"How much does he remember?"
Zelda turned away from the small mirror as she tugged at a particularly reticent tangle in her hair. Her question hung in the air, threatening to be left unanswered.
Impa almost seemed not to have heard, her wrinkled hands idly fiddling with the ribbon that tied her sleeve, her tired red eyes lost in thought. She was old now, Zelda reflected, curved over and shrunken, with not an outward trace of the proud Sheikah Master she had once been. Though she still led her people with the same sharp intelligence and steady hand as when she was thirty, this aged crone would not, Zelda knew, be in any shape to fight, ever again.
At length, the ancient Sheikah woman took a deep breath. "I fear there isn't much." Her gaze met Zelda's, perceptive and wise. "And if he has any further recollection than what was left for him, he has not shared it."
Zelda nodded, slowly, trying to stifle her disappointment. She turned back to the polished mirror, peering at her reflection. She had finally been given the opportunity to bathe, a delight she had not felt in a hundred years. The Goddess had put her into a state of physical stasis, but her mind… Her mind had been set loose, wandering every single path her memory and imagination could conjure. She had spent every moment since Link's victory relishing absolutely every mundane task, the pleasure of experiencing the world once again sometimes overwhelming. Every blade of grass, every drop of rain, every breath of fresh air had been a gift.
Now, she was rediscovering the pleasure of untangling her hair. In an age long past, she had hated this part, the way her wet hair tended to clump and tangle seemingly on its own, requiring the firm application of a brush to make presentable again. But now she was pink and clean, and her hair was soft and it hadn't lost its golden sheen, and she enjoyed the mindless task at last.
"I wish," she said, so softly she doubted Impa would hear, "that I could give him his old life back."
Impa snorted. "I doubt he would know what to do with it."
That was true enough, Zelda mused. In those days, Link had been deeply uncomfortable in his role, for most of the time he had been assigned to it and to her. He seemed far more at ease here and now, free as he was.
"Does he remember his family?" Zelda asked.
Impa did not reply, evidently uncertain, and Zelda feared the answer was no. The notion was heartbreaking.
"If there was a way to trigger his memory," she thought out loud, "and help him recover it all…"
"To what end?" Impa asked, her voice soft.
Zelda blinked, turning in surprise to her old Sheikah Master. "Impa."
But Impa shook her head. "I am only asking. Do you want him to remember for the sake of his own well-being, or are you afraid of one day being the only one to remember Hyrule in its glory days?"
Zelda swallowed hard. "Both, I suppose." She felt her heart squeeze. Impa had ever been perceptive. "You think it would harm him."
Impa dismissed this notion with a wave of her wrinkled hand. "He's strong. Perhaps he would be fine. But you must admit that there is pain, grief and loss in those memories."
"His past was not just pain and grief," Zelda admonished. "There was laughter and friendship there, too."
Master Impa sighed. "Friendship he can never resume, laughter he will never hear again."
But at least, Zelda reflected, focusing on a nasty tangle to keep her eyes from watering, he would have me. I would know. I would understand.
The diminutive old Sheikah pushed herself up from the thick cushion where she had been sitting and came to place a parchment-skinned hand on Zelda's arm. "I do not seek to hurt you, child. But you have seen him. He seems content. Be sure of your choice."
Zelda nodded, her throat too tight to speak. Even here and now, with the Sheikah Master's hand on her arm, she felt a sudden and overwhelming sense of loneliness.
I would be there for him, and then someone would be there for me, she thought. She had spent a hundred years dreadfully alone, her calls out into the wild unheeded. A hundred years. Thirty-six thousand days and nights. Some nine hundred thousand hours. An age.
Impa left her to her thoughts, retreating to the little staircase that led her back downstairs. This loft was usually Paya's alone, but the young Sheikah girl had generously offered to sleep downstairs with her grandmother and give the princess of Hyrule some privacy, until Zelda had begged for her company. She dreaded being left alone again, the notion crushing. During her first night here, she had awakened in tears, only to find that Paya was holding her hand, red eyes earnest in their concern. The kindness of physical contact was wonderful, comforting. It reminded her of the first touch she'd felt after those hundred dreadful years.
