just like every other town they'd passed through on their journey, Link was greeted with friendly smiles and waves from people who recognized him. For being such a solitary person, Link was probably acquainted with more people than anyone else in the kingdom. Zelda was a little envious. As Hyrule's princess, she was supposed to know her subjects and be someone they could depend on, but after a century of entrapment in a crumbling castle, she didn't know them at all, and in turn, they didn't know her. In the eyes of her citizens, she was more a legend than a person. She knew it was going to be a long time before she earned the trust and respect that Link had in his months of traveling. It seemed a little underhanded, but she was going to be relying on his prestige while she got her feet under her again.

Their first stop was, of course, the chieftain's palace. Zelda had seen the young chieftain in glimpses while she watched over Link on his journey, but unlike with the more elderly leaders of the other races, this would be their first meeting.

It seemed the chief had been notified of their visit, because she did not seem surprised when they appeared before her. She smiled calmly down from her throne at their entrance and Zelda was surprised when she stood from her seat and descended the dais to stand before them. Zelda was at once stunned by and also a small bit jealous of her beauty. For being so young, the chief was a sight to behold. Her eyes were the color of emeralds and her painted face was elegant, with perfectly shaped lips and a small button nose. She was going to be an absolute knockout in a few years. Standing before her dressed in her traveling clothes and without any kind of makeup or jewelry, Zelda felt very plain.

"Welcome to Gerudo Town, your highness," she spoke, bowing her head respectfully. "To finally meet the one who kept our lands safe from the calamity for one hundred years is quite an honor."

Zelda's cheeks flushed slightly at the young girl's praise and she offered her a smile. "Likewise," she replied. "Chief Riju, correct?" At the girl's affirmative nod, she continued, "For your part in aiding Link in taking control of Vah Naboris back from Ganon, you have my eternal gratitude."

Riju's eyes wandered to Link for a brief moment and her friendly smile turned sly. "Oh, no, your highness. It was my pleasure to be given the opportunity to work alongside a vai of such…unique physical ability."

Link looked back at her completely deadpan over his delicate blue veil and Zelda had to stifle a laugh. "Yes, she is quite capable," she agreed. "Though I do hope she didn't cause too much trouble for you and your guards."

Riju waved a hand dismissively. "Not in the slightest."

If Link was bothered at all by being discussed as though he weren't in the room, he made no sign of it. He kept his eye stoically forward and for all Zelda knew he could be thinking about exciting new ways to boil peas.

Zelda turned her gaze back to Riju and decided it was time to get to the point of her visit. "Returning to the topic of the Divine Beast, Naboris is actually one of the reasons I have come today. Perhaps you have heard already that Vah Ruta and Vah Medoh have mysteriously ceased all operation. I wished to inquire about the state of Vah Naboris. Tell me, is Naboris still functional?"

Riju lifted a hand to her chin contemplatively. "So, the other Divine Beasts have stopped working as well. I was curious about that, I'll admit."

Zelda's eyebrows rose in surprise. "So Vah Naboris has stopped, too?" She shared a look with Link who nodded seriously. "Then it is as I feared. We have once again lost control of the Divine Beasts."

Riju let her hand fall and tilted her head curiously. "Lost control? You are alarmed by the Divine Beasts shutting down?"

Zelda regarded the smaller girl with confusion. "You aren't? The Beasts are Hyrule's greatest defense. To lose them would be an insurmountable—"

She trailed off as Riju continued to look at her oddly. The young chieftain was quite clearly not bothered at all by the loss of her people's ancient protector.

"Your highness," she spoke again, "the Divine Beasts are weapons engineered for the sole purpose of fighting Calamity Ganon. If they are shutting down, then that can only be because their purpose has been served. There is no use for a weapon without an enemy."

Zelda's mouth opened to argue but she faltered. Was Riju correct? Could it really be that simple? She'd always assumed the Beasts would continue to watch over and protect Hyrule, but perhaps she was foolish to think so? It was just as Riju said—there was no enemy left to fight. She and Link had sealed Ganon away.

"Perhaps…you are right," she conceded. Her fingers moved on their own to brush the Sheikah slate at her hip. "Your conclusion is the obvious one, and yet in all my guessing I seemed to have missed it."

Riju lifted a finger to her painted lips. "Well, I certainly can't claim to be any kind of expert. It's possible that the Beasts are simply waiting for new champions to pilot them." She smiled then. "But all that can be figured out in time. Now, we have a matter much more pressing to discuss."

