Link was avoiding her.
Zelda watched him carry a thick roll of canvas over his shoulder to where tents were being erected to welcome those Hyrulians who were uncomfortable sleeping out of doors. Kakariko Village was abuzz with activity these days, especially ahead of the Goron delegation's arrival.
She sat in the shade of a tall pine, where a long table had been set up for dignitaries to work, scratching her thoughts onto parchment in order to be sure she'd remember them all. She had always been meticulous about this sort of work, and a hundred years had not changed her.
At the end of the table, Prince Sidon was describing Zora legends to several Sheikah and Hylian children, making grand gestures and mouthing all necessary sound effects. His audience was rapt, and even Zelda struggled not to listen intently.
That wasn't the only distraction. Link was coming back now, unladen, striding with purpose to retrieve more necessary materials. It was a hot day, though, and the pines were oozing thick sap onto the table and her clothes. Still, she dared not step out into the afternoon sun. Link was exerting himself, his brow shiny with effort, and his sweat-soaked clothes clung to his body in a way that Zelda could guess was uncomfortable.
His walk was interrupted by Paya, who insisted he take a moment to drink. He gave her a quick smile and took the waterskin from her, but as he tilted it back to drink, his eyes found Zelda's.
It was almost unnoticeable: Link froze, for a bare whisper of a moment, looked away, then resumed drinking, his throat bobbing. The waterskin began to sag against his fingers, his thirst clearly greater than he had anticipated. He did not look her way again, instead handing the skin back to Paya with a polite thank you, then continuing on his way.
Zelda ignored the knot of dismay in her stomach.
She was being silly, she knew. He had not indicated that anything was wrong. Their last few meetings had been as cordial as possible, given the circumstances.
In her retelling, they had reached Link's offering of cool safflina. The moment remained in her mind because it still managed, all these years later, to make her feel… strange. Off-kilter. Vulnerable.
As for the rest… Well. Explaining his interruption of her prayers, and the subsequent climb back to her room, and their fights and disagreements, the tension and the frustrations… The more she told the story out loud, the more terrible it sounded, and by the time she concluded the story of his return from the expedition, she had been too tired of reliving the anguish to continue.
I was sixteen, she kept telling herself. And I knew nothing at all.
Still, she reflected. Link had not sought her out since, and had been nearly impossible to track down.
He was definitely avoiding her.
Could she blame him? She knew what was coming in the story. She knew how ugly it would still become. Perhaps he suspected it, too. Perhaps he was growing weary of hearing how much her young self had mistreated him.
Perhaps he had decided remembering wasn't worth it after all.
There was no easy way of describing what that particular idea did to Zelda. If she really delved into it, it could be summed up as fear. Fear of being alone once more, fear of being the last Hylian who properly remembered… Fear of seeing him move on. Fear that she could not.
Fear that if she spoke of her fear, he'd think her mad. There were times where she certainly felt the thin veil of sanity lift. Sometimes, she'd awake in darkness, and the terror would come upon her ― that all this was a dream, that he had not rescued her, that she was back to that first year, that the Calamity celebrated around her. She'd shut her eyes against the dark and curl up under the blankets, desperately clinging to her pillow, trying to stifle her tears so Paya would not wake up.
But I cannot burden him, she swore to herself, staring at her sap-stained parchment blindly. He has suffered enough.
If he no longer wanted to know, she had no right to force him to listen.
She had been tied to him for so long, though, had prayed to his name with such assiduous faith for so long, that she worried. She knew he could move on from all that had happened. But she would never… Could she ever…?
"Princess," Paya said, startling Zelda.
The young Sheikah woman had approached without her notice, and Zelda ignored how Link passed by with two thick coils of rope, conversing amiably with the young builder Karson. Instead, she turned to Paya and tried to give her a smile that wasn't too strained. "Yes, Paya? I'm sorry, I was deep in thought."
"I understand," Paya said, smiling pleasantly. She was still clutching the empty waterskin as though it were a precious thing, and Zelda ignored the feeling that tugged at her heart. "We've just been warned that the Goron and Tarrey Town delegations are coming up the Sahasra Slope."
"Wonderful," Zelda said, though she was sure she didn't look as delighted as she meant to. "I should probably change into more suitable clothes, then." Her simple country dress had become stained with clear sap and she was sure she'd have to brush through more gobs of the stuff in her hair.
She emerged from Impa's house less than half an hour later much refreshed to find that most of the villagers and visitors had already gathered near the northwest village entrance. They were hailing the newcomers warmly as they trickled in, and Zelda braced herself for the crush of the crowd.
Squeezing through the assembled people, she joined Sidon's side. The Zora prince stood tall above the crowd and he always seemed pleased to see her, which did soothe Zelda's frazzled nerves. She still had to get used, once again, to large gatherings.
