The Zora delegation was the first to arrive in Kakariko Village, closely followed by the Hateno delegation. Their arrival was heralded by a welcoming cheer. Zoras, Sheikah and Hylians greeted one another with warmth, strangers meeting as though they were long-time friends, brought together in the camaraderie of shared relief and elation.
Word of Link's great victory seemed to have brought the people of Hyrule out of their self-imposed seclusion, and trade routes that had once been seldom traveled were beginning to see increased activity. It felt like the land was blooming alongside its people.
From the tiny window of Impa's home, Zelda observed them with apprehension. Her people.
"You should not be afraid," she whispered to herself, so softly that only a faint wisp of breath came out of her lips.
It was a familiar refrain, one she had held within herself for years, starting after her mother's death, repeating it sometimes so often that it seemed to lose all meaning. You should not be afraid. You should not be afraid. Of failure. Of the Calamity. Of rumours. Of your power. Of Link. Of Link. Of Link.
A strange feeling sat deep in her gut, like indigestion. She had repeated the mantra so often to herself that she had thought herself fully immune, fully bolstered, even though her power had been absent. She had been so sure of herself, but it had taken one man to make her afraid again, his competence and confidence like impregnable, unassailable moral fortresses. You should not be afraid, but clearly…
Her lips moved again, despite herself, forming the words silently. You should not be afraid. A sentence that had been like a blanket of cold comfort in the endlessness and horror of the Calamity's prison. You should not be afraid.
Below, Link had made his appearance, emerging from the inn where he was temporarily residing. The Zoras, including their leader, imposingly tall and boisterous, welcomed him with exuberant warmth.
"That is Prince Sidon, son of King Dorephan, brother to Mipha, and heir to the Domain."
It was still striking to Zelda that her old Sheikah Master's voice could sound so frail. Once, an age ago, she had been a commander to armies, a battlemaster of unparalleled skill, a terrifying example of her people.
Zelda turned to Impa, nodding. "Yes," she said, "I assumed, by his regalia. He used to be so quiet." She looked back outside, at the fierce handshake Link was getting. "He seems… enthusiastic."
"So he is," Impa agreed, chuckling. "His correspondence made great use of exclamation marks." She was silent for a moment, before saying, "Join us when you are ready."
You should not be afraid. "I will accompany you."
Prince Sidon was a charmer, Zelda realized as she watched him greet Paya with a smile that would have dazzled hardened hearts. Paya was putty in the prince's fins, gawping up at him with a flush that might have heralded a forthcoming swoon. To her great credit, she remained upright, even as her hand was pumped up and down enthusiastically, and she even replied audibly when asked about her opinion on freshwater fish.
The theatrics suddenly stopped when Prince Sidon noticed her. Behind him, Link and his childhood Zora friends were chatting amiably, but his attention, too, turned to her.
"Princess," Sidon said. He smiled at her warmly, his pointed teeth white and sparkling. "A hundred years is too long to go without your company."
From anyone else, the words might have seemed disingenuous, sarcastic or mocking. But Prince Sidon was in earnest, and Zelda found herself smiling at him genuinely. And, rather than curtsy, she reached for his large scaled hands, squeezing them sincerely. "Prince Sidon. It really has been far too long."
They stood in silence for a moment, smiling at one another, until Zelda snapped out of it, turning to the Hateno delegation and welcoming them as graciously as she could. Uma, one of the village elders, smiled at her with a generosity that reminded Zelda of Impa, and the Sheikah Symin bowed to her curtly, extending Purah's salutations.
There was a builder there, too, by the name of Bolson, whose flourished bow made old Uma chuckle.
"Princess," the builder said in a surprisingly girlish voice. "I weep with joy to see you."
Over his shoulder, Link rolled his eyes, and Zelda stifled a laugh. The moment was brief, but Link's warm gaze made her feel strangely comforted. Then, before she could be distracted, she returned her attention to the builder. "Mr. Bolson," she said. "I suspect you will be very busy in the months to come."
"Never too busy to build you a wonderful home," Bolson said. "I build the loveliest homes in Hyrule. Ask anyone." He glanced about himself, before settling his attentions on Link, "Ask him! Go on, lovely boy, tell your princess how perfect your very own house is."
