A/N: Bow before the people on the LoZff ML, who kindly beta-d this chapter, and to Tori, who made sure everything in this made sense. Thanks so much you guys. =)

"Give me a bourbon, will you?" he said, sinking onto the worn barstool.

The bartender raised his eyebrows. "It's barely noon, Link."

Link gave the violet-haired man a glare. "I know what time it is. Will you give me a drink or not?"

Kafei shook his head. "Whatever, it's your liver." Grabbing a glass, he filled it with the dark liquid. "Are you still worrying over tomorrow?"

Taking the drink, Link swallowed it all, wincing as it burned its way down. "I still don't know why you dyed your hair that color. You look like an idiot, and I wonder how many indigo plants had to be sacrificed for you new look."

"They died for a worthy cause, and you're avoiding the question."

Sighing, Link propped his elbows on the beaten counter. "Yes, I'm worried about tomorrow. All my years of training depend on what the Oracle says, and this will decide the rest of my future."

"So the prophet lady chooses who'll be in your care and you're stuck with them for the rest of your life. You've known this was coming and it never bothered you before."

"She doesn't have to choose me. What if I fail whatever test she has in store?"

Kafei smiled indulgently. "Link, I don't think she'll pass you up."

"That's what I'm afraid of."

"Now you got me confused. What do you mean?"

Link ran a hand agitatedly through his blond hair. "What if the Oracle does choose me? I'll be stuck protecting some dull Royal for the rest of my life." He leaned against the counter, trying to focus his thoughts into words, something he had never dared before. "I want to see the world, to explore all the unknowns, see new cultures. Do you know the farthest from home I've been is Kakariko? That's only a candlemark away!"

"That's been building up, hasn't it?" Kafei remarked, wiping clean a glass as he smiled wryly at his friend.

"You have no idea," said Link, sitting back and motioning for another drink. This time Kafei complied without a word.

"I can see your quandary," Kafei said. "If you don't go tomorrow for the ceremony, you'll bring shame upon your family, but you'll be free. If you stay, you fulfill the hopes of everyone but yourself. Tough call."

"You got any suggestions?" Link said. "You gave up running your father's town for here."

A dark smile appeared on Kafei's lips. "These are not the same circumstances. Let's just say I couldn't handle my parents' constant pressure anymore."

"So you dyed your hair purple, eloped and opened a bar in Castleton."

"Don't forget all the illegitimate children, hookers and drug lords I have in the inn above."

A snort of laughter escaped Link. "Yeah, right. Kafei, mob lord of Hyrule. Has a certain ring to it."

"I'm sure Anju would love to be my partner in crime."

"You never asked," interrupted a new voice.

Kafei smiled at his wife. "Would you like to rule the black market of Hyrule with me? I could appoint Link to be my slave, and he can run everything whilst we whittle away the hours at the beach by Lake Hylia."

Anju burst out laughing, the tray of tankards she carried threatening to tumble off. Link took hold of the tray, moving it to a safer spot. "I think I should have some say before I become anyone's 'slave'."

"You'd love it, I'm sure," Kafei said flippantly.

"Right." Finishing off the last of his drink, Link stood up. "I'd better be going, big day tomorrow and all. Catch you two later."

"Bye Link," Anju said, giving him a heartwarming smile while Kafei waved.

Stepping out of Kafei's crowded tavern, Link emerged into the equally populated streets of Castleton, the capital of Hyrule and seat of the Royal family. Looking over the heads of the people as they passed by, he saw the spires of the ancient castle rise over the city, the only relic still standing from ancient times, though the ruins of a temple haunted one corner of the city, mostly forgotten and covered in ivy and graffiti.

He headed over to the ruins. They were his place to go when he needed to think, to be alone, a rare opportunity in Hyrule these days.

The scent of rain and smog, brought by a rising wind, assailed his nose as he stepped onto the cobbled street. Someone's burning coal, he thought with a grimace. While the newly found resource allowed people to heat their homes and power steam engines cheaply, the residue from the fires filled the air with a permanent stench, blackening the city around it.

One of the many reasons I want to leave, he thought, drawing his greatcoat closer to him. Today was chilly, the hint of fall finally making itself known.

