Link entered the King's Hall of Zora's Domain and found Princess Zelda playing with Prince Sidon. She wore a traditional Zoran dress, filmy and ephemeral ― with only a silk and lace underdress to hide her skin. It was a prude but necessary addition, and Link ignored the brief inkling of curiosity at the way it moved around her, pulling and sliding against her body.
She was lying on her stomach, hair pulled away from her face, and her eyes were crinkling with her smile. Her arm was outstretched over the pool of water, teasing the diminutive Zora within by disturbing the water's surface. The Zora prince was still too young to speak articulately, but he had sharp eyes and a clear interest in the game. Their splashes and laughter, with Sidon diving deep and out of sight only to reappear with a wave, filled the high hall, echoing around them.
Link forced himself to turn his attention back to the princess on his arm. Mipha had kindly escorted him from his room, and it was impolite not to attend to her first.
His eyes kept inching back to Zelda, though. He reasoned that was only instinct, knightly duty, and not any interest in the curve of her backside or the hint of pale, soft skin through her clothes.
He inhaled deeply and looked away.
It was absurd, anyway. Princess Mipha's own vestments were even lighter ― the Zora had different ideas about decency, and in their own home tended to wear diaphanous garments, if they wore anything at all. What clothes they did wear were as fins in the water, flowing and almost clear. It gave them an otherworldly beauty.
Which was why seeing his very Hylian, very non-scaled princess wear similar clothes did something to his pulse.
"I imagine," Princess Mipha said, drawing him back to the task at hand, "that you still remember your way around?"
Link glanced at her. She was smiling gently.
He nodded. Zora's Domain had not changed since his childhood. Its elegant arches and spires, glowing a dim blue in the growing twilight, still held all their ethereal beauty. The waterways, the distant din of waterfalls, and the constant lapping of waves still felt as soothing now as they had felt in those halcyon days of innocence.
"I do," Link said, with a smile.
Absently, he pulled at his sleeve, irritated by the way the Zoran silks felt against his wound. They pulled at the sensitive gashes, wiping away what little unguent he could still apply. His clothes were a gift from the Zoran royal family, lending him almost an air of aristocracy. Not that it helped with the itching.
That lynel was probably cackling to itself in its rocky grave. Link would have to ensure he never let a lynel scratch him to the blood after this. Given the anti-healing properties those claws evidently had, Link knew he couldn't afford to make a similar mistake again.
Misinterpreting his motion, Mipha lifted a hairless brow. "Are your clothes uncomfortable?"
Link pulled at the high cravat on his neck. "I'm not used to this sort of stuff," he said, with a lopsided smile.
"Seas forbid you should look princely," she teased softly.
"Is that what I look like?" He looked down at himself. The trousers were tighter than he would have liked, and the cut of his shirt, vest and coat was close and narrow, with square shoulders. He was certain the squires at home would have mocked him relentlessly. "Princely?"
Mipha smiled warmly. "You'll get used to it, I'm sure."
Link hoped he wouldn't. This wasn't him, and it wasn't right for adventuring, or guarding Zelda, or climbing, or― "I hope you're right," he said, peaceably.
Sidon noticed them approaching and dove back under the water. Princess Mipha had explained that Sidon had been the last survivor of his clutch and that he remained cautious of strangers. His ability to survive the initial clutch in-fighting marked him as strong, but he was still less than an infant, and quite shy.
"I see you have tamed my little brother," Mipha observed as Zelda turned to look at them.
"He is lovely," Zelda said, warmly. Her eyes lit on Link for a brief moment, widened, and then turned back to Mipha. "And I see you have tamed Link."
"Hah," Link said, without humour. Did she think he looked silly? He pulled at his sleeve again, still irritated.
"He wears it well," Mipha said. "Though I had to argue with the tailors a long time to convince them to use opaque fabrics."
Zelda laughed nervously as she sat up, pushing a strand of her golden hair behind her ear. Even in the front, Link noticed with discomfort, the dress she wore was indecent by Hylian standards. Even a nightdress would have been better at covering her up. Which would have been worse. No, better, it was better if she was covered. It was better if her knight didn't feel anything at the sight of her. Safer. Definitely safer. "Is that so?"
