Link was on his third drink before he felt calm enough to sit down. The taste of sweet, fruity Sheikah wine was a comforting haze over his mind. The wine was deep purple, the kind that was birthed from a mixture of cactus fruit and dates in the thick, sweltering air of summer. The village had dipped into their strongest alcohol for the festival, so this particular wine had probably been fermenting since last summer at least. Link would not have been this drunk off of younger wine.
Even under the sweet daze of intoxication, Link felt like an outsider among the swirling bodies of the Sheikah as they danced. Makeshift benches had been set up at the very periphery of the town square, leaving Link physically separated from the light bouncing from lanterns and bonfires. During his travels, Link had found that the Sheikah inhabiting the desert bordering both Termina and Hyrule had different traditions than the ones of Hyrule. These Sheikah also held their dead with deep reverence, but the sands of the Syrlan desert didn’t allow for the extensive crypts that reminded Link of the horrors of the Shadow Temple. Syrlan, meaning simply desert in Sheikah, was what the village called their home, and Link hadn’t heard of anyone calling it anything different. The village itself was named Sh’ru, after the goddess that took form in the shape of the large oasis pond that sustained the Sheikah living there. Link thought the pond looked vaguely humanoid at best, but most Sheikah he had met were deeply religious, and would not appreciate even mild sacrilege against their chosen goddess.
Being the hero of time didn’t give him a pass.
In fact, no one in the village knew what he had gone through for both Hyrule and Termina. Only a handful of people knew his name. Link preferred it like that. The relative anonymity comforted him, it felt like there weren’t as many unattainable expectations now. The Sheikah were usually a reclusive, distrustful people – with good reason – but Link’s sudden appearance had been made more palatable with his nearly perfect mastery of the Sheikah language and good understanding of their customs. After two years of living in Sh’ru, Link still received odd looks in the market sometimes, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the tiny village. Sh’ru reminded him of the only solace he had during the war, and that the people he had fought so hard to protect were thriving.
Zelda had sent him back in time after he had sealed away Ganon, but he had requested to retain his memories. He hadn’t allowed himself more than thirty minutes to revel in reuniting with his old house in the forest before mounting Epona and riding to the spirit temple. He knew, if things went as they had before during the war, then in one week the king would become paranoid and influenced by his racist advisors and send his armies to wipe out the race that had been loyal to his family for centuries. When they finished killing the Sheikah to the West, some of the army would mutiny and become radical, seeking out every Sheikah in Hyrule and the surrounding lands, leaving only the Sheikah dwelling in Termina.
Link, listless with dehydration and exhaustion, nearly falling off his horse, had found a Sheikah scout and pleaded for her to listen. By some miracle, the Sheikah woman had believed him enough to warn her village, and the message had spread. By the time the attack had reached most Sheikah settlements, the people had long since fled or set up defenses. Link would be foolish to think that he had prevented all unwarranted killing, but villages like Sh’ru had not become ghost towns in this timeline, a fact that had brought Link to tears when he had found it seven years after resetting events. He constantly worried about being found out and his relationship with the village changing if they found out that he was the hero of Hyrule. He didn’t like all the expectation during the war, didn’t like the feeling of everyone relying on him. He didn’t deserve it, he couldn’t protect everyone.
After years of journeying, searching, Link had settled into Sh’ru in a tiny house that had previously belonged to a young couple. The pair, both farmers, had moved out soon after their marriage – the house was much too small to start a family in – and had been willing to sell their home to a quiet stranger. Link had seen them earlier that night, the two lovers trading the responsibility of rocking their baby daughter, who was somehow calm despite the rhythm of drums thick in the air. She wasn’t the only child at the festival- the summer solstice was very important to the Sheikah, and had become more so after the king’s attempted genocide. Not only was the solstice a religous holiday, it had also become a symbol of the Sheikah people’s continued survival.
A rousing cheer went up in the square and there were suddenly even more bodies pressed together in the heavy, humid air. There had been rumors that some of the guards from the next, larger, town over were going to visit for the celebrations. Clearly, they had made true on their promise. The other town had its own festival, but almost all the military personnel in Sh’ru had been trained by their generas, and the two militias were quite close.
With the addition of so many more young adults to the festivities, the revelers became louder even though Link was sure it was already past midnight. His introverted nature nearing the bottom of his reserves of energy, Link had almost reconciled his drunk brain into going home when someone set next to him on the makeshift bench. Link heard, rather than saw the figure because, one, he was still watching the dancing Sheikah, and two, because his new companion had come from behind the bench, which was nearly impenetrably dark in comparison to the firelight. Link was no less overwhelmed by the noise of the festival, but he felt like leaving immediately after someone else sat down would be insulting to his new companion.