Turning off the main avenue, he gratefully left the sounds of the busy streets behind, the crowded houses looming over him, each one seeming to vie for recognition. Their plethora of moldings and columns the wealthy deemed in style covered their facades. He personally detested the design, which reminded him of a child who threw everything together in a fit of temper.

After only six blocks, the scenery drastically changed around him. Derelict houses lined the road, litter strewn in the gutter along with substances Link was happier not knowing. Soot heavily coated the tops of the buildings, their broken windows like missing eyes in the afternoon sunlight. A feral dog raised its hackles at the sight of him before deciding Link wasn't worth the effort and trotted off in search of lunch.

Rounding one last corner, he came to the ruins of the forgotten temple. No one knew what the remnant was for, the knowledge locked up within the walls of the palace. He had once tried to weasel the information from his history tutor, Remus, but to no avail. The man was more pig-headed than he, which was saying something.

Picking his way carefully over the strewn chunks of marble, once one of the building's walls, he entered the roofless temple. He found his usual seat in the farthest corner, hidden from passer-bys, though no one ever came near here. People believed the place to be haunted, which was fine for him. No nuisances to disturb his peace.

The stone floor was cool to the touch, despite the rays of the sun that beat upon its surface. He leaned against the crumbling wall, the ivy that covered nearly everything cushioning his back. A sense of comfort and welcome swept over him, feelings he always associated with the temple. It was like the ruins had a consciousness, one that watched over him and accepted him for who he was, not as a Guardian or some long-remembered hero's descendent. Perhaps this feeling was the reason people believed the place filled with spirits.

Bringing his hands behind his head, he looked up to the sky, the azure color nearly blinding in its brilliance, the sun almost at its zenith. Why do I fear my place here? he asked himself, eyes searching the heavens as if they held some answer. I spent my life learning all manner of weapons, how to fight with or without them, to speak other languages and know about their cultures. All so that I would fulfill my duties as a Guardian, to be one of the elite who protect Royals personally, keeping them safe even at the cost of our lives, a tradition started up after the death of the great hero. It's a huge honor, and I'd spend my life in a palace, never wanting for anything.

Wait, that's not true, he corrected himself. I desire the ability to actually use all I learned, to travel to far off places and utilize my knowledge of different lifestyles, surviving on my own with no one to tell me how to live. I'd finally be truly happy...and end up disappointing everyone else in the process. Mother and father would disown me to protect themselves from the shame. I'd probably be exiled from here for giving it all up. He sighed heavily, thinking, Great goddesses, this is only taking me on the same never-ending circles I've been brooding over for days.

"That's it," he said to the sky. "No more useless thoughts, what comes will come and I'll meet it when it gets here. Until then, I'm shutting my brain off."

"Are you sure you ever had it on?"

Taken by surprise, Link let out an undignified yelp as he scrambled upright. Seeing who had snuck up on him, he mock-growled. "Malon, when I get my hands on you..."

The redheaded girl smirked. "You've tried to catch me before and I'm always too fast."

Link had no argument there. Settling back down, he said, "What brings you here?"

"Papa had to talk with the one of the King's councilors about the new tariff on milk. If the bill is signed by the King, we'll lose a lot of profit from our stores."

"You still have the livestock and horses, don't you?"

Malon grimaced. "Yes, but no one has any need for animals anymore, except for a rare few. Horses are too large to fit in most cities, with all the crowding, and those new mechanized vehicles are starting to take their place. Milk and eggs are the only commodities that are keeping us alive at the moment."

"Sorry," murmured Link, unsure of what else to say.

"Not your fault," Malon said with a feral grin. "We'll survive, always have. The LonLon name will live on!"
"Glad you're so enthused," said Link, smiling.

"Got to stay positive," Malon said with a wink. "Besides, you promised to visit our ranch again, this time while off duty. We need to stay open, so then I can finally give you a proper tour."

"I will, don't worry."

"You remember that promise, mister," she said, standing up and brushing her skirt off. "I'd better be heading back before I'm missed. Talk to ya' later!"

