Her shadow was ink across the sorrowful stone. Darkness played a pantomime of tears trailing black across the floor and her tired eyes looked to the window.
Still raining. Three days straight of it. Damn.
The young woman wrapped her arms about her trembling knees and shuddered. Time could not pass because there had been no sun. She did not know what time of day it was and the last few had seemed to meld into one another.
“It could always be worse I suppose,” she mused aloud to the softly burning candle beside her untouched bed. “I could be Istas.”
The lightning flashed bright across her weary features and the cry of rippling thunder made her shift uncomfortably. Laying her head in the pillow of her knees, she sighed gently.
“But being me is bad enough, isn’t it?” she asked the empty room. “Better to have once had that feeling then to never know of it…”
To see his grief feeding so greedily placed a cold pall over her heart. Sorrow in the form of a woman with golden locks and snickering eyes. She mocked them from a grave gone chilled even now.
All of that. We went through all of that and all for nothing. Anger lived brightly in the youth’s scarlet gaze. Damn her for dying!
He won’t fall away to nothing on my watch, that’s for damn certain!
She rose suddenly and bit back her seething agony. A hand strayed to the bandages that crossed her midsection, stained with ointment and salves. Blood was spreading dark across the linen and she was sure the movement had reopened a wound. The young woman emitted a gasping, pained breath before her trembling hand found the door and pulled it open against the dark corridors.
The castle sleeps for the night, her senses informed her, all in bed and dreaming.
All but him.
The only one that mattered.
Torchlight mingled with the glow of his taper, touching the ceiling his eyes rested on with sunny fingers. A dull ache rippled across his chest as a spasm of battle’s remains stabbed at him. Wincing, he reached with clumsy hands for the bowl of herbs and water a healer had left and downed it quickly.
Relaxing, he leaned back and studied the shimmer with detachment. A numbing calm placed her blanket across him as the medicinal concoction began to work its wonders. A meditative, bitter smile broke across his lips.
It still burns. Time must not have stopped.
Liquid trailed across the panes of the window as he looked through the heavy drapes that cloaked the feeble moonlight. He yawned and closed weighted eyes, wishing for sleep to repent its miserly ways.
I feel heavy. Sinking. Like the bedclothes could swallow me whole and wipe me away as though I never was.
Idle thoughts flickered like dimmed candles through his pounding temples. Eyes fiery in both hue and feeling opened again and he saw that the light was weakening. A draft tugged at the edge of the blanket he had kicked aside and he shivered.
“I see you’re asleep as I asked you to be. Practicing a new technique where closing one’s eyes aren’t necessary?”
The acerbic edge to the voice from his doorway was threaded with a subtle concern. His skull was a stone as he turned on the pillow to its maker, his phantom smirk the only thing making him different from a graveyard corpse.
“Mira. Or should I say Mother? Come to check up on me again?” His reply was a rattling croak that drew her lips taut into a slashed frown.
“Yes, Istas.” She strode forth and the candle protested by swaying gently on its wick. “And if you call me ‘mother’ once more I may have to strike you with something.”
“You’ve made that threat,” Istas’s chuckle was more of a sleepy cough, “but you have yet to actually do anything. Going soft in your old age?”
“I’m warning you.” Her fingers found purchase in the cloth of her tunic as they clenched. “You need to make an effort to sleep and eat more Istas.” She sighed as she saw bones outlined stark under the clothing the young man wore. “You’re going to make yourself even more ill and with the way you are now, that would be dangerous.”
His hand grasped at the material of her shirt and pulled it upward to just clear the bandages that wrapped about her lower torso. He moved in a trice before Mira could back away and she emitted a brief yelp of outrage.
“Istas, what do you think you’re doing? I didn’t say you could touch me! Let go!” With a colorful term she tore away, nearly leaving the piece of tunic he held still in his grasp. The smirk grew into a lazy smile.
“Practice what you preach, Mira, and I may give it some thought.” His clouded eyes searched hers with a hint of reprove. “You tell me to look after myself and you don’t even get your bandages changed?” He clicked his tongue in mock disbelief. “For shame.”
