Link's heart raced as he hurried down the Divine Beast's inner slope towards the exit.
"And where exactly," Chieftain Urbosa asked, "do you think you're going?"
But Link was reeling. He wheeled on the Gerudo Champion, who seemed far more at ease within her Divine Beast ―a monstrous camel that harnessed the power of lightning― than either of the others had been, and nearly jabbed her in the chest with an accusatory finger. "You shouldn't have woken her up."
Urbosa took this comment with an annoyed flick of her head, her red hair swishing out of her face. "You are acting like children. Go talk to her."
"We already talked," Link said, his voice raw, trembling with agitation. "You knew she was upset with me. You shouldn't have woken her."
The Gerudo's lips quirked upwards despite herself. "Well, what was I to do? Send her into eternal slumber to ensure you never fought again?"
Link ignored that, turning away.
"You can't leave," Urbosa said. As Link strode out of the camel, he came upon a high ledge and realized she was telling the truth. The sands passed by far below, as Vah Naboris strode mechanically across the desert.
The giant machine had been motionless when he'd climbed into it, but now he felt the rumbling and reverberation of its every step, and he hated that he hadn't noticed when Urbosa had started its little walk. He had been too absorbed by the look of betrayal and anguish on Zelda's face to think of anything else.
Link realized Urbosa had manœuvered masterfully. Had she intended for this result from the start? For a moment Link felt a strange inkling of awed fear. As a leader, she had to be a fearsome thing, a force to be reckoned with.
And if Zelda was learning from her, then…
"You will both sit down and speak," the Champion insisted. "This quarrel has gone on for long enough."
Link shook his head emphatically. "You saw her face when she noticed me. That was not the face of someone who is dying to work things out. I think she's actually afraid of me now."
He ignored the fact that this was entirely his doing. He had been so convinced that she had truly stopped caring, so desperate to believe that she would finally stop haunting his every thought, that the open-mouthed expression of anguished shock had actually hurt. Especially since seeing the peace on her face as she slept had stirred within him a fierce surge of protectiveness that did not bode well for him.
"I can't do this," he said, leaning in to speak softly. "I will throw myself at every demon there is, I will take down entire pantheons if I have to, but do not ask me to go back there."
The Gerudo Champion actually seemed to feel some inkling of pity for a second, but she shook it off. Damn her. "You have sworn an oath. What is one little apology in the face of that oath?"
Link spluttered. "An apology?" He felt a muscle leap in his jaw, and he struggled to keep the incredulity from his voice. "An apology? That woman," he said, motioning vaguely, "has made herself the bane of my existence since the moment I met her. She is insufferable― yes," he said, when the Gerudo Champion opened her mouth to retort, "I know she tries hard. But she has no right―"
Both Link and Urbosa turned as the princess of Hyrule strode onto the ledge, furious. For a brief second, Link considered jumping off of Vah Naboris. Would the dunes cushion his fall? Somehow, he doubted it.
"Let us talk about you, Chosen One," Zelda said, jabbing her finger into his chest. "I was the one who taught you what we were facing. I tolerate your presence―"
"Oh," Link scoffed, "well, that makes it all right, then!"
"―I spend every waking moment seeking a way to awaken this stupid power of mine, while you prance about with that damned Sword of yours. You just― You just pulled it out of a pedestal!" She reached for the front of his Champion's tunic, the blue material balling into her fists, her teeth clenched. "I would kill to awaken my power with that same ease, you ungrateful lout!"
Her green eyes were watery, full of primal emotions that flickered too fast for him to identify clearly ―anger, certainly, pain, desperation― but the mix was effective. He swallowed a lump in his throat and tried to stay focused on self-vindication.
"It is not my fault," Link said, grabbing her wrists to force her to release him. A spark of energy ran through his fingers, and he firmly put her hands back to her sides, eager to stop touching her, because she was doing something to him. "I have tried to be friendly. I have tried to protect you―"
"Protect me?" She gaped.
"I tried to keep you from dying from the cold―" A flash of recollection ― the princess' body against his, the feeling of her breath on his neck― made him hesitate. Zelda, too, seemed startled, her own memory clearly as functional as his.