Zelda cocked her head in confusion. "A more pressing matter?"

Riju nodded and her smile widened. "That of the party that will be held in three days' time to celebrate the end of the calamity. We've been planning it since the dark cloud disappeared from Hyrule Castle. How fortuitous that you would arrive now, just in time to enjoy the festivities."

Zelda shared a look of surprise with Link. A party. For them. Perhaps she should have expected as much. The Gerudo always were fond of celebrations.

Riju stepped forward and took her hand. "You'll join us, won't you?" She looked far more her age as she beamed expectantly up at Zelda.

Zelda smiled and gave the younger girl an affirmative nod. "Of course. I daren't miss it."

Their meeting concluded, Riju called for a room to be prepared for her and Link. They would be guests in the palace for the days leading up to the party. As she and Link were led to the chambers they were to share, Zelda thought about how pleasant the open, airy design was of the Gerudo palace and compared it to the dark, confining walls of Hyrule Castle. She thought she'd much rather rule from a place like this—a palace that was warm and colorful and welcoming. She wondered if she could possibly persuade the architects of the new castle to take some notes from the Gerudo. She didn't want to go back to the same drab, stifling architecture that had been her prison since she was a little girl.

The room they were given was nice. It was large and colored in soft blue silks. There was a bed right in the middle large enough to hold four people comfortably. She and Link would have to share, but that was fine with her. They slept together often enough on the road. And unlike the other cities they'd visited, here, she wouldn't have to worry about anyone getting the wrong idea. After all, she thought slyly as she looked at her besilked companion, they were all women here.

Link dropped their packs and flopped onto the bed with abandon. He let his limbs sprawl and sighed in what sounded like happiness. Zelda smiled and took a seat beside him. The mattress was soft and felt like heaven after many nights of sleeping on firm inn beds. Next to her, Link closed his eyes and stretched his arms over his head. He sighed again and the veil covering his mouth fluttered.

Zelda chuckled at his antics. "Sometimes I forget that you're a teenager," she spoke, pulling her legs onto the bed. "I'd wager you would sleep all day if you could."

Link cracked an eye open and looked at her lazily. It was neither a confirmation nor a denial.

It was Zelda's turn to sigh as she too lay back on the mattress. It really was a wonderful bed. "I wish this never had to end," she said as she folded her hands over her stomach. "You know, I've really enjoyed getting to travel together with you again." She laughed softly and closed her eyes. "It's still a funny thing to admit."

Link made a sound in his throat that might have been agreement. She hoped it was. She liked to think that Link enjoyed traveling with her. He had said that he didn't wish to leave, so he had to at least be satisfied with their arrangement.

"I've been thinking a lot about what will happen once this trip is over," she confessed, staring up at the ceiling as if it might hold the answers to all her troubles. "We'll begin work on restoring the castle and I'll need to hold a meeting with the leaders of all of Hyrule's races. We'll assemble a council to discuss the direction of the kingdom." She sighed again, a more solemn sound than the last. "I'll be made queen."

That was going to be a thing. Her, queen of all Hyrule. She barely felt like she could manage herself at the best of times. Soon, she would hold the fate of the entire kingdom in her hands. More than ever, she wished her father had given her more instruction into matters of governance. She knew how to pray and she knew how to research, but she knew next to nothing about running a nation.

Her inner turmoil must have shown on her face because suddenly Link was hovering above her, his hands on either side of her head. He paused to unhook the veil that hid his mouth and then his lips were on hers, warm and yielding and gently encouraging. You're going to be a wonderful queen, his kiss said. Just be patient with yourself.

Zelda broke the kiss reluctantly and nodded. "You're right," she conceded. "There's nothing to be gained from unnecessary worrying." She smiled then and Link removed himself to flop back down beside her. "And in any case, now is a time for celebrating, isn't it? We're going to have a party thrown for us. It would be very rude of me not to enjoy it to its fullest."

Yes, soon, she would be queen. But until then, she was determined to enjoy her freedom.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: The Heart of the Knight

During the following days, Zelda spent quite a lot of time in the company of Chief Riju. Perhaps it was their mutual anxiety at being forced into a position of leadership before they felt they were ready, but both found something of a kindred spirit in the other. Zelda liked Riju. She was young but she was rational and intelligent and they never seemed to run out of things to talk about. The two could often be found together enjoying a traditional game of shatranj or deep in discussion over matters of State. Link divided his time between hovering nearby and performing simple favors for various individuals around the city. He'd made quite a name for himself as a handyman—er, handywoman.

