Sheik. That's all they ever called her anymore.
She had already spent seven years trapped like this, waiting for the hero to awake and free her. Of course, she had the power to free herself if she so chose, but it was a false choice. The Dark Lord could spot the princess from halfway across the kingdom.
It's for your own good, Impa had told her as she laid out her plan. She hadn't wanted to cooperate at first, but she had to renege. She was, after all, the last royal left alive. Without her, the kingdom would fall into a new dynasty, the ancient line severed.
Impa had wanted to seal her into an entirely different body—a male body. On that point, she had absolutely refused. It was unnecessary, she had said. If she had to pose as male, she would do it through artifice and disguise.
They managed a compromise eventually. They'd decided on a myriad of minute changes beforehand. Enough to make her body no longer her own. A stronger jawline. A husky voice. A dark tan, counteracting years of daintily avoiding the sun. And most repugnant of all, piercing red eyes. She hated those eyes. She would bend to drink from the cool stream and be forced to turn away, with eyes that were not her own staring back at her.
Secretly, she had kept her hair. It had taken her twelve years to grow it out, and it was beautiful, golden and shining. She braided it intricately, wrapping it around her head and keeping it under her headdress.
When all preparations were complete, Impa had kissed her goodbye. She could still feel her lips against her temple, even years after. Then Impa had gone to fulfill her own role as Sage. She would be left alone.
She lay in wait for seven long years, wandering around her kingdom and training under the great masters in various forms of combat. Her kingdom fell to ruins as the Dark Lord sent out his beasts, laying waste to the forest and freezing the once-great Zora's Domain. Her time had not yet come. The Hero was still asleep. All she could do was watch.
She passed through the intermittent years as if in a dream. Her form began to change, even from underneath Impa's magic. When the moon passed over her and she began to bleed for the first time, she wept.
Finally, the joyous day came when the Hero awoke. She was there to greet him. She felt a stirring of pride when she first laid eyes on him, but it was followed with the sharp sting of envy. How had he been so lucky in his fate? He hadn't had to watch his land fall apart and his people murdered. He hadn't been forced to watch his body morph unrecognizably, preparing itself for a destiny he wanted no part in.
When the Hero finally managed to liberate the Six Sages, she let herself free. Though she would never again be a young, carefree princess, she could at least become the queen she was meant to be.
When the Hero had restored order to the land and been returned to his own time, she began the arduous task of rebuilding her kingdom. It took years of creating infrastructure and working diligently. Finally, after reinstating some semblance of order, a letter carrier approached the castle door. She greeted him herself—even years after, no one would willingly work in the castle for fear of being slaughtered in another attack.
"From where does this come?" she asked. The letters on the front, though Hylian, must have been written by some machine, as they were far too even and well-aligned to be handwritten.
"I don't know, Your Majesty," he replied. "A mysterious man in strange clothes gave it to me."
She tore it open.
Your presence has been formally requested at the Fourth Annual Super Smash Brothers Fighting Tournament...
Hyrule is in good hands, she reassured herself for the thousandth time as she prepared her things. Rauru is a wise and trustworthy man.
Her hands trembled as readied to change her body for the first time in fourteen years. Again she was leaving her hair uncut, choosing instead to braid it and wrap it in cloth. She wrapped each of her fingers carefully in cloth as she murmured Impa's incantation. A burst of light split through her body, racking her with pain as her muscles doubled in size and her skin darkened with alarming speed. The magic worked through her agonizingly slowly. Finally the light burst through her eyes as they changed into a blood-red.
Again she was forced to abandon her body. She was older now, though, so perhaps she could transform back into herself whenever she had time available. This thought sustained her as she tied her aged, cracked leather armor back onto her shins and arms. She swallowed deeply as she tied rags over her breasts, just as she had done three years into the Hero's slumber when the need first arose. It took her an hour to finish dressing herself in her ragged clothes.
A steam train—new technology in Hyrule—was to bring her to the mysterious tournament. She had never ridden in one before.
After hours of travel, the train finally pulled into the new station. A young woman in an elaborate gown was poised to meet her. "Hello," she said with a soft smile. Her accent was almost Hyrulean, yet altered strangely. "My name is Zelda." Her hair was a rich mahogany-brown, styled into ringlets and offset by the gold plating on her dress. It looked like the plating would provide protection in the heat of battle.
"My name is Zelda too." She chuckled.
The other Zelda raised an eyebrow. "They said your name was Sheik."
The word sunk into her.
This new Zelda talked to her as they walked to the Smash Compound. She claimed to have been the Crown Princess, later Queen, of Hyrule before coming to fight in this tournament. An evil usurper, Zant, had seized the Hyrulean throne, leaving the Hero of Time's successor no choice but to defend it. He had been given charge of the kingdom temporarily when she came to the tournament to defend her title. "The cross-time movement is very confusing," said Zelda, "but you'll soon get accustomed to the new thought processes you'll need."
