Disclaimer: I do not own the rights or persons hereby depicted. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is the sole property of Nintendo. Any inconsistencies in game events alluded to in the following are mine alone.
Author's Note: Special thanks to Superbleh11 for the wonderful review of Forgotten Memories! Your support and feedback gave me the courage to put this up here.
Queen Zelda was distinctly displeased.
She sat behind her wide mahogany desk, one slender finger tapping the paper centered on the blotter. It was her only outward sign of discontent, and she kept her face composed as she listened to Link's report. She focused on his words, the rhythm and cadence of them, but took little of her customary pleasure in listening to his voice. It was a voice that suited him, with his hair blond as summer hay, his blue eyes calm as Lake Hylia on a late spring morning in a face both youthful and wise.
It was a voice that suited the room, her personal office with its soothing jade greens and pale pinks over the dull gray stone quarried from the eastern reaches of Hyrule. How often had she sat just here, listening to Link report on the status of the troops or the progress of current projects? How often had they sat in the pretty sitting area on a winter's evening, mugs of steaming tea and a tray of small cakes on the low cherry wood table, spending a companionable hour in each other's company?
He had never shown the smallest hint of discontent, had never hinted at an inner restlessness or dissatisfaction with his life. Oh, he had spoken fondly of his summers in Ordon, and the way he depicted those months in his childhood home painted a mental image for Zelda, one she could retreat into whenever her own life threatened to submerge her with responsibilities and loneliness.
Could he not see how much she relied on him, for so much more than simple training of the Hylian soldiers? Could he not see how much she needed him?
Across the desk, Link tried not to fidget in the straight-backed chair. Queen Zelda was something of a friend to him, and he had certainly known her for as long as he knew anyone in Castle Town. He hated the dark curling of loathing under his heart. Self-directed loathing, because he knew he was letting her down. He'd known he was dooming her to disappointment when he'd ridden into the city that morning and requested an audience.
And as testament to their closeness, she had invited him here, to her personal chambers, rather than the more formal audience hall where she entertained foreign dignitaries and locals come to petition for her good graces.
Yet with every word he spoke, he was hurting her.
"I understand we never set a limit on my services," Link concluded. He wished he could read her face, but Zelda looked as impassive and distant as when they'd first met. There was a wall between them, tangible as the cool stones beneath his feet. "I'm willing, of course, to continue to serve Hyrule, but in a more limited capacity. Ilia needs me home the entire year. She deserves that." I do, too. It almost slipped out, but he held back the words. He wasn't entitled, he reminded himself. He was Hero of Hyrule, and everything that entailed. Entitlement simply didn't play a part. "I hope you can understand."
Zelda couldn't fight the small barbs of betrayal. "And how about what I deserve, Link?" He looked completely lost. It was such a patently Link expression, one of such innocence, Zelda could almost smile. Almost. "Have you thought about what the people of Hyrule deserve from you?"
Link looked down at his hands. He saw, as he always did, the faintest outline of the Triforce of Courage on the back of his left hand, felt the weight of it. "I have," he said. He lifted his eyes to Zelda's, read the hurt and recrimination. She had never been particularly adept at masking her true emotions from him. "I have," he repeated, because she looked like she doubted him. "I've given up the chance at having a normal life for nearly ten years, for the good of all of Hyrule. Now I've been given the chance to do something for the good of one person. The person who means more to me than anyone," he murmured. The glow spread from his heart outward, warming him, as he thought of Ilia. "I want to do right for her."
Now, alongside the hurt was envy. Zelda's fingers curled into a loose fist, and she casually linked her hands in her lap so Link wouldn't see the evidence of her inner struggles. "You understand your duties during winter training are not so easily transferable. We would have to find a replacement."
