Childhood Ashes

By Silvara


 

Summary: When he realizes he is in the Hyrule he had left three years before, he can't believe his eyes. When the Queen of the torn kingdom embraces him as a man, he learns that his real world is the crook of her arms. But a child cannot be a man...

 

 

Prologue

 

He does not know what to expect when Zelda sends him back. He only understands that one of them, at least, has to remember to prevent it all. Peace of mind and solitude of heart clash in his head when he sees the innocence of her new eyes. He stops her and, with a couple spells and arguments, they convince her father too. They shorten the Gerudo's visit.

 

As soon as he is out of the kingdom, Link takes his leave /- quickly and silently, before she can get used to his presence./

 

He tries to pick up the pieces of his childhood between the trees, in the glade of the wild children. But once a Kokiri leaves, he cannot pretend to return to the forest. A Kokiri who hurriedly left after the Great Deku Tree was murdered should be glad if he only becomes a Stalchild.

He isnít even a Kokiri.

 

Before he knows it, he finds himself in her garden.

The guards know him well by now. /Probably some lost orphan the little Princess took as a momentary playmate./ He cares little for what they think, because being worthy of her friendship without needing to have near-death experiences is enough to make his heart swell with joy.

 

He stays.

 

They play and he listens. He doesn't speak much, half because he has never been a man...a person, of many words, and half because most of the words he has now do not belong in the mouth of a child.

Before long, though, the gap between their minds becomes painful.

 

.

 

He doesn't know what to expect when he leaves her land to find himself. He only understands that he has to do it before something gives. He would rather have her friendship from afar than to see worry and confusion take root in her eyes. When she hands the Ocarina to him again, it has a faint smell of lavender.

 

Everything begins with three days.

He learns that the eyes of his Lady remain as inspiring beyond the ties of words and dimensions. Soon, everything is done and seen and over, left only for remembrance. Time is freed again, days can now form months, and he... he sees enough deaths for two lifetimes.

He is not sure he has a better grasp of who he is, but he has found a fierce strength, one that the Goddesses allow him to keep.

 

In the meantime, though, the slaughters, the failures, the fear and violence make him crave her smiles even more than before. He sees no solution to his doom. He decides to turn back. It takes long, painful sessions of questions, storytelling and running errands for the innkeeper's mother, but he learns the precious tune he needs to teleport both the young Epona and himself to the other side of the door under the Clock Tower.

 

It is the brink of autumn when he passes it. Dried leaves crunch in colored garlands under Epona's hooves. He rides back with both longing dread and resignation. He tries to have realistic expectations and wants to believe he succeeds.

He never expects the sight of the torn kingdom that greets him beyond the woods.

 

.

Chapter 1: A Ranger's Shack

 

Skeletons, Wolfos and Stalchildren roaming out in the open again? The bleeding moon and the distant darkness surrounding the peak of Death Mountain worsen his suspicion.

 

He sets down his feet and sends Epona toward the ranch. Clutching his ocarina tight behind his shield, he draws his blade: There is a presence somewhere close.

 

When she hops down from the trees, the woman seems as surprised as him. Her hair is braided and her short dress stops at the brink of her leggings. Why does she wear royal earrings and why is she dressed like a ranger?

There is no Sheikah symbol on her clothes, but the outline of the Triforce glowing on her hand as she silently steps near leaves no mystery about her name.

 

Her forehead creases in confusion when she looks at him. Yet, there can be no doubt about his identity either, when his own hand flashes the symbol of courage.

 

His name is an awed whisper on /Sheik/'s lips.

It's strange, how he can see his Sheikah companion in her demeanor, now that he knows they are but one.

He knows Sheik cannot be a lie. Friendship and strength - no matter how thin - can only be faked so long. Besides, the secret of her courage is one of his favorite things about her.

 

He nods nervously, barely paying attention to the gesture. Can she be real?

 

She is the first to recover from the shock, casually propping her wrist against one hip - for a second he sees it covered in white bandages. He smiles.

 

"Sorry," she slowly breathes, "for stalking you. But I could hardly believe my eyes when you appeared on that horse." Her brows rise a little. "I must say I did not expect your return here. Even less in your current form."

 

When he doesn't say a word, she frowns and points to his wounded knees and chin. "Are you okay?"

 

His nod doesn't seem to convince her much, but she sees no other injuries on his body and her gaze softens. Her body language, through, doesn't leave any room for refusal to whatever she is about to offer.

 

"Come, Hero," she breathes. "Link," she corrects, her smile broadening with affection. "I have a shack not far away. You are wounded, and itís getting cold out there."

 

Before he can think of an answer, she is walking back through the trees, only turning to make sure he follows. The fact that she sleeps alone in the wild surprises him, but he is too focused on keeping up with her longer legs' pace to ask.

 

"Sleeping any closer to the tyrant's grave was not very appealing. It will take time before I move over to Castle Town anyway," she says.

 

He nods out of habit, but it feels strange to see her notice the gesture; /he is not used to adults who care to level their gaze to his height./

 

On his part, he can hardly tear his eyes from her since they started walking.

