Link's hand came up, interrupting Zelda's narration.
The sun was setting over Kakariko Village, casting long shadows along the twisting paths. But Link wasn't looking at the view. His expression was shuttered.
"Link?" She asked, fighting to maintain her composure. Her mouth was dry, her heart was racing.
He frowned, and for the first time in what seemed like forever, Zelda saw an awful look on his face.
"You're lying," he said, the accusation soft, and all the more striking for it.
He looked at her, really looked at her, with an expression she had not seen in a hundred years, a mix of honest hurt and confused frustration.
"Lying," he repeated, enunciating clearly. "You're lying."
Her first reaction was indignation. It was the reflex of a princess, something ingrained and proud. But it had not a foot to stand on.
The next emotion was guilt. Of course she was lying.
Of course they'd not gone straight to sleep. Of course they hadn't.
The final, lasting emotion, though, was confusion. He hadn't indicated any remembrance until now. So how did he know she was lying?
Did he― Could he―
The dawning realization felt like ice in her veins, flushing all the way down her back, and for a moment she was speechless.
He remembered. There was no other explanation.
Suddenly a hundred different fleeting thoughts, a thousand infinitesimal instincts came to her mind, a myriad moments she'd wondered, confused, whether Link's meddling into the affairs of Hyrule and this new council were truly the work of a man suffering from amnesia.
But they couldn't have been. And what a fool she was not to have seen it. It was in his eyes now, even as he studied her with a look of betrayal she had never wanted to see.
Feeling a blush of shame creep up her face, she buried her face in her hands, in some weak attempt to hide from his unwavering gaze. "Oh, by all the gods, Link… I'm sorry."
He didn't reply. When she peeked up at him through her fingers, she saw that he had looked away, his eyes skipping over the rooftops like a stone on a lake. And now his expression was somewhat more steely, like he was containing some deeper hurt.
When he finally spoke, his voice was raw. "You said that, too. Back then."
It wasn't fair. The indignation inside was boiling, a confused mass of her own betrayal and the embarrassment of having been caught in a lie. And what a lie! She couldn't have been more dishonest if she'd told him the sky was red.
She tried desperately not to let her eyes water, then managed to croak, "How long have you been able to remember?"
This did seem to pull him back. His blue eyes went back to her face, and he frowned pensively.
Then, at length, he said, in a wooden tone that pulled at her heart, "Since the first."
"The… first?" She echoed uncertainly.
His eyes went down to her hands, which had dropped away from her face. The silence stretched a little longer, and then he said, "Since you reached for my hand and I pushed you into the saddle, after the fight. After Ganon."
The silence now was punctuated only by the sudden chirp of a nightsparrow.
She looked down at her hands in wonder, then back at him. She remembered that moment, of course. How couldn't she? It was branded into her memory: the first time someone had touched her in over a century. She had been so amazed by the feel of his calluses on her, she hadn't even imagined to look at him, too struck by the raw magic of simple contact and the comfort of his warmth to imagine he would be having a similarly transformative experience.
He was looking at her still, inscrutable as ever. She found her voice, lodged somewhere in her throat.
"You mean… Since I sealed Ganon away? This whole time?" She frowned, the confusion like a mire from which she struggled to escape, and when she continued she tried desperately to keep all accusations out of her tone. "But… But you said you didn't remember."
He looked at her in silence, his expression utterly unreadable, and Zelda felt a familiar ache of frustration that she was still so terrible at understanding his moods.
"I lied," he finally said. And the corner of his lip lifted, as though aware of the irony.
"You lied," she echoed, incredulous. Then, searching for her words through the confusion, she managed only a hurt, "But… Why?"
He didn't reply. Suddenly, a furrow creased his brow, and she recognized him, if only for a fleeting moment: Link, her Link, the Link she had always known. She knew him by that frown, by the irritation in his gaze, the mirrored frustration he felt as he searched for the right words.
It lasted only a second, but the flash of recognition nearly made her sob.
"Was…" Her voice nearly failed her, and she shivered. Mustering what remained of her strength, she whispered, "Was this a test?"
Worse ― was it a game? Somehow the Calamity seemed closer than ever now ― in her memory, it whispered in that familiar tone of saccharine mockery that yes, it was all a game. A hundred years it had toyed with her. Had she really thought sealing it away would free her from its painful mind games? A hundred years of torment had made her quite good at recognizing traps when they sprung. Surely this was the work of the Calamity, because if it wasn't― if it wasn't―
She peered up at Link, half-hopeful, half-terrified his eyes would be blue, not Calamity-red. They'd been Calamity-red so often in that century of imprisonment. What if all this had been some elaborate ploy? What if she was still trapped in that awful Castle with only phantoms and memories for friends? What if she'd finally gone mad?
But Link's eyes were blue. Blue, and hurt.
She'd thought that would bring her comfort. Instead, it filled her with a worse dread still.
She'd made a terrible mistake. A costly, awful, painful mistake. In assuming he knew nothing, she'd tried in vain to erase her past bungle, and created a fresh one.
