Author: OldSchoolZeldaFan

At a Glance Edit

Summary: Hyrule’s on the brink of war with a neighboring country. Link goes on a mission to stop the damage before more lives are lost. Multi-part story of how Link and Zelda’s romantic relationship first develops.

Genres: Romance/Adventure/Comedy

Status: INCOMPLETE (still in-progress -- has about 4 chapters left to go.)

Warnings: Rated Teen for more mature situations (nothing "adult", but there WILL be things such as: physical attraction, moments of intense emotion, descriptions of the NON-reproductive parts of the human body, explorations into non-Christian religious rites, in-character musings on cultural differences, etc. If ANY of this bothers your sensitivities, don't read.) In my opinion, any emotionally-stable 13-15 year-old who's had a half-decent Health class should be able to handle this draft, but use your better judgment, and, please, DON'T get me in trouble with your parents. You've been warned. Spoilers only apply if you're so new to LoZ that Ganon being defeated at the end of "The Legend of Zelda" and his minions seeking revenge in "Zelda II: The Adventure of Link" are news to you.

Disclaimers: I don’t own Link, Zelda, King Harkinian, Hyrule, Calatia, or the North Palace. I am, however, the creator of this story, and any characters or nations not named above are definitely my own.

Timeline: One-and-a-half years after “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link”/just under three years after the original “Legend of Zelda”. Princess Zelda has recently been crowned Queen, and has asked Link to come back to the North Palace, initially to teach, when the above-mentioned complications arise. Ganon is still dead. The terrain of Hyrule is that of Zelda II, so the kingdom is MUCH larger than in other games.

Original Characters Featured: Lydia, Karina, Rommel, Emmika, Prince Rastille

Author's Notes: This is a prequel to my other posted fanfic, “A Family Reunion”. They’re both stand-alone stories, though, so you don’t have to read one to understand the other. Reviews are awesome! Flames don’t faze me: I write for my own twisted pleasure. Note that this version of the story will be altered from the one I'm posting simultaneously on, because this is a public site and I wish to keep the rating at a maximum of PG-13. Also, these stories are my way of reconciling the games, cartoon show, and comics series relating to LoZ; I AM a child of the 80's and early 90's, and anyone who grew up around that time, in this country, is familiar with Link's cartoon-show personality, which is QUITE different from the hints the games give you (I attribute it to Link being 15, during the show, so this is an older, calmer, more mature version of that rather colorful youth).

Gallery Edit

The following are all original images drawn for this story arc, which begins with The Night Before we Say Goodbye, is continued in Developments, and carried over into A Family Reunion.

Chapter 1: Declaration of Intent Edit

Hyrule is on the brink of war -- again. It isn't exactly a rare event: Hyrule’s history is riddled with strife: the last "official" war just 20-some years prior, and then the invading armies of Ganon attacked only three years ago. Now, the Ishandi nations have begun to gather soldiers along the north-western border of Hyrule’s western continent. They haven’t breached Hyrule’s borders, yet, but diplomatic lines are ominously quiet. It’s unnerving, but nothing new. In fact, it’s only the possibility of a minor scuffle, by Hylian historical standards. This incident, however, is special, because, this time, Zelda, of House Harkinian, is the recently-crowned Queen of Hyrule, which makes her position especially unstable.

The new Queen’s leadership is on trial, and, unless handled correctly, this situation may cast decades’ worth of shadow over her barely-begun reign. She has to be firm, focused, and decisive. She can’t afford any distractions. Which is quite unfortunate because, now that military action is eminent, the biggest distraction on her mind as of the last three years is precisely the one person that she will be spending the most time with: Link. Sir Link: local hero, Slayer of Ganon, Wielder of the Triforce of Courage. He is primarily responsible for the training of all active members of the Hylian Knights, and recruitment of temporary militia, as well as the man most familiar with Hyrule’s many terrains and potential hazards, thus making him indispensable to military strategy. And, of course, he just had to be the most stunningly handsome man she had ever met... and her most cherished friend... and all-around nice-guy. That Link. With whom she is having a consultation right now, maps laid out over the large planning table of the impromptu War Room.

Of course, he has no clue she feels this way, and is oblivious to the effect his mere presence has on her -- if he weren't clueless, maybe he wouldn't be wearing his form-fitting Knight’s uniform, now, -- the short-tunic variation used in training exercises, since he has just finished with his early-morning students -- and he probably wouldn’t be bent-over, beside her, reaching far across the aforementioned table in front of them to do… what? Was he pointing, just now, or reaching for something? ‘Um…’ Something about the mountains? … ‘Blast!’ She’s completely missed whatever he’d been saying: she was too busy noticing how his rather-snug leather breeches are currently molding themselves to his muscular thighs and hind-quarters... ‘DAMMIT, WOMAN! CONCENTRATE!‘ she mentally berates herself. ‘You’re a QUEEN, not a hormonal teenager! Plus, we‘re discussing WAR, you nitwit!‘ She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, immensely relieved (though a little bit disappointed) to find that Sir Link has returned to a fully-upright position by the time her eyes reopen.

‘It’s okay. I can handle this. I’ll just keep reminding myself that people are counting on me, and his input is valuable, and to LISTEN when he speaks, instead of staring at his lips, and to pay attention to WHAT he points out on the map, instead of focusing on those lean, strong hands... and to NOT undress him with my eyes, or think about tackling him onto that table right now and snogging the... no! NO! BAD ruler!… Deep breath… I can do this. Yes. Easy, right?’ By forcing herself to not look directly at him, she makes it through the remainder of the meeting much more smoothly, allowing her to focus on the questions that need discussing. However, the information she receives only serves to stress the urgency of each decision made, and point out how many questions there still are. She is mentally drained by the time the meeting’s over.

“Your Highness?” a soft-spoken tenor intrudes upon her thoughts. Zelda blinks herself back to awareness, realizing he is standing right beside her, concern etched on his expressive face. She must have zoned out.

Embarrassed, she quickly changes the subject by gently reprimanding, “Don’t call me that.”

“Um, excuse me?” he asks, looking rather lost. She smiles bemusedly.

“Don’t call me ‘Highness’. The consult is over, there’s no one else here, and we’ve known each other too long to be so formal when it’s just the two of us, Link.”

He smiles warmly, green eyes bright, “Sorry, eh… Zelda. But, really, are you alright? Partway through the meeting, you stopped making eye contact, and just now, you seemed lost in thought.”

‘Ah, so he noticed my refusal to look at him.’ She forcibly relaxes her posture and flippantly answers with a half-truth. “I’m fine. A bit stressed, but that’s only to be expected.” Not giving him a chance to press on, she switches the topic again, “I‘m curious, though: why have you been so polite, this past year?” (he curiously cocks his head to the side), “It feels as if one day you were sassing and teasing me, as usual, and I couldn’t get you to address me properly,” (he smiles wryly), “and the next day, it was, ‘Yes, Highness‘, and, ‘As you wish, Your Majesty!’” Granted, it had been more than two years since he’d mouthed-off, outright, but she’d grown used to him being casual around her, and it was sometimes hard to reconcile this quiet, courteous young man with the loud, brash, unpolished boy she’d come to know, early on. “Not that I’m completely opposed to the change," she teases, "but, what happened? Did someone up and swap heroes on me?”

He laughs quietly, then soberly explains, “I suppose… well, this whole thing’s been getting to me, too. Not just the military stuff, but the whole living-in-the-castle-again and being ‘Sir Link’ scenario, too. Everyone’s just so formal around me, since I was Knighted! And since this situation with the Ishandi army, it’s even more tense around here,” he sighs tiredly, his shoulders drooping under an invisible weight. “There’s so much to do, and because of Ganon and the Triforce, everyone around here seems to look at me as if they just want me to make the problem go away… I feel like there‘s this big expectation I have to meet now, and I don‘t wanna let anyone down, but I‘m kinda playing it by ear, too, so…” he shrugs and exhales. Zelda is temporarily stunned -- with this innocent acknowledgment, he’s hit the nail on the head -- for both of them. “I’ve been overcompensating, I think. Sorry if I’ve seemed cold or distant.” He smiles again, this time a mix of apology and self-deprecation. He quickly shakes himself back together. “I shouldn’t whine; if this is what it’s like for me, I can’t imagine the pressures you must be under. Forgive me, my Queen?” Leave it to Link to dismiss his own problems and worry about someone else. There’s that tender smile, again. She can’t help but reciprocate with one of her own.

On the outside, she merely nods and smiles in acceptance of his "apology". Inside, her heart melts, knowing that at least one person-- the one who counts the most-- understands what she’s going through.

Holding out a steadying arm, he asks, “Tired? Would you like me to escort you back?” She gratefully accepts, and allows him to lead her towards her tower entrance. She tries to suppress a blush at the proximity of their bodies. And although she doesn’t realize it, he does, too.

Morning, the next day. Link runs through the usual warm-up exercises with his mid-level knights-in-training. Some of the more experienced knights have decided to join him, this morning. It’s not a bad idea: if Hyrule does go to war, even the veterans will want to make sure they’re prepared.

Today’s is an exam session: he will make each rookie run through specific stances, then make them spar in groups of two, then three, to determine what skill level each trainee is at, which techniques need polishing, and who is ready to move on to the advanced class. It will be a long morning.

About quarter-way through the third round of testing, a messenger interrupts, claiming the Queen has requested Sir Link‘s immediate attendance. Motioning one of the veterans to step in and resume grading in his stead, Link grabs his tunic and follows the messenger to the castle‘s West Wing, a faint anxious scowl hardening his still-boyish features.

The messenger stops outside the door of the War Room and motions Link inside, the guards parting to let him through. He absentmindedly adjusts his uniform before stepping in, wishing he’d had time to change into more formal garb. He has a bad feeling about this…

His anxiety proves founded, as he finds himself amongst military leaders, strategists, cartographers, couriers, and politicians. Even the now-retired King is present. His fears are momentarily set aside, however, as his inventory of the room finally settles at its epicenter: among the crowd stands Zelda, regal and proud. Her long, golden hair is neatly tied back with plum-colored velvet ribbons and ornate silver combs, revealing her graceful column of neck. A modest circlet rests upon her brow, below the hairline. Her sleeveless, lavender riding dress gracefully flares out at the hips to form wide ankle-length pants, a high-necked plum bodice with gold and silver embroidery complementing the reverse colors in her hair. A short, velvet riding cape in a deeper shade of plum modestly covers her bare shoulders. The only adornments on her slender, yet powerful arms are multiple gold and silver bangles at the delicate wrists. She is the embodiment of feminine strength and beauty.

Link’s sharp inhale hitches in his chest, and he momentarily forgets how to breathe. This reaction, he’s familiar with: it seems she makes him stop breathing at least once a week: anytime he catches sight of her neck, or arms, or the slightest hint of a swell of breasts, or the fabric of whatever she’s wearing drapes just-so over a curvy hip or thigh. He’s a sucker for her -- always has been -- and over the years, he’s come to terms with it. The slight hint of a frown and the tense set of the brows on her delicate face, however, makes his heart wrench. Zelda’s upset. Which makes Link upset. Which means someone’s getting hurt... once he figures out who's earned it. The answer’s not long in coming.

