Link trudged wearily across the damp forest terrain, repressing a wince at every squelch announcing his presence through the early evening air. Although the Water Dragon had finally deigned to drain the forest, it was still not what Link would call 'dry'. The muddy earth sucked and pulled at each step, his tunic still dripped with water, and each monster destroyed by the flood had been replaced by a hundred buzzing insects. Even the air was moist, clinging to his skin and coating his mouth with the sticky taste of decay. Still, the flood must have done its job. According to Fi, there was an 87% decrease in monsters, and a 95% chance of sleeping uninterrupted through the night if they found a decent camping place. Link would have much preferred a warm bed in Skyloft to a night hunched in a tree, but retrieving the Water Dragon's portion of the Song of the Hero had taken longer than expected. At this rate he wouldn't make it to the sky until dark, and Loftwings were notorious for their terrible night vision. He was stranded after a hard day's work without so much as cold soup for supper. It felt like insult added to injury.
He slapped at a mosquito on his neck in irritation, and nearly fell on his face when the mud sucked greedily at his boot. It wasn't that he blamed the Water Dragon for doubting him—not exactly, not when the same doubts crossed his mind daily—but it still rankled that she in particular forced him to prove the fact over and over with her menial tasks, refusing to accept that the goddess might have chosen a blind hero. Miserable old—
"Master." His sword chimed gently, pulsing in his hand, and Link paused, wiping damp sweat from his face.
"I sense a tree nearby, fifty paces to your left." Fi's voice was sweet and musical as always, but carried no hint of emotion. "It is tall and wide, with a sturdy branch halfway up that would make a suitable resting place. I sense no monsters in the immediate area, and thus recommend sleeping here for the night, as returning to Skyloft is no longer a viable option."
Another night in a tree it was. Link sighed, turning to his left and holding out his sword expectantly. "Lead the way."
The sword didn't pull him. It wasn't capable of moving without his direction, any more than it could fight his enemies for him. Instead it vibrated in his hands, barely perceptible when he chose the correct path but stronger when he went astray, and he interpreted those vibrations. A strange process, but they'd perfected it to the point that it worked seamlessly. He and Fi had even worked out similar signals to guide his way in battle, useful for facing opponents that required greater accuracy and finesse than even his sharpened instincts could match. With the Master Sword in hand and Fi at his side, Link was far from helpless, no matter what the Water Dragon might think. Of course, without Fi… the prospect was enough to give him nightmares.
Another chime from the sword made him stop, sheathing it behind his back and reaching out in front of him until his fingers met rough bark. Although he tried to avoid sleeping on the surface when possible, it had happened often enough that he'd worked out a routine. Methodically, he worked his way around the tree, getting a feel for its size and texture. He guessed that it was about as wide as he was tall, which meant he'd be climbing quite a distance to reach the halfway mark. With a wry smile, he grabbed a branch and pulled himself up, making his way from handhold to handhold with only occasional guidance from Fi. At least they had trees in Skyloft, if not quite so large, and he'd been climbing since he was three.
When he finally reached the branch Fi had chosen as a resting place, he felt it out carefully, mapping its size and shape in his mind. It was long and sturdy, barely bending under his weight. As usual, Fi had chosen well. Next, he felt at the tree's trunk until he found a short, sturdy knot of a branch within arm's reach that seemed capable of hanging his supplies. His shield and pack were discarded and hung with a grateful shrug of his shoulders, followed more reluctantly by his scabbarded sword. He would have kept it on him at all times if possible, but it had only taken one night of uncomfortable half-sleep with the hilt poking into his back to convince him to relent.
Undoing the leather pouch Fledge had given him what seemed like an age ago, Link ran a finger along the specially-marked cork stoppers of his small bottle collection, hefting each in turn. He frowned as he came across one that seemed unusually light, only a quarter full at most.
