The desert sand crunches between his teeth like brittle bones, and no amount of spitting will cleanse the grit, as if the shards have taken root between his gums, scraping his tongue when he licks his too-dry lips. Sheik stands, wipes his mouth with a shaking hand, tucks his cowl properly back across his face, and watches the lingering embers of the poe crumble and dissolve into the night, too bright against the dimness of the moonless sky and endless sand.
This poe had been particularly vicious when compared to the ones in Hyrule Field and their evasive, almost lackadaisical movements. There are stories, hearsay leftover from the early days of the Sheikah, about vengeful desert spirits. He wonders if this is what they are referring to. The chill that seeps into the air whenever there’s a poe around has yet to recede – or maybe it’s just him, shivering from the surprise attack, arm throbbing where the poe had managed to land a blow.
No matter. His work here is complete. He has taught Link the last of the songs and managed to escape before any of the questions bubbling in Link’s throat burst out along with his lunge forward. Questions he wouldn’t have been able to answer yet. Questions he wouldn’t have wanted to answer.
He turns towards the swirling miasma of sand that is the Haunted Wasteland and throws one last glance over his shoulder towards the colossus in the distance that houses the Spirit Temple. The urge to bow his head at the goddess of the Gerudo overtakes him for a moment – he recognizes enough of Nayru’s likeness in the statue to feel obligatory respect, but he wonders why he bothers.
Sheik performs his duties with the fervor of a scholar or a priest, filled with the utmost conviction of their importance and a devotion that leaves no room for thoughts of other paths. He is a model Sheikah – or so it seems to the rest of the world, to whom the Sheikah are more legend than fact. Impa knows better. More than once has she uttered the word “heresy” with the rumbling undertones of warning snapping his mouth shut and pulling his eyelashes down in affected deference. He understands – they, better than most, know of the power and truth of the Three Goddesses who created the world and the Triforce.
But maybe it is precisely the truth of their existence that has allowed him to see past the pedestal. The goddesses do not trifle with mortal matters; they are aloof giants that only step in when the balance of the world is at stake. It’s questionable whether they are even aware of the way those who know of them interweave the goddesses’ names with their wishes with as if that will strengthen their chances of fulfillment.
Sheik knows better. They will never intervene on a mere mortal’s behalf. Sheik’s reverence will never reach them and they do not expect it, so what point is there?
The tug of a shiver emanating from between his shoulder blades snaps him back to the present. He blinks, unsettled by the fact that he can’t recall how long he’s been standing there in the dark, wind whipping the ends of his cowl and tabard back and forth like angry tails. Long enough that the gradual crusade of the desertscape has managed to conquer a portion of his feet, at least. It’s only the sheer habit of composure that keeps him from scrubbing his face in exhaustion and irritation as he frees his feet one by one.
He turns, murmurs words of luck that will never reach Link, and then wonders if maybe he isn’t a hypocrite himself.
Link watches the sun sink between the pillars in front of the Spirit Temple, fingers hovering over the cool ceramic of the ocarina in his lap. He moves his fingers in the same pattern, over and over, and imagines placing them one by one on Sheik’s face instead, to smooth away the fear that had burst there when Link had lunged forward.
His gut curls because thankful as he is for the breathtaking sight of Sheik’s silhouette against the fiery gold sunset, this is the last temple, the last tune. He doesn’t know if he will see Sheik before he confronts Ganondorf, and after… Link hasn’t thought about the after yet.
All he knows is that he doesn’t want his last memory of Sheik to be of a single red-flecked eye widening in fear.
Sheik makes it back to the Gerudo Fortress a few hours before dawn, head buzzing, darting between shadows to escape the ever-watchful eye of the Gerudo guards. By the time he finds an isolated crevice in the surrounding hills, the need for sleep is so overpowering that he doesn’t even bother shaking out the sand nestled in the folds of his cloak or removing his supply belt before he curls up under the overhang of a rock and lets the buzzing overtake him until it blocks everything else out.
He wakes up in that smudge of time when the earth has taken its last intake of night air and still holding its breath before exhaling the start of a new day. His waking is not as graceful as that, heart hammering, pebbles digging under his fingernails as he scrambles against the gritty ground. He’s already rising into a crouch, gasping, looking up automatically to make sure his abrupt awakening hasn’t alerted anything unpleasant of his presence.