The delegation from Tarrey Town had come with a few of the horse-taming nomad tribe leaders, who apologized to Impa for inviting themselves, but the Sheikah Master welcomed them warmly. They had packed their own accommodations, they assured her, and did not intend to cut into Kakariko's food reserves. Then, reverently, they stopped before Zelda and Sidon, bowing with sincere gratitude for their welcome.
The Tarrey Town delegation counted Hudson ―who was warmly and excitedly welcomed by his fellow builders Karson and Bolson―, Hudson's wife Rhondson, who was beginning to show signs of pregnancy, and a young Sheikah man who introduced himself the courtly way, bowing in the gallant manner Hyrule Castle's courtiers of old. His name was Granté, he explained, smiling with gentle charm. His manners, Zelda learned when she asked, had been taught to him by his father Robbie, who was growing a little too old to travel.
Though Zelda mourned the absence of her old scientist friend, just as she had been sad not to see Purah from Hateno, she welcomed his son warmly. He had something of his father's looks, she said, and the young man laughingly commented that boded ill for his elder years.
As Zelda politely made the introductions to Prince Sidon, Master Impa and Paya ―the last of whom responded to Granté's flourished bow with a pretty flush― she ignored the feeling of Link's gaze on her. It was already a hot day, she swore to herself. The last thing she wanted was to get dazed.
At some point, he had wiped his face with a cool cloth and taken his sweaty tunic off. This was reasonable, Zelda assumed, because that tunic was no doubt absolutely disgusting by now. It was also the cruelest of tortures, because now she couldn't seem to keep her eyes off him.
She wanted to scoff internally, but she honestly couldn't.
None of the newcomers seemed to take Link's lack of a shirt as an offense. They all knew him well, it appeared, owing many of their recent successes to him. In fact, once Granté got to him, the young man greeted Link with a clap to the shoulder. They were friends, then. Link even apologized for his attire, explaining to a nodding, sympathetic Hudson that he had been working all morning.
For Zelda, though, it was hard to look away from Link's chest. At her side, Paya observed Granté and Link's conversation with a dismayed look, a mix of discomfort and awe that made Zelda want to giggle in cringing sympathy. One handsome man was a lot for the girl to handle, so two...
Zelda had known Link was handsome even a hundred years ago. She had known it viscerally, like every other woman at court. She had hated it, hated the way his infuriating proximity completely undermined every carefully constructed feeling of loathing and distance she could nurture. Watching Paya now, Zelda knew exactly how she felt. The minds of girls and young women were as easily turned, as easily distracted, as any young man's. Even today, with a hundred years of wisdom to keep her focused, Zelda could feel her preserved body react with unthinking longing.
Zelda's gaze slid back, once more, to her knight of old, and ignored the sinking of her stomach.
Scars, pale against the flush of exertion and his slight tan, criss-crossed and puckered his skin, punctuating it with countless scratches and punctures. Here, the circle of an arrow shaft, there, the deep cut of a blade. Innumerable, permanent, marring his otherwise healthy and muscular body.
I've done this to him, Zelda thought, nauseated, before she could stop herself. If it hadn't been for that ancient Sheikah technology, if they hadn't discovered that Shrine of Resurrection…
It figured, of course, that he still managed to look so damned good, even, perhaps especially, with the wear and tear of almost dying for her. Somehow, she felt a niggling of her old irritation with him resurface: would it truly behoove him to be a little less exemplary, to look just a little less attractive?
Blinking against the distraction, Zelda turned back to the village entrance with focused determination. She didn't need to look, she told herself. She was Princess Zelda, Incarnation of the Goddess Hylia, Bane of the Calamity, daughter of King Rhoam Bosphoramus and future Queen of Hyrule. She would not be undone by a bit of muscle and some scars.
But oh how she'd like it...
"There they are!"
A rousing cheer went up from the crowd as the Goron delegation entered Kakariko, and Zelda took a deep breath, the excitement around her overwhelming. The Gorons were lugging hefty sacks over their shoulders, their fabled strength all the more impressive from the demonstration.
At the head of the line, a young Goron was lugging two bags of goods, and Zelda's throat tightened.
"Daruk," she murmured.
The young Goron blinked in surprise, then broke into a broad grin. His bags fell to his feet and he reached up to the Goron chain medallion tied around his neck by a swath of sky blue cloth that Zelda knew all too well. "So you really did know my ancestor?" He seemed excited. "The message Boss Bludo received mentioned you had been away all this time― but you're here! A real princess!"
Suddenly aware that he was addressing a real princess, the Goron youth's eyes widened and he fell awkwardly to his knees, his large frame toppling somewhat.
"Your highness," he said, trying to control the waver in his voice. "It is an honor."