 

Suddenly, something distracts him in the surrounding wilderness. His eyes finally leave her, and she slows her pace to listen to the forest. Soon enough, the sound of nearby scattering bones greets them from behind as they wait, blades drawn and ready.

 

When the Stalchild appears from under the trees' shadows, Link frowns and steels himself. It is a lost child's skeleton; the kind he hates most. But the walking set of bones is soon followed by a pack of mad Wolfos, one of them still gnawing on a leg bone. Their odds of handling so many are thin, and Link grits his teeth, foreseeing grim casualties.

 

Seconds pound on their hearts. His mind still numbed by an unreasonable fear for her safety, they wait for the pack to attack.

 

With the skeleton's first pounce, three beasts follow. He is ready to impale the first when he senses her magic. The protective shield blazes around them and he finally allows a sigh of relief as a tide of fire burns everything around the two of them. /So she can use Din's fire.../ He is surprised that the spell can shield two people at the same time. Is it because he is himself a caster, or because of the Triforce part in him? In any case, she knows way too many things that he does not.

 

He waits for the monsters to attack again and casts the spell himself this time, sensibly damaging them. The small skeleton scatters easily, and he crushes its skull in little time. She swiftly disposes of the wounded beasts, breath still ragged from the spellcasting effort. On unsteady legs, her defense is poor against the last Wolfos' claws. He is the one to slash it in mid-jump. As the body hits her and slumps down between them, he sees surprise and respect bloom in her eyes.

 

"Many people lost themselves running from the tyrant. Wolfos are just fond of bones," she says, but he notices she avoids the Gerudo's name, her breath as ragged from weariness and adrenaline as from emotion.

 

Her cabin is lodged in a large tree's trunk. Good enough for sleep; too small and frail to live in. He wonders if she built it herself.

 

.

 

They climb up but he stops at the entrance, somewhat edgy. The light filtering through the opposite window reflects off his gear and faintly glows on his skin. With his childish stature, the bruises and scars over his forehead and small arms, and his eyes that hold so much shadow for his height, he looks somewhat magical, as if he did not belong to the world outside the Forest. Most of his soul still seems to believe in Deku trees and mourns the Forest, even if he will never be able to return to the youth he had known, nor to feel home under the green canopy anymore. She is not sure whether she is more awed by the strength of his mind or pained by his predicament.

 

She extends a hand; he looks at it, a little confused, before slowly accepting it.

He finally steps through the door.

 

But before letting go, he lifts her hand and slowly kisses her fingers. The reverence of the gesture is anything but alien to her. She feels light-headed /how he can still affect her that way?/

 

She takes most of his things down - / he won't part with the sword on his back/ - and pours some water in a bowl before searching through his pouch for bandages. Surprisingly, she easily finds healing potions; two direly scratched bottles that seem ready to break apart. She frowns, but pushes her questions down.

 

After she gets him to drink one, she kneels in front of him to check his body for other wounds - and surprises herself in hoping her manners are gentle enough, hoping he did not see her as too masculine and rough- /but why does she care?/

Finally, she sees the Ocarina he has kept in hand. From the way he holds it, the magical item looks like a weapon and shield at the same time.

She reaches for it, but his hand reflexively clamps down. She is surprised at his arm strength, only able to take the blue instrument when he slowly lets go. Appraising the Ocarina's smooth shape in her hand, she wonders if her bloodline's abilities have diminished over the centuries. It reminds her of the dreams she had; the one about islands soaring to the sky and sapphire eyes enchanting her soul.

But she will have time to be wistful later. For now, the Hero- /Link/, is back, and they have so little time to get acquainted again...

 

"Who-" She tries again: "Why did I give it back to you?"

 

"You wanted it as far as possible from Ga- from him." It feels strange to speak of an event that didn't fit with the era he was in. "It still belongs to your family, though."

 

"It may," she confirms. "Anyway, it is yours now. I- I am sure she agrees." She shakes her head disbelievingly. "But how did you come back...in this form?" Her gaze settles on his hip and he distantly touches the mask against his hand.

 

He remains vague about Termina and the portal. She is still intrigued by the mask, but something painful in the ageless boy's eyes forms a lump in her throat and makes her reassess her priorities. The intensity of his melancholic gaze makes her avert her eyes.

 

When she finds his gaze again, she cannot avoid the truth. "So you remember everything," she concludes.

 

He hesitates a little, unable to deny it. He closes his eyes, probably to avoid seeing the guilt on her face.

 

"That was not supposed to happen." She winces. "How long has it been since...since I sent you back?"

 

When he shrugs, her frown deepens. Now, though, is not the moment to drown in guilt, so she takes his face between her hands. "Do the others remember too?"

 

"It doesn't matter, your Majesty." The child's voice comes out cracked, more sour than she had anticipated.

 

"Zelda," She corrects, and he doesn't feel the strength to refuse her.

One of her hands falls. The other shifts, a lithe caress against his jaw, but his gaze doesn't leave hers.

 

"Do I remember?" When she asks, his eyes burn a hole down through her. He shifts his weight, lips drawn tight, and for the first time, his eyes drift away.