Seeing him at the doorway, Zelda visibly relaxes, and even smiles slightly. Then she motions for everyone to settle down, since all necessary personnel are now gathered. “This morning, at 0-400 hours, a courier arrived, bearing news from the north-western front. The Ishandi have begun moving troops over the mountain, and are officially inside Hyrule’s boundaries. Ladies and gentlemen, given their continued diplomatic silence, and their previous aggression toward our allies, it is my judgment that we consider this trespass an official declaration of war.” A few of the gathered issue quiet gasps, but most of the room’s occupants already foresaw this, and an expectant silence fills the room. Zelda continues, “I have already discussed various plans of action with several of those in this room, today, and it is my further judgment that we begin moving troops of our own toward our north-western lines, as well as contact our Calatian allies to reinforce their borders and have heralds at the ready, lest the Ishandi once again attempt to come into Hyrule by first invading Calatia, as occurred 22-years ago.” A murmur of assent rumbles through the crowd. “We should also make arrangements in case either Ruto or Saria Town need to be evacuated: there are mountain passes near both of them.” More muted rumbling. The cartographers take this cue to set out the appropriate maps on the table and prepare to make notations. The generals and strategists gather around the Queen and around Link, demanding questions as to which routes to be taken for moving soldiers and evacuating citizens, the supplies and preparations needed, and where to place troops. The statesmen circle the new Queen and former King, debating on the nuances of making the declaration of war official, and how and when to best break the news to the rest of the kingdom. The couriers stand in the back, awaiting their orders.

Link was wrong: it wasn’t going to be a long morning; it was going to be a long day. Followed, most likely, by several long days. And sleepless nights. A lot of sleepless nights. ‘Aw, pig-spit!’

Chapter 2: To War Edit

Things are not going well. The Ishandi invading armies are proving more troublesome than Zelda had anticipated, and the Hylian troops, though numerous, are suffering. A continuous guard has been placed around the Queen and retired King to prevent assassination attempts on the royal family.

They had tried to put a guard around Sir Link, in case a strike against the Hero be attempted in order to demoralize the populace, but Link gave the first guards an embarrassing slip, then snuck into the commanding general’s quarters and added insult to injury by holding him “hostage“ until he agreed to remove the personal guards; this was followed by another, supposedly discreet, surveillance attempt, which was ended by a netted trap that caught the guards unawares and flung them up into the trees of the royal garden, there to hang helplessly until they were found at midday the next day by the gardeners (and several snickering servants); by the third set of guards, Link finally lost his patience, and gave the soldiers such a scathing tongue-lashing that it was afterward decided, by general consensus, that the man was more than capable of taking care of himself, could do so better than anyone else in the military, and that further attempts to protect him would be an unnecessary -- and unnecessarily embarrassing -- waste of manpower.

As it turned out, there was an assassination attempt on the Queen, but he was caught, by Link, and meticulously thrashed, bound, gagged, and dragged into an interrogation cell before he could even finish climbing the outer walls.

Zelda doesn’t know whether to kiss Link, or pummel him, for his insistence on doing everything himself: it’s obvious he’s wearing himself out. He attends every meeting, whether asked to or not. He continues to teach his classes, driving his students at insane speeds, hoping to have at least one group ready to graduate within the next few weeks to send relief troops to the knights on the front lines, and have another group ready to go within a month after that. He insists on personally doing perimeter checks each night around the part of the castle where Zelda and her father live, and had even gone on full patrol with the regular guards to look for any potential gaps in the castle’s overall defenses (and he has succeeded in completely revamping the procedures and routes, to make security so tight, not even a gnat could fly in without being spotted). His level of activity is bordering on obsessive. Granted, the North Palace is fairly close to the battle-lines, but not so much that the fighting could ever reach the gates before the entire palace had ample opportunity to launch a counterstrike or, worst case scenario, evacuate.

As much as she loves his competence and dedication, she is worried. After the first week of him going on heightened alert, signs of strain began to manifest: circles under his eyes, tension set in every muscle, eventual blood-shut eyes. By now, three weeks in, he is showing serious signs of self-neglect: aside from the obvious lack of sleep, he is getting thinner from not eating enough, or working too hard, or some combination of the two. He looks ragged: hair unkempt and growing unusually long on the front and sides, a constant five-o’clock shadow on his usually smoothly-shaven chin and upper lip, and, sometimes, she notices, he’ll wear stained or wrinkled clothing, as though he no longer even has enough time to look at them, when picking them out. What's more, although Zelda has not had the chance to get close enough to verify this with her own nose, it’s a pretty safe bet he hasn’t been allowing much time for bathing, either, judging by his fingernails. The overall picture is disturbingly unlike the clean, meticulous appearance Link has consistently maintained since becoming a knight. ‘Darn him!’ It’s killing her to see him like this, and the worst part is, he doesn’t even know she feels this way, nor does she have enough time to tell him. So when he comes to her later that week with a new plan, she visibly pales, torn between love and duty...

Calatia has, indeed strengthened their borders with Ishandi, and engineers have been sent to the rocky passes between Calatia and Death Mountain to carve a larger path for Hylian troops to move through and proceed into Ishandi from the south, while current forces press forward from the east, effectively pincering the invaders between Hylian and Calatian forces, and driving them away from the mountains and into the unprotected valley on the other side, where they will be vulnerable to assault on all sides. The best part is, the northern kingdom of Varunda has agreed to join Hyrule’s efforts, and are even now sending battleships to press down on Ishandi from the north.

What Link proposes now is to join the combined Hylian and Calatian forces from the south, from within Calatia, and, taking a small group of elite knights with him, lead the group away from the main battles and capture the Ishandi Prince, Rastille, who the would-be-assassin has sworn to be the one leading the assault, and is rumored to be living among his soldiers on the western side of the valley. Other sources have already confirmed the assassin’s assertions as to the Prince’s location, and delivered important details of the encampment. If Rastille is captured, the fighting will stop, and he can be ransomed off to his family in exchange for a complete cease-and-desist.

The plan is bold, dangerous, and has a very high probability of success, while endangering as few lives as possible. It also has a very high probability of resulting in the deaths of Link or anyone else within his personal contingent, even though the people he names, including himself, are the most skilled spies, soldiers, and other personnel that Hyrule has to offer.

Zelda listens to his proposal, amazed she can hear his words over the pulsing rush of blood pressing against her ears, and grips her throne with white-knuckled hands, her body remaining upright by sheer force of will. At first, she focuses on his words, and tiny, insignificant details of his appearance that mean nothing, yet mean the world to her. His color-shifting eyes, usually emerald green with mirth, now dark hazel with concentration, the dark, heavy brows set into a grim line. His long, reddish-brown hair, usually tied neatly back, now loose and wind-blown from his earlier horse ride, loose strands near the front falling messily around sculpted cheek bones. The heart-shaped face, hastily shaven just this morning, has a few dark scabs where fresh cuts dot his tanned skin at the chin and near the right ear, from where he’d obviously nicked himself with the razor, in his haste. The usually-snug Knight’s long-tunic uniform hangs a bit loose on his powerful, lithe frame, and across broad shoulders, the belt falling almost delicately upon his narrow hips. The golden birthmark on his left hand, of the Triforce, stands in stark contrast along knotted tendons, against skin that is a little pale from wearing gauntlets and riding gloves so often. His nails, like his hair, need a trim. She pinpoints, with a repressed wince, the scars of his past attempts to protect her kingdom: a slim gash just under his right eye, where a serrated arrowhead had narrowly missed doing serious damage; a deep scar running up his left arm and under the sleeve, where he’d once deflected an enemy sword, but still gotten hurt; a circular row of small scars along the pointed tip of his right ear, from who-knows what mishap; a line across his left earlobe, where he’d had his earring torn off by a Moblin’s spear, and had to have the lobe sewn back together, because he’d refused to not wear the odd, gleaming blue-metal hoop he’s had for as long as she’s known him.

After awhile, Zelda can no longer focus on these things. Instead, she lets her vision go blurred, then white, focusing only on the sound of his voice. She is stricken, her heart screaming at her to deny his request, and throw him in a holding cell, just to be sure he won’t try the maneuver, anyway... not that such methods would hold him, for long, but it might buy her time. The thought of losing him… Unfortunately, she knows exactly how this verdict will go. Zelda has been forced to make decisions between the lives of the people she loves, and the kingdom she is sworn to protect, ever since she was fourteen, when her father’s health began failing, and she knows she has to allow this; if she doesn’t, she doesn’t deserve her people’s trust or allegiance, and the Triforce of Wisdom would be well-justified in disowning her. She may as well hang herself for treason, if she chooses the life of one willing knight over the life of her many defenseless subjects... no matter how precious this one knight may be. And so, reluctantly, Zelda agrees.

In two-week’s time, when the excavation along the south-western perimeter Death Mountain is complete, and the Hylian troops stand ready to move through Calatia and into Ishandi, Link will go with them, and her heart will go with him, to live or die as he will.

Link prepares with single-minded determination. He has dedicated his life to protecting the Princess, and her change of title to “Queen” makes his resolve no less concrete. He refuses to allow himself to relax for even a minute, ensuring her continued safety by his unwavering vigilance. To actually catch a potential assassin has stoked the fires further, and now that a chance has surfaced to remove this new threat quickly and efficiently, he jumps at it with the fervor of a dying man grasping toward Heaven.

He had allowed himself to relax, once, and left the palace for awhile, after defeating Ganon, determined to take a vacation, if only to come to terms with one inexorable truth: that however strongly he may feel about her, Zelda is a woman out of his reach. No matter how many monsters he slays, or homes he helps rebuild, she belongs to Hyrule, and it will be Hyrule that decides who she may and may not love. He’d left seeking relief for his wounded heart, only to have his dreams tormented by constant visions of a land in peril, and a murderous power let loose on the world, and of the woman he loved, in mortal danger. When the mark of the Triforce appeared on the back of his left hand, he decided enough was enough. Returning to the North Palace, plagued by more questions and tension than he’d had when he left, he found his worst nightmares realized: Zelda had been cursed. A greedy man, seeking to wrest from her the family secret of the whereabouts of the long-lost Triforce of Courage, had placed her in a spell of sleep with his dying breath. The newly-turned-16 young Link had stuck around long enough to learn what he had to do to break the curse, gather supplies, and spit on the unmarked grave of the bastard who’d cursed Zelda, then left to save his Princess.

The scars of that journey remain on his body to this day: the long gash on his arm where he’d been hit deflecting his living shadow’s sword, as well as marks on his ear where the shadow had sunk it’s teeth after jumping onto his back; the claw marks he’d raked across Link’s torso during the same leap; even a deep stab wound on his gut, where the Shadow had miraculously missed his vital organs. To this day, it’s hard for him to look at himself in the mirror. At night, in his darkened room, he swears his reflected image will develop glowing red eyes, if he stares at it long enough.

