i. In which the beginning is a practice in fumbling toward their old friendship
Zelda inhales the sunny breeze without abandon. She's missed this in its entirety—the smell of the wild grasses, the shade from the trees, the lapping waves of the rivers caressing the lining of the banks. The subtleties of the outside world, the things she had not known she had taken for granted until she was swallowed and sealed away, give her an irrepressible sense of joy and wonder. She can't stop smiling at everything she sees. She sighs when sunbeams hit her face through the openings between the branches of trees, and she gasps and exclaims when she sees any type of living thing that is just recognizable enough. Summerwing butterflies and hearty truffles have always been abundant along the roads around Hyrule Field, and that 100 years later they are still thriving as if she never left brings her such a tremendous joy that she can't help but grasp Link's forearm when she sees them.
"Link!" she says. "Oh, isn't so wonderful? I know a century is a mere drop in the time of nature, but the fact that Calamity Ganon was unable to form a desolate wasteland—and even so, that some of the world even remained somewhat untouched by its effects—it's…it's a marvelous thing."
She turns her eyes away from the scenery of the vast Hyrule Field and looks at Link, smiling wide. His demeanor is amused as he watches her, and he has a small quirk of his lips that is encouraging to see. It's only been a few days since their victory, and while he has been wholeheartedly the Link she remembers, there is still a small lacking. He's not quite sure how to act around her, and he's almost done several things he used to do after they had warmed up to each other. Those things include talking in full sentences, calling her Zelda, and letting her hold his forearm brace when leisurely walking together. He's been stilted in his words, as if he wants to speak more, but can't—or perhaps he is unsure of what to say or how to say them. He remembers some things, she knows. He found all of the memories she left for him in the hopes that he'd remember some of himself with them, the people who impacted him, the moments that, she thought and hoped beyond all else, mattered most with the pictures she had on the slate. Because of this, she thinks he's almost to the point of speaking to her as openly as he used to before. He, perhaps, just needs a few more memories of them together, or more time. One of the puzzle pieces that makes up his fabric, whatever that may be, that he needs. She's been thinking of when to bring up the past he opened up to her about, how his childhood was, how his opinions were about her father, her devotion to prayer, among other things. Maybe a few more days. She will be patient. With Link, being patient has always been the best way.
Calling her Zelda, however, she'll make sure to gently scold him whenever he calls her princess, and bows, and is so utterly, stiffly formal. She's missed that easy warmth between them for so long, and being able to walk up to him after 100 years of captivity was something out of a dream—out of what helped to fuel her when she felt weak, or tired, or on the fine edge of wanting to give up. When that happened, she'd imagine when Link would wake up, and the promise they gave to each other. To the bitter end, they would fight for Hyrule, the people, but also for one another.
To feel his presence finally awaken was an energizing breath of fresh air. She was rejuvenated, her purpose renewed. She could talk to him in brief bouts, in between keeping Ganon's wrath held hostage in the sanctum, and then see him in her periphery when the Master Sword came back into his possession. But seeing him, standing tall and strong and nearly unscathed before her underneath the open sky, his hair gleaming with a brilliant golden shine under the sunlight, his eyes as strikingly blue as ever, staring into her deeply and unabashedly like he used to was a moment of a lifetime. Unforgettable and quite literally a century in the making.
She'll be honest. She's never wanted to run into his arms and kiss him more than that moment. There have been times she wanted to before.
As for the last point, holding his brace within her fingers…the familiarity for Zelda is there, but since Link hasn't reestablished that same sense of comfort around her, she doesn't think it would be fair for him. It's too soon for that, anyway. If she's sincere about it with herself, too, she will admit that she feels an increased bout of shyness around him. It isn't unpleasant—in fact, it's quite the opposite. Her stomach does backflips and has a nest of butterflies that live in there when he looks at her or they graze arms when walking. Back 100 years ago, being around him was comforting, and warming, like a blanket protecting her from bitter cold. She would feel those prickles of feeling now and again if she let herself. Now, it's tenfold. It's heightened in an unstoppable force, barreling through her as if it's a sledgehammer against her ribcage.
It must be because they're free, she thinks. Truly free. They don't have a looming darkness spreading over them, nor do they have the burden of saving the world on their shoulders anymore. They have a lot of rebuilding to do, certainly, a lot of reconnections to make and they will more than likely travel the world a time or three to gain some semblance of a kingdom, if that's what the world needs. But without that, the immediate role of a prophecy and branding of the triforce, all of those old inhibitions have seemed to diminish within her. The love she fostered a century ago has only seemed to grow and flourish over the time that Link had been repairing in sleep, encompassing her to oversaturation like a flash flooding.
It matured in her, while it was rearranged and forgotten in him. When she asked him that first question on the Hyrule bridge,
"Do you truly remember me?"
He hesitated for a long moment, but he was smiling all the while as he looked upon her. "I do remember you, princess," he said. "The memories you left me…" He took a few steps forward. "I remember them, and I remember how I felt during them. The time in between them…my past before those memories…" he trailed. His faint smile faded and a frown appeared and deepened across his lips. "I'm afraid those memories aren't as clear."
She walked forward to meet him. She negated his frown with a soft, reassuring smile and lifted a hand. Meaning to brush it across his cheek, she stopped herself before reaching his face, curling her fingers and bringing her hand down to rest upon his forearm instead.
"Don't worry, hero," she said, using the name in what sounded like an endearment instead of a title. "They'll all come back. Now that I'm here to help, I'm sure you'll be up to speed in no time."
His eyes followed her hand in its disjointed journey, watching as it rested on him in a look she could only call bafflement. Then his jaw clenched, in the way that it used to when he was holding back saying something he had not deemed worthy to say, and nodded.
Back in the present, Link speaks. "It is because of you."