But worse still: she had walked right into Link's trap. He remembered her most personal failing, how she'd used him so wrongly, and had wanted her to admit to it. He'd probably wanted an apology. And instead, she'd lied. Now he knew her for what she was: a coward and a liar. His faith in her would be broken now. He'd never trust her again.
Zelda's heart squeezed. Her blood was cold in her veins. She thought she might be sick.
I wanted to start over. It had been selfish and misguided, she knew that now.
Distantly, down in Kakariko, the late crowds were parting, and now the steady arrival of Hyrule's leaders at Impa's door was visible. They were climbing the steps to the Sheikah elder's home, their varied frames and clothing marking them apart even from this distance. Somewhere, over the crowing of cuccos and busy cookfires, someone rang the evening gong.
The sound penetrated the haze of Zelda's misery. She looked up to see Link frowning, too. He hadn't responded to her question, and Zelda wondered if she even wanted him to now. She felt wretched enough already. Hearing him tell her of her failure might well be agony.
"We should go," he said, his expression unreadable. It was all Zelda could do to nod along. Foolish, selfish, stupid― how could she have thought, even after a hundred years, that she would ever have peace? She'd ruined it. Ruined everything― failed the test, as she always did.
A hand appeared in Zelda's vision. She looked up in surprise. Link had pushed himself to his feet and was now waiting with his hand outstretched. Old habits died hard, apparently. Uncertainly, Zelda reached out and allowed him to pull her up. As though suddenly aware of the help he'd just given her, he stepped away as soon as they were standing, and a fresh wash of misery poured through her.
Foolish girl, the Calamity seemed to whisper across space and time. Stupid, useless child. Link remembered. And, worse: he no longer trusted her. She'd failed him. Again.
This, too, was somehow familiar. It had not happened then. Not in truth. But in all those years she'd spent with the Calamity― oh, Ganon had whispered of this. It had teased her with loneliness, had tortured her with a dark Link's contempt, had suggested a lifetime lived with his disdain.
She was just as vulnerable to it now as she had been then, if not more so. The Calamity had spewed lies, but this moment was real. There was no Ganon to accuse. This was all her doing.
All her doing, and a little bit of Link's careful planning.
Looking at him now, she still couldn't believe he could have been so underhanded. She had betrayed his trust, but what about him? He'd lied openly, and often. He'd steered her to a false sense of comfort.
It was so unlike him― so… so…
Not that the flush of indignation helped. She kept going back to a single truth: this was her doing. All of it. She had hurt Link, and then hurt him again by lying. If only she had been stronger, if only she had been a better, purer princess, none of this would have happened.
It was all too much to process at once. She followed Link down the path back towards the village, in the pained silence of guilt, the tension between them like a somber blanket. He preceded her, watching his step, his eyes lost in thought.
Occasionally, he'd glance back, inscrutable, and she kept expecting him to fling insults her way. But he didn't.
His eyes. Sometimes in her long imprisonment, she had tried to conjure the memory of them ― in his laughing face, in the glow of a campfire― sometimes she even dared tread the treacherous memory of Lanayru, trying to imagine if things couldn't have been different. In her worst moments, she had almost managed to convince herself he had been as desperate for her as she had been for him. In those faulty memories, his gaze had been dark, his eyes darting to her lips.
She could still remember: he'd licked his own lips, uncertainly, and she'd wanted horribly to kiss him, to combat the cold with warmth.
It was wrong. She had known it as surely as she'd fought it off for months. It had been wrong. But he'd obliged anyway, of course. Because she'd asked. She'd whispered his name, had traced the line of his jaw, had murmured her command.
In her delirious imaginings, he had been willing enough.
His lips had been firm and soft, his breath and his hands warm even through her clothes. He was sturdy in that way all knights had to be, but gentle. And he was the first man she'd ever kissed, the first she'd ever draped herself over, so she'd wondered, in the half mind that remained, whether she was a first for him.
How long did she abuse him thus? She pondered this as she trudged miserably along in Link's shadow. Sometimes the memory lasted only seconds, and sometimes they were at it for hours, each kiss engraved into her mind with such confused delight that her mind spun at the mere recollection.
Oh, the Calamity had rejoiced when it had prodded at her memories of Link. She had kept this one transgression as close to her chest as she could, but time had worked against her. How many times did Ganon taunt her with images of her knight, clothes askew, eyes accusatory, and words of hatred and reprimand the real Link would never have dared to speak?
Ahead of her, Link stepped into the main street of Kakariko, and she was brought, halting, back to the present. His gaze skipped to her for a fleeting moment, and his lips parted as though he wanted to say something. Zelda counted her terrified heartbeats as she waited for him to speak. She made it to seven before he turned away and continued down the street.
The sight of his shuttered expression was worse to witness than ever before. Now, she knew that he knew. He remembered, and yet all trace of warmth was gone.
She hadn't known what heartbreak was until now. Heartbreak that he had laid a trap. Heartbreak that she had been terrible enough to walk into it. Heartbreak that she had thought they were both… better.