The Compound was far larger than Hyrule Castle—at least, than her Hyrule Castle. She wondered what the other Zelda's must look like, in another time where it had never been destroyed. It must have been beautiful. This Compound was hideous, all futuristic metal and glass. She had never seen a glass-walled building before.
The other Zelda was to be her roommate. The dormitory was not unlike the one at the Royal Academy for Young Ladies, where her mother had studied in her youth. Where she herself was to have studied if. Where she must have eventually studied, she realized, in the history of this other Zelda, where the Dark Lord had been stopped before he could begin. The room had two beds, one on top of the other, but otherwise had very little. Curiously, heat, breeze, and light were all at the touch of a button. She was unfamiliar with this sort of magic and so decided not to give it more thought.
"So," said Zelda, "what did you do in your land?"
Her mouth opened slightly in shock, but no words came out. Finally she said, "I was the Queen of Hyrule in another world, one where the Dark Lord had never been apprehended."
The other Zelda fell to her knees immediately. "My Queen!"
She felt a rush of satisfaction at this despite herself. "You may rise; in your world, I may never have been queen at all."
Zelda rose and asked, "What do you mean?"
Quickly, she outlined what she had done with the Ocarina of Time upon the defeat of the Dark Lord.
Zelda paled. "But if our world had the Hero, then yours was defenseless."
"Against what did we have to defend?"
Zelda had no response to this, instead saying, "Begging Your Majesty's pardon, but why do... why do you look so..."
A lump appeared in her throat. "I disguised myself for seven long years as I waited for the Hero to arrive." She swallowed hard. "And these people, here, did not want me as I am, but as I was in those dark days." She paused, looking down and examining herself. "And we may dispense with 'Your Majesty.' In this state I do not merit it."
"Is it only a disguise?"
"There are magical elements to it as well. It is a very painful transformation." Unconsciously she rubbed her still-aching muscles.
"Maybe when you step into the arena you'll be able to embrace it. You look like a very capable fighter." Zelda glanced over at the clock on the wall. "I have a match in ten minutes. Would you like to come watch, or would you prefer to stay here?"
"I will watch," she said, rising.
The arena selected was an enormously tall building made of metal. One wall was removed to enable the audience to see the different levels of platforms. She had also been informed that the arena was surrounded by a safety net on each side, with a strange flying platform at the top to reintroduce the fallen combatant back into the battlefield. The audience sat in a small uncovered stadium that was situated by a thick glass-like protective screen. All of this was indoors; the arena was merely a physical barrier illusion generated by some arcane magic. The screen, she had been told, was primarily to prevent the audience from being splattered with blood if one combatant happened to be thrown against it.
Hyrule had outlawed blood sports like this long before her birth.
Zelda was taken into the arena first, with her opponent set to appear across from her.
The Dark Lord?!
"Stop the fight! He has escaped!" She ran in front of the seating, addressing the crowd. Perhaps if she could rally them fast enough, the fight would be stopped preemptively, rather than after Zelda was maimed.
"Sheik—" called a voice.
"He must be imprisoned! He will kill her!" Her best attempts to sound authoritative failed as her voice cracked.
Arms closed around her. It took her a second to realize that she was being held, not strangled.
She looked up. The figure was a tall white-haired woman in a blue gown. "Nayru?" she asked, bowing her head.
The figure laughed, releasing her. "My name is Rosalina." A happy squeal sounded from behind her. "That's Luma." A puffy star-shaped creature floated into view.
"Zelda must not fight the Dark Lord," she said, not daring to speak his name. "He is to be executed for high treason."
"Things are different here," said Rosalina, her voice soothing. "He's not going to kill her. There's a greater force than him in this world that keeps him in line."
She sensed Rosalina's honesty. "What is this 'force'?"
"None of us are really sure. It shows itself as a pair of giant hands. No matter what, though, it makes sure we all follow the rules."
The rules. She was not familiar with them yet, but Rosalina's tone was serious, almost somber.
So nothing was the same here. Those she had spent her whole life fearing and fighting were submissive, almost docile, as they were being controlled. She saw the rage in the Dark Lord's eyes, barely concealed. Yet he was restrained, trapped, just like she was. In a twisted way she nearly felt sorry for him, until she saw him glow with power and release his true bestial form. She seethed at how the hands could let him appear as his terrible self, awful as it was, yet she had been forced to present herself like this.