On that journey, he learned he was a marked man: Ganon’s minions had sworn vengeance on him. They believed that his death would allow them to revive their lord and master, if they only killed Link and poured his blood on Ganon’s ashes. After learning this, he could no longer continue to live at the Palace: there were too many innocent lives at stake. He’d built himself a cottage in the woods, near enough to the castle that he could be there within a few hours, if called, had learned to cook and preserve foods so he could make as few trips into town as possible, and had learned to set traps, be sneaky, and observant. He’d also made a Last Will and Testament: upon his death, he is to be cremated, immediately, in whatever clothes and bandages he dies in, so that no blood is left behind. He left these instructions, along with a map of where to find him, in Zelda’s personal care, and left.

That would have been it, but after being crowned Queen, the first thing Zelda did was visit him at the cottage, and insist he come back to the Palace. Insisted he be Knighted, in fact. “You deserve it,” she’d said. “If you were Hyrulean-born, I’d proclaim you a Noble, but since Knighthood is the highest honor I can legally bestow, I hope you’ll accept it. It is the very least that I can offer.” Truthfully, Link had absolutely no desire for honors, and the thought of being a Noble made him blanch, but because it was what Zelda wanted, and he was weak to her charms after almost a year away from her, he acceded, on the condition that he no longer be Zelda‘s personal bodyguard; she seemed upset about that, but the best way to protect her within her own palace would be to keep himself at a distance, in case Ganon's minions finally made a strike. He left his cottage -- the roof had been leaking all winter, anyway, and he was tired of shoveling out the outhouse -- and his horse, Catherine, seemed just as happy to get out of the wilderness as he was; it was time she be allowed to foal, anyway, and Zelda had already asked if he’d be willing to pair her up with Zelda’s own prize-winning stallion -- Link didn’t know how he felt, other than awkward, about the irony of that, but he couldn't think of a reason to decline that wouldn't mortally humiliate him -- the short version of the story is that he is now the proud owner of a new filly foal: he’d called her Epona.

The bells toll the hour in the distance, breaking him out of his reverie. It’s sunset.

He rubs at the smooth metal hoop in his left ear: a gift from his twin sister, Lydia. He presses on the front, and the earring lights up briefly in a harmonic series. He waits. After a few moments, her voice comes out of it, resonating through the earring against his cheek, to be heard clearly by his keen ear. “Dia-shen? Doco ien vi?” (“What is it, My Brother?”)

“Eyeh, Dia-shay… Sem en cor, ile neh talveh...” (“My Sister, I… I’m coming home for a bit...”) “Losseh, je me ven.” (“And I need your help.”)

Chapter 3: Revelations Edit

Two weeks pass in a blur of life-and-death decisions. Casualties are mounting, but the newest group of soldiers that Sir Link has approved for Knighthood and relief militia have helped tremendously, allowing active and wounded combatants to take much-needed breaks from their 6-week campaign. The excavation project is completed and approved on-time. The Varunda battleships are lying in wait just past the edge of the Tantari Dessert, where the mountains hide them from view, and the Calatian forces have sent word that they are prepared to fight alongside Hyrule.

Zelda knows that when the sun rises tomorrow morning, and Hyrule’s reserve troops are sent south, into Calatia, it will be time for Link to go.

She wakes long before her servants come to help her dress that morning, dons her simplest dress and a nondescript cloak, and makes her way through the castle, which is already buzzing with life, despite the early hour, as preparations are made for the troops’ deployment. She takes the less-traveled pathways to avoid questioning gazes, and shows her face to the patrolling guards, who let her pass without a word. She arrives at the East Wing, where many of the higher-ranking Knights make their home while at the Palace, and proceeds past bowing Knights and servants, who assume she is there to survey preparations and wish the troops farewell. She waits till the crowd disperses a bit, then continues to head toward her target: the Tower of Ellan, Link’s home since he first lived at the Palace, what feels like ages ago. It had been restored to him upon his return, though it no longer looks out onto Zelda’s personal tower, as she herself had been relocated upon assuming the throne.

Taking a steadying breath, and glancing about to determine that there is no one in the immediate vicinity, Zelda uses her key to open the door and proceed up the stairs; Zelda has always had a key to this tower, since Link used to be her personal bodyguard. It will be her first time here, since he moved back in. At the threshold of his room, she turns the key with a shaking hand. What if he’s already left? What if he’s still asleep? ‘No, he wouldn’t be asleep. Not while preparations are in-progress.’ What if he has… guests? Though the image of him in someone else’s arms pains her, she cannot completely dismiss the idea. After all, she’s never made her feelings for him clearly known. He has no obligation to be faithful only to her. All she can do is pray to not catch him in a compromising situation, else it will make it all the more difficult to explain why she is here. ‘Just go in, tell him how you feel, and get out before he asks too many questions.’ She opens the door.

At first, she believes there is no one in the room. The candles are lit, but she sees no one. ‘He already left,’ she dejectedly reasons, but then, she realizes: the candles are still burning. Maybe he’s coming back? That’s when the sound of splashing water catches her attention. She turns to the large privacy screen in the corner, eyes zooming past his bed, where they quickly snap back and notice, ‘He’s got fresh clothes laid out…’ Another, tiny splash. Her eyes turn back to the privacy screen. A narrowed, darkened green eye peeks out from the corner of the screen, and she catches sight of a falling strand of long, wet hair. She gulps, quickly processing the situation.

“ZELDA?!” The peeking eye widens, eyebrow shooting up almost to the hairline, and the partial figure ducks back out of sight, a series of loud, frantic splashes echoing his movements. A dripping wet arm reaches past the screen and snags a towel from the nearby rack, and hurried sounds of fabric running across a damp body hit her ears, making her blush right down to her toes. Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, a part of her screams, ‘RUN, IDGIT!!’ Another part of her squeals like a school girl… she doesn’t want to think about what that part of her is trying to tell her to do. So she stands there, dumbstruck, hoping absentmindedly that there’s no drool escaping out the corners of her mouth. A face surrounded by long, clingy, wet hair pokes out from behind the screen; the entire face, this time, along with a limited view of a long, muscular neck and a powerful shoulder. The man these features belong to is quite flustered -- adorably so, in her biased opinion -- eyes wide, mouth forming a small “o” of surprise, thick brows arcing up, a warm blush spread through all visible parts of his body (though, that could just be from taking a warm bath). “Um, Your Highness? What, uh, brings you here?” She notices that his voice cracks in a few places. He refuses to look her in the eye, letting his sight dart anywhere but at her face.

Snapping herself to, she stumbles, but manages to say, “I, eh, wanted to see you before you left… I’m sorry I caught you at a bad time…” ‘No, I’m not!,’ ‘Yes, you are! Shut up!,’ her two sides argue among themselves. Thanks to her etiquette training, she manages to keep at least a semblance of calm. “Can we talk?”

Link’s eyes widen again. “Uh… yeah, sure, but… I’m kinda in an awkward situation here…” He nervously grabs an errant strand that has begun gliding over his eye and tosses it behind his ear. He darts a longing glance toward his clothes on the bed, and even at the discarded sleep shirt on the ground, at the foot of the night stand. Unthinking, Zelda leaps at the chance.

“Here,” she moves forward, grabbing the clean shirt with trembling hands. She holds on it a moment, relishing the fact that she’s holding his shirt, resisting the temptation to press her nose to it, then stiffly turns around and hands it to Link, arms outstretched.

“Um…,” Link fidgets, looking around, realizing he’s got no choice, and steps as little as possible away from the privacy screen, one arm reaching while the other clings desperately at the towel he’s wrapped around his waist.

Zelda suppresses the urge to gasp as she gets her first glimpse of his bared upper-body: well-defined arms and chest, strong and sturdy from years of swordsmanship; broad shoulders, the sinewy muscles gliding under lightly-tanned skin; a slender waist, corded muscles tensing along his stomach, delineating it with varying amount of detail as his breath and changing posture stretches or compresses the powerful abdominals; the rest hidden by the modestly-placed towel, leaving her screaming imagination to fill-in the gaps. Even the various scars have a unique beauty all their own: the vertical gash on his arm, which extends from wrist to elbow; the faint, circular nicks and linear scratches along the rest of his arms and stomach; the horizontal slash across his outstretched left bicep; and the four faint, claw-like marks running up the right side of his toned chest, barely missing one caramel-colored aureola.

There is one mark, however, that makes her shudder, sending an unpleasant cold chill up her spine: a deep, dark stripe of scarring about an inch below his ribcage, the meaning quite clear: ‘He’s been stabbed…’

Link timidly takes the shirt and turns around to pull it over his head, giving her a magnificent view of his broad back, and… the other side of his stab wound. Zelda’s breath catches painfully. Before the shirt can finish sliding down his body, she’s bent beside him, gently touching the healed wound. She feels Link tense and his back straighten under her fingers, but she’s more concerned with his scars than his modesty, at this point. A drop of water falls on her cheek, and she realizes he’s looking over his shoulder at her, his expression unreadable, damp hair whipped over his shoulder. She swallows dryly and asks, her voice thick and harsh, even to her own ears, “What happened?”

A flicker of sadness overcasts Link’s green eyes, and he mumbles, “I got careless.” A shrug. A tilt of his head. He is about to dismiss the matter, but Zelda caresses the other side of the wound, tears forming at the corners of her blue-green eyes. Link’s breathing hitches and becomes shallow and erratic, “I got unusually careless… It hasn’t happened again.” His hands try to make soothing gestures.

Zelda nods, head bobbing twice, slowly. She rises from the floor, head bowed, eyes downcast. With slow, precise movements, she turns back toward the bed and grabs the next group of clothing: brown breaches. Barely registering to wonder what she’s doing, she turns and holds out the much-mended garment to Link, standing the way she’s seen her maids stand when handing her a particularly fine piece of clothing. She hears Link gulp. Feels his eyes burning on her skin. She doesn’t lift her gaze. A trembling arm reaches for the clothes and gently lifts it out of her grasp. She sees Link’s feet -- all she can see of him through the current position of her head and the curtain of her bangs over her eyes -- lift, one at a time, and she hears the rustle of fabric, and sees the towel drop to his feet. She hears more rustling, and a zipper being fastened, and finally dares to raise her head and lower her arms.

Now Link is the one with downcast eyes. His long shirt is untucked, the odd pants form-fitting at the thighs, then loose below the knees. He fastens the buttons on the tall, narrow cuffs of his wide sleeves with small, mechanical movements. His hair continues to drip steadily, wetting the shoulders of his shirt and leaving a small puddle at his feet. So Zelda does the logical thing: she grabs the towel and presses it to his hair.

He stands, seemingly frozen, as she massages his scalp with the towel, standing on tip-toe to better reach -- Link isn’t a particularly tall man, but Zelda is a rather short woman. She drapes the towel over his shoulders to absorb the rest of the moisture and quickly scans the room for, ‘… A-ha!’ a comb. She gently detangles the damp hair. After a few moments, she notices the stress leaving his body, and he even crouches down to make it easier for her to reach. She combs and dries his hair, eventually running her fingers through his thick locks and soft scalp until she realizes he’s practically purring. She runs a hand experimentally up the base of his neck, toward the center of the cranial bump. He sighs happily. Zelda’s heart races in her chest, and she continues to gently scratch the back of his head.