He nods his head towards nothing in particular. "The field. The roads. The rest of Hyrule that you haven't seen."
"Ah," she says, looking back toward the broken castle in the distance. "It was my destiny, after all. I'm…happy I lived up to the expectations the goddesses had for me. I regret the lives lost, and the prevalent emptiness that surrounds us." She turns to him. "I am, however, excited to see the towns and more of the people. There's hope in that."
Link nods in agreement, and he continues to stare at her. She maintains it, wondering if he's remembering something or thinking of something he wants to say. They hold that for several more seconds, and Zelda almost becomes uncomfortable, though she can't deny that it's supremely pleasant to look upon him. She's not sure if she'll ever get used to seeing him here, in front of her, tangible, whole, skin flushed with a strong heartbeat. Then she becomes intrigued when Link blinks, looking away and rubbing the nape of his neck in embarrassment. A light dusting of pink rides on his cheekbones.
"Um…" he mutters. "Forgive me, princess."
That's all he says, which isn't surprising. It really inflames Zelda's curiosity, and she has to hold herself back from asking forthright what in the world he's thinking.
"Zelda," she admonishes lightly. "You have nothing to apologize for."
He's silent for a few moments, and when she thinks the situation is over, he speaks up.
"It's…improper…for me to stare at you."
So perhaps he was just staring at her to stare. If he thinks that's a great offense to her, he's much mistaken. She can't help the smirk that creeps up on her face.
"Please, Link," she says, shaking her head. "It's been a century since we've seen each other. Stare all you'd like."
She's a bit astounded at how the words come out of her, and he must be too, because his cheeks darken more. He glances up and catches her eye again.
"Then…you can stare at me, too. If you'd like," he adds, punctuating it with a careless shrug as if to attempt to offset his blushing, and there's something about the way he says it. It's as if he knows he's attractive to her—or perhaps, attractive in general—and can hardly care one way or another about it.
She clears her throat, determined not to outwardly show her own embarrassment. She's never denied she's as stubborn as a bull. "Don't flatter yourself, Link," she says, walking past them toward their horses. Her nose might as well have been up in the air with how haughty she sounds. "Just because you're the hero doesn't mean I won't be able to take my eyes off you."
"I'll ride behind you," he says, and she hears him take his place atop his stead. "That way you have no temptation."
Her lips quirk, and she mounts her horse, too. "And an excuse for you to stare even more?"
She looks at him when he shrugs, again, all nonchalant. "Don't flatter yourself, princess."
She huffs, and it almost comes out as a laugh. He's being…himself. She can't help but bubble up with excitement.
"Zelda," she emphasizes. "And you can't fool me, Link. You've always been a terrible liar."
They turn towards the road toward south Hyrule Field with Whistling Hill rising up in the distance. Then they'll pass through Horwell and Eagus Bridge to head north towards Zora's Domain. They convened on the map together, tracing the best and least stressful path to get there. There would be people on the roads, but how many would truly recognize her? Better to make small steps than large, unnecessary strides in the gossip world, if that would even be a problem.
Instead of trotting behind her, as he said he would, he comes up alongside her horse. He asks her a bit stilted, "I'm a terrible liar?"
She opens her mouth, about to tease him again, but realizes he's asking because he honestly wants to know.
She closes her mouth for a moment, then opens it when she decides on what to say.
"The worst," she says. "Only because you're so honest. It's the way your eyes look, when you say something you don't mean."
"Yes…" she says. "You know, like when lightning flashes and you watch it, so it leaves a shadow in your eyes? It's…like that. Your eyes flash, a little, and they darken some, and then they look a little blank as if you're trying to shut off all the emotions in you to not give it away."
When the silence stretches after she explains, she realizes how crazy she must sound, describing him to himself. There's too much detail in what I said, she thinks. I rambled too much on his eyes, what they do…he must wonder why I know something like that so specifically, but it's just…oh, how embarrassing.
Anxiety builds up in the pit of her stomach, and her mouth feels like it's in a bumpy, uncomfortable line across her face. It shouldn't—after all, they did become close friends. She's been trying to keep up the pretense that they are still close friends, because he's still her close friend, even if only in theory. He doesn't feel that way fully yet, and it's hard to put this in place with her feelings, and how much she should say, what she shouldn't say, and where to draw the line right now. She went with instinct, being herself and trying not to act like there's a 100 year rift between them, but it's still…different. Different in a way she can't fully explain to herself. She swallows, not looking at him, and tries to sit up straighter on her horse.
Finally, after what feels like a year or five (Zelda has noticed that her concept of time is still skewed, and she doesn't know when five minutes have passed versus an hour—it's deeply frustrating), Link says, "It seems you spent a great deal of time 100 years ago studying my…lying."
Not just that, she thinks. She attempts his apathetic shrugging technique, still refraining from looking at him.
"You were…interesting. I like mystery. That's all."
He contemplates this for a while, and by the time they're through the [insert area here], he speaks again.
"You loved researching ancient technology and different wildlife…" It's a statement and a question. Zelda remembers the way he spoke like this before, amid an answer and an inquiry. It's a very distinctly Link trait, she's determined.
"Yes," she says. "You know I love researching. It's a pastime, and it was something to do to…take my mind off of my failures." It amazes her now, how easy it is to talk about failure. It used to be hard to acknowledge the word at all. "But I enjoyed it immensely. It was as if that was what I was born to do. To learn, to be curious, to figure things out. It's gratifying, and it helped that I was good at it. That I enjoy it is a bonus." She turns her head towards him, giving him a smile. "Don't be surprised if I force us to stop several times when I see something I want to take a picture of, as it's bound to happen."
He nods at her. "Of course, princess."
Patience, she reminds herself. Patience and observation. It seems he'll unknowingly be her research subject yet again.