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Growth of the Mind

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Link couldn’t just sit there. The trainees had been told to remain inside the walls, to do nothing. The soldiers had all gone to the muster, preparing for the battle. A horde of monsters, they said, no one had seen them coming but now they were in Hyrule field, moving fast to attack the castle. He could do nothing useful here. He wasn’t sure he could do much out there either, but he had to try. All his training, years of weapons practice and sparring and physical exercise, was all exactly to prepare him for this, to defend the kingdom. He was just a few months shy of being able to enter the examination process to become a full member of the Royal Guard, which had an entry age of 21. True, his formal training had begun only a few months earlier, but he had started learning to swing a sword when he was 8, and now he was supposed to just sit here and wait only because he officially wasn’t part of the army yet? That just felt like a convenient excuse to stay inside. It felt cowardly, almost, even though he knew he and his fellow trainees were no cowards.

No, he couldn't wait here. He had to go. But he needed a proper weapon.

No one was even guarding the armoury, all available men were out fighting. It was too easy to slip inside and get a proper sword to replace the training wooden sword on his back, and a reinforced shield. If he got punished later for this, so be it. He would face the consequences of his actions, after he had done everything he could to help. He didn't bother with a helmet, just like he generally didn't during training, when he could get away with it. The blasted things just reduced his range of vision and slowed his movements, especially when he had to dodge and jump out of the way of an incoming hit. He might have been the only one who used backflips to evade, but he found them more efficient in preventing injury than a heavy helmet.

As he walked through the training yard, the other trainees tried to stop him, but Link didn’t even slow down. He made it to the muster just in time to listen to the capitans explain the situation to the men. Monsters were advancing on the castle in ordered units, which was almost unheard of with bokoblins. They were obviously organized and much better equipped than their kind usually was. They were showing clear signs of having a strategy in place, and this was... disquieting and disconcerting, Link knew. The unit Link had slipped into was told to move to the vanguard, and everybody around him started moving forward. No one spared him a second glance, every soldier too busy with his or her own focus to notice a new face. Link took a deep, centering breath, then drew his sword.

***

The battle was fast, brutal, confusing, and loud. After the first few fast and furious minutes of monster attacks, Link fell into an almost trance-like focus, and found there was a rhythm to the attacks that he could counter with a rhythm of his own. Slash, parry, lunge, backflip, swipe, dodge. He was ever aware of the other soldiers around him, and more than once moved to help men who had found themselves in difficult situations. A couple of times he turned to find another man had saved him from a rouge sword in the back. He quickly realised the double purpose in having soldiers train and live together. Hours had been spent on explaining to the trainees that an army had to move and act as one, especially the individual units, but he realised he only now fully understood the importance of the implicit trust, of the feeling of unity, of belonging. They were only strong when working together. A lone wolf in battle could do little. The need to dodge a hit rolling to the ground reminded him he needed all his concentration now, this was a thought to ponder later.

***

So this was their target. Volga.

After fighting through dozens of monsters, keeps full of enemies, each more powerful than the one before, Link was facing a powerful knight, wielding dark magic. He hadn't meant to leave his unit, but he had heard General Impa and Princess Zelda shouting orders that no one seemed to heed quick enough, Proxi had pointed out the direction, he had seen what needed to be done, and he had found himself in the position to do it. So he had. And now he was standing on the drawbridge in front of the one who was leading this attack, the one who needed to be stopped for this to end.

Link advanced cautiously, having no idea of what he was about to face. He studied his opponent's stance: wide-legged but tall and straight, stiff almost. The man was very tall and broad. A long staff was his weapon, and he wore heavy armor. All of this promised strength, powerful hits with a very long reach, but hopefully not speed. Link's only advantages were going to be his speed and agility, his only hope to use his advantage to step close enough to be able to strike without being hit.

Volga lifted his staff, an amused smile on his lips as he clearly saw Link as a small, insignificant insect in his way, and the fight began.

As Link danced around Volga, he fell into his trance-like focus again, and caught on quickly the rhythm of the Dragon knight's attacks. He managed to evade most hits, blocking the ones he couldn't dodge on his shield. The raw force of them almost made his knees buckle. He also managed to land quite a few of his own hits, after studying Volga's armor and finding where he could do damage with precise jabs.

Now, Volga was not amused any longer. He was snarling every time Link dodged a hit with a nimble jump, and putting more force behind his hits.

A particularly vicious blow forced Link into a wide backflip, putting some distance between them. Link reset his stance, breathing heavily.

"You have annoyed me enough," Volga said, his voice low and menacing. "Get out of my way, boy."

Link lunged again, trying to get inside the dragon knight's defence again, but this time Volga was faster, hitting Link straight in the chest and sending him flying into a painful tumble.

Winded and struggling to breathe, Link's consciousness flickered, his eyes clenched around the pain, but through the haze he became aware of Impa standing above him. Lady Impa. The General of the Hyrulean army. The protector and counsellor to the Princess herself. Suddenly Link realised she was risking her life to shield him, a mere trainee. She shouldn't, she was so much more important, Hyrule needed her. Link refused to accept that, and realised he needed to get up, he had to move. But he was still struggling to get air back in his lungs, his arms felt heavy and his muscles refused to push up. He heard Volga's voice again, and then the raging fire he was wielding, ready to be flung at the General.

No.

The pain didn't ease, but a new strength and resolve seemed to flow through him, allowing him to move faster than he ever had before. Without even having to think, he found himself standing between Impa and Volga, his shield raised, the air around them bright with red and gold. The fire seemed to flow around them harmlessly for some reason, but Link was too focused on Volga to really think about it.

He heard Impa gasp.

"Could you be..." he heard her say in a strained voice.

But there was no time to ask her what she meant, Link's concentration was fully on the enemy before him. He moved to attack, but Volga roared and disappeared in a ball of flames.

Link turned back to Impa, stabs of pain punctuating his heavy breaths.

"General, are you all right?" he asked.

She was looking at him strangely, her lips slightly parted. She recovered immediately.

"Yes. Let's go, the battle is not over yet," she said, then turned to run out of the keep. Link followed without a second thought.

***

It was over.

The monster army had finally broken and fled, Volga had disappeared again. The Hyrulean soldiers were setting up a camp out on the field, only a portion of the men were moved inside the castle walls again. The dead and wounded were being collected and tended to, food was being distributed. Link was kneeling near one of the fires cleaning his weapons when he heard a voice behind him.

"There you are, I thought I would find you in the hospital tent, after that hit to the chest, but I see you look fine. I was hoping to have a word with you."

He turned to find General Impa standing a few feet away, looking at him with a strange, calculating look.

Link felt nothing but surprise. He did expect a telling off at some point, but he didn't expect it now, and definitely not coming from the General herself. He stood at attention, kept his features carefully controlled and gave her a curt nod.