Zelda was unable to stifle a laugh. She leaned forward, her hands stretching out to touch the Goron's large shoulder. "Please, rise. We do not stand on ceremony among friends. What is your name, son of Daruk?"
"Y-Yunobo, your highness," the Goron replied, pushing himself slowly to his feet. "I am the assistant to our Goron Elder Bludo, and he's sent me on his behalf."
"Be welcome to Kakariko Village," Master Impa said, her eyes crinkling at the corners, as Zelda replied, "It is a pleasure to meet you, young Yunobo."
The young Goron seemed a little overwhelmed, especially as Prince Sidon greeted him with a pumping handshake that would have put Daruk's to shame, but he recovered when he remembered the bags at his feet.
"I have a gift for you," he said, and though he was distracted, Zelda was fairly sure he spoke to her.
The Goron pulled the drawstring of his bag open, and suddenly Zelda was assailed by the familiar smells of various Goron spices. She had not smelled such fragrances in a hundred years, but the memories of a hundred luxurious meals and roaring fires returned to her with unexpected clarity, mixed with countless other memories she had thought long forgotten. The feeling of nursing a spiced tea as she sat in the snow next to her mother in the castle courtyard, the delightful smell of curries and seasonings on feast days, the reflection of a campfire in Link's eyes as he roasted their vegetables in companionable silence―
Unbidden, Zelda's vision filled with tears.
Distraught, Yunobo reached out, panic in his voice. "Princess? I'm sorry, are you―"
"I'm alright," Zelda assured him, with a watery smile. "I just… I'd forgotten how much I loved Goron spices. Thank you."
Evidently relieved, the Goron youth smiled. "Oh, good, because when Link told me to bring you a pouch of them, I assumed you'd be happy. I didn't want to launch the waterworks!"
Zelda blinked, wiping at her eyes primly with her fingers, "I'm sorry, what?"
"The… the waterworks," Yunobo repeated in confusion. "I mean, your tears. I didn't… I didn't mean to…"
"No," Zelda said, gently shaking her head, "You said… Link?"
Her eyes darted to Link, but he was studiously not looking at her in the least, observing instead the slow progress of the sun across the sky, apparently and fastidiously focused on some inane conversation between Elder Uma and builder Hudson.
Something coiled inside Zelda that she didn't recognize. Link? Link had asked that she be brought a gift of such simplicity? But… why? More importantly, though, how? How had he known?
"I didn't think the spices would be enough," Yunobo said, breaking her out of her thoughts before a fully-formed idea could crystallize in her mind, "so we've also brought gifts of gems."
And, before Zelda could react, Yunobo and the other Gorons pulled open their bags, revealing a veritable treasury of sapphires, rubies, opals and diamonds. The stones shone brightly in the sun, dazzling the crowd into awed exclamations and stunned silence. Zelda actually found herself breathless, and her hand came up, resting under her breast as she tried to quiet the racing of her mind.
"Oh," she managed.
"It's not like they're very good to eat," Yunobo said, and his fellow Gorons nodded with smiles. "We know they'd be of more use to you if you want to restore the kingdom."
"Our kingdom," Zelda breathed. Then, looking away from the blinding diamonds, she reached out to Yunobo's massive hand and squeezed it, peering up at him earnestly. "Yunobo of the Gorons, this is a generous gift. I cannot, in good conscience―"
"Don't worry about it," the Goron youth said, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment. The motion reminded Zelda so much of Daruk that she actually wanted to throw herself into his arms and hear him speak comfortingly, as the Champion had all those years ago. "We didn't mine all this by ourselves, anyway."
Zelda seized on this. "Who else should I extend my thanks to?"
"Well, actually," Yunobo started, "L―"
"Uh," Granté loudly exclaimed, drawing the attention of all those in attendance. He was wincing, rubbing his rib on the side where Link stood, though Link remained still, as stone-faced as ever. When Granté continued, his voice was strained, "perhaps we could retire to the shade and continue our conversation there? It's been a very long road."
"Of course," Master Impa said, flatly, though Zelda wasn't sure whether she was looking at the young Sheikah or at Link. When she spoke next her tone was more deadpan than Zelda had ever heard: "Shades forbid the Gorons overheat."
The crowd relocated in a confused jumble of excited chatter, and Zelda soon found herself engulfed by conversations with other visitors. She tried to locate either Yunobo, who reminded her so much of Daruk, or Prince Sidon, who had ever been her loud shield, but the two of them were conversing with Link instead. Paya and Granté were making awkward small talk, while Master Impa and Elder Uma were apparently giving the builder Bolson a verbal dressing down about something or other.
Eventually, Zelda excused herself.
Every time she took a breather away from the crowd, the same question resurfaced. Why was she even trying to be queen? Crowds always made her anxious, overwhelmed. This would be her entire life from now on.
