It was a scene so unrelentingly classic that she thought it might be a painting hanging somewhere in her halls: the Hero presented to the Princess Zelda, before her throne and on one knee, head bent and alone - the green of his tunic was the same green that it always was and always would be, his hands the same clutching the overdue sword of Ordon that should have been delivered so long ago. Even the crowd murmured in appreciation to the picture it made: and when she took the sword from him, to sheath it at her hip, they cheered. And he stood and bowed to her, and when he smiled, she reflected that she didn't know him and maybe never would.
It was something that tugged at her mind as she watched him take the seat of honour to the side of the throne, a little uncomfortable among all the gilt - that his journey had not been hers, and her ancestors had played a role far different to her own. One of her ancestors had liked her own Hero so well that she made him the captain of the guard, and her own personal knight: she couldn't even fathom that idea, for either him or her. He was just a boy! - And then he wasn't: a man, in total, absolutely. And then again, never a man: nothing so much as a wolf who was wearing skin, bucking against being trapped in a muggy room with overdressed humans. And she was ever aware that, above all else, she was not his Princess.
Zelda would have known that even if her own self hadn't spent intimate time in Midna's chest - had she not got her spirit back with Midna imprinted all over it, Midna's hot and fierce heart, still whispering in the back of her throat with Midna's dark, whispery secrets. The shadow of a shadow, faint and getting fainter, as what was innately Zelda imprinted over the sometime-carrier of her life force. Eee hee hee! the ghost cackled. You sit on his smelly flea-ridden back all day and all night, and then you can call yourself this idiot's Princess! Too bad! I was there first!
Midna, she said silently, to a woman who wasn't even there - Midna, why -
You chose your state of affairs, and I chose mine.
I'm not impugning your choice.
Just the way I chose it, huh? Eee hee -
- Midna -
If I had been gentle, Princess, said the whisper, I would have given myself over to the Light before I knew what I was doing. And then it was silent.
"Your Highness, you're all right... yeah?"
In the court pre-Twilight, Ashei would probably have been sent to rusticate all the way back to Snowpeak for her coarseness of tongue: but this was after the assault, with so many of her courtiers dead or fled, and nobody to school any of Ashei's perceived insolence. Despite everything, Zelda was finding a certain fondness for the new knight: nobody could fault the woman's courage or forebearance. Her broken arm was still in a sling, from the ferocious fight that her rebels had put up against the bublins in the castle. Manners could come in time.
"I was a million miles away."
"Yeah, you looked it."
"Is there nobody else?"
The crowd had all filed away - had she gone through their requests and hearings in such a daze? Ashei looked all the more relieved for their leaving, anyway; and as she looked over, so did Link. Well. It wasn't as if his expression or demeanour had actually changed to any great degree, and at first she had thought well of his poise - he was just a country boy, after all.
It wasn't poise at all, she thought, and watched him stare straight ahead into nothing. He was not so much a million miles away as in another world.
"Nobody else," confirmed the woman, with one toss of her dark hair. There was a slightly eerie silence, of the dusty and slightly-broken throneroom, its hurts hastily covered over to try to present a good front - Midna and Ganon had left deep scarring from their titanic battle, which was only shallowly patched. (Oh, cry me a river and buy new furniture, said the voice slyly.) "Uh, should we stop for lunch?"
"It might be for the best."
"Yeah, I'm starving," agreed Ashei, with a little relief. (Zelda made a mental note that in the girl's polishing, they would begin with 'yeah'.) "Come on, Link, look sharp. Let's go wash up - "
He did not go to wash up. When he left his chair, he did not move towards the door: he planted himself down in front of the throne with his usual silence, his language of expression, on one knee as though he were presenting her with a sword all over again. Zelda waved a slightly startled Ashei out of the room - with minimum of huffing as she tried to close the great doors herself, gave up, and stomped away to lunch - before she stood.
"I think," Zelda said quietly, "that you only came to give me the sword to speak to me."
For a moment, he did not change position. And then he sank to the other knee, like a child or a supplicant, and looked at her - and had he always been so blank with such grief? (Damn you, Midna! she cursed inwardly, and received only silence for her pains.) The Hero she had met - filthy, sweatstained, furious and alive as she nocked her arrows over and over again as they rode - had been somebody she had admired: a boy shedding himself into more than a man, courage itself, the Divine Beast. Polite as he was, this was just a lost man, and she pitied him to the very depths of her heart.
"I think that Midna is a trial to live with, but a greater trial to live without, is she not?" (It was probably cowardice to address the curtains, but his expression was more than she could bear.) What was she doing? How could she counsel him? She had lost Midna as somebody who she had started to consider a friend; an equal, a saviour, and her regret at what might have been was great. He had lost his left hand. She just sounded like a fool, which was a fine thing for the bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom. "It was the great depths of selflessness that she did what she did."
I was afraid, said the voice.
"... and I think you should know, that in her actions..."
Afraid of him, for part of it, said her voice.
"... she did it for you."
It was the first time she had heard his voice, and she had to turn back sharply to make sure it was him: it was a little husky, a little curt, as if he was not used to saying anything.
"Because she loved you more than I think she thought herself capable of loving another living thing," said Zelda. (Boy, are you lucky I'm just a voice in your head, or I would be really resenting this, was the inevitable response.) "She did it to protect you - and to protect her world. You've seen how Midna acts with the things she loves." She did not expect his joy at being told he was loved; he just dropped his head and put a hand over his face, as if his expression was too private for the bright and open day. "Do not think yourself somebody who should not be protected. She wished for you to have one world, and not be caught eternally between it and another. And she wanted you to lead - a normal life."
Are you ever sticking words in my mouth.
What could she say to that? Are you telling me you didn't want that for him?