"At ease, soldier. If you are sure you don't need medical attention, could you follow me to the command centre, please?"

Impa led him back to the castle and to a large but sparingly decorated room. A heavy wooden table and chairs took up most of the space. On the table were maps and other papers. Impa sat down and waved him towards another chair. Link sat uneasily.

"I don't think I know your name," she said with a small smile.

"My name is Link, General," Link said.

"Well, Link, I know you were a trainee this morning, but after today I think you are more than that, am I right?"

Link tensed slightly, but made no answer.

"If you are worried I am going to say anything about you disregarding the order to trainees to stay in the castle, don't worry. You have proven your worth in today's battle and only a fool would resent your initiative at this point. I have seen you save many lives with my own eyes," Impa said. "What I wanted to discuss with you is of a different nature."

Link still remained silent.

Impa took a deep breath before speaking again. "When you were facing Volga something happened, didn't it? Did you feel it?"

Link still didn't speak, but the General waited silently for him to answer.

"I... am not sure," Link began hesitatingly. "One moment I was lying on the ground, winded, and the next I found myself standing again, full of energy. It was... odd, but I didn't think anything of it at the time."

Impa was silent for a long moment. "Did you notice Volga's flames couldn't touch you?" she asked.

Link considered this for a few seconds. "Peripherally," he finally answered. "I had my shield up and was focused on Volga, it didn't really register, then."

"Did you notice anything... different about your sword hand?"

Link started at the question. His left hand had felt awfully hot, but this again was something he had been only peripherally aware of at the time. He hadn't had time to consider it, in the moment.

Impa apparently accepted he was not going to answer, because she spoke again.

"Your left hand was... glowing," she said slowly. "A symbol appeared there, made of light."

She gestured towards a carving above the mantlepiece.

"That symbol. With one of the triangles glowing brighter than the others."

Link followed her eyes to the wall and was stunned. Above the mantlepiece, on the wall, the triple triangle of the Triforce glittered in the firelight.

Chapter Text

Impa had been very clear. His role was to be more than that of another fighter. He was to be a symbol, a beacon, a standard the men could look to for reassurance and strength. That was why she had given him that green tunic. Morale was important in war, and Impa insisted he could contribute to keeping it high.

“And not because I expect all of this of you,” Impa had added, gesturing towards the encampment, “but because they do. They are proud to fight at the Chosen Hero's side.”

Link understood. They had all grown up with the stories and legends of the Triforce, the golden power of the princesses and queens of Hyrule, the myth of the Chosen Hero that had appeared in the kingdom's darkest hours and would inevitably appear again should Hyrule and it’s princess need him. But now? Now he had felt the shining symbol appear on his own hand, he had felt the power course through him, though he still doubted he was worthy of it. He sometimes thought Impa had doubts about him as well. He had been trained to fight from a very young age and had never wanted anything better than to become a Royal Guard and protect Hyrule and it’s people, which is what had prompted him to join the fight when the need had arisen, but this was something entirely different. He wanted to give everything he had, but did not feel like a legendary hero. He didn’t know how to encouage or inspire. All he could do was to fight to the best of his abilities during battle, and follow Impa's directions at all other times.

“It has been days, now everybody is sure that the legendary hero is among us. Many have seen you fight, and they will keep looking to you even off the battlefield. The men need to see you strong, confident, in control at all times. They are scared enough that the Princess went missing, if they see you nervous they will panic,” she had told him. “As long as they believe you are invincible and unbeatable they will follow you anywhere.”

Invincible. That sounded a lot like invulnerable, which he very much wasn’t. The burning, throbbing pain in his left shoulder and the dripping blood still thankfully hidden under his chainmail told him as much. Breathing was also painful, a sharp stab between the ribs every time he tried to inhale.

The latest battle had ended hours ago, the wounded had been treated, the food distributed, the encampment established. The search for any trace of the Princess continued, with no luck so far. Link was exhausted and in pain, but knew better than to show any of it. He couldn’t just walk into the hospital tent and ask someone to look at his injuries, he couldn’t have been injured. He was the Hero wielding the Triforce of Courage, a legend come to life, he couldn’t show weakness or make mistakes. It was a bitter thought. Still he clenched his teeth against the pain and waited for the moment he could make his escape.

Link adjusted his scarf again to make sure the cut and blood stain on the shoulder of his tunic made by a moblin's blade remained hidden. He could feel the blood from the wound slowly dripping down his back and arm, his undershirt progressively more and more wet. The chainmail did a good job of keeping the blood hidden and away from showing on his green tunic for now, and of that he was thankful. Less easy was hiding the difficulty he was having with breathing, due to a well-timed hit from an Aeralfos, as well as how nauseous and exhausted he felt. But the men needed him. They liked to see him and talk to him after the battles. Some would thank him, some would tell him their take on the fighting, some just needed to hear in his voice that they had done a good job and deserved to rest, especially those who had been wounded and would stay behind. Link knew this helped give them all purpose, direction, unity, all so important in this war.

But Link was coming to the end of his endurance. His eyesight was starting to cloud, his head throbbed, he was having trouble walking with the purpose that was expected of him. Waves of dizziness were making it hard to focus on anything. He hadn’t eaten, but he doubted he could keep anything down at the moment, not with the way his stomach felt. Everyone was distracted, eating, resting, talking. Now looked like a good moment to make his retreat. He couldn’t hide in plain sight much longer.

***

Sheik was ever aware of the hero. She always observed him, always knew where he was and what he was doing, whether it was fighting, walking among the soldiers, in a meeting with Impa and the other capitans or cleaning his weapons. There was something about him that called to her, that made her blood sing. When he gracefully spun his sword around in battle, when he listened to a wounded soldier with a soft look on his face, when he got that look of grim determination in his deep blue eys during war councils. Strong, focused, selfless, kind, silent.

But tonight something was off. She had noticed a stiffness about his posture and movements which was completely at odds with the warmth in his eyes and voice as he went around like he always did after battle, checking on the wounded and helping with setting camp and generally making himself available to whoever wanted to interact with the Hero. And now she saw him slip away between the tents, unnoticed, having taken no food or drink.

Just before he disappeared behind a corner, Sheik suddenly noticed something.

There was a dark stain on Link's undershirt peeking from under the chainmail at his elbow. Was that blood? Had he been wounded? Why had he not been treated? He had been in the hospital tent long enough, stopping to see every wounded soldier.

She suddenly realised what his stiff posture must have meant.

Pain.

The Sheikah warrior quickly followed after the hero, knowing his tent to be at the far end of the encampment. She soon caught up to him and immediately noticed how faltering and unsure his steps were. Away from the noise of the crowd, she could also hear how his breathing was laboured and shallow. How had she missed this all evening?