Link looked embarrassed. "Er. Yes."
The strange feeling returned, this time like an illness. Zelda felt the ground move under her feet, as though she were sliding. It was all in her mind, she knew. Just her imagination. "I did not know you had a home," she said, as steadily as she could, as she turned to Link.
But why wouldn't he? Hadn't he lost everything, just as she had? There was no reason to feel the strange lurch in her chest, no reason to feel as though the quiet in her heart was unsettled.
She didn't know what she had expected. That he would remain homeless? That he would build a home for them both?
That he would come to Hyrule Castle, and rebuild it with her?
She quelled the notion before it took root. There was no use entertaining fanciful ideas. What manner of selfish fool was she? Link had done so much for her kingdom already. He deserved peace, at last. He deserved to enjoy the fruits of his efforts.
"It is a very good home," Bolson said. "All the best furnishings and decorations. I oversaw the renovations myself."
"No kitchen or privy, though," Link observed, and Zelda forced herself to refocus. Bolson dismissed this criticism with a wave of the hand, irritated.
"Not that we see young Master Link very often of late, in his home or out and about," Elder Uma said, for the princess' benefit, and Prince Sidon's. "I suppose he is too busy saving the land." She said this with a bit of a wink, and Link looked mildly embarrassed.
"And he is very good at it," Prince Sidon enthusiastically affirmed. "A true flood prevention expert." He clapped Link's back with enough force to make Link stumble.
"I'll go check on the cooks," Link mumbled, clearly uncomfortable, as the tip of his ears pinkened, his chin sinking into his shoulders.
A chorus of laughter erupted, Sheikah, Hylians and Zora in united mirth. As Link walked away, he made a dismissive gesture with his hand, as though to shoo them away, eliciting more amusement in response. Zelda felt her heart squeeze. A hundred years ago, Link had not been this comfortable with royalty and peasants alike. There had not been this much proximity between Hyrule's people, either. And this newfound friendship was not her doing. It was Link's.
I will need him at my side, Zelda thought to herself, and the thought evoked her ageless refrain ― you should not be afraid.
But I am afraid, she knew. I always have been. I cannot do this without him. This good, honest trust between my people depends on him. He is the foundation upon which I must rebuild Hyrule. He is as necessary now as he was to defeat Ganon.
Hyrule ― and its princess― needed Link. But Link had a home in Hateno. A real home, with furniture, a place to settle down. A place to begin his well-earned retirement. Had he not earned it? Did he not deserve a chance to die of old age?
The thoughts haunted her, even as she made happy conversation, even as she greeted every visitor in turn, every Zora and Sheikah and Hylian, even as they gathered for a meal. The niggling thoughts followed her from moment to moment, lurking in the back of her mind, unsettling and unresting.
Through great effort, she listened to the concerns of her people's delegates. Vah Ruta, Prince Sidon said, was suddenly utterly lifeless. She listened with concern as he described the strange absence of motion or noise from the immense machine, and listened to Bolson's boast that he could fix it. Prince Sidon entertained this idea politely, but his eyes spoke a different worry. Zelda had been ―along with Purah, Robbie, and the four deceased Champions― one of the only persons in the realm to somewhat understand the Divine Beasts. Zelda placed a hand on the Zora's arm, to indicate she understood.
The Elder Uma, of Hateno, was arguing with Symin about the fate of the laboratory's mysterious director, Purah, with Uma insisting that Purah had not come to have tea in weeks, while Symin assured her that Purah still lived and was well. Apparently, Zelda realized when Symin leaned in to explain, Purah's experiments had reverted her age, and she was now working on getting back to her real appearance. Impa rolled her eyes at this news.
Much talk was had about the remaining herds of bokoblins, moblins and other irritating pests that lurked in the countryside. Many agreed that their numbers had dwindled, but that they were no less of a threat, and Prince Sidon made a tentative proposal to reconvene when all delegates had arrived to form some sort of fighting force that could keep the foes in check. This suggestion was met with great cheer and loud toasts, though Zelda only drank halfheartedly.
Was she even necessary? She felt torn between her two selves. She was a princess, and the people of Hyrule did need a central governing body. This was her purpose, not gallivanting about the countryside studying insects and plants. Even if studying was all she wanted to do, all she had ever wanted. She remembered the delicate experiments she had once worked on with Purah and Robbie, the meticulous drawings and notes she had made.