“Don’t you start telling me what to do, damn it,” the Shiekah female growled.
”Why not?” He looked up from the sheets to her, smothering a yawn. “You like telling me what to do and when, I may as well return the favor.”
“I made you eat breakfast this morning!” Exasperated, Mira made certain she was out of his reach before planting her hands on her hips. “You’re falling away to nothing; I can see your ribs from where I’m standing!”
“Why don’t you come a little closer and have a look? Maybe you could count them and tell me all about that too,” he returned, unusually waspish.
“Someone’s touchy today.” Mira dared to come a pace closer, smirking. “I’ll take you up on that offer then.” She leaned close, within touching distance if she dared. “Hmm, looks like there’re at least three I can see on each side.”
He sighed deeply and took his gaze back to the indifferent ceiling. Silence passed between them and she looked with a frown at his haggardness.
“And how long has it been since you even tried to sleep?”
The reply was listless. “Three days, maybe four, I lost count.”
“I haven’t,” was her harsh retort. “And this would be the fifth night. Why can’t you just relax? It would make your time of it easier.”
“You know damn right well why not.” His now dull voice hung between them as he faced her again. She closed the gap between them and shook her head as she smoothed back some of his damp hair.
“More intense this time. I feel like a gods-damned child, unable to sleep alone at night. Din’s sake.”
“It’s understandable.” His brows lifted in mild surprise at her soft reassurance. “What we went through was nothing short of torture.”
“I’m surprised Link and the princess left after all a few days ago, they received some nasty wounds from what I saw,” Istas muttered as his eyes fell shut against his will.
“The King went as well don’t forget, apparently to soothe frayed tempers in the south. I heard going through Kakariko today that some fringe political groups are restless.”
“And,” his tone was dry, “would one of those groups just happen to be the Moros?”
Mira’s breath vanished and her ice-encased heart stopped. The dreaded political party had supposedly died out years ago, but small clusters were said to remain.
“I-I didn’t hear anything about them. Wh-What…” She licked dried lips and willed herself to be calm. “What did you hear?”
A shrug that was obscene in its placidity answered her. “Just some soldiers walking down the corridor this afternoon decided to stop outside my room and have a talk. Just gossip, really, I’m not worried. We’re all right here, and the main roads to the village are surely safe.”
“Hope you’re right. That and some ale’ll send us all to hell,” his friend muttered as she eased herself down at the foot of his bed. “Did you need someone to talk to until you went to sleep then?”
“Mira, I’ll be surprised if I ever manage to sleep again at the rate I’m going,” he mumbled, looking to the saturated window. “And this thunder going on all night doesn’t help.”
“I can’t do anything about the weather.” Mira reached to tug the cord that held the thick drapes open. As they fell across the window, she could see the glimmer of his watching eyes in the candle light.
“Stop staring,” she grumbled. “You make me nervous when you don’t blink.”
“I think I may have a fever, actually. I’m just trying to puzzle out why there are three of you when one’s usually enough.”
Ignoring the jab, the young woman rolled up her sleeve and placed her forearm against his forehead. “Enough to roast meat on. You probably have an infection. When was the last time you changed those bandages? Impa went with Princess Zelda, she isn’t here to do it for you anymore.”
His thoughts brought pain and he winced. “The day before they all left they were changed, I think.”
“Din, Nayru and Farore Almighty.” She swore as she rose from the bed and snatched up fresh linen bandages from a nearby table. “Do you want to get blood poisoning? I’ve never seen the like in all my life…” Continuing to grouse, she dumped the medical cloth on the bed and found a pitcher of water on the wash stand.
The pitcher rattled as she brought it down on the bedside table, her eyes blazing. “I keep telling you to take care of yourself and here you are, disregarding every word!”
He said nothing as she fumbled in an awkward attempt to peel away his soiled bandages. “Look, you even have me so frustrated I can’t get these off!”
“Mira.” He sat up and motioned to the shirt that covered his wounds. “You’ll want to start by taking this off and then getting to the bandages.”
