Chapter 32: Gauge
"A giant glob?" The Princess asked from her throne, placing her slightly above Alfonzo's height, her face already twisting with worry. "What colour was it? Green? Blue? Red?"
Alfonzo could only blink dumbly. They hadn't really been concerned about that, more with getting back to the train and finishing their expedition before the glob latched onto them like it had that unlucky Tektite.
His slinged right arm burned at the thought and he massaged it to sooth the pain. Standing a little straighter, he attempted to hide his action. The Princess already looked concerned, she didn't need to add worrying about him to that.
"It was too dark to see really – being a cave and all," he eventually said. "Maybe had a bit of green though."
The Princess didn't even react to his little joke, now seeming even graver.
"You can't blame yourself, Zelda, it's clearly been hiding, and that's if it even is the same one" Link said to her – it was possibly something Alfonzo wasn't supposed to overhear – drawing the Princess' attention to him at her right.
Their closeness had caught Alfonzo's eye as soon as he'd walked in actually. Link seemed more than comfortable standing side by side with the Princess' throne – not fidgeting, or looking around as if someone was going to catch him in the act – and Alfonzo had to wonder if either one had realised how odd that was. Or how easy they'd made it for him to pull Link's leg later.
"Are there any alternatives, Link?" The Princess asked, "And the Spectacle Mountains border the Fire Realm; if it travelled all that way, how much further may it go?"
"You want to go look for it," Link said straightly. Amazingly, the typically sly Princess avoided his gaze sheepishly, and for a moment Alfonzo saw the little girl trying to justify her reasons to sneak out of the castle and visit the bakery – rather than The Princess.
"I promise, it's with good reason – this time," Zelda said, leaning towards the young engineer and looking to him, "that glob clearly wasn't normal, obviously nothing we did before really affected it, which struck me as similar to Malladus. I think a similar plan would work here too."
Link's face scrunched up in confusion, or maybe worry?
"Both the Bow of Light and Lokomo Sword broke after that though, what would we use?"
"I could fight it instead, with the Light Force."
Link took off his cap and ran a hand through his hair. "Annoyingly, I think you're right."
"I know it's not ideal, but I'm not comfortable simply sending more scouts and I think…apologies, you agree?"
"Is that surprising? You already answered my main problem," Link adjusted his cap back onto his head. "But if we plan to go, I'm not comfortable with just a wooden train, I saw the state of Alfonzo's. Can I request a steel one?"
"Of course, you have free reign preparing for travel. I'll discuss the plan with Captain Russel, see how many guards he can spare. I'll send a messenger with dates and numbers – shall I have them find you at the train yard?"
Link nodded, "The guards already have this week's schedules, so we probably won't go 'till next week, could you have the Gorons watch the cave until then?'
Alfonzo stifled a bemused smile as the two continued planning, flinging ideas around as easily as trainees did jabs at each other. Was that really the same awkward Link who'd once barely been able to state his name? Was she the same tiny princess who cried when he teased her? And now they'd put together an action plan in a few moments.
Maybe they didn't need as much pushing as he'd thought? As much as the Princess' teacher would hate the idea, they were cute together.
They'd also clearly forgotten he was there. He forced a cough.
Both froze. Link was stuck wide eyed. The Princess, for her part, composed herself quickly.
"Thank you for your report, Alfonzo," The Princess said. "I believe that's all we should need for now, please inform Teacher of any further details."
He was being dismissed, though not as subtly as she clearly hoped. It was too eager, too insistent. She was the same young princess then, even if she'd grown up a little. Alfonzo saluted, before smoothly spinning on his heel and leaving the sanctum.
Outside, the foyer stretched far ahead, with windows, empty of glass, that opened into the gardens every few steps. Rain pattered, and it was unsurprising that it bounced inside, creating small puddles on the ledges.
