"… still, the holy powers have proven deaf to my devotion. Please, just tell me… What is it? What's wrong with me?!"
When Link and Zelda returned to camp, both soaked to the waist, no one questioned it.
At least, not out loud.
But Link could feel the eyes on him like burning brands, and imagined that he felt something ― doubt, maybe? ― lingering in the air like smoke.
He sent Zelda into her tent, asking her to change back into dry, more comfortable clothes, then turned back to face the quiet knights and Sheikah shadows. They had camped at the bottom of Ordorac Quarry, the flat carved out surfaces ideal for raising tents. Overhead, the stars twinkled brightly, coldly, unfeeling. But near the fire, the night was pleasant, the bright glow casting deep, black shadows on the quarry walls around them. Crickets chirped, as though to cast off the heat of the day that had just ended.
And Link dared his Order of the Guard to say anything.
Mercifully, they didn't.
When Zelda re-emerged, they all shuffled aside to make space for her, and she quietly accepted a slice of toasted bread with jam.
Then, to Link's surprise, she forced herself to look at the circle of firelit faces and said, "We will try again tomorrow."
And something twinged in Link's chest. He watched his princess take a small bite of food, satisfied she was still eating, and heartbroken she was putting on such a brave face.
Lady Ashei's eyes met his across the fire, the dark pools reflecting fire light, and Link was sure that for a moment he saw sympathy in them. Next to her, Shae Rokee, one of the tallest and most aloof Sheikah women in the Guard, pursed her lips.
Then, to the surprise of even her own people, Shae met the princess' eyes and said, "This prayer business is ridiculous, highness." When her neighbours gaped, she bristled and glared around, daring anyone to contradict her. "What? It's true. Her highness is even more devout than the High Priest!"
"Be quiet," Kah Maag gently warned. He was the Sheikah leader for the expedition to Akkala. What he lacked in manners, though, he made up for in sheer skill.
But Shae, it seemed, was not done speaking. "This is a farce. Master Impa told us that you have been training for years, highness. Years! With nothing to show for it! " She looked around the fire at the bewildered expressions on her fellow Guards' faces, then shot an angry look at the tunnel that led to the Spring of Power. "What more do the gods want?"
Link sensed the princess tense up.
Then, Lady Ashei casually threw her chicken bone into the fire, where the fat crackled. It looked to Link as though she was scowling. "It is a farce."
"The other day," Squire Niko said, shyly, in the resulting silence, "I heard Lord Dracozu say― Well," he flushed, glancing at the princess. "He was suggesting other ways for you to, ah, awaken your powers. I told him to mind his tongue. But maybe he's right. About prayer not being the way, I mean," he added hastily.
An echo of his conversation with Groose returned to Link, and he bit the inside of his cheek to refrain from commenting.
"Ugh," Sir Jakamar said, in his usual drawl, "Lord Dracozu isn't worth the pavement he walks on. I once saw him yell at a maid because she was dusting too loudly." He turned to the princess, all reassurance. "So we all know what his opinion is worth."
"Did you get in trouble?" Shae Rokee asked Niko.
"Not with the Order of the Guard's escutcheon on my chest," Niko said.
"You know who's worse than Dracozu?" Young Sir Keet said, leaning in conspiratorially. "The Chancellor."
Lady Ashei snorted. "Well, tell us something we don't know."
"No, I swear," Sir Keet continued. His mouth twisted in apparent disgust. "It's all the priests talk about these days. Did you know he hasn't shown up to prayer in months? Months! And our princess prays every day." He looked over at the princess and smiled. Link thought he looked almost proud of her. "Your dedication is an inspiration, princess. Any lesser person would have given up by now. Even my dear old mother, who was the most devout woman in my village, would have given up."
"I can't imagine Chancellor Cole having a mother," Squire Niko said, shuddering. "Imagine the Chancellor without a mustache."
There were a few sounds of mild disgust around the fire.
"I think that what we're all trying to say," Shae Rokee spoke into the sudden silence, the fire of her indignation somewhat dimmed, "is that if anyone should be given a rest, it's you, princess."
Princess Zelda managed a small smile. "Thank you, Shae. But I will not run from my duty." Silence fell over the camp once more, and Zelda looked down at the remaining scrap of toast in her hand. And then she added, softly, "Even if it is a farce."