A hot flush broke into her cheeks as her clumsy fingers maneuvered around the ties that kept his clothing properly done. “I knew that, I was just trying to decide what to do when I got the damn shirt off.”
“I could give you a few pointers, if you really don’t know.”
“I didn’t mean it like that! Get your mind away from filth,” she growled as she unlaced the top ties.
“I didn’t mean it like that either,” he defended softly. “Just saying, since I noticed you didn’t pay attention in Hagen’s medical training all that well.”
“Hagen couldn’t teach a blind boar to find a truffle,” Mira snapped, jerking the ties from their last few stays. Istas winced and bit back a low cry of agony.
“Sorry.” Brushing fiery hair away from her eyes as she exhaled, she cast around for the herbs she was sure she had seen the royal nursemaid use. He watched her search for a second before gesturing to a chest by the door.
“In there, she always keeps them handy.”
Pulling open the chest’s drawers, she removed a few glass jars before returning to the bed. Settling on the edge of it, she uncapped one and wrinkled her nose as a pungent stench wafted forth.
“My gods, this stuff could choke a horse,” she muttered.
“That’s the point,” Istas rejoined with closed eyes. “It smells terrible but works wonders when it comes to infections.”
“Then hold still,” the young woman instructed. “I need to put some on you.”
Tipping the jar, she slowly began to trickle dark liquid across his wounds. As the thick substance oozed across his skin, Istas writhed and smirked.
“A-Ah, cold, cold!” he protested and Mira’s features screwed up in concentration.
“Stop it, I’m trying not to get it all over the bedspread, you dunce!”
“It’s hard when---,” Istas broke into a chuckle, “the stuff’s freezing and you’re tickling me!”
She continued to pour, brows knit, until his chest glistened with healing liquid.
“There,” she concluded, shoving back stray strands of hair. “I’ve never seen anyone act so childish when it comes to being treated.”
He watched her once more, the way the weak firelight moved in her locks, bronzing her cheekbones, limning them.
“If I’m childish, then let’s give you some and see what you do about it,” he challenged suddenly, and Mira turned sharply, banging the glass jar down on the table at her side.
“Istas, if you think you’re going to lay me down, take off my tunic and do anything, fever or not, I’ll beat you within an inch of your miserable life and---.”
“No,” he interrupted, his eyes colored in mischief. “I wouldn’t need to remove your tunic, so relax. I want to see what you’d do in my position.”
“I honestly don’t think dressing my wounds is something that would help you sleep. For someone drinking sedative like it’s water, you’re sure determined to make trouble,” Mira grumbled, shifting a little further away from him.
“Your tickling me with that stuff woke me up,” Istas smirked, “and I intend to pay you back for it. Time to make you sorry for it.”
“You touch me and you’ll be the one who’s sorry,” the red-haired woman threatened. “I didn’t do anything to you purposefully, you know that.”
“Could have fooled me. I’m sure you didn’t mean to do anything all those times I was asleep and you came into my cave and screamed like the world was ending just to wake me up. Or the time when we were children and you shoved me into the lake when you knew I couldn’t swim yet. Or---.”
“Okay, fine, I get the point!” The female warrior threw her hands in the air, flustered. “But this time I really mean it!” Lowering her head, she scraped hair behind her ears frantically, crimson flooding her face.
His quiet laughter drew her glare. “Does something about me amuse you, Istas?”
He grinned and a fresh paroxysm of strong laughter seized him, making him roll over on his side, embracing himself as though merriment would be the death of him.
“Stop laughing!” his friend snarled. “I don’t see anything funny!”
“I-I, gods, I do,” he snickered, beginning to go red in the cheeks from the laughter he was trying to keep in check.
“And what,” she frowned, her scowl deepening, “would that be?”
“This!” He sat up faster than she thought his injuries would allow and seized her by the arm, pulling her down next to him. Shrieking, she made a valiant effort to smack him away, but to no avail. He leaned over her, smiling with satisfaction. Tears of mirth had welled in his eyes, amber in the torchlight.