Mipha didn't seem to notice Link's discomfort. "Even as a child, Link refused to swim naked."
There was no question that his princess' cheeks were pink now. "Oh?" She asked, breathily. Link wasn't sure whether he ought to be flattered or horrified.
"His clothes weighed him down when he was learning to swim," Mipha said, reaching the side of Prince Sidon's pool and smiling down at him kindly. "It was impractical."
"Right," Link said, inhaling deeply. "I think Princess Zelda gets the picture." To his princess, he added, "I did learn to swim, in the end. With clothes."
The smile she gave him was small, but her eyes were full of mirth. "That is good to know."
Mipha sighed softly. "There is no doubt in my mind," she said, "that it would have been simpler if you'd listened to Bazz and I―"
"I was not going to swim naked," Link insisted. "And you were wasting your time."
"So stubborn," the young Zora princess said, gently.
Zelda could not hold in a soft laugh. "I'm surprised you did not use rank to coerce him."
"I thought about it," Mipha said, and this did prompt outright laughter from Zelda.
The deep voice pulled them all out of their conversation. Zelda pushed herself to her feet and Link fell to one knee.
"Father," Mipha said, warmly.
King Dorephan was massive, grown to such proportions by several centuries of excellent nourishment and veneration. He was old, Link knew, and had wed a Zora wife after his first wife, a Sheikah, had died. And now that Mipha and Sidon's mother had died of old age, it was speculated he might choose a new wife to be queen until Mipha was old enough to rule.
The concept had been strange to Link when he'd first heard of it. But his father had explained that the Zora lived so long ― and the royal family of the Zora especially ― that they often had multiple wives or husbands in one life.
In fact, Link's father had explained, the Zora took so much time to reach sexual maturity that they often chose to wed outsiders first, knowing that such partnerships would not yield children anyway, and that by the time a century elapsed and they finally entered full-fledged adulthood, their husband or wife would be in the twilight of their years, dying and leaving the Zora free to marry one of their own.
Link had thought it sad that a Zora might choose to mourn a companion not once, but twice. But Mipha had explained that it was a wonderful way to discover more about the world, to grow as an individual, to learn to love unconditionally. Those outsiders selected to live as a Zora's partner never wanted for anything; they were cared for with affection and devotion until the very end.
Link had still thought it sad.
There was no doubt their devotion was true, of course: King Dorephan thought of his first Sheikah wife with fondness even to this day, and even his Zora Queen, Laruto, had spoken of the first Queen with respect and kindness.
What would it be like, Link wondered, to be kept by the Zora? To serve no purpose other than to enhance their life, to help them grow as persons? To teach them about difference and otherness?
To give up on having children of one's own?
Link belatedly realized he was blankly staring at Zelda, and he tore his eyes away, hoping no one had noticed. She was warmly trading courtesies with the Zora King, and showing Advisor Muzu the deference he was owed.
"You like her," Mipha said, gently, at his side.
Link blinked down at her. "What do you mean?"
She smiled softly, but did not elaborate. Link felt himself grow warm. He pulled at his cravat again, realized it was pointless, and stubbornly brought his hand back down, trying not to fidget.
"I do not," he lied.
Her smile was strange now, still ever so gentle, but somehow… less joyful. "She is a beautiful girl, even without her title. And you seem less uncomfortable around one another now."
"You know," Link said, "it's very unsettling. You look so young, but you have the wisdom of a grandmother."
Mipha shot him a look that, on anyone else, might have been perceived as annoyance. "I am three years your elder."
Link smiled down at her. "And yet…" And he straightened, illustrating their size difference.
She sighed, and even rolled her yellow eyes. "Every time we see one another, you underscore how little wisdom you've acquired since our previous meeting, all on your own." She was teasing him, her soft voice musical. "Like a tortoise."
"Embarrassingly slow," Link agreed. "But steady."
"Easy to flip over," Mipha said.
Link tensed, very aware of how close he stood to the pool where Prince Sidon was swimming. "You wouldn't."