"Remind me to pick up some red potion at the bazaar tomorrow," he told Fi as he refastened his pouch and setting it aside, only absently noting the 'Yes, master,' she gave in reply. He'd intended to set out for Eldin Volcano as soon as possible, but he knew better than to go exploring without a good supply of potions—and breakfast. If he left early, he'd still have the whole afternoon to start his search for the Fire Dragon. No doubt Luv would be startled to see him back so soon, but with each attempt at freedom, the sealed abomination of the demon king grew more difficult—and painful—to subdue. Even with Groose's help, it was only a matter of time before—
A sudden, foreign weight settled beside him on the branch, and Fi's sharp chime of warning cut off as the branch holding his supplies broke with a snap. Raising his head in alarm, Link could do nothing but listen to the crash of his belongings through the tree grow fainter, until even that was gone. The silence stretched as what had happened slowly sunk in. Fi. If she hadn't appeared already, she must be out of range. He was alone, disarmed and defenseless. Worse, he realized as the branch he was on shifted, he was not alone.
Link froze as small vibrations shook the branch, suppressing his sudden panic with a deep, measured breath. Footsteps. The creature inhabiting the branch was coming closer. Backing slowly down the branch until his back met the trunk, he wracked his mind for a creature he'd met in the forest capable of climbing trees or flying. The weight felt too heavy to be a crow. Fi had claimed not to sense any monsters in the area, so… Link sighed, running a hand through bangs that still hadn't dried properly. Of course. The flood must have driven at least a couple Kikwi into the trees for safety. One must have fallen down from a higher branch, knocking his supplies off in the process. Just his luck tonight.
"Hello?" he called, reaching an open hand out in a placating gesture. Even a startled Kikwi could be dangerous if it sent him plummeting, and it would take more than an almost empty bottle of potion to mend a broken bone. "Who's there? Do you need help?"
A delighted chuckle came in response, halting his hand mid-motion.
"What a generous offer, sky child! Yes, I do believe you are just the hero I need."
Horror coursed through him, the muggy sweat on his brow seeming to freeze all at once. Ghirahim. Unbidden, his last encounter with the Demon Lord spun up from the recesses of his mind. Had it been two weeks since Ghirahim's furious last words to him? More?
He didn't need Fi's percentages to know how this would end up, even if she had been around to give them. Blind and alone, stuck up a tree without a weapon… his best case scenario was that Ghirahim would choose to kill him quickly, and even that seemed unlikely if Ghirahim still intended to pull the location of the second gate of time out of him. No, his death would be slow, if it came at all.
"I understand that my presence can be breathtaking, but I need you to breathe." Ghirahim laughed, and Link realized that his breath was caught somewhere in his throat. A smooth, cool hand touched the back of his clammy neck, and he shuddered uncontrollably. "Breathe, Link."
He did, a rough intake of air that he instantly choked on. Coughing, he doubled over, noticing vaguely through his panicked haze that the hand on his neck followed him down, steadying his balance on the branch. His whole face burned with anger, and with shame. If only he could fight, if only he could see! It wasn't fair to have come so close, only to be taken off guard so easily. His face twisted, thinking of Zelda still asleep in the prison of her own creation. Who would keep back the Imprisoned now? The Water Dragon had been right to doubt him. Groose had been right to laugh. Someone else would have to take up the fallen mantle of the Hero, because he'd failed.
Zelda, I'm sorry…
"What a precarious perch to choose as a nest," Ghirahim said, for all the world as if Link's life wasn't crumbling to pieces. "You'll forgive me for taking the opportunity to separate you from your sword. It was the only way to ensure a civil conversation between the two of us—just the two of us," he added, the curl of a sneer entering his voice. "I assure you, your… companion will be returned in due time."
What? Disbelief welled up inside him, along with a thousand burning questions that itched to escape. However, as always seemed to happen around Ghirahim, the words became mired in his throat and refused to push past his lips. He settled instead on assuming what he hoped was a skeptical frown, craning his neck away from the intrusive touch.
"You doubt my word?" Ghirahim laughed, but the sound quickly turned into a snarl, his fingers digging painfully into Link's neck despite his feeble attempts to shake him off. "Or perhaps you think that someone of my position must now stoop to cornering blind, defenseless children in trees. I may have twice allowed you to escape with your life—allowed, I say—but do not think that I could not end it in a second if I so desired."
