Author: Stealth Noodle
Summary: In which the future persists, and Zelda copes. AU in that it overwrites the celebration scene in the ending.
Disclaimer: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time belongs to Nintendo. I'm just borrowing.
Author's Note: This story is AU in that it ignores the celebration scene in the game's ending. Also, many thanks to Xyn and Startide Risen for the nitpicks. All three errors should be fixed now.
She wasn't expecting this.
When the song ended and his body faded like a star at dawn, she had been certain that this accident they called a future would vanish as well, its origin excised from the timeline like a cancer. But ten minutes later she was still standing in the field, and as the sun crept across a stubbornly real sky, it occurred to her that consequences would be consequences, and nothing that had happened would ever be completely undone.
Impa found her staring at the ruins of Hyrule Castle as if her gaze would burn them out of existence. "My princess, the battle has ended, and now is the time to rebuild."
That was when she let herself cry.
Endings are the luxury of heroes. Their purpose is to kill the monster, save the princess, and gallop off into the sunset, never to struggle with barren soil, toppled authority, and the burden of responsibility. They come and go like flashes of light, leaving behind only a dazzle and a hope.
She was a hero once. She misses the freedom.
He hadn't watched the land decay. For him there was shock, followed by the wave of determination that carried him through to the end. But she had passed into bitterness, unable to live each day with her heart raw. She had fallen asleep every night in a haze of exhaustion, her body bruised from Impa's training, sobbing for the world she'd broken and shivering from the nightmares that began even before she closed her eyes. At first the terror of living in hiding had been all the edge she needed, but even that had passed into a dull dread over time.
Impa once said that he was sleeping in the Sacred Realm, and she loved, hated, and envied him all at once.
She wakes, she works, she sleeps. Sometimes she talks, but it's hard to remember what they're pretending not to know. She is aware that she eats, because Impa looks after her health.
In her brighter moments, she tells herself that the world will be beautiful again if she just keeps trying. Part of her wonders if the world can ever be as beautiful as she used to think it was, and an even more practical part wonders if Hyrule can recover from the seven years of darkness. She can scarcely blame the people for doubting a young queen ruling from a throne of dust. Once the hero's authority came through his connection to the royal family; now what little respect she has comes from her connection to him.
In her darker moments, she tells herself that no kingdom was ever built on irony.
The first task was to clear the corpses from the remains of the city. When Ganon fell, the dark energy animating the undead passed away with him, but the bodies remained. Clean-up details are not the province of myth.
Under Impa's direction, the streets slowly became less ghastly. The buildings were still charred skeletons, and the one-eyed ghost still giggled and asked after "that pretty boy," but the town looked less like a warzone. The smell of death lingered, but it was no longer choking.
Impa's clothes fit her awkwardly. She couldn't work in her only gown, though, and she hadn't learned how to sew yet; she wasn't ready to work on anything that would give her time to think. Even when her body ached from days of strenuous labor, she could never rest for long. Staying busy was key. If she kept moving, nothing could sink in.
One morning Princess Ruto was waiting with the workers from Kakariko, saying that she had come to make herself useful until her own kingdom began to thaw. There was no further explanation beyond a smile, a wink, and an afterthought: "Princesses have to watch out for each other."
When she listens to the Gossip Stones, she hears that the Gorons are burrowing deeper into the mountains, the Zoras' kingdom is melting so slowly it may take years for the people to emerge, the Kokiri are putting stronger wards on their forest, and the Gerudos are marauding unchecked through the countryside. To know the hearts of the Hylians requires no clairvoyance.
She never feels as young as she does when she is told that she must act. Words cannot turn the isolationists, and no magic can melt the cursed ice. Impa does what she can to combat the Gerudos. It isn't enough.
When the nights dilate, she fights her insomnia by slipping out to guard the crossroads nearest the castle. Killing them never satisfies her, and she never checks their faces for fear that one will look too much like Nabooru. Impa would be furious if she knew. Impa probably knows and says nothing.
In this, as in everything, it has become impossible to be certain.
The second task was to salvage a castle from the ruins. Of the grand palace that had housed generations of her ancestors, only a little rubble and broken glass remained, along with the wreckage of Ganon's tower. There was no time for finery, so they bought a nice chair from Kakariko and ushered in her reign in the least devasted house of the castle town. It felt like a mockery, but Impa said that it was important to establish the survival of the royal family.
That night she sat on her makeshift throne in hopes of feeling some connection to her father, but her stillness only reminded her that the back of her hand itched. It had bothered her ever since the day the door to the Sacred Realm had opened, and if she went too long with nothing to keep her occupied, she would scratch the skin bloody. Sometimes it made a convenient scapegoat for her sense of disunity, but more often it made her feel like the victim of divine sarcasm.
She had no crown, no court, and no subjects unless the people of Kakariko chose to acknowledge her. Ruto stayed, but Ruto had no alternative but to stand beside her own father and stare listlessly at the ice.
If nothing else, they had an empty place in common.