The only response is a songbird twittering in the distance and he sighs and slumps back down.
It was only a dream, my Lady, he sends back, and rubs his arm. It feels cold right below the junction of his elbow, where the poe had struck him. Link’s lifeless pupils had been colder, sinking into eyelids that had become wrinkled folds of skin threatening to slip straight through the sockets of his skull.
Stop, Zelda whispers, and Sheik feels the echoes of her horror in the turning of his own stomach. Don’t think about that anymore.
He tries not to. He’d meant to rest today, replenish his spent energy and supplies while Link sets about obtaining the last medallion. This is how it always is. His work ends where Link’s begins. He investigates each temple, drives out the easier filth and exorcises the deepest corners, all for the sake of allowing Link to focus on what can only be done by the Hero of Time. Then he steps back, passes on words of wisdom and the sacred tunes, and begins thinking about the next stage.
Though Link will never know it, the two of them are opposite sides of the same coin when it comes to the battle against Ganondorf – Sheik is simply always the side that lands facedown.
But try as he may, he can’t stop seeing Link’s dried-out corpse gradually covered under fine-soothed layers of sand until all that’s left is a tattered hint of green peeking from the rusty grains. It doesn’t help that his arm feels like there’s ice instead of bone at the center, and no matter how tightly he presses it against his chest, the warmth doesn’t seem to seep in. The discomfort is just enough to keep him from sinking into anything more than a doze, which is snapped immediately by the rustling of wildlife and the noises of daily life that reverberate through the valley from the fortress below.
Shh, Zelda says. Sheik knows it’s only a trick of the mind, but he feels her light touch on his arm along with her soothing voice. He doesn’t know how she does it, but white noise like the sound of snowfall fills his head, and within seconds it drowns out everything else.
He wakes up feeling only marginally better, but between the brightness of the afternoon sun and the shrinking of his stomach in hunger, he gives up on sleep. There are more important things anyway – he wants to head back to Hyrule and leave false clues of Link’s whereabouts. Ganondorf may be arrogant, but he is far from foolish; he knows Link is a risk and he wants to mitigate that risk, even if it’s simply by commanding his followers to attack Link on sight and sending expendable reinforcements to follow him and cause whatever damage possible. But any enemy Sheik can throw off Link’s path is one less battle that will wear him out, especially now as they get closer to the final confrontation…
His stomach does an impressive turnaround from hunger to repulsion at the thought, but he breathes to the rhythm of the waves at Lake Hylia until the stone at the pit of his stomach dissolves. Then he eats what’s left of his travel rations, enjoying the water-crunch of the leaves of a nearby succulent instead of using up what’s left in his canteen.
He finds himself looking out over the rippled desert, even though Link is surely on his way to the Temple of Time already, and feels the familiar tightening of his chest. He’d given up trying to explain it away as staunch duty or simple affection, given that neither were accompanied by that ache when directed at Zelda. Link is special, and Sheik can, now that things are spiraling to their inevitable end, freely admit that he evokes something in Sheik that he never even thought himself capable of.
Though my devotion will always be first and foremost to you, my Lady, he adds with the smallest of smirks. It’s a long-running joke at this point. Zelda’s exasperation tastes like a tart apple in his mind, balanced by honey-sweet affection dribbling down the sides.
The ache is sharper than usual today, which he attributes to the glare of the sun crumpling the air over the searing sand until the distortion makes him dizzy. The desert makes him feel nostalgic somehow, its barren, brutal solitude resonating within him until he thinks it might crack him from the inside out and spill everything he’s kept tightly sealed within. What would Link think, he wonders absently, of the darkness that would seep into the sand like blood? Hopefully it would evaporate under the scorching sunlight, sizzling and smoking on the spot, because some things are not meant to see the light of day.
You make things harder for yourself, Zelda says lightly. Sheik sighs. It’s an equally as old argument.
We don’t have room for distractions, he says.
