I told you guys I wanted to give you all an ending so I'm working really hard to get there! I know that there seems to be a bit of a jump between the last chapter and this one, but rest assured that all the details of what happened in between will come to light eventually. Who doesn't love a little mystery am I right?
"A letter came for you."
Ilia looked up from where she was sitting, trying to mend a hole in the pocket of Kael's pants. "A letter? Who from?"
"Look," Kael said, passing the envelope to her. She saw the address before she saw the name, it had come all the way from Castle Town.
"Telma!" Ilia said with excitement, her fingers busily tearing into the wrinkled envelope before pulling out a single sheet of paper. Her eyes quickly scanned the paper, looking first for bad news, then for good news, but she found neither. "It... it just says she wants me to come to Castle Town as soon as possible, that it's important and that she'll explain when I get there..."
"I wonder what for," Kael mused as he went through his own mail. There had been many updates lately on the war as the Hylian army quickly fell upon the Southern front lines. Kael said it could be any day now that the armistice officially happened. Any day now this horrible war could be over and Kael and Ilia wouldn't have to stay in the town that held so many memories that had turned sour.
"Maybe she needs help with something, maybe she just wants to see me," Ilia said with a shrug, trying not to dwell on the fact that Telma's ambiguity actually made her really, quite terribly nervous. The lack of detail was very unlike her. It led her to believe that in fact something was definitely wrong.
"When do you think you'll head out?" Kael asked, his eyes still studying his own work, Ilia's fidgeting going unnoticed.
Ilia was already on her feet, pulling things together. "If I head out now I could get there before nighttime. She sounded... urgent... so I don't want to delay too long," she murmured.
"That's a long day," Kael said, finally looking up and standing as Ilia drifted about the room, gathering clothes and food and whatever else she needed.
"It's fine, I've done the long ride many times," she mumbled, eyes down so that he wouldn't see the panic.
"Ilia," he said, catching her by the arms. She slowly raised her eyes to him, hoping to hide her doubt, "are you alright?"
She nodded, "I'm worried about Telma, I hope nothing's wrong. But I'm fine."
Kael nodded knowingly before kissing her forehead, "I wish I could come with you. I wish that I could leave my post for just a couple days. If only her urgent matter could wait a couple of weeks, then I'm sure this war would be over."
"I'll be back soon. Or, I'll send you a letter at least as soon as I know how long I'll be there," she said, touching his face before turning away, his hands falling from her arms, "Now, I need to go by my father's house to get a few things."
"Ilia," Kael called, catching Ilia at the door. She turned to watch him as he broke a piece of the black thread she had been using to stitch of his pants. He walked up to her, reaching out for her hand before winding the piece of thread around her finger and securing it there. "I'll buy you a ring once this war is over, but until then..."
Ilia examined her hand, a smile tugging at her lips. "I love it," she said softly.
"Good," he said, catching her lips in a chaste kiss, "please be safe while you're gone."
"I will. Of course I will," she said, before heading out the door.
She said goodbye to her father, briefly explaining what was going on, and being careful to hide her hand, the one with the string around her finger, and then she was off on Epona's back toward castle town. The morning air was crisp and cool, the leaves starting to change colors again, and the forests that surrounded her home became golden. She thought idly as she rode past the spring where she and the others had been taken, that it had been almost a year since she had seen Link at Telma's. Then there had been snow on the ground.
The ride into Castle Town seemed to stretch on, her mind never straying from Telma's words in her letter and how abrupt it seemed. Telma was usually nothing if not long winded. For her to say so little, it was just off. But soon enough she could see the spires of the castle on the horizon, then the gates and walls around the town, and then the cobblestone roads that would take her to Telma.
She expected that Telma would smile when she saw her, but the woman behind the counter only seemed saddened by her appearance, almost as if she had to deliver bad news though she didn't want to.
"I got your letter," Ilia said, her voice shaking though she tried to smile for her, to show Telma some courage.
"I need you to come with me," was Telma's response. No hug, no smile, no welcome. Just those cold, biting words. They bit into Ilia's skin like needles.
"What's going on? Are you alright?" Ilia asked, trying to sense what could be bothering her. Her heart was racing as Telma closed the door behind them, switching the sign on the door to say "closed".
"It's difficult to explain. There's so much... I just need to show you," she said, taking Ilia by the arm and leading her away. It was then that Ilia could feel the woman beside her shaking, her usually confident strides seemed to stagger slightly.