No, said the remnants of Midna. I wanted to see him every evening and every morning, and every night and every day, to go where he went and to leave with him following. I wanted to suffer when he suffered, to laugh when he smiled, to take up his arms and to devour all his hushes and silences. I am telling you that I am so bored and so in love with him that I would spend infinity to watch him eat his breakfast when he woke up and chew sticks after each meal - yes, he chews sticks! It started to drive me nuts! He's such a farm boy! And he burps - and he scratches himself, and no matter what you do he doesn't get mad, he just sits there and smiles at you like a moron! I'd never seen anything like it! I yelled at him and he liked it! And he chews with his mouth open and - and he looked at me like - like he would have done anything for me. And if I'd given him five more minutes at the desert he would have asked me to go with him and then where would we have been? He makes me feel like some kind of idiot teenager, and that was when I was a creepy little imp!
He went through everything for me... for my people, just because they were mine... everything...
... but I know what duty is, Princess.
It must have been Midna's frustration and her own intersecting, because Zelda seldom cried; she was surprised to suddenly find salt on her cheeks, brushing the tears away with her fingertips as quickly as they had appeared. It was so hard to be gentle: another thing she'd had in common with Midna, another reason why she missed what had never even really been there, some sort of sisterhood-in-arms. If she had been younger, she might have cried aloud, I miss her too! and maybe Link would have liked her the better for it. As it was, she was silent as a stone.
He should have gone to Telma, said the voice. You and I don't know the first thing about love, Princess, do we? Eee hee!
"I would've protected the mirror and the Twili until I died," he said, and it was the longest thing that she would probably ever hear him say.
"I know," she said softly, "but she was - is - very proud."
And what to say after that, when everything that could have been said was already spoken? The best thing to say - the wise thing to say - would have been: go home, Link! Go home to the province and herd goats and live simply. But somehow her hands found the clanking linen bundle that she kept at the throne as a reminder - of shared duty - and she gave it to him: his tough fingers made nothing of the knots, and he started as he drew the cracked stones from the wrapper.
"I never could find the rest of her helmet," Zelda said. "But this is what was left. You have more right to it than I do."
There was another stone in it apart from her helm, that his hand curled around: red and black and unlovely, and he clenched it until his knuckles went white, but then he suddenly smiled. It was the first actual smile that she had seen him give ever since Midna had broken the mirror, and it somehow gave him the strength to stand - gathering the pieces - brilliant, blue-eyed, defiant, stubborn. (Had this been what Midna had seen? - )
You better believe it.
"The sword is yours, too," she said, and took it from her side. He hesitated, possibly on Ordon's own behalf. "I have my own, Link. Take it as my gift - it knows you; you've shed blood with it, it would never sit well in my hand. Take it. Please."
In taking it, and in sheathing it again in the empty scabbard by his side, he answered all that she had not even asked. A rancher didn't have any need for a sword, except maybe to hang washing on. He would never be a farmer again. "And tell them before you leave," she added, and he had the grace to blush. "Abandonment should not beget abandonment."
The bow that he gave her this time was more graceful than the one he had given her before: and he was still not happy, and maybe he would never be happy as he had once known happiness, but she had delivered him something better than despair and a home that was no longer his. And maybe, after all, he'd come to her only to confirm his decision; he had never truly gone home, and never could. And because of that, she took his hand and squeezed it, and he squeezed it in turn. Man to man, as absurd as that was - warrior to warrior, and she found it within her to smile at him.
"Whatever happens, live not in despair."
"I swear to you," he said, and they were the last words he said to her.
Oh, Princess, whispered the voice in her head - as Link turned away and down the carpet, sword swinging at his side, to walk away out of the doors and into the hallway and away from everything - do you know what you've condemned him to?
"Only what you left him with, Midna," she said aloud. "He's young and in love."
"Whoo-ooa!" Ashei, red-faced and sword already drawn, stuck her head through the ajar doors to stare at Zelda in frank bewilderment. Her dark eyes were enormous. "Your Highness, there's the biggest damn wolf who just walked down the damn stairs, yeah? It's the size of a pony, I'm not joking - "
Eee hee, my beast! He worked that one out quicker than I thought he would.
"Tell the guards to let it pass."
"Your Highness - "
Absurdly, Zelda laughed, and she hadn't laughed since it all began - thought perhaps she wouldn't laugh again. "Tell the whole city to let it pass. Tell all of Hyrule."
The noise of the guards - their fear, their bemusement, the general ruckus - was starting to get louder, with Ashei yelling at them in ringing tones her orders: down the line, passing down the line. He should have waited, said a part of her brain: and then the other half said, sometimes you can't wait. (And it was not Midna, not any more, not wholly. What was herself had assaulted the last clutches - the very last clutches.)
"Let all let him pass," she added unnecessarily to thin air, and she sat back down in her throne.
He's a dog in his heart, you know, said the last vestiges of the other soul.
"Dog or wolf, Midna, what does it matter?"
Dogs, Princess - dogs wait forever! (And the voice was gone.)
Zelda crossed over to her window: it was a hot afternoon, bright with balmy sunshine, with the faint sharp scent of tar from the repairs being done on the castle. And there, over the pitted lawn, a wolf was dodging the lances of the Hyrulian guard to skirt out and down the stairs for ever, for ever, for ever. Then he was out of sight as well - leaving her puffing soldiers, starting up far-off screams of terror from the square and the stylish shoppers of the early evening who did not know that they were fleeing from what had saved them. Did they even know, really, that they'd been saved? - and did they need to know? Did anyone?
Somewhere, the Twilight Princess was waiting despite everything; and Link was waiting, and in her own way, so was she. For what? For grace, maybe, for the rest of everything to begin and start fresh. Dogs us all, Goddesses, she thought, and life went on.