 

She leans to catch his gaze when he stiffens. He shrugs.

 

Horror in realization; fear on her face, she shudders and quickly closes her eyes. It is hard not to cry and she has to struggle to refrain from hugging him. It takes time before the pain allows her to breathe again. The portal is the last thing she cares about at the moment, but she needs to see it and tells him so.

 

.

Chapter 2: Stew and Milk

 

Soon, their quick footsteps crushing dried leaves is the only sound disrupting the Lost Woods' silent atmosphere. They still don't find the portal after walking for about three miles, and she can feel his frustration as they leave the deepest part of the forest. He is very reluctant to give up. Probably only agrees to avoid having her turn into a Stalfos, she muses.

 

It's a shame that she can't study the portal. She does not doubt his words, of course, but still, it would have been interesting to approach the frontier of another dimension... She only has a vague knowledge of time magic, but she is curious and confident enough. She will try to open her own sort of portal for him to cross back.

 

No matter what, he has to go back. It's not a matter of what she wants; it is not a matter of feelings anymore. She has learned the hard way that the currents of time are no playground for mortals. Over the past three years, she has learned many other things, too... Despite that, she cannot fathom the consequences of having him trapped in her era.

 

"Princess?"

 

When his voice interrupts her thoughts, she is glad for the diversion - she doesn't need the anticipation of loneliness to somber their time together.

 

"Are the people still at Kakariko?" He turns toward her as they are about to reach her shack again. "Are you still..."

 

"A Princess?" she offers without answering. "We have a day, haven't we? Let me show you the kingdom you have fought for, my friend."

 

There are few monsters in the field by day, and they are quick to reach the gates of Castle Town. "The Gorons have come to help us rebuild. They are a valuable asset for us here," she says, without a word about the Re-deads who used to roam the borough. He doesn't need any more regrets to weigh down his mind.

 

Impa had been the one to present her as royal heiress. It would shame the people and the Goddesses for their land to remain without an official ruler. /So who is to stop Hyrule's Queen from wandering the countryside?/

 

"Hyrule is a small kingdom of few noble houses; even fewer that survived the tyrantís fist," she explains in the middle of the building site where Gorons and Hylians move girders, passing nails and tools around.

 

They finally reach the old gardens. The air is hot and heavy with sulfur, the landscape a scorched mess around the island of the ruined fortress. When he bends over the lava pit, she grasps his small shoulders to steady him before she thinks. Shock, incredulity and confusion show on his face when he turns around. She realizes her mistake -/blushes/- and removes her hands. "I... Sorry."

 

For a few seconds, they watch the steaming lava many yards down. "We are throwing everything down. It will take months at least to fill up the pit... The view is hurting the peopleís spirit."

 

The atmosphere still makes him wary, and he can only look around in trepidation before slowly nodding. He feels like making as much distance as he can from the sight.

 

.

 

They are crossing the plains again, heading for Kakariko this time.

 

The habit of walking great distances in a hostile environment did not only sharpen her senses but made her steps swifter, and a few times, she wonders if she is too quick. But as soon as she slows down, he sweeps past before stopping a few feet ahead of her, perplexed. To imagine he has kept that pace since they left her shack, she cannot help but admire his endurance. /The boy barely breaks a sweat/-

 

It's not long before they spot and join Malon on the road. "But who is he?" The redhead asks after a few words with the new Queen. Her and Zeldaís paths have crossed more often than not since the land had been freed. The roads are never sufficiently secure to carry fresh milk and eggs...

 

Link stays silent - and that is another thing she notices: he does not speak to anyone unless urged. The crushing responsibilities of the Triforce are absent from the people's eyes. Perhaps the Hero resigned himself to the same conclusion as her; that being understood was a lost cause.

He, at least, can afford to stop pretending: today there is no smile on his face; not even for the ranch girl he had spoken of so lengthily and fondly to Sheik... /and, well, that thread of thoughts won't get her anywhere now./

 

"The son of Link," she offers to the other woman. "The knight who gave his life to kill the tyrant was his father." From his look, she can tell he is considering her answer. She heaves a breath when he seems content with it. - She heaves another, quicker, when the other doesn't ask about Link's age.

 

"Poor thing," the redhead murmurs. "There are so many orphans..." Before he knows it, he has a hug, a piece of cake and a knife in his hands. By the time he blinks, the busy ranch girl is already gone. He notices how the knife looks better fit to kill than to cook with and looks up, perplexed.

 

"Deku sticks donít offer any help to stray children in our times. Fighting knifes have become a trend," she explains. He nods, deadly serious.

"I needed a story," she adds. "The Hero they know has died for them." And her eyes slide over to his face before slipping away. "I deeply regret... that the people won't know their Hero. They have much admiration for your deeds. They would have loved to be able to express it."

 

"Don't worry, Ze- my Queen. I trust you to make the wise decisions."

 

She frowns, unsure if she is being mocked, but he quickly adds, "Even if I don't agree or don't understand /all/ of these decisions." (She perfectly reads the euphemism in his eyes this time.) "Still, I believe in your Triforce."

 

She weighs the murmur of his words.