"Where are we going?" Ilia gathered enough courage to ask.
"The hospital," Telma murmured, though it barely came out as more than a whisper.
That lit Ilia's nerves on fire. She wracked her brain with who it could be, who in Castle Town other than Telma she would need to be there for, and what could be wrong with them. Was someone injured? Were they sick? Did they need her back as a nurse? Was there some way that maybe she could help? Her mind raced with every step towards the hospital tucked away in the corner of the town, and then as the doors flew open and a flurry of nurses rushed past her to their patients, she scanned every face she could see, though none of them seemed familiar. All were soldiers, just like the men she used to treat. But then Telma pulled her away to the back, to a private room away from the others that were separated only by curtains. She opened the door and stepped back to allow Ilia through, to take a look inside for herself.
There was a man lying in a bed, his cheeks sunken and his arms thin and wiry. His skin was stark white, and if it weren't for the stuttered rise and fall of his chest she would think he was dead. But then she looked past the unkempt beard, and the malnourished body, and she saw the shape of his nose and the curve of his brow. She saw the color of his hair, longer than it had ever been before. She saw his lashes casting shadows on his cheekbones which looked sharper now, his closed eyes like purple bruises.
Ilia felt like there had been a blow to her stomach and she fell to her knees, her hands over her mouth. She looked back at him again. Was he dead? Had the found his body? But no, he was breathing, just like she thought.
He was alive.
She knelt and sobbed, her heart in her throat, and she felt like it might collapse. There were aching cries coming from her mouth though she couldn't feel, or stop, or process any of it. Telma was at her shoulder then, on the ground with her and wrapping her arms around the aching girl on the ground. She was crying too, crying for all the pain they had gone through thinking he was dead, and all the pain he must have gone through to bring him back the way he was.
"How?" was the only word Ilia could manage to say after so long.
"They found him by himself, wandering on the field toward the Hylian camp. The Hylian officer said they had been sent to rescue him and one other soldier that were being held as prisoners... but then they got separated and they found him days later by himself," Telma said shakily, her voice thick as she wiped tears from her eyes.
She rose to her feet, wandering unsteadily towards the man in the bed that barely resembled the one she used to love. She took his frail hand in hers and knelt by his bedside, holding his hand to her face and crying into it. "I'm sorry," she whispered, her throat raw, "I'm so sorry."
His skin was cool against her cheek, and as she pressed her lips to his knuckles she realized there was an angry red scar on the back of his hand, still new though the skin had healed over. What had they done to him, she wondered? What had they done to the hands that had once held her.
They stayed like that for a long time, Ilia holding his hand, tracing her fingers over the veins that were so vivid beneath his pale skin. She was in shock, and kept looking at his face to make sure it was really him, that it wasn't a mistake. But no, she would know him anywhere. And then, following the shock, there was worry. She worried that he was so sick he wouldn't wake up, that he might not get better. She wondered what he had been through, these past nine months when she and everyone else believed that he was dead. For nine months no one had come looking for him, for nine months he suffered and no one came. The thought made Ilia sick.
She cried until her eyes burned, they were red and puffy by the time the doctor came in to see him. "Is he going to be alright?" she asked him with a hoarse voice.
"Eventually," the doctor said curtly, checking Link's pulse on the other side of the bed, "we need to get some fluids in him. He's got the beginning stages of scurvy, not to mention that he's been starved for who knows how long. If he hadn't come back when he did... are you a friend of his?"
"I... yes," was all Ilia could say.
"It's good of you to come," the doctor replied.
"One of Link's friends in the army identified him... told me I should contact you right away. He's been sleeping most days, can't seem to stay awake for more than an hour at a time," Telma said from where she leaned against the doorway. She had managed to collect herself after this long.
Ilia felt pressure on her hand then, and when she turned back to Link she could see his eyes moving beneath his eyelids, his brow twitching as if he was trying to wake. He barely opened them, his eyes widening minutely in shock. He opened his mouth as if to say her name, but his cracked lips couldn't form the word, there was no sound that would come from his mouth. She gasped, he was awake, he was alive.
"I'm here," she whispered, catching his face with her palm as if to direct his eyes to her, "Link, I'm here."
He lifted his hand weakly to push a stray piece of her hair away with his finger. There were tears in his eyes now too.
"If he's waking, I need you to leave for now. We need to check up on him and get some food in him," the doctor said, his hand on Ilia's shoulder, "you can come back tomorrow, it's getting late."