It had been nothing, mindless, his hand extending out to help her into the saddle of one of his several stabled horses. But when she had touched the leather of his fingerless glove and felt the calluses of his fingers close around her own, she had been overwhelmed by the force of her reaction.
Link had no idea. There was a sort of magic in him, Zelda had determined, a power that could rival her own, judging by the way he made her heart race. She had reasoned that it was simply the shock of absence, that there was nothing to it, but…
"Your highness?" Paya's soft voice said. Zelda turned to the Sheikah girl, who stood at the top of the steps. She was pretty, but shy, and generally incapable of speech in Link's presence.
Sometimes, Zelda couldn't blame her.
"Please, Paya," Zelda said, trying on her most winning smile, aware that it might still be a little watery, "I insist that you move about your own home freely. And call me Zelda."
"Yes, your highness," Paya said, and Zelda resisted the urge to correct her. "Um, he is here."
There was only one man in the world capable of putting Paya in this state of distraction. Zelda felt her heart leap, foolishly. In this, at least, she and Paya were of one mind. Link rarely called upon her at this hour, which naturally meant complete and absolute havoc for her nerves.
"Well," Zelda said, putting her brush down with an unsteady hand, "one mustn't be rude."
She was self-conscious. Paya had provided her with Sheikah clothing and she was clean, for a change, but somehow this only made her feel even more inadequately attired.
She found Link standing before Impa, both of them seemingly content to remain quiet. His eyes darted up to Zelda in recognition but otherwise he maintained his usual guarded expression. There had been times, Zelda remembered, when he would greet her with a smile, and sometimes before that, even, with an actual scowl, depending on the state of their friendship. But this… This polite distance reminded her of the years before the Master Sword, of the days before his fateful selection.
He remembers the essential, Zelda's heart whispered, but in many ways, he remembers nothing at all.
Impa turned to glance at Zelda and Paya as they descended. "Ah, here she is. Good."
"Is something the matter?" Zelda asked.
"No, no." Impa waved a small sheet of paper she had evidently only just finished reading. "Our dear Link has brought me the final response I was waiting on." She smiled, and Zelda noticed she was missing a few teeth, which only added to her obvious age. It made Zelda want to smile fondly in return. "The Gerudo have accepted to visit. A delegation is on its way."
A fleeting memory of Urbosa threatened to surface, but Zelda stamped it down. "Good," she said, forcing herself to sound cheerful. "Good. And their leader― remind me?"
"Riju," Link volunteered, before Impa could reply.
"Riju," Zelda repeated, smiling at Link. He was looking at his boots and didn't notice, which made her heart squeeze.
"Now that we know the Gerudo will be among us," Impa said, "we shall have to prepare lodgings for all those delegations. There will be Hylians from Tarry Town, Lurelin and Hateno, Gorons from Eldin, Zora from Lanayru and Rito from Tabantha. Kakariko has not seen a council of this size since the days of the Hero of Time." She smiled at Zelda. "It will be good to establish a central governing body now that the Calamity is no longer a threat. Hyrule will be prosperous again."
"That is excellent news," Zelda confirmed, though she struggled to feel as enthused as she sounded. She knew that retaking her place as ruler was necessary for the kingdom, but she had never liked the idea, even a hundred years ago. Study and research had ever been her great passions, and one can hardly research anything from within a ruined castle.
"And now," Impa said, folding up the missive, "it appears our young hero has requested to speak with you."
Link wasn't even looking at her, and Zelda tried to avoid feeling disappointed. Excusing herself, she followed him outdoors, leaving Paya and Impa to prepare for bed. Outside, the village was already mostly quiet, the crickets chirping and the fireflies floating from one lantern to the next. It was beautiful, and Zelda inhaled the fresh night air.