It seemed the air suddenly cleared, and there were a few soft cheers of agreement.
"So it is," Lady Ashei said, appraisingly, as she lifted her mug of weak ale in a toast.
"Indeed," Sir Jakamar said. "And let no one claim otherwise."
Zelda smiled at them, her green eyes glinting in the firelight.
But she wasn't there, really. Link watched her subtly drop the remainder of her toast in the shadows behind her, her appetite gone once again, and though she wore a smile, she still rose to her feet shortly after and excused herself for the night.
As the group of knights continued to converse amicably, the tension now gone, Link's eyes followed his princess all the way to her tent. He watched the shaky way she untied the flap, watched the unsteady, uncertain jitter in her movements― and then she closed the flap behind her, and was out of view.
Around the fire, the conversation shifted. Now the voices rose high into the night, all worry forgotten, and Link sat at the edge of the shadow, longing to join her, to let her cry in his arms, if only so she wouldn't be alone. And the longing ached, pulled at his conscience.
But he couldn't. She had decided to put on a brave face, to make a joke of it, to remove the burden of fear from her guards. He would have to honour that.
Still, he couldn't taste the ale he was served. His thoughts kept returning to the Spring of Power, to the sorrow in her voice. When she had begun to cry―
What was it about his princess that had captured him so wholly? It wasn't just that she was pretty. He'd known ― still knew ― so many pretty girls, and not one of them had ever seized his attention so steadily. And it wasn't just her intelligence, sharp though it was.
Was it that she needed him? That couldn't be it. Sometimes he felt utterly useless, standing at the edge of a spring and listening to her voice begin to falter, and then rise to tearful panic.
What's wrong with me, she'd asked. His heart still squeezed to think of her question, of the strain in her voice, the way she'd curled upon herself, as though nothing could possibly comfort her. He'd been unable to help himself, especially when her first sobs had echoed across the pool of water. He hadn't even thought twice about it, letting himself into the water and wading over to her.
She'd heard his splashes, knew he was approaching, and in the moonlight, he'd seen the tears in her eyes as she turned.
So he'd reached out, and she'd buried her face into his shoulder.
Even now, Link felt the rage Shae Rokee had expressed at the gods. What more did they want? How could they be benevolent and still put their servant through such torment? How could they withhold their blessing in the face of such despair, such prayers? How could they say nothing and let their most faithful worshipper doubt herself, think herself imperfect?
How dare they?
But he hadn't voiced any of those thoughts. He was becoming quite adept at keeping quiet. He'd let her muffle her cries into his shoulder, the sobs wracking her body with quaking heaves, and he'd said nothing.
He couldn't even look at the statue of the Goddess. He was afraid he'd begin some sort of angry tirade. And that would help no one.
To think of the hope Zelda had expressed on the way here… She had been in such high spirits, her relief at not being in Hyrule Castle for Din's Day almost palpable. She had struck up conversations with all of her traveling companions, great knight or not, had teased the squires and bantered with the Sheikah shadows. The road had been pleasant, cheerful, and had Link agreed, he did not doubt one of their companions would have broken out into some bawdy wayfaring song.
On the third day of travel, when they reached the familiar high road that forked towards Eldin, they'd even discussed how her horse didn't trust her anymore, ever since her reckless descent on that same road the year before. She'd explained it nickered all the time, and tended to stray off the road at its leisure, and how irritated she was with it.
She'd even threatened to have it stripped of its royal gear.
"It's because you're doing it all wrong," Link had said.
She had feigned outrage at this declaration. "Well, don't hold back, tell me what you really think."
"You're spooking your horse," Link had explained. "It doesn't trust you anymore. And getting angry won't help it feel any safer."
She'd huffed at this, but with that glint in her eye that said she didn't mean it. "I'll have you know that I give it only the finest oats."
"That's a start," Link had conceded. "But it's not enough."
She had insisted that, if he was such an expert on horses, he would have to show her just what to do. And he'd agreed, the warmth in his chest like a heady balm.
But now? His eyes darted back to the quiet tent. He didn't have to be clairvoyant to know she was crying in there. It killed him to be sitting out here, helpless, foolish, utterly incompetent.
And angry. So angry. He looked up at the sky and its countless stars and inhaled a long, slow, steadying breath, and tried not to curse any gods out loud. Or worse, curse the king, and his foolish, stubborn desire to put his own beloved daughter through this pointless pilgrimage, this ridiculous façade of a crusade.
