The banners of Hyrule Castle flutter lazily with the breeze, and moonlight shines upon Zelda's face as she roams the bridge between her chambers and personal study. Though weariness eats away at her with every growing second, she knows sleep will not come tonight. Her nightgown is too thin for such brisk weather, and the rugged stone floor is cold against her bare feet, but she can barely feel it.
It is nothing compared to what awaits her at the Spring of Wisdom in just a few hours, once she turns seventeen.
Zelda tears her gaze away from the clear skies with a shudder and wraps her shawl more securely around her shoulders, shielding herself from the pale light. Beautiful as it may be, the moon has always reminded her of the Goddess' holy power, and none of its ever-changing phases give her any reprieve — a gnarly sickle grazing her throat when crescent, a face older than time itself when full, bearing two terrible eyes.
Appraising her. Finding her lacking.
Ever eager for a distraction, she leans over the parapet to look at the lone Guardian splayed on the courtyard, dim and unmoving but for its single eye. Unlike the moon's unforgiving gaze, the Guardian's jittery, almost curious stare is comforting to Zelda — a reminder that, come what may tomorrow, not all hope is lost yet. They can still put up a fight, with or without her sealing power.
You're running away from your duty yet again, calls a disdainful voice in her head. Zelda thinks it sounds an awful lot like her father, and the death grip on her shawl leaves her knuckles white.
"I am not," she mutters through gritted teeth. The distant sounds of armored steps and rustling banners ring louder than war cries to the beat of her frantic heart, and she can feel eyes on the back of her head as the moon weighs down, down, down…
Her bedroom door clicks shut, piercing through the haze in her mind like a swift kodachi.
Blinking away tears, Zelda sways in her feet and sucks in a trembling breath. The night feels blissfully quiet as she counts down eleven seconds, the precise amount of time it'll take for a silent set of footsteps to join her.
...Three, two, one.
"Hello, Impa," she greets with her eyes closed. A chuckle tells Zelda her calculations were correct.
"It's getting harder and harder to surprise you, Princess." The warmth in Impa's voice envelops Zelda like a blanket, and she turns towards her aide with the tiniest of smiles — the best she can manage at the moment. Her mouth hangs open when she notices Impa's back is glowing a bright yellow, framing her silhouette in an otherworldly halo. The Sheikah's hands are hidden, and there is a nervous twitch to her lips Zelda has come to associate with barely-contained excitement.
"What's … that behind your back?"
Impa’s smile turns sheepish.
"Ah. A bit hard to conceal, isn't it?" With some difficulty, Impa pulls a surprisingly large object from behind her, cradling it in her arms for Zelda to admire. Zelda is filled with childlike glee when she realizes what it is, and she all but throws herself forward to examine it.
"Incredible! I've never seen a star fragment this close." Zelda carefully runs her fingers over its surface, finding it to be pleasantly smooth. Her skin tingles where it touches the fragment, as if it were filled with static or a strange, ancient energy. "Efforts to predict their appearance have been made, of course, but they're so fickle in nature and they disappear so quickly! Truly a wonder.”
Zelda had tried to get her hands on a star fragment before, thinking their numerous properties might help the Divine Beasts’ performance, but, between her strict schedule and her father’s reservations, she’d had no time for such an endeavor. She’d briefly considered appointing Link to the task, seeing as her knight has a secret knack for exploring, but the thought was soon dismissed: knowing Link, he would probably try to eat the fragment as if it were candy.
“How—where did you get this?"
Impa laughs, loud and clear. The wink she sends Zelda's way leaves an odd fluttering in her chest.
"A Sheikah never reveals her secrets.” Impa teases, extending the fragment towards Zelda. “Since I wasn’t allow—” her brow creases, and she clears her throat, “since I won't be accompanying you to the Spring of Wisdom tomorrow, please allow this to be my early birthday present to you."
Zelda’s face feels too hot all of a sudden. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly—”
Without a warning, Impa deposits her gift in Zelda’s arms. The shard is lighter than it looks despite its considerable size, and Zelda blames its thrumming energy for the shiver that runs down her spine when Impa’s fingers brush against her skin.
It feels… oddly comforting. Like an embrace.
“...Thank you.” Zelda clutches the star fragment close to her chest, basking in its warm, welcoming glow. “Truly, Impa. This is a wonderful present.”
Maybe being so close to a light source is playing tricks on her sight, but Zelda swears she sees Impa’s cheeks darken before she faces away from her, hopping onto the parapet to crouch on it. Perched like that with her long white hair dangling behind, Impa resembles the most dignified of squirrels in Zelda’s eyes.
“Y-you’re welcome!” Impa says, sounding a little out of breath. Zelda leans against the parapet by Impa’s side, studying the shard’s odd protuberances. They look similar to those of a Necluda sea creature she has only seen sketched in books, but she cannot for the life of her remember its name.
She would like to remember it, Zelda realizes. She would like to study every critter and strange phenomenon; to visit every nook and cranny in Hyrule in search of hidden knowledge; to record her own findings for future generations, so that nothing is lost to the clutches of time ever again.