Sometimes she wears Sheik's skin. She can never say whether she's trying to remember the past or forget the present, but she finds herself drawn to the temples, where she lets her fingers wander over the strings of her harp. Her hands are out of practice, but at least the itch is soothed.
Seeing her as Sheik seems to make Ruto uneasy. When she remembers pulling the Zora princess free of the ice, she understands why. It's too much. The hole is painful enough without confusion taking root in it like a briar patch.
It's how fairy tales work, isn't it? The last-minute rescue, the mysterious hero who vanishes, and the glorious reunion. They've both learned too much about reunions. And heroes, for that matter. Princesses have to look after each other.
So she wraps herself in bandages, whispers the words that sculpt her body, and steals away to the places where Ruto won't follow.
The third task was to begin rebuilding over the ashes. Before the town could even hope to shelter a population again, the crumbled walls and broken foundations had to cleared out to make room for the new construction. The process would drain what little wealth they had managed to accumulate, but there was no other choice. She needed the people to return. With the outside walls intact and the drawbridge broken, the deserted city felt like a prison.
Finding affordable carpenters and stone masons was difficult, even with Impa's influence. Once the contracts had been signed, she had nothing to do but supervise the workers and try to look less like a scared little girl who didn't want to believe in the world around her. Sometimes she stood outside the house of the one-eyed ghost and listened to him grumble about the loss of the undead, but he reminded her too acutely of the damage she'd caused, and she had to seek other sanctuaries.
She visited Zora's Domain once with Ruto and found herself wondering what it was like beneath the ice. Did time pass? Was there consciousness, or even dreaming? Her thoughts fell back to him with a helpless gravity as she wondered if he dreamed in the gap of years, and if so, if he had shared any of her nightmares. Had his hand ever troubled him?
There were so many fragments of her, and so few of them could find anyone to connect to.
She tries to set things right. One of her first acts was to give Malon and Talon back their ranch, even though she had to send Impa to remove the usurper. He would have wanted it, and she owes him more than she can ever repay. Somehow he repaired the devastation she caused, and sometimes she resents him for it. Perhaps this is penance.
Sometimes she visits Epona, even though the horse is suspicious of her and balks at her touch. This she knows is penance.
When she thinks about his new life in a brighter future, she falls back into the little girl huddled in a cave, shaking with love and hate and jealousy. Her dreams of him are tangled.
The fourth task was to gather her people and tell them that even though everything had changed, it was time to paint over the scars and return to their old lives. How to accomplish this eluded her. She was more of a poet than a politician, and it had been a long time since she'd spoken from the assumption that she was right. In the end, Ruto crafted most of the speech for her, under Impa's supervision.
Standing before the displaced Hylians, she had to fight her tongue's impulse to apologize over and over. Saying exactly what she thought had been a luxury of childhood and Sheik.
Afterwards Ruto drew her aside, asking, "How are you really going to make it right again?"
She remembered the white velvet lies she told herself as the world fell apart, then the sweet vindication as the child in a man's body had appeared in the temple. For a long time, she had convinced herself that a glass glued back together was as good as a glass that had never been shattered.
Days like these were when she needed to be Sheik. It was Sheik who had dreamt, in the long night after Ganon's defeat, of a celebration that freed the Zoras from their ice and the Kokiri from their forest. It was Sheik who had waged a private war against Ganon until the hero awoke, and it was Sheik who had never abandoned the idea that the world could be sutured back together.
But the queen of dust and ashes didn't know how to share that conviction, and Ruto hadn't asked Sheik. The best she could offer was her hope that even if things could never be the same, they could be better than they were now.
Princesses have to be careful with their promises.
She has planted a little bed of flowers in the barren place where she used to play. Someday, Impa tells her, there will be a new castle, built as closely to the original as the altered landscape will allow, and she will have her gardens again. For now, she slips away in the evenings to coax a little life out of the soil between the crags and boulders.
Sometimes the sight of the tiny blossoms troubles her, but she keeps returning to tend them, bringing them water from the moat and pulling the opportunistic weeds that choke them. When she rests her fingers on their stems, she can almost feel a pulse. Breathing on the petals makes them tremble.
Whether she needs to see life flourish out of the cracked earth or out of her own hands is a question she doesn't trust herself to answer.
The fifth task was to unite the races of Hyrule in the restoration of the world, and in this task she failed. Darunia wished her well and reaffirmed his friendship, but he took his people to chase sustenance and seclusion in the increasingly distant north. Every animate Zora and Sheikah was already on her side, which sounded more impressive than it actually was. The Gerudos sent no ambassador but a knife, which embedded itself in her throne only an inch from her ear.
Saria came to see her on behalf of the Kokiri, the rest of whom were bound to their forest. Like the other sages, Saria knew what she did and tried to forgive her for it because she was young, because she threw her life into fixing it, because things more or less worked out in the end. But as the repercussions of Ganon's rule continued to ripple out through the world, forgiveness grew strained.
She understood. If not for her, he would still have existed in this world.
Diplomatically, the meeting accomplished nothing. She apologized to Saria, there was a moment of comprehension, and the Kokiri severed themselves from the rest of Hyrule.