He hated that prim, formal tone of her voice, hated that he felt the need to reply in kind. "I believe Tanner is more than capable of assuming the bulk of my duties, and Captain Brooks is well aware of the general training schedule." He named two of his wintertime friends and fellow training masters at the castle. "Ilia agreed that it would be fair if I spent a small measure of time in training sessions." Her concessions had been grudging and hard-won, and extended to a single two-week trip once a year. But it was better than nothing.
"Better some than nothing at all?" Zelda lifted an eyebrow. She struggled with the sense of abandonment. As queen, she was well used to disappointment, as well as the oftentimes overwhelming need to stand alone, but it was a surprising blow to have to face it from such an unexpected source. Lies had never worked with Link, and she sighed, suddenly tired. "I never thought this day would come, Link. I thought I could depend on you."
The dart was well-aimed, and Link scrubbed a hand over his face. "Well, ouch. We talked, last winter, the year before, about how we could alter my current schedule. I can't keep living like this indefinitely, half here, half in Ordon." He shook his head. "I don't want to, and it's not fair. It's not fair to me, Zelda."
Zelda looked down at the papers on her desk. The words were meticulously written in his slow, careful script. The pages were the thick, yellow parchment used in the humbler villages where the technology to refine and bleach fibers had not yet spread. On the paper was a detailed accounting of his responsibilities, as well as a plan for disseminating his duties among those in the castle. Link was nothing if not thorough. "You're asking for an immediate judgment on a difficult proposition," she said. "Have you spoken to Tanner or Captain Brooks?"
"No. I felt it best that I come to you first, and, with your approval, approach them regarding the matter." Link wished his shoulders weren't so stiff. Weren't they friends? But even friendship, he knew, had boundaries. "I think they would both be willing, at least for this winter, to work this out." Tanner, in particular, had teased Link the past few years about settling down, finding himself a nice girl, creating roots. The older man had a wife and children of his own. He would understand.
"This winter?" Zelda blinked in shock. She wondered where she had been that this bit of information had slipped past her. "You want this to start immediately?"
No, Link thought wearily, and strove to help Zelda understand. He wanted it to stop.
Link left Zelda's private chambers with a tension headache that drew the muscles from temple to temple as taut as the skin of a Goron ceremonial drum. It felt as if Gor Coron were beating his champion-wrestler fists on that drum, and every reverberation sent shock waves through Link's entire body.
He'd agreed to give her a full day to think about his requests and discuss them with her advisors. Link tried not to resent her for the position she put him in. Why should he have to ask to have a life? Why didn't he have the right to choose to live his life the way he saw fit, without having to confirm his every decision with her? Like he was some untrustworthy child needing his parents' approval.
Zelda had ordered that his rooms be cleaned and prepped for his use, but Link didn't head down the corridor now. He had the better part of the afternoon left and no inclination to spend the hours brooding. Both Tanner and Captain Brooks were in the field, which meant they were heading lessons or training sessions with the new recruits. Link would talk to them both after the evening meal.
In the meantime, he strode out of the castle, ignoring the guards who saluted them as he clattered down the flight of stairs to the town square. Town circle was more accurate, as the central market centered around the fountain that streamed delicate arcs of water from carved stone ornamentation. Shops lined the curved outer sidewalks, fancy boutiques and elegant cafes that made up the mainstay of town life.
Link skirted the more crowded center. Voices rose around him, some greeting him by name or title, others engaged in conversation. Ladies in prim hats and starched dresses, the height of city fashion, coasted over the cobblestones like proud ships in harbor. Children, giggling madly, dashed out of the sweets shop, candy fisted in their hands as they raced off to secret dens to glut themselves on their prizes.
The grin tugged at Link's mouth as he crossed the square and headed south. The shop that Malo, entrepreneurial baby that he was, had once run was replaced by a snooty tailor's shop. Hyrule, Link mused as he entered the open-air market of South Town, had certainly prospered. In the past decade, the kingdom had flourished, both internally and externally, with the sudden flood of foreign trade from the ports to the northeast. The Zora people were indispensable sea navigators, and with their expertise, Hylian merchants had successfully laid the groundwork for a booming naval trade.