Urbosa coughed, and both Link and Zelda seemed to remember she was there. The princess stepped away, and Link realized once she moved that they had been almost nose to nose, chest to chest.
Zelda cleared her throat, then said, giving herself the appearance of cool collection, though she was evidently trembling, "I don't care what you do or don't do, anyway."
Link snorted. "Right, you mentioned that. Well, I don't care either. Not anymore." He tried very hard to make the comment flippant, though he worried she would notice the way he itched to pull at her, to bring her in, to steady her― He stayed very still and hoped she wouldn't notice his twitching fingers.
"Perfect," she spat.
"Great!" He exclaimed, venomously, ignoring the way Urbosa ran her hand over her face in clear exasperation. "And now that we've established that," he continued, turning to the Gerudo, "can I please be let off this thrice-damned Divine Beast before I hurl myself off?!"
"You know," Urbosa said, her usually warm voice now as chilly as the desert's night air, "this is not why I arranged this meeting."
"I don't care!" Link cried, even as the princess let out a petulant "Too bad!" They exchanged sharp, angry looks at the mutual sentiment, then Link turned away towards the ledge.
"That's it," he said. "I'm leaving."
"Gods," Zelda said, annoyed, "you spent so much energy trying to prove your point in following me all the way here, and now you're in such a rush to leave..." She turned to Urbosa for acquiescence, but the Gerudo chieftain did not seem eager to take sides. The princess narrowed her eyes in accusation but did not insist.
Link turned to both of them, a sudden pull of exhaustion coming over him. "I was just―"
"Yes, you've said many times," Zelda sighed in exasperation, turning to him. "Just doing your duty."
Like a twig snapping, Link's last ounce of good sense left him.
"Someone has to," he said.
Urbosa audibly groaned, and the princess' eyes widened in shock. Too late, Link realized there would be no coming back from that.
"That's it," the princess whispered, the rage apparently stealing her very voice. "I've had enough." She recovered her voice and turned to Urbosa. "Champion Urbosa, thou shalt be witness―"
That was not good. The Gerudo Champion's wide eyes flicked over to Link and, before either of them could protest, the princess wheeled on him and continued with the aged Hylian speech.
"―On this night, I release this man, Sir Link, from service to me. Do you hear me, Link?" She repeated, angrily, "I release you. You are no longer bound to me. You are no longer my knight." Her eyes went to the Master Sword again, in clear disgust. "I can't make you relent the Sword, but at least I shan't have to suffer you anymore."
She raised her nose and turned away from him, both regal and childish. Like a man drunk on his own anger and indignation, Link licked his lips and said, "Fine!" He threw out his hands as he shrugged, "That's a gift. Thank you."
She didn't dignify that with a reply, turning away and striding back into Vah Naboris, disappearing into the confines of the great machine. Champion Urbosa let out a long breath, like a kettle about to boil over.
"You damned idiot."
"She doesn't need me," Link said, turning to her. Under his feet, he could feel the great Divine Beast slow down, its strides less and less powerful. "She has you."
"She needed a friend," Urbosa said, eyeing him with clear disappointment. "A moment of humility would have sufficed."
"It never has before." She had nothing to say to that. "Well, it's too late now. Let me off this thing."
He disembarked near Gerudo Town, walking the rest of the distance and kicking up sand with every step, rehashing every moment of the argument, rewriting it in his mind, wishing― wishing he could fight again, wishing he could have said more, said less, wishing he could have been more witty, more aloof, more faultless…
By the time he reached his dead little campfire and his measly little tent, it was perhaps an hour or two after midnight. In winter, dawn was still some six hours off at least, and he was exhausted, utterly empty of all feeling. It was cold, so he rekindled his campfire using the coals of a neighbour.
As the flames sparked back to life, he curled up on his side, shut the flap of his tent, and tried desperately to unclench his jaw, to little avail.
Morning found him first, and he awoke from a fitful sleep to find that the camp was happily awake and oblivious to the catastrophe that his tattered life had become. He listened to the cheerful exchanges and trades, the clinking of hot drinks and the rustle of tent flaps and clothing, the splashing of washbasins, the scraping of his neighbour's razor, the teasing call of early bird merchants and the ringing replies of the Gerudo guards.