Ganon had warned her that they were both fallible. Now she had the proof of it. She was such a fool. Had always been a fool, if her shameful past behavior was anything to judge by.
Link hadn't wanted her on Lanayru, she forced herself to remember. He'd been stunned, of course, and worried for her happiness, no doubt. They had been friends. He had merely given her what comfort she needed.
So when she'd climbed onto his lap, like some wanton― Of course he'd obeyed her command. She had hoped to make it a request, but could it ever be? He was her appointed knight. All the words out of her mouth were orders, as far as he was concerned. She'd pulled at his furs, had run her hands over his chest, and had drunk from him with abandon.
He hadn't pushed her away.
But he wouldn't have, she reminded herself woodenly as she followed him, not daring to close the distance between them. He had been kind, obeying his future queen, and he'd had a girl waiting for him in his hometown, and― and―
Even now, stumbling blindly as she did after him, over a hundred years later, she felt a crushing wave of guilt. It squeezed at her chest like a vise, reminding her of narcissistic abandon, of cruel self-absorption.
After all, if he was in no position to say no, then he couldn't truly say yes.
Now, a hundred years later and walking several paces behind him, Zelda felt her chest nearly crushed with a century's buildup of guilt and shame. Patience, wisdom and grace, Impa had admonished, all those years ago, and she'd demonstrated none of those qualities. Neither then, nor now. Then, she'd assaulted him, bolstered by her rank and his vows of servitude, too desperate to think that perhaps what she was having was not hers to take, and that his care was reluctantly given.
And now, she'd betrayed him again. By lying.
The steps to Impa's house creaked under their weight, yet when Link arrived at the landing before Zelda, he paused, turning to her. Within the house, conversations were already loudly audible, filtering into the evening air.
They stood in pregnant silence. For the briefest of moments, it seemed Link was wrestling with himself, but Zelda could not tell whether he found the words he wanted to say, nor whether she really wanted to hear them.
Did he see the doubt on her face? With a sad sigh, Link reached for the panel of the door, slid it open and motioned for her to go first.
She complied, though all she wanted was to run and hide.
Tonight, her seat was between Yunobo and Tasseren. She had half expected the meeting to begin without her, so she was surprised when they all looked at her with happy welcoming smiles. It was utterly at odds with the misery in her heart.
How strange. Yesterday, they'd been ready to go on with their own motions and ideas, and she'd been uncertain. Now that she seemed a central part of the proceedings, she feared her broken mood would make them regret their choice for council leader.
Behind her, Link shut the door and made his quiet way to the stairs again, taking up his usual post: there, but not part of the circle. It ached to look at him now. She imagined the future stretching out before her, thought of Link moving on with his life, finding someone else, someone who wouldn't hurt him as she had. But she would never be free of him, not if he agreed to become the Hylian representative. Every interaction would be awkward, tainted by Zelda's many failures.
But there was still time, Zelda thought. Perhaps even hope. Perhaps now that everything was out in the open, and now that she had proven herself unreliable, he would choose to leave, to never see her again. And even if the thought made her chest feel like it was being crushed, she would not have blamed him. Surely now, he would accept a proper retirement? Surely that had to be the silver lining to this agony?
She realized the meeting had begun when Elder Rozel of Lurelin stood, smiling through his mustache at the assembled leaders and interrupting a steady exchange of opinions about crops.
"Master Impa," the elderly man said, politely, "may I make an announcement?"
Master Impa rapped a knuckle against a wooden box she kept nestled on her lap. Zelda hadn't noticed it until then, but it made a loud knocking sound and attracted the attention of all present. "Elder Rozel of Lurelin," she said, smiling, "has a statement to make." Next to her, Paya continued scratching at parchment, taking notes.
"Yes," Rozel continued, pleasantly. "You see, we of the Hylian delegations―" he motioned in turn to Tasseren of the Horse Tribes, Elder Uma of Hateno, and Hudson of Tarrey Town, "live at all ends of the continent." He tried standing taller, but barely compared to sitting Prince Sidon. "And we have few occasions to convene. Therefore," he said, walking round the circle to give all leaders their due attention, "we have decided to choose a Hylian representative now, while we are all together, for consideration in the council."
Zelda felt her heart leap in alarm. Her eyes darted to Link, who hadn't moved.
Leave, she mentally prayed, hoping he would have the sense to retreat before he was trapped in a future where they had to interact constantly, where her shame and his resentment brewed nothing but misery.
But Link did not hear her silent prayer. He was looking at Elder Rozel calmly, eerily so. He knew what was coming, Zelda remembered.
So why didn't he look concerned?
"And as you well know, we Hylians are simple folk," Rozel continued, humbly, drawing a few good-hearted chuckles from the assembly. "We recognize honest work, we celebrate honest deeds."
Honesty, Zelda thought, her heart clenching in her chest. The irony made her want to curl over and hide.
"Get on," Elder Uma teased him, interrupting, and Rozel glanced back at her with a roll of his eyes that was mostly humour.