"Come on, Ilia," Telma murmured, "he needs his rest. We'll come back first thing tomorrow."
Ilia's heart ached at having to let him go. The last time she had said goodbye she didn't see him for months, and she thought she wouldn't see him again. Swallowing back the pain in her chest, she turned away, only to succumb to the pain as she wandered back to Telma's. Her chest heaved as she cried, her hand pressed to her mouth as if to stifle the sound.
"You can have the room on the end tonight," Telma murmured as they arrived back at the tavern, "I know it'll be tough, but try to get some sleep. He's going to be better every day."
Ilia nodded, her eyes down as Telma handed her the key to the room where she used to live. Now that the shock was wearing off, she felt guilt churning in her stomach, "Telma... I'm engaged."
Telma looked taken aback, but quickly attempted to compose herself. "Engaged?" she tried not to sound too surprised.
"To Kael," Ilia said with a shrug as if she was embarrassed to be admitting it. She wiped her tears on the back of her hand, shaking her head as she looked at the piece of string around her finger, "And he loves me. And I love him."
Telma nodded. She looked like she meant to say something but kept it to herself. "When you're ready, and when he's better, you need to tell him. The longer you put it off, the harder it's gonna get."
"I know," Ilia said, her voice breaking.
"I know you're not gonna sleep tonight," Telma murmured, wandering forward to rub Ilia's arm, but try."
She followed the narrow staircase up to her room that had see her through many nights. But try as she might to follow Telma's advice, she didn't sleep, not until the early hours of the morning.
Early the next day, before the sun came up, Ilia tried to write a letter to Kael, but her fingers wouldn't move. What could she say that wouldn't cause him to come after her? For whatever reason, she couldn't bring herself to tell him that Link was alive. She wanted the others to know, but she wanted the Link they saw to be more like the one they remembered. She would wait until he was doing better.
So for now, her letter to Kael only said that Telma was needing her support, that she would be back in a few days, and not to worry. She felt ill with herself for lying to him, but her heart raced at the thought of telling him the truth.
She waited anxiously for Telma to be up before she set off for the hospital, giving her a quiet and quick goodbye before she departed. The streets were silent and still as she walked, and the click of her heels on the stone echoed in the corridors of tall buildings and walls around her. She used to make this walk every morning, hoping to never see Link in one of the hospital beds. But now that he was, she was glad in a way. She had woken up that morning thinking that everything had been a dream, that Link wasn't there.
But he was. It was all real.
When she walked through the hospital doors, the doctor was standing there near the entrance, checking charts. He glanced up at her and then back down at his clipboard. "You're here to see him again, are you?"
Ilia nodded breathlessly, unwrapping her scarf from around her neck, "Yes, sir."
He nodded over his shoulder for her to follow him, "He had a good night. After he woke up last night we were able to get some food and water in him, and then he was able to rest for most of the night but he needs to eat again this morning. He's having a hard time keeping it down, but we need to keep trying."
"I can help," Ilia offered then and the doctor paused in his footsteps so abruptly that she almost bumped into him. "I uh, I used to work here as a nurse. I can be of help to him," she said, taking a measured step back.
The doctor looked her up and down again, "I thought I recognized you."
"Just let me know what I can do," she said resolutely.
He motioned again for her to follow him to the back room where Link was. "He needs to eat again when he wakes up. We've been giving him one cup of soft food, and one cup of water until he can hold that down. He also needs to be bathed..." he paused, turning back to her with a quizzical look,"I don't know if you feel comfortable doing that as his friend."
Ilia swallowed. She had given sponge baths to many of the soldiers before, it shouldn't be different. So she shook away the stirring in her heart and nodded, "I can do whatever you need."
The Link in the room this morning already seemed like a new person compared to the person from the day before. He was already awake, his eyes mostly open this time, and when he saw Ilia his cheek twitched like he was trying to smile.
"Hey," Ilia said, coming in to sit in the chair by his side. She took his hand in her's again, "How are you feeling?"
He shrugged a bit, a grimace on his face. There were tears in his eyes, and Ilia found she had to hold back the emotion that brewed in her chest at seeing him again. It still seemed like a dream, like all the times she had dreamed of him when he was gone, and all the times after she thought he was dead. It felt like at any moment she might wake up and realize he was still gone.
"I missed you," she whispered, "so much."
"Here we are, Link," the doctor said then, "your food and water. Your friend here offered to help you with it and to help you get cleaned up. Is that okay with you?"