Link shut his eyes and tried to remember his dream. A woman in white. She had been beautiful, and though her face had been unfamiliar, he knew, in that way dreams allowed the dreamer to simply know, that she was Zelda. A better Zelda, he reasoned. A kinder Zelda.
She had reached for his hand, had pressed a gentle kiss to each of his fingers, a motion so intimate and sensual that he was almost embarrassed by it in the light of morning. She had said nothing, but he had understood everything, because it was a dream.
He didn't have to like Zelda― he just had to fight the Calamity when it came. Then they could part forever.
His fingers tingled as in memory, and he ignored the sudden pang of loneliness that assailed him. He was being ridiculous.
Anyway, it was too late to look back.
He repeated this to himself multiple times as he forced himself to get up. He had come with few belongings. Most of his current furniture was borrowed. He had little to pack, as most of his effects remained with his horse and saddle in Kara Kara. That would be a half-day's walk at least, but he was in no hurry to return home a failure.
In fact, he was in no hurry to do anything. The whole world seemed to whirl around him, every other thought a reminder of how much he had allowed the situation to get out of hand. What was he going to tell the Order of the Guards? How would he explain this to Impa? What would his mother think?
What would the King do?
But it was too late to look back, he reminded himself. He had told Urbosa he would fight the gods themselves rather than deal with the princess, and now he would have to do the next worse thing. It was still better, he told himself, than forcing an apology.
"You look terrible," Purlo blurted out when Link emerged from his tent. "I told you that you shouldn't have gone."
Link ignored that, as usual. He placed his small pack next to him and sat down to rifle through the few rations he had purchased days before. Breakfast, lunch, supper, breakfast, lunch― five meals, in all. He might need to purchase more from Kara Kara Bazaar if he wanted to get back to familiar Hyrulian hunting grounds comfortably.
"Did something happen?" Purlo asked.
Link looked up. The expression on Purlo's face was that of genuine concern, though the effect was somewhat ruined by the way the man took a large bite of banana.
"I'm leaving," Link said.
"Leaving?" Purlo echoed. A mix of emotions warred on his face: happiness, sadness― "Good for you," he finally said. "I always knew you'd stop letting her treat you so poorly. But I'll be sad to see you go." He rifled through his own bag, then pulled out his favourite fruit, handing it to Link. "Banana?"
"No, thank you," Link said. "I doubt I could enjoy it more than you."
Purlo seemed to contemplate this, then nodded in thoughtful agreement. "Probably not." He returned his banana to his pack. "So when are you leaving?"
"Today," Link said, after a moment. "Most likely."
Purlo nodded. "It won't be the same without you here," he said.
"It's for the best," Link said, feeling the growing stubble on his chin. "I'll be more useful in Hyrule Castle."
"I'll keep an eye on her," Purlo said, smirking. "She'll be safe as a pearl on my mother's neck."
Somehow, that did not comfort Link. "Are they real pearls?"
"Does it matter?" Purlo asked, before taking a long swill from his canteen.
Later, when Purlo finally left, Link paid the last of his debt to the man who had rented him the tent and furniture, then said goodbye to those merchants he had grown to know by face. He asked one of the Gerudo guards to make his excuses to Sapphia and the rest, and finally started on the road to Kara Kara Bazaar.
By then, the midday sun hung in the southern sky, and his shadow stretched before him. Again, his mind returned to the night's events. The argument, the fight, Vah Naboris, the ledge, the dunes, the dream.
Eventually, Link came to the truth. This was a complete, unmitigated disaster.
She needed a friend. Urbosa's words came back to mind, and Link's pride bristled. What about me? He retorted to Urbosa's mirage. I needed a friend too.
How had the Hero and the Goddess done it the first time around? How had they tolerated each other long enough? This incarnation was far too arrogant for her degree of incompetence. Never mind that she could be funny, or alluring, or downright brilliant. Never mind that she had a keen tongue and a spectacularly curious spirit. She had decided to hate him, clearly.