She uses her free hand to massage his shoulder, and he grunts in a mix of pleasure and pain: he’s apparently been holding back a lot of tension. Zelda releases his scalp with a final caress and works on the knots in his shoulders, dropping the towel to the floor once again. ‘He’s so tense! How does he stand it?!’ Zelda is suddenly very glad that her archery practice has given her strong arms and hands. When it feels as if Link is about to melt under her touch, she moves lower, into his back. When she hits a spot in the center of his shoulder blade, though, he cries out in pain. She panics. “Did I hurt you?! I’m sorry!”

Link quickly straightens out and stands, head bent low, eyes closed, not saying a word. He slowly opens his eyes, now a dark shade of coffee, pupils dilated. His expression is unfathomable: part sadness, part hope, part… shame? Zelda’s eyes narrow in puzzlement. He walks toward the bed and grabs a knee-length sock, methodically lifts the loose-fitting bottom-half of one pant leg over the knee, and pulls the sock on, then grabs one of a pair of greaves, fits it over his calf and shin atop the sock, and fastens it, lowering the pant leg over both, then pulling a pair of cords at the bottom to tighten it. Before he can address the other leg, Zelda is by his side, now kneeling on the floor. She takes the second sock out of his hand, bats away his grasping fingers, and bares the other, already-upraised leg, tenderly caressing it as she slides on the sock, then gently fastening the greaves, lowering the rest of the legging with another caressing motion. She secures the cords. Still kneeling, she reaches for his boots.

A sharp intake of breath is all the warning she has before Link drops to his knees in front of her, grabbing her outstretched arm around the wrist to keep it still. When she looks at his face, his eyes are a mire of swirling emotions, and the rest of his face can’t seem to settle into any single expression, except for the brows, which are knit together, “Why are you doing this?!” He cries in a surprisingly anguished voice. “You’re a Queen! What are you doing kneeling at the foot of a peasant?!” His voice is harsh, now. Outraged? Sad? His eyes are wide, and she can see fear, anxiety, and a very deep, unspoken longing in them. It takes her breath away. Suddenly, she knows exactly what she came to say.

Her voice is soft, but firm, to let him know the issue is NOT open for debate. “Queen or not, it’s a moot point. Right now, the only thing I am... is a woman who, come sun-up, may never again see the man she loves.” Blinking away tears, her eyes lift to meet his, willing him to understand.

It’s like watching a glacier thaw and come crashing down into the ocean. She can’t pin the exact moment, but something in Link visibly snaps, and he is left stunned upon realization, eyes suddenly so alive, and facial expression so open, it's disarming. Zelda’s heart is pounding hard, making it difficult to swallow. She looks deeply into Link’s eyes, praying he’ll understand what she wants, what she needs...

This time, when he moves, there is no sign to warn her. One moment, he’s kneeling across from her, staring into her eyes, the next, he’s somehow there, right in front of her, and his lips are on hers. Zelda jumps at the sudden change, but then he presses a firm hand to the center of her back, and all conscious thought leaves her. There is no Hyrule. There is no war. There is no here. Just Link, and his tender lips, and his warmth, and his hand on her back to pin her to reality.

A hand, rough sword calluses alternating with petal-soft skin, cups her face, a finger caressing her cheek, and she feels something wet glide down her face. Is she crying? No, but then... he is…! She feels a tremor run through him, and then the kiss is broken, and so is he, body slumped, shoulders shaking violently, arms dropping to her shoulder and hip.

“L-link?!” She panics, desperately reaching out to him, wondering what the heck went wrong.

She trembles, calling out to him again, and falls silent when she hears his voice, barely above a whisper, harsh and thick with emotion: “Why?”

“What?” She blinks in confusion.

“Why now?” He looks into her eyes again. Tears still stain his cheeks, but no new ones come forth. His eyes are fierce, almost glowing, but the rest is a calm, neutral mask. Zelda is unnerved -- and a bit impressed -- by the control he exudes. “I’ve loved you since the day I met you, so why love me back now?” The tone says he'll tolerate no lies or sugarcoating.

“Because… I don’t want you to do anything stupid!” She winces, knowing how that must have sounded. Surprisingly, Link just continues to stare at her, patiently. Somehow, she finds the courage to go on. “This is practically a suicide mission you’ve set yourself, Link, and you’ve been pushing yourself so hard, I’m terrified that you’ll go off and get yourself killed, trying to save everyone else!" Her voice cracks on "killed", but she pushes on. "I figured, if I didn’t say it now, I may never get the chance…” She takes a moment to steady herself, remembering her royal bearing, then continues, with unflinching honesty, “I’ve loved you since the first, too, but I didn’t really understand why… You were so different than anyone I’d ever met: so brave, and open, and kind… But, you came along at a very dark time in my life, when I wasn't sure of whom I could trust, and I was afraid you’d turn out to be like all the other people around me, after all: arrogant peacocks, strutting their tail feathers, hoping to impress me because they knew I’d someday be Queen, and sought to control me. I was scared to wake up one day and find you’d changed into one of them, or were one all along, and my kingdom would pay the price for my stupidity... But, when you saved me again, then left the Palace and tried to fade out of everyone’s mind, I realized... my fears were unfounded, and the only truly stupid thing was not telling you how I’d felt all along. That’s partly why I asked you back… I wanted -- no, needed -- you close to me… But then, life and duty got in the way, and we were both always so busy. Then, this ridiculous war came along, and there was no time for… No! I’m tired of excuses... I’m in love with you; have been for years. I don’t regret it, I won’t apologize for it, and," she suddenly smiles, remembering that, only a moment ago, he'd told her he loved her, too. The thought makes her giddy, "and, as long as you love me back, then, damn anyone who has a problem with it! It’s you that matters! Just…" That's right... the whole reason she'd decided to tell him, today... It's a sobering thought. "...come back to me safe. Please. I can‘t stand the thought of losing you!” She feels the tears welling up, and the uncomfortable heat rise to her face; prays she can hold it together.

When she dares glance up, the most dazzling smile Zelda has ever seen suddenly graces her Hero’s face, as he reaches to cup her cheek, again, inching his body closer. “I planned on coming back, even before you told me this. I love you! Even if you never loved me in return, I could still spend a lifetime admiring you from afar, and it still wouldn’t be near enough time. You think I’ll be satisfied with just three years of gazing at my beautiful Princess?”

The answer makes her so happy, she feels as if her body might melt. And then, his lips are back, and nothing else matters.

Unfortunately, time continues to pass, no matter how inconvenient, and the tolling of bells alert them that it’s time for Link to head down and join the rest of the troops. They both groan in frustration as they break-off their kiss, foreheads pressed together as they steady themselves. A chagrined smile tugs at the corner of Link’s mouth. Zelda rises first, reluctantly, and asks Link which piece of clothing comes next. Link stifles a disappointed-sounding moan, and stands, a bit stiffly, to join her.

A chain-mail shirt goes over Link’s head, both being careful to not get it caught in his mostly-dry hair, and Zelda’s fingers make quick work of the fastenings. Then comes his trademark green tunic, boots, and a pair of gauntlets that perfectly cover the fitted cuffs of the billowy shirt. Next comes a belt, with his various satchels and item pouches already attached. Last, Zelda helps him tie his long hair into a neat plait, which she pins to the top of his head before settling a padded, plate-armor skullcap over it, and secures his trademark green hat over that.

A final, longing glance in each other’s eyes, followed by another passionate kiss and a tight, desperate embrace, and the couple break apart once and for all, Link grabbing his sheathed sword and strapping it to his belt on the way out, his eyes never once leaving Zelda’s as he exits the door.

Zelda waits until she hears his footsteps on the bottom of the stairs before allowing herself to drop to the floor. She grabs his towel, and curls up with it to breathe in his comforting scent. ‘Gods, please, keep him safe!’

She cries. And she prays.

Chapter 4: Home Edit

The journey into southern Hyrule by barge takes just under two full days to complete, the dozen or so large vessels pulling into the shallow cove by the foot of Spectacle Rock, one-at-a-time, to unload their shipment of horses, food, weapons, tents, tools, clothing, vehicles, and various specialties of human worker: soldiers, medics, field guides, cooks, craftsmen, and other essential personnel. Fortunately, once across the Calatian border, the Hylian Knights will have open access to Calatia’s own supplies, so the list of non-military travelers is kept to a minimum. It is another four-day trek by foot and horse and wagon to actually enter Calatia’s eastern boundary on the other side of the mountains. The newly-expanded highland paths are impressive, and will serve well as convenient trade routes, after the war.

Link knows he’s entered the land of his birth when his ears pop, and the first pristine snowflakes settle on Catherine’s saddle: the higher elevation means it always snows heavily during late-autumn in Calatia. Soon, the cool gusts of easterly wind wrap around his cloak and loose strands of hair, as if to caress and welcome back the lost son that Calatia has been missing for three long years. The sight of the snow-capped northern mountains tugs at his heart and brings a lump to his throat: it reminds him that it’s been three years since he last saw his family, too.

The mountains of Calatia always make him think of his mother: cool, serene, and unassumingly powerful (except for the occasional avalanche that mows you down, if you‘re being too loud and rambunctious). The white snow and pale gray rocks resemble her silvery tresses and grey-and-white military uniform. Link wonders idly if Mother or Father will be fighting the Ishandi during this war, as well. Ironic, that: the last time Ishandi attacked, his parents had been about his age and, like him, they’d found their soulmate in the midst of a war. His Calatian mother, Medilla, had saved his father, Arn (then a foot-soldier of the Hylian Knights) by shooting an arrow into the pikeman that snuck up behind him while Arn dealt with an enemy swordsman. His father jovially swears it was “love at first rescue”, and after meeting Zelda, Link completely understands. To this day, one of the things he most admires about the Queen is her graceful mastery of the bow, and her will to fight. Thanks to his warrior mother and tom-boyish twin sister, Link is more than comfortable around strong women. And as much as he loves and respects the Hyrulean-born father he so resembles, for him, the old adage holds true: "Mother is God, in the eyes of a child".

His reverie is cut short by the approaching hoof beats of his personal retinue’s horses. The eldest, Emmika, rides ahead on a grey mare, and sturdy little Karina, the group’s only female, rides beside tall, exotic Rommel, each atop matching midnight-black steeds (courtesy of the Palace stables). Emmika’s gravelly voice is merrily loud over the gusting wind, pale blue eyes twinkling from under snowflake-coated lashes, set deep in a weathered face. “Hell of a storm, eh, Captain! Safe to assume we won’t be breakin’ from the main group as long as this is a-brewin’, eh?”

A corner of Link’s mouth quivers from holding back an amused smirk. Oh, what Hyruleans will call a “storm”! He calls out over the noise of the gusts, “This is a gentle breeze, by Calatian reckoning, First Lieutenant! The real storms will make themselves known once we clear that ridge up ahead,” he points to the north. “And please, stop calling me ‘Captain’. You know that’s not my rank.”