Link must have felt her presence, for he turned around and quickly straightened his posture and controlled his breathing. Only a tightness around his eyes betrayed what he could not hide from Sheik anymore. Also, up close she realised just how pale he looked.

“You are injured,” she said in a low voice.

Link didn’t react, his eyes hardening slightly the only indication he had heard her at all.

Sheik moved closer. “You should have your wounds checked.”

“There is no need, thank you,” he said immediately, his voice controlled. “I'm fine. Please go back and finish your meal. You must be hungry and tired.” He tried to give her a small smile, but it looked more like a pained grimace.

A crack in his facade.

He turned to leave, but he suddenly stumbled and wrapped his right arm around his ribs. Sheik reached out to take his left arm to steady him and saw him flinch at the contact. Then she noticed just how wet with warm blood his shirt was.

Oh, Link.

Sheik didn’t waste any more time. She put her arms gently around Link's torso to hold him upright. Link's eyes were clenched shut around the pain and he was obviously struggling to catch his breath, but he tried to gently push her away.

“I'm fine,” he mumbled, his voice strained. “Just tired.”

It was such a blatant lie that it deserved to be entirely ignored. Sheik helped him take a few more steps towards his tent, but Link's knees were starting to buckle, and he was not fighting Sheik's hold anymore. His consciousness was fading.

The Sheikah warrior supported more and more of the hero's weight as they made their way to the secluded spot Link had chosen for his tent.

Once inside, Sheik helped Link to his bedroll and started removing his clothes and armor. Link was barely conscious by that point, so even though he wasn’t helping her much, he also wasn’t trying to push her away anymore.

When Sheik had Link stripped down to his undershirt, her breath caught. The entire back and left arm of the garment were drenched in blood.

“It's not as bad as it looks.”

Sheik almost jumped. She hadn't realised Link had opened his eyes, too distracted by the extent of his blood loss.

“It’s only a small cut, on the back of my shoulder,” he said, voice still strained, as he struggled to sit up.

“That you allowed to bleed freely for hours”, she answered as she helped him move.

Link made no answer to that.

Sheik took out her knife and cut the undershirt away from Link. She finally located the wound which was indeed smaller than she feared, but jagged and deep. She quickly cleaned and bandaged it, before turning Link around to look at her.

“What else?” she asked sternly.

But he didn’t need to answer as she took in the black and purple bruising on his ribcage. With delicate fingers, she prodded at his ribs to check for breaks. Link’s low hisses told her where the worst damage was, but nothing seemed out of place, nothing more than cracks.

“I am going to bind your ribs. It will hurt while I do it, but it will help you breathe afterwards,” Sheik told him as she pulled more bandages out of her bag.

Link just nodded. The scarring on his torso told Sheik this had probably happened to him before. She quickly and efficiently wrapped his ribcage tight. When she was done, Link looked even paler but seemed to be breathing a bit better.

"Thank you," he whispered so softly she wasn't even sure he had spoken.

She gave him a small nod, then reached into her bag to pull out a vial of red potion. She handed it to Link with a clipped “Drink this.”

Link made no move to take the vial from her.

“No,” he said simply. “My injuries do not justify wasting such a precious item. It can save someone’s life next battle, like the one I was carrying did today, when I gave it to a soldier who needed it.”

Sheik scoffed. So he had carried a red potion, he had just chosen to give it to someone else. Hero through and through.

“I would have agreed with you if you hadn’t let that wound bleed for as long as you did,” she said. “With the blood loss you sustained, coupled with the damage to your ribs, you won’t be in fighting condition for days.”

And you in top fighting condition can save many more lives than one, she wanted to add. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t burden him more than he already was. She was starting to suspect why he had hidden his condition, but she had to ask anyway.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

Link gave a small shrug, looking more uncomfortable than Sheik had ever seen him. “I am supposed to be a legend,” he said, looking down at his hands. “The soldiers fight willingly at my side because they believe we can’t lose, I can’t lose.” His hands clenched into fists. “If they saw me injured, weak, helpless….” Link looked up, a haunted look in his eyes. “They wouldn’t follow me any more. They don’t follow me, they follow an idea.” He fell silent.

Sheik understood how he felt much better than he knew, but couldn’t tell him. Her heart hurt for him, but she didn’t know how to make it better.

She didn’t need to think of an answer, though, because Link wavered and his eyes fluttered closed for a second.

“You need to drink this and rest,” Sheik said pushing the vial of red liquid at him again. “Then you will need food.” She helped him back down on the bedroll, as his consciousness began slipping again.

“No potion,” Link mumbled, his eyes fluttering shut. A shaky exhale later he was unconscious.

Sheik studied him carefully. He was very pale, even his lips looked white, but that was to be expected after that blood loss. He had dark circles under his eyes, but his breathing was more even and deep than it had been earlier. His face was slightly more relaxed than usual, though still pinched and tense even in sleep, and for once he looked his age. Sheik sometimes couldn't believe he was not yet twenty-one. Just a few months younger than she was, true, but both of them were too young to hold such responsibilities in a war.

Sheik sighed. There was nothing she could do for him now but to let him rest. She would be here to make sure he took better care of himself when he woke up.

Chapter Text

After being able to just be Sheik for a while, with the freedom that came from not having to wear the crown, Zelda was sometimes irked by the necessities of her role. She couldn't go where she wanted when she pleased, for example. The latest battle had been over for a while, and she still hadn't seen Link. The other capitans had reported in for debriefing already, but he had spoken a couple of words to Impa and then disappeared. When she could just be Sheik, she would have been able to move unnoticed and undisturbed and go looking for Link. Now she had no such luck, and moving through the encampment was slow work, as she was stopped every few steps with questions, offers of assistance or just kind greetings. She was happy to stop for whoever wanted to speak to her, but it made crossing the encampment slow work indeed.

But more than just her freedom had changed since she gave up on the Sheikah warrior disguise. In the last couple of months, Link and Sheik had grown closer, had become... friends? Zelda didn't know what to call them. Link still didn't talk much, but he had talked to her more as Sheik, much more than to anyone else. And it seemed to her he had searched her out just as much as she yearned for him to. More importantly, he hadn't been hiding from her anymore when he was injured, exhausted or in pain. It was like he was being himself around Sheik, and being the hero around anyone else, which was ironically almost the opposite Sheik was doing.

Then Zelda had been forced to give up on her disguise. When Link has found out, Zelda had carefully studied his eyes and face and had been able to read a lot from the usually stoic young man. Astonishment first, then shortly after embarrassment, as he worked through all their previous interactions. Then he had schooled his features into the closed off hero mask. It had almost hurt Zelda physically to see that, and now, a couple of weeks later, was still working to convince him she was still the same person he had befriended, even though it sometimes didn't feel that way even to her.

