This story has been half-finished for months. Written for Neowolf, it is intended to be an extra scene we never saw during the credits of the game, after Midna returns to the Twilight Realm and before the scene with Link riding Epona at the end. As Neowolf pointed out, Link is riding away from the village at the end—not toward it—and Ilia is looking after him somewhat sadly.
While I know its probably unrealistic, it occurred to me that without Midna Link and Zelda would be unable to leave the desert. That realization inspired this story in the first place, but I conveniently created a path for them to follow to get out and sidestepped the part about having to be launched up to the cliff by the cannon in order to get out of the lake area.
One last disclaimer: I am assuming Zelda was aware during the time she was inside Midna, so she has memories of many of the events that happened toward the end of the game.
They could have been more prepared for their trip to the desert. While Link seemed well-equipped for any challenge or danger that might confront them, Zelda's thick skirts and delicate shoes were not made for long journeys across sweltering drifts of sand. This being her first visit to the desert in her own body, Zelda had been unprepared for the depth of its unpleasantness.
When it became obvious that Zelda's attire was not suitable for their journey, Link had attempted to facilitate their travel by capturing a boar for her to ride. She had been skeptical of the animal, and had only agreed to ride it if he were riding as well, but one bone-jarring collision with a shoulder of rock half-buried in the sand had been enough to return her skepticism twofold. Though he had not said a word about it, Zelda imagined that Link would have bruises across his midsection from her arms as she clung to him helplessly when the boar charged and subsequently threw them from its back. Link had released the boar soon after the incident at her insistence and she was determined to manage the sand on foot without complaint.
Still, the trip to the desert had been deceptively easy considering Midna's ability to teleport them directly, and Zelda had not thought ahead enough to realize the return trip would be far more difficult. But they had made the decision on short notice, and Zelda hadn't truly had time to think ahead regardless. Midna had been eager to return home, perhaps half out of fear that their hard won method of travel to the Twilight Realm would evaporate before she had the chance to use it, or perhaps—and this was the factor Zelda thought more likely—because she was afraid she would lose her will to leave if she stayed any longer. Though Zelda doubted that Midna would ever voluntarily admit her feelings, she could tell that the Twilight Princess had become rather fond of Link.
Zelda glanced up at the Chosen Hero with a wry smile as they reached the top of another dune, watching the muscles of his back tense through his tunic as one of the worm-like creatures came shrieking out of a furrow of sand toward them. His sword was in his hand before she saw him reach for it, and a few moments later the creature was twitching on the ground. Zelda shivered as she watched its final throes in the shadows of late afternoon, cursing her lack of foresight once again as she thought of passing the night in such a horrid place.
She heard Link shift and caught him glancing back at her, the slight tilt of deference to his head as he looked at her making her frown. "Are you all right?" he asked simply in that quiet, unassuming voice of his. He spoke only rarely, and even when he did speak he said only what needed to be said—a fact which simultaneously inspired respect and frustration in her. Midna had often chuckled inwardly at Link's simple manner as if his guilessness amused her to no end, but Zelda often found his humility to be somewhat frustrating.
Though she had lived her entire life in the shadow of the throne and grown accustomed to being treated with reverence and respect, she was used to the gestures of submission and subservience being matters of expectation rather than symbols of genuine respect. Most of the Hyrulian army was comprised of soldiers with egos larger than their brains and fools interested in glory rather than the defense of their kingdom. Few of them had even been bold enough to show concern when Ganon shrouded the castle in his power. They had not attempted to rescue her, or even bothered to look for a way inside.
And yet, this Chosen Hero, a simple farmer who had journeyed beyond his village for the first time only recently, had conquered the darkness, fought against impossible odds and rescued a complete stranger—a princess he had not even known existed before leaving his secluded village—without even a thought of being thanked for what he'd done. He had no reason to bow to her—had not been raised with the expected customs and manners of the city—and yet he showed his respect for her and her position with every gesture, every word and every consideration for her well-being. But the most extraordinary thing about his deference was that he felt it. His gestures actually had meaning.
"I'm fine," she answered finally, shivering again and rubbing her arms. "But you must be tired. You have been fighting these creatures every step of the way across the desert, and you still haven't fully recovered from your fight with Ganondorf."
Link considered her words silently, his gaze sweeping across the landscape. Finally, he pointed to a large outcropping of rock. "We could rest there for a while. It's not much farther." He glanced at her again with that pleasant, almost timid smile, nearly bowing as he spoke.
She smiled faintly and inclined her head, watching as he turned away immediately as if she had issued an order, looking back only to make sure she was following. Exhaling softly, she began to pick her way across the sand behind him, feeling strangely guilty. She knew that he was stopping for her despite her assurance that she could go on, and while she was grateful for the opportunity to rest, she hated giving into weakness.