Is it not strange, if one thinks about it? Ironic, actually. How can he sound even older now that he lives in a child's body? Had this land called Termina done that to him? /... Had she?/

She is not sure she would like the answer, but she can't deny that this contrast of maturity in him might be somewhat appealing.

 

Short on words, she feels her face warm up, gropes for an answer... /any now/ - and is glad to realize they are about to pass through Kakariko's entrance. "Son of Link," she murmurs with shining eyes, "be my guest of honor, today."

 

He can only blink before she climbs up the remaining stairs, ready to call for the people of the village. He has to hurry and tug on her dress to present her a polite smile and a shake of his head.

 

He knows enough to tell she is disappointed, even if she can tame her expressions with Sheikah discipline. Some people bow when she salutes them. None ask about the boy at her side while she shows him around the busy village.

 

The aroma of a hearty beef stew makes his mouth water after a month of eating half-cooked meat, berries, and mushrooms. As they reach the largest house where the aroma is strongest, a thin, angular man trots toward her. He curtly nods to the Queen before clearing his throat. "Your kindness befits Your Majesty. But you don't have to take care of all the stray children yourself. This one will do fine in the village by himself now, my Queen."

 

"This one," she says aloud for passersby to hear, "is the son of the man to whom we all own our freedom today. His father was among my dearest friends, and he will spend the day with me."

 

The man shrugs and strides back to sit at the well's edge, as Link now hears whispers of his name slowly crawling over the people's lips across the village's streets. While she seems used to such publicity , he feels crowded and edgy from the huge amount of attention.

 

They are finally able to enter the large house, where they are quickly seated closest to the fireplace. He has to restrain himself not to eat too quickly until she draws milk close to his reach. She is barely surprised that no one seems to care when the boy gulps down a huge goblet of "Cuvee Talon" without pause. Her brows raise - then crease - when he fills himself a second...but he flashes her a knowing smile and flips their knife in three loops from one hand to another, without breaking their gaze. When he sets it down, her worries follow as well.

She drinks little and mostly out of politeness, really, yet she stifle a chuckle because of the thin milk mustache on his lip.

 

.

Chapter 3: Touchs

 

They settle on the roof, close to the mill. At their feet, the village is buzzing with the men's voices and tools, slowly growing into a real town.

 

"Commerce is very active," she says in a distant voice. "But the prices have deflated a lot, and traders think exchanging with other countries again will help it. It would not be a good idea to let outsiders know about our situation, though. Some of our neighbors are ambitious, and what is left of Hyrule would not even see the danger coming." After a moment, she blinks and chuckles. "I don't know why I'm told you that. It cannot be of your concern anyway." Her lips tremble a little and she bit her lower, feeling foolish for speaking so much. /But what are private affairs in a kingdom without a court, an army or anything but an unsteady crown?/

 

"Can you govern if you are totally alone? Could it not be time to drop useless customs?" he probes to her surprise as they make their way down to head for the fields.

 

"Customs are a luxury we've long stopped affording," she says, gesturing to show her garb. "We only aim to survive and stay free for now." She contemplates the situation for a while before adding, "The people seem happy. Hopeful."

 

"But you are not?"

 

She looks up to his face, her eyes glazing over her thoughts. "It is..." She hesitates and smiles. "It is untrue. I am, but I also want to be prudent."

 

He nods, apparently oblivious to her lie. The boy...man takes on responsibilities bigger than himself without sparing them a thought. If she tell him even half of her management problems, he will probably refuse to go. Staying vague is the best she can do if she wants his mind at peace.

At that point, not even the discretion with which he voiced his answer would surprise her if he had not drunk a.../respectable/ amount of milk but an hour ago. She can't help but wonder where his body is stocking all of it.

 

.

 

"Link." When she stops, he turns back in surprise. "Will you find your way in the forest with all you drank?"

 

It takes him a couple seconds to register her concern before he has to restrain himself from laughing. "I could fight an Octorok right now, my Queen," he assures her with a bright smile. "Don't worry..."

 

Before she can answer, the earth begins to tremble behind them with laughter. They turn toward the source of the clattering laugh and find one of the Hylian builders, sitting on a stone with tears in his eyes.

 

When the man can speak again, he gets up and bows before her. "Sorry, my Queen," he giggles. "Sorry! It is silly Ė huhu Ė but it's this kid! He is pretty, no?" The man puts his hand on his knees and grins down at him. "You are strong enough to kill Octoroks, right kid? Huhuheehee! Are you going to protect the Queen from now on? Bwahahaha!"

 

They can only look and blink in silence. Link closes his fists and his cheeks are slightly reddening when the Queen applies a hand against his back and politely ushers them out of the village.

 

They had been walking toward Zora's River for a while now, but she still won't look at him for some reason. He wonders if she worries about the man's words, about the reputation of a Queen who confides in a kid. Reputation matters a lot to Hylian people. /Just as having a fairy in the Kokiri's glade,/ he muses.

 

.

 

Her mouth is still sour when they are climbing the large mounds by the riverside.