Link waved her off with a smile. He recalled the first time he'd met the fiery daughter of Talon LonLon, business mogul of the ranching world. He'd been sent there by Lasva, his riding instructor, to ask about a shipment of horses that were due soon.

While Malon had been correct in saying few bought horses nowadays, the Royal family kept their breeding program operational to this day. Hundreds of LonLon horses filled the stables at the castle.

The Ranch, the main headquarters of the LonLon business, was located a half a candlemark from the city, though he wondered how long that would last with the town growing out with each passing year.

The Ranch could be a small city in itself. Workers lived on the property in homes built on the west side, behind the large, crumbling stockade that used to surround the LonLon home and main portion of stables. Acres of land were used to hold the famous LonLon horses and their milk cows, the barns that lined the sides used for chickens or for housing the animals in foul weather.

While he had found the Ranch's location easily, locating Talon, whom he was supposed to bring his message to, was another problem. The enormity of the place coupled with the haphazard way it had been formed quickly stole all sense of direction from him.

Wandering aimlessly, he spotted a young woman exercising horses in a large arena, her flaming hair shining like a beacon in the summer light. Not knowing what else to do, Link decided to take a break from his search and watch. The horse was beautiful, a sorrel with the characteristic conformation of the Gerudo line, long legs, arched neck and short back, though with none of the breed's hotheadedness. The animal responded readily to all the girl's commands and seeing them move together, he had to admit they made a striking pair.

When she spotted him, she pulled up her mount to where he stood. "What brings you here to our humble abode?"

"Nothing much, just trying to find my way around this maze," Link said. "I need to speak with Mr. LonLon."

She dismounted swiftly, handing the reins to a man standing nearby. "I think I can help you there," she said with a smile. Thrusting out her hand, she said, "My name's Malon, his daughter."

Gripping her hand, he said, "Link."

"Stuck running errands for the Royal family?"

"That's what we're here for. Free labor."

She laughed and he felt a smile appear on his own face in response. She had a warm, easygoing personality, one he liked right away. "I'll take you to him, free of charge."

Ever since then, they remained close friends, visiting whenever duty gave them time. With her trusting, open heart, she was a welcome change to the silver-tongued courtesans he encountered everyday at the palace.

Maybe I can get a job there, he mused with a silent laugh. Link, horse boy. Better than Kafei's offer.

Sunlight struck his eyes, the glare blinding him. Raising his arm to block the view, he saw the fiery orb start to sink into the horizon. Letting out a groan, he stood up, ligaments and tendons popping from too much time in one position. Mom and dad are going to kill me, he thought. I was supposed to be home hours ago. Oh well, no use worrying. They can't really murder me, not with tomorrow coming up.

* * *

Link shifted uneasily, the high collar of his dress uniform itching him like mad. The urge to scratch was overpowering, but he refused. Solastaire had threatened death to any who disrupted the ceremony in any way, and Link had a feeling that itching one's neck would not be a plausible excuse for moving.

Will you get this over with! he complained silently. For the past two candlemarks they had been subjected to speech after speech, each one telling them of the great honor that would be bestowed upon them, how the kingdom depended on them, blah, blah, blah. The words had run together a long time ago.

Glancing away from the speaker, he scanned the area where the ceremony was taking place. Garlands of late-blooming flowers and leaves hung from the chandeliers and walls of the enormous room they were crowded in. Frescos covered the vaulted ceiling, adding color to the otherwise white surroundings. Link could feel hundreds of eyes upon him and the other two who stood beside him. It felt like the entire population of Castleton was gathered here.

Sneaking a look to the side, he watched the Royals in their area, grinning slightly at the bored expressions of most. The King looked like he was about to fall asleep.

A glimmer of gold caught his eye and he noticed a new face. A young woman sat beside the King on his right, the silver coronet of the heir nestled in her golden hair. Who's she? he wondered. He had never seen the woman before, and with a face like hers, he knew he would have remembered. She was the most beautiful creature he'd ever laid eyes on.

A sharp jab in his side made him grunt slightly. Link gave the man standing beside him a glare, which he returned with a sly smile. "Eyes off the Princess Zelda," he whispered, his hazel eyes dancing. "We're supposed to be concentrating today."