Link felt more at home in South Town than the high-society airs of the central district. Here the middle class made their daily purchases of bread and staples from the vendors who lined the way. Scents of roasted meat on skewers and fresh-baked rolls spiced the air, mingling with the perfume of flowers from the flower girl who sang cheerily while she made up bouquets. The Goron hot water tent was busy, as always, and Link exchanged a casual wave to the proprietors as he ducked down the side alley.
Telma's Bar was a modest establishment, but day or night, Link had never known the tavern to be quiet.
Midday in midsummer, and the bar was packed. Link eased his way towards the bar, where Telma herself reigned over tap and bottles. The clientele was exclusively male, and Link spotted a number of soldiers in the crowds downing foamy-headed mugs of ale. He decided against looking too closely, because several of those soldiers were likely skipping out on their duties to share a drink with their pals.
Telma's ancient, sly-eyed cat uncurled from an embroidered cushion of purple satin at the end of the bar. The rumbling purr of greeting went unheard in the general din as voices vied for supremacy, and Link leaned against the counter, stroking a hand over the once-plump cat. He had fond memories of Louise. She had been instrumental in helping him sneak back into the castle during his adventures against the forces of darkness, showing him a little-known secret entrance through the roof of the bar.
The bartender glanced over, and surprise flickered over her cagily female face. Her hair was a shock of radish-red, teased into a waving mane to accent features just going soft with middle age. Her tunic was low-cut and snug, showing to advantage her formidable bust, which Link remembered had both delighted and flummoxed him as a teen.
She had a trio of tattoos under both eyes, and a smile as wide as the backside of an Ordon workhorse.
Her voice shook the rafters. "Well, looky here! If it ain't Mister Hero himself!"
For a woman of her bulk, Telma moved with both surprising swiftness and grace. She used her long arms to her advantage and reached right across the bar to grab Link into a tight embrace that put him entirely too close to her flummoxing bosom than was comfortable. Her laughter roared out, and she planted a noisy kiss on his cheek. "Look at you," she proclaimed, as she always did, and held him out at arm's length. Humor crossed her eyes and she announced to the quieted ensemble, "Well, well, I'll be twixed," she murmured. "You're here to tell us big news, aren't you, honey?"
Link grinned at Telma even as he wiped the kiss off his cheek. He was sincerely fond of the loud-mouthed, no-nonsense woman, and her welcome was worth the long ride and miserable cold every winter he spent in Hyrule Castle. "You look good," he said, because it was the truth, as it always was. "Not a day older than I last saw you."
She shook her finger at him, then reached down to pet Louise when the cat nudged up against her elbow, demanding attention. "Not that long ago you last saw me, either. Had to look twice, make sure it was you. Not too many gorgeous blue-eyed men around here." The withering glance she sent around the room had a number of soldiers' shoulders hunching in defense. Telma looked back at Link. "You don't come 'round here summertimes, not as a rule. The queen got something going for you?"
Shaking his head, Link slid a sideways glance at the too-interested crowd. Telma understood right away, and casually reached down to pour him a tankard of beer. "Fresh from Gerudo Desert," she said, and slid it across to him. Link took a first sampling sip, testing. "Nice and light, easy on the way down."
"Citrusy," Link said. He took a longer draught. "Not bad." They talked of mundane topics, and attention slowly drifted away from them. Conversations resumed, and the noise level returned to its usual fervor. Somewhere, Link heard a heated argument over the outcome of the upcoming Goron Marathon. He just shook his head. It wouldn't be Darbus or the fleet-footed sand runners from the desert fringes this year, either, he thought.
It was the Postman.
Link picked up his tankard, worked his way down to the end of the bar and slipped behind the counter. Telma leaned against the back wall, where old bottles of special vintages sat in cubbyholes. She pulled a stained rag out of the waistband of her short apron, ran it over the polished countertop.