"Your clothes are waterproof," she said, gently, smiling at Muzu. "And Zora bones are reinforced with carbon. It would be trivial."
Link looked down at her with a dismayed look. "And they say you're a gentle, sweet lady of grace and elegance." He shook his head.
She did not have time to reply, because King Dorephan's booming voice suddenly sounded, drawing their attention. "And Link! My boy. So good to see you again at last." He motioned for Link to approach, and Mipha led the way.
"King Dorephan," Link said, bowing his head. Lordly as the Zora king was, he was also warm-hearted and generous, and had ever treated Link and his father as honoured guests in his household, standing on little ceremony and less arrogance still.
"I'm told you have become the Hylian Champion. What great news."
That was one way to look at it. Link managed a weak smile. "I hope I prove competent."
"Nonsense," Dorephan said, brushing the notion aside with one sweep of his thick arm. "Your father was one of the best fighters I ever knew. Unmatched on land." He leaned a little towards Zelda, who was listening with interest. "Although none can match the Zora for speed or agility in the water."
"I do not doubt it," Zelda assured him.
"And how is your mother?" Dorephan asked, turning back to Link with genuine interest. "She did not visit as long as you and your father, but she struck me as a sensible woman. Has winter been kind to her and hers?"
"It has," Link said, pleased. "Though I think she was glad for spring's return."
"As were we all," King Dorephan agreed. In the Domain, fragrant flowers were blooming, and the waters had lost their iciness. The great ice pillars of the waterfalls had broken, melted, and been washed away, until finally the waters of the Domain were growing warmer. "I've seen near three hundred of them and I still cannot get used to them."
"That bodes ill for the rest of us," Link joked.
The king's laughter boomed in the great hall.
"Just like your father," Dorephan said. "How comforting." He turned to Zelda. "I am sure you are in good hands."
"I am sure you're right, Your Grace," Zelda replied with a genuine smile, and Link stamped down the hot wave of pride within.
"Her Highness now needs only to awaken the power that is her birthright," Advisor Muzu said, in a tone that betrayed nothing but placid factuality. "And then we will all sleep soundly."
There was no describing the impetuous surge within, and no preventing the glare that Link shot the aged Zora advisor. Zelda's smile had wilted somewhat, and the look in her eyes had become one of strain.
It was Mipha's gentle touch to his arm that stopped Link from striding up to the Advisor and ripping his fins off one by one.
"Muzu," Mipha said, gently, "if I may advise the Advisor― her royal highness has proven her commitment with far more devotion and honesty than any of her Champions. Inheriting a machine is nothing like calling forth the powers of the gods. Please do not trivialize that which is being asked of her."
Muzu's expression changed, and he seemed startled by the soft reprimand ― a testament to Mipha's masterful, yet gentle command. Link was sure he could learn from her. "Oh― Of course not." He turned to Zelda, who had managed to school her expression into one of careful detachment. "Please accept my apologies, Your Highness. I meant no offence."
"There is nothing to forgive," Zelda said with a smile, but Link was fairly sure he wasn't the only one to notice the icy edge of her voice.
"At any rate," King Dorephan continued, ending the discomfort, "the task at hand has nothing to do with gods or powers." He smiled fondly at the three of them, Zelda, Link and Mipha. "Together you will fine tune Vah Ruta on the morrow, yes?"
"We will try," Zelda said. She turned to Mipha. "I'm told you wanted to decrease response times for commands?"
Mipha nodded. "We can discuss the details on the road up to the reservoir tomorrow."
"In that case," King Dorephan said, pleased, "let us sit down for a good meal. Work can wait. I want to hear all about my dear friend King Rhoam."
And once again, the topic of Zelda's inability was deftly swept away, ignored.
Later that night, though, when Link staggered back to his room ― if room it could be called, what with the great open arches and the curtains in lieu of doors ― he mulled it over, unable to think of anything else.
He removed his boots, loosened the cravat ― ghastly thing ― and rolled up his sleeve to study the lacerations on his arm.
"It's getting worse."
