The frantic whinnying of the horses woke her. Probably the Gerudo again, and this time Ingo wasn't around to run out shouting about Ganondorf's protection. Malon wasn't going to claim that, not ever, which left her with a slingshot and some pebbles. She opened her bedroom window, letting in the driving rain, and squinted into the darkness.
There were three of them, at least, all armed. They had the gate open already and two horses cornered. Malon took aim.
Lightning flashed. Something leapt over the fence, so swiftly that Malon at first mistook it for an artifact of the dazzle, and landed on top of one of the Gerudo. Blades glinted. The stranger fought like a dancer, swift and flowing and perfectly controlled. By the time it occurred to Malon to lower her slingshot, the Gerudo were already scattering.
She ran downstairs, half-tripping over her nightgown, and out the door. Mud squished between her bare toes. Already the Gerudo faded into the darkness to the west, and the stranger stood alone, a shadow outlined by the rain. Close-up, he was slender, fit, masked. But probably handsome.
After slamming the gate shut, Malon rushed toward the stranger, terrified he might disappear. Skidding to a halt nearly sent her slipping. Her face felt hot. Panting, she blurted, "Thank you. Thank you so much. You saved—" Lightning struck and outlined the stranger's hand pressed to his side. "You're hurt!"
"It's only a scratch." His voice was gentle, melodic, almost princely. When Malon reached for his hand, he pulled away.
"Don't be like that. The least I can do is patch you up."
For a long moment, he regarded her in silence; Malon wished there were enough light to see what was visible of his face. After another bolt struck near enough to rip the air with chicken-alarming thunder, he nodded and followed her into the house.
"I'm the only one here tonight," she said, hurrying to light lamps, "so don't worry about waking anybody. I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't shown up." She turned and frowned at him where he stood in the threshold of the door. "Why don't you come in?"
"I don't want to drip water all over your floor."
Malon became acutely aware that her nightgown was soaked through and clinging her to body. This was considerably more distressing than the mess she'd made. "I'll, uh, get towels," she mumbled, and ran off to the linen closet.
When she returned with her hair wrung out and a dry dress on, the stranger had begun removing the soaked white wrappings from his head and arms. He had pulled his mask down, too, and he was handsome—or beautiful, maybe, or some other adjective that Malon was too flustered to call to mind. A bloodstain darkened the torn fabric along his right side, but it hadn't spread enough to suggest uncontrollable bleeding.
"I'm Malon," she said, offering a stack of towels and hoping the orange lamplight made it less obvious that she still hadn't stopped blushing.
The stranger accepted. "I am Sheik, a wandering Sheikah."
"A Sheikah? Really? I thought there weren't any left."
"We are... very few now." He tousled his blond hair with a towel, then gazed at her through the damp strands with a look that she couldn't decipher but which made her breath catch.
"I," she began, then needed to cough. "I can't treat your wound unless I can get to it."
He was silent for several seconds, then asked, "May I have some privacy?"
"Oh! Right." Malon turned around and tried to keep her imagination in check. When he invited her to look again, he had wrapped his torso oddly with the towels, covering everything from his shoulders to the skin immediately around the slash. He was probably a little shy.
She offered him a chair before lighting a fire in the stove. With the wet clothing hung above it to dry, she gathered first-aid supplies and settled in to tend to the wound. Though the bleeding had stopped by the time she finished cleaning it, the cut looked too long and deep to leave alone; Malon heated and threaded a needle.
"This'll hurt a little," she warned.
Sheik smiled thinly. "This won't be the first time I've needed to stitch myself back together."
"I guess a wanderer lives a little dangerously, huh?" She pushed the needle through and was quietly impressed that he didn't flinch. "Especially if you go around protecting people all the time."
After a thick pause, Sheik said, "I do what I can to undermine Ganondorf's power."
Malon nearly fumbled the needle. "You're fighting him? I didn't think anyone could do that!"
"The only one who can defeat him has yet to awaken. I do what little I can while the world waits."
"That's more than anybody else is doing, that's for sure." She pulled the final stitch through and tied it off carefully, then raised the bottom of a towel to cut the thread. "There. You're—" her eyes fell on white wrapping, pulled very tight as if to flatten— "a girl?"
Sheik's eyes widened, and for a moment Malon feared her patient would try to bolt. After a tense silence, Sheik focused on the floor and said, in a slightly higher voice, "I deceive only because I must. If my true identity were known, Ganondorf would stop at nothing to capture me."
Malon's mouth had gone dry, as if the heat in her face had baked all the moisture out. Her feelings tumbled weightlessly together, and no one in particular managed to attach itself to, "What is your true identity?"
"I'd tell you if I could. I'm sorry." Everything about Sheik's posture radiated the desire to escape into the storm. She was so tense she nearly vibrated.
"Well, the half of your secret I know is safe with me." Malon cut the thread and raised her hand to Sheik's face, where the smooth skin warmed against her fingers. Sheik's gaze flicked up to meet hers. "Mister Ingo's away. I mean, you should probably leave early just in case, but you're welcome to sleep here tonight. We've had an empty bed ever since he ran my dad out."
For a moment, Sheik relaxed under the touch; then she set a hand over Malon's, firmly but without enough force to push it away. "You risk your safety by offering me shelter."
"I think you just proved I'm safer with you around." Smiling, Malon stroked her thumb over Sheik's cheek. "Listen, Mister Ingo'd turn you in in a heartbeat if he ever saw you here, but he's away from the ranch a lot. And even when he's here, he doesn't ever go in the barn. I'll hang a lantern in my window whenever the coast is clear."
Outside, the rain pattered like a racing heart. Sheik was silent for a long while, eyes half-closed, hair dripping over the towel around her shoulders. At last she nodded, leaning her head ever so slightly into Malon's hand.
"All right, then." Malon picked up a roll of bandages. "Let's finish patching you up."
Ingo returned the next evening and stayed nearly a fortnight before leaving to deliver tribute to Ganondorf. With trembling hands, Malon lit and hung her lantern even before the sun had finished setting.
The moon was still low when she heard a quiet knock at the back door. Pulse fluttering, she ran to answer it, pausing a moment before to catch her breath and smooth her clothing.
"I'm so glad to see you're okay," she said as soon as Sheik was inside. "How're you healing?"
"Well, thank you." Sheik didn't seem to favor her side at all, Malon noted with approval. She carried a cloth-wrapped bundle to the kitchen counter and laid it down with a light clatter. "I brought something for you."
Whatever it was, it looked sturdy and practical, the sort of gift Malon hadn't received from anyone since her father was driven away. "After dinner?" she suggested. "You must be half-starved."
Sheik followed her to the table, where Malon had set out a fresh cheese and a loaf of bread. "Just let me slice this," she said, picking out a knife. "Have you been sleeping in the barn at all? I've been putting fresh straw in for you every day."
"I noticed. Thank you." Sheik unwrapped her hands and flexed them, smiling slightly. Red impressions remained on her skin.
Watching Sheik's fingers was not conducive to slicing bread, so Malon forced her attention back to her task. "Where were you sleeping before?"
"Wherever I could. Caves and treetops, mostly."
Wandering had to be lonelier even than the ranch; at least Malon had the horses to talk to. "I don't know how you manage out there," she said. "Braver than me, I guess." Cutting off a protest, she added, "Why are you waiting for some other hero to wake up, again?"
"It's a long story."
"I've got time."
It turned out that Sheik carried a lyre, which she strummed gently as she turned the state of the world into somber poetry: well-meaning but reckless children delivering an ancient power into Ganondorf's hands, a destined hero sleeping his way to maturity, seven Sages waiting unawares for the hero to awaken and unite them, one girl fighting alone against the creeping edges of the darkness, and every one of them essential if Hyrule was ever to be saved.
It all sounded like something from a storybook, worlds away from the daily reality of feeding horses, milking cows, and gathering eggs. Malon sighed when it ended.
"What you do," she began, then remembered the bread. She hastily sliced the rest of it and set it down in front of Sheik.
They ate quietly for a bit, until Sheik asked, "What about what I do?"
Malon swallowed a mouthful of bread that could have done with a little more chewing. "Well, I sure couldn't do it. It's all so... incredible. Kind of romantic." She felt a blush rising from her chest and covered it with an intense interest in the cheese.
"It's mostly skulking in the shadows," Sheik replied dryly. "You manage this ranch alone, yet you're impressed by me?"
"That's not the same."
"Indeed not." Sheik's fingers reached beneath Malon's chin and lightly encouraged her gaze away from the table. "I hope that what I've brought you will help."
That was prompting enough. Malon unwrapped the bundle to find a bow and a quiver of arrows, fletched with bright white feathers. She traced the carved decorations on the ends of the bow and said, "This is lovely, but I don't—well, I've never used one before."
Sheik smiled. "I'll teach you."
They set up scarecrows against the outside of the fence. With Sheik pressed warm and solid against her back, guiding her arms, Malon notched an arrow and let it fly.
She fired her first warning shot three days later, at a wolf nosing around the chicken coops. It ran away yelping, and she retrieved her arrow from the grass, feeling invincible. Ingo yelled at her for making a racket after he'd gone to sleep.