"Yeah, like you weren't looking," Link muttered out of the corner of his mouth, giving Lure, his close friend, a wink.

Someone poked both of them hard in the back. "If you two do not remain still, I will personally remove you right now!" Solastaire whispered furiously, his craggy face twisted into an evil scowl. They both nodded their understanding, and satisfied they would stay quiet, Solastaire stalked off, robes billowing behind him.

They exchanged grins when the elder man left. Solastaire often accused them of delighting in angering him, and he was right.

"How much longer do you think this'll take?" Link asked Lure softly when Solastaire was out of earshot.

"Not much longer, hopefully. They keep going on like this, and we'll all have died of old age."

"Will you two be quiet!" chastened the other man to Link's left. "This is a great honor, you both should be more respectful!"

"And you should loosen up," Lure said. "Marek, do you have a permanent rod up your-"

"Shh!" warned Link, seeing Solastaire eye them beadily. He felt another pair of eyes watching them closely and saw the Princess Zelda looking in their direction. He straightened up with a gulp, hoping they hadn't offended the Royal with their soft chatter. To his surprise, she only smiled gently, her expression melting any bone he had in his body, and turned back to watch the speaker as she finally wrapped up her presentation.

A hush fell over the crowd in anticipation for what would come next. Link bit back a sudden wave of anxiety that threatened to overpower him. The Oracle would appear and soon his future would be decided.

A door in the wall before them opened up and the Oracle stepped out. She wore robes of gold and burgundy, each color complimenting the auburn hair piled atop her head, held back by a headdress decorated with beads and precious gems. Her eyes were dreamy and unfocused, like her mind was elsewhere, which it probably was.

The Voice of the Oracle appeared to her right. She acted as the Oracle's orator, for the seer never spoke unless in prophecy. "Each of you will step forward one at a time and the Oracle shall judge you," she said, her melodious voice carrying easily in the large room. "Marek Vortizen."

Link saw him hesitate, his normally tan skin a milky white. He didn't blame the guy, he knew that was how he was going to look in a few moments. Link gave him a small smile of encouragement, one Marek could hardly return. Taking a deep breath, Marek lowered his head and strode forward, stopping before the Oracle.

What was said between them, no one could discern, for the method of communication the Oracle used was one of utmost privacy. She spoke mind to mind, all truths and hidden secrets revealed to her. Doing so guaranteed the ability and trustworthiness of the Guardian, and also made sure that the position was the right one. A few of the country's best military tacticians and advisors were failed Guardians.

When Marek finished, he returned to his spot beside Link, some inner turmoil visible in his gray eyes. Link wanted to ask him about what had happened, but doing so was forbidden. No one was to know what had transposed. The only knowledge the rest would learn was the identity of the Guardian's charge.

"Lure Oryndell, step forward," said the Oracle's Voice.

"I hope I don't get that witch Harissa," Lure said softly to Link with a roguish grin.

"Good luck," Link said. "Who knows, you may get the Princess."

Lure waggled his eyebrows. "You know it." Squaring his shoulders, he took his place before the Oracle. All was silent within the great room, the absolute quiet grating on Link's nerves. No one dared even to cough during the ceremony.

Link thought about tapping his foot just to break the monotony when Lure did it for him. "That's not possible!" he shouted, shocking everyone in the room. No one had spoken during the Initiating Ceremony ever.

The Oracle's response was a silent one, but her face appeared concerned to Link's searching gaze. Lure seemed to not agree with her answer, for he shook his head violently. "No, I won't believe it, it's not possible."

An excited murmur began in the crowds, their whispers passing through the room like a small breeze. The Oracle placed her hand on Lure's chin, forcing him to look her in the eye, her disconcerting stare burning into his, trying to pass something to him which he was unwilling to accept. Finally he dropped his gaze, the slump of his shoulders betraying a great weariness that had settled upon him. He shook his head one last time, turning away from her and retaking his place in line.

Link watched him, concern building up inside. "Are you all right?" he asked Lure, reaching out to him.