Startled, Link looked up. The princess was sitting on his bed, a vision in gauzy silks and foamy veils. She was scowling at him, at his arm.
"Something needs to be done," she said.
"What―" He looked about himself, certain the entire Hylian guard would burst in and accuse him of inappropriate behaviour. But the princess had intruded in his room, not the other way around. He was innocent. And anyway those knights, guards and courtiers were leagues away. All the same, when he finally did manage to formulate a full sentence, he hissed it, afraid to be overheard: "What are you doing here?" Then, as an afterthought: "Your Highness."
She rolled her eyes. "You have a curtain instead of a door."
"So do you," Link pointed out. "And you can't lock a curtain."
"They think I'm a failure," Zelda said. "All of them. Don't they?"
The change in topic was dizzying. Compounded with the effects of the ale, Link wondered he wasn't more nauseous. He hesitated, hating that there were no doors in Zora's Domain. He cast a look about himself, at a loss. Finally, realizing there wouldn't be any better privacy than this anyway, he sighed. "Who?"
"Everyone," Zelda said, bringing her legs up against her chest. She looked small, somehow, as though the great clouds of silk around her only served to dwarf her within them. "The squires. Your knights. The Sheikah. The people. Everyone."
Link's heart squeezed. "I don't know," he said, honestly. "I think most of them don't even think about it."
She said nothing. How long had she been there? After their lavish meal, Link had gone out to drink with Bazz, Gaddison, Rivan, Kodah― all those he'd learned to befriend years before. They'd talked well into the night, and Link had only returned now, as the moon reached its apogee. He was tired and just a little drunk. What time was it?
"You belong here," she said, after a moment. Her eyes, from what he could see of them in the moonlight, studied him, his Zora clothes, his inebriation. "The Zoras love you. Even Mipha―" She stopped herself, pressing her lips together.
"They don't think of you as a failure," Link said, softly. Their voices were quiet, and he was mostly certain no one was listening in, but he couldn't be sure. "Muzu is just an old busybody. You shouldn't listen to him."
"But he's right," Zelda said, and her voice cracked. "I am completely powerless."
"Don't," Link said, reaching for her.
Instead, it took all his willpower to stop himself. His fingers twitched against the film of her clothes, and their eyes met, green and blue, and his heart began to pound against his ribcage.
She hadn't moved, was observing him, wide-eyed, as though she, too, were waiting to find out what he would do, whether he would finish his movement, whether he would embrace her, crush her against his chest, hold her so close he'd feel her breath in his ear―
He pulled his hand back, trying to hide his tremor of longing, and for a long moment they stared at one another, a moment suspended in cold blue amber.
"Do you think I'm a failure?" She whispered, their eyes still fixed on one another. She still hadn't moved, his movement away causing a flicker of fear and doubt to dance in her eyes.
Failure? How could he ever think that of her? Memories of her flashed through his mind. Zelda kneeling, head bowed in prayer. Zelda poring over transcripts of ancient Sheikah texts. Zelda exclaiming over frogs and flowers in a field, and sitting with Link at his father's grave. She was the most determined person Link knew. And kind. And wholly undeserving of this hardship. And he loved her.
The conclusion, he thought, still made him deeply uncomfortable. Fueled by the ale, perhaps, and the lateness of the hour. But she was still waiting for his answer, her expression so vulnerable that Link knew he would say anything, do anything, to bring her comfort.
"I don't," he breathed.
She broke eye contact, looking instead out at the great waterfalls. Her chest was rising and falling fast. Was she holding back tears? "I don't know how much longer I can go on like this," she said.
She was silent. Then, she stood, strode away, and she turned back, so that now the moonlight and the waterfalls gave her the appearance of Nayru herself, haloed in hair that looked silver in the night. "I must begin my pilgrimage."
Link found that breathing came easier now that they weren't so close, and the blood finally began to reach his brain again. "I can organize that―"
"As soon as we leave here."
He blinked. "What?" He shook his head. "No. A week won't be enough to get the message from here to Hyrule Castle and for the knights to join us." He ignored the stinging of his arm as he raised it to run his fingers through his hair. "Although I suppose they can meet up with us on the road―"
He glanced back at her. She hadn't moved, still looking like a beauty, a goddess. His throat went dry.