"Right," he said. "Apparently, I'm prattling. The point is, we've deliberated and concluded only one person can truly be our first representative on this council. A young man of great courage and generosity, whose deeds have been of direct use to so many of us, and whose understanding of politics and diplomacy have truly put ours to shame."
And, with a sweeping gesture, Rozel turned to Link, who was still sitting on the stairs in silence.
"Oh," Prince Sidon said with a low whistle. "Of course."
At Elder Rozel's expectant gaze, Link rose, standing tall. He seemed absolutely calm, unperturbed by the prospect of participating in this council, of not retiring to a quiet life, of not getting his hard-earned peace. How was he doing it?
Zelda wanted to shake him. Zelda wanted to scream. Oh, Link, don't torture us this way.
The Calamity seemed to laugh in her ear.
"My dear boy," Rozel said in his grandfatherly tone. "Sir Link of―" He blinked, frowning his thick eyebrows. "Of―"
"Mabe Village," Link quietly said. There was no emotion in those words, but Zelda's heart squeezed for him, as though a fist were closing in around it. He remembered his village, his family. He remembered what had become of them. Oh, skies, when had he mourned them? How had she not noticed? How could she have been such a fool?
Rozel, it seemed, had never heard of the place. He'd been only a baby in swaddling, at most, when the village had been razed. Zelda wondered if he'd even been alive at the time. He nevertheless smiled charitably and continued. "Right. Sir Link of Mabe Village," he said, "if you would honour your people by representing them in a council of leaders for the betterment of Hylians and Hyrule, we would be ever grateful."
There was a moment of silence, and Zelda looked away from Rozel to find that Link had glanced at her.
Silently, she pleaded with him to refuse. There was no way for her to make amends, no manner of peace she could find that would make working together less uncomfortable now. He remembered everything, especially her worst offense. How could he ever forgive her, let alone work with her?
Evidently, the split second silent exchange did not have the impact she had hoped, because Link's brow quirked, for a hair's breadth of a moment, almost like he couldn't help it. Was it a challenge? Was it a frown? Zelda couldn't tell ― she could feel all certainty leaching out of her.
Then, as though she'd imagined it all, Link looked back at Rozel and smiled. "Of course, Elder. It would be an honour."
There was a cheer from the assembly, and Zelda felt like she was sinking into herself.
What was he doing?
He knew exactly what he was doing, she realized with alarm. Everyone had been watching him at yesterday's meeting, and he'd been in talks with at least three of the racial leaders― could it truly― had Link really―
Whose understanding of politics and diplomacy put ours to shame, Rozel had said.
Everyone around her was shuffling, eager to make room for Link to have a seat in the circle, between Elder Rozel and Elder Uma. When she watched him finally sit on his hard-earned cushion, Zelda's gaze upon him was fixed.
They were making room for him. But a council like this had no room for such distance between two of its members―
Would she be better off retreating?
When he glanced at her in return, there was a spark in his eye that could have been vengeance or amusement... or both. The thought that he'd done everything to keep her in the dark, the possibility that he'd manœuvred to gain this position, using her ignorance to lull her into a sense of peace―
It was so unlike her Link, but he'd orchestrated all this so masterfully, and she would have been hard-pressed to do better herself. She remembered the feeling from earlier, that of a trap being sprung, and felt the panic come rushing back.
Riju had mentioned he'd never asked for a reward. Now she knew why. It made Zelda want to laugh and cry at once.
There was some chatter afterwards, where Riju, Teba, Yunobo and Sidon declared themselves representatives of their respective peoples, at least for the time being.
Then Master Impa and Symin declared that Granté, being young and willing to travel, would represent the Sheikah until another was deemed more able, which brought the final count of council representatives to the requisite six.
Link evidently had not known of Granté's selection, because he joined the assembly in congratulating the young Sheikah man with obvious cheer.
Zelda, though, felt lost. Even as Paya read out loud the roster for the first Hyrulian council, she struggled to remain in the moment.
Why? She wondered. Why had Link chosen this, after what he'd discovered from springing his trap on her? Why had he chosen to remain active in Hyrule, despite her best intentions, despite his well-earned right to peace? She could have seen the appeal for a courtier, could have even imagined the reward it would have been for Misko, but politics were not Link's true forte.
Or so she'd thought, she bitterly realized, but evidently he understood far more of them than she was giving him credit for.
Perhaps, she thought, numbly, Link was even brighter than she'd already thought. And perhaps the council did not need her, after all.
Perhaps it was not for Link to retire. Perhaps...
Once again, Impa tapped the wooden box on her lap with a hard knuckle, and congratulations began to fade, replaced with expectant silence.
"There is," she began in that old voice that had gentled with age, "one important matter we must handle before we continue. Young Master Teba has asked for the honour of raising it."