"So, you going to tell me what brings you here, sonny?"
Her eyes were kind. He'd never known them not to be. Link downed the last of his beer, set the tankard aside. "Ilia and I are getting married."
Telma's eyes filled, and she grabbed him in another fierce hug. This time Link managed to reciprocate, but he kept his mind firmly on Zelda's earlier displeasure. As the hug stretched on, he scrambled to recite basic arithmetic tables. It kept him from breaking out into a sweat like a pubescent male until she released him and he could breathe again.
She kept her voice down to stave off eavesdropping. "About time," she said, and gave him a hearty pat on the back. "So where is she?"
"In Ordon." Link grinned as Telma looked around her bar, as if Ilia could have snuck in without her noticing. Females were rare in Telma's domain, and their entrance was, without fail, heralded by catcalls and whistles. "She didn't come with me, Telma."
"Well." Telma folded the rag onto the counter, then turned to shout at a demanding customer, "Just hold your horses, Thompson! Your beer will get there when it gets there!" To Link she muttered, "Damn out-of-towners. Think they run the place. The queen give you grief?"
Telma's mind worked in ways that constantly amazed Link. You never had to tell her anything twice for her to catch on, and oftentimes you didn't have to tell her the first time. "Some," he admitted. Because it was her, he could say it. "Claims I'm disappointing her, reminded me of my duty to the people of Hyrule. She said the people deserve someone they can count on." His face clouded as the bitterness rose up inside him, fast and unexpected. "They never asked me."
"I know." Telma ran a hand over Link's head, soothing him like she would a child, or her ruffled cat. "We never did, and you've borne it alone too long." Her eyes gleamed as she looked off into the distance. "You did a great thing. A great thing for any man, but you didn't do it for Hyrule." She fixed her eyes on his with undeniable power. "You did it for her."
Link's heart warmed at her simple words, and he couldn't stop the sappy grin. "I did," he agreed. "You're probably the only person who knows the truth of it."
"I saw you, didn't I?" Telma's shrug was casual, but her throat was tight at the poignancy of memory. Her own childhood sweetheart was gone, prey to the fate of an ill-trained soldier, years and years ago, and her one-time attraction to the mysterious leader of Kakariko Village had gone unrequited and dry. But the memory of Link when she'd first seen him would live forever with her, and warmed her against the chill of the long winter nights.
The bar was closed. It was a rare occasion for her, but the circumstances warranted the unusual procedure. The girl, with her sad green eyes and quiet, competent manner, was a handy waitress, serving beer and stronger drinks to the rowdy patrons without a single flinch or hesitation. But she didn't know her name, and Telma knew, despite her lighthearted manner, there were shadows that haunted her.
Telma didn't know what those shadows were until Link. Ilia had found a wounded Zora child and brought him in to treat his wounds. Her competency extended to this arena as well, and Telma, no stranger to field dressings herself, had been relegated to assistant compared to Ilia's mastery of the healing arts. They were dealing with the boy's wounds when Link came in.
And the look Link sent Ilia—one of hope and heartbreak—was etched in Telma's memory. It was the emotions behind that look that had given Link the strength, and the purpose, to traverse the entire nation to find the memories Ilia had lost.
Telma smiled a little at Link. "You couldn't see your face, sonny, when you saw her again. I did. I know. You never did a single thing for the good of Hyrule. You did it for her. Every last minute was for her."
It was the truth. Link closed his eyes briefly. Telma was a better soothsayer than the turbaned self-proclaimed fortune teller in the lower city. He met Telma's eyes with a small smile. "I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse about everything. Was I a real man, then, or was I being selfish?"
Laughing, Telma gave him another thump that would have felled an old-growth oak. "You're more of a man than any I've ever known," she affirmed. "And I say it's high time you got on being selfish. Ten years it's been, you spending winters here, hasn't it?"