He nodded, trying to sit himself up though Ilia quickly came to his aid. The doctor set the tray down on the bedside table beside Ilia. There was just a tin mug of water, and a small bowl of what looked like applesauce.
"Do you want me to help you?" she asked, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. It was hard for her to see him so helpless like this, but she didn't want to make him feel any more helpless. He shook his head, holding out an unsteady hand. She gave him the cup of water first, and watched as he took it in shaking hands and lifted it to his lips, some of it spilling past his chin. "Good," Ilia said, "that's good."
He settled the mug in his lap, looking down at the rippling water. "Ilia," he murmured then, his voice hoarse like he had lost his voice. Her hair stood on end, her hands clenched into fists she didn't realize she was making. "I'm sorry."
Ilia was quick to shake her head, "You have nothing to be sorry for. You're here, you're alive. That's all that matters."
It seemed that was all he had energy for, but he continued to eat with a trembling hand until his bowl was almost empty. There were few words between them as Ilia set the tray aside and then filled a bowl with warm, soapy water. She unbuttoned the hospital shirt that he wore, being careful as she pulled his arms out of the sleeves, and tried not to look at his sunken chest and his ribs that protruded as she gently wiped him down. She took a soft cloth and carefully washed his face, pausing when she came to his beard.
"We should shave this off," she said with a gentle smirk.
Link raised a hand to his face, his fingers running through his beard as if he was thinking. "It's... I can't remember before... before I had it... what it was like," he croaked.
"We don't have to," she said, suddenly feeling bad for mentioning it. She tried not to think that he was held prisoner, that he had spent months in captivity and that his hair and his beard may have felt like a safety. But maybe that was the truth.
"No," he muttered then, "I want to be rid of it."
Ilia lips quirked into a smile, but her eyes were still cast down. "Okay."
She trimmed off the long pieces with scissors, and then when it was short enough she took a razor and lathered a cream on his skin, carefully shaving off the months and months of living in the dirt. She worked slowly and methodically, being careful not to cut him, and then, eventually she saw his face. But when she did she found she had to catch her breath so she didn't show him the pain it caused her.
She was right. The beard had somehow masked all of the horrible things beneath the surface. Now she could see it all.
It was his eyes. Before his face had been hidden, and she hadn't seen it. But his eyes were haunted, like the unseeing stare of someone who had died.
Ilia wiped away the remaining lather on his face and put the bowl and razor away. "There," she said breathlessly, "you're you again."
He reached up then, every movement labored, and touched her cheek. "Your face..." he whispered, "your face kept me alive."
She couldn't keep it in after that. Tears pooled in her eyes, spilling onto his hand as she held it to her face. "I thought of you every day. Even after...even after they told us you were dead."
His eyes narrowed. "Dead..." he murmured.
Ilia nodded, "Nine months ago I got a letter saying you were killed in action... that they never found your body. You... you just disappeared."
He breathed in deeply, his handing dropping to rest by his side again. His brow was pulled together, and he raised a shaking hand to his face, his trembling fingers covering his closed eyes.
"What happened?" Ilia asked almost silently. The question had been eating at her for months. Even when she thought that he was dead she had been wondering how it had happened and where his body had gone. She always felt sick that his body never came home.
As he thought about her question, his breath started coming in and out faster, and then faltering like a whimper. He tried to curl his hand into a fist, but he couldn't seem to close his fingers completely. And then, with a partially closed fist he started hitting his forehead.
Ilia was so caught off guard that she didn't react for a few moments. And then she grabbed his wrist, impossibly thin, and held his hand back. "Link, stop."
At that, he ripped his hand out of her grasp, almost like it was a reflex. His body jerked with a start, and he fell out of his bed. Ilia gasped, her stomach suddenly in her throat as she raced around to the other side of the bed to find him shaking on his hands and knees.
"I'm so sorry," Ilia apologized desperately, her voice quivering. She reached down to help him up but he pulled away from her again.
"Don't," he said, collapsing onto his knees and covering his face with his hands, "please, don't."
"Please, go," he murmured, his throat thick with emotion.
She stood, watching him in silence before stumbling out the door, covering her mouth with the back of her hand as the floodgates opened.
The hospital doors slammed behind her as she fled and she braced herself against the brick wall outside, holding a hand to her chest as if they might keep her broken heart from falling to pieces. She sobbed quietly, her throat aching as she wondered if the boy she loved had actually come back.
She wondered if he had died out there after all.