The shelf of rock was high enough above the surrounding dunes to thwart any of the desert creatures' attempts to attack them, but because of its height, reaching the top required a bit of climbing. Link managed the leap to the surface easily, but the jump was more than she could accomplish in her heavy skirts. He turned to help her before she had a chance to attempt it though. Grateful for the firm grip of his calloused hand, Zelda allowed him to pull her up almost entirely on his own, realizing that there was little she could do to aid him as her slippered feet scrambled uselessly against the crumbling rock. She didn't like feeling so helpless, but she supposed she should be used to the feeling at this point considering everything she had been through recently.
When she was settled on more solid ground again he removed his steadying touch from her waist, but his hand lingered on hers long enough for her notice his hesitation. She glanced at him curiously, but he released her hand the moment he saw her looking at him; she couldn't be certain, but his cheeks seemed to be more flushed than usual. He quickly turned away from her, gazing out across the shadowy dunes toward the distant glint of Lake Hylia on the horizon.
Sighing, Zelda brushed some of the sand from her skirts, wishing she had more of Midna's boldness. While she was used to dealing with many different kinds of people, she was accustomed to having others approach her with questions, needs or decisions to be made. She was not used to starting conversations, and she had little skill for small talk.
Matters were only made worse by the fact that things were decidedly awkward between her and the savior of her people, and Zelda simply did not know how to make it better. She felt as if she knew Link quite well from observing him through Midna's eyes, but he knew only as much about her as her title implied. Midna had always mediated between them in the past—had been the reason for them knowing each other in the first place. Without her presence, they had no point of reference, few shared memories and little in common at all. And yet, an unidentifiable, undeniable connection still existed between them; she was the chosen ruler of Hyrule and he was its chosen hero—both of their lives were overshadowed by the gods and fate.
To her surprise, Link broke the silence first despite his quiet nature. "Are you hungry?" he asked courteously, offering her a bit of traveling cake he had pulled from one of the pouches at his waist. Shrugging, he added uncomfortably, "It's not much…"
"Thank you," Zelda replied quickly, taking the cake from him with as much regal etiquette as she could manage despite her eagerness to ease his discomfort. Their fingers brushed against each other as the food exchanged hands, and again the awkwardness between them manifested itself like a bolt of energy. Zelda's spine stiffened and their eyes met vivid blue reflecting blue.
He bowed his head slightly and turned away, his hands tracing over his tunic as if to straighten it though it did not need straightening. Zelda found herself frowning again as she nibbled on the cake. The stifling heat of the day was beginning to fade as the sun finally dropped beneath the cliffs bordering the desert, and Zelda wished again that she had been thinking clearly enough before they left to at least change into more appropriate traveling clothes. The temperature would drop as night deepened and they had no fuel for a fire.
Leaning back against an outcropping of rock to lessen the weight on her aching feet, Zelda decided to finally break the silence. "Link," she began quietly, slightly startled by the speed with which he returned his returned his attention to her. "I'm curious. What will you do now that your quest is over? Will you return to Ordon?"
He considered her question with furrowed brows, but answered with an uncertain shrug. "I haven't really thought about it yet."
Nodding in response, Zelda considered what she knew about Link's life in Ordon, remembering his childhood friend who had lost her memory. Link had seemed very concerned about her, and had been clearly relieved when her memories returned, but despite Midna's teasing, he hadn't shown any obvious feelings for her beyond friendship. Still, Zelda couldn't pretend to know him well enough to interpret his feelings with any accuracy.
Watching the faint sparks of stars as they began to peek out of the darkening velvet sky, Zelda wondered why she was so interested in what Link intended to do in the first place. Ever since her father had died, matters of state and the concerns of her people had superceded any personal concerns she might have had. While her duty to her kingdom had been a major portion of her life since childhood, she had found little room for anything else from the moment she became the sole ruler of Hyrule. She rarely had the time to even notice the lack--or her own loneliness--but her time of exile within the twilight prison of Zant's creation had given her more than enough time to reflect upon her self-denial.
"If you choose not to return to your village," she found herself saying, her voice faint on the dusty wind. "I would be eager to offer you a position at the castle. Hyrule is safe again for now, but I would feel better knowing we had a warrior of your caliber to call upon in an emergency." She told herself she was simply being practical—Link was one of the most competent swordsmen she had even seen, after all, and would be an enormous asset to her army, but she certainly didn't want to put any pressure on him.
Link regarded her silently, his expression serious and thoughtful, but did not respond.
"Take as much time as you need to consider it—the offer will remain open indefinitely," she added quickly. "You have already given much of yourself in the service of Hyrule, and I truly have no right to ask anything more."
Shifting his gaze to the tracks of worms racing beneath the dunes beyond their small haven in the desert, he said uncomfortably, "We should probably start moving again." He glanced back at her hesitantly for her approval, but quickly shifted his gaze as soon as she had nodded her head in agreement.
