A/N: Sorry this is a little late! And guess what! I hate it! :D
Thank you so much for reading everyone. Love y'all!
"...hate watching you do that..."
"...yourself a favor. Don't look."
"Someone's got to protect her."
"As though you could possibly protect her from me."
Drifting back from that dream was like clawing through sludge. Like he was still holding me under—a hand pressing down on the crown of my head as I tried to breach the surface. But I pushed and shoved and wriggled my way up, lurching toward filtered light and voices. Desperate for breath. Desperate for freedom. It wasn't enough. I needed more. So I called on light, and I broke free.
My eyes opened—slowly, and just a sliver.
The campsite was pale with burgeoning dawn and the woods were quiet, breathing mist and shadow in that threadbare emptiness where night ended and day began. For a moment I was disoriented—half expecting a flutter of blossoms off the Satori tree, or a warm, lingering touch in my hair. But then I heard Link's voice again, the familiar, frustrated heat in it, and the reality of him washed away the dream like floodwaters.
"She's more than capable of keeping me out of her head if she wanted to, which is more than I can say for the rest of you. If you were really worried about keeping her safe you should have taught her a little of that elemental magic you're so fond of, instead of leaving that happy task to me."
"I don't just mean from you," breathed the other voice. Behind my back, nearer him and the fire. Urbosa's voice.
"From herself?" he scoffed. "Even I, for all my power, am not capable of that."
"Of course you are," she said, and though I couldn't see her expression her disdain was palpable. "You could have forced her hand in the Lost Woods and put a stop to this before it started, or at Thyphlo, or on the Plateau. You could do it now. You simply choose not to."
I nearly leapt to his defense, desperate to keep him from spiraling down that line of thought, nearly sat up and gave myself away. But he just chuckled, a low, humming note in the back of his throat.
"The princess can be very persuasive."
"The princess is young. And for all her wisdom she still leads with her heart."
He paused, and I stilled, disturbed and spellbound. The fire snapped, there was the soft rustle of stirring morning. Then, "How young?"
"Gods," he laughed bitterly. "Worse than I thought."
"I'm glad you find this so amusing."
"I don't find it amusing at all. Your world is hanging by a thread, and you're all tethered to the will of a child."
Urbosa sighed, her bangles clinking as she she moved. Perhaps to stare into the fire. Perhaps to recline a bit and stare through the canopy at the last of the stars. "This was a burden that never should have fallen to her. The queen was taken from us too soon. And therein lies the problem."
Another pause stretched between them, thick and ruminative as he dissected and drew conclusions. I strained to listen, paralyzed and powerless, as something stinging and wet lodged in my chest. The problem. The problem with me.
He decided, too gravely, "She never grieved."
"She never had the chance. She was six years old, and before her mother was cold in the ground they started filling her head with prayers and prophecies. She's trained her entire life to ward off the Calamity, and when she pictured confronting an evil harbinging death, who do you suppose she imagined saving? She doesn't know how to let go." And then, pointedly, "She doesn't know how to let you go."
I could hear the frown on his voice. "Then she's going to have to learn."
"There isn't time. If you can't do this, you'll have to force her hand."
A log went into the fire and it surged, breathing hot breath in all directions and scattering embers. Devouring while thoughts settled aimlessly like fluttering bits of ash. My fingers bit into my palms, leaving little moons all over soft flesh. Urbosa loosed a long, troubled breath.
"She'll never forgive you for that."
"She's resilient," he scoffed. "You do her a disservice by treating her like she's fragile."
"And you do her a disservice by acting like you're just another faceless soldier in her army."
"Am I not?"
"Don't be coy. You know you're not. Not to her."
I could picture his face in the wake of that accusation: impervious, hard as flint, shrouding misgivings. Unyielding and stubborn as ever. He said, "She doesn't need a hero to fight her wars for her. She'll figure that out soon enough."
"I don't mean because she thinks she needs you."
"Then what do you mean?"
"I mean because she's falling in love with you," she sighed, resigned, like it was obvious and he was an idiot, and my heart stopped.
"She's not in love," he countered, a little too loudly to my ears, too harshly. "She's confused. She has someone else's memories in her head."
"If you don't see it, then you're as blind as she is." An unsettling pause, a pop of the fire. A painful stammer as my heart restarted. "Or maybe you don't want to see it."
"If she gives me the opportunity, I will kill her," he murmured. "You can't possibly imagine the disaster that would spell for your world."
"I have an inkling."
"Then you had best pray to whatever gods you still believe in that you're wrong."
I waited for more—breath held, spine rigid—but silence crawled up to settle between them like a fog. Something thick and bitter coiled behind my ribs, reached up into my throat. It made my eyes sting.
"Ask yourself this," she finally said, leaving a final word of warning in her wake the way she might leave a bolt of lightning. "Can you honestly say you've done nothing to encourage her?"