Teba stood with a slight rustle of his feathers to ensure they were all well brushed. "Indeed, Master Sheikah. Thank you." He strode to the center of the circle and managed a smile that seemed unpracticed, like he'd never tried one before. "As you all know, this council is a step towards a unified, self-governing Hyrule. A Hyrule for its people, governed by its people. But looking to the future is no reason to shun the past." He turned to Zelda and bowed, the movement military in its precision. "We have chosen a leader to guide us, but esteemed Zelda is more than a council leader. She is a princess, the last of Hyrule's royal house, and the saviour of our land."
Zelda shot Link a glance, but he did not react, his gaze firmly focused on Teba. He was being opaque again, and she felt hopelessly frustrated with him. She felt almost as though she were drowning, and he was standing there, unwilling to throw her a rope.
"Which is why," Teba continued, "it would seem only right to reinstate Princess Zelda with that title, and to grant her the honours and respects inherent to her rightful rank."
"Hear, hear," Prince Sidon agreed, and a round of claps echoed his sentiment.
The pit in Zelda's stomach grew. Was this Link's doing too? It seemed now that everything in her life was inexorably tied back to him, everything gently pulled by a masterful hand.
The Calamity would have been so proud of him, she bitterly thought.
She focused on the moment, on the titles being proffered. It was kind of them, and Zelda was willing to admit it freely. But it undermined their efforts to govern Hyrule autonomously. Was this another test?
"I cannot accept lands or deeds," Zelda softly said, as the clapping died out. She had to perform her duty as council leader, after all. While she still was. "The land must remain in the hands of the people."
When Teba smiled now, there was a gentleness to his face that made him far less intimidating, and said something that made her heart freeze in her chest: "Even so, would you accept a symbolic crown?"
At that moment, Master Impa pried open the box on her lap, and revealed what lay within: a delicate circlet of gilded leaves and diamonds, twining and twisting into a confection that sent golden reflections bouncing across the room.
It was Gerudo-crafted, Zelda guessed, from the excellence of the workmanship. But when Riju responded to her curious look with a shake of her head, Zelda guessed who had brought it to Kakariko with a twinge in her heart.
Link was still sitting on his given cushion, silent, watchful. And she ached to speak to him, to understand why he suddenly looked so… mournful.
She could guess, though. She had failed his test, had lied to him. It probably angered him to see the crown now. He'd no doubt had it made in anticipation of honesty. Now they would crown a woman he knew to be a liar.
Turning back to Impa and Teba, Zelda bowed her head, the humility and humiliation stealing her voice away, so that when she spoke she was muted, fragile. "You honour me." Before anyone could interpret that to mean she accepted, she added, "Please allow me some time to reflect."
There was a flicker of doubt in Impa's eyes, but a glance at Link ― always Link ― and his tiny shake of his head, and she smiled politely, shutting the box.
I used to be the daughter of a king, Zelda reflected, feeling a strange mix of remorse, anger and helplessness take hold. Now crowns are bestowed on the word of my knight.
It was only fair, she thought, miserably, as conversations began once more, the assembly eager to leave the uncomfortable topic of Zelda's crown behind them for now. It was only fair that Link finally have a say in his life. In that, at least, he was experiencing the freedom she had hoped for him, back before she had shattered everything between them.
It was his voice that brought her out of her thoughts: "Yes, that sounds like a good idea."
She blinked, returning to the discussion at hand. What question had he answered?
Granté seemed pleased with Link's response. "Excellent," the young Sheikah said, satisfied. "It will be the best solution, I think, at least in the beginning."
Confused, Zelda glanced at Tasseren, next to her. The horse master leaned in, murmuring, "They are discussing the best ways to handle their responsibilities to towns and groups that live far apart from one another." The stablemaster smiled faintly. "And they just agreed that traveling from one place to the next will be wisest for now, a strategy my people would heartily approve of."
Of course, Zelda thought, as Granté announced that he would begin by traveling back to Akkala to explain the situation to the Sheikah that lived there. Traveling was… the best option. The smartest option.
There was a pit growing in her stomach. A pit that felt uncomfortably like the terror of the Calamity, rising once again, come to claim her once more.
Of course all the others would return to their homes and families. Riju would return to her Gerudo and implement her taxations and build a men's quarter outside the city. Yunobo would return to the Gorons with news of the world and descriptions of distant lands. Teba would fly home and make preparations to become the next chief of the Rito. Sidon would continue to assist his father in governing the Domain. And Granté would travel between Akkala, Kakariko and Hateno.
And Link― Link would forever be on the move. Link would seek out every corner of the world to collect Hylian grievances and offer Hyrule's assistance to her father's people, as he always had― of course it was right. It was the most Link-like thing she'd ever heard. It was perfect. Of course it was perfect for him.
He'd manœuvered so masterfully… It made Zelda both incredibly proud and incredibly scared.
They all had a place.
But what about her?
She knew what place he was thinking of giving her. It sat in that wooden box, adorned with jewels and gold. It lay in the darkest corners of her mind, filled with crumbled walls and dusty cobwebs.
It sat at the heart of Hyrule, a fitting place for the heart of its council, for a woman destined to sit on a throne.
There was only one place in Hyrule where there even was a throne.
Zelda's pulse began to race. It seemed the very walls were closing in on her, pulsing red and polluted and malicious. The fear she felt now was real, all-encompassing.
They wanted to send her back there. They were going to send her to the only home she'd ever had. They were sending her back to her prison.
To Hyrule Castle.
She felt her chest constrict with panic.
Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to smile at Tasseren and excused herself.
Walking mechanically to the exit, she pulled the door to the outside open, and slid it shut behind herself. Now her breath came fast, too fast. Now the porch wasn't made of wood, it was stone. So much stone. She felt she could almost hear the strange echoes of the Calamity's monsters through the halls. She thought she heard the mechanical whirring of Guardians.
The Castle, she imagined, her eyes filling with panicked tears. She could still smell the musty rotting of curtains and carpets, the way the rain sounded as it fell through holes in the roof. She could hear the wind howling through the walls, the thunder cracking overhead, distant, making the very foundations of the hill tremble.
A hundred years! A hundred years she had been trapped in that monstrosity of stone, inside a monstrosity of hate and rage and fury. A hundred years she'd wanted nothing more than to run away, to see the green of fields and feel the soft breeze on her skin. A hundred years she had dreamed of a hero, come to rescue her from the unending, unrelenting torment.
But the torment wasn't over. She was in a new prison of her own making. Her knight had come… and she'd lied to him. Lied. LIED. He'd saved her and she'd tried to sweep her wrongdoings under the rug.
No wonder he'd arranged for that crown. Had he known she would lie? Did he want her back in that Castle, that prison? At least then he'd never have to risk meeting her on the road. At least then he could have a true life of freedom, without worrying about where to find her. She'd be there, always there, in that crumbling ruin that had always been her place.
The tears on her cheeks surprised her less than the difficulty she now had breathing.
She didn't want to go back. The terrified girl inside rebelled against the idea. They couldn't make her go. She could always run away. They'd never catch her if she just left. If she left now, she could make it into the fields before the meeting adjourned. If she left, she'd never have to go back to the Castle.
They couldn't make her go. They couldn't make her go! She wouldn't!
She pushed herself to her feet, having crumbled against the railing. Her vision was narrow, darkened at the edges, and her heart was pounding in her ears.
And her mind entered the same panicked loop. Can't make me go. Not the Castle. Please. Can't make me go. Not the Castle―
The stairs creaked under her feet, but she was fleet-footed now. The night had fallen and the air was cool, refreshing against her cheeks. She took a deep breath, tried to steady herself.
Can't make me go. They can't force me.
She was hurrying up the street when she heard his voice. Always his voice.
She considered running, but age-old longing won, and she instead whirled on him. Link was jogging up to her, the concern on his face completely unexpected.
"You can't make me," she immediately blurted out, and she then realized her vision was blurry with tears. "You can't make me go back there."
He caught up in a few strides, the confusion obvious. "Where?" He asked. Then he noticed the tears on her cheeks, and his expression changed to one of alarm. "What's wrong?"
"What's wrong?" She cried.
The earnest look of worry on his face was too much. The sobs came suddenly, fast and shallow, and she heard herself helplessly begin to panic.
"Link―" She managed, sniffling miserably, uncontrollably, "Please― Please, I'm so sorry." She shook her head and wrapped her arms around herself. "Please don't send me back. I'm so sorry I lied. I just―" She shook her head again, and couldn't stop, the breaths coming hard and fast in her terror. "I can't― I can't―"
"I can't go back," she managed, though her nose was far too stuffy now for the words to come easily. She was openly sobbing now, the breaths short and fast. "Please― Don't make me―" She shook her head, kept shaking her head. "I didn't want you to hate me. That's why I lied. I know it was wrong― by all the gods, I'm so sorry― I don't want to go back there. Please, you can't make me go back there."
"Back where?" Link asked, the alarm fading away now and replaced with a frown that she couldn't understand. "Zelda― take a breath, why are you crying? Where don't you want to go?"
"The Castle!" She cried, brokenly, her voice hitching and cracking.
Link reached out to touch her, but the panic was still too real.
"No, stop," she breathed, backing up, "you can't make me." She glanced up the road, the thought of escape now growing urgent to her mind. "I'd rather be exiled― I promise I won't bother you anymore―"
"You don't know how empty it is over there!" She cried out. If any Sheikah had the thought of looking out their windows at that moment, they wisely decided to stay away from the princess' outbursts. The street remained empty but for the two of them.
Link's expression had changed to one of wonderment and sorrow. "Zelda… I won't―"
"It's so―" A sob wracked her body and she had to force the words out. "It's so cold in winter," she miserably said. "And so dark in the night. And there's no one there. No one. I was all alone―" She began to shiver in memory, the haunting emptiness almost like a physical presence. "It was just me and Ganon and it hated me, Link, it hated me. And there was no one― no one― because I failed you―"
She felt herself crumble. As her knees touched the dirt, she felt Link's firm grasp on her arms. He was kneeling next to her, his blue eyes unreadable, but only because there were too many things flitting through them for her to read.