Zelda quickly learned that Riju had a passion for sand seals. She loved talking about them and watching them and playing with them, but most of all, she loved racing with them. On the day before the party, she finally managed to coax Zelda into joining her for a ride.

"Spread your legs and bend your knees a little more—good, just like that."

Zelda wobbled a bit as the shield beneath her feet sank into the sand. She'd never done anything like shield surfing before and she was a bit apprehensive, but Riju had assured her it was easy.

"You've got a tight hold on the reins? Okay, don't let go, now."

Zelda was barely prepared when the seal she was connected to abruptly surged forward. She yelped and dug her feet into the shield to keep her balance and then she was moving, gliding along the sand as if her shield had suddenly sprouted wheels. She let out a nervous laugh as she was pulled along, the seal gradually picking up speed.

Riju was right. Once she got past the initial lurch, it actually was quite easy.

The Gerudo Chieftain pulled up alongside her, connected to her own beloved seal, Patricia. "Will you look at that. You're a natural!" she called over the rush of wind in their ears.

Zelda laughed again, this time in delight, as they raced across the sand. The traditional Gerudo garb Riju had gifted her fluttered in the wind. It was soft and breezy against her skin. Riju led her far and wide around the desert, treating her to a guided tour of the Gerudo homeland. They passed oases and curious rock formations and even a few shrines that Link had surely visited during his adventure. Every now and then they'd pass a stray lizalfos or bokoblin camp and the monsters would screech and stamp about in frustration as they whipped by too fast to catch. Zelda could see now why Riju enjoyed this so much. She herself hadn't had this much fun since before her mother had passed away. She was definitely going to be arranging many holidays in desert after she became queen.

As the sun began to sink and the sky turned pink, they finally turned their seals for home. Zelda was sad to be going back so soon, but she was excited to tell Link all about the day's adventures. She'd said that she was going to spend the day with Riju but she hadn't told him she was leaving the city walls. He was probably going to be unimpressed by that little stunt, but she thought she deserved a smidgen of freedom every now and then.

Sure enough, as the city came into view, Zelda saw a familiar sandy-haired form perched atop the wall by the gate. He stood motionlessly, his face turned toward the two women approaching from the desert.

"Looks like your knight figured out where you went," Riju remarked, amusement lacing her voice.

Zelda smiled guiltily. "He's going to be cross with me, I think. Though I doubt he'll say as much."

Riju laughed. "I feel sorry for him. I'm sure he'd love to scold you but his rank forces him to hold his tongue. It must be hard caring about someone but being unable to act and speak freely with them."

Zelda turned her head to look at her friend. "You think he feels like he can't be open with me?"

Riju hummed and looked up at the dark figure silhouetted against the setting sun. "I think he's doing the best he can given his circumstances. There are just certain things that are frowned upon between knights and princesses, you know?"

"Certain things?" Zelda repeated. "I've told him again and again that he can speak to me about anything. I want to know the heart of my knight."

Riju gave her a sidelong glance and smiled slyly. "It's not the heart of the knight that's the problem, Princess. It's the heart of the man."

Zelda nearly let go of her sand seal's reins as she momentarily forgot she was being pulled across the desert. She hurriedly tightened her grip before she wound up face first in the sand. "You—you think he has…feelings for me?"

Riju threw her head back and laughed. The action was so similar to Urbosa that Zelda felt a quick flash of homesickness. "Zelda," she said, using her name instead of her title like Zelda had asked her to the day previous. "I'll bet everyone in Hyrule knows how he feels about you. He's mentioned you to nearly everyone's he's talked to. You probably haven't had to introduce yourself once since you left that cursed castle."

Zelda thought back to all the places she and Link had visited and her eyes widened as she realized it was true. She'd regularly been recognized on sight by people she'd never met before. She'd thought before that her reputation had simply preceded her, but could it be that it was actually Link's doing all along?

"Surely he's done something to show his feelings for you," Riju continued. "Even if he can't say it, there are ways to let a person know what's in your heart without words."