"Ten this year," Link confirmed. He shied away from the passage of time. "Zelda is…displeased with my decision."
The noise Telma made was the verbal equivalent of a sneer. "Oh, please. She couldn't very well expect you to happily spend the rest of your life as a shadow, could she?" She misinterpreted the look on Link's face, explaining, "You know, half here, half there, never really either place."
"Yeah," Link said faintly, but it wasn't so much confusion as surprise. And an uncomfortable jolt of the past. Shadows, he thought. Ten years ago, he'd spent more time than he could count in the shadows.
Ten years ago, and yet still the mention of darkness could send him right back.
And the idea of that wasn't all bad.
Telma rubbed a hand over his shoulder, moving to answer the increasingly irritated shouts for refills. "Don't you worry," she told him with a quick grin. "You didn't let anything stop you back then. You won't let anything stop you now."
Sometimes, Link wished things could be the way they were, ten years ago, when he'd been young and impulsive and burdened with the fate of his country.
Somehow, even with the shadows, things had been simpler then.
He spent a very entertaining and enjoyable afternoon at the bar, mingling with the patrons he knew from his winters in the city. Most were surprised to see him there off season, but he slid by with vague explanations. He placed a bet with the narrow-faced proprietor of the antiques shop in East Town, who ran an underground pool, and put a week's pay on the Postman in the end-of-season Goron Marathon.
"He's getting on in his years," Rasta, the antiques shop owner, cautioned. His spidery fingers nabbed the money out of Link's hand, but his pale eyes were shrewd on Link's face. "You're at six-to-one odds. Favorite's that sand runner who placed last year, Temple."
Link shrugged negligently and grinned at the others crowded around. "Nobody beats the Postman," he said simply. "The man's a fanatic. The day they beat him is the day he drops dead on the course."
"Rock climbing," someone suggested, and was immediately refuted.
"Nah, he'd clear that fine. Probably the lava jumping. Heat saps the strength."
A third man grumbled, "Keel over the finish line, out of spite. Champion, posthumously."
That brought a round of laughter, and Link just slipped his hands into the front pockets of his trousers. "Just you watch," he promised. "I'll be sitting at home and congratulating myself while you cry and drink away your pain." With that, he turned and whistled off, cheered by the interaction.
He waved to Telma, wiggled his fingers at Louise in a way that had the cat's ears pricking in interest. The cat might be old, Link mused as he headed down the darkened alley, but she was feisty. She had a penchant for play-nipping at fingers, and even her advanced age hadn't dulled her agility any.
The south roads were quiet in the gathering evening. Link's belly was pleasantly full from an afternoon of nibbling at Telma's bar food. In recent years, she'd added on a small kitchen and doled out a simple, cheap fare in addition to drinks. The cook was a stubby woman who wouldn't use two words if one would do and had the personality of an emaciated lemon, but she knew how to cook.
The trainees would be back at the castle by now, he calculated. If they'd been out riding, they would be in the stables, caring for their mounts and tack. A trainee's day never ended. After the stables and a quick bath, they'd head into the mess hall for a meal, then after dinner lessons until dark. Then it was off to bed for a meager six hours' sleep before pre-dawn wake-ups.
Link knew the schedule, to the minute. It was, after all, his life, too.
But for now, he made his way past the guards flanking the main gates and wound his way around the gardens to the stables. The head groomsman, Rowe, was an old friend, and Link had a special round of Ordon goat cheese for the man. Rowe was one of the few people in the city Epona was fond of, and when he was working in the pasture, she would often drowse nearby.
Link could hear both Rowe and Tanner as he approached the stables. The double doors were slid open, so light and sound and smell poured out into the evening air. Motes of hay and horsehair dust floated in the golden light from wall lanterns, and Link inhaled the familiar and soothing scents of horse sweat, clean straw, and the dry-oats smell of feed and leather.