He didn't offer her an answer, and she didn't wait for one, getting to her feet and strapping her scimitar around her waist. And though I'm sure she meant to set Link's mind churning, the one left rattled was me.
"It's nearly sunrise," she murmured. "We should wake the others."
He grunted a pithy agreement, and from my place beside the dwindling fire, playing at being asleep, I heard Daruk startle from his boulderous slumber and Revali hiss at being disturbed. Mipha was much more graceful, hardly making a sound as she peeled herself from the ground. By the time Urbosa made it to me, there had been enough shuffling that how easily I stirred wasn't terribly surprising.
The others set quietly—sleepily—about breaking down our campsite, smothering the fire and putting away gear. Link loomed along the fringe, unhelpful. I was only slightly less useless, folding my bedroll so meticulously that by the time I was finished there was nothing left to do but lace up my boots.
The truth was I was lost in my thoughts, and all the more as we silently moved towards the mouth of the woods, Link falling in step just behind me.
My pulse throbbed in my throat as his proximity set the hairs on the back of my neck standing, my stomach clenched, imagining what was going through his head. I was disappointed, and angry, and humiliated. And the worst part was there was no one to blame for it but myself.
They hadn't been wrong. I was young, leading with my heart through uncharted waters with this whole expedition and endangering thousands in the process. And for all the blessing of the gods that should have made me wise and fearless, for all his own efforts to make me see reason, I was still terrified of losing him.
That terror was the strangest part of all. Why couldn't I bring myself to choose my kingdom over the one who would destroy it? Why did the prospect of losing a thousand lives frighten me less than losing his? Urbosa had clearly drawn her own conclusion, which was both embarrassing and mortifying. This unpleasant twist of feeling, all anger and fear and doubt—was I supposed to believe that was love? It seemed ridiculous. But the more I dared to confront the idea of letting him go, the more my heart screamed in my chest, and trying to apply reason to it had proven both exhausting and useless.
I blinked back brimming, frustrated tears. Was I falling in love with him? Could I have been that stupid?
Our party marched out of ashen woods into the valley. On the grassy cliffs overlooking the village, our Sheikah companions were already waiting for us, ringed in the first spills of early morning light pouring over the hillside. In decided contrast to my brooding mood, Purah and Robbie were practically bubbling over. The first thing Purah did when we came into view was bound over and shove a strange stone lantern into Daruk's hands, and Robbie cornered Revali.
"Thank Kaerushin, I was getting so sick of carrying it already," she breathed as he pinched the handle curiously between massive fingers, and then it seemed to strike her that the same brute strength which let him hold it aloft with such ease might as easily crush it and she swatted his arm. "Be careful with it!"
"Hello Princess," Impa smiled, warm and steady and reassuring as ever. It made my heart settle just a little, made my mouth soften out of its worried line. "It's good to see you again."
Robbie was asking "Do you have like a saddle or what?" before I could get out a reply, his goggles flicked down over his eyes as he examined Revali's wings and chest, looking for some kind of harness, and I spent the next little while sorting out their working relationship while the others divided our resources—though it seemed to me that most everyone's food and water merely transferred to Impa, but I was too busy deflecting the insults they had begun hurling at each other to object properly.
Link loomed at the overlook like a shadow, neither amused by their antics nor paying them any heed. He no doubt had other things on his mind. And he hadn't said a word to me all morning, his expression fixed in an immutable frown. All at once my mouth was pressing towards its worried line again.
Mipha finally intervened once all the other preparations were made, flexing her decided influence over Revali in my behalf. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief as he let himself be placated, still wondering at how easily she tamed him. It reminded me of someone else who was just as bad-tempered and stubborn, and a similar influence I exerted over him.
I put that thought right out of my head.
We set off from Kakariko Village with the sunrise. Robbie, Mipha, and Revali took the north road towards Akkala while the rest of us went south, slipping out of the village slumbering in the valley like spirits melting into the mist.
We stayed together through the canyon snaking along the Pillars of Levia and parted ways where the road forked just after Kakariko Bridge—Purah, Daruk, and Urbosa heading east towards Hateno, while Impa, Link, and I marched on towards the Dueling Peaks and the Great Plateau beyond. I couldn't help myself as we said our goodbyes. I dove straight into Urbosa's arms.
"Little Bird," she soothed, embracing me easily. "What's wrong?"
"I wish I could tell you," I hissed miserably. "I wish there was time."
"Say the word, and I'll go with you," she murmured. "Daruk can handle this on his own."
"No. No, this is too important."
She brushed a loose furl of hair out of my eyes as I pulled away, frowning. "Tell me what I can do."
"You can bring me the flame," I sighed. "Help me put an end to this."