"Link, please. Let it be just you and me."
He was at a loss for words. Did she know what she sounded like? Did she know what she was asking of him?
Did she know the treacherous shiver that ran down his spine when she said his name like that?
Finally, he cleared his throat, knowing defeat when he felt it. "We can do that."
The soft, sad smile that spread across her face made his heart ache. "Thank you." Then, she straightened, and her entire demeanour changed, newfound resolve giving her tone the sort of command that he was growing used to. "Now, then, why don't you sit down and show me that arm?"
He scowled. "I am not indigent."
"You're still in pain," she said, in a tone that would have been final with anyone else.
"I can handle it."
"Don't be stupid," she said, reaching for another bottle of disinfectant. Link recognized it by the dry smell of sterility, which began to waft immediately in the air.
"You know," he said, approaching, "calling me stupid isn't exactly―"
He sat in the chair she motioned to, but wasn't done. "I'm just saying, calling me stupid could be construed as offensive."
She brought her hand under his arm, her pale skin contrasting with his light tan, and when she spoke, she seemed distant. "Could it now?"
She was kneeling next to him, the moonlight reflected in her green eyes, shuttered and unreadable, an elfin, shallow smile pulling at her pretty lips. She was trying to distract herself from her woes, and it was working. In that moment, Link felt more like a prince than he had all day. Kneeling by his side, she was less a princess and more a sweet nurse, less a goddess than a woman― and the sensation of her touch, as it always did, made a tongue of golden heat flow down his spine.
He was speechless. And also drunker than he'd realized, if he was having thoughts like this. Was this what his father had felt when his mother cared for his injuries after battle? No wonder they'd married.
Mercifully, she did not seem to expect a reply. She had turned to study his cuts, bringing a single candle closer to see better. Her lips were moving, as they always did when she spoke to herself, but no sound came out. Then, she soaked a cloth in disinfectant and gently applied it to his wound.
Link groaned, which earned him a silencing glare.
"You shouldn't have brushed it off for so long," she reprimanded.
"If you say so, dear," Link grumbled.
She froze. He froze.
"It's alright," she said, hastily, dabbing at his wound some more. "I know I sound like a nag."
"That's not what I―"
"And I don't think that there's anything I can do about this," she continued. "Perhaps―" She hesitated, and her hand stilled. "Perhaps Mipha…"
"I was going to ask her tomorrow," Link admitted. "Once it was just the three of us."
Her hands moved away suddenly, leaving Link feeling strangely bereft. She was staring at his cuts blindly, and suddenly, in a whisper of gauze and silk, she stood, pulling away.
"That… is the better solution, yes," she said softly, closing the phial of disinfectant. She wasn't looking at him, focusing instead on her meticulous movements. A curtain of her hair fell before her eyes and Link ached to push it aside.
Finally, decisively, she turned to him and smiled ― a small smile, tired and worn, that did not reach her eyes entirely.
"I should get to bed," she said. "We have a long trek tomorrow."
She averted her eyes, still smiling. "You should probably sleep off that ale." She hesitated, then managed a joke: "It would not do to appear before our sweet host with a raging headache."
Link groaned, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "I smell like a tavern, don't I?"
She let out a soft chuckle. "Don't worry. I won't tell my father." She gathered her skirts, rearranged them like a cloud of veils around herself. "Besides, you hadn't seen your friends in years. I hope they are well."
"They are," Link smiled, tiredly. "As irksome as ever, too."
"Now I see where you learned it from," Zelda said, the light teasing almost flippant, and Link snorted. She was still pretending at lightness, he knew, but he wasn't going to call her out on it. She clasped her hands together in front of herself, and politely added, "Good night, Sir Link."
"Good night, Princess."
She stood in his doorway for a moment, as though she wanted to say something, ask something, but finally she shook her head and pushed the curtain out of her way and disappeared into the darkness of the great palace.