Tanner's voice boomed like falling stones. "That how you curry a horse, Farrell? That how you treat the creature your life'll someday depend on?" His hectoring voice didn't dim as Link stepped into the stables. Tanner leaned over the closed half-door of a stall. Link often thought that if Tanner leaned a little too hard on anything not made of solid stone, it would simply give up and topple over. No doubt the trainee in question could feel the echoes of Tanner's voice in the marrow of his bones.
At the far end of the barn, Rowe harangued another hapless trainee. Link sighed, as he often did, as he contemplated the state of the Hylian soldiers. They had come a long way since he'd assumed half-time training duties, but…still. There was only so much one man could do against a culture of ingrained cowardice.
Despite his best efforts, Link couldn't stop himself from peering into the nearest stall to inspect the trainee's grooming skills. The trainee could have been any one of countless trainees Link had seen: light-haired, pale-skinned, with an air of indolence Link was unaccustomed to seeing in trainees. Of course, he mused, by the time he got to the city in winter, the truly lazy ones had either dropped out or been retrained to a common level of aptitude.
"Trainee," he said, keeping his voice mild. The kid—he was just a kid, no older than sixteen—jerked his head up. His eyes went wide, the jaw slack. If Link weren't so used to that exact expression the first time he met trainees, he would have spun around to meet the implied attack. "You're holding the wrong end of the hoof pick."
The trainee looked down immediately, flushing a bright red at the sight of his mistake. Even as he fumbled the tool around, he looked back up, but Link was gone.
Tanner caught sight of Link and, much as Telma had, roared in welcome. Unlike Telma, however, he charged down the aisle. Link imagined nails in the infrastructure rattling loose at the approach and braced himself for the impact.
Thankfully, Tanner managed to arrest forward momentum just short of battering Link into tomorrow. His meaty arms clamped around Link, lifted him straight off the floor so the tips of his boots dangled, rather unmanfully, inches off the floor.
"Linky!" Tanner viced his arms together until Link thought bones collapsed against each other in defeat. "Save me!" Dramatically, he threw his arms wide, and Link thumped back to the ground. "These trainees, I swear, they'll be the death of me."
Laughing, Link subtly tested his range of motion. There seemed to be no internal damage. "Tanner, you say that every year, and every year you turn out credible soldiers."
"But this time it's true." Tanner had once harbored dreams of joining an acting troupe and being a professional, but his size and the reality of life had relegated that merely a lost fantasy. Instead he indulged in momentary lapses into theatrics, to the amusement of his friends and the bewilderment of the troops he trained.
Grabbing Link's arm, Tanner widened his eyes helplessly. "Please, O Hero," he implored as Link stifled a snicker. "Rescue me from the pain!"
"Sure." Link pretended to sweep Tanner off his feet and into his arms. Tanner let out a breathy giggle, batted his lashes.
"Get a room," Rowe complained from behind. Link turned and, grinning, gripped Rowe' forearm in lieu of hugs or handshakes. The staid groomsman smiled, his fawn-colored eyes crinkling at the corners in good-natured calm. "It's good to see you."
Rowe' placid greeting was as warming as Telma's effusive welcome, and Tanner's dramatic overtures. Link felt the inner cloud ease back as he grinned at his friends. "It's good to see you," he said honestly. No matter what the circumstances, it was good to see them. But he sobered quickly, lowering his voice so the interested trainees, peering over stall doors, couldn't hear. "I've got some things to talk about."
Theatrics aside, Tanner sobered immediately. "You in trouble?"
His automatic leap to Link's defense made him smile a little, but he shook his head. "No, no trouble. It's a work thing."
"Oh." That was Rowe, and in his slow, contemplative way, he watched Link. "We'll talk while we eat, then."
Link thought of the food he'd already consumed at Telma's, then of the nutritional sustenance masquerading as food at the mess hall. Pragmatically, he shrugged, slung an arm around each man's shoulder. "Why not?" he said. "You only live once."