The hall was oddly quiet, only a few guards were scattered around, not really in any formation, and even less castle staff. Alfonzo couldn't help but feel a little disappointed – he'd been stuck with the same few men for weeks, couldn't he at least get someone new to see?
Maybe he'd head to the hospital wing, get his arm checked again? The doctor who'd checked his sling had been quite cute.
Alfonzo'd barely begun his meander to the infirmary before he heard Link's quick steps catch up to him.
"You been holding up, kiddo?" Alfonzo asked.
"Better now you're back, what about you though?" Link replied, nodding towards his slinged arm. "You had a rough time."
"Nothing we couldn't handle, just a surprise really," he met his apprentice's eyes, "though it sounded like you know more 'bout that thing than I do."
Link shied away, "I knew you heard that. Yeah, pretty sure me and Zelda fought it before."
"One of those times you 'didn't sneak off on the train together' and 'didn't do anything Teacher needs to worry about,'I'm guessing?"
"He didn't, we were fine in the end."
Alfonzo sighed, while the Princess's teacher wouldn't have liked it either way, at least telling him would have stopped the assumptions the older man had drummed up in his worry. It'd taken far too many drinks on The Princess's birthday for him to calm down about that. "I also heard that you've been staying here a lot. Because of Niko?"
"You…know what happened to him?"
"The Princess's teacher mentioned it when we were waiting for the two of you."
"Are you alright?"
"Bit of a shock, but he's been slowing down for a while now. We both knew it was coming. It's why we had you take the engineer's exam so young," Alfonzo said, clasping his hands behind his back. "You should've heard how excited he was when he heard about your adventure, he'd already started drawing up one of his art thingies by the time I saw him. Anyway, I know he was happy, so I find it difficult to be sad, you know?"
Link smiled sombrely, "I do know."
"I'm sorry I was away when it happened. How've you been holding up?"
Link ran his hand along a passing window ledge, tapping each finger like a wave rolling along the gathered puddles. "It's…just been too quiet at home. I stayed in the workshop a couple of times, but…"
"You ended up making something?" Alfonzo said. He flashed his apprentice a smile. "I do that too."
"I liked it actually, Zelda just got worried," Link said. "She suggested I come visit for a bit."
"Oh? How odd for you two-" He was cut off, narrowly avoiding a flying barrel that rounded the corner.
No, not flying, being carried; by a young recruit a similar age to Link no less. Even then, narrowly avoiding Alfonzo caused the barrel to spill from the recruit's hands.
Link caught the barrel before it could roll away. "Fledge! You ok?"
The trainee – Fledge – didn't look it. Red in the face, hands on his knees as he panted to catch his breath; he only managed to nod at first.
Link flipped the barrel onto one end. "That's hefty! Why're you lugging this around?"
The trainee scrambled to throw up a salute. "It's from the food stores, Henya requested I fetch them."
"You don't need to salute Fledge – I've told you that," Link said, rocking the barrel to feel it's weight. "Are you alright with this, do you need a hand?"
"I-It's alright, I'm almost there now. Besides…" Fledge shrunk in on himself, "I've been meaning…I mean, I want to try and get a little stronger."
"That's a great idea!" Link beamed at Fledge. "Carrying that's similar to the stance I showed you, it works your legs too, so that'll help you block hits better. Nicely done!"
"Tha-thank you," Fledge said, now standing a little prouder. "Will you…Are you going to be teaching another session soon?"
Link was stunned for a moment, "maybe, now Russel's back it depends if he'll let me really."
"I'll tell the others; we'll make him let you!"
Alfonzo didn't miss the glance Link gave him as he thanked Fledge, and the two left the trainee straining to pick up the barrel again.
"Zelda tricked me into running a training session for the recruits when you were gone," Link explained, avoiding Alfonzo's gaze.
"It seems you did a good job."
"I don't know about that, honestly I was just making things up as I went."
"He seemed to appreciate you, I'd take that to heart. There's no better reviewer than the customer. Besides, you'll find doing that's a lot more common than you realise."