I would kill to awaken my power with that same ease. The princess' words echoed in his mind, and for a moment he could almost feel her fists in his shirt, could almost smell the scent of her hair, her skin, could almost feel the touch of her phantom kissing his knuckles. It was unbearable.
He kicked at the sand, and it sprayed almost like water.
There had been a few times, he reflected, where they had almost gotten along. When he hadn't worn the Master Sword and she had been absorbed by her work. She talked to herself― the memory pulled at his lips and he held back a smile. She was like a force of nature, omnipresent, impossible to ignore. She took over his attention every time she entered a room.
She could be bright, she could be beautiful.
And she could be cruel, mercurial, childish, like the sixteen year-old girl she was.
He reached Kara Kara Bazaar by mid-afternoon, checking in on his horse and renting a room for the night. He would leave in the morning, he swore to himself. He did not contemplate going back. He certainly did not contemplate apologizing. What sort of man would he be if he apologized? She had dismissed him, anyway. She would not take him back.
He was still pondering this when Captain Vatorsa strode into the inn. She was wearing her cold-weather clothes, so Link assumed she was heading back on patrol.
"Ah, the little voe," she greeted him, motioning for a meal to be brought out to her. "May I?"
Link shrugged, and she sat across from him. Link kept on eating. After a few bites, he noticed the captain had been silent the entire time, and that she was observing him with overt interest.
"Something on my face?" He asked, flatly.
"You abandoned the little vai," Vatorsa said, a small smile pulling at her lips. She tisked. "I expected more from you."
"I didn't abandon her, she dismissed me," Link said, acerbically.
Vatorsa leaned back into her seat. "Of course, how silly that I should forget. Your fight really upended the betting pools."
Link scowled. "Look, I'm not in the mood. If you want to tell everyone you had me and claim the prize money for yourself, go on right ahead. I won't be there to say otherwise."
Captain Vatorsa pouted. "Oh, you poor thing. Saving yourself, are you?"
He ignored the sudden flush that warmed his cheeks. Sharply, he glared at her. "I'm not that stupid."
She changed her approach. "You broke sweet Sapphia's heart. Fickle thing, though. She's after a merchant now. If she doesn't join me tomorrow morning, Ruvara will have to drag her to patrol by the ear."
"I'd rather eat in silence," Link grumbled.
"So eat in silence and I'll talk," Captain Vatorsa said, her smile waning, replaced by a cool glare. "You have angered the Chieftain."
Link didn't reply, chewing.
"After your fight, she and the little vai had a disagreement. The Chieftain did not want you to be dismissed. The little vai told her to mind her own business."
Link, with his knife, speared a stewed turnip with more force than necessary, but didn't reply.
"Then, when we tried to find you in the camp, you were gone."
"She dismissed me," Link reminded her.
"You swore an oath, the Chieftain says." Vatorsa nodded in thanks to the innkeeper's daughter as she brought forward another bowl of hearty stew, then continued, "An oath that transcends time, distance and darkness, apparently."
"She." Link repeated, enunciating clearly, "Dismissed. Me."
"You are behaving like a child," Vatorsa said. "You clearly love her, and I'm sure she's half in love with you herself."
Link dropped his spoon, inhaling deeply. "Captain," he finally said. "Your assumptions are both irritating and wrong. I am going to change tables."
"The Chieftain has ordered that you wait," Vatorsa said, picking up her bowl before he could move. She stood. "Wait three days. If nothing is mended by then―"
"With all due respect," Link replied, coolly, "there is nothing left to mend. She cannot command me. I know this desert is your Chieftain's realm, but I am a Champion like her, her equal. I will leave in the morning, and you can give my regards to your Chieftain and to the Princess of Hyrule." He looked down at his bowl, then up at the captain. "I've lost my appetite." He stood, left a few rupees on the table, then bowed curtly to his fellow warrior. "Sav'saaba, Captain."
That night, sleep did not come.
… And I'm sure she's half in love with you herself. Captain Vatorsa's voice echoed, and he turned over on the bunk, hating the way his heart fluttered with the barest hope.