She feels too mortified by her people's ignorance to look him in the eyes yet. She gathers some water and refreshes her face to leave him the time to climb. His short height gives him trouble with the tallest mounds, and she doesnít think he would be overjoyed if he knew she noticed.

 

/Maybe,/ she muses, /maybe the wrong thing was to try to protect him./ It may have been quite pretentious of her to sell a Triforce-bearer so short, after all.

 

As they lie on the grass of the Zora River bank, she tries to summon faith. She cannot exactly change history, but right now, right here, their story can be different.

 

"How do you eat?" she asks, knowing perfectly that her questions cannot change anything. "Do you have a reliable shelter?"

 

"I can take care of myself just fine, my Queen."

 

"Of course, Hero of Time," she says, whispering his title in a humbled tone. But he is obviously hiding things from her, and she canít help but ask. "Are you still living with the Kokiri?"

 

"I went back, but it felt like lying about who I am. Children without a fairy have no place there."

 

She had not realized his fairy was no longer with him until he removed his hat to scratch his neck. From the little she has learnt about the forest children, she can only guess at how he might have felt about his loss. She does not need to ask; weariness and hurt are written in his body language.

 

"Where do you live, then?" she whispers to break her thoughts.

 

His face is blank for a second, and then he gives a huge wondrous grin. "Anywhere I want, my Queen."

 

She is too fascinated by the strength of his effort to spare her guilt to dare argue. After examining him a few seconds, she nods. "/My Queen./ Is that all I am to you, Hero? Have you forgotten my name?"

 

She didn't expect the smile he answers her with, nor the effect it has on her pounding heart. /How can a child have such a gaze?/ The contradiction of his appearance and what lies beneath his eyes is a deep, tragic paradox; an unforgivable error. Still, it does not prevent her from loving - loving? ...loving. - him for it.

 

She has never felt physical attraction to him /- or to any Hylian, in fact/. Yet, her heart is no match for the balance of his courage and vulnerability; of his honesty and fierce nature. When he exited the first temple, the first thing she realized was being desperately in love with his spirit.

She remembers the Hero as a charade; his body but a tool, a lie fit for his quest, and she had become accustomed to guarding herself from the illusion. In this form, through, the cold tempest swirling in his blue eyes shows that his body is just a mask. Yet, he seems more real, authentic, and she feels at ease with him, with his touch.

 

His eyes tell her tales of a man- of a person she still doesn't know. It stokes her desire to know him better, to get closer to him in a different way.

Curiosity gets the best of her.

 

Focusing on his hand against her, she closes her eyes. The ability is hollow compared to what was once her family's heritage, but she remembers more than enough to find her way through the fogs of his thoughts. She cannot decipher their meaning, but the emotions are enough. Knowing that there is no worse intrusion than connecting one's aura without the person's knowledge nor a solid reason, she goes no farther than the edge of his mind, and simply nudges at his consciousness, sending familiar stimuli that she hopes will tell him her identity.

 

She is ready to repeat the mental command when he takes a slow breath, apparently still unaware of what is happening.

Her consciousness slides deeper than intended, stumbling into the center of his aura, the heart of the storming emotions raging against each other. Some of them drape over her, press and overwhelm her mind so violently that she needs all of her discipline not to strongly yank back - an action likely to leave lasting damage.

 

He definitely has no clue. She tries to send comforting, peaceful feedback to the emotions groping for answers, but she already knows she would not be able to stall longer before being impaired herself.

 

She slowly, but firmly, pulls away from his subconscious, slightly breathless and pulse ragged. He is insensible to telepathy. /Of course/, Sheik remembers. /How could she forget?/ A couple of hours ago, she would have considered teaching him right away. But she gets a hold of herself /at long last/. There is an important decision for her to express first.

 

Her hands leave his, spreading against the grass as if groping the earth for support. It is her turn to doubt, but she quickly steels herself.

 

"Link." The word sounds somber, wearier than she expects, as if she does not want him to hear it.

 

"Zelda?" She hears him shift toward her. "What is it?"

 

"Are you willing to go?"

 

The question feels off somehow, out of place and time, like an aberration of sort. But she has to ask. She needs to be able to sleep again after he goes back.

 

He stays silent for so long that she is not sure she has really voiced these words.

 

"What?"

 

For a while, she talks of natural laws and their consequences; about chaos and death and the fate of two worlds. "The duty of Nayru's Triforce is to fight for order; for this world's balance more than for my peopleís safety. This duty comes before my life," she whispers. "Yet today, I will not." She swallows, lips trembling. "Because you are not just one of my subjects." Her sigh is still ragged while she tries to get ahold of herself. "I think... the Hero of Time has earned the right to decide his life; to decide to stay where and when he wants."

 

He frowns. It is easy to speak without looking her in the eye, but he doesnít feel the strength to do so. He can barely trust his voice right now.

"Since I woke up in the Temple of Time, I had always hoped for a quiet life among Hylians, but I...I have no name... Ah, Zelda, how can you ask those kinds of things?"

 

"I am sorry. Really sorry." She shakes her head. "I don't think it is my place to force you to do anything. You are not only the people's hero. You are the Goddesses' chosen and has the responsibility to defend the laws of Time as much as I do. As such, the decision should fall to you."