She was not forced into any fights that day. Instead, she fled to her room, mumbling the spell under her breath. She steeled herself for the pain and terror by holding the image of her younger self in her mind. Her true form had not changed too much with age. Though she lost the pink softness to her cheeks and her eyes had dulled to a flatter gray-blue, her face was surprisingly unchanged. Her nose, ears, and chin were all the same. To reclaim this form had been amazing.
Yet the power did not fill her. It was as if she was reciting a mere poem for one of her school lessons. Furrowing her brow, she spoke the words louder, attempting to will the magic into her. Still the power would not come.
She screamed, an inarticulate, animal sound. Zelda rushed into the room. "What happened?"
"The power has left me," she said in a hollow voice.
Zelda did not ask to what power she referred, but left in silence.
It was not long after the draining realization of her powerlessness that she was introduced to the embodiment of her mistakes. She was eating in the communal dining room alone—deliberately alone, ostensibly to avoid interacting with the Dark Lord at all. Zelda had understood what she had meant. She was so perceptive. Of course. This queen was, in some strange alternate way, part of the unbroken bloodline of Wisdom. She found the whole thing unnerving.
The kitchen staff had been kind enough to provide her with Hyrulean food, so as to ease her into this new atmosphere. It was simple pumpkin soup and milk, something she never would have eaten in the palace. Peasant food. She ate in silence for a while, savoring the richness of flavor to try to bring clarity back into her mind.
A small boy came up to her side. He stood in hushed silence as she lowered her spoon and turned to look at him. "What is it?"
"Are you the new fighter?" he asked. He wore a strange parody of the Hero's clothes, but in a brighter green made of finer dyes. It wasn't yet faded from seven years of wear, but it did look patched and worn from battle. And similarly, the boy too had battle scars, incongruous on one so wide-eyed. His voice did not yet have the timbre of manhood, but his eyes had dark bags underneath them. His tow-colored hair had bits of dried blood embedded in it, unwashed from his last fight.
She did not address his question, instead asking, "Who are you?"
"I'm Link, but everybody here calls me 'Toon' Link, so I won't get mixed up with adult Link." He smiled a little in a clear attempt to charm her. "Who are you?"
She was taken aback by his stark introduction. In her Hyrule, none dared to address the Hero by his given name, let alone give their child such a name. As it was, she was still at a loss as to how she should introduce herself. "I'm a warrior from Hyrule," she said neutrally.
"Really? I'm from Hyrule, too! Well, kind of. It's complicated."
"Why don't you tell me about it?" she asked. To learn so much about the fate of her own country was a rare gift.
"Long ago..." he began.
This young "Link" had a clear flair for the dramatic, recounting the old tale of his homeland and its destruction under the sea with wild gesticulations and emotive expressions. He did not manage to stir the intended emotions in her. She sat transfixed in horror as she heard not only that her kingdom had been destroyed, but that it had been her fault. For whose fault had it been that the Hero had not been present but hers? Who, in her sentimentality, had condemned an alternate Hyrule to die to allow a single man to regain his lost childhood? How could she have ever allowed it? Wisdom had abandoned her as she had seen her own circumstances reflected in the Hero, a child forced into an adult's role too soon. And in her weakness, she had forsaken what she was sworn to protect.
She could barely hear the rest of the boy's story as he waxed poetic about the Dark Lord's return and subsequent destruction at his own hands and those of her successor. While he spun tales of triumph and redemption for the Hyrulean monarchy, she saw only the carnage, the millions who were drowned or forced into the hilltops for her impetuous mistake.
"Excuse me, I have to go," she interrupted, leaving her plate at the table.
Sheik had not returned the Hero to his youth.
She fought as best she could in this new body. It was strange how foreign it was, and yet how responsive it was to her every command. She could backflip almost as easily as run in this form and lift enormous monsters with her bare hands. An unfamiliar part of her was thrilled with combat. The rush was exhilarating. She had not yet learned to focus, so everything happened at once. She would be fighting one moment, and the next she would hear the blare and watch her opponent's score tick down. She would watch as her opponent was flown back onto the platform, some glassy-eyed in pain, others enraged, and do her best to prepare for the incoming bruises. Yet she never broke a bone. Not once did she hear of a combatant in a fight ever breaking a bone.
Sheik had not allowed the Dark Lord to reign.
She quickly learned the hands' rules. They were intuitive for the most part: "obey the countdown" and "fight only within the time limit" were the two most prominent. Yet there was another, more insidious rule she had discovered by accident: "fight for the duration of the match." After being assaulted with a barrage of punches from a young boxer, she had lain down on the platform for a rest. After only a few seconds, she had been forced up, and the boxer came after her again. This was because, she later discovered, it was against the rules to hit a combatant who was on the ground. The hands wanted a fight, so they limited the rest time. Quietly, she obeyed these rules. She was no longer a queen. She had forsaken the throne when she put that ocarina to her lips.