Was she Zelda, princess of Hyrule, chosen of the Goddess Hylia, or was she Zelda, scholar and researcher? The question made her chest feel compressed, and before long she felt a headache coming on.
When at last the new arrivals were herded off to their respective tents and accommodations to organize themselves, she wandered away. It felt good to raise up her skirts and feel her legs move under her, her thighs working, extending, and the breath in her lungs as she inhaled and exhaled. This, at least, was a wonderful feeling.
She found her way to the apple tree rather mindlessly and was quite close by the time she noticed Link in its shade.
"Oh," she said, startled. He seemed equally surprised to see her, judging by the guilty look on his face.
"Princess." He pushed to his feet. He put the Sheikah Slate away. "I was just―"
"No," she said, "no, please, don't stand. I can… I'll find another place―"
He shuffled his weight, in a motion she had only seen rarely, when he was unsure how to proceed. "Actually," he started, "I was hoping…"
She caught his meaning almost instantly. "Oh." She took a step forward, into the shade of the tree. He didn't move away. The late afternoon played shadows across his face, and though she tried to decipher his expression, she couldn't decide what he was thinking. "Your memory. Is it working, me telling you all I know?"
She hoped he didn't hear the hard beating of her heart. It wasn't hope, she tried to reason. Even if he did remember everything, a lot of time had passed. A century. He might have changed. He might no longer wish to continue their friendship, remembered or not.
Worse, she feared, he might decide to dislike her.
Several expressions warred for dominance on Link's face, flitting too fast for her to capture any of them. Then, he said, "Sometimes, I think it's working. The memories lie in a smell, a sound, a movement, a colour, a fleeting moment." She saw his fingers twitching at his side, as though he was warring with himself on what to do with them. "But they escape me so quickly, I can't…" He shook his head, then gazed up at her, his blue eyes arresting. "It helps, though. Your voice― sometimes even just the tone of your voice brings me to moments…" He seemed embarrassed, the tips of his ears growing pink, in that way they often did. "I mean―"
"I understand," she said. "I think." She forced a smile, to drown out the sound of her own heartbeat. "Well, then, we should continue, shouldn't we? Where were we?"
He watched her as she folded her skirts to sit between the apple tree's roots, his gaze inscrutable. Then, clearing his throat, he said, "Er. I was appointed to you. I remember a part of the ceremony, and the Champions talking amongst themselves."
A familiar feeling of dread and embarrassment flooded her veins. Zelda nodded. "Right." There would be many of those feelings yet. A hundred years had been more than enough to reflect on her arrogance, presumption and ignorance where Link had been concerned.
She took a deep breath as Link sat down in the soft grass next to her. He seemed on the verge of a question.
"Yes?" She asked, if only to think of something other than her shame.
"Did you hate me?" He finally blurted out. "I was… I was young―"
The question smarted, like the burn of a stinging plant. She had expected it, of course, and she'd had ample time to reflect on it, too. She reached out, placed her hand on his. "I was young too. We were going through trying times." She swallowed hard. "But I promised you the truth, and here it is. I wanted to hate you. I tried."
His eyes were fixed on hers. He did not move his hand. For a moment the blood rushed to Zelda's ears, drowning out all sound. Then, she shook herself out of it, jerking her hand away.
"But I told you we would go over the story in order, and my opinion of you is irrelevant for now," she continued, heart racing, unable to look at him directly. "I suppose I should continue on with the last autumn before the Calamity."
"Was it?" Link asked, frowning. His gaze had turned to a vague point on the horizon. "The last autumn?"
Zelda nodded, watching the strange mix of emotions play on his face. She had realized quickly that the time frame of events was important, that it gave him a tether to which he could attach her words, and that it made his understanding stronger.
It also forced her to retell events that filled her with shame. She had much storytelling to do before her past self ever started to treat Link with any semblance of kindness or respect. Which meant that the sooner she started, the better, or he would indeed go on to think she had hated him.
And that would be a horribly wrong notion for him to harbour.
"When summer ended," she said, softly, when she was sure that he was listening, "I realized it was time for us to visit Vah Medoh…"