“Should be, for all the crap yeh put up with! How’d you get saddled with us whackos, anyway? Lose a bet?“ He cracks a toothy grin and cackles. Link settles for a broad smile of his own in reply, holding his laughter in-check, not only because he knows that Emmika’s well-aware of his own worth, and merely loves to yank the younger man’s chain, but also because Emmika’s cheery, gaping maw reveals a green clump from a half-chewed herb caught between crooked front teeth. The old coot may be nuttier than squirrel droppings (and about as good-looking) but his incessant good mood is contagious. Plus, he’s the sneakiest bastard Link’s ever met: he taught Link everything he knows about stealth, setting traps, and spotting the clues that other people miss. There is no one he’d rather have at his side during an infiltration mission.

Rommel smirks behind Emmika’s back, and pipes in in his deeply-accented Hyrulean. “Hey, Old Guy, watch who you be callin’ a ‘whacko’. I’ll have you know, my therapist gave me a clean bill ‘o health last week!”

Karina snorts. “Your ‘therapist’? And just what’d you do to get sent to a shrink, in the first place, oy?”

Rommel gestures casually. “What makes you think I got ‘sent’? I could’a gone willingly!”

“Yeah, you could, but we all know you didn’t.”

“I heard ’e slipped that jackass, Aremecki, a potion that turned his hair blue, ‘cuz he called ’im a ‘fruitcake’,” Emmika nods sagely.

“Sounds about right. Both the scenario and the description,” Karina teases, with a shrug, her armor-clad shoulder clanking loudly in the echoing passage.

“I’ll have you know, I turned his whole head blue,” Rommel proudly declares, “with purple spots, just like a Makeshian melon. And he deserved it, because what he actually called me was ‘Foreign Fruit-cup’!” The others wince and hiss at the insult, and suddenly all three are quite vocally agreeing with Rommel that, yes, Aremecki did earn it. “Jes ‘cuz I’m good-looking. What fault it be o’ mine to have been born beautiful?! But my snooty Second Lieutenant had me go ta the counselor, anyway, to deal with my ‘self-image-driven rage issues’, or some crap like that. Tch! I tell you!”

The others, including Link, nod in commiseration. Fact is, he sympathizes all too well with the talented Potions-Master: both of them, foreigners in a strange land, and both just a bit too pretty for their own good. At least, Link has the advantage of not looking particularly foreign, and has acquired enough scars and muscle along the years that, by now, most jerks can figure out it’s best to keep their comments to themselves, even if they don’t already know him by reputation. When he’d been a short, gangly teenager, though, he’d learned to grow his bangs long and wear oversized clothesm to give himself a more rough-and-tumble, boyish appearance (better to look like a big kid than an under-sized teen, he figured). A potion-maker’s job, however, just doesn’t see enough fighting action to develop much bulk, and the form-fitting robes they have to wear to handle all those flasks and ingredients without spilling don’t help matters, either. What’s worse, as warm-hearted and friendly as most Hyruleans are, they are, by-and-large, a rather xenophobic group, and Rommel’s dark skin, braided hair, and slanted violet eyes just scream “outlander”.

Still, it’s hard to dwell too long on the negative, when hanging around this group. Still chuckling a bit over the story of Aremecki’s swollen blue noggin, the group rides together for a few hours, occasionally engaging in idle chitchat. The massive caravan moves all around them, the many loud noises of an army on the move filling the otherwise-empty plains at the foot of the mountain chain.

As Link predicted, the storm on the other side of the ridge is intense. Most of the Hyruleans gawk and gape at the sight a few moments, before realizing that, damn, it’s cold!, and grabbing at coats and blankets and whatever other means of keeping warm is at their disposal.

After a couple more hours of alternately riding and leading their horses on foot through the thick layer of snow, teeth knocking hard enough to make their vision blur, the storm dies down as abruptly as it came, moving swiftly in the direction they've just come from. The wind is still howling, but at least it doesn’t have the same bite, now.

“Heya, Cap’?” Karina’s call pokes and prods slightly at Link’s nerves. ‘Why do they insist on calling me that?’

“Yes, Karie?” The girl should know better, too; Link trained had her, himself!

She pulls up closer, to ask semi-privately, “I was thinking, oy? When we get to the towns, maybe I could meet your Ma and Da, and the little ones, yah?” She’s being uncharacteristically timid just now, but Link thinks he understands why: Karina barely remembers her own family, and she’d begged to hear Link’s stories about his folks over and over, when she was younger, so, Link assumes, it’s only natural she’d feel attached to them.

Among all his students, she is his pride and joy. Though only two years his junior, she looks much younger than her almost-17 years: he’d found her half-starved and living under a bridge outside Saria Town during his search for the Triforce of Courage, and he’d called in a few favors to help her get settled in with a nice family. He even wrote to her regularly, afterwards, to inquire on her progress. Turns out, the kid had a knack for fighting, once she’d gotten her strength back, and he procured Zelda’s aid to push through the testing and paperwork to get Karina enrolled with the Hylian Knights, despite her small size and lack of pedigree. She ended up proving herself tougher than guys twice her size, and practically flew up the ranks to the advanced classes. She is one reason -- one of the MAIN reasons -- he worked so hard to make sure this last group of rookies graduated on time: it was her graduation, too. In a way, the girl has become family, of sorts: like a cute, pesky, younger cousin that follows you around all the time, wanting to be just like you.

“If we can, sure, I‘ll introduce you,” He smiles and nods, but lays a quieting hand firmly on her shoulder when she beams brightly, and he hears the telltale intro to a high-pitched squeal-of-glee coming on. “Uh, if the caravan makes a stop near the capital, that is; we can’t be sure what roads will be open or closed once we hit the areas that last storm just moved through.” No point letting her come unhinged so soon over something that might or might not be possible. To her credit, she accepts the possibility of disappointment quite soberly. ‘She’s a good kid!’

As the sun sets lower on the horizon, the caravan hits the first town, Meridian: a bustling city made wealthy by the trading routes. Hyruleans are always welcomed here. Once preparations are made to set up camp, and the city officials and caravan leaders gather to get updated information regarding the state of the roads, many of the travelers are free for the evening to enjoy Meridian’s cheery night life.

It is the first time in three years that Link has heard music from his native country, or met more than a handful of people able to speak his own language. The experience is invigorating, and makes him fondly remember his childhood growing up near the capital, playing with his twin sister, Lydia, and the local kids, and visiting his mom at her job inside the Sky Palace’s training grounds, where she’d first taught the twins how to spar.

When he hears some of Meridian’s local kids gathered around a corner, playing a round of Rhythmic Poetry, he has to resist the urge to join in. He’d been fairly good at that game: though usually quiet and reserved, as a boy, his tongue was quick and his mind sharp when it came to inventing off-the-cuff rhymes and lyrics. Like all Calatians, he has a natural sense of rhythm and harmony, due to the native language’s fluid, lyrical nature, and the importance the culture places on proper accentuation and enunciation. The accepted motto? “If you can speak Calatian, you can sing it”, and nearly every Calatian youth sets out to prove it.

The themes and rhymes may change, but the rules are always the same: the most original, exciting lyrics win, and if you’re caught repeating someone else’s poetry, it’s the Walk of Shame, for you. This particular variation, played mostly by young men and teenaged boys, revolves around making your opponent wince, thus disqualifying himself, by the audacity of the melodic insults you hurl at him, and later keeping your own cool when the proverbial target sign hangs above your head. It’s a rite of passage, or sorts: a less bloody way to gain status as Pack Leader. Link remembers this variation well; he and Lydia used to wipe the floor with their childhood friends, Aksum and Elle, not to mention those stuffed-shirt popping-jays that were always hanging around the Sky Palace when they’d spend time with their mom.

Rounding another corner, he is tempted yet again; this time, to join a Circle Dance. The lively tunes of the folk music moves itself through his system, his heart rate changing to keep time with the heavy percussive beats, and his hips and shoulders unconsciously sway with the sultry rhythm, giving his footsteps a slight bounce. This is something he’s definitely missed. Hylian music is so much… tamer; the dance steps so much more structured and rigid. The few times he’s had to accompany Zelda to a “ball”, back when he was her bodyguard, he’d nearly fallen asleep on his feet. Which, of course, made him stumble. Which, of course, made him step on Zelda’s slippered feet. Which, of course, no-doubt, means that, to this day, she probably still thinks him a bad dancer, which he most certainly is not.

Gritting his teeth, he walks past the siren’s call of the beautiful, twirling, sashaying women, knowing that as much fun as it may be to spend all night dancing himself to exhaustion, his body will regret it come the horse ride next morning, and that he’ll need to preserve his strength in the coming weeks. He promises himself, though, that, first chance he gets, he will teach Zelda to dance to Calatian music, if only to see her curvy little body do the same mouth-watering movements that surround him this evening.

Finally, a moment of peace. Nestled among the old town square and city garden is a well-preserved Church of the Trinity. The Triforce adorns the top of the entrance, much like in Hylian churches, but, once inside, the difference is almost palpable. Here, there are no pews or rows of cushions to kneel at. No jewels or stained glass adorn the walls. There’s no posturing congregation trying to mix politics and religion by hoping to impress the Royal Family and other nobles with their expensive, tacky costumes. No tapestries depicting genderless gods and the Royal Family’s insignia (in supposedly-discreet areas of the image). No. Here, the only decoration is a stained-glass window high in the wall, a simple podium, and the larger-than life statue of the Goddesses - yes, Goddesses -- in all their feminine splendor: delicate faces with slanted eyes and elongated ears, gently curved bodies flowing and moving around each other in the elegant dance that depicts Creation, figures accentuated by simple, modest attire. The altar at the statues’ feet bears a gold-leaf carving of the Triforce again, with the central triangle plated in silver. Each Goddess is carved out of a single, gigantic piece of semi-precious stone, the color of which is tied in to their respective mythologies: powerful, jubilant Din is fiery red; brave, gentle Farore is the green of the fields; and wise, kind-hearted Nayru is royal blue. Here, the people have not forgotten the original names of the Goddesses, nor that their entire world was brought to life by three divine mothers, not three sexless eunuchs.

He’s being unduly harsh, he knows. Not everyone in Hyrule is shallow and unspiritual. They’re mostly a wonderful, kind, and gentle people, and he does love the country, with all his heart. But there are times like this, when all he wants are the comforts of home, and to be able to worship, laugh, and dance, and sing, and crack jokes among people who understand him, and love him just for being himself, and not because of what he’s done for them in the past, or the problems he can fix for them in the present, and who won’t judge him harshly just because they don’t understand the culture he grew up in. In that, Hyrule is sorely lacking.

He falls back into the traditions of his ancient religion with ease. At the vestibule, he removes his boots, gently shaking off the dust into the designated spot, adding evidence of his own long journey to those already recorded in the pile, thus reminding him that all people are travelers on the day-to-day journey of life, and that all people gather both real and metaphysical debris, which one must willingly shed in order to be cleansed. He removes and neatly folds all his clothing and, proceeding into the sanctuary, lays them at the foot of the altar, physically and symbolically baring himself before the Goddesses who already know and love him completely, despite his scars and defects; this is always a humbling experience. After years of living abroad, where such nudity would be considered lewd and obscene, he is greatly relieved to be the only one in the church; he doesn’t think he can fight-off the now-habitual urge to cover his body in the presence of other people, and to make such a gesture in a Church of the Trinity would be considered most offensive: no one is supposed come into a Church with the intention to ogle, so to cover oneself would be a sign of mistrust during what is supposed to be a time of shared vulnerability. After so long immersed in another culture, it is only reluctantly that he even removes his shirt during training, and then only because Hyrule’s humid weather is so stiflingly hot compared to his homeland’s.