Zelda felt the heat of blood rise in her cheeks. She did indeed know a way. It was a compelling case, and one she'd certainly considered before, but Link's behavior had just never quite lined up. Link's kisses were indeed a way for him to share his heart with her, but they had never been romantic. He never tried to push for more. "I…I don't know," she said at last.

Riju hummed contemplatively and then shrugged. "Well, even if he hasn't, that could just be because he feels it's improper." She looked up at the steadily growing figure on the wall and then gave Zelda another sidelong glance. "You might try testing him. See how he responds under heat…" She smirked then. "If you're interested, that is."

Zelda flushed again and turned her face away to hide her embarrassment. "I will…take your advice into consideration."

A moment later, they pulled up to the gate and Zelda relinquished her seal to the handler. Riju broke off with a wave. "I'm going to take Patricia back to her pen. I'll see you back at the palace." She winked and disappeared into the city.

It was then that Link dropped down beside her. His expression was neutral as usual, but to Zelda it seemed almost too detached. As she'd suspected, he was upset. "Link," she greeted, offering him a friendly smile. "You didn't have to wait up for me, you know." Perhaps if she acted like everything was as usual he would follow suit.

Link said nothing. He simply turned away and began walking toward the gate.

Zelda sighed. So much for that plan. "You're mad at me."

Her companion remained silent and continued to walk as if she'd said nothing.

Zelda cringed. Ouch. He was angrier than she'd thought. "Listen, Link. I'm sorry. I know that the desert isn't precisely…the most safe place for a princess to go on her own. But Riju was a wonderful guide and we were very careful."

Link didn't stop walking. Nor did he turn around. She thought he would continue to ignore her, but then, in a careful, controlled voice, he said, "It is not up to me to police where you go."

Zelda had to stop herself from wincing. The fact that he'd broken ten words to throw shade at her spoke volumes of his displeasure. She knew he wasn't upset at her for wanting to go off on her own. He'd just been worried. He had probably been terrified when he couldn't find her. She suddenly felt very bad for putting him through unnecessary stress.

She jogged to catch up with him and took his arm. "You're right, it's not. But I should have told you before I left. I apologize for making you worry. I will be more...forthcoming with my plans in the future."

Link finally turned his head to look at her. His mouth was hidden by his veil but his eyes had regained some of their warmth. "You are under no obligation to explain yourself to me. The fault is mine. I was negligent."

Zelda couldn't help the small smile that lifted the corners of her mouth. She'd spooked Link into using words. That was an achievement, though it wasn't one she was in a hurry to repeat. "Not as a princess," she agreed. "But as a friend, the apology is absolutely owed."

Link stared hard at her for a moment as if appraising her, then he turned his face forward again and continued on. He said nothing more, but he allowed her to walk arm in arm with him and Zelda knew she was forgiven.

oO0Oo

The next day was the party. Rather than holding it in the city, Riju had elected to throw the party in the Kara Kara Bazaar to open it to everyone, vai and voe alike. In her own words, the end of the Calamity was a time of celebration for all of Hyrule's citizens, not just its women, and she wanted this to be a celebration that wouldn't soon be forgotten.

True to her word, the party was marvelous. The Bazaar had been decorated with silk banners of every color and travelers and Gerudo alike spent the evening dancing and feasting and drinking and being merry. Link, who was finally allowed to dress like a man again for the first time in days, was particularly popular that night. Word had spread fast that he'd had a hand in freeing the kingdom from the threat of the Calamity and while he wasn't very vocal on this point himself, the masses were more than happy to invent their own stories about how Ganon had been defeated at last. Over the course of the night, Zelda heard all manner of fantastic tales about the exploits of her knight.

Zelda was also an item of intense scrutiny that evening, though while Link was treated to many a clap on the back and proffered drink, she was treated with the kind of reverence normally reserved for a goddess. It probably didn't help that Riju had talked her into wearing her prayer gown. The people fawned over her and some even left offerings of food and jewelry at her feet. It was possibly the most bizarre experience of Zelda's life. Nobody seemed to know quite how to treat her. One thing was for sure, though, and that was that everyone was grateful to her for the century she'd spent holding the Calamity at bay. Some of the braver individuals asked about the experience and inquired as to what she planned to do from here. Once she was queen, of course. It seemed nobody doubted she would become their monarch.