Unable to sit still any longer, he stood, pleased that no one particularly noticed, and strode over to the princess' tent. It was quiet, but he knew she was still awake. So he sat next to it, hoping his presence, even through the canvas, would help.
From within, her disembodied voice warbled a weak, "Link?"
He settled in, cross-legged, and grunted the affirmative. He wasn't sure he could summon words right now, anyway. Not with the beast within him roaring.
She fell quiet for a long time, as though this was a satisfactory answer.
Was it pathetic? Link wondered. Was it pathetic to want to be so close, so often? He hoped not. Besides, as Groose had pointed out so recently, there had to be worse things than being in love with the woman he was charged to protect. Of all their problems right now, surely that was among the least terrible. Loving her in secret harmed no one. Well. For now.
Sometimes, especially when he saw her teasing or touching other men, the tiny worm of jealousy needed to be stamped down. But that was nothing, he reasoned. It would be worse when she found some prince to marry. Then he'd be damned in truth, cursed forever to wander in the shadow of a luckier man.
But as long as she didn't know, then he wasn't hurting her. And though he knew it was all a delusion, he found comfort in the stirring of his own imagined futures, in the remote possibilities that he could conjure― if he earned a lordship through his heroic deeds, perhaps― like killing the Calamity, if it came…? Or if he could make his fortune as a wandering mercenary…
In all those dreams, of course, she always waited for him. That part always made him want to snort in derision. He already knew a woman who was waiting for him, and Ilia was sacrificing too much in vain. Not that she'd hear it, and not that his mother would tolerate it. How could he ask the same of Zelda? It would be presumptuous at best, completely insane at worst. Princesses did not wait for lowly knights, wielders of sacred blades though they may be.
And what life would they lead, anyway? The princess would one day be queen. What would he become? He wasn't cut out for ruling. Not in the way the Castle required, at least. He hated having all eyes on him, and though he was working his way through books on public policy and taxation, if only to have something, eventually, to talk to Zelda about, there was very little he felt confident enough about to actually manage himself.
Oh, he was becoming an apt commander. With Groose to serve as the actual right hand, Link could focus his efforts on overarching goals, could refine means to achieve those goals, and he was even becoming adept at expressing his ideas clearly and in a way that secured enthusiasm and loyalty.
But it was a taxing effort, one that Groose handled much more naturally.
When he really imagined the perfect future, he wasn't sitting on a throne. Instead, he was wandering the land with his wife ― always blonde, always green-eyed ― administering justice and helping people wheresoever they were needed. And he would sleep under the stars with her, if need be, and never feel he was poor.
Yeah. Maybe he was pathetic.
Inside the tent, Zelda stirred, and he felt her shuffle at little bit closer. When she spoke next, her voice seemed to come from just the other side of the canvas. "... Thank you."
Link frowned. "You don't need to thank me." Especially not when he knew how useless he was right then.
"No," she said, softly. Her voice was nasal, small. She had clearly cried and her nose was stuffy. "I mean, thank you for letting me cry on your shoulder."
I should be in there with you, he almost said, but bit back the reply with every last ounce of his battered propriety. "I wish I could do more."
"You are doing everything you ought to be doing," she whispered, through the canvas. She sniffled. Around the campfire, someone made a bawdy joke, and jeers rose with laughter. Zelda's voice was small when she continued. "I'm glad to have a friend with me."
She didn't know the warmth she created within him with those words. She couldn't see the way his throat worked around a sudden and unexpected lump. Clearing his throat quietly, he said, trying to keep his voice level, "That truly means a lot, princess."
"I'm doing my best out there, you know," she continued, as though to convince him. "I swear I am."
"I know," he assured her, gently.
"I don't want you to…" Her voice faltered, and for a few moments she seemed to be wiping at her nose, though Link couldn't be sure. "I don't want you to think less of me."
Link snorted. "If anything, your perseverance only makes me think better of you by the day." He leaned into the canvas, though he did not dare to pull the flap aside, and his next words came out softly, fervently. "Zelda, they're right. What you're doing is absurd, and your commitment is admirable. No one deserves godly favour more than you."
To his surprise, a small, pale hand reached out from the flap, and found his knee.