Sheik had not damned her own people.
In one terrible fight, she faced off with the young boy she had met. Each bomb he threw with expert timing, leaving her skin raw and tender with burns. His sword, a replica of the Master Sword—or was it the real one?—had seemingly been dulled, but still left her battered. When he threw her backwards and the lines of the safety net tore into her skin, she reappeared with a vengeance. She threw him upwards into a spray of needles, disappeared in blasts of light, flipped backwards and smashed her feet into his skull; she recalled all of the ancient arts she'd learned in her youth and more. Arrows embedded in her back, she threw the boy downwards and kicked him into the bottom net as the announcer called "Game!" Yet it was only momentarily satisfying. She saw the boy, limping and exhausted, and almost cried. This was what she had done. She had forced a boy of only twelve to complete what she had failed to, annihilated his homeland, and now beat him viciously. She left the match without meeting his eyes.
Zelda introduced her to the training facilities soon after the encounter with the boy. They were extensive and filled with machines that she was unable to identify. However, there were some older, simpler training materials available. She settled on a set of targets at which to aim her needles. A flurry of needles smacked into the center of each target. Her muscles were as tense as the wires on which the targets were strung. Her heart beat in time with her feet as she ran, but her mind was clear, fixed only on the blurry targets before her.
Footsteps echoed behind her. She spun around in a rush, flinging her last two needles involuntarily.
The man behind her staggered back. Blood dripped onto green fabric.
She gasped and ran toward him. His eyes widened. Instinctively he caught himself on his back foot.
"Let me help you," she murmured, and reached toward him. One needle had caught him in the face, the other in the shoulder. The Hero held up a hand.
"Do you need to see the doctor?" she asked, refusing to raise her voice. If she did, he would vanish as she shocked herself awake.
He shook his head and easily pulled the needle from his chest. It had been blocked by his chain mail.
Though the question tore at her, she refused to ask how he had arrived here. The Hero, too, remained silent.
He cleared his throat. "It's...it's great to see you again, Your Highness."
She smiled a little inwardly. Of course he did not call her "Your Majesty"; he had no way of knowing of her coronation. The slight amusement was washed away as she remembered what she had done with such power. Her face burned with shame. "Please, don't call me that."
She stammered through a half-remembered retelling of the boy's story. "If I had known what I was doing, I never would have done it. In doing it, I inadvertently renounced the throne."
The Hero looked slightly confused. "If you hadn't sent me back, I wouldn't have been able to warn you about Ganondorf."
"Zelda told me he later escaped anyway, so ultimately it did nothing."
"It delayed his return until her time. Hyrule got to grow into a powerful country. And I…I saved another world." His eyes shined with memories. She sensed pain, terror, but also joy behind his words, yet she did not fully understand.
She stared at him in shock as he told her about how, only as the child he had been, he had saved the land of Termina from its destruction in only three days. Of course he had, she realized. He was the Hero.
"And after that? How were you before they sent for you?" she asked, unable to form a question about Termina.
"Back home, I'm a general in the Royal Army," he said with a smile.
"And I...? Or, my alternate self? Your Princess Zelda?"
"Though I don't really know her personally, I've sworn my undying loyalty to Queen Zelda."
But she and I are not the same, she thought. She was raised in a time of peace. Her father was not slaughtered before her eyes.
"She was never Sheik," she said instead.
"And I was never the Hero of Time, but I remember it. And if you ask the other Link—he remembers it too. Not like I do, but little echoes. Everything was familiar to him. That's how he's so good at using his bow, you know. He remembers me learning to use it."
"So this Zelda, this woman here with us— she remembers what I have done?"
"Not consciously. Only feelings, not specific events. But yes, in a way."
Zelda knows what I did, and yet she does not condemn me, she thought, but she did not say these things to the Hero—this Hero.
Instead she said, "May I?" as she reached toward his face. He nodded slightly and allowed her to gingerly remove the needle. "I apologize," she said upon seeing him wince.
"I understand. I've done the same thing." He moved behind her to examine her cloth-woven braid. "You kept your hair."
"Yes," she said. "I thought it would be unnecessary to cut."
"May I?" he echoed. She nodded yes, unsure exactly of his meaning. Deftly he removed her headdress and hair wrappings. "They're like bandages," he explained, "so I know how to tie and untie them."
Her blonde hair came loose and fell forward. She remembered the tan skin and her unchangeable red eyes as her hair brushed across her ear. She thought, I've changed, but she hadn't really changed, only aged. But then, the Hero had also only aged. She sensed his youthful energy and idealism buried deep under terrible memories of war and death. He was still the man she had sent back and the boy he had once been.
"I've missed you, Link," she said quietly.
"I've missed you too, Zelda."