More importantly, why was it that every time she tried to think of what she wanted to do instead of rule, the only picture that came to mind was a lazy morning in bed with her knight?
It's his chest, she decided, climbing up the slope to her usual hiding spot. It does things to a girl.
As she came upon the apple tree, she looked up into its boughs, wondering. From up there, she'd see all of Kakariko Village, but no one would see her. And the branches were low, well spaced out. There were harder trees to climb.
Gathering her skirt around her knees, she tied it up and pulled herself onto a low branch, her fingers finding the craggy grooves of the bark, her slippers thin enough to find hold on thick knots.
Meticulously, she found her way up another branch, then another, the exercise comforting, liberating. Climbing was like a puzzle, and though she could not claim to have even a fraction of Link's stamina, she made it up without too much difficulty.
Turning around, she sat, straddled, on one of the tree's higher branches, looking through the thick cover of leaves at the world beyond. From here, she could see over the hills of Kakariko, could look far at the fields of Hyrule and the mountains beyond.
My kingdom, she mused, wondering why the idea felt so lonely when a crowd of her people rejoiced below.
Link's voice called up to her from below, and Zelda peered down. He was looking up at her with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Hello," she said, ignoring the way her heart raced at the sight of him.
"Are you… alright?" Link asked, his brow furrowed.
Zelda wasn't sure what to reply. He was still without a shirt, and the combination was still wreaking havoc on her nerves. Did he know her attraction? Did he know her guilt? Was he doing it on purpose? He seemed unaware. With his old self, she would have had to guess, but this new Link was absolutely guileless, honest… Ridiculously good-looking.
"I am still getting used to crowds," she admitted, bravely. "But otherwise I am perfectly content. Did you not want to stay and chat with your friends?"
He glanced down at the village, uncomfortable, then back up at her. "I… I've been thinking…" He took a breath, hesitated, then said, "In the story you're telling…" He shot her a look she couldn't decipher, then asked, his voice coming up to her softly, "It's going to get worse, won't it?"
She laughed, bitterly. "Yes," she finally admitted, running her hand through the leaves within her reach. "It will get worse before it gets better."
"But it gets better," Link said, his hand running against the bark of the tree mindfully.
"We were friends, once," Zelda replied.
"Are we friends now?"
She blinked in surprise, peering down at him. "Friends?" She echoed. His expression was unreadable. "I…" A lump formed in her throat, and she had to look away. "I… I wouldn't dare to presume," she finally said.
"Your old self seemed to presume a lot. Try it now."
"Is that a joke?" She glared down at him, squinting.
He was smiling, the expression heart-achingly at home on his face. It transformed him utterly, and it made her heart slam against her ribcage. She very nearly toppled over from the branch she sat on.
It was so close, she thought, so close to how he had been, once. Teasing with mock impudence, his blue eyes bright with mischief when he thought he could get away with it, when he was fairly sure no one would see, a secret he kept just for her. By the end, it had been enough to reduce her insides to jelly.
Did he remember?
"Are you beginning to remember anything at all?" She asked, trying not to let the hope transform her tone into desperation.
The smile on his face wilted somewhat, and he said, "If it's too much trouble, I understand."
I live for this, she wanted to say. I wish it could go on forever. "Link, you are my friend, whether you remember it or not. Don't let the story I'm telling fool you."
"So we weren't more?" Link asked, calmly.
His eyes were blue and piercing, looking up at her with something that looked so closely like… knowing. Oh, gods. Did he know? She hadn't gotten to anything that could remotely hint― She wasn't even sure she wanted―
"Why do you ask?" She dodged. "Remembering something?"
He peered up at her intently, and Zelda was desperately glad for the distance between them. Under his scrutiny, she could feel her heart racing, could feel her breath quicken. She was sure he'd see the pulse at her throat, the heaving of her chest.
Finally, he broke eye contact, looked at the horizon, and said, ever-so-nonchalantly, "I can see up your skirt."
She threw an apple down at him, and he ducked with a laugh.
"Go put a shirt on," she said, "you liar. Or else I won't tell you how horribly I treated you that winter."
"That winter?" Link echoed.
"Oh yes," she said, almost in a grumble. "We were very horrid to one another."
"Can't wait," Link said, pushing away from the tree. "I'll be right back."
She watched him stride away, trying desperately to stem the rising tide of longing and joy that flooded her heart. How could a single conversation with him raise her spirits so easily? That did not bode well for when she finished telling her story. What would she have left to keep him close? He might leave. She might never see him again, her role in his life fulfilled, his duty to her long complete.
She would not survive that.
Much as she had nearly not survived that winter.
As she waited for Link to return, Zelda's mind began once again to wander the pathways of her memory, the recollection almost as painful as living it in the first place. Even today, if she closed her eyes and dived back in deep, she could remember it all, starting right after Link's peculiar offering of safflina...