She could recall every detail of a conversation between them just a few days earlier. They had been finally and blessedly alone, and she had felt the need to apologise.

"I am sorry I had to deceive everybody, you in particular," she had said. "I am sure you can understand I did it for my own safety and that of Hyrule. I wanted to fight, but couldn't as Zelda, not in the same way."

"Please, Princess, you owe me no explanation," he had answered. He had hesitated, as if wanting to say more, but had remained silent.

"I hope you realise I am still the same person. If you felt comfortable around Sheik, I hope you can feel comfortable with Zelda as well," she had said, her voice hesitant.

Link had given her a small smile at that, but had made no answer. Zelda hoped to read that as an affirmative.

Zelda wrenched herself out of her reverie and back to the present, where she was still searching for Link. She finally found him in the hospital tent, sitting on a stool with his left bracer off and the sleeve of his tunic rolled back while a doctor cleaned a cut on his arm. Link looked up as she drew near. He seemed well, hardly even tired after what had been a long and difficult battle. The cut on his arm didn't seem to bother him at all.

"Princess," he greeted her with a nod, "I hope you are not here to seek medical attention."

"Not at all," she answered, "I was actually looking for you. I didn't see you around talking to the men as you usually do."

Link seemed to start a little at that, then gave her a small smile.

"I was going to go as soon as the doctor is finished," he said.

"I am," the doctor said, tucking the ends of the bandage in place. "The cut was very neat, it should heal quickly. Just have the bandage changed in a couple of days."

Link thanked the doctor and stood to leave. Zelda walked with him towards the mess area.

“I see you are not hiding your injuries any more,” she said softly.

Link looked down at his arm.

“This scratch?" he said. "This is all I got taking a whole keep on my own, I don’t think I need to be ashamed of it,” he said looking back at her with a crooked smile.

Zeld felt her eyebrows raise of their own accord. This side of Link was... new. She didn't think she had ever heard him so... cocky. Confident. It wasn't a bad thing, at all, Zelda actually found herself quite enjoying the twinkle in his eyes. It was just... different. But if he was growing confident in this role that had been forced upon him, it was actually a very good thing. She felt a smile creeping across her face.

"I have to agree,"she said. "But don't get complacent," she added, letting a hint of playfulness in her voice.

***

Link tried to focus on the task at hand, which was to make sure the soldiers were eating and resting. He offered reassurances, he listened to them, he sat with them to share the calm after the storm. But the smile Zelda had given him as they left the hospital tent kept intruding in his thoughts.

Princess Zelda, he reminded himself.

When he had found out Sheik was in fact Princess Zelda, he had lost his usual iron grip on his emotions. He had lost Sheik, just when she was becoming... important. Essential. She was the one who had kept him sane through the madness of being the hero in this war, and also through the horrors of the war itself. Link could just be a person with her, not a legend or an idea. But it had been more than that. He'd yearned for her company. He'd wanted to see her, her graceful movements, her long and elegant limbs, her surprisingly soft hands. He'd wanted to hear her voice, quiet conversations by the fireside, her intelligent insight tempered by a ferocious wit. They had even started sparring together sometimes, made difficult not only by her skill, but by how distractingly alluring her movements were.

Then she had turned up to be the Princess, and Link hadn't known what to think. He knew Zelda was the same person Sheik had been, but he couldn't look at her the same way. She was the Princess. She had since made an obvious effort to convince him they could still be friends, though. And Link realised that just a few weeks back he would have felt too far below her to even talk to her, but now? He was supposed to be the Hero, after all... He could be worthy to be her friend at least...

Though distracted by his thoughts, he had finished his rounds of the encampment and hospital tent. It was now time to go back to the command center. Impa found useful discussing every aspect of the battle with the unit capitains, first separately and later as a group, to analyse tactics and to prevent future mistakes. As a newly appointed unit captain, Link had to take part. Impa would debrief him on both his and his men's movements and actions during the battle. Link was still not sure how he felt about commanding other men, leading soldiers still felt strange to him. Moreover, even though he could see the advantages of fighting as a unit, he found he preferred when he could move alone. No one to worry about, no one to feel responsible for. Those were the times he could just let loose, feel the raw power that coursed through him when he lifted his sword. Impa was not impressed with his solo initiatives sometimes, which is why he wasn't terribly looking forward to the debriefing with her today.

As if on cue, her eyes turned stern soon after they started the debriefing, as they were discussing a particular moment of the day's battle.

"That was an unnecessary risk, Link," Impa said, her voice hard. "Your unit was just a few minutes behind you. You should have waited, there was no need to enter the keep alone. There were two Aeralfos inside."

"I didn't want to risk the safety of the men. It was better for them to stay back," Link answered.

"You are risking their safety anyway, if you get separated from them. They look to you for orders and directions. Your men are your responsability."

Link didn't like hearing this, it was too true for him to make any answer. He gritted his teeth and looked down. He briefly considered asking Impa to relieve him of the unit command, giving him more freedom of movement during battle, but decided this was not the best time. He would bring it up when they were both calmer.

***

Another battle won.

This time, the strategy devised by Impa and the capitans had called for Link to work alone, without being slowed down by a unit of soldiers. He had received his own orders and set of objectives, and had fought like he preferred, focused solely on his targets. It had been... almost exhilarating. Today he had felt like the hero everyone kept expecting him to be. He was born for this, he was convinced of it now.

The adrenaline high from the battle was slow to pass. He still felt charged with energy and tension as he walked around the encampment, sword in hand. It was like his weapon was a part of him, he was loathe to sheath it even now. He felt like they could do this, they could win this war, he could win this war, a victory for Hyrule. The next few days would be decisive, he knew. They were moving closer and closer to the Sealed Grounds.

The Master Sword.

It called to him. He wanted it. He could do it. Impa was not convinced the Master Sword should be removed from its resting place, for it presumably held the seal in place on a fragment of evil, but Zelda believed in him. Zelda believed in him. He could take the sword, the seal would hold. The Master Sword belonged in his hands, of that he was sure.

Then he would truly be invincible.

Chapter Text

The Master Sword.

Link stared in awe at the sword in his hand. He could feel its power, a pulsating promise humming through the metal. As soon as he had grasped the hilt, pain had washed through him, he had felt his life force draining. The sword had been testing him, gauging his strength and resolve. He had gritted his teeth and kept going, sure this was how it was supposed to be. The thrill he had felt when the sword had finally come free was nothing to the energy he had felt when he had raised the sword skyward, his pain and fatigue washed away and his vigour restored. The sword had accepted him as it's master, the Chosen Hero.