The moon was a distant glow creeping over the horizon by the time they reached the edge of the desert, the night deepening and making travel even more treacherous. Zelda's mind had gone numb with the endless repetition of dragging her feet through the sand though it clung to her relentlessly and seemed to pull her deeper with every labored step. Climbing on a shelf of rock beside Link, she looked out over the ethereal vista before them.
Painted in subtle shades of moonlight, the land below seemed dreamlike and other worldly. For a moment it reminded her of the ethereal beauty of the Twilight Realm. As she looked over the cliff into the dark waters far below, though, Zelda realized that their trek across the desert had been the easy part of the journey.
Frowning at the rocky path leading down to the lake, Link reached for a rope looped around his belt and handed her one end. "The cliff is treacherous," he explained. "This way if you slip you won't fall."
Zelda nodded in understanding, wrapping the rope around her waist. She fumbled with a knot for a moment, but she had never had much experience with such things, and when Link noticed her struggles he reached out to help her. His hands hovering over hers, he hesitated, looking up at her for permission. Smiling sadly, she moved her hands out of the way and gestured for him to continue. Why did it bother her that he always hesitated? Was it only a lack of confidence around a female, or was it truly because of the fact that she was royalty? She appreciated Link's respect, but she didn't want him to feel uncomfortable around her. After all that he had accomplished already he had no need to feel uncertain of himself. She deferred to his judgment in such matters without hesitation.
He deftly tied a knot at her hip, pausing as he tightened it. "Is that too tight?"
"No. Its fine," she replied, placing her hand lightly on top of his. "Thank you."
They began to work their way down the face of the cliff along a path so narrow that at times they had to cling to the rock itself. Zelda's dress was a lost cause at this point, riddled with tears and snags so numerous that the fabric was rough to the touch. Despite the peril of their descent, Zelda slipped only once and Link's rope did its job well and caught her before she could fall out of reach, his Claw Shot buried deep enough within the rock to keep them both from tumbling off the cliff. He hauled her up again quickly, and even allowed her to cling to him for a few moments in relief. She felt ashamed of her weakness as she trembled against him while the unsettling memory of falling helplessly through the air lingered.
Finally, they were standing firmly on solid ground again and walking easily across grassy ground, the gentle lapping of water against the shore a harmless drop of a few meters below reassuring in its proximity. Either sensing her exhaustion or simply acting on his own weariness, Link led her to a cave not far from the shore, scouring the entrance for enemies before he would allow her to enter.
Nearly collapsing against the rough stone ground, Zelda wondered if she would ever be able to gather the energy to move again. By the goddesses, why had she not had the forethought to consider their return journey before traipsing across the world with Midna?
Gathering some brush and piling it up in the center of the cavern, Link said, "The sun should rise in another hour. We should rest until then."
Zelda watched him silently as he built a small fire, drinking in the warmth of the flame hungrily. She was beyond protesting any delays.
"I'll go get some water. You must be thirsty."
Before he could leave, she grasped his forearm lightly and caught his gaze. "I can wait. You should rest."
Startled by her statement, his eyes widened, glowing with the ruddy light of the fire. Then, that quiet smile softening his features again, he turned his arm over and squeezed her hand gently. "I don't mind. I'll be right back."
Despite the fire, the cave felt cold in his absence and she shivered, hugging her arms to herself as she peered into the dark opening at the back of the chamber leading deeper into the cavern. Soft squeaks and the flutters of wings in the distance made her grit her teeth and scoot closer to the fire. Refusing to be unprepared, she gathered a few of the stones scattered across the ground and waited for any of the creatures hiding in the darkness to make a move.
Her eyes straining to make out any shape beyond the circle of firelight, she was taut with tension by the time one of the bats finally dove out of the shadows toward her. Flinging a stone at it and gathering more with her other hand, she fended of the attack of several more bats, but the moment of victory was brief.
The slap of something large and wet landing on the ground made the hairs rise on the back of her neck. Fear coiled in her stomach when she realized that there were no other weapons within reach. Something amorphous slithered into the chamber, radiating a sickly chartreuse glow as it rolled and squelched its way toward her. Before she could even scramble to her feet and run, a silhouette leapt toward the thing from behind her. Breathing in relief when she saw Link's profile as he sliced his sword effortlessly through the creature, she gasped when it split in two smaller--but still menacing--shapes.
Link seemed unconcerned, sweeping his sword in a broad arc and raising dust as the blade cut through the air. The creatures made one last sound of protest before dissolving in a burst of light and smoke. Sheathing his sword with a flourish, Link immediately turned his attention to her. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. I think so."
Glancing at the tunnel beyond the cave, he frowned. "I should have explored more to make sure it was safe before I left you here alone."
Waving her hand dismissively, Zelda rose to her feet and dusted off her skirts more out of habit than need. "You were there to protect me when I needed you."