He breathes deeply of the cool air, not entirely comfortable, as his body is no longer used to such low temperatures (or so much exposed skin). His muscles automatically tense to fight the cold, and his feet fidget on the frigid tiles. Giving his body time to acclimate, he eventually forces out all other thoughts and focuses on his connection to the land, the spirits around him, and the Goddesses: the Three-in-One. He remembers that the world isn’t black or white. Just as two-legged furniture cannot stand on their own, much less support the weight of a body, neither can life exist without the balance of Three. Bravery without intelligence will succeed only in endangering its own life, and likely that of others, and bravery without the power of influence cannot enact change. Intelligence without bravery is doomed to live in fear of the truth, and intelligence without strength and persistence will wither and die without leaving a legacy with which to inspire future change. Strength without intelligence quickly becomes greedy and self-serving, eventually becoming hurtful to those around it, and strength without the bravery to act finds itself unable to change the world, either.

“Courage is more than mindless bravery. Wisdom is more than sterile intelligence. Power is more than selfish influence or strength.” This is the mantra of the Church of the Trinity. And like any good Church-going boy, Link also knows that the Three Goddesses themselves are but illusions: there is One Goddess, of which each of the Three is a part, for only by coming together as one can the power of Three create Life. Only by coming together can there be Balance -- the silver center of the Triforce -- the seemingly-empty space that in actuality binds all three as one; the invisible force that enables Change.

He breathes deeply, as if asleep. After an indeterminate amount of time -- was it an hour? was it three? could it be only 20 minutes? -- he opens his eyes. Meditation complete, mind cleared, and soul refreshed, Link kisses his left hand, at the center of the Triforce marking, and passes the hand from lips to either side of his chest, forming a triangle. Then he gathers his clothes, returns to the vestibule, and re-dresses. Tomorrow will be another long day.

Chapter 5: Two of a Kind Edit

The caravan’s progress is slow due to the recent snowstorms. It takes the better part of two days to reach the next town, and the stopover is kept as brief as possible. Couriers are sent on ahead with messages and updates, as one person on a horse can move faster through this terrain than the rows of wagons can. Finally, the wind and snow let up, and the large group is able to move faster. In another five days, they reach the capital, Ciella, situated just northeast of the heart of the small kingdom.

“So, now we get to meet your folks, right?” Karina, for all her usual tough exterior, is now practically bouncing with giddy impatience. Link smiles and nods. She makes a small, quick, vertical pumping motion with her arm and grins. Link blinks in confusion. ‘The heck was THAT gesture supposed to be?’ He shrugs it off as just some previously un-encountered Hyrulean quirk, and decides he’s glad she’s enjoying herself, at least. When he turns his head away, though, a small frown plays on his features. Despite the letters he sent ahead, he hasn’t heard from his parents, and neither has Lydia. He’s been tempted the last few days to ask one of the couriers to make the detour just outside of town, to his family home, and check in, but that would be an inexcusable waste of time and manpower. Since he’s here now, he’ll just do it, himself.

Leaving his companions at the camp by the edge of town, Link heads directly to his childhood home. He can visit the city later.

He hears the whicker of recognition that his mare, Catherine, utters when they come to the old dirt road that winds around the property. He laughs as the horse speeds up of its own volition, cantering toward the stables she fondly remembers. Realizing there is no need to guide her any longer, he relaxes and enjoys the ride, letting his eyes roam over the familiar sights: the wooden fence with the stone-and-mortar gateposts, the little stream that meanders lazily to the west, partially hidden by trees and underbrush, the oaks and pine trees he and Lydia used to climb, the homemade swings, and the old tree house/fort they shared, which now belongs to his little brother, Haddeh, and will soon be shared by baby-sister Akiri. Link smiles, seeing that Haddeh has made some alterations, and the tree-house now sports a rope web for climbing, a trap-door, new paint job, and a big sign in kid-printed Calatian script that reads “No Girls Allowed.” (Lydia would have scalped Link, if he’d tried to pull the same thing! Haddeh will likely have to take that down when Akiri‘s old enough to want to play in there.) The faded and frayed army banners, as well as one of Father’s old Hylian shields and Mother’s worn crossbow, still decorate the walls, he notes.

He passes the tool shed and the front of the 2-story stone house, which means the stables are just around the corner. He is surprised, when Catherine pulls in, to find there is only one other horse in there. Granted, it’s a fine animal, but he’s used to seeing most or all of the six stalls full. He removes Catherine’s tack, affixes a feeding bag, and gives her a quick rub-down. Once done, he walks around to the other occupied stall, examining the stables’ sole resident: a fine-boned chestnut stallion with black tail, mane, muzzle, and fetlocks. It’s the type of horse a herald uses -- not powerful, but lightweight and built for good speed and high endurance. Its delicate body makes the working and racing horses his father usually breeds seem like big, bulky cows, by comparison. It confuses Link. What possible use can his family have for a horse like this? And why is it the only creature still in here?

He hears a crunch on the hay behind him, and he barely has time to turn his head to wonder who’s there before his body is flung backwards, hitting the plank wall of the opposite stall hard enough to wrench a grunt from his lips. Both horses neigh and rear in surprise. He finds himself pinned and immobile, despite being completely unbound. Link shakes his head, blinks his eyes into focus, and glares at the intruder silhouetted against the stable door. Though the lighting makes details hard to pinpoint, he discerns a tall, distinctly feminine shape dressed in a bulky short jacket. A tingle runs alongside his skin and there is a light pressure in the air. Magic?!

“Eh, vu?!” (“Who are you?!”) Definitely a woman’s voice. Not his mother’s, but familiar, nonetheless. He can’t quite place it… The woman steps forward into the low lighting of the stable, whose source is a single, large drainage gate set into the wall at the back. This obscures the features of her upper body, but Link can barely make out a pretty, delicate heart-shaped face surrounded by long, dark hair. The pale face floats above the wide, ornate collar of an intricate, form-fitting short coat, with puffy sleeves at the upper arms that abruptly cinch and tightly hug the arms below the elbow. He can’t tell if the coat is pale blue or light gray. The rest of her athletic build is covered by a very short black skirt that leaves a nice, wide band of creamy skin exposed before reaching the tops of belted thigh-high boots. Link has to admit (a little guiltily), that despite being stuck helpless in the wake of a powerful Immobilization spell, things could be worse.

As the strange woman approaches him, Catherine whinnies and stomps a front hoof. The woman turns her head to examine the horse, and her eyes open wide. “Cath’ren?!”

Link’s eyes widen as he recognizes the Calatian pronunciation of his horse’s name, and stares at the woman, who makes a quick hand gesture and utters a foreign word, summoning a Light spell. Link blinks as his eyes adjust, and suddenly the woman is right in his face, lifting his bangs away from his forehead and cheeks. She gasps, and before he can compensate for the change, the spell is nullified and his body drops into a slump, propped up by the wall.

“LINU!!” She squeals, and he suddenly finds himself nearly choked by the arms tightly embracing his neck. He gasps for breath, then realization hits him that this strange, attractive woman just called him by the pet-name reserved strictly for his immediate family members. Then he sees the blue hoop on her right ear.

Flabbergasted, he stammers, “L-Lida?!”

“Dia-shen!” (“My Brother!”). She hugs him around the waist, and he shakily hugs her back, smiling oddly, his emotions a confusing mix of intense joy and being mildly disturbed -- the woman whose face, legs, and body he was just admiring... is his sister?! His friggin’ TWIN sister?! ‘What the HELL’S this girl been eating for the last three years?! She didn’t have that figure when I left!’ She speaks in fast Calatian. (“Brother, I am soooo sorry! At first, I thought you were a thief, or other intruder -- I wasn’t expecting you for a few more days, because of the roads. Honest, I didn’t recognize you at all till I saw Cath’ren! When’d you get so tall?! Look at you! You look just like Dad! Oh, I’m so glad you‘re here!”)

Link laughs warmheartedly, awkwardness passed, and he wraps his arms around Lydia, twirling her around and around, much to her delight. Separating long enough to catch their breath, bent-over with shared laughter, they make brief eye contact, and, with an impish grin mirrored on both their faces, they fall together, roughhousing, Lydia attacking Link’s now-mussed bangs with intent to yank, and Link smoothly preempting her by tackling her and then tossing her over his shoulder, to make her land with a soft plop atop a nearby haystack. Squawking indignantly and pulling hay pieces out of her hair and clothes, Lydia stands and tries to walk threateningly toward him -- an intimidation tactic quickly spoiled by the presence of hay still sticking out haphazardly from her outfit and formerly-neat tresses, as well as by her less-than-graceful fall back onto her rump when her high heel strikes a wet spot near the watering trough. Link doubles over completely, laughing so hard his eyes are tearing, his back arched and legs locked to barely hold him.

Faster than he thought she would be able to recover, he’s aware of Lydia looming over him, and feels her hand on his shoulder as she pushes back, toppling him unceremoniously onto his backside. “OWW!!” Unlike her, he doesn’t have the benefit of a soft pile of hay (or a woman’s fuller hips) to break his fall. Now, Lydia is the one who stands, laughing and pointing at his misery. Link’s resulting grin splits his face ear-to-ear. 'It’s just like old times again!'

She gives him a hand up, and they help each other put their clothing and hair to rights. Link picks out the hay in her hair and on her back, and she combs his bangs back to order… and then smacks him on the buttocks with far too much playful gusto for his still-sore hindquarters. He glares (only half-mockingly), to which she shrugs nonchalantly with a flippant excuse. (“What? You had dust-stains!”) He growls (again, only half in jest). She laughs once more. Then he asks where everyone else is. She quickly sobers.

(“Not here. There was a note in the kitchen’s breadbasket. Says, Mom ‘went off to help guard the northern border’, Dad is ‘helping round up volunteers for the militia’, and Haddeh and Akiri are ‘staying with aunt Sophie in the castle’… which is off-limits to the public now, by-the-way, until this nonsense with the Ishandi is resolved. Oh, and ‘don‘t eat the honey-berry preserves in the larder -- your mother‘s saving that for a victory cake, for when we beat those jackasses halfway into the ocean. Love, Dad.’”) Link snickers. (“The word ‘jackasses’ was crossed out and replaced with 'twits', probably by Mom, but I could still make it out.”) He laughs some more. (“I ate some of the jam, anyway. There’s a bread loaf in there that’s not entirely moldy!”) He whoops with joy.

(“Let’s go make us a sammich!”) He leads the way back to the kitchen. His stomach is growling, and he’s really tired of field rations.