"Thank you," she said, solemnly. She still seemed on the verge of tears. "... Sir Link."
His hand came down to hers. As usual, a jolt of familiar warmth traveled through his fingers, and he squeezed her hand reflexively. Then, earnestly, his voice barely above a whisper, he said, "I live to serve."
She hiccuped. He felt her stir, sniffle, and eventually the sniffling subsided.
And then her fingers relaxed, and moved from his grip.
Not far, of course. She still only had one hand out of the tent, invisible in the deep dancing shadows of their camp, and it was still clinging to his own, but those fingers loosened, began to dance along his wrist, then down to his palm. They traced each of his fingers, one by one, as though she were studying them, committing them to memory. They caressed the back of his hand, tracing its contour, and pressing against his thumb.
Numbly, Link let her. If her feathery touch strayed just a bit higher, to his pulse, she'd know the effect she had on him. And still, he dared not move.
"You have calluses," she whispered.
"From training," he said, hoarsely.
"Do they hurt?" She asked.
"No." He swallowed when her index began to caress one of them, on the cushion of his palm at the base of a finger. "I don't even think about them anymore."
Her voice contained a smile now. "I don't have any. I suppose I really am a sheltered princess."
"Well, I like your hands just as they are," Link said, before he could stop himself.
Her movement stopped, and for a moment her fingers rested in his open hand, like so many butterflies about to take wing.
And then she pushed the tent flap ever so slightly, and their eyes met, green and blue in the shadows. Something in her eyes felt like the beginning of a fire.
"Link," she started in a whisper, and then she hesitated, and Link's heart raced, a mix of terror and hope too exquisite and awful to describe beginning to stir in his gut.
It was mad, of course, this hope that seized him. Why did it fill him so completely? What would she say? For a moment, he thought he might almost guess, that it might actually be exactly what he was hoping.
Was it weak of him to want to succumb, to just lean in, and pull her to him and press his lips to hers? Just his lips, it didn't have to be anything more...
Of course, there was no doubt a single taste of her lips would never be enough. Letting the spark in would only ignite what was already there, desperately suppressed.
Did she see it in him? It was wrong and inappropriate, and it went counter to what all good knights did, felt― were. There was no place in the world for it, no relief to be had, and he had to learn to live with it.
As though she could sense the emotion stirring within him, Zelda pulled away suddenly, an expression on her face that could have been duty, or discipline― or regret. Her fingers hastily retreated with her, the flap falling back into place, and within the tent he heard rustling and mumbling, and the occasional sigh.
Oh, damn it.
"Zelda…" He tried, pushing down the rise of self-loathing.
"I should sleep," she whispered, all in a rush. "I think… I think maybe the day has been a bit much. I… Thank you for sitting out here with me. But you should go back to the fire. Or sleep. I'll be fine."
Sleep. Link grimaced.
There would be no sleep for him tonight. He was still breathless, his heart still pounding.
And there was an undeniable sting, too. Had she not been about to say something? Or had he allowed himself to read something in those clear emerald eyes that was all wrong? Was he now so far-gone, so completely disconnected from reality, that he was beginning to imagine longing in the face of a friend? A friend, she had called him. A friend. Nothing else. Anything else was a leap. A lie.
He was doing this to himself, he knew. Building up false hopes. Only a fool would do something like that. He was a knight, and she was a princess. There were oceans between them.
But his hand still tingled where she'd traced it, a sure sign it hadn't all been some trick of the mind. Did she even know the effect she had on him? Surely not. If she had, would she have done it?
Why had it seemed to him, for one hair's breadth of a moment, as though she had wanted― as though she had wanted him to push the flap aside and bring her in close, and drink directly from her lips?
He was going mad.
He ran a shaky hand through his hair, and managed to summon his voice. "Right. Of course. Try to get some sleep. I'll be in the tent beside yours if you need anything." Then, hesitantly, he added, "Good night."
"Good night," she meekly, hastily replied, her discomfort coming out with a squeak.
That did not feel very good. But it could have been worse. He could have made a grave mistake tonight. A grave, tempting, terrifying mistake. Instead, she'd stopped him right before he could get any bad ideas into his head.
Small blessings, he surmised, bitterly, as he curled up in his pallet.
But he did not sleep that night, and, judging by the stirring in the tent next to his, neither did his princess.