A noise behind him reminded Link of where he was, and he lashed out with the sword on instinct. The strength and precision with which he hit the bokoblin behind him took even Link by surprise, and he allowed himself another moment to marvel at the perfectly balanced divine weapon in his hand, glowing in the low light of the chamber.

But now was not the time to get lost in contemplation. He had a battle to win.

***

Hours later, Link still felt the power coursing through him. The Master Sword was still in hand, glittering with the last rays of the sun as it set over the battlefield. It was over, they had won again, and for once Link felt truly satisfied with himself, as if this victory had been all his doing. In a way, it had.

"Link!"

He turned around to find Princess Zelda, rapier still in hand, walking towards him briskly. The wind caught the heavy silk of her dress and made it flutter under the armoured greaves, highlighting her long legs. Her hair also swayed in the soft wind, framing her face and shoulders. Her eyes were almost glowing in the twilight and Link found his breath catching. She was a vision of beauty, strength, power and grace.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"I am fine, Princess," Link answered. "I trust you are unhurt?"

"I am, thank you," she answered quickly. Her eyes moved to the sword in his hand.

"The Sword of Legend. I knew you could do it," she said almost reverently. Zelda moved to place a soft hand on Link's arm. "You were unbelievable today, truly the Chosen Hero of the Goddess."

Link felt pride swelling in his chest at the admiration he could see in Zelda's eyes, and finally the last of his doubts dissolved. This was his place, his role, his destiny. He was the Chosen One. The Master Sword had confirmed it to the world by chosing him. He would fight for Hyrule and save his country, his people, his Princess.

The following days and subsequent battles only convinced Link more and more of his destiny. Nothing was too much for him, no situation was too dire. He no longer needed backup, sometimes not even a plan, all he had to do was fight and he could only win. His trance-like focus in battle got sharper as he grew confident in his strength and abilities, the Master Sword in his hands was becoming an extension of his arm. Very soon, he was treating it like a part of himself.

Victory was drawing closer, battle after battle. But battle after battle Link also found himself struggling to find the motivation to interact with the rest of the army. He would attend all debriefings and tactical meetings, of course, but the rest of the time he found he just wanted to be alone in quiet contemplation. It was easier to focus on his abilities, his responsibilities, his burden, a burden he carried willingly and proudly.

Of course his desire to remain withdrawn did not apply to Zelda. She never bothered Link, and they seemed to run into each other quite a bit. She understood, Link thought. She was part of this larger destiny as well, she knew what it was like to carry the responsability of this power they shared.

One evening, as they were walking together out of a tactical meeting, Zelda commented on his drive, strength and dedication.

"I also see you are not struggling under this weight any more, and of that I am glad," she said with a soft smile.

He was almost embarrassed by this reminder of his past weaknesses, but the knowledge that he had overcome his insecurities made him less uncomfortable.

***

It seemed to Zelda all she was ever doing when not eating or sleeping was looking for Link. And the part about not doing it while eating or sleeping was not exactly true, either. It was almost embarassing if she stopped to think about it, to an outside observer she could be seen behaving like a moonstruck teenager on her first crush.

She obviously had good reason to be concerned with the wellbeing of the Hero. He was important, essential, so much rested on his shoulders and she knew well how he had struggled with that in the beginning. However, lately he had been fighting with such drive and fierecness, the glowing light of the Master Sword making him always visible, always in the thickest of each battle, it was easy to forget he had ever felt insecure in his role. Even his fighting style had changed subtly. Where it had been an elegant dance of dodges and backflips in between precise and almost surgical jabs and swipes, now he more often met attacks head on, using his shield instead of dodging, and while his hits still carried the elegance and precision they always had, there was more raw force and purpose behind each one. Ever since he had claimed the Master Sword, it seemed he was unstoppable, no monster or foe could stand in his way without falling. He had been diving into the most dangerous situations of each battle, taking more and more upon himself, sometimes even unnecessarily. He had become...almost reckless.

That, coupled with his history of downplaying or downright hiding his wounds, made Zelda breathe easier every time she could see him and make sure he was fine.

So here she was, once again looking for Link a couple of hours after the latest battle had ended. She had already checked the hospital tent and the mess area, and his absence from both had her on edge. She decided to check his own tent. Maybe Link was tired and had retired early, it would have been unusual but not surprising, given his exertion in battle.

Many small fires dotted the area dedicated to personal tents, as some soldiers preferred to rest and recover in isolation after battle, as opposed to the company and noise of the mess area. It was near one of these small fires that she finally found Link, alone, sitting on a rock and carefully cleaning the Master Sword. Seeing him unhurt made her exhale in relief.

“Good evening, Link. I was looking for you," she said as she stepped in the circle of firelight.

Link looked up from his Sword, his eyes almost glittering reflecting the dancing flames. He smiled lopsidedly at her.

"Good evening, Princess," he answered without moving from his sitting position. "I have to say I am flattered, you seem to spend quite a bit of time looking for me."

Zelda was still too relieved to see he was fine to process what he had just said.

"When I didn’t see you around camp as usual I got worried,” she said softly.

“Worried about me? Careful, Princess, something like that could easily go to a man's head, make him think you can't keep away from him,” he answered with a smirk. One of his eyebrows was raised and his eyes were twinkling, giving his whole face an amused, teasing expression.

Zelda started. Was he… flirting with her? She should have been enjoying it, she should have been thrilled, she would have been thrilled just a few hours earlier, but... where it should have been fun and playful, right now it felt teasing and arrogant. There was something about Link that had been hardening for a while now, and Zelda was surprised to see it now, all of a sudden.

“You stopped going around to talk to the soldiers and check on the wounded after battle,” she said, almost surprised at her sudden realisation.

Link shrugged, unconcerned. He didn't seem perturbed by the shift in the conversation or in her demanor. “There was no one I really wanted to see,” he said, his voice a touch harder than it had been.

“You were usually more concerned with who might want to see you,” Zelda answered, her eyebrows raised in surprise at his tone.

Link gave her an odd, cold look and was silent for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was slow and controlled. “Well, lately, during battles, it sometimes feels like I am fighting this war on my own.”

Zelda was left speechless at that. It was such an arrogant, prideful and spiteful thing to say she would not have believed Link could say it if she hadn’t heard it with her own ears. He was far too empathetic, far too kind, he... he was better than that.

Link was still looking at her with that cold look that was so unlike himself, as if waiting for her to speak. She struggled to come up with an answer, but couldn’t find one. She settled for searching into his eyes for something, anything that would give lie to the words he had just uttered. She found nothing. After a long moment of silence, she had to say something.

“I'll leave you to rest as alone as you fight, then,” she said as she turned to leave. She suddenly found she just wanted to be away from him, away from the steely blue of his cold eyes that had been so warm and soft only days earlier.