Link sat in the dark for a long moment, reflecting. Now that the princess was gone, his words, their conversation, his actions all came back in a jumble, and he buried his face in a hand, the embarrassment almost too great to bear.
She knew how to play him like a fiddle. All she had to do was look at him just so, speak his name in that tone, and he agreed to accompany her, alone, on a long excursion to some Goddess Spring―
He was pathetic, he considered, pulling his clothes off. In just his undershirt, he could already breathe a great deal better, which only made him feel more foolish.
The Zora waterbed sloshed under him, and he struggled to find a comfortable position for a long moment, his thoughts a jumble, his heart rate rising every time he remembered her eyes, her lips, her touch.
He turned to his side, and almost scowled with frustration. The pillows smelled like her. Shutting his eyes, he didn't resist the urge to bury his face into them. He was only a man, after all.
That night, he dreamed of Zelda again, or rather, Zelda as she ought to be. The Goddess, not the woman, all in white, so blindingly pure that he felt an inkling of guilt for thinking she was beautiful in the earthly ways, too.
This time, the Goddess did not kiss his fingers. She ran a hand against his cheek, so warm that he leaned into her touch, and she combed his hair with her fingers, and for a moment she was so close he could feel his heart thundering against her breast.
But the look in her eyes ― blue, not green; Zelda but not Zelda ― spoke of a worry ageless and ancient. The urgency in her expression grew, and suddenly her fingers began to dig into his arms, into his shoulders, and she began to grapple at him desperately, gasping for air, crying out words he could not hear, her beautiful face contorted with fear.
He clutched her, panicking, her golden hair floating around them as though they were in freefall, and tried to ask her what she needed, what she wanted, how he could help― But the words did not come. He opened and closed his mouth, struggled to speak, and still no sound came.
She seized his face in her hands, eyes so wide and terrified that he found himself terrified with her, and suddenly her face transformed, tears began to roll down her cheeks, and, from deep within, she began to scream, the guttural cry visceral and awful.
And Link awoke to the dawn, heart racing, haunted.
"Are you alright?"
Link turned, ready to reach for his sword― but saw only Mipha, standing in his doorway, looking concerned.
He blinked at her, catching his breath. Then, mustering his senses, he nodded, gulped, and croaked, "Yes. I'm― I'm fine."
She didn't seem convinced, but she let the matter go. "You're late for breakfast." The corner of her eyes crinkled in amusement. "Though I'm told you were late coming in. Did the Big Bad Bazz Brigade keep you?"
Memories returned to his mind, and Link snorted. "As much as they could. Rivan baited me to a drinking contest. I lost. Gaddison will never let me hear the end of it."
Mipha smiled. "Well, we did have twenty rupees riding on you."
Link sat up. "I was unaware my drinking held any royal interest." He buried his head in his hands, groaning. "You must think I'm a lout."
"A charming lout," Mipha lightly comforted him. "If you have a headache," she continued with amusement, "perhaps a nice omelet? A thick slice of roast?"
Link groaned, stomach heaving. "No…"
"Whatever you choose," Mipha warned, still gently amused, "be sure to have it soon. We leave for Vah Ruta in an hour."
"Fine," Link mumbled. "I'll get dressed." He glanced at her, still standing in the curtained doorway, and narrowed his eyes. "You need to install doors in here."
"If you move in, maybe," Mipha said, with unusually charming flippancy. Her golden eyes caught the early rays of the dawn and she suddenly looked much wiser than her age. "We wouldn't want our guests to be uncomfortable."
Link flopped backwards on the waterbed, blinking blearily at the canopy over his head. "Thanks, Mipha."
"Don't mention it." A swish of a curtain, and she was gone.
The sunlight began to warm his feet, but Link felt cold. Staring up at the canopy, he could only remember his dream, and, in it, Zelda's grasp, her desperation.
Shutting his eyes against morning, he forced himself to focus. There was nothing to it, really. It was a dream. Just a dream. There were more pressing matters at hand. Vah Ruta. Mipha. His wound.
He absently rubbed at his sleeve, scowling. The pain was becoming familiar. He couldn't wait for it to go away.