Lydia rides back to camp with him. Obviously, the red-and-black horse is hers. She figured the best place to meet up with her brother would be near the family residence, and bought the fastest horse she could find -- (“Being a Mage for the State pays well, I take it?”), he raises an eyebrow, (“You have no idea!”), an obnoxiously-full wallet is jingled in response -- then she high-tailed it over here. Link refills her cup from his personal stash of Jirin wine (he doesn’t drink often, but when he does, he’s very picky).

(“So what’s the deal? You said you needed my help.”)

Checking that nobody is close enough to overhear, nor seems to be staring at them with interest, Link scoots up right beside her, hip-to-hip, and leans sideways into her, foreheads pressed together at the temples. He drapes an arm over her shoulder, to throw a layer of misdirection over their conversation. Now, with their heads so close together, they can speak in quiet whispers, their sharp Hylian ears picking up the words very clearly. If anyone sees them, the arm around her shoulder and the difference in gender will deter most people from coming up to them, thinking they’d be intruding upon an intimate moment. Link softly whispers a brief summary, about him and his three associates sneaking into the Ishandi encampment and kidnapping the Prince. (“I’ve brought a stealth and infiltration expert to stake out the enemy camp and report on all he finds, and to recommend the best points of entry and exit. I have a very gifted knight I trained, myself, to guard our backs. And I recruited a Potions-Master, to brew what we’ll need to drug the Prince and his guards, and to keep the Prince sedated on the return trip to Hyrule. I would also like a powerful magic user on our side, in case things get ugly. You know both curative and defensive/offensive magics, and I trust you with my very life. I swear, I won’t endanger you! Just keep in the background, with Emmika, and use long-range spells as needed until we’re out of the danger zone. Does this sound doable?”)

Lydia brings a finger to her mouth and taps on her extended lower lip, mulling over the plan. Her ears wiggle slightly as she concentrates. Link cocks his head to the side, wondering why she doesn’t seem pleased.

(“No. It’s not doable.”)

‘What?!’ Link’s eyes widen in shock.

(“I will not stand back and use ranged spells when your life may be in danger. I’m coming in with you. My spells are far more effective close-up, and I can cast shields and instant-healing spells that are impossible to do over long-range. Plus, I can handle myself in a physical fight -- you remember, we trained together? I’m an asset, and you would be foolish to leave me in the background. You will be protected, Brother!”)

Link is once again flabbergasted by his twin sister. He was hoping to protect her by keeping her on the sidelines, but it now seems she’s the one determined to defend him! He sighs. He supposes this shouldn’t be a surprise -- Lydia’s always been protective of her “Little Linu”, and she’s as reckless and hyper-energetic as he is; he should have known she’d want in on the action. But he had held out hope, somehow, that she would not have perceived this alternate possibility, or that he would be able to somehow dissuade her from being on the front-line. Stupid thing to hope for: her mind was always sharp as a whip, and her reasoning skills impeccable. He’s never been able to sway her to do anything his way, once she’s set her mind to doing it her way. And most bitterly, she’s right: she would be an asset, and he would be foolish to not acknowledge it. Damn it all!

She waits for him to speak, arms crossed before her chest, eyes daring him to deny her request.

He sighs again and lets his head drop to his chest in defeat. She hides it quick, but he still catches that smug little smirk she gives him. She is at once the coolest and the most infuriating person he’s ever met. (“Fine. Let’s go meet the gang. You up-to-snuff on your Hyrulean? They don’t speak Calatian.”)

“I think I’ll manage,” she replies in flawless Hyrulean. Sigh, again. It took him months to successfully incorporate a Hyrulean accent, and she knows it, too.

“Show-off,” he mock-pouts.

“Nah, just too brilliant to bother denying it!”

He smiles and leads her to where the other three have pitched their tents.

The guys (and Karina) seem surprised to see Link show up so late, and even more surprised when they see he’s brought a girl. Emmika and Rommel shoot mirrored lecherous smirks at Link -- they’re probably thinking the same thing he was, about that skirt. Karina’s stare is… oddly guarded. Rommel is about to pipe in with some no-doubt teasing remark when Emmika’s eyes suddenly widen and his grin fades. He puts a hand over Rommel’s shoulder to halt his comments, and Rommel turns to look at him curiously. Noticing Emmika’s intense concentration on Link and the new woman, Rommel, too, pauses to pay closer attention. Karina notices their silence, and then their gazes, and turns to scrutinize Link and Lydia, as well.

Slowly, realization dawns on all three, then shock, then confusion. They look at the brother and sister standing next to each other, Link, with his arms crossed casually over his chest, hips and spine in contraposta to the left, head tilted to the right, Lydia, with arms also crossed, spine and hips in contraposta right, head tilted slightly to the left. The hair is the same shade of red-brown, the faces both heart-shaped, the same bold mouth, though Lydia’s lips are fuller and painted, and Link’s jaw line longer and sharper. With Lydia’s high heels put away in favor of more comfortable flats, they’re the same height. They even have a single, matching blue hoop on alternate sides of their heads. The three allies stare from one to the other and back again, expressions ranging from amusement to shock to… hopeful anticipation? ‘What’s with Karie, all of a sudden?’

The twins share mutual looks of patient tolerance with each other. They’re used to this; the Double-Take. Lydia smiles wryly, and Link clears his throat loudly, snapping the guys’ attentions back.

Lydia cheerfully informs, by way of greeting, “Yes, we’re twins. My name is Lydia, and I‘ll be your Mage for this evening. Yes, we are Split-Twins; no, neither one of us is in drag. Yes, give us long enough, and we probably will start finishing each other’s sentences. No, we don’t do double-dates. Any other questions?”

Link stifles a laugh at the reactions that garners from his friends. The only one that doesn’t seem embarrassed by her boldness is Emmika, who actually appears to enjoy her straight-forwardness. 'Goddesses love “Lida”!'

“Alright, then! Are we ready to discuss strategy?” Link chirps merrily, whipping out a map from a handy back-pocket.

Rommel and Karina seem positively convinced their “Captain” has lost his marbles… or maybe, more accurately, that they have lost their marbles? After all, they’re seeing double… if seeing their Captain’s female equivalent can be considered “seeing double”. Emmika, again, seems delighted, and scoots over to allow Link and Lydia to sit by the fire. Eventually, the other two get the idea. Lydia’s here. And she’s here to stay. Might as well make the best of it: whiskey, all around. Who wants refills? Try not to splash it on the map, please, “And, Rommel, quit gawking at my sister’s skirt.”

Chapter 6: Emblems and Other Symbols Edit

“AHHHHH!” The loud squawk echoes throughout the slowly-waking encampment, and several heads turn to inspect the disturbance. Those who turn their heads quickly enough have just enough time to see a green blur tackling a woman wearing red and white, and then a large, second blurred shape is thrown over said woman. At first, this has the earmarks of a particularly bold kidnapping attempt, until the same voice that yelled out moments ago screeches, “LYDIA, WHAT-THE-F***?!” Of the people still observing, those that recognize the voice’s owner are flummoxed. Since when does Sir Link curse?! And why is he struggling to drag the afore-mentioned woman, now wrapped firmly in a large blanket -- and looking annoyed, but completely unafraid -- backwards into a tent?

Emmika, running crowd control, calmly looks about and announces, “’s alright, people! Just a family squabble. Nothing to see, so go ‘bout yer business.” Since the other two members of Sir Link’s camp don’t seemed especially fazed, the crowd does as it’s told and moves along, the incident mentally filed away as one of those “Huh” kind of moments.

As Link fights with Lydia’s willfully-dead-weight to stuff her back under cover, the old man snorts and starts guffawing, and soon Karina and Rommel join in. Their ridicule is only partially muffled by the dropping tent flap.

If a human can be said to bristle, then Link is doing just that. Lydia smirks in repressed mirth, thinking that the only things her brother is missing are tufted ears and a furry tail. She purposely uses her most annoying mock-innocent voice and opens wide eyes to ask, “Brother Dear, whatever’s the matter?”

Link splutters. Yes, splutters. Like a deflating balloon. “W-w… You can’t go out looking like THAT!”

“What? Like this?” Lydia drops the concealing blanket, the outfit beneath being a wine-red tunic with a wide-sleeved white undershirt… except that the tunic has a loose wrap-around front with a dangerously low v-line opening, and the white shirt is similarly completely open on the front. The only part of the shirt-front that shows under the tunic is the collar, which gives the impression of being a wide choker. A round medallion on a long chain merely serves to point out that, yes, that is a significant amount of cleavage; pretty nice abs, too. The dark short-shorts under the tunic and the mid-thigh-high boots (the same ones she wore yesterday) don’t leave much to the imagination, either.

Link’s face is beet-red with anger and frustration. A twitch threatens the corner of one eye. He grits his teeth to keep from screaming again.

Lydia is nonplussed. “I don’t know what you’re so fussy about. I wear this outfit nearly every day.”

“WHAT?!” His voice cracks, and his jaw drops. The misery painted on his face would be pitiable, if it wasn’t so funny to her.

“This is my uniform, Link. The one I wear every day at the Academy? I even have multiple changes of clothes in the same cut. Check my bags!”

Jaw still open, but his face set in clear disbelief, Link edges to her pack. Sure enough, in the center pocket, there are four or five variations of the same shirt and tunic, in a number of colors. Now that he looks more closely, the outfit does resemble the one the academy sent his sister over the mail the week before she left home to begin her training, and that one did, indeed, have a low-cut tunic. But Link clearly remembers that outfit having a complete shirt, and not just sleeves and a collar! He stares at his sister as if she’s grown a second head.

“Are you telling me, they let you walk around in that, at the Academy?! I thought most mages were guys!”

“They are.”

“But… wouldn’t this, I dunno, distract from the learning, or research, or whatever? Having the few female mages walk around half-naked?” The poor guy looks truly confused. And appalled. And intrigued, despite himself.

“Well, it would, if the other female mages actually wore something like this.”

“Wait, what?! You mean, the other female mages wear a normal uniform, like the one you left home in?”


“So then… why only you…?”

“’Cuz I’m just special like that.” She flashes a cocky grin.

“That’s not an answer! Why doe my sister get to be the only one walking around uncovered from neck to navel?!” Link’s starting to come a little unglued. And his tone is taking on a distinctly bossy edge.

“Because I’m high-ranking enough to be allowed an altered uniform.” Now, she’s beginning to get miffed.

“High-ranking enough to… Hold up! Now, you’re telling me you chose this design?!”

“No, I’m telling you I created this design. And commissioned a seamstress to have it custom-made. I still don‘t see the problem. It‘s not like I‘m not showing anything except cleavage.”

“THAT'S more than ENOUGH!! Look, this is an army camp! There are soldiers everywhere. Soldiers, as in, “a lot of men, crammed together, with virtually no women”. With all the testosterone in the air, and you walking around looking like that, I’m gonna have to bust some heads! Look, I’m supposed to be using my sword against the Ishandi, not my own allies!”

A threatening growl colors her retort of, “You do not have to protect me, Brother! As I recall, I immobilized you just yesterday!”