Zelda answered the questions posed to her to the best of her ability. Yes, she would unite the races; yes, she would rebuild the castle; no, she didn't currently have any plans to entertain suitors; yes, that meant Prince Sidon too…the stream of questions was nearly endless. Eventually Riju pulled her away for a game of shatranj and she was awarded a half hour of peace while Buliara and her team of guards glared down anyone who tried to interrupt.

Even with all the questions and the unsettlingly reverent treatment, it was a lovely night full of good food and good company and Zelda couldn't have asked for a better end to her journey. Seeing all of Hyrule's races happy and celebrating and free after a hundred years of living every day in fear brought with it a feeling of joy so intense that she had to wipe moisture from her eyes on more than one occasion. Maybe her friends and family were all gone, but Hyrule lived on. She would indeed remember this night for the rest of her life.

o0o

Later that evening when the party began to wind down, Zelda found Link and they slipped away. Zelda found a couple of sand seals and they managed to make it back to the city in a fraction of the time it would have taken on foot. When they reached the gate, Zelda pulled her seal to a stop and hopped off her shield onto the still warm sand. Link followed suit, but to Zelda's surprise, he nearly toppled over once his feet were back on solid ground. He looked at the ground in surprise as if mentally asking it why it had tripped him.

Zelda chuckled at his uncharacteristic clumsiness and slung her shield onto her back as she started toward the gate. To her confusion, Link followed instead of going to the shrine to change into his Gerudo disguise. Zelda stopped and raised an eyebrow at him. "Aren't you going to change?"

Link, who had been focusing on the ground up to that point, looked up at her and blinked in confusion.

"Your outfit…" she prompted, placing a hand on her hip. "They're not going to let you into the city looking like that."

Link looked past her to the gate where only one Gerudo soldier stood guard instead of the usual two and then down at his bag where the outfit in question was tucked away and he gave it a look of such concentration that Zelda thought he might be trying to solve world peace. Finally, he shook his head and instead of opening the bag, raised his shield and placed it over his head like a wide-brimmed hat.

Zelda looked at him incredulously. "I don't think that's going to work."

To her immense surprise, it did. The guard barely glanced at him and Link was free to walk straight into the town, no questions asked. Zelda followed, completely baffled as he walked through the center of the city to the palace in his champion's tunic and Hylian trousers. The city was nearly empty, though, and the few people who hung around seemed to be too busy enjoying their own private celebrations to pay the Hylian duo any mind.

The situation only grew odder when they reached the steps leading up to the palace. Link took three steps up, then proceeded to lose his footing and fall back into her with an "oomph". Zelda caught him and managed to stabilize him before they both ate stone.

"Link…are you quite alright?" she asked as she held his torso from behind. He seemed to be having trouble keeping his feet under him.

"Yes," he answered, very quickly for him. He sounded somewhat confused, though, and he added, "Probably."

He managed to find his balance and tried the stairs again, this time managing to make it to the top without incident. Zelda watched him carefully the whole way as they navigated the palace back to their room. To her immense relief, their luck held and they encountered no guards.

Once they were safely back in their room, Link dropped everything he'd been carrying and with the kind of single-minded determination he normally reserved for battle he walked over to the bed and flopped forward onto his face. His hair splayed out over the covers and even though it had to be difficult to breath with a mouth full of comforter, he didn't move.

"Link…" she called to him, taking a seat beside him on the edge of the bed. "Are you quite sure you're alright?"

Zelda had never seen her knight behave this way before. If she thought she had trouble understanding what went through his head on a normal day, then now she was positively flummoxed. Was he ill? But he'd been fine just a few hours ago…

Link inhaled deeply, his face still pressed to the bedspread, and then exhaled. His back rose and fell with the motion. After a moment, he spoke, his voice muffled by the blankets. "There's a voice in my head that won't turn off."

Zelda's eyebrows rose. A voice? This was the first she'd heard of this. "What is it saying?"

Link was silent for another long moment before he spoke again. "Listen, listen, listen, listen, listen, listen, listen." He broke off with a groan and turned onto his side to pull his legs up onto the bed, facing away from her.

Zelda blinked down at him, slightly concerned. "Link?"

"I'm listening, Navi."

Zelda frowned and leaned over him to get a look at his face. His eyes were closed and he was breathing more deeply than normal. She placed a hand on his cheek. "Link, open your eyes."

With a great deal of reluctance, he complied. His eyes found hers but Zelda had the oddest feeling he wasn't really looking at her. His gaze seemed vacant and his pupils were dilated. Zelda's frown deepened. "I think you're sick."