"You need to ask her," Zelda whispered later that day, as they trekked up from the Domain and towards the East Reservoir Lake. She was once again dressed in her trousers and tunic, her skin now carefully hidden by cloth, and still this did nothing to make her less appealing.
Link looked away. Mipha was walking ahead of them, and no doubt could overhear any conversation they held.
"I will," he mumbled. Zelda whispering into his ear did something to his nerves, made him self-conscious. Mipha was perceptive. She'd need only to look at him to see… to know.
As though on cue, the Zora Champion turned, looking down at them serenely. Link sidestepped somewhat, moving away from Zelda, desperately hoping the flush on his cheeks would be attributed to the trek rather than any hot-blooded reaction to his princess.
But Mipha noticed. She noticed everything. Her brow furrowed, and Link avoided the inquiry in her gaze, looking elsewhere, anywhere ― the grass, the cliffs, the water below―
"Is something the matter?" Mipha asked.
Princess Zelda glanced at Link expectantly, but he set his jaw, and the girl scowled.
"Yes," she finally said, to Mipha, when Link did not make himself forthcoming. "Link is hurt. Could you help him when we get to Vah Ruta?"
Mipha blinked down at them both, her eyes darting between Link and Zelda, and the expression on her face changed and seemed to melt into a mute hurt. "Of course. I… I would never withhold healing."
Link glanced over his shoulder nervously, then shook his head. "It's not that," he assured her. "I just…" Once again, he looked behind them. Down below, Zora's Domain was glowing in the sun, radiant and blue amidst a deep mist of waterfalls. They were not likely to be overheard from this distance. "... I just can't have anyone knowing." He looked back up into Mipha's eyes. "A hero can't be crippled by a wound."
"You are only a man," Mipha softly said, though he recognized her admonishment for what it was. "No one would think less of you if you were hurt."
"They would," Link insisted, knowing deep in his gut that the silent fear would be the worst. No one would say it, but it would be in every thought ― if the hero can be hurt by such a little thing, what will the Calamity do to him?
He couldn't let that happen. He couldn't let anyone think he was less than capable. His entire life, the kingdom's peace, his role as the princess' protector, everything depended on his capacity to withstand anything, or at least to give the impression of it.
He glanced at Zelda. She was keeping her thoughts to herself, but Link knew with certainty that she, too, would have given anything to at least appear competent. She had not once questioned his need for secrecy. She understood his position as a matter of fact, as a matter of sympathy.
"You could take care of him while I fine tune the controls," Zelda suggested, breaking the miserable silence that had fallen upon them. She seemed uncomfortable.
Mipha nodded and her voice was unusually soft when she spoke. "Of course." Then, as though it pained her to say so, she added, "Perhaps― Perhaps in the future, you will not hesitate to ask me for healing when you need it, as soon as you need it." She glanced at Link, then looked away shyly. "I can keep your secrets."
Zelda smiled warmly, and it seemed like the sun had broken through the clouds. "We know it, Mipha." She nudged Link slightly. "But some here prefer to play tough."
Link's smile was lopsided. "Go on, blame me. The cripple."
Mipha was surprised into a soft laugh. She slowed, placing a clawed hand on his shoulder sympathetically. "I see now why your father once said you need constant supervision."
Link's lips pulled up in fond recollection. He smiled at the Zora Princess, and their eyes met in common memory. "He was an ass."
"He was a good man," Mipha said, the corners of her eyes crinkling, and Link found himself agreeing.
By the time they reached Vah Ruta, their conversation had moved on to their childhoods, and for a moment Link managed to forget he was in the presence of two princesses. Their conversation became loud, punctuated with imitations, stories and laughter. Their voices rose against the cliffs, bouncing over the water, echoing across the reservoir, and even those Zoras who were milling about looked their way with curiosity and warmth.
It was a beautiful day for walking, a great day for fine tuning the giant elephant that was Vah Ruta.
So why couldn't he shake the feeling that both Mipha and Zelda's smiles were… sad?
Once this whole thing is over, maybe things can go back to how they used to be when we were young. You know… Perhaps we could spend some time together.