She planted a soft kiss on my forehead, wiping at the place where her lips had been with her thumb as thought to wipe away a smear of cobalt. But the color had faded from her lips with our travels, and then come off completely in the hot springs. It was comforting, somehow, anyway.
"I'll bring you the flame myself. I promise."
I nodded, grudgingly letting her go.
The road carried them east, and then quickly out of sight. The road before me seemed to stretch and stretch and stretch.
Impa stayed dutifully at my side as we backtracked through Ash Swamp, while Link pushed ahead. It was rather like following a stormcloud. And like a brewing thunderhead—looming, ominous, full to bursting—it was hard to tear my eyes away.
There was something bitter and unbearable in the way he had led me through this marsh the day before by the hand, and now barely tolerated being within 15 feet of me. I knew it was stupid to take offense, or to expect anything less than mercurial behavior from him.
But perhaps it had less to do with his behavior, and more to do with mine.
"Your father was so relieved to hear that you were safe," Impa said, the easy tenor of her voice snatching me from less pleasant thoughts. "When you went missing, we all feared something terrible had happened."
"Father," I murmured, my mouth twisting at how foreign the word tasted after going so long without using it. I had been so overwhelmed since this all started, I hardly thought of how things must have appeared from the confines of the castle. I hardly thought of what any of this had been doing to him. My mouth twisted deeper. "What he must think of all this."
"He wasn't pleased when he realized you were still in danger," she admitted. Which I'm sure was a polite way of saying he was furious. "But he understood. He says that you're carrying out the will of the goddess."
Father. Our relationship had been strained for years, but had finally begun to mend. He had pushed me so hard to unlock my powers when I was young. But after so many unfruitful visits to the springs, so many unanswered prayers, he had sat on the perron steps with me in the throne room one warm evening, both of us washed in molten sunset pouring through the stained glass, and told me I had done enough.
Powers or no powers, he had said, covering my hand with his, you will always be my daughter. My Zelda. And I am so proud of the young woman you've turned out to be.
My face had crumpled, and I'd thrown myself at him, burying in his fluffy beard. It was the first time since losing Mother that he had felt truly more my father than he did my king.
As fate would have it, my powers followed soon after.
He was just one of many whose welfare I had failed to consider when I started down this path. I wondered if he would have been so supportive if he knew how selfish I'd been.
There were certain aspects of all this I was certain he would not approve of.
I mustered a wobbly smile. "I hope he's right."
"Have faith, Princess," she said, assured as ever. Confident. It was a breath of fresh air cutting through the smog of doubt that followed me everywhere. "The pieces are falling into place. Everything will be as it should be."
"Did Kaerushin tell you that?" I smirked, grateful, and she smiled, so soft and wide her eyes crinkled.
"Not with words. The guardians are not always so clear." But then, as though to contradict her directly, a tireless frog leapt out of the marsh, croaking loudly as it crossed our path, and bounded into another puddle with a hollow kerplunk. Impa glanced back at me, bemused, and shrugged a shoulder. "And sometimes they are."
I couldn't help but bark a startled laugh.
We walked through the marsh into the shadow of the Dueling Peaks, across the Squabble River, following the empty road between the towering cliffs and riverbank, and on through the smattering of woods.
Proxim Bridge came into view by midday. It was the first landmark for pilgrims traveling from the east, crossing the river named for the goddess on the way to her temple, and a heartening reminder that the Plateau was close.
It was also the gateway to civilization, which was why Link had ground to a halt, staring at it from a disdainful distance.
He turned as we closed the distance, scowling, and held out his hand expectantly. Impa frowned at it, and then at him, and then at me. But he wouldn't tolerate a long explanation, and no amount of excuses would make her any happier about it.
"We'll teleport to the Shrine from here," I said, reaching for it. "Follow as quickly as you can."
Then I wrapped myself in a film of power and took his hand, and in a blaze of vertigo and color we left the river junction behind and spiraled to the grassy hillside in front of the shrine.
I gulped air as we emerged, one hand still glued to his and the other on his shoulder for balance. But, despite being a bit winded, I actually felt all right otherwise. I must have dredged up just the right amount of power, which I couldn't help but feel rather accomplished in. I met his eyes, hoping, now that we were alone, he would finally break that intolerable silence he had insisted upon since we left Cotera's woods. But no such luck. The second my hold on him went lax he freed himself, marching on to the veiled mouth of the cave and waving the illusion out of the way.
I frowned as I followed him into the cavern and down the plinking steps. The orbs in the walls cast us in glittering orange and blue spangles. It felt as though he was watching me from everywhere.
I didn't know how to breach his silence, which was so obviously deliberate and simmering with hostility. But I needed to find a way. We were too close to the end of all this to have a wedge driven between us now. My brain swarmed with questions, with worries. Was he hurting? Had the jump taken a toll? Would he tell me if he needed to dream?
I knew the answers to all of those questions, and didn't like any of them.