 

"Please, Zelda," he rasps, /and his voice is so grave.../ "Do not lure me with false choices. Time and destiny's ties are not your fault. It is our duty," he spats, as if the words were a curse, but then sighs deeply. "I can-I will not make that kind of decision myself."

 

"It is no easier for me, Link. If there is any other solution, I-"

 

"I don't resent you." /Never you./

 

Trying to restrain the tears, she doesnít feel them glide down her temples while gratitude feels so sweet on her heart. Her mind is weightless and more peaceful than as long as she can remember.

 

She slides a hand under his, and their fingers lock in the heavy silence.

 

.

Chapter 4: Chasms

 

It is long after their breaths have calmed down, the riverís water soothing their throat, when she looks at him again.

 

"This is an amazing mask you carry here," she murmurs.

 

This time, the weariness, their intimacy /and maybe the milk/ work together to dull his vigilance as he let words flow, his voice barely above the river's echo. In one hour, though the violence of the ordeal is almost lost to his memory, he spills everything about his days in Termina.

 

When she looks so moved and angered at the Skull Kid, it is too late to chide himself for his carelessness. When he tries to defend the imp, he definitely does not expect her to cry /Ė he is so shocked he has to double check to be sure the trails on her cheeks are made of tears./ He feels clumsy and foolish for saying so much.

 

"I should have been there," she rasps.

 

"I am glad you werenít," he murmurs back, a little shocked before setting back into a blunt, easy going tone. "Had you been, I would have ended far too worried to do anything."

 

She shakes her head but remains silent. Birds pass over their heads, returning to their nests before twilight.

 

She looks at him as he glances up to the darkening sky. For a moment, she only sees the man in him. She feels a ridiculous yearning to make him feel welcome, to show him how she cares. She is not sure if it is for him or for her own peace anymore. She stops thinking. She wishes.

 

She had sent him back to another era, dooming the land and herself to cope with a timeline without him. There is no way back from this kind of decision.

It doesnít mean she canít still plan one or two things for the other world, through.

 

The next thing he knows, she grabs the long tattered cloth he keeps around his shoulder and makes a bundle with it before he can react. She barely thinks about trying to erase his memories correctly this time, but she never had the right to mess with something so personal in the first place.

 

"This," she murmurs as she presses the fabric between two glowing blue hands, "This will even things in your era. As soon as it touches her skin--" He looks at it as if he doesn't understand. "--It will help her remember."

 

His breath quickens and his blue gaze becomes wistful as he seems to wallow in the idea. She feels her heart on the tip of her tongue.

 

"I am sorry."

 

It is his turn to lift a hand to her face now, and carefully, he smooths out the dark circles under her eyes with a thumb. When he offers a strong smile, she withdraws, turns away and sighs in discontentment. When she finds his eyes again, they hold each other's gaze without a word.

 

He takes in her appearance, the last memory he wants to keep from a future that isn't his. His eyes slowly drift toward her lips and his breath hitches when she sets a hand on his shoulder, drawing him in. He thinks he feels her other hand rummaging through his purse, but any thoughts desert his mind the next second as the whole world freezes beneath one sensation.

 

It takes him seconds to realize what is happening when she has already pulled away, leaving only the ghost of a chaste kiss.

 

Once again, she looks serious and collected, but he has been used to Sheik. Now, it is easy to read the nervousness hanging between her creased brows and the forced rhythm of her calm breath. His grin broadens.

 

He hesitates, but her face is still close and he can barely think when he catches her lips again with a passion that takes them both aback.

 

Sheik yelps, but having her against his mouth is something he can appreciate now. Especially after he pursued the Sheikah's shadow from temple to temple, only to grasp threads of her voice and way too much Deku smoke-

She does not reciprocate, yet she still does not draw away... and he discovers a few things about her lips, flustered by the intimacy, and way too comfortable in her faint lavender smell. So he slowly puts an arm around her neck, and hates how short it comes up on her shoulder. Her moan is short, plain; he forgets about his body. He doesnít need to be a man for her; Sheik doesnít look the type to want one anyway.

Only one fact remains clear in his mind. Zelda is the only person that would ever understand what he has become. No one, he muses, will be able to complete him like she can. He can help rebuild the country, he can be useful here. - In less than an hour, he must go back to a world where he is a monster, a misfit at best.

 

He clings to the instant, to the reality of lavender and the name of Sheik. Slowly yet fiercely, he gives his farewell to the future that isn't his.

 

She pulls away, and it's strange how her beauty seems to be more wondrous the more she is unattainable.

 

His Triforce is of little use against the prospect of never seeing Zelda again. In sudden panic, he considers, gropes for other routes, he thinks about showing her his Deity transformation - /and blush at the ridiculous idea/.

He wants to stay; he wants to love her; he wants his other body back. He wants to resent her for driving him away, locking him in a purposeless world. He wants to die right now by her side...

His mind is already lost.

 

"It cannot be."

He sighs at the obvious remark.