Lure avoided his touch. "It's nothing," he said, not meeting his gaze. "I'll be fine."

Before Link could press the issue, the Voice called his name, the last to speak to the Oracle. Giving Lure one last worried look, he made his way to the Oracle, meeting her sloe-eyed gaze. What did you do to him? he demanded, anger coloring his thoughts red.

What we spoke of is no concern to you, the Oracle said silently. We are here to discuss you.

Link wanted to protest, to force the knowledge from the woman, but he knew it was folly. Instead he said, What about?

You are torn between your desires and your duty, I can see that easily enough. Each has equal hold on your heart. Have you reached a decision on this matter?

Not yet. No matter how hard I try, I can't come up with an answer.

The Oracle cocked her head slightly to the side. Maybe you have the answer, but do not wish to see it.

You're the great seer, you tell me.

Her fathomless eyes crinkled with laughter. Be careful not to bite the hand that would feed you. Suddenly her demeanor became solemn, her face grave and remote. Your hesitance and lack of will is a weakness, one that allows an entrance we cannot afford.

He could feel his brows knit together, puzzlement filling his mind. An entrance for what? I don't understand.

I cannot discern such matters to you, not now. You must make this choice without bias, of your own free will. He could feel a power begin to gather within her, reminding him faintly of magic, a skill very few could wield in this day. He fought the urge that told him to back away from her and held his ground. What choice?

Do not play the fool to me, she said, her eyes narrowing. Answer the question.

He met her gaze, the act helping him sort out the raging tumult of thoughts in his head. What do I want? he asked himself yet again. The answer came swiftly, as if it had lain just below the surface of his mind, evading him like a clever darting fish until this moment.

I want to be free, to live my own life. I don't want to be a Guardian.

It is as I foresaw, said the Oracle, something akin to disappointment filling her gaze. Good fortune to you, young one. You will need it.

Link unconsciously opened his mouth to ask her what she meant, but an impenetrable shadow overtook his vision, blotting out everything around him. He tried to fight the onslaught, pushing it away with his mind and body, but to no avail. The power quickly overcame him and he fell to darkness.

* * *

Twelve Years Later

* * *

The sound of his footsteps echoed eerily off the stone streets, accompanied by the clop of a horse's hooves. Normally this place was filled with people, their voices ringing through the air, making their presence known to all around. Now the city resembled a ghost town, the empty buildings and desolate landscape lending to the sense of abandonment.

Hurried abandonment, he thought, noting the furniture he could see inside one house, as if the owners fled with no other thought but to escape. Probably did, too, he mused, absently stroking his mare's sleek neck. The horse walked calmly beside him, scanning the surroundings just as closely as he did. Not a normal act for a horse, but after all, Epona wasn't a normal horse.

Any remaining? The mare's thought flitted into his mind. She knew how much he had dreaded coming back to this place, and wanted to help him finish his search as quickly as possible.

"Most likely," he said. "There were people living in the other capitals we visited." I hope everyone got out all right, he added silently to himself. If any of his friends had been hurt, or worse, he would never forgive himself.

"Let's check out the epicenter," he said. Epona bobbed her head in agreement, her flaxen mane rising and falling like a silken wave, complimenting her chestnut coat beautifully. Muscles rippled under velvety skin, the feathering on her fetlocks covering her large hooves like golden veils. She was a perfect specimen of a horse; not a flaw could be found on her.

They continued to follow the road, it once being the main thoroughfare for the city years ago. Soon they came to a gate that had barred the way forward, now only hanging off its hinges, broken and defeated like most of the town.

Beyond was absolute destruction. A crater stretched before him, beginning at the very edge of the gate and stretching for miles onward. Where once the castle of Hyrule stood proudly, now only shattered rock and scorched earth remained.

He raised a hand to his face, wearily rubbing his forehead. He had known what he would find; the same devastation could be seen in every country's capital, from the Gerudo lands in the west to Calatia in the far east. Twelve years ago, a force of immense strength had obliterated the seat of power of every country on this land.

The knowledge failed to lessen the pain in his heart. Epona sidled up to him, offering him comfort, his pain palpable in her mind. He took what she offered, leaning onto her strