"Completely inappropriate," Master Impa was saying, her old voice rising over the room divider. "Absolutely unseemly."
Zelda gathered all her hair over one shoulder and softly thanked Paya for buttoning up her dress. It was a confection of pale blue silks, a lavish thing. She hadn't worn anything like it in a century, and in fact had doubted Hyrule still knew how to make its like.
But it could, apparently. Somehow, that filled her with renewed hope.
But Master Impa was not finished. "I did not train that boy up from squiredom and teach him the manners of a knight only for him to behave like a lecher."
Zelda caught Paya's eye, and the young Sheikah woman rolled them in silence, so that Zelda had to stifle a giggle.
"And that is not― I can hear you laughing behind there."
"Not at all, Grandma," Paya said. "We're both very composed."
"The very picture of innocence," Zelda added, hoping the smile in her voice was at least a little stifled.
Master Impa harrumphed. "I know you love the boy, but I would urge you to demonstrate more decorum until the delegates leave."
Zelda accepted the brush Paya handed her and checked that her hair was perfectly silky for the fifth time. "Decorum," she said, this time not hiding the mild irritation in her voice, "is exactly why I didn't wrestle him naked right there under that tree. And why I pushed him away time after time a hundred years ago. Decorum can join Calamity Ganon, for all I care."
Paya's face flushed a deep red, and her hands flew to her mouth.
Master Impa, though, was unimpressed. "Shades, at least wait until he's asked you to marry him."
"Assuming he does," Zelda said, devilishly. "Oh no, Master Impa, what if I give him my virtue and he runs off like some heartless rogue?" She paced out from behind the divider to look at Master Impa's flat expression. "Then, truly, I will be a fallen woman!"
"You should know better," Master Impa admonished, "than assume I'm saying this to impede you. The people want you to be happy. Both of you."
"I know," Zelda said, sobering, though a small smile remained on her lips. "Forgive me, Master Impa. I'm just so happy," she sighed, contentedly.
"As you rightly should be," Impa said, softening. "It was time you felt some joy. And that was boy was well overdue to be brought to heel." Her old face wrinkled as she screwed her mouth in thought. "To tell the truth, I think your inappropriate frolicking has at least delighted the Gerudo envoys. Prince Sidon was positively chuffed, too. But there's no guessing what the Rito and Gorons think."
"I shall make a formal apology if needed," Zelda said, reaching for her long white gloves and delicately slipping them on.
"Do you really think he'll ask you to marry him?" Paya asked, shyly.
Zelda felt her face flush a little, and suddenly her dress felt impossibly tight. "Skies, I don't know. I hope he doesn't feel that he must. I could love him without marriage, could be content with living under the stars forever."
"Well," Master Impa said, pointedly, "that will not be necessary. I'm told he has engaged Bolson to improve his Hateno home, and if that isn't to make room for you, I will box his ears." She curled and uncurled her old, parchment-skinned hands. "I may be old, but I'm sure I can still pack a bit of a punch."
"I hardly think that will be necessary," Zelda said, though her heart glowed warmly inside her chest. The outward, divine glow was growing faint, though, barely visible now. Her powers were truly fading, the echoes of the world vanishing with them.
And the voice of Calamity Ganon was growing fainter too. It was a side-effect she had not anticipated, but that she welcomed gladly. It drained her less, made her feel stronger, more confident, more in tune with the real world, and it gave her hope that she may yet be able to taste this new life properly, to age once again.
"For now," she said, softly, arranging her skirts, "I will be glad merely to dance on my real birthday." She sighed. "A hundred and eighteen years old. And I look eighteen."
"Oh, rub it in," Master Impa said, but when Zelda glanced at her, she was wiping a tear from her eye and smiling. Now the Sheikah Master appraised her from head to toe and nodded slowly. "You look like a princess."
Paya nodded enthusiastically. "It's true!"
"A title I am not ready to accept," Zelda reminded them, and she studied herself self-consciously. "Is this too much? Won't the councillors and representatives think this a little… presumptuous?"
"Sumptuous only," a young voice interrupted, and Zelda turned to look at Riju, who had climbed the stairs in Impa's small home and now stood in the loft with them. She was wearing her best Gerudo dress, and Zelda wondered where she'd obtained it. Perhaps she had brought it along as a precaution. "I wouldn't worry about what the rest of us think," she advised, warmly. "Hyrule can survive with or without you. Link has made sure of that." She reached into the lining of her elaborate skirts, her bangles clinking. "I wanted to give you something out of the public eye."
She removed a small pouch of rupees, weighed it gently, and handed it to Zelda with a smile.
Zelda accepted the pouch, frowning, then looked into it. And gasped.
In what faint light she had, she saw an amazing amount of gold and silver rupees, and closed the drawstring nervously, uncomfortable with carrying such a large amount of money in one place. "Riju, what is this?"
"Your winnings," Riju replied, with a smirk. "Twenty-four thousand eight hundred and fifty-four rupees."
"Winnings?" Zelda echoed, faintly.
"Surely you remember," Riju said, shifting her weight to her other hip. "Lady Urbosa's journal's spoke of the pool's standing when you left Gerudo Desert. It was up to some four thousand rupees. Since no one claimed it, she let it sit in a vault, to grow upon itself, until Link finally…" She smiled as Zelda's horrified expression took on the light of understanding. "Well, here we are."
"Oh," Zelda said, looking down at the rupee pouch in horror. "I― But I haven't― we haven't―"
"For now," Riju said, smiling, as she turned to leave. At Zelda's mortified expression, she added, "It's fine. He doesn't need to know."
But Zelda wasn't sure she could keep it a secret. Especially when, an hour later, she and Paya escorted Master Impa down the stairs to the ground floor, all three now wearing their best clothes, and she found Link waiting for her patiently.
He had groomed himself, had shaved closely, had tied his hair back, and was wearing his royal guard's uniform. His gloves were pristine, his boots had been polished.
And when his eyes lit up at the sight of her, her heart skipped a beat.
"Hello," he said, warmly.
"Hello," she replied, mouth dry. Her nervousness was only accentuated by the way he bowed and extended his hand for her to take.
Master Impa and Paya watched this with interest, until at last Master Impa cleared her throat and said, "Well, all this pageantry is very nice, but at my age you don't get anywhere if you don't get moving early." She waddled past the two of them, waving her cane in Link's face, as the knight looked down at her with a mix of amusement and fondness, then strode out the door and began the long, tedious descent into Kakariko.
Paya, who in her traditional Sheikah kimono seemed uncommonly refined, gave them an apologetic look and sidled out between them, calling after her grandmother and urging her to be careful on the stairs.
Link and Zelda were left in the doorjamb, keenly aware of the stretching silence. Finally, Link turned to her and smiled appreciatively.
"You look beautiful," he said, the sincerity evident in his eyes.
"And you look very handsome," Zelda said, inhaling deeply. Just the sight of him seemed to make her dress feel tight about the chest, so when his eyes went to the swell of that very chest over her collarline, she stifled a smile and gave his arm a harmless, indignant smack.
He instantly resumed propriety, and focused his gaze on the stairs before them. "Can't blame a man for being warm blooded," he said, and the smirk at his lips made her feel like she was once again in the company of a friend.
"Indeed," she said, and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. "Nor a woman for being flattered."
"Excellent," he replied. "That's what I was going for, of course."
"Duly noted," she said, dryly. "I shall endeavour to remember it the next time I am cross with you."
He escorted her down the steps, with a broad smile on his face that went straight to her knees. She lifted the hem of her skirt and focused on remaining upright instead, amazed that her bruised and empty heart could still feel so full.
At the bottom of the steps, the heart of Kakariko had been transformed utterly. The peoples of Hyrule were massed in their best clothes ― or their best traveling clothes ― and lanterns and flowers hung suspended everywhere.
Summertide, Zelda thought, amazed. A day that had always been so gloomy and muted. It seemed positively blasphemous to hear music in the air, to see Teba and Saki were dancing already, and to watch Kakariko's children playing.
And to be on Link's arm, today, of all days ― perhaps she was dreaming.
There was a lull as the crowd seemed to notice their arrival, and for a moment Zelda feared they would condemn her for having dressed above her station, or worse, announce it was all a misunderstanding and that she was not welcome among them.
But Riju let out a whoop and eager applause erupted. No doubt the picture of Hyrule's heroes arm in arm was comforting to see.
Zelda shyly risked a glance at Link, to find he was already looking down at her, a light in his eyes that was so painfully familiar it stole her breath.
"Positively disgusting," Buliara said, in response to a comment by Impa, and Zelda snapped out of it, startled, which earned them both a heartfelt round of laughter.
"I apologize," she stammered, quite embarrassed, and steadied herself on Link's arm, feeling him straightening instinctively to help her. "I fear I am not accustomed to celebrating Summertide."
"It's time for that to change," Prince Sidon announced. He clapped Dorian on the back as the man came by with a tray of wine cups, and took two he handed firmly into their hands. "My friends," he called to the crowd, "I think it is time for us to change this tradition of sadness before Nayru's Day."
The crowd loudly agreed, which Sidon evidently expected, because he did not break stride, reaching the centre of the square and calling the attention of all those present.
"Indeed," he said, "I think this is a wonderful time for us to begin anew. Calamity Ganon is defeated―" he had evidently meant to continue his speech, but the crowd began cheering loudly and he was forced to wait for the clamour to die down, which he did with patient satisfaction. "In no small part thanks to the tireless, unrelenting efforts of the heroes of the hour." He turned to Zelda and Link with his usual toothy smile, as the cheering resumed.
On Link's arm, Zelda felt able to weather the brunt of the attention. She took a deep breath and managed a shy smile, and after shifting her wine cup, waved with her free hand, which seemed to make the crowd redouble in enthusiasm.
Fortunately, Prince Sidon took the focus off them swiftly enough. "Yes, my friends. Let us make Summertide not only be a time of renewal and hope, but also the beginning of a new era. We," he motioned generously to his fellow leaders, who had been offered cups of wine as well, "have finally finished the business that brought us together in the first place. Henceforth, Hyrule shall be governed by council, with a representative from each race." He waited patiently for the murmurs to die down, and added, "There is still much work to do, of course, but I know you will all do your part to assist in the efforts to rebuild Hyrule."
This was met with a warm cheer, and Zelda found herself perfectly happy she was not the one making the speech.
Riju reached Sidon's side and her clear voice rang out over the crowd with a natural strength that Zelda would not have suspected: "Though our time together is coming to an end," she said, "let us not forget the bonds of friendship we have fostered over the past few weeks." She craned her neck to smile up at Sidon. "And rest assured that when we reconvene the council next year, the Gerudo battalion will put the others to shame in a fair tournament."
Teba scoffed loudly as the Gerudo ululated in approval, and the Rito warrior straightened, so akin to Revali that Zelda felt an inkling of sadness. "We shall have to see about that," he said, which earned him proud hoots from his faction.
"I guess we'll have to train," Yunobo said, thoughtfully, and the Gorons behind him began to laugh.
Elder Uma looked to Link, who had been observing the exchanges in amused silence, and prompted, "And you, Link of Mabe? You're curiously silent about the ability of Hylians in this tournament."
Link turned to the Hateno elder, and Zelda could feel his voice rumbling through him, through her arm and into her very chest when he said, as the arguments silenced to hear him, "Come now, Elder Uma. Everyone here knows what a single Hylian can do." He smirked, and Zelda resisted the urge to roll her eyes fondly, and he raised his voice for the benefit of the Hylians from Tarrey and Lurelin and Hateno: "So imagine an army!"
This had the desired effect. Hylians began to whoop and cheer, and several cups of wine were imbibed before a toast could be made.
"Very well," Granté said, having himself acquired a cup of wine. Paya was on his arm, nursing her own cup, and when Zelda shot her a grin, she flushed with shy happiness. "I suppose I shall have to rouse the Sheikah and make them use at least part of their age-old skills."
"Thank you for condescending to that," Buliara muttered, and the crowd rumbled with good-natured laughter.
"Come, friends," Prince Sidon said, raising his cup. "Let us drink to a new age," he motioned generously to Riju, "to new friendships, especially, and to the hope, bravery and resilience that saw us through an age of darkness."
There were more cheers, and a moment of silence as the assembly collectively took a long sip of wine. In Zelda's throat, the wine seemed to fizzle. It was strong, much less refined than the nectars she had once had in Hyrule Castle, and it left a bitter aftertaste on the tongue.
It was the best wine she'd ever tasted.
"Down with the Calamity!" Yunobo exclaimed, in the silence that followed.
This was met with hearty agreement, and more wine was imbibed.
"To Hyrule's council!" Hudson called.
"To Hyrule's people!"
Zelda followed along, toast for toast, with barely enough time to lower her cup before she had to raise it again, and soon the crowd was calling toasts left and right, in a rising chaos of celebration that marked the opening of the feast of Summertide. At her side, Link was being merrily goaded into matching all the toasts proffered, which he took with boyish humour.
On her other side, Prince Sidon had leaned in. "Should I be toasting our rescued... princess?" He asked it gently, softly, that it might not be overheard in the commotion.
And Zelda felt her throat close up.
She had dreaded this announcement, had feared its repercussions.
But Link's arm was steady under her hand, and she forced herself to look up at Sidon.
"Sidon," she said, smiling, "I… think not."
To say the Zora prince was surprised was an understatement. He blinked at her in genuine confusion, which slowly turned to amazement.
It was on Zelda's lips to apologize for disappointing him, but the prince's golden eyes ― so like Mipha's ― went to Link for the briefest of seconds, and he smiled. Suddenly he was looking at her as though he saw her for the first time once again, and said, "We would not have begrudged it of you."
"You would not have needed me," she corrected him. "And I will still be there to help, if you do. But…" She thought of the crown, and worse, of the Castle that went with it. "But titles are not for me. Not anymore."
Sidon observed her with that new serene smile, and he said, "I think I know now why Mipha loved you so much." He reached out, placed a large clawed hand on her shoulder, as a brother to a sister. "You were more alike than I could know. Devoted to the end." His smile wavered, and there was raw emotion on his face for a brief moment, as though suddenly his hard mask of positivity had cracked. "I hope you will visit Zora's Domain once more. Speak to my father." His eyes were bright. "He… he would want to see you again."
Zelda's throat closed up. She turned to glance at Link, and saw he was listening, silently.
At the question in her eyes, he smiled. "I could afford a detour on the way to Tarrey Town, if you'd like to come along."
Sidon's smile was brilliant, and Zelda's heart was pounding.
"You won't mind?" She asked.
Link chuckled. "We need to have a sit-down talk about what I mind sooner rather than later. I feel there is a lot we need to clear up."
Sidon's hand gently took hers before she could reply, and she found herself looking up at the giant Zora. "There will always be a place for you in Hyrule," Prince Sidon promised. "Whether you go by the title of princess or not."
Zelda was so touched, she worried her eyes might water. "Thank you," she said, meekly.
As Prince Sidon excused himself, having spotted Buliara picking up another cup of wine, Zelda turned fully to the handsome man at her side.
"Do you really mean it?" She asked.
Link studied her with amusement. "Of course."
"Are you…" She hesitated, couldn't stand to look at him. "... disappointed?"
"What, by your decision to step away from the crown?" At her nod, she felt, more than heard, him chuckle. "Not at all." He ran a hand through his hair, abashed. "I'm actually relieved. I had manoeuvred to be at a proper rank to court you, but I have no experience with royal courtships, as you well know."
"Are you honestly telling me that you orchestrated most of these things just to court me?" She asked, frowning, hoping the pleased flush on her cheeks did not give her away.
"I do most things for you," he said, and she guffawed. He smiled cheekily. "What? It's true. But I shall make note that you thought the crown was too much." He pursed his lips. "I knew the diamonds were unnecessary."
"Skies," she sighed, as the music began to play, far more cheerful and upbeat than anything that had ever been played on Summertide. "I fear to ask where the diamonds even came from."
"Actually," Link said, plucking her cup from her hand and placing it alongside his on a nearby covered table, "I have bad news. I'm probably wealthier than you are by now." He wiped his palms on his trousers, then extended a hand, palm up. "Adventuring is lucrative."
Placing her hand in his, with a fluttering of her heart, Zelda thought to the 'winnings' Riju had delivered earlier that day, and held back a smile. "I very seriously doubt that, darling."
If Link noticed the private amusement in her eyes, he did not comment on it. He brought her to the middle of the plaza, where other couples were happily swaying to the music, and pulled her close. Then, before Zelda could process the sensations involved, he leaned in to her ear, his breath hot against her neck, and said, "I like when you call me darling."
There was no doubt he knew what he was doing, but knowing that did not make his methods any less effective. A shiver of pleasure ran down her spine and her breath came short. "Oh," she said, faintly, "good."
He noted her reaction with the smirk of a cat in milk, and she shot him a repressive look. Over his shoulder, Paya and Granté were dancing too, and Paya had pressed her cheek to Granté's shoulder, as proper as could be. Granté did not seem to mind in the least, even under the watchful gaze of Paya's terrifying grandmother.
Behind them, she saw Saki and Teba, and Riju with Yunobo ― a clumsy but merry couple ― and Buliara, scowling and blushing, under Prince Sidon's enthusiastic spell. Elder Uma and Elder Rozel were dancing with some prim distance, with steps Zelda had not seen since her youngest memories.
She looked back at Link, who was watching her patiently.
"You belong," Link whispered, and his words slipped through her defenses, slithering between the cracks and into the depths of her soul, finding the cold lonely girl inside and coaxing her into the light.
She pushed up on her tiptoes and pressed her lips firmly to his, a motion he heartily welcomed.
They ignored the cheering, the applause, the amused retching of the children, and the whistling.
It wasn't everything. It couldn't unmake the sorrow. But in that moment, it seemed the grey clouds parted, and for the first time there wasn't a single fearsome bolt of red lightning in sight: only light.
When, a long and heart-pounding moment later, she pulled back, it was to look into Link's pleased face. He had embraced her by the waist, holding her comfortably close, and now resumed lazily swaying to the music around them.
"Your lips get puffy when you kiss me," he observed, pleased.
"How very inappropriate," she said, smiling.
"I know," he responded, content. He was silent for a moment, then said, "I think we need to talk about your future, Zelda."
"My future?" She asked, frowning. "Did we not finish doing just that?"
"No," Link said. He sidestepped to allow a couple to dance past. "I think we finished talking about what you won't be anymore. Chosen of the Goddess. Princess of Hyrule. An old maid." She stifled a giggle, and he continued, "But we haven't discussed what you will be."
She screwed her lips in thought. "I suppose… It's true that with you as Hylian representative, it would behoove me to find some way to contribute to this new Hyrule."
"Do you have something in mind?"
"I could raise cuccos," Zelda said, and his eyes lit up at the shared memory. "But I think…" She lifted a hand from his shoulder to his cheek, tracing his jawline with fascination. "I think… My interests were always… academic."
"You could resume your research," Link said, and his voice had gone soft, as though the moment commanded intimacy.
"I could," she said, with similar softness. "In the field."
"With a bodyguard."
"You could never be just a bodyguard to me," she laughed, feeling her heart thump wildly. "You're much more." A friend. A partner. An ally. "But I would happily join you on your errands."
"Good," Link said, "because I would like you with me wherever I go. But it won't be easy. There… there will be a lot of travel, and sleeping under the stars."
A hundred years ago, she had lived for those moments. She could live for them still. "I believe I shall survive." She reflected. "The others told me the Divine Beasts were going quiet. I could take a look at them once again."
"Then leave with me," Link pleaded, and she heard the note of hope in his voice. That hope alone filled her with joy.
A hero. A boy. A man. As she studied his features, felt his arms around her, Zelda suddenly felt as though the world was vast, the horizon was calling, and the future was bright.
"I go where you go," she whispered. And then she pulled his face down to hers, which earned them new hoots and applause.
And she didn't care one whit that Master Impa thought it was undecorous.
"Although Ganon is gone for now, there is still so much more for us to do. And so many painful memories that we must bear. I believe in my heart that if all of us work together, we can restore Hyrule to its former glory. Perhaps… even beyond. But it all must start with us…"