She couldn't speak for a moment, the breaths coming shallow and scared. Link looked at her with a look she thought might have been pity― or sympathy.
When her voice finally came back, it was small and broken. "I miss my..." She fought to find the breath to speak, and then finally managed a weak, "I miss… Papa..."
Link's voice was raw and it cracked when he said, "Oh, Zel―Zelda…" His hand came to her nape, and he pulled her in firmly, rocking her solidly as she sobbed helplessly into his chest, the wailing cries rising into the night. He rocked her gently but firmly, and she thought she heard him sob too.
He rocked her for a long time, right there in the middle of the deserted street, and she clung to him desperately, her fists wrapped in his tunic, her face buried into his shoulder.
Eventually, the sobs began to subside. But he didn't stop rocking them both back and forth, his breathing having turned to a gentle shush. His fingers were tangled in her hair, his other arm wrapped tightly around her.
After a long, long moment, the rocking slowed, and all Zelda could feel was the pounding of his heart and the exhalation of his breathing. It took a moment for the numbness in her mind to clear, and for reality to settle back in.
When she pulled away, she saw he had cried too.
Now his fingers pulled out of her hair and began to smooth the tangles away from her face. He licked his lips miserably. "I'm sorry I took so long."
"I'm―" She forced herself to remain as composed as possible, sniffled, and tried again. "I'm sorry I lied to you earlier. I couldn't― It was so wrong of me, and…" She pulled out a handkerchief and tried to clean up the mess that was her face. "Link, please understand. I was… I was so broken by the pilgrimage. My father― our friends― the people― They were going to hate me." She could feel her voice beginning to falter, and her vision became blurry with tears all over again. "And you… You were so kind to me. I― I used you. I'm so sorry..."
His hand was still on her hair. He looked far less of a mess than she surely did, red-eyed and red-nosed though he was. "I knew you were sorry," he finally said, though his tone was far more deadpan than she'd expected. "You said as much, the entire way down the mountain."
"Assaulting you―" Zelda continued. "It was…" She averted her eyes, unable to look into his. "It was shameful."
"All I'm saying," she said, her voice rising, "is that I know it was wrong. As was lying about it. And you shouldn't send me back to the Castle―"
"No one is sending you anywhere," Link forcefully interrupted, stunning her into silence. "The Castle can turn into a pile of rubble, dirt and sand for all I care. Ignoring the fact that no one can force you to do anything in this new Hyrule of yours, we need to set the record straight about why I'm angry."
She flinched. She knew he was angry, of course, but his saying it out loud still smarted.
She tried to pull away, but he held her fast and pushed himself to his feet, dragging her up with him. His hold was firm― there was no escaping this verbal dressdown, and they both knew it.
She braced herself.
"Zelda," Link said. "You're right. There were vast ranking differences between us. Differences that couldn't and would never be bridged. If our respective roles weren't enough of a reminder, the rest of the world certainly never shut up about it. There was no way to ignore it, no way to move past it. And according to the rules of that world, you're right, what you did, sitting in my lap and asking me to kiss you― to make―" He bit his tongue, screwed his mouth, tensed his jaw, then managed to continue. "It was wrong. The whole world had reminded us, time and time again. But that's not why I'm angry."
Zelda inhaled sharply to speak, but Link seized her chin between his thumb and forefinger and forced her to look him in the eye. It was intimidating: his gaze was blue, impossibly so, and penetrating, with a spark of strange madness that made heat run down her spine.
"Zelda," he continued, firmly, before she could say anything, "if you really think what you did that night was wrong, then I am never going to forgive you."
His eyes darted down to her lips, and Zelda could feel that strange glow of madness beginning to spread like a fever.
But then Link raised his eyes to the sky, as though imploring the stars for strength, and he released her. She nearly stumbled backwards, releasing a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
He backed up, a look on his face that was a definite mix of impatience and contained― contained― was that... affection? He raised his finger, licked his lips, and then seemed to decide against what he was going to add, because he turned on his heel and began to stride away, purposefully.
Adrift, Zelda gaped after him, the confusion far too great to process all at once. "Wait―"
He didn't turn back, and she felt a surge of indignation rise within.
"Wait just one second."
He still didn't turn around, so she began to stomp after him, a mix of confused elation and disbelief coursing through her veins like voltfruit wine.
"I know what happened that night," she insisted. "I was there."
"As was I," he replied, curtly.
"And it was wrong, Link," she continued. "I commanded you― I was your princess―"
"Oh," Link said, glancing at her over his shoulder as he walked, "Of course. And no one ever would dare disobey a direct command from you."
"Well, you certainly didn't," she reminded him, wondering whether that was a point of victory or if she was beginning to lose. "So maybe you misremember―"
"Oh no," Link said, stopping suddenly, and she nearly ran into him. "I promise you, Zelda. I remember everything. In great detail."
She felt herself flush all the way up to her ears. Oh dear. And she had been sobbing in his arms just minutes ago. The despair was gone, replaced by an absolutely inappropriate storm of new emotions. "Well, then," she managed, her voice choked by his proximity, "Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Now he looked down at her with a renewed madness that she felt, with her shrinking common sense, was probably not a good thing to taunt. And still, she felt bold, able to stand up to him.