 

Feeling his throat constrict, he manages to stutter something about Epona waiting for him in the woods. Her hand sliding away from his shoulder seems to slow down time itself. Her face is a veil of sadness and distance when she nods solemnly. /She probably doesn't want him to worry about two Hyrules/...

 

.

 

They are in front of the portal. Somewhere near, two rather confused Eponas nudge each other in curiosity.

He forces out a dry chuckle, silently readying to depart for good. She...she acts strong and sure, and just her usual after all. /Her courage is one of his favorite things/...

 

Before he turns to go, he sees her kneel out of the corner of his eye and he looks away, doing his best to delay their final obligation to time.

 

"You have to promise me, Link." He faces her again. "You will give it to her."

 

"I understand."

 

She warns him with a shake of her head. "Your promise."

 

He tries to cover a sigh behind his kindest smile. "I promise, Zelda." He calls for the horse and she is on her feet again the last time he turns to see her, and he has to lift up his eyes again.

 

He waves...and passes through.

 

(A weak flicker of hope lingers in the back of his mind. What if she fails to close the portal? /Perhaps she will need him to protect it.../)

 

.

 

He is in his era this time. He is not much surprised to see that the portal is no more. Her magic is strong and dexterous. Only air and the faraway plains are left to be seen beyond tree trunks. He walks on, trying to quell useless feelings.

He is surprised to feel relief at the sight of the clear present sky. He plays for a long time with the magic-imbued fabric at his neck.

 

Handing the cloak to her to find his Lady back is something he daydreams about a couple times: no more than a volatile wish.

 

Sadness feels like another older mantle that gives him some comfort in its familiarity. He lets it drape around him, but the memory of the Hyrule he left for the second time is not ridden with bitterness anymore. This time, he had been able to say goodbye, and he feel immensely grateful to the Goddesses for it. And for Zelda as well.

 

Zelda...

 

His heart swells with pride and nostalgia at the memory of the woman that time always managed to seclude from him. But his renewed will lessens the burning affection and stifles the urgency, now.

 

One morning, he builds a fire and drops the cloth in it. He stands so close that he can taste the ashes in his mouth and throat.

 

What he knows for sure is that he won't rip her mind of innocence and tear her childhood apart simply because he can't have his. Selfishness has a limit, he decides. He will never throw regrets and sadness in the eyes of the Princess.

 

More days pass and he thinks about far away travels, deadly perils and lost causes. He won't bring Epona this time. Naviís name raises fond memories, some yearning, but the fairy is no goal for him anymore. No turning back. He will destroy the path right behind his steps if needed; he will make sure not to find his way again.

 

But...maybe he doesn't have to bring regret along...

 

He doesn't know whether that makes him more courageous or more cowardly, but he wants- he /needs/ to confront her...

 

Just one last time. Before really disappearing. It sounds reasonable/...doesn't it?/

 

The spirits from Termina stay silent in his head, but his feet are already walking on their own.

 

.

Epilogue

 

In the courtyard, time seems to have stilled. The girl he seeks is young. A real child about his age; never a Sheikah, not yet a woman.

The first thing he knows, she throws herself around his neck, laughing in delight as he balances himself and guiltily smiles.

 

The first thing he knows, she throws herself around his neck, laughing in delight.

 

"Sorry for making you wait."

 

The seconds fades away when she talks. He just listens to her voice, glad that she doesn't press questions.

 

He did the right thing.

What else could be done? - he shushes out the Fierce Deity's suggestions - /he did the only thing correct./

 

A couple hours go by, and finally, he tells her about his plans and she immediately sobers but tries to remain neutral.

 

.

 

"You promised we would play in the mill, remember?"

 

Courage deserts his voice. "I remember," he whispers, as precious seconds waste away in the painful silence.

 

"Will you come back soon?"

 

His eyes darken and he forces a smile. She is too clever for her own good.

"I don't know."

 

"You better tell me all about your adventures, when you return!"

He blinks and wonders. She doesn't seem to get the clue. /doesn't, or doesn't want/.

 

Anyhow, telling horror tales to a sweet little tomboy isn't among his favorite fancies; in truth, he is very glad she hasnít asked about Termina. He doesn't like to lie /and no, he doesn't care if the Fierce Deity thinks it is okay/.

 

.

 

All in all, she takes the news far better than he expected. He had reappeared from his last trip just to take his leave again... Her disappointment shows, but he must give her credit for hiding it so well.

 

"When I come back, I will tell you everything. " Now itís the second time he makes a promise. He can feel the Deity's encouragement. It helps, a little.

 

He searches her eyes one last time for the flicker he doesn't hope for anymore. He sees none; invents some excuse to hand her ocarina back. Then, as if cradling a dream, he fondly caresses her cheek (the chubbiness could have been amusing in another context) and slowly puts his forehead against hers, locking down his boiling feelings.

In few words, he whispers his last farewell to sanity before turning around.

 

He nods at Impa under the archway and he passes through, focusing only on his steps to deafen the yelling of his heart.

 

.

 

"Link?"

 

.

 

It is the dread in her voice more than anything that makes him stop. He turns around and the action is painful. /What if she understands too soon, what if her restrain breaks apart in tears?/...