“Let go of me, damn it!” Flailing, she attempted to push him away. Yet even in illness he was stronger than he appeared and her open palms hit against strong, unyielding shoulders. “Let me up, or I’ll scream!”
“I’m not bothered,” he replied, looking into her eyes. “Scream until the guards come running, I’m not letting you go. Your wounds are just as bad as mine, I know they are.” His smile faltered. “And so do you.”
“I can take care of myself, unlike some people present,” she hissed, glowering. “I’m not a little girl, Istas.”
“You sure do act like it sometimes.” Reaching over, he plucked up the medicine jar and dangled it over her forehead. “Besides, I want to return the favor.”
Blood came hot into the tips of her ears and she tried to squirm away from his hold. “You’re just saying that because you want to touch a woman.”
“What if I do?” Istas questioned with a light smirk. “I’m a man, what else would I want?”
“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.” Turning her face away, she could feel the warmth descend into her visage, make her heart turn and leap. “I’m your friend, remember? The one that stays up with you each and every time Hagen makes us stand out in the gods-forsaken dark, the one you asked questions to about why women were so strange. Me.”
“I suppose,” Istas relented. Sitting up, he held the jar out like an offering. “But at least tell me you’ll put some of this medicine on.” Glancing down, he saw the stain across the hem of her otherwise white tunic. “You’re bleeding.”
“It’s nothing.” Trying to make light of it, she smiled in what she hoped was a reassuring fashion. “Just reopened something, nothing special. I can take care of it.”
“Then why haven’t you?” Sighing in his own exasperation, he lifted the bottom of the garment up just enough to reveal her lower torso. “Mira, you tell me to take care of myself and then you go and pull nonsense like this. Isn’t that hypocritical?”
She said nothing to his inquiry, stubbornly withholding her eyes from his. “I said I can take care of it,” she repeated, her tone edgy.
“At least let me help you take off the old bandages. That part hurts the most when you’re trying to do it alone.”
“Fine.” Swearing under her breath, she folded her arms across her chest. “But if you insist on doing it, at least be careful about it. I only have one body, you know.”
“I know.” Gently, he started on his task, pulling at the edge of a soiled linen strip.
The initial jolt of discomfort surged into a blinding flash of pure agony. Mira cursed viciously, grabbing at his hands and sinking her fingernails in.
“You reopened something all right,” Istas observed as he carefully pried her twitching fingers from his hands. “Disturbed a clot along the bottom there, and it’s not looking too healthy.”
“Thanks for the update,” Mira snapped, her heart throbbing in time with the needling sting of her bothered wound. “I told you this wasn’t a good idea!”
“Just relax and take a breath.” His fingers were cool against her fevered skin. “Try to think of something other than the way you feel right now.”
She shut her eyes and inhaled, willing the disturbances of his ministrations from her mind. Instead, she focused on what would bring her joy, and the images came of their own accord.
I want him to kiss me. Just that.
The idea came into her head, fluttering dangerously. Mira’s eyes reopened and caught sight of him, looking carefully to the bandages he was gradually removing.
She exhaled slowly, trying to keep molten embarrassment from her expression.
He’s my friend. Only my friend. One of the best perhaps, but only that.
“Mira?” His hushed voice drew her away from the playground of fantasy. “I’m going to put that stuff on you now, so be prepared for the shock.”
It came a moment later, icing her flesh, glacial and startling. Her body rose from the bed as a short cry left her, and his hand pressed into her shoulder, pressing her back down.
“Hurts?” Istas peered down at Mira with concern. Blinking, she looked back up at him, tears of torture pooling in the corners of her eyes.
“That’s an understatement,” she breathed, hardly able to form the words.
“Just lay still for a minute then, no rush,” he placated as he took up a handful of fresh dressing. “Sorry if I screwed anything up when I was changing the bindings.”
“N-No,” Mira sighed, touching where his hands had been an instant before. “Just was a little more intense than I thought.” She was not speaking entirely of the medication’s touch and fresh blood throbbed in her ears.
“Mm,” he hummed to himself as he set the bottle aside and started to redress her abdomen.
Her mind wandered as she laid still, eyes closed. He continued to wrap her wounds, the yellow illumination beating like wings against her closed eyelids.