***

Link entered the large chamber and looked around for her. The Dark Sorceress, she should be here. It was time to end it. But she was not here, only a handful of pitiful bokoblins. With a swipe of his powerful sword they were all turned to dust. He twirled the Master Sword in his hand.

Where was she?

Link suddenly heard a low, jeering laugh behind him. He turned around to face the Dark Sorceress, Cia herself.

Finally, he thought to himself, the real challenge.

As if answering his thoughts, Cia laughed again. It was an odd sound, harsh, metallic, cruel.

"Well, would you look at that. Your head got so big I wonder how you carry it around," she said, voice mocking and dangerous. "But more than that, your heart grew black. So much for being the incorruptible soul."

Link started. What was she talking about? He was faithful to Hyrule, he always had been.

Again, it was as if the sorceress was answering Link's thoughts.

"Oh, no one doubts your loyalties, little hero," she said. "Of course if you don't count in that your opinion of your allies. It's just your power and yourself in your heart, am I right?"

Link didn't want to listen to her, he wanted to fight. Cia was trying to distract him, and he wouldn't let her do it. He had to stay focused, she was just trying to provoke him into lowering his guard. It wouldn't work.

"It has been almost fun," Cia continued, "watching your pride, your arrogance and your conceit grow, turn into something dark in your heart that I could actually use against you."

Before Link could react, Cia raised her staff and a burst of something dark, like black lightning, hit him square in the chest. Pain whelmed him to his knees, a hand clutched over his heart. Link moved his hand, expecting to see blood, but there was nothing, no trace of a wound. A low hiss behind him made him turn, and Link's blood froze in his veins.

A dark shape with red eyes was lifting a sword that looked just like his Sword. But it couldn't be... the black shape looked like a shadow. His shadow. A black, dark, twisted version of himself.

Suddenly Link understood what he was seeing, and the sorceress' words made sense. This was darkness taken straight from his heart. He had allowed his abilities, his strength, his destiny to cloud his judgement, he had believed himself better than he was, better than anyone else. This was his pridefulness, his conceit taking physical shape. The worst part of him, moving in to kill him.

Link staggered to his feet, the pain in his chest slow to fade and still weighing him down. He raised his Sword, and prepared to fight all his failings.

His shadow was fast, agile and deadly. It's moves were a mirror of Link's own, it's strikes were precise and strong, it's reflexes lightning quick, it even dodged and danced just like Link did. His enemy might look like a shadow, but it's sword was hard and sharp where it cut through the chainmail at Link's side. More hits followed that first one. Backing away, breathing hard and bleeding, Link realised he had to end this quickly.

He circled his shadow for a few seconds, then took a gamble. He feinted a backhanded attack, then twirled the opposite way, leaving his side open for a fraction of a second. His shadow was not fast enough, and Link plunged his Sword straight in the shadow's stomach. It disappeared in a cloud of black dust.

Breathing heavily, Link looked around warily, searching for Cia. In front of his eyes, a second black shadow rose from the ground. Stunned, Link backed away, still trying to catch his breath. He was wounded and in pain, he could feel his strength waning. If he could just reach the red potion in his pouch, then maybe...

A movement to his left made him start. Another shade. And another one on his right. And a fourth one blocking his retreat.

Link turned from one shadow to the other, almost frantic, his sword raised in a weak attempt to fend them off. Was this the extent of his failings? Was this the amount of darkness in his heart? He had brought this on himself, he saw that now. He had felt invincible, unstoppable, the only necessary one. He had felt... better than his companions. Stronger, more powerful, more skilled. He was now to pay the price for his empty conceit. Maybe he didn't deserve to survive this.

As the dark shapes taken from his own heart moved in, Link lost the will to fight back.

Chapter Text

Impa was a few steps ahead, reaching the doorway a few seconds before Zelda and pausing there for a moment before springing into action, a whole unit of soldiers right behind her.

When Zelda looked into the large chamber, her heart froze in her chest.

Link was there, his sword up, almost crouched in a very defensive stance, turning from one approaching enemy to the other. Zelda could see blood on his tunic, and the way he held his right arm a bit closer to his body than usual. He was hurt.

Those... things... advancing on him... It was sickening. They looked exactly like Link, but made of darkness. Zelda had heard the Dark Sorceress' words, she had understood their meaning, she had even seen the darkness blooming in Link over the last few weeks, even though she would have never dreamed of the consequences, but seeing these shadows... It was awful.

Even more terrifying was the shift she saw take place in Link's eyes as she watched. Where there had been fury, calculation, concentration and even fear, the look on his face suddenly turned to grim resignation. His back straightened slightly, his sword fell a fraction of an inch.

Zelda couldn't breathe. He wasn't going to fight back? Was he giving up? Was he accepting his death?

Before Zelda could even take a step, one of the shadows pounced on Link, black sword swinging. Zelda tried to scream, but Impa was already there, deflecting the hit with her heavy sword. Link looked up at the General, almost stunned, then at the other soldiers who were already fighting the other shadows. Finally, he turned towards the door and his eyes met Zelda's.

They stared into each other's eyes for just a fraction of a second, but to Zelda it felt like an age, for all the emotion she saw there.

Suddenly, Link and Zelda moved at the same time. Zelda leapt forward to engage the shadow on the right as Link raised his Sword, glowing brighter than ever, and advanced towards the shadow in front of him.

The fight was ferocious but thankfully short. These shades had the same speed, skill and strength Link had, but none of his instincts and subtelty in combat. Zelda was glad of that, she didn't think she would have been able to beat one otherwise. Once the cloud of dust in front of her dissolved, she turned to find the last shadow falling to Link's sword.

Everything was over quickly after that. Cia and her troops had retreated, the battle was over. The war was not. As soon as the work to set the camp started, Link came to look for Zelda and Impa. He looked awful, tired, pale and still covered in blood. But the worst thing was the pained look on his face. He went down on one knee.

"I can't find words to apologise or thank you properly, all I can say is this," he said in a low, earnest voice. "Please forgive my horrible mistakes, and thank you for saving my life by putting yours at risk. I will do everything in my power to deserve it and hope that one day I will."

Impa moved before Zelda could even react. The General put a hand gently on Link's shoulder and spoke, her voice soft.

"There is no need to thank us, Link," Impa said gently. "We are all in this together, we look out for each other. Learn your strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the ones fighting with you. Accept them, use them, don't forget your mistakes and learn from them."

Link kept his head down, but Zelda saw him close his eyes and clench his jaw, accepting Impa's words.

Impa spoke again. "Now, go have your wounds treated and rest. If you want, we can discuss this again when you have recovered."

Link rose slowly to his feet, the look in his eyes more collected.

"I will, thank you. Now I want to go and see the soldiers," he said.

"They can wait until later. Your wounds need attention first," Impa chided gently.