He nodded, though his expression was still troubled.
She took the bottle of water he offered her and it seemed to wash away some of her exhaustion. "Shall we go?" she asked, handing the bottle back to him.
The sun was well into the sky by the time they reached the crumbling stone bridge that arched above Lake Hylia. They were close to their destination now, and though Zelda was eager to get back to the castle and surrender to sleep for a day at least, she was saddened by the prospect of parting ways with her gentle guardian.
Zelda watched as Link used a small flute to call his horse, remembering where the flute had come from and feeling suddenly very selfish for wishing to enjoy his company a little longer. Link had a home to return to and she had no right to ask him to stay. He had already served Hyrule far beyond what was required; he deserved the chance to live a peaceful life in his hometown with the girl who seemed to care for him so deeply.
Despite the guilt choking her throat, she couldn't summon the will to retract her offer of a position at the castle. Instead, she remained silent when he smiled at her and gathered the reins of his horse up in his hands oblivious to her troubled thoughts.
Epona seemed excited to see him, nuzzling his shoulder as he brushed his fingers through her mane. Mounting smoothly, he immediately reached a hand back down to help her up.
She allowed him to pull her up behind him, leaning in close and holding onto his waist for reassurance as he nudged Epona into a trot. Riding behind him brought back memories of their recent fight; the tension she had felt in his back as they raced after Ganon, the desperation in her attempts to make their enemy pause with her holy arrows before he sent more phantoms after them. Shaking the memory away, she indulged herself for a moment by resting her forehead against Link's shoulder, surprised to find the musky aroma of sweat and sand embedded in his tunic comforting.
She was already nodding off when he slowed Epona's canter back down to a walk at the entrance to Castle Town. He shifted to look back at her, and she quickly pulled away from him in embarrassment. Trying to regain her poise, she started to slide off Epona's back with as much grace as she could manage, but before she could get far he caught her arm and slowed her descent, making certain she was on her feet before he released his grip.
Gathering her wits, she looked up at him silently for a moment, unable to voice the miasma of emotion swirling inside of her. "I don't have the words to thank you for all that you've done, Link, but I will be eternally grateful to you for saving this kingdom. If there is ever anything you need, please don't hesitate to ask. Anything in this kingdom is yours for the asking."
His lips parted slightly and he seemed about to say something, but he closed them again without saying a word, merely bowing his head deeply.
Forcing herself not to look back, Zelda turned and climbed the steps toward the town, listening to the sound of Epona's hooves shuffling against the ground as the Hero of Hyrule turned to go as well. This was for the best. Hyrule was safe for the moment and could survive without a hero until the next crisis.
Epona huffed impatiently, but did not take off as she had been expecting. When Zelda was halfway across the bridge she heard boots land against the wood behind her. Turning in surprise, she saw Link jogging after her, his brows drawn together in an expression of apprehension mixed with earnestness.
"Princess," he called tentatively, out of breath despite the fact that the exertion should not have winded him. "I have to go back to Ordon," he began, his blue eyes watching her attentively. "There are some things I need to do…but I'll be back. I accept the position at the castle."
Caught completely off guard, Zelda managed to stammer, "I'm pleased to hear that."
Swallowing as if to gather his courage, he licked his lips and drew a deep breath as he added, "There's something else."
She raised her eyebrows, completely unprepared for his sudden boldness—but far from displeased.
"You said that I could have anything…" His eyes darted away from hers and his hands clenched at his sides.
"Yes. Of course." She couldn't begin to fathom where he was going with this, but whatever it was he wanted seemed to be very important to him.
When he looked at her again, she was stunned by the force of his gaze. Frozen in place, she watched him move toward her sluggishly as if in a dream, never breaking eye contact until the last moment. He pressed a kiss against her cheek and her hands reached up to grasp at his tunic reflexively before he could pull away. Her eyes sliding shut, she turned her head until their lips met, all of her doubts forgotten.
That small, sweet smile of his was curving his lips again when he broke the kiss, looking at her with such childlike awe that she shivered under the scrutiny. Reluctantly, she released her hold on him as he stepped away slowly.
"I'll be back," he whispered assuredly.
She could only nod mutely and watch as he walked away.
"I'll be waiting," she said as the dust settled in the road behind Epona's hooves.
Author's Note: I hope it wasn't too cheesey… Bringing this story out again made me want to play the game all over again. Waiting twelve hours in the cold for a Wii was well worth it.
Also, it's my opinion—despite the Zelda cartoon of way-back-when—that Link is a rather innocent and unassuming young man. I see him as the type who would be uncomfortable approaching a girl he liked. And I think Zelda is fairly naive in her own way as well. They're just so cute it hurts. Anyway, feel free to let me know what you think about the whole thing. I'd love to hear your feedback.