Malon was so pleased to see him leave that she scarcely cared he was delivering a thick cut of the ranch's profits to Ganondorf. Her lantern shone over a dark, clear night with only a sliver of the moon.
"I scared a wolf away," she said, as soon as she and Sheik had exchanged pleasantries. "Just like you showed me."
Sheik smiled with her eyes as she removed her mask. "I'm glad that I've given you something useful."
"Not just useful." Malon bustled over to check the soup that had been simmering over the fire. "It makes me feel a little like you're here, even when you're not, and that... well, it helps. Now you get comfortable while I finish getting dinner ready."
Sheik had been taking off more and more of her traveling clothes lately; tonight she unbound her chest, as well, and the tight blue fabric picked out the outlines of her breasts. Malon tried not to stare as she set down bowls of soup and thick slices of buttered bread.
When they were down to sopping up the last of the broth with crusts, Sheik said, "I found your father in Kakariko. He misses you, but he's safe and well. A family has taken him in."
A deep heaviness rolled like a boulder from Malon's shoulders. "Oh, thank you so much! I've been so worried about him. He's the kind of man who really needs someone to look after him, you know?"
"It was the least I could do."
"Still..." Malon fidgeted, swallowed, and finally screwed her eyes shut and leaned in for a kiss. She almost missed—she should have waited to close her eyes, probably—but still caught the corner of Sheik's mouth. Sheik's lips were dry and chapped, and parted slightly in surprise.
Malon pulled back and turned away before daring to open her eyes. "Sorry, that was really forward of me, I know, and I should have asked, and you can tell me never to do that a—"
Her breathed hitched when Sheik's hand slipped past her ear to cup her cheek. She turned back, pulse throbbing loud in her ears, and leaned into a better-aimed kiss.
Ingo stayed home for weeks. He was so on edge that he woke shouting if Malon went downstairs for a midnight snack, so she confined herself to her bedroom at night. When she couldn't sleep, she sat at her window with her bow in her lap, gazing wistfully at the barn and imaging Sheik curled up alone on the straw.
When Ingo finally went away, she put on her best dress and brushed every last tangle out of her hair before lighting the lantern. She waited at the door, tense and fidgety and wishing she didn't sweat so much, until she heard a soft knock. Sheik caught and returned her embrace, their bodies pressing tight together.
"There's not a whole of sense," Malon said into Sheik's shoulder, doing her best not to mumble, "messing up two beds."
The fairy boy came back one day, all grown up, and change whirled around him like a wind. He rescued Epona; he ended Ingo's dark ambitions; he made it possible for her father to come home. He had been asleep for a long time.
Malon thanked him profusely and lit her lantern every night now, because every night was safe. She tiptoed around the squeaky places in the stairs, even though her father's snoring was loud enough to cover any noise, and waited outside from sunset until she had either to go back to bed or fall asleep standing up.
After three nights of this, Sheik finally appeared. "I'm sorry," she whispered as Malon led her to the father-free quiet of the barn. "Now that the hero has come, everything has been set in motion. The Sages are awakening. The world will change, and swiftly."
"So Hyrule's going to be saved now, right?" Malon left the upper half of the barn door open behind them to let some light in. "Because you don't sound too happy."
"A prophecy isn't a promise." Sheik unwound her wrappings slowly. In the moonlight, dark circles were visible under her eyes. "The hero's path is not an easy one, nor is mine. And even if we succeed, everything will change."
Malon brushed Sheik's hair out of her eyes and held her gaze. "I'll still be right here."
In the morning she woke alone to her father's worried face and blamed sleepwalking.
Rumor had it that the princess had returned to the castle muscular and strange, while the mysterious Sheikah hero ceased to roam the kingdom. Malon drew the unavoidable conclusion; of course the victorious new queen of Hyrule wouldn't return to some commoner's ranch. When the storybook ended, there were chickens to feed and kingdoms to rule.
She still lit the lantern at dusk, telling herself out of remembrance rather than faintly fluttering hope. Ingo had turned over all his remaining profits as an apology to her father, so she didn't feel guilty for wasting a bit of oil.
When a noise at her window woke her in the middle of the night, she drew her bow in a smooth, practiced motion and leveled the arrow at the intruder climbing over the sill.
"I'd hoped I might still be welcome," said Sheik's voice. She looked different—paler, longer-haired, no longer trying to pass as a boy, and that was just what was clear by moonlight—but she felt the same when Malon's arms wrapped tight around her.
"This is the other half of my secret," she whispered, breath warm on Malon's ear. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to tell you."
"Mmm." Malon nuzzled her neck, delighted to find that she still smelled very nearly the same. "I'll let you make it up to me."