The look Link gave her was full of pain and guilt again.

"I have overlooked them enough, lately, and many risked their lives today just to save me," Link said roughly.

"Honour their deeds by making sure they were not wasted. You can see them when you are better."

Zelda could see Link wanted to argue further, and it was proof of how difficult this ordeal had been for him that he didn't. He bowed to them and turned to leave. Zelda moved to grasp his arm.

"Let me help you to the hospital tent," she said gently.

Link slowly put his hand over Zelda's on his arm.

"Thank you, but I think I want to be alone right now," he said.

Zelda watched Link leave with a lump in her throat. She felt Impa's hand on her shoulder.

"Don't worry about him, he is strong," Impa said. "He will be fine."

Zelda could just fervently hope so.

***

"Thank you, captain, I think with this we have covered everything, you may go."

"Thank you, General," the captain said as he stood to leave. At the entrance of the tent he stopped and turned towards Impa.

"Truly, General," he began, hesitatingly. "My whole unit owes Link their lives today. We were backed up against the wall, there was nowhere to run... we weren't even expecting him there. He was a gift from the Goddess."

Impa thanked the captain again and bid him good night. She then turned back towards her papers, sighing. She had lost count of the times she had heard those exact words, or words to that effect, today. She picked up the annotated map of that day's battle and perused it again.

Apparently Link had been... everywhere. Everywhere he was needed, everywhere he could save lives, everywhere he could maim the enemy the most. It was almost as if he could fly and read minds.

Impa realised she had been down that boy's neck since the first day, but it had been a necessity. Link was young, even if skilled and brave almost beyond anything she had ever seen, and the lack of experience was, if not a fault, sometimes a problem.

Impa had seen him struggle under the pressure placed upon him in the beginning, but she had chosen to let him grow into his role on his own. Offering him empty words of comfort had seemed pointless. She had seen him slowly find his balance, mostly with the help of Sheik. Impa shook her head with a small smile at the memory of the deceit the Princess had devised. It had fooled even Impa, and that was saying something.

But then Impa had seen Link grow overconfident. It wasn't a real problem in the beginning, the risky solo stunts he pulled really were nothing he couldn't handle, but he was supposed to be a leader, not a rouge. His loss of empathy with the soldiers had been more of a problem. Impa had tried to confront Link about it a few times, but nothing she had said had worked.

But now? Just little over ten days had passed since they had faced Link's dark shadows in battle, and now Impa could find no fault in Link. Now he truly was the Hero he was meant to be, a leader, a warrior, a beacon. In battle he fought better than ever, made tactically sound decisions, looked after the men. During debriefings he listened intently to anything that was said and very obviously took all comments to heart. In tactical meetings, his contributions were always insightful and useful, and he was humble and unassuming even as he volunteered for the most dangerous missions. After each battle, he took time to talk to the men, offering praise, comfort, help or suggestions as needed. The soldiers revered him, they felt cared for and valued.

Impa knew Link was still coming to terms with what had happened with the Dark Sorceress and the fight against the physical manifestations of his own shortcomings, she could see how he became quiet and withdrawn, sometimes. She noticed the dark circles around his eyes which spoke of lost sleep to tormented thoughts. However, if this growth of his into a true hero and leader had been the outcome, and judging from his past achievements, she had nothing but faith in his mental recovery. He would find his balance again.

***

Link sat up gasping, covered in cold sweat, to find himself in his own tent.

That nightmare again.

It was bad enough to see red glowing eyes in a black shadow every time he looked in a mirror or even closed his eyes, but that nightmare brought back the full experience, taste of blood and sweat included.

But he guessed he deserved it. If this constant reminder of his past failures helped him not to make the same mistakes again, it was a good thing, wasn't it? Of course assuming he survived the continuous reminders, he thought with a touch of bitterness.

Anyway, the nightmares were not the worst part of his current state. Oh, no. The worst thing was the unrelenting, torturous and excruciating way he kept second-guessing every little thing he thought, did or said. He could live with the self-loathing, with the feeling of being tainted and dirty, he could cope with having to hide it to always seem the confident hero he should be, but constantly doubting and analysing his own motives for any little action was exhausting in a way he had never experienced before. He was terrified of making the same mistakes again, or along the same lines, and letting his friends down again, after they had believed in him, followed him and risked their lives for him.

Especially the Princess. Link closed his eyes and suppressed a shudder. Just thinking about her caused shame and guilt to burn bitter in his throat. Some days he felt too ashamed to even look her in the eye, sure she was going to see him as a dark shadow with red eyes. To think that there had been a time when he had let his imagination run wild, thinking they could become close friends, or maybe even something more. Now, he just felt too contaminated by darkness to even sit too close to her during tactical meetings, lest he make her sick by tainting her Golden power.

And yet, when he saw her all he could think was that the Princess, Impa and the soldiers who came to fight with them had saved him from himself. Not only physically, by fighting against the shadows born from his own heart, but also saving him from his own mind, where he had already felt defeated. They had showed him he was part of something larger, larger than any one of them. They were fighting together, to free Hyrule from the threat of darkness and domination, and that was something worth fighting, and perhaps dying, for. Giving up to a struggle in his own mind was stupid and useless.

Everyone had been so understanding and nice to him when he had apologised for putting everyone at risk after the battle, even the men of his old unit, who, ironically, were the men who had fought his shadows with him. They had told him they understood he had bigger responsabilities and would do anything to keep him safe, like he did for them. Link had swallowed a huge lump in his throat at that. How could he have thought caring for men that fought alongside him for what they believed in was a cumbersome burden?

Link sighed. He knew swimming in self-pity was just about the worst thing he could do, and was disgusted at how self-centered he became whenever he was not busy. Hadn't part of the lesson been that Link and his own mind were ultimately unimportant in the face of the threat to the Kingdom? He got up from his bed roll and stepped outside the tent. Dawn was not far off, the sky in the east was already lightening. Time to get back to work and out of his own head.

Chapter Text

Link winced slightly as he tried to twist around to clean a jagged mark on his side. The spear brandished by that ugly moblin, though mostly turned by his chainmail, had left some damage anyway.

He sighed as he put down the wet rag he was trying to use. It was not so bad, it was mostly bruising anyway. It didn't really need much cleaning.

Definitely not enough to warrant seeking attention in the hospital tent, or goddess forbid, a red potion. He found the medical staff tended to overreact when he asked for treatment, and would see to him making more gravely injured soldiers wait. It made him feel... horrible. He didn't want or deserve special treatment.

He was not going to overestimate his own importance again, or let others do it. He knew he had a large role to play in this war, but finally he understood what the balance he had to find looked like, even though he felt he was not there yet. He had to balance the burden placed upon him by the fact he bore both the Triforce of Courage and the Master Sword with the needs of the soldiers, the demands of the war, and the inescapable fact that he was still just one man, ultimately unimportant in the face of the future and destiny of Hyrule.