I followed him to the landing, through the hall, up into the yawning chamber with its vat and suspended modules. He turned at the entry, pulling the Slate at his hip from its holster, and moved to place it in the socket staring emptily in the face of the terminal. It pulled the Slate down flush, rotated it. Sang a resonant trill of notes. Symbols and lights ignited on its face, flickering in and out of darkness, bathing us both in more azure glow. Link tapped at a few of them, brushed others aside. I lingered behind him, fretting.
I sighed, bracing myself. There was nothing for it.
"Did you have fun eavesdropping this morning?"
His voice cut quietly through whatever I had meant to say, slicing easily as a sharp blade across a soft throat. I froze, recalculating, trying to digest the implications. But it was like trying to blink shapes back into focus after a lightning strike in the black of night.
"You knew," I finally managed, "and you didn't say anything?"
"I wanted the Gerudo to be able to speak her mind—wanted you to hear the truth," he said, reading the flurry of symbols playing on the display. The Slate sang again, a brief, twinkling question, and the glow spiked, catching on his profile as he turned. "Little does she know how damaged you really are."
My eyes swept up to his and I floundered in them: burning, hateful, spiteful. I knew there was no containing that rage. That I should run from it rather than try to contain it. But I was mindless in the face of it, like a moth fluttering towards flame. I couldn't move, couldn't keep a soft, startled whisper from escaping my lips. "What?"
He abandoned the terminal to face my squarely, disgust written all over his face.
"Two lifetimes in your head. Dead mother, dead lover. A power that nearly swallows the world every time you touch it," he sneered, drifting closer. Engulfing the space between us until there was no room to breathe. "You're no goddess."
My breath rattled deafeningly in my skull, my blood pounded. Suddenly it felt like I didn't have the strength to stand.
"Fine," I whispered, cursing the way the word shook. "Fix the shrine. I'm going to wait for Impa."
I turned, but so did he, and before I could make it to the hall he was at the terminal, fingers sliding over the Slate until it sang, and the columns of the door plunged closed, blocking my path. I stood at the wall, trembling, breathless. Wishing I had run when I had the chance.
"Well? Was she right?" he breathed, closing in behind me again. Looming like a shadow, taking up all the space in that room, all the air, until I felt sure he would swallow me as well. "Are you in love with me?"
I think I am. And it's horrible.
"Open the door," I said, but he wasn't in the mood for taking orders. He grabbed me by the elbow, twisting me around hard enough that I had to bite back a gasp.
"You can hardly blame me for wanting to be sure after your performance last night," he hissed, that untamable fury I knew so well glimmering just beneath the surface, translating imprecisely through his too-tight grip on my arm. "It was puerile, even for you."
I swallowed down a rush of salt and hurt, my nails carving moons into my palms again. Wishing we were beyond this. Wishing that every inch of progress I ever made with him wasn't snatched out from under me at every turn.
Well, I was tired of being hurt by him. It was so much easier to be angry.
"If either of us is damaged, it's you," I growled, taking a meaningful step forward. Taking back some of the space, some of the air. Threatening to swallow him for a change. "Now let me go, and open the door."
His grip only tightened, pressing in to meet me measure for measure. "I just want us to be clear. The boy you dream with doesn't exist."
"Of course he does," I said, too calmly, too confidently, too cuttingly. "He's all the parts of you that still have a scrap of feeling, and it terrifies you that I can see him through all that armor—that I can touch him," I breathed, cradling his jaw and running my thumb down the seam of his lip, "when all you want is to forget him."
He hesitated, his expression strikingly, deliciously uncertain. I wanted to drown in it.
"You keep trying to hurt me," I whispered, gripped by something dangerous, something manic. By the staggering high of having power over him. "But you forget how easily I could hurt you."
His lips parted, cool breath ghosting aimlessly over the tip of my thumb as I held his eyes, as I bound him with a spell that he didn't have magic to fight. Then I pressed forward, bracing myself for the biting cold of him as I slipped warm fingers up his jaw, and kissed him.
It was nothing like the dreams.
I marveled at the frost that laced my mouth, at the way my lips gave and molded over his unyielding ones. At how he failed to fight me. Like it had somehow been too quick, too soft and unexpected, for him to react. My lips went numb, my breath chilled in my lungs, my throat ached. My skin writhed with the nearness of him. I had to call on light to keep from recoiling with a cry, to warm me enough that I didn't freeze solid. It was terrifying, as though one careless stroke of his tongue could rent my soul right out of me.
For all that, he still tasted like rain.
I pulled back. His eyes were just a fraction too wide. His hands were closed on my forearms, though it seemed neither of us knew whether he meant to hold me or push me away.
"You're wrong," he finally said, after a long, painful moment. "I never forget that."
He stepped away, wordlessly moving to the Slate in the pedestal, and opened the door.