Link blinked lazily up at her and then all at once his eyes opened wide and seemed to clear just slightly and he stared at her with a searching anxiousness that caught her quite off guard. "I'm not sick," he said quickly.

Zelda's eyebrows knit together at the ferventness of his denial. "You're not acting yourself," she explained patiently. "Perhaps I should find a doctor."

Link shook his head vigorously. "No," he said firmly. "I am fit to serve."

Zelda gave him a baffled look. Did he think she was going to send him away? While it was true that sick knights were often required to take a leave of absence under her father, there wasn't exactly anywhere she could send him. "I'm not going to ask you to leave," she assured him. "I just want to make sure you're alright."

Link closed his eyes again and his brows pushed together in concentration. He inhaled again and with effort flipped onto his back. His eyes reopened and Zelda could see that he was trying hard to focus. He passed a hand over his face and when he looked back at her he seemed more lucid. "I think…I would like some water. Please."

Zelda's lips formed a small 'o' of surprise. Link had never asked her for anything before. He was always such a stickler for rules. But Zelda was more than happy to comply with his wish. She left him momentarily to poor a cup of water from the pitcher by the door and when she offered it up to him he accepted it gratefully, hoisting himself into a sitting position to drink. When he was finished, he set the empty cup on the bed beside him and his eyes fluttered closed. "Thank you."

Zelda took her seat on his other side. "Better?" she questioned, watching him breathe deeply.

He hummed low in his throat.

"I really think you ought to see a doctor," she reasserted, making her tone sound matter-of-fact. "Drowsiness and vertigo are classic signs of influenza. You may even have picked up some nasty desert bug."

Link frowned and started to shake his head but then he paused and seemed to think for a moment. Suddenly, a look like realization lit up his face. He surprised her when he stood abruptly and walked across the room to his large traveling pack. He squatted down in front of it and rummaged around for a moment before withdrawing a vial of pink liquid. He deftly popped the cork out and threw back its contents in a single long pull. When he was finished, he straightened up and turned back to her and instantly she saw his eyes clear and his fatigue melt away. He held a hand up in front of him and opened and closed his fist experimentally. Seemingly satisfied, he looked back at her. "Not sick. Intoxicated," he explained. His eyes hardened and he lowered his hand to his side. Zelda could tell right away that he was kicking himself. "Disgraceful," he muttered, glowering down at the floor.

Zelda stared at him. Then a laugh bubbled up in her throat. Intoxicated. So, her stoic, proper knight had simply had too much to drink? Normally, she was disapproving of men and women who took too eagerly to drink, but the fact that Link had gone and gotten himself sloshed completely by accident was possibly the funniest thing she could have conceived of.

Link looked back at her, bewildered by her laughter. His mouth tightened and Zelda could tell that he was trying to decide how to feel about her reaction.

"I apologize," she said, still giggling. "I shouldn't laugh at you. But it's just… I really thought you were ill and I was starting to worry, but actually you just enjoyed too much drink and…" she trailed off as she composed herself, "Sorry, it's just that now that I know you were only drunk it all seems very funny."

Link crossed his arms over his chest and gave her a flat look. When he saw that she was very much unaffected by this, he sighed and let his arms drop before rejoining her on the bed. He sank down beside her and leaned back on his hands.

Zelda leaned back as well and turned her head to smile at him. They were sitting close enough that Zelda's cheeks pinkened at their proximity. "Link…" she started, deciding it was time for a change of topic. There was something she'd been wanting to say to him anyway. "Thank you, truly, for joining me on this journey. I know it's your job to follow me around, but, well, just having you by my side has made the transition to this new age so much smoother and less lonely than it could have been and I honestly, from the very bottom of my heart, am grateful to you for choosing to remain as my knight. It's been…actually very fun." Her cheeks darkened and she was forced to turn her face away to escape the weight of his bright blue eyes as they stared levelly back at her. "I was a little sad earlier because I thought today would be the end of our adventure, but I think now that I was mistaken. Perhaps we won't get to travel again for a while, but the adventure is far from over. We'll just be moving on to a new kind of battlefield."

She smiled down at her lap. As long as Link was with her, her life would never be dull. That was a guarantee.

Zelda's smile widened when she felt fingers tangle with hers and she peeked at her companion to see him smiling as well. He caught her eye and maybe it was just the light but she thought his cheeks were a little rosy too.

"Whatever happens," she continued, "I want you to know that I value your friendship above all others', and if it really is your intention to remain a knight until you die, I hope that I can be there to witness every moment because I know you are going to be great and there is no one I'd rather have as my protector."

Link closed his eyes briefly and his weight lifted off his hands as he sat forward. Gently, he dragged her upright as well. When she'd settled into the new position he brought their clasped hands up to his heart and nodded solemnly. Zelda could feel his heartbeat sure and steady on the back of her hand. He looked straight into her eyes with such purpose that Zelda thought for a moment he was going to say something, but he seemed to think better of it and instead simply tightened his grip on her hand.

Seeing him shutting down right in front of her called to her mind Riju's words from the day before. It must be hard caring about someone but being unable to act and speak freely with them. Here he was, acting precisely as she'd said. Well, she decided in that moment, she wasn't going to let him anymore. "You want to say something, I can tell," she coaxed, squeezing his hand back. "Whatever it is, I'll listen. You don't need to restrain yourself."

Oddly, her words seemed to have an effect opposite to the one desired. Link's mouth pinched into a line and she could read conflict in the way his eyebrows pushed together. He glanced down at their hands and then back up to her eyes and then repeated the motion once more. Finally, he sighed and rather than speaking, he smiled a tiny, wry smile with just the corner of his mouth and began to pull away.

Zelda didn't let him. She grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him back, and a part of her was smugly satisfied to hear his startled, "Ah," when she rose up to press a kiss to his forehead. If words were difficult, she would take a leaf out of his book and find another way to communicate with him. He made no further attempts to flee as she moved to kiss his cheek just under his eye, then his left ear, then the place where his jaw became his chin. She could tell that he was confused by her kisses but Zelda just thought, it serves you right for all the confusion you've put me through with yours.

Finally, she pulled back just enough to move her hands from his shoulders to his face and then she tilted her head to avoid bumping noses and moved back in to lightly touch his lips with hers. His eyes, which had been watching her curiously, fluttered closed and Zelda took that as an invitation to deepen the kiss. She pressed more firmly against his mouth, enjoying the softness of his lips under hers. Moving slowly, so as not to startle him, she parted her lips, and to her delight, his followed suit. Her cheeks heated at what she was about to do, but she'd already decided she was going to take Riju's advice. See how he responds under heat.

Before he could catch wind of her plan, she slipped her tongue into his mouth. His was waiting just behind his teeth and she let them share a brief, curious moment of contact. Link made a sound of surprise but he didn't try to pull away. The feeling of their tongues brushing one another was unexpectedly pleasant, but even more pleasant was the feeling of Link's fingers coming to rest on her waist. Emboldened by his small act of reciprocation, Zelda moved her hands to his chest and gave him a gentle push. He complied with her nonverbal order and fell onto his back, pulling her with him.

Now pressed flush against him, the tempo of the kiss abruptly changed. Link moved one hand to her back to pull her even closer and the other slipped under her hair to cup the back of her neck, and suddenly she wasn't the one in control anymore. Link slanted his mouth against hers and his tongue caressed hers in a way that was eager but that also embodied the same careful attentiveness he always treated her with. Zelda couldn't stop the blissful sound that escaped her throat at his attention and Link must have taken her noise as a sign because he pulled back to give them both a moment to breathe and then he was right back, his mouth hot against hers as their tongues danced. Suddenly she was being flipped onto her back and Link was hovering above her balancing his weight on one elbow beside her head while his other hand cupped the back of her knee and spread her legs so that he could settle between them.

Zelda probably should have stopped him at that point, but she could hardly find it in herself to care as her white skirt pooled around her middle and Link pressed himself against her. Given his respectful and submissive nature, Zelda had never pictured Link as being the type to want to take charge in matters of romance and intimacy but he was proving her wrong right now as he kissed her senseless on a bed that Zelda highly doubted was designed with acts of intimacy in mind. She definitely hadn't intended for her kiss to go this far, but it felt wonderful and she couldn't say how pleased she was to see Link finally asserting himself.

It was to her disappointment, then, when Link's good sense abruptly returned and he pulled away. It was as if she'd suddenly become fire. He quickly released her leg and backed away with a horrified look on his face. His eyes raked over her tousled form, taking in her hiked up dress and kiss swollen lips and his mouth opened and closed several times before he finally managed to get words out. "I shouldn't have done that."

Zelda's cheeks flared up and she cleared her throat as she sat up and smoothed her dress down with her palms. She peeked up at him bashfully through her lashes. "It, um, was a little more than I'd anticipated, but it was nice." She gave him a reassuring smile, hoping it to show that she wasn't upset.

Link raised a hand to his head and pushed back his fringe with the heel of his palm. His cheeks were definitely red now. They practically glowed in the dim light of the wall sconces. He didn't look reassured.

Zelda swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood. She took a moment to make sure her dress was arranged as it should be and then crossed the distance to where he had retreated. Link tried to escape, but she grabbed his wrist, halting him. He didn't dare try to remove her. "Link, the blame is mine. I initiated."

He shook his head. "I lost control. My behavior is inexcusable."

It was Zelda's turn to shake her head. She stepped closer and laid her free hand on his chest. "Don't you see? I wanted you to lose control. I've told you again and again that I want you act freely with me. If there's something you want to say or do, then do it. If I don't like it, I'll tell you so." She slid her hand up to his cheek and leaned forward to touch her forehead to his. "And likewise, if I do something you don't like, I want you to tell me."

She could practically hear Link's heart racing in his chest. He was still unsure. She could see the gears in his mind turning, trying to hold fast to propriety because that was what he knew. Zelda pulled back and smiled again. "Let's start with this. Are you upset that I kissed you?"

Link's answer was quicker than a heartbeat. "No."

Zelda's heart fluttered. "If I told you I wanted you to kiss me like that again, would you do it?"

Link's reply wasn't quite as fast this time, but still prompt. "Yes."

She nodded encouragingly. "And would you be doing it because it's something you want to do?"

Link hesitated. He searched her face as if looking for any sign that her question was some kind of trick, but he found none. "…Yes," he answered at last, his cheeks flaring up again at his confession.

Zelda couldn't stop the giddy shiver that coursed through her. All this time, she'd been so worried that Link didn't see her in a romantic light. All the second guessing she'd done about the meaning of his kisses and whether or not he even enjoyed travelling with her and now she finds out he does and she didn't think it was possible to feel any happier. Giving Link her most radiant smile, she cupped his face in both hands and pulled him into a kiss. It was considerably more chaste than the last one they'd shared, but there was no doubt as to the feelings behind it.

Link wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly even after she broke the kiss. She responded by enfolding his shoulders in an embrace of her own and laying her cheek against his. "You won't try to distance yourself from me because of this, right?" she murmured into his hair.

He shook his head and pulled her even closer. "No."

Zelda smiled and kissed his neck just below his ear—partly because it was the only part of him she could reach. "Good."

That had been her one worry. She could deal with anything but him pulling away from her.

"But you know, I've been dying to know…you were always so reluctant to do anything that might be seen as improper, and, well, not that I'm complaining, but I was very confused when you just started kissing me…"

Link hummed in his throat and Zelda felt the vibration against her collarbone. "You like touching. And it calms me."

Zelda pulled away enough to look at him in surprise. "That's it?"

Link's cheeks reddened again and he looked down. "I'm not good with words. I didn't want to scare you with my feelings."

Zelda felt a laugh bubble in her throat. So, the legendary hero of Hyrule could feel insecure about talking to girls. She wondered if that was a trait he'd possessed in all his lifetimes or if it was unique to this one. She'd probably never know. "You scare me more when you say nothing," she admonished. "It's no stroll through Forest Park trying to guess what you're thinking all the time."

Link looked abashed and Zelda grinned to show she was just teasing. "Not to worry, though. We'll have plenty of time to get you comfortable with public speaking once we return to the castle. As the queen's inamorato, I daresay it's a skill you'll be needing."

Link paled and he stared at her with wide eyes. Zelda laughed and calmed him with a kiss. "All things in time," she assured him after she pulled away. "A new kind of battlefield, right?"

Link sighed a long, suffering sigh and then his mouth twitched up into a smile. "A new kind of battlefield," he agreed.

Zelda smiled beatifically and clasped his hand in hers. Going forward would indeed lead them to new battlefields, but they were battlefields upon which neither of them would need to fight alone. They would rebuild the castle. They would reunite the kingdom. They would live, and they would continue to welcome the future together. That was Zelda's hope. 

By the way Link returned her smile and leaned forward to kiss her soundly, she knew that was his hope as well.