What was most frustrating of all was that he felt he had been closer to this balance earlier in the war, when he first started coming to grips with his destiny. When he still felt more like himself, more like... a person, not a legend. When he had Sheik beside him to remind him of his humanity above all else.

Link shook his head. Princess Zelda, he reminded himself. Sheik never existed. He saw in her what he wanted to see, not what was really there.

But the fact remained, she had kept him sane and showed him a balance existed. She had grounded him, giving him support, understanding and space to be just a man, not a hero out of a distant past.

His thoughts were interrupted by a soft voice at the entrance of the tent.

"You have been hiding your wounds again."

***

Link looked up at Zelda, obviously surprised to see her standing in his tent, but quickly slipped back into the carefully neutral mask she had come to hate. She had seen how much emotion could swirl in the deep blue of his eyes, making them look like smouldering oceans, stormy skies or crystalline flames. Eyes that could lay him bare to her, showing her the man he was, strong, brave, selfless, caring. There was none of that depth in his eyes now, as he stood, inclined his head in a perfectly proper show of respect and spoke to her in a controlled, even voice.

"It was just a small scratch or two, Princess, I would rather handle it on my own," he said with a small shrug. His expression changed then, and suddenly his eyes were as deep and alive as Zelda knew they could be, but the emotions brewing there were pain and regret. "There have been times when, in the hospital tent, my small wounds have been given attention over others who needed it more. I don't want that."

Zelda heard all the unspoken meaning behind his words and her heart swelled. This was the man she had missed in the last few months, this was the man who could take her breath away with a single look.

"Let me help you, then," she said, stepping further into the tent and kneeling beside his bedroll, gesturing for him to sit back down.

Link blushed faintly.

"Thank you, Princess, but that is not necessary," he said.

"Zelda. And please, you allowed Sheik to bind your wounds," she said. "Should I go change into my Sheikah garb? Should I cover my face? Would it help?"

The faint blush on Link's cheeks darkened, but he said nothing. Zelda slowly but deliberately moved to examine Link's injuries and began tending to them.

"You lost weight," Zelda noted quietly a few minutes later, as she wound the bandage around his torso. "Last time I did this you looked a little different," she added, hoping to remind him yet again of the... intimacy they had shared when she was disguised as Sheik.

Link looked down, averting his eyes. "I have not been very hungry lately," he said softly.

Of course, he was just as muscular now as he had been then, long, lean, solid muscle which promised agility and speed as well as strength. For that reason his weight loss was only discernible up close.

Very close.

Zelda suddenly realised this was the first time she was this close to Link's bare skin as herself, and not under the cover of Sheik's clothes and identity. The thought made her blush furiously, even as she berated herself for the stray thought. She cast around for something to say, but the only thing that came to mind was something that had been close to her heart for a while.

"You have been avoiding me," she said softly.

Oh, he had been subtle about it, as he had been more quiet and withdrawn than usual with everyone, which was saying something indeed, ever since the encounter with his shadows. He had never been one to seek company and initiate conversation, usually keeping to himself unless prompted. He was always still present and active in any battle, meeting, muster, debriefing, or any other occasion he was needed or wanted, even more so that before.

For all of these reasons, it had taken Zelda a while to be sure of it, but Link was avoiding her. And she wanted to understand why. The last thing she wanted was to make things more difficult for him.

"I..." Link began, before drifting into silence. He was still for a long moment, eyes still turned down. "I thought you might not want to... have to deal with me more than strictly necessary."

Zelda waited a few seconds for him to elaborate, but it seemed he was not going to. She swallowed thickly against the lump in her throat. "What made you feel that way?" she finally asked.

Link looked up and straight into her eyes. The look she found there was again the pained, haunted look she had seen in his eyes all those days back after the encounter with his shadows. She also noticed just how dark the circles under his eyes were, almost making her forget the question she had asked.

"You had to battle against monsters that looked just like me, made from darkness taken from inside of me. They are all I see when I look in a mirror, they must be what you see as well when you look at me," he said, his voice quiet and strained. "I failed everyone, but you most of all." He looked down to his clenched fists laying in his lap.

Zelda's jaw dropped. She knew, of course, that Link was still struggling with what has happened, it was obvious, but she was still stunned by the self-loathing she heard in his voice.

"You didn't fail us Link," she began, after a short silence. "You just made a mistake and have been making damn sure to make up for it. Give yourself credit for everything you have done, for everything you are living up to."

In the silence that followed Zelda's words, Link's shaky exhale seemed strangely loud. Zelda steeled herself to speak again.

"Do you think it would help you to... talk about what happened?" she asked.

Link made no answer, so once again Zelda took it upon herself to keep going.

"When you were facing those shades and I saw you lower you sword... the look in your eyes... It was the scariest thing I ever saw. You weren't going to fight back," Zelda said, her voice barely a whisper.

Link opened his mouth as if to answer, but then closed it and seemed to be searching for words that wouldn't come. Finally, he took a deep breath, and answered simply "No, I wasn't."

Zelda couldn't catch her breath. "Why?" she asked, her voice cracking.

Link was silent for another long moment, then he made a sound that sounded almost like a chuckle. "It sounds so over dramatic and self-centered when I try to put it into words, I don't think I need to dig this hole any deeper," he said, looking up at her with a faint glint in his eyes.

Zelda felt an almost overwhelming surge of relief at his attempt to crack a joke. But the matter at hand was still too important to be pushed aside. "Try me," she said with a small smile.

Link's eyes turned serious again. "For a second, I felt like... it was no worse than I deserved."

Zelda's throat constricted, making it difficult for her to answer. "What, death?" she finally managed.

Link's face twisted briefly, then he gave her a crooked half-smile. "I told you it was overly dramatic." He was silent for a second, then he stood and moved to put his tunic back on. "I came to my senses quickly, though, when you and Impa came in with my unit. I remembered there was something greater we were into together, and that giving up was not an option. So much is at stake, so much more than me and my misplaced sense of self-importance." Link turned back to face Zelda with a small sad smile. "I still haven't forgiven myself, but now I understand better what I need to be and do, so in a way, it was worth it."

Zelda's thoughts turned to a jumbled mess while she tried and failed to sort through all the things she wanted to tell him. That he was already the hero she wanted and needed, that he was allowed to be human, that he was allowed to feel pain...

"Well, you definitely need to take better care of yourself, for one thing," Zelda said at last. "I am quite certain you haven't eaten anything since this morning."

Link gave a low chuckle. "Indeed I have not," he answered.

Zelda looked down before speaking again. "I still haven't eaten either. If you are hungry I would very much like your company,"