Impa seemed disappointed in her, and that stung most of all.
Nabooru understands, at least in part. Nabooru tells her that she was a stupid kid, but there is never any hint of absolution or condemnation. There is only the fact, and there are no barbs hidden inside. Whatever pain she takes from it is of her own invention.
When the Gerudos storm Hyrule, their motives are equal parts robbery and revenge. Nabooru is part of what they would avenge themselves upon, so the thief hides herself in the darkest places of the world, traveling many of the same roads Sheik used to walk.
Nabooru's visits, which come whenever the dark paths wind near the castle, leave her with mixed emotions. Admiration, envy, and slanted sympathy fuse into a blockade.
"I've lost a kingdom, too," Nabooru says, but she hasn't. Not in the same way.
The sixth task was to begin to lure the survivors of Hyrule Castle Town back to their old homes. Precious little remained of their original houses, and most of that had to be torn down in the process of reconstruction, but her hope was that the people would long for their own land. As one who could stand for hours in the devastated field where her castle once lay, she could vouch for the nostalgia of place.
As the houses were finished and painted, the city became a dreamscape. Seven-year-old memories stirred in confusion when she walked down streets only slightly altered from the forms in her mind, and she wondered whether it was remembrance or reality that was mistaken. She felt as if she'd stumbled on to the set of a play about her life.
The most painful areas were those which put her in sight of the Temple of Time. It was too important a landmark to destroy, but it was eventually sealed at her request. Even then, the air around it shimmered with misplaced trust, and she couldn't see the entrance without superimposing his child's ghost and hearing the echo of the ocarina.
"You can't go on blaming yourself forever," said Ruto, but princesses have to justify each other. So do tomboys and sages and little girls who got swallowed up.
Every day her people come to her with a new problem, covering every facet of village life from monster infestations to the contested ownership of cuccos. She sits on her makeshift throne, rubbing her hands together in her lap, trying to see through to the heart of each issue. Impa takes care of the monsters. A few pointed questions take care of the squabbles.
In this, at least, she is becoming more confident. The Hylians may be uneasy with the idea of her as a ruler by divine right, but they trust her with their little crises. It isn't how her childhood self envisioned her future reign, but that self had seen the world through a bubble of dreams. If she filters her vision now, it is through the dust of reconstruction.
Around her the workers march with wood, stone, and tools, and Impa stands in the shadows behind the throne, ready to catch or push her as the situation demands. Ruto checks in periodically from working on the drawbridge to tease her about her status as village counselor.
Sometimes she smiles back.
The seventh task was time.
One day she took out the ocarina, the one piece of him that remained to her, and wreaked havoc with the sun and moon. By the time Impa found her and took the instrument away, she was sobbing so hard that she scarcely heard the rebuke: "This is no way for a queen to behave."
Of course it wasn't. It was the behavior of a girl who hated that she wasn't still a princess.
Another day she spent huddled in the area of the Lost Woods just outside of the magical snares, even though she knew that there would be no one to come across her. The next morning found her atop the lonely tree overlooking Lake Hylia, and she spent the rest of the week wandering in and out of temples, in and out of Sheik.
"You must accept responsibility for what you do now," said Impa when she finally returned. "Not just for what you did then."
Instead, she hid herself in the house with the one-eyed specter, staring at the bottled ghosts and wondering why it wasn't that simple. Eldritch laughter echoed around her, but she wasn't sure that this place was more haunted than any other. If she curled herself into a ball and shut her eyes, she could pretend that she was freefalling, moving so fast that time flattened into an infinite, icy stillness.
Then there was a voice, and she blinked and saw a hand extended to her.
"Let it change," said Ruto. "It's not all tragic. You're not all tragic, either."
She's stopped counting the days that he's been gone. Although the hole he left may never close, she has learned to stop falling into it. The area is roped off, the sign says, "Look but don't linger," and when a fairy flutters into her garden, she doesn't have to cry.
On her desk is a stack of requests from her subjects, asking for advice on handling a crop failure, assistance in choosing where to build the anti-Gerudo outposts, and, naturally, a complaint about a stolen cucco. In the top drawer is an earnest yet anonymous marriage proposal over which she and Ruto still giggle.
The castle, such as it is, has been silent for hours. Wetting her fingers, she extinguishes her candle and dresses herself in the dark. Once she has tugged the last wrapping tight and retrieved her harp, she slips out the open window. The spell remains unspoken. Tonight she needs no intermediaries.
She sets out without a destination, but her feet lead her to a crag overlooking the ruin and the garden. Settling herself against the rock, she lets her fingers meander over her strings. She considers playing her lullaby, or perhaps the melody that first unlocked the temple, then realizes that her strumming is producing its own pleasant tune. She intends to enjoy it.
When Ruto's form, silver in the moonlight, appears in the field, she keeps playing. Princesses have to trust each other to understand. So do runaways and survivors and little girls who learned how to make their own choices. So do friends.
"Did you grow these flowers?" asks the Zora, kneeling beside the garden. "They're beautiful."
They are. And she's ready to accept that.