Would she ever take these wonders for granted again?
At her side, Link was looking out at the darkened village, his expression as unreadable as ever.
"Well," she said, to break the stretching silence, "what was it you wanted to talk about?"
He seemed thoroughly uncomfortable, which strangely gave her hope. It was better to decipher his expression at least a little than not at all.
"I… I have a favour to ask."
Zelda's brows went up before she could muster any cool detachment. "A favour?"
Link nodded. As she watched, a firefly drifted near him, and he extended his hand, letting the critter land in his palm. There, it glowed, a pulsing light.
"I want to remember," he said. Suddenly, his blue gaze met hers, and she forgot to breathe. "Impa is wrong."
Zelda averted her gaze, embarrassed. So, he'd heard their conversation. How long had he stood at the foot of the steps in that small house, hearing every word of her worries? "I didn't mean to―"
"I don't know how to remember," Link continued, interrupting. "Time passes, but nothing comes to my mind. Except you."
It was unfair, Zelda thought. It was unfair. He didn't know what those words did to her. "I don't know either―"
"You're the key," Link said, softly. "You have to be." He seemed embarrassed by the fervour of his certainty. When he continued, he was almost mumbling. "It's just, soon, you'll be the princess again. A real princess, with subjects and lofty concerns. Before they arrive…" He ran his hand through his hair. "Please. Tell me what you know."
It was embarrassing how his request made her heart sing. She almost felt as though the sun were rising early, casting her entire world in light and hope. "Of course," she whispered.
Link hesitated, though Zelda wasn't sure why. The firefly in his hand was still pulsating light. With a gentle motion, he placed it on the banister before her, and the insect remained in place, glowing.
Link seemed to struggle to find his words. At his side, his fingers gave a little twitch. Then, at length, with complete solemnity, apparently giving up on finding something better, "Thank you."
The firefly on the banister took flight, rejoining its fellows. Zelda couldn't contain the bubbling joy within, and she said, "You know, once upon a time, you would have thanked me with a bit more of a smile."
He blinked, and Zelda was about to tell him not to mind her, that she was only teasing him, when his expression shifted, his eyes brightening, a smile growing on his face in an expression that was painfully familiar, painfully comforting. His eyes crinkled and he looked almost abashed, averting his gaze to look out at the village.
She had many times wondered whether she would still be vulnerable to him even after a hundred years. Now, with her heart racing and her blood pulsing in her ears, she knew the answer.
"Well," she ruefully said to the night air, though Link did glance at her, "how comforting to know some things don't change." Before Link could ask her for an explanation, she added, "Come see me in the morning, and I will tell you everything I know."
He nodded gravely, which did not ease the pace of her heartbeat. She may well have been a hundred years old, like him, but she very much still lived in the body of a girl, and that body was not yet inured to him. In fact, a hundred years had done nothing to help her resist his smile.
It hadn't always been that way, she reflected as he excused himself and descended the steps to leave. Once, she had thought she hated him.
A bittersweet smile pulled at her lips. She hadn't possessed Nayru's wisdom then.
Link came to find her the next morning, as she'd asked, and together they climbed the hill that overlooked Kakariko, sitting under the apple tree that grew there. She had spent all morning in thought, wondering where to begin, worried that he would grow angry with her for some of the truths that she would reveal.
But in the end, she had decided she owed him honesty, no matter the cost.
She glanced at him as he sat in the shade of the apple tree, the dappled light playing against his face.
He turned to look at her and for a moment she was transported to a hundred other moments and a hundred other places, to a hundred other Links and a hundred other Zeldas exchanging that very look she had never been able to characterize.
She cleared her throat, averting her eyes. A hundred years hadn't sufficed to solve that mystery, and she suspected no answers would come now.
He was paying attention. It was time.
"It started," she forced herself to say, "when you pulled the Master Sword for the first time."