Neither happens.

 

She slowly takes her head in her hands, her eyes widens gradually, and with her, his world stills. "What..." Her lips quiver and her face flinches.

 

He is at her side in no time. Ever before Impa reaches her, he has her shoulders in his hands. She is quiet while the horror increases on her face, until she chokes out a cry. When her eyes finally dart up, they are no longer the same; much too somber and sad for a child.

 

He freezes, heartbeat deafening.

 

Shuddering, she stands up and breathes deeply. As soon as she finds her balance again, she pushes away and slaps him.

 

Holding his bruised cheek, he can only blink in confusion as she silently seethes.

 

"How could you- how could you think... You planned to..." she tries to cry, choking on indignation. "What do you think gives you the right to decide on my memories?"

 

He is probably dreaming. (Or drunk or feverish and his mind is nagging him with her image again...)

There are many ways to answer her words when the woman who spoke them has shattered not only his mind but also his body and whole world. Yet he can't find any, because a silly hope won't stop bouncing in his heart and he is already busy trying to not laugh like a madman as he feels reality swirl around him.

 

He barely notices her wiping her eyes, but it is enough to quell the feelings. Still dumbstruck, he panics at her distress, but no sounds escape his throat. Her young figure is shaken by self-loathing sobs and -it's getting really painful- and sharp blades of air burn through his lungs... He breathes her name in a raspy voice.

 

"Do you really think I could forget you?" she sobs. "That I would be indifferent to your absence?" she asks, and the idea is embarrassingly close to what had really crossed his mind. The way she says it makes him feel silly /but/- He looks down.

 

"Look," indignation pitches her voice as she takes off a glove and lifts the hand marked with the Triforce of Wisdom. "This," she begins, but exhales and drops her hand, head shaking in defeat.

She closes her eyes and tries again. "For some reason, my last plan that proved unwise beyond words left you remembering our previous seven years' disaster. Right?"

 

He smiles sadly (but for a second, he suddenly feels amused by the surrealness of the situation as he imagines Impa's confusion).

 

"Listen," she murmurs between tears and he tries to focus, still disoriented. "If it were possible to make you forget, the ocarina would have done it. Link," Her voice breaks on his name. She sighs. "You cannot escape something so huge. It sounds pretentious, but...your destinies -ours- are engraved in your soul; it's not only your heart that is at stake."

 

Through the emotion, the words he grasps are few, but the affection glazing over her eyes pull at his core and he is not sure anymore if his movements are his own when he easily wraps one arm around her shoulders - he is surprised at the strength and desperation of her grip on his clothes as he furiously tries to shield her in the crook of his small neck, a mad grin tearing his face in two.

 

Behind her, Impa's fascinated expression barely registers in his mind before he closes his eyes to breathe lavender again. He focuses on the slow steadying of her heartbeat (it is fascinating how more amazing her skin actually smells when he is not feeling it for the last time)...

 

"Please, stay."

 

He doesn't find the strength to speak, so he tightens his hug and nods against her.

When she feels him beginning to shake, she requests Impa to leave them be. The Sheikah hesitates a second, but finally retreat as his grip minutely tightens and his trembling turns into sobs.

 

.

 

Their gazes are holding when Impa is back with a cough.

He knows he can just be glad he has not been thrown at the King's feet yet: they step apart, but his eyes do not move.

 

"Link?"

 

He nods.

 

"Say...what did you do with the cloak?"

 

He moans piteously, head hanging down. "Zelda-"

 

"Very well," she concedes with a sheepish smile. But as soon as she mentions the other Hyrule, he begins to wonder how her alternate life's memories could have been triggered without the cloak... but her smile becomes too contagious to think anymore.

 

His last question fades away when she slowly kisses his hand, igniting his soul with a caress of her eyes.

He feels warm. He feels hope; he feels at home, and he can't help the bright smile tickling his cheeks, and... and Impa takes it as her clue to intervene again; muttering about showing him the guest room, she pushes him ahead, a fist in his tunic.

 

.

 

They are walking back to the castle, and Zelda smiles at her nurse's attempts to choke explanations out of the struggling boy. Her warden trusts her.

Their secrets are safe.

 

It's a shame, she thinks, that he still remembers the blood and the smell of death, but she is glad; at least, his memories don't extend further than eighteen years.

 

The Princess picks up the forgotten ocarina on the grass, and closes her hands over it, engulfing it in a blue glow that slowly dissipates with a very subtle tingle of magic.

 

She is lucky to have imbued it too. Without a serious distraction, he would probably have noticed.

It is not that she doesn't trust him - really /but sometimes his altruism just borders on self-destruction.../ She is still shaken to think that she was about to lose her best and only friend less than an hour ago...

 

At this point, she dares neither voice promises nor offer reassurance herself, because their future is foggy yet. Though she has found herself again, for the first time since her birth, she can clearly understand her place in the kingdom. He is here for good; they have all the time in the world. Triforce or not, it is not hard to believe that his spirit can overcome any obstacle to come... She... /she wants a new world./

 

/A harmless dream.../



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