Link said nothing, waiting in confused silence until the demon's agitated breathing softened and his fingers loosened their grip. It made no sense, but… a small bubble of hope rose at the thought that maybe this wasn't the end of everything after all. Of course, "in due time" could mean almost anything. He couldn't trust Ghirahim as far as he could see, whatever he said. Still, that tiny hope burned…
"Ahh, but here I am, letting my anger run away with me again," Ghirahim sighed, stroking his fingers softly over Link's neck as if in apology. The action was almost as unnerving as the pain. It reminded Link of someone attempting to soothe a panicking Remlit. "What can I say? You inspire a full gamut of emotions in me, Link. If only your goddess did not inspire such foolhardy loyalty in you. If only you did not insist on stumbling beneath my feet at the most inopportune moments…"
He trailed off, and a strange silence descended between them that might have been companionable if he'd been with anyone else. Link's fingers tapped nervously against his thigh before he could stop them. He felt taut, stretched almost to the breaking point. In his experience, Ghirahim was quite adept at holding lengthy conversations by himself with no input from Link at all. What was he doing? Why was he here?
"Well," Ghirahim said finally, and Link's ears twitched in surprise. "That's beside the point, isn't it? I came here for a purpose after all, and if I leave you to quiver here any longer, you'll shake yourself to jelly."
Link's face twisted in indignation—he was not quivering!—but he was distracted by a sudden flurry of metallic 'clinks' as Ghirahim's weight disappeared from the branch. His startled relief was cut short as he reappeared, closer this time—much closer. Two hands wrapped around his own, and he jerked away instinctively, only for his back to hit rough bark. He was, quite literally, cornered.
"Self preservation," Ghirahim admonished, working his fingers beneath the leather of Link's gloves. Removing them, Link realized with a start. "You've never shown an aptitude for it in the past, but I must warn you that you are quite the proficient climber. A fall from this height would be… unpleasant. For you." Link craned his head back at the breath of a light chuckle against his face, and received a flick on the cheek for his effort. "I myself rather enjoy the sounds you make when you're in pain."
Ghirahim's fingers were thin and deft, and before long Link's gloves and gauntlets had been tossed aside, his wrists held firm in surprisingly strong hands. A thumb brushed ever so lightly across his palm, and he shivered at the touch.
"Sensitive," Ghirahim murmured with satisfaction. "Understandable, I suppose. I was certainly taken aback at learning of your—shall we say infirmity?—when last we met. It was quite the shock, I must admit! To think you managed to keep such a secret for so long…"
He had not kept it on purpose. Their first "battle" at Skyview Temple had barely deserved the name, with only a sharp warning from Fi and quick reflexes with the shield saving him from being impaled on his own sword. Even after he'd managed some semblance of competence in their duel—only because the demon was toying with him, he was sure—Ghirahim had been gleeful to point out Link's utter dependence on his sword. It hadn't even occurred to him then that Ghirahim didn't know. But later, at the Fire Sanctuary…
"Enough of this foolishness…"
Link crouched, sword at the ready, but he could tell from the strain in the other's voice, the quiet rasping of pained breaths, that his last strike had been the finishing blow. Their battle was over… for now. Not that he dared let his guard down while the demon's dark presence pervaded the room, nearly as suffocating to Link's senses as the ever oppressive heat. When facing Ghirahim, anything was possible, and the next attack could come from anywhere. The ease with which he always managed to sneak up on Link was enough to make him shiver, despite the heat.
"I am Ghirahim, Demon Lord! It shouldn't matter how powerful your sword is, you are still nothing… Not just a human… A human child! And yet you prevail!"
He scowled. Of course. It always came back to his sword. He may have been dependent on Fi's help, but he'd still learned since the last time they met. Ghirahim had expended much more of his effort in this battle than before, Link was sure, and he still had not managed to subdue him. At the very least, he was no longer someone to be toyed with.
"You filthy scamp!" The sudden rage in Ghirahim's voice made his ears stand up, and his grip on his sword tightened. There was something unstable in it now, something that set him on edge. "You disrespectful brat! LOOK AT ME when I'm speaking to you!"
Look at me when… Confused realization crashed over him, and the tip of his sword fell almost to the ground as he stood up straight.
"I… can't." He was so surprised, the words slipped out without thought—the first words he'd ever said to him. Concentrating, he turned his head to where he thought Ghirahim's eyes must be in relation to his voice. In this strange land of glowing heat, he could make out nothing but shadows.
"You can't?" Ghirahim spat out. "What do you mean you—"
He cut off in sudden comprehension. The air between them quivered as a dawning realization came over them both, humming and warping as it did whenever Ghirahim was particularly furious. Link's heart sank. He hadn't known.
"You can't," he said again, and his voice could have frozen the heart of the volcano. "You… Boy, you have awakened a wrath that will burn for eons! I swear to you, whatever it takes, I will drag you into an eternity of torment."
The promise came out as a hiss. Even later, when the air had lightened with Ghirahim's departure and the sacred flame retrieved, the chill of it remained in his heart.
"Of course, you can imagine how very irritating this affair has been for me," Ghirahim continued, and Link came immediately back to the present, stunned.
"All that effort spent on presentation, all for naught!" Ghirahim sighed dramatically, the breath of it ruffling Link's hair. "You may not know it, Link, but appearances are everything. In truth, I once despaired over your continuing lack of respect, but now I understand completely. I had simply failed to make the impression I thought I had." He leaned forward until their foreheads touched, his smooth skin cold against Link's sweaty brow. "Allow me to remedy that failure."
He's upset that I didn't… appreciate him? It was too much. He was too close, the strange metallic scent of him overpowering, and Link still didn't understand what he wanted. Straining, he tried to make the words come out. He'd spoken to Ghirahim once—twice even, if tonight counted. He could do it again.
"I…" he managed finally, hating the way his voice shook. "I don't… understand…"
Ghirahim shushed him, moving Link's hands to rest against his face, and the rest of the words evaporated. He had thought Ghirahim's skin seemed smooth against him before, but with the more accurate sensitivity of his hands it felt almost unnaturally polished, like river rock, and cooler than human skin would be. Unlike stone, though, there was the slightest amount of give to his skin to prove that he was no statue—he was alive. Leaning back to allow better access, Ghirahim guided Link's hands carefully across his features, pausing every now and then so Link could finger the strange diamond seemingly etched into one of his cheeks, or the hard ridge where eyebrows should have been. Not that Ghirahim lacked for hair—a thin curtain of it swept across one side of his face, sleek and straight. The texture was so unlike his own rough tangles or even Zelda's well cared for hair that Link ran fascinated fingers through it, not noticing when Ghirahim's hands slipped away from his wrists and he was left to explore on his own.
Link's heart thudded hard in his chest, but not out of fear. He couldn't stop himself from tracing the angle of the other man's jaw, fingering the diamond-shaped gem that dangled from one ear, running his hands over the curves of those ears. He stopped in surprise at finding them mismatched—one was pointed like his own, while the other felt torn as if from a long-ago injury—but Ghirahim smoothly grabbed his wrists once more and led them away, resting Link's hands on his shoulders for just a moment before guiding them along hard, muscular arms.
"Lovely, aren't they?" Ghirahim said, and Link jerked, the strange spell broken along with the silence. Instinctively, he tried to pull his hands away, but the other's grip was firm. "You'll find the supple skin of my arms tougher than any armor. Doesn't their shape just leave you… breathless?" Strong fingers intertwined with his own, and Link could see how his sword might have failed to pierce that smooth, impenetrable skin.
Breath came rapidly now as his hands were led inward, towards Ghirahim's chest. A warm, heavy cloak was draped across it, fastened with a long metal chain. Link stroked it wonderingly—he'd never felt its like in Skyloft—yet even as he tried to grab a fistful of soft fabric, it disappeared from his hands with a metallic sigh. His brow furrowed in confusion, but before he could ask—if he'd been able to ask—his hands were instead pressed flat against Ghirahim's skin. It wasn't all skin, he realized. A thin layer of fabric stretched itself across some areas, but was mysteriously absent from others. After fingering the edges of fabric, Link soon realized that it too was cut to resemble a diamond. Even through the garment, whatever it was—Link couldn't imagine a practical purpose to the thing—his muscles were hard and defined, solid ridges across an unnaturally solid form. No heartbeat met his trembling fingers.