A deep chuckle interrupted his frantic plans for a polite but quick exit. Even though the sound was hardly more than a miniscule vibration compared to the beat of the drums, the stranger had a laugh that made one want to join in. The sound was powerful, like the raging sandstorms of the desert, but warm and kind, like a quiet night in front of a fire.
When he turned to look at what the stranger was laughing at, Link’s eyes were immediately struck with mirth filled red eyes. The Sheikah all had red eyes, but these were far more vibrant than the typical dusty-pink or burgundy irises Link observed daily. This stranger’s eyes were so red that the firelight reflected off them like mirrors, the red flickering like it too was on fire. Link couldn’t help but notice that they were stunning. The rest of his face was hidden with what Link now recognized as a traditional Sheikah military uniform meant for special occasions. Many of the newly arrived Sheikah were also wearing them, but none of theirs were embroidered with gold thread like the stranger’s. Noticing other minor differences in the red cloth that his companion wore, Link determined he must be some kind of officer.
Link must have looked confused because his companion gestured to a small group of young Sheikah warriors who had gathered around someone standing on a crate that hadn’t been removed from the plaza. The men and women surrounding the crate were obviously encouraging their friend, who was whooping with laughter.
“That one is one of mine, he’s been drunk since midday. Three years ago, he gave a legendary speech at the winter solstice celebration.” The stranger’s tone was conversational, amused and open. He was trying to include Link in the fun. Link decided he had probably looked pathetic enough that anyone used to leading people would notice.
“It looks like we might have an encore this year.” Link managed a surely fake-looking smile. This stranger seemed kind, Link felt guilty for his own social ineptitude. “What was his speech about?” Even while drunk Link thought his own voice sounded weird. Like it was riddled with cobwebs from disuse.
“He had a theory for why the Zora in Hyrule live so long.” Link was so transfixed by the movement of the cloth of his companions face-coverings as he spoke that he barely registered the words as he haerd them. If his eyes were this enrapturing, Link would bet so many rupees that the rest of his face was also gorgeous.
“I’m from Hyrule.” Link exclaimed, finally (he was sure he had been staring too long), surprised to hear of his homeland in this place between worlds.
“I know, your ears are a dead give-away.” Link felt suddenly embarrassed. Of course any educated person would be able to tell he was Hylian. His companion chuckled again, this time clearly at Link. “I’m sorry, I fear the wine has made me rude. I can’t wait to hear what my man thinks of Hyrule’s Zoras.”
“And what’s that?”
“Well what my soldier taught me in his magnificent speech was that, with each battle a Zora wins, they gain an additional dick. Males and females the same.” Link couldn’t help himself but laugh, the glint of amusement in the stranger’s eyes was infectious. Almost immediately, they were both out of breath from laughing. The fire glinted off of moisture beading up in the corners of the stranger’s eyes.
Link struggled to catch his breath, his chest feeling warm and validated because he was able to make the handsome stranger laugh. “I don’t know them well, but I’m almost completely sure that’s not true.” His companion’s face immediately fell in mock disappointment, so Link, feeling his insides twist in distress, quickly amended his statement. “Though, rumor has it that the males have two.”
“You can’t just tell me this with a straight face like this isn’t the most important news of my life.” Maybe it was just the alcohol, but Link couldn’t stop himself from laughing again. “You’re laughing but I could have found myself a Zora husband years ago! This is serious.” His companion’s mock despair only managed to amplify Link’s laughter.
Seemingly not bothered by Link’s lack of words, which was unusual but definitely appreciated, the stranger asked for more information about Link’s homeland. Surprisingly, talking about a place that Link would rather forget was enjoyable with this man. Talking hadn’t been easy for Link since the start of the war, but this stranger was patient. A good listener. For what must have been hours, Link delighted his new friend with stories of children that never grew up, endless bodies of water, and talking trees.
But too soon, the fires were reduced to smoldering heaps and everyone except the young adults had gone home. Link had nodded goodnight to the young couple who sold him their home, smiling softly at the sight of their sleeping daughter.
“Do you have to leave?” Link was careful to keep his tone neutral, even though he had had a good time with this strange general from another village. He hadn’t met very many with as much patience for a shell-shocked, introverted runaway.
The stranger paused for a beat too long, and when he finally did speak, his words were tinged with regret. “Yes. If I stay much longer I’m afraid the morning patrols will be too hungover to stop an insect.” The stranger stood as he spoke, and Link, not knowing the protocol and feeling awkward, stood with him. They studied each other in silence, transfixed even as the party raged on and the air was still loud with music.
Surprising both of them, seemingly, the stranger stuck out his hand with an open palm. A parting gesture. Something about the act made Link’s heart plummet. Genuine human connection wasn’t something Link had been gifted with in a long time. He hadn’t had someone he considered a friend since- since- in a long time. He took the offered hand, trying to convince himself that saying goodbye to a stranger was a normal occurrence.
“My name is Sahil, but my friends call me Sheik. I hope to see you again, my friend.”
Link was frozen, his mind replaying a different man’s words. A man he tried not to think about. A man he couldn’t stop thinking about.
“My name is Sheik, I’ll be your guide.”
Link felt ten years old again, crying out to goddesses that would not, could not help him, to childhood friends who could not help him, to a man that did help him, seven years later.
But Link’s momentary stupor had been too long, Sheik had vanished into the crowd of soldiers that had formed in preparation to ride home. He was gone. Link choked down something somewhere between a cough and a sob, his panic mounting as he remained unable to locate Sheik in the crowd. He watched as militia saddled their horses and left, frozen in place as memories he constantly tried to repress rocketed through his body.
He hadn’t felt like this since the morning after he had defeated Ganon.
Despite his physical age being seventeen, Link had been ten only months ago. It must have been quite the sight, a tall, muscular man rocking himself back and forth on the floor like a child. That’s how Zelda had found him, but when she knelt down to provide comfort, he shied away. The princess was a stranger to him. She wouldn’t be able to erase the images of Ganon’s grotesque, pig like body, or the phantom pain potions weren’t able to heal. Link wasn’t sure which image terrified him more, the sight of blood spurting out of his own chest, or the twitching body of Ganon as he died, screaming the whole time.
“What can I do to help, hero?”
“Nothing. Where is Sheik?” Link’s words had come out choked, like the air was being squeezed from his lungs.
“Sheik isn’t real.”
Sheik didn’t exist.
That’s what made those few days the hardest. Link could no longer speak to the sages now that they were using most of their energy to contain Ganon. The Deku Tree was dead. Sheik was the only friend that Link had left, his sole support during the war, and he didn’t exist. Link felt stupid, naive, like a child. All this time, it had just been Zelda in a disguise.
What made Link feel even stupider was that he still didn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. Sheik had been there and had been so real. He barely spoke, barely stayed. Link hadn’t known anything about him. But Link had felt his presence, his spirit. Without words, without contact, Sheik had grounded him. Sheik had be there. Link was sure that he wouldn’t have survived his travels without his guide. He was surer about this than anything else in his life.
Link wished that he had gone to Zelda angry, demanding she stop lying to him. He wished he screamed and raved. Truthfully, Link hadn’t had the strength to be angry in a long time. He went to Zelda with scratch marks on his arms matching his own fingernails. With dark circles under his eyes, a haunted look behind blue irises. He went to her to plead, not to demand. He begged her for Sheik, just to see him, his already red eyes somehow producing even more tears.
“Please, Zelda. I know he’s real. Please just let me see him. Just once. He doesn’t even have to meet with me. I just need to see him.” Link watched from his place on his knees as something inside of Zelda broke. He knew, vaguely, that she cared about him. But for one second, he glimpsed the terror that she had lived through, and he realized that she understood the agony his own mind was putting him through better than anyone.
“Do you really want to know the truth?” Zelda had sounded so sad, like she knew Link had already made up his mind.
Link was not sure that his voice would obey him, so he nodded emphatically. Zelda set down in front of him, where she had been standing, and pressed her forehead to meet Link’s. Instantly, Link was overwhelmed with a memory that did not belong to him.
He was still sitting on the floor, but now there was dirt underneath him instead of a soft rug. He looked around through Zelda’s eyes, taking in the space around him. It seemed to be set into some sort of rock, maybe a cliff. Two of the walls were stone. The entrance was small. A hideout. There were tunnels leading to more rooms, both inside the stone and freestanding, but the base was quiet. The only other being was a woman that Link immediately recognized as a younger Impa, who too was sitting on the floor. She had maps in front of her, and seemed to be trying to decipher something. As Link watched, a sound startled the Sheikah woman and she stood.
“Princess, there is someone outside.” Zelda went to get up, swinging her feet from in front of her to underneath her, but a quiet voice froze both hers and Impa’s movements.
“Please, I am… Friend.” The broken Sheikah lapsed into racking coughs, which alarmed both Impa and Zelda.
Impa’s face after she peered through the slit in the was stony.
“Zelda, I need you to get back. Just in case.” Zelda nodded silently, backing away from the door as Impa lifted the protections on the door.
What Zelda, and Link in parallel, noticed first was the smell. As soon as Impa opened the door the stench of rotting flesh perfumed the air. What was much, much worse, was the sight of rotting flesh. The sight of rotting flesh on a living boy. Zelda, past Zelda, covered her mouth in horror and schooled her stomach to cooperate.
The boy that Impa carried through their short, wooden door was, at most, fifteen years old. He had long, matted blonde hair and piercing red eyes that were now glassy and glazed over. With pain? With a fever? The only thing that Link knew while experiencing Zelda’s memory that this boy was Sheik. This was the first time he had seen the Sheikah’s face uncovered, if one could even call it that. Most of his face was covered with dried blood, making him almost unrecognizable, but Link had spent enough time searching for solace in those eyes that he recognized them immediately.