I wonder how many occasions like this he and Anna had together.
After a pause, he straightened up and sat back on his heels. “My work here is done.”
Her eyes opened into small black slits of drowsy relaxation. Her fingers snaked down lazily to explore the new wrappings. They were well done, tightly wound where it was needed, and under them her stomach was regaining its warmth. She settled into his sheets with a cat’s satisfaction.
“Feeling better?” He moved to settle along her side, watching her intently. She had closed her eyes again and was utterly exhausted; he could see the stark outlines where constant wakefulness had taken its toll.
The fire’s glow was able to touch her face, dance across her eyelids. Her breathing was content, even, and Istas sprawled alongside her, his stare drinking her in.
I never get to see her like this. She looks innocent, more like she did when we were young. His hand reached out, intent on brushing feather-like against the still cheek.
At that moment, her eyes opened, shrewd slits alive with curious suspicion. “Istas?”
His questing fingers froze before he pulled them back to himself. “Just checking to see if you were awake.”
“I am.” She yawned widely and started a slow ascent to sitting up. “But not for too much longer. I ought to get to bed.” So saying, she slid from the embrace of the blankets and started for the doorway, gait languid.
His invitation was the barest of murmurs. “You could always stay here if you want, I don’t mind.”
She turned, her pulse igniting with hurt, her face a mask of abrupt fury. “What do you think I am, some kind of cheap replacement for her?” She knew as soon as she had spoken that it was her frayed nerves, her weariness, manifesting in fear. She knew that he could never care for another as he had for Anna, especially not the likes of her.
His tone was immediately guarded, his own temper on the verge of spilling over. He too was beyond his limits for tolerance and patience, and she was without warning attempting to try both. “What do you mean, Mira?”
“I mean,” Mira whispered low in her irrational fury, “that I know you shared a bed with her. Don’t look so shocked,” she added as surprise came into his features. “I know you have, it doesn’t take intelligence to figure.”
“No wonder you were able to pinpoint it so well then,” Istas rasped, catching her meaning before Anna’s name had been mentioned. “So what if I have? Isn’t that my affair and not yours? You’re simply jealous.”
His venom tripped her unawares, but in her tirade she was unforgiving. “So now that she’s rotting away somewhere, you think you can just take me to your bed too? It doesn’t work that way!”
“Mira, go to bed, your own.” Istas tore his gaze from hers and looked away to the wrathful squall outside. “I mean it, go.” His command was ice.
“You were willing to die for her, but I know you’d never do the same for me,” came Mira’s next accusation. “I saved your life when you tried to take it because of her. And in return, I mean nothing to you.”
“You know that isn’t true!” Stricken and furious, Istas turned to confront her again.
She folded her arms, imperious in her self-righteousness, claret irises sparking. “It sure seems like it from here.”
“I’m warning you,” Istas told her again, stone creeping into his words. “We’re both tired, we’re both frustrated, and this isn’t getting either of us anywhere.”
“Good night then,” the young woman retorted, turning on her heel and stalking out into the dim corridors. The shadows leaped, nipping at her heels, wishing her to be one with them. Grey dawn was soon in coming, and the hallway’s tapers were popping their last.
I can’t believe the audacity he has! Boiling with resentment, her posture stiff, Mira walked the length to her door and stopped, leaning petulantly against it. Barely lost one and already he wants another! In the maelstrom of anger, the meditations tumbled through her head. She squinched her lids closed and willed herself to calm. Bit by bit, her head began to clear, the fire in her heart burning low before its cool death.
He wants someone…Her eyes flew open in the stillness, her own heartbeat the only sound.
What was all that? She blinked, startled at her realization, emotions happening all at once. I’ve never said anything like that before. I was jealous of them together, him taking her over me. Patterned hot and chilly, panic flashed across her center. I could be wrong. Maybe he just needs someone. I know that if anything ever happened to him, I’d need someone to talk to, someone I know that cared.
Swallowing the lump that had coalesced in her throat, she slid away from the door, thoughts of sleep vanishing in remorse. She came with soft step to his doorway, shame grasping her in black talons.