Zelda laughs, and it’s a mysterious thing, how her voice has become richer and deeper with age, molasses burnt at the edges, despite no physical body to produce the change. He often wonders what her real laugh will be like once she reclaims her body.
Oh Sheik, she says, settling back into the recesses of his mind, How can you call the thing that gives you purpose and hope a distraction?
It’s a fair point in terms of semantics, but she is naïve. There are many reasons why he keeps his distance from Link – uncertainty of the future is one of them, certainly, but the real reason is much simpler.
Sheik sees no need for such a risk.
Sheik has always believed himself to be obsessive – the level-headedness others have praised him for is nothing more than an understanding that a clear mind will get him closer to his goal, and he will do anything to accomplish his goal. He has Impa to thank for that understanding, for the years she spent teaching him to focus on the means and the consequences of said means as much as the goal itself. When he could not rest because his brain was wired around the latest challenge she had presented him, invariably making him more prone to mistakes, she’d taught him how to calm his mind and measure his limits. How to best accomplish the goal became the goal itself, and Sheik has since focused on that idea to the exclusion of most else. Calm as his exterior may be, Sheik knows his soul to be a paper lantern held over a fire, already filled to expansion with heat that could peel skin clean off bone. The question is, how much closer to the flames could he get before spontaneously combusting?
Sheik has taken his cue from the moon and placed himself in a stable orbit at a safe distance. Any closer, and he’ll get sucked in by Link’s gravitational pull, and then there’s only one outcome.
Sheik isn’t sure he’d survive the impact.
(Even if he did, what would he gain by giving in to the impulse to get closer to Link? His affections would not change. He finds it hard to imagine he would give any less thought to him. Duty and devotion to Link already consume his entire being as it is, even with the distance he has carefully cultivated between them. He can’t imagine anything good coming out of getting closer. And more to Zelda’s point, what does closer even entail – a friendship? They’re already tied by something far stronger than that – fate and a common goal, Zelda and a love for Hyrule and its people. So why take the risk?
Sheik closes his eyes and envisions embers glinting in the air like fireflies, while the remains of his soul dissipate into acrid smoke. All it takes is a single gust of wind to scatter the fragile ashes, and then there truly is nothing left of him.)
Fooling the rank-and-file creatures that follow Ganondorf is laughably simple. The Kokiri have never stepped out of their forest, after all, so no one knows what they look like. All Sheik need do is don some green, slay a large amount of monsters, leave the shells of some deku nuts lying around, and reports of Link being sighted in the southern shores of Lake Hylia will abound. It’s enough to muddle the trail, at the least, and divide Ganondorf’s forces.
The operation takes a lot more out of him than he expected. Mostly to blame is the fact that he hasn’t been able to get any significant rest since he left the Spirit Temple. The howl of the wolves has become a signal for his arm to seize up with an icy ache that starts slow but swells throughout the night, insistent for attention that even a red potion cannot satisfy. But even that isn’t the problem – he has ways of forcing his body to rest through pain. No, worse than that is the pervasive anxiousness that starts prickling across his skin at nightfall like insect legs weaving through the fine hairs of his forearm. It keeps him staring blankly at the waxing moon, going over increasingly gruesome scenarios in his head, which all end with Link dead and Hyrule withering until there’s nothing to do but raze it to the ground. The thoughts accompany him even to the unconscious realm, and he wakes in the hollow pit of the night with the feeling of grimy fingers digging into the tendons of his neck, a furious whisper saying go to him, if he’s gone, we’re all done for.
The whisper doesn’t sound like him, but it speaks in his voice and Sheik isn’t sure what that means.
Sheik lies there, his mind’s eye roving over each rotting pore of Link’s corpse, with the imaginary smell of flames singeing the inside of his nose and throat. The heat his mind conjures in this hellish scenario is at odds with the cold seeping from his arm, shrinking his flesh and sending tremor after tremor up from his fingertips and into his core, while his pulse hammers from the barely repressible need to stand and find Link, assure himself that he’s safe and Hyrule still has a chance. Even Zelda’s best attempts at soothing him are nothing more than tossing a towel over the tiger’s cage. The pacing continues behind the fabric, and Sheik wonders if this is what it feels like to go insane.
He grits his teeth and tells himself that Link will be fine.