Sheik was real.
Sheik was dying.
Link had seen enough horrors during the war with Ganondorf that he knew when a wound had passed the point of no return. The gash in Sheik’s side didn’t look particularly deep, but the edges of the wound had turned black. Zelda, and Link, gagged when she noticed maggots in the congealed pulp the had replaced most of Sheik’s left abdomen.
Impa’s voice became little more than a dull buzz, powerless against the ringing in Link’s ears. The only thing he could do was stare at Sheik as he died, whispering in broken Sheikah to Zelda’s protector. Right before he grew still, the Sheikah boy’s eyes filled with tears, and he appeared to pray.
When Link came to, he was shaking. His ears were still ringing, and the image of Sheik’s pain wracked body was everywhere he looked. Zelda was there too, but she was leaving.
“Wait. What happened?” Despite the horrors he had already seen, Link had some masochistic, twisted desire to know.
Zelda looked unsure, already afraid she had shown him too much. Link had gone through so much trauma, he didn’t need this too.
“His village was one of the first destroyed in the genocide. When he arrived at our hideout, he was the only surviving member of the village.” Zelda paused, and visibly steadied herself. “He was distantly related to Impa, and knew of her role as my protector.”
“Overtaken by grief and dying, he asked for his spirit to be used to hide me. Initially, Impa refused, but Sheik said it was for his family. So they would not have died in vain."
Zelda looked back at him again before retreating from her own room. Her look said that she thought he was better off not knowing the truth.
She was probably right.
When Zelda offered to send him back to his own time, Link refused. He couldn’t shake the horrible, gut-wrenching guilt of watching Sheik die while he had been asleep. Sheik, his guide, his only human contact, had died, a child, while Link had been peacefully dormant in the Temple of Time. Link didn’t deserve to have a normal childhood. He compromised with Zelda, he let her send him back seven years, but with the caveat that he would keep all his memories.
He kept memories of Saria, who now resided in the Forest Temple. He kept all of the trauma of the war, no easier to deal with now that it had been when the memories were fresh experiences. Most importantly, he kept the memories of his companion who had died too young.
Link could not formulate coherent thoughts, be it from the alcohol or the shock of seeing Sheik here. When he first left Hyrule, he had looked for a boy with long hair and piercing red eyes, only to be disappointed again and again. At some point, he had given up, convinced himself the goddesses were keeping his guide from him because Link didn’t deserve to see him. Link had let him die, along with the rest of the Sheikah. It didn’t matter that it had been in a previous life, the transgression still stood. Link was selfish to think he would reunite with his companion.
Why hadn’t Link noticed?
Link didn’t know. The only thing he knew is that he physically needed to be home. He had suffered through enough panic attacks in his lifetime to know that it would be bad if Link broke down among a crowd of strangers. As quickly as possible, he dragged his drunk, heavy body back to his tiny house. Thank the three, it was close to the square. The one-story structure looked sad and vacant in the dregs of the firelight. The two small windows in the front were dark and vacant. With shaking hands that nearly dropped the key twice, Link opened the door. It was too slow, everything was happening too quickly and the door opening was taking too long. In an instant Link was inside and the door was slamming behind him.
Link feared the day that anyone found out how often an occurrence this was. Especially in the first few weeks of living in Sh’ru, he had spent most evenings like tonight, knees bunched to his chest, face buried in his hands, reliving walking corpses and giant Skulltulas. Some nights he would sob into his knees for those he had lost. Some nights he would squeeze his eyes shut in an attempt to keep the memories away. All of the worst nights he would do what he was doing now, choke out shallow breaths between racking sobs. His chest felt like it was collapsing, panic overtaking his body and mind.
Truly an inspiration, the hero of time having a panic attack because of four words.
My friends call me Sheik.
Link felt wretched, pathetic, and so, so lonely. Large crowds frightened him so he avoided them whenever possible. He was purposefully distant with the villagers. He left his homeland of his own accord. Yet, somehow, selfishly, he longed for companionship. More often than not, Link still felt like the ten-year-old who had been assigned a role far to vast and important for someone so young.
In that moment, sitting in the dark on the floor of his empty house, Link hated himself. He hated that he hadn’t been able to save Sheik in his previous timeline. He hated the part of his mind that screamed for him to run and to catch Sheik and to make sure he was never put in danger again. He hated the part of his mind that reassured him that Sheik would never care for him, that he was just a stranger, that if Sheik knew how pathetic Link was he would never speak to him ever again. But, most of all, he hated the fact that after 9 years, he still wasn’t strong enough to shoulder the burden of being the goddesses’ hero.