"Certainly," he said. The stars overhead were twinkling merrily, like the glint in his eye. "I brought your mouth down to mine, and I kissed you."
Now her heart was trembling in her chest, febrile as a leaf in autumn. Whether it was the words out of his mouth or the look on his face, something about Link in that moment was primal, ancient, and achingly familiar. She struggled to keep her hands at her sides, to keep herself from reaching out, from touching him.
"But that's not―"
"You sat in my lap, or maybe I pulled you," he ruthlessly continued. "Either way, I ran my hand up your thigh, up your dress, and you moaned against my lips. It made my spine shiver. You pulled at my clothes, you lifted the hem of my tunic―"
Now she knew her face was flushed, the embarrassment unbearable. But she couldn't look away. Her lip trembled. "Link―"
"I held you against me," he breathed, the heat in his voice both a promise and an accusation. "You started to unstrap my belt―"
"Alright," she said, her voice rising to cut him off. "Alright! I think I get the point."
He relented, the soft smile on his face so painfully familiar, and looked away. Now the heat was gone from his voice, and the sound of his words was haunted: "And I remember what followed, too."
That was sobering. She recalled it too, the breakaway, the apologies, the sullen descent, the crippling guilt and shame.
The rise of the Calamity.
The fall of Hyrule.
She bit the inside of her cheek, felt her chest squeeze, remembering the smell of blood, smoke and tears. "All of it? Even the end?"
His expression changed, and she felt she could finally see him clearly, could finally decipher the sorrow in his eyes. "Yes," he finally admitted, his tone soft and deadened by shared memory. "All the way to the end... Mostly."
They stood face to face, in silence, for a long moment.
Zelda hesitated, her words hard to find. "If you remember everything," she began, slowly, uncertainly, "then why…" She looked down at her boots. "Why did you have me re-tell you everything? Was it really just to test me?"
Link considered this for a long moment, long enough for Zelda to look at him curiously. Finally, he looked away, his eyes lost in the long night's shadows. "No. It was never a test." He frowned. "I needed to understand."
"Understand?" She echoed. "Understand what?"
His fingers twitched at his side. When he spoke, his voice was soft. "I remember everything, up to the moment I passed out. When you touched my hand, and the memories came flooding back, I had all the memories, and none of the answers."
"What do you mean?"
When he looked at her, it was in earnest. "Remembering isn't understanding. I still have so many questions about those last days…"
"What questions, exactly?" Zelda asked, insistently.
Behind Link, up at the entrance to Impa's house, the door slid open, and with it a ray of light suddenly shone upon both of them. The members of the council began to pour out, chatting amiably.
Link glanced backwards at them, then turned back to Zelda with a sad smile. He took a step back, for propriety's sake, as conversations continued over their shoulders.
"I will gladly tell you all I can. Later." He inhaled deeply. "But until then… It would mean a lot to me if you could continue telling the story." His eyes narrowed. "With honesty."
One did not often get a second chance, and Zelda knew it. "I will."
After all, it was the right thing to do. It was a way to honour a hundred lives lost to the Calamity, a way to commemorate their sacrifice.
A way to make amends for her many mistakes.
"It will be difficult, talking about the end," she said, watching as Riju and Yunobo, emerging from Impa's home, seemed to exchange animated opinions about something they both enjoyed, and seeing Granté lean down to kiss Paya's hand before he left. The Sheikah girl was flushed to her ears, and Zelda stifled some good old-fashioned envy.
Link was watching her, his expression serene but otherwise unreadable once more. "I know."
"Tomorrow, then," Zelda said, tired to her bones, yet strangely lighter than she'd been in an age. "Under the apple tree."
Solemnly, Link nodded. "Yes." Then, with another tiny upward curl of his lip, he added, "Your Highness."
She wanted to reprimand him, but the rest of the council was coming too close for them to keep talking, so they both took a deep breath, took another step back, and plastered on their polite smiles.
It was only later, much later, as she lay in bed, replaying a hundred years' worth of memories and staring at the darkened ceiling, with Paya's soft breathing on the other side of the room, that the princess of Hyrule felt her breath hitch.
If you really think what you did that night was wrong, then I am never going to forgive you.
Turning to her side and curling inside her blankets, her heart began to race.
Oh, skies, seas, sands and stones, she was an idiot. Shutting her eyes against the surge of memories, Zelda wanted to bang her head on the plaster wall next to her bed, the self-loathing and embarrassment almost too painful to bear.
No wonder he'd been so sullen the next day, on their way down from the mountain. She'd upset him, but not in the way she'd thought. And all her apologizing had likely only made it worse.
As Zelda drifted off to sleep, awash in frustrated memories of interrupted embraces and anguished apologies, she swore to herself to just… ask, next time.
If there was a next time.
Skies, she hoped there would be a next time.
And if there wasn't, she had no one to blame but her own foolish, foolish self.