But time is the one thing Zelda utterly lacks.
"Now!" Impa calls, startling Zelda out of her reverie. She drums her fingers against her knees as she turns to face Zelda, still precariously crouched on the parapet with alarming ease. "Tell me, Princess: what are stars meant for?"
Zelda blinks once. Twice. What?
"Um, well, they're crucial for charting and navigation, as well as—"
Zelda very nearly squeaks when Impa's gloved hands suddenly cover hers, steady as ever. The shard in her grasp emits a gentle warmth that reminds Zelda of the colorful paper lanterns that paint the skies at every Castle Town festival, carrying peoples' hopes and prayers with them.
She has always wanted to light a lantern with someone special — perhaps a lover.
“Wrong!” Impa squeezes her hands, and Zelda can hardly hear her over the roaring of her pulse in her ears. “They’re for wishing! Usually just one wish, but I believe Your Highness should get three on this very special occasion.”
After a beat of stunned silence, Zelda bursts out giggling.
“You’re ridiculous,” she chides, shaking her head. “Very well. I wish—”
“No, no! If you say them out loud, they won’t come true! Also,” Impa holds one finger up, eyes flaring with intensity, “at least one wish must be exclusively for your own sake. No ‘greater good’ allowed.”
Zelda frowns. “I’ve never heard of such a restriction.”
“Won’t you humor me?”
And Zelda would protest, but protesting requires speaking, and speaking requires she look Impa in the eye when she’s close enough to admire how starlight dances across her ivory eyelashes; how her bright smile belies the troubled depths of her wise eyes, older than her years.
It couldn’t possibly hurt, now could it?
Zelda’s first wish comes to her with ease, as it is the thought that plagues her every waking moment. Please let my powers awaken tomorrow.
Swallowing down a familiar wave of anxiety, Zelda focuses on the hands still holding hers to make her second wish with equal fervor. Please allow me to seal the Calamity for good.
But her third wish… what does she want for herself? All she’s ever known since her mother passed away is the crushing weight of her unfulfilled duty, and her father’s harsh, disappointed glare. If her birthright was finally granted, if the Calamity was no more and Hyrule’s safety was guaranteed, what would she yearn for?
A thick knot lodges itself in her throat, and she clutches Impa’s gift until its ridges dig into her skin, keeping her grounded. Braced like this, she allows her wound-up thoughts to unravel.
I want to study and explore. I want to run away. I want to be a kind and fair ruler. I want to prove Father wrong. I want to learn everything about Hyrule. I want to set Link free and be his friend. I want to see the ocean and explore its depths; to find that sea creature and compare it to this star fragment. I want to show it to Impa. I want to hold Impa’s hand. I want to wish on a paper lantern with her; to dance with her at a festival; to… to…
Zelda’s gaze falls upon Impa’s lips as a lively street orchestra plays in her head; as a thousand paper lanterns from a day long gone soar to the skies, carrying her tethered heart with them. All at once, the scattered pieces that make Zelda’s world slot into place in a single, resolute thought that takes her breath away.
To be with her.
“Princess?!” Zelda does not notice herself tilting forward until Impa’s hands grasp her shoulders firmly, her red eyes wide with concern. Never in her life has Zelda felt this light-headed. “Are you feeling unwell?”
I love her.
“I...” Zelda knows she’s staring, sees the alarm grow on Impa’s face the longer they remain like this, but she cannot help it. Not when a gaping precipice has been opened at her feet, yet all she feels is the reckless desire to jump in and lose herself in the chasm.
She loves Impa. Zelda knows this with the certainty of spring following winter; of dawn following dusk; of clear blue skies following the fiercest of thunderstorms.
How long have I loved her?
“I…” she tries once again, clutching the shard slipping from her grasp, “...I think I’ll save my third wish for tomorrow, if that’s alright with you.”
Impa peers into her eyes, searching. Zelda waits with bated breath, fearing her sudden revelation may be painted all over her face; that Impa will see right through her, like she always does. But Impa merely squeezes Zelda’s shoulders and dons that sad, resigned smile of hers — the one she favors when she knows it best not to pry.
Zelda could kiss her just for that little mercy.
“Of course, Princess.” Impa lets go of her and drops off from the parapet, dusting her clothes and stretching her arms over her head. She offers Zelda a hand and a small bow, a formality she’s yet to forgo. “Now let’s get you inside, it’s getting colder.”
Zelda holds her star fragment close and takes Impa’s hand with trembling fingers, afraid she might sink into the ground if she lets go. It dawns on her that Impa has always been exactly this to her: buoyant, steadfast, a comforting constant in a world ruled by ruthless uncertainty. A bright star in the darkest of nights, crossing the firmament just so Zelda can wish upon it.
How could Zelda not love her?
As Impa closes the bedroom door behind them, Zelda clings to one irrevocable truth: come what may tomorrow, Impa will be waiting for her. Without fail.