“Lydia, you‘re constantly surrounded by GUYS! And not just here, with the caravan, but at Academy, too! More men thrown together with a very, very small female population, and those guys can fight magic with magic! It’s incredibly dangerous! Don‘t you know, by now, how guys think?”

“YES, I do. And that’s why I wear this!” That stopped him cold... He wasn’t expecting that answer, and now, he looks like he’s just been told that his lover’s a man -- post-coitus. Before he can reorganize and point out the apparent craziness of that statement, Lydia pommels him with logic. “The only thing an arrogant, powerful man fears is an even more powerful WOMAN. When I wear this, it reminds them -- every, single one of those self-important bigots -- that a woman has attained this rank, and in faster time than it took any of them to climb even half so high! And it reveals, for all the world to see, exactly the reason they haven’t let me climb even higher -- because I‘m a woman. It’s a symbol of my strength, and they HATE it. But because I’m Archmage, all they can do is gnash their teeth behind my back, because even the ones that outrank me know that all it will take is for one of them to impugn my honor, to give me a reason to challenge him to a wizard’s duel, and when the battle is over, the world will know that I’m the stronger Mage. That’s why I wear this!”

KO’d. Utterly. A feather wafting in the breeze could knock Link over, right now. Slowly, the shock wears away, and Link is left with a sobering respect for his twin sister. He will never admit it aloud, but he truly admires her, right this moment. That’s alright; Lydia knows: she sees it in his eyes.

Suddenly, the tension leaves the room, and both twins’ shoulders relax.

“Well, come on, then. We’re supposed to be enjoying the city, right?” Lydia grins brightly. Link reciprocates the smile, then nods. Anger abandoned, they turn together and walk out the tent.

The caravan is stopped for the day. Another freak storm moved in last night, and the roads up ahead are buried under ten feet of snow. Calatian road crews are currently working to resolve the issue, but until the path is cleared, the army's not going anywhere.

A few people (mostly guys) turn to stare at Lydia’s unusual garments -- just because it’s okay to be nude in the Church does not mean it’s acceptable to extend that practice out into the streets. Just to be safe, Link grips his sword handle and attempts to look menacing, by her side. And to think, he was paranoid over the idea of someone joining him at prayer a few nights ago!

His sister… what can he do? He wants to protect her, like he used to when they were kids, but it’s beginning to dawn on him that this older Lydia is a whole different breed of female than the carefree, rambunctious little girl he grew up with. Back then, magic was a big game to her. It was a great way to get apples down from the trees, and sneak a couple of cookies from the kitchen when their mother warned them not to spoil their dinner, or light a campfire to roast marshmallows on without having to bring tinder and flint. Occasionally, it was even a way to get even with Link for whatever little slight he caused her -- he’ll never forget the three hours he once spent crammed in the corner of their shared room, floating above the bunk bed, with nothing to do but watch a little garden spider crawl around the wall -- needless to say, he never again went near her diary (while she was in the house.)

Now that he thinks about it, she was pretty powerful, even then. He can barely light a fire without singeing his sleeve, or completely missing the target, but she can cast spells with barely a hand gesture, and get it right each time.

He suddenly misses Zelda -- a lot. She sometimes tries to teach him better control over his magic. When she’s there, coaxing him, it’s easier to pay attention. He finds this strange; a woman like Zelda should be a distraction, not a concentration aid, but, when he’s with her, it’s as if he’s so determined to not embarrass himself by running his mouth, or being too quiet, or tripping over his own feet that, suddenly, anxiety over magical performance takes a backseat to other, more earthly forms of potential humiliation, and he can get the spells to work right. He’s still weak as hell without an amulet or wand or other item to focus his power, but at least, with her, his fire spells don’t suddenly decide to turn into fireballs that shoot up, deflect off the cast-iron skillet above his fireplace, and proceed to set ablaze to his roof… stupid, leaky cottage roof… ‘I really need to thank Zelda more often for rescuing me from my own house…’

She’d said she loves him. Even said that she always had. A nice warmth seeps into him at that, despite the bitter cold.

‘Cold… that’s it!’

He motions Lydia to wait for him, then ducks into a shop he saw a few blocks back. With some specific questions to the matronly clerk, and a quick browsing of the samples she fetches, Link makes his selection, pays the woman, and runs back outside. His sister is right where he left her, head cocked sideways and arms crossed. She never did have much patience.

“Lida! Here!” he hands her the parcel he just bought. He idly thinks that maybe he should have taken an extra moment to have it gift-wrapped, as the lady suggested, but, eh. Lydia’s never been one for frills, anyway.

Lydia raises an eyebrow, curious, and a bit suspicious. Link knows it’s not like him to buy random gifts, but this is a nice solution to the current problem. As she rips into the cardboard box ( ‘Yep; no point in wasting wrapping paper’ ). He sees her eyes widen in surprise and her mouth open a little. Her hand pulls out a wide silken scarf with subtle lacing on the edges. In color and trim, it’s a perfect match for her customized shirt. She raises her chin to look at him, her eyes asking “why”.

“It’s cold. Just because you’re trying to make a point doesn’t mean you have to do it at the expense of your health.” He shrugs, hoping he sounds sufficiently nonchalant.

Lydia shoots him a pointed glare, but smiles and wraps the scarf around her neck with a simple knot, the wide swath of fabric covering most (though, unfortunately, not all) of her exposed torso. She pats his arm, leans forward, and plants a gentle kiss on his cheek. “Thank you, Linu.” He smiles back at her.

It’s several hours later, and the siblings are happily exhausted. They’ve joined a Circle Dance, played Catch, and then Juggling Toss (two sticks per player, one stick per hand, and two or more players, with the same number of round pebbles as there are players. The goal? To use the sticks to bounce the pebbles back and forth between all players, without dropping any of the stones). They’ve also climbed the steps of the Sky Palace; Lydia was right, it’s locked up tight, and the guards smile apologetically upon dismissing them. At least they can rest knowing their younger siblings will be safe in aunt Sophie’s care, and behind the sturdy castle walls. Then they’d left the Palace and rejoined the dance for a few hours. And now, they’re finishing up the third round of drinks at a local pub (well, Lydia is on her third; Link is still nursing his first). The mild, sweet alcohol and the exertion of the day combine with the chill wind, and both their cheeks and noses are rosy and aglow as they laugh and catch up on each other’s life -- with the recent discovery of Zelda’s mutual feelings for him left out of the conversation (the idea is still too new, and Link fears that if he just breathes too hard, the illusion will shatter around him. Best to give it time. Best to wait until it feels less tenuous, more real.)

They walk back to camp, hand-in-hand, Lydia swaying a bit, and not entirely due to the music filling the streets. She makes a sudden halt, the unprepared Link wrenching to a stop beside her. She’s looking through the window of an all-night tattoo parlor, and grinning like a mad woman. Link raises a questioning brow.

That’s what you need!” she declares triumphantly, the words only mildly slurred. “A tattoo!” At his bewildered expression, she eagerly plows on, “I mean it! A tattoo! Something bold, only, where not just anybody can see it, you know?”

“What? Like those arrow-looking designs on the small of the back?” He snorts. As if!

“Nooo! That’s a girl’s statement!”


“Yep! It says ‘aim here’!” Link blanches, then blushes bright red. Lydia giggles at his reaction.

‘Wow. She MUST be drunk to be laughing like that!'

“Naw,” she continues. “What you need is something more manly. Something intimate, but that shows off your physical prowess, you know?”

‘OH yeah, she’s drunk!’ Link is not amused. “Lydia, I am not -- repeat -- NOT getting a tattoo on my privates, alright?”

“GAAAAAH!!” She whimpers and covers her ears. “Oh, I do not need to picture my brother’s Family Jewels, alright?! YIKES!”

“Then what the hell are you talking about?!” This is becoming exasperating. Lydia’s drunk. Link’s not, which means he's responsible for her. It’s cold. And they’re standing outside a tattoo joint having a pointless conversation. “I’m taking you back to camp.” He grabs her arm and begins to walk.

“I meant on your bicep, or your chest, or something!” Link stops walking, still holding her arm. He shoots her an inquisitive look. “Like, maybe a Hyrulean symbol right over your heart? Something nobody’d ever see unless you took your shirt off, like, in the middle of a fight. And then, when they ask, you can tell them it represents your loyalty to the crown, or some other sentimental crap like that. Women love that kind of thing! It’s all in the details! I bet if Zelda saw you shirtless and sweaty, after a battle, or a training session, and then saw that unexpected mark on you, it’d melt that cold, regal exterior till steam came out her ears!” Lydia is excitable, and pretty pleased with herself for coming up with this scheme. She crosses her arms, puffs out her chest, and beams brightly, waiting for an answer.

‘… WOULD Zelda … ? … NAW!’ What the heck is he thinking?! Lydia’s drunk, and if he’s even contemplating this, he must be, too!

“Aw, c’mon! Wouldn’t it be nice to come home the victorious hero after a war, and then, just casually, there it is? The proof that you’re not just a goody-two-shoes in a silly green hat?”

“… HEY!”

“Oh, please, honey, it’s a ridiculous hat. What’s with the flappy end, anyway? Is it supposed to be like a flag waving behind you, or something?" She grabs the tail of Link’s cap and pulls on the end, making it bob and flap around like a banner in the breeze. "The hell else is it good for?” He glares at her, lips pulled tight and prim, and pointedly yanks the end of the cap out of her hand. She doesn't even slow down. “Seriously, Link, you’ve got a major Good Boy image. Did you see the shock on everyone’s faces this morning when you cussed? I thought that mustachioed fellow in the back was gonna drop down a hole in the ground, when he heard you! And your teammates call you ‘Captain’. And you carry maps and tons of gear with you everywhere you go. Loosen up! You‘re giving me an ulcer just looking at you!”

The silence hangs in the air a few minutes, neither twin budging, glaring at each other. Finally, surprisingly, Lydia sighs and slumps. “I’m too tired and too sloshed for this. Do what you want. I’m heading back to camp. I’m gonna have a helluva hangover in the morning, if I don’t go to sleep right now. Night-night!” She waves lazily over her head as she walks past him.

For a moment, Link is stunned. Then his face heats in anger for a few seconds. Then he stops to think… Does he have that kind of reputation? 'I mean, being a 'nice guy' is ONE thing, but... He looks down at the tip of his hat atop his shoulder, frowning slightly. But, more importantly, would Zelda find an image on his body exciting? She’s already professed her love... He supposes that means she’s stuck with him, now… 'Couldn’t hurt to give her a LITTLE surprise when I get home…' He hunts through his equipment until he finds an item with the right icon.

An hour later, he heads back to camp, his chest a bit sore, right over his heart. The nice thing is, since he’s in Calatia, the parlor artists are unfamiliar with most Hyrulean symbols, and they think the image is just a cool-looking graphic. They even make some tweaks to it, to make it more appealing against the flow of muscle. He gingerly touches the still-delicate skin, a little smile playing upon his lips. Beneath his fingers, above his heart, is a stylized, but still recognizable, firebird, with wings upraised -- the emblem of House Harkinian: Zelda’s family crest. Somehow, just having it on his skin makes the situation seem more real...