She cleared her throat, looking down at her bare toes. “Istas…I-I’m sorry for what I said, I’m just overwrought right now and I didn’t mean to take it out on you.” The apology came out in a blurted hurry, her blood seething with each syllable. I hate being sorry.
“Istas?” Curling a hand around the doorway’s corner, she looked inside.
The chamber beyond was pitch, the candle that had staved it away gone out; she could smell the smoke of its death-throes. He’s asleep already? It’s only been a few minutes…
Her foot touched cold stone as she stepped into the room, feeling the part of an awkward intruder. Maybe I should just wait until tomorrow morning to say I’m sorry.
Another step, then two. But if I leave now I know for sure I won’t be able to sleep. Damn it all.
A thrill walked her spine as a muffled sound caught her ears. Stopping dead in her tracks, she listened, a living statue, as it continued. It could well have been hysterical laughter or bitter sobbing. She was unsure which.
“Istas?” Mira ventured again, as dread mingled with her remorse. “Are you all right? Just say something. Anything, please.”
“I thought--.” The sentence stopped as a hitched breath threatened to choke its maker, “I-I told you to go to bed, Mira.”
“What is it?” Crossing the room in a few quick strides, she bit her lower lip to hold back a profanity as she hit her toe painfully on the bottom of the bedpost. Stumbling the rest of the way, she came close to falling over the bed and Istas as she sought to find him in the blinding darkness.
“I-It’s nothing,” he insisted, drawing away as a wounded animal from her reaching fingers. “Just leave.”
There was no mistaking it now, and his misery struck her profoundly in its intensity. “It sounds like you’re crying. Now tell me what the problem is.”
Istas raked in a shuddering breath and attempted to compose himself, mortified. “It’s just the herbs and the lack of adequate sleep,” he managed when he was sure his voice was not going to betray him again. “That’s it.”
He felt her weight plunk down at the foot of his bed, close to his feet. He could feel her proximity and took in another lungful of calming night air. Finally, her hand found him, a tender weight on his head, smoothing his disheveled hair.
“I meant what I said before about being sorry,” she grudgingly admitted. “I just took what you said the wrong way and took it out of context to mean something you probably weren’t even implying.”
He sighed, pressing the heel of his hand to his smarting forehead. “I just keep thinking over and over again of what we could have done differently to make sure Anna was okay.”
Mira’s hand involuntarily stiffened before she recalled that she was trying to be of comfort. “We did everything we could,” she assured evenly. “No sense in keeping yourself up at night worrying about it.” Gods, I never realized just how vulnerable he’s been getting. I never thought I’d see him like this.
“Tell that to the less rational part of my head,” her comrade muttered with another heaving sigh. “It’s been keeping me up for, what is it you told me before, five nights now?”
“Go to sleep.” Mira’s fingers trailed down to his chin, cupping it in a light hold. “I’ll stay here with you until you are. Lay back, you great ninny,” she added in her usual dry scold. “I won’t go anywhere.”
He did as he was asked, watching her throughout as though he feared she would go against her word. As his head touched the pillow, she slipped her hand into his. She could feel fine tremors work across his body in waves, could see beads of perspiration wind a path down his forehead.
She stretched out beside him, never taking her hand from his. “Everything will be okay, I promise.” Hawk-like, she fixed her eyes on him, watching as the minutes passed and his will to stay awake combated with the need to rest.
Finally, the demon was slain. Istas’s hand went lax in hers and as she glanced down, she found serenity in his expression.
I’ll only stay a few minutes more. Just until I’m sure he won’t awaken. Placing her head on his shoulder, she listened to the steady, hypnotizing thrum of his heart.
What am I going to do? She could feel reality start to blur and lose form. I know he’ll never feel the same way. I’m sure of it. I can never tell him.
His core continued on in her ear as her own eyes closed. Slumber pulled her coverlet over them both, and with her last breath of consciousness, Mira looked with regret to her long time friend. Her mumble was to him although he could not hear it.
“I never meant to love you.”
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