"Behold," Ghirahim whispered. "Such… beauty. Such an exquisite physique. Such stunning features."
Link's hands shook. He was light-headed, breathing too fast but unable to make himself stop. Whatever Ghirahim said about his appearance, surely that paled compared to this pure sensation. His hands moved lower, feeling the sash across his waist, the smooth diamond nestled at his side. Link's whole body trembled. Then Ghirahim started to lead his hands down again, down along slender hips, and it was too much.
"Ghirahim." The name slipped out of him like a plea, and he looked up to where Ghirahim's eyes must be, trying to meet his gaze. The hands stopped, and after an infinite moment of anticipation, disappeared from his wrists altogether.
"Yes," he said softly, drawing himself up, his weight shifting on the branch. "Perhaps that is enough for one meeting. I think I've made my point… quite thoroughly."
The metallic chime of Ghirahim's departure was familiar now, and Link slumped back against the tree in a daze, taking what felt like his first full breath in days. He barely stirred when Ghirahim's weight reappeared seconds later, further along the branch. It wasn't as if he'd expected him to leave just yet anyway.
"I believe… this accomplishes my goal for the evening." He sounded disconcerted for once, as if something had happened that even he was unsure of. "I once thought you would scurry to safety like any normal creature who values his own life, but now I think this is not the case. No, you are far too brave for that. Pah!" he growled, making it clear that he didn't mean the word as a compliment. "How incredibly vexing."
He paused as if waiting for a response, but Link had none. He was exhausted, yet his senses buzzed on high alert as his mind spun in frenzied circles. His skin itched fiercely wherever Ghirahim had touched him. The feel of Ghirahim was thick on his fingers, the scent caught in his nose. Had he ever touched anyone like… that? His parents, maybe, but he couldn't remember his parents. Zelda? No, not Zelda, not like that.
"Do not think my mercy extends beyond tonight," Ghirahim said finally, his weight shifting irritably on the branch. "Too much work has gone into this to allow your blundering to ruin things now. If you must continue on this path… one of us will bleed by the end of it, Link, and I do not bleed."
With a snap of his fingers, he was gone, and as the seconds stretched on, Link realized that this time he'd left for good. A familiar weight fell into his lap, and he stirred, feeling it carefully with his hands just to make sure.
"Fi?" he whispered, and a soft chime came in response.
"Master." Her musical voice was almost the same monotone as always, though he thought he caught a hint of… worry? Relief? But then, he might have imagined it. "Forgive me for allowing myself to be separated from you. I am pleased to find you physically unharmed, but concerned by your apparent state of mental and emotional upheaval. How may I best assist you, master?"
"Stay," he said quickly, clutching the sword to his chest. "Please… can you stay?"
"Of course." Her familiar weight settled beside him, a much more comforting presence than Ghirahim's had been. He tried to put off the thought that it was somehow colder, too. "Friendly company is an effective method of calming an anxious mind. I will stay."
Ghirahim had neglected to return the rest of his items, which meant there was nothing for it but to climb back down and retrieve them. Even after he'd gathered them all up, scaled the tree once more, and settled down for the night, he found that he had no desire to let go of his sword ever again. Instead, he spent the night planning with Fi, theorizing on the locations of the dragons and trying to ignore the feel of Ghirahim still pressed into his skin. His imagined laughter seemed to rise on the breeze, and Link wondered if the demon still watched him, somewhere in the distance. It seemed strange suddenly that Ghirahim had neglected to even mention the Gate of Time. Had he come up with some other plan to reach Zelda? The night dragged on in useless wondering.
When the sun finally rose, he was secretly grateful to have avoided sleep for at least one night. A stamina potion would set him right, and soon he'd be exploring the volcano, putting some distance between himself and thoughts of Ghirahim—a very great distance, if he could manage it.
He feared the nightmares that would come... but he also feared his dreams might be something else entirely.