Link chuckled. "Thank you. It was actually quite fun – if I'm being honest. Although I spent a lot of it just copying how you taught me, so I owe you!"
"Look who's all sentimental!" Alfonzo said, pulling Link into a side hug. "I knew you weren't really dozing off in those early morning sessions."
Link pushed against him, trying to break away. Unsuccessfully.
"Get off, you git!" Link exclaimed, finally managing to squirm his way out of Alfonzo's grip, red faced but clearly trying too hard to look annoyed.
"But thanks. I…" Link scanned around the otherwise empty hall, then – apparently happy enough – gave Alfonzo a quick hug. "I've missed you."
Alfonzo couldn't help but compare this Link to the kid he'd known. The one who'd never look him in the eye; who'd clung to him when they'd first gone to Castle Town; who'd chatter non-stop about trains, but clam up whenever passengers tried talking to him. Little Link'd started to grow up. Alfonzo pat him on the head, ruffling his hair.
He realised Link was fidgeting, gesturing with his hands as he muttered to himself. It was a habit Alfonzo noticed a long time ago, where Link would practice a conversation before speaking.
"Hey, Alfonzo. Can…can I ask for some advice?" Link eventually asked. "With…girls?"
"Got no tips that work for all women, depends who you mean."
"…You know who."
"Well, that is a tricky one. You have high tastes don't you?" Alfonzo chuckled, seemed Link could still grow a little more. "How are things between you? How does she feel?"
"I have no idea but…"
"I almost kissed her earlier."
Alfonzo couldn't hold back his grin, "Only almost?"
"I…panicked before I did," Link said, burying his face in his palms. "I don't know; we were…messing about. Zelda was just getting in her own head again, so I teased her and she did it back, and she ended up…pinning me down. But she does this thing when she's giddy and smiling where she bites on her tongue and she just looks stupidly cute and I don't know why but I just stopped thinking and started leaning towards her and…" Link had fully entangled his fingers together, not even attempting to look at him. "Anyway, I didn't but I think things are really awkward now and I don't know what to do."
"Well I don't blame you. Though – honestly – don't think I could've told if you hadn't said anything." Alfonzo sighed, rubbing the back of his head. "What makes you think it was awkward?"
"How wasn't it?" Link asked, looking genuinely distressed. "I didn't even ask her first, and she definitely wasn't happy – she literally threw me away. I…I don't want to fall out with her."
Alfonzo sighed, he'd never been like that, had he? "Look kiddo, way I see it, kissing – especially almost – needs two people. Do you really think the Princess is the type to let you get that close without wanting you to?"
"I…no, she'd do something. Or at least mention it."
"Seems a pretty clear sign then – only better one'll be if you ask her yourself."
"How though – 'Hey Zelda, remember how I almost kissed you? I know it was awkward, but let's give it another go!'"
"You're over thinking. Look at it this way, what did you do when teaching the trainees?"
Link pulled a piece of paper from his pouch, "I made a step by step plan."
Unbelievable. "And how long did you stick to that."
"I…forgot about it right away."
"See, if you can manage a group of trainees without sticking to a plan, how difficult could it be with the Princess?"
"I suppose that makes sense." Link began muttering to himself again. "But she's already stressed about that glob, we should sort that first. She'll be happier after we get back, so that could work." Link turned to face him, eagerness in his eyes. "Yeah, that makes sense. Right, I'm going to the Train Yard. I'm guessing you'll need a ride home this evening?"
Not perfect, but at least Link seemed happier now. "I'd appreciate it; I'll just be here so get me whenever works."
Link gave him a thumbs up, and dashed off towards the Train Yard, leaving Alfonzo to wonder alone once again.
Apparently a lot had happened in two weeks, most surprisingly more here than on his trip. For now, on one hand he could go to the infirmary. On the other, he now had something new to tease a certain Princess about.
He began making way back to the sanctum. The second option seemed more fun.