Well, Zelda didn't love him, he knew, angrily. Because she had dismissed him. Released him from service. And just because he felt he could hear her voice, her mumblings to herself, just because if he closed his eyes he could almost muster the smell of her, didn't mean that he 'clearly loved her'. The Gerudo captain had it all wrong, and she was stupid, just like everyone else.
There was no shaking the thoughts of Zelda, though. Young and angry, she seemed to haunt him wherever he turned, her eyes hard as jade, and he could almost hear her accusations ringing in his mind, and the more the moonlight crept across the floor, the more they began to fall into place.
I would kill to awaken my power with that same ease, you ungrateful lout! The words rang in his head, over and over, and suddenly Link had the odd impression that he had been looking at this puzzle from the wrong angle. And it was beginning to make a new sort of sense.
Link, from the top of his nineteen years of wisdom, could feel his stomach dropping slowly, the dread coming over him at a crawl, ineluctable. She was just a girl who had been unable to awaken her power, and what he had seen as doing his duty, she had seen as flaunting the Master Sword at every turn.
Deep down, Link knew, he would have hated himself too.
Maybe asking a sixteen year-old girl to be both patient and kind had been too much to ask. Link certainly still lost his temper frequently, and he was supposedly a man grown.
The entire notion sat about as well as indigestion.
But what to do? He had said unforgivable things, she had done irreparable deeds, and now they stood at odds, unable to reconcile. He had ignored his pride too often to go crawling back, and she had complained about him too much, chafed against his presence too much to take him into her service again.
Why did he even consider repairing anything? Were they not beyond fixing?
Could they defeat the Calamity even if they weren't on speaking terms?
Dawn came to the world with pale orange light, as it only did, the innkeeper said as she swept the front steps, when a sandstorm was coming. Link could almost feel it on the wind, a strangely electric sensation, one that would soon harass the village and scrape at the skin.
He wanted to be gone before the storm locked him indoors for a day. The idea tore at him, though. He was tired, he reasoned. He had barely slept, and surely his doubts were merely due to his inability to reason with so little sleep. He was right to leave. He couldn't go back, not if she didn't change, not if he had to look at himself in the harsh light of her judgement.
Not if he had to wonder why he even stayed as long as he had in the first place.
He found his horse in the stable. It was refreshed and eager to get going, which Link thought was fortunate. At least one of them felt that way.
He was finishing with the straps of his saddle when Captain Vatorsa strode into the stables, clearly animated by more than mere messenger duty. She was walking with purpose, and Link actually paused as she reached his side.
She shoved a scroll the size of a finger into his hands. "Read this."
Link frowned. "I don't have time for this. There is a sandstorm coming."
The captain glared, so Link rolled his eyes and looked at the hastily scrawled message.
Princess missing. Yiga on the move.
Like a sudden weight, Link's stomach dropped to his knees. He swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat. Then, to the captain, he said, trying desperately to keep the creeping panic from his voice, "When did you get this?"
Vatorsa nodded back to the door. "Ruvara and Sapphia, this morning. They beat the couriers. We've been assigned to find her."
Of course they had, Link thought, forcing himself to calm down. Chieftain Urbosa hadn't been dismissed as he had. She had taken charge of the princess. She was responsible for her well-being now, not Link.
Still. His fingers itched.
"Why did you show me this?" Link asked, schooling his face into comforting impassivity. He reached for his knight's bridle, preparing to slide the bit between his horse's teeth.
"I was under the impression," Captain Vatorsa said, "that you were a brave voe who valued his duty."
"Until I was relieved of that duty," Link said, with some trepidation. Did he sound convincing? The Captain had always seemed perceptive, and he feared she would hear the waver in his voice.
The Captain squinted at him. Then, with some disgust, she said, "Why did the Sword choose you?"
After that, without another word, she turned on her heel and walked back out. Outside, the wind was rising, the clamour of Kara Kara warning that they should board up the windows and take in the livestock.
But Link barely registered any of it.
After a moment, ears buzzing, heart racing, he pushed his horse back into its stall, made sure it had feed and hay, then strode to the doors.
And he unsheathed the Master Sword.
She inhaled, cringing away, but the Yiga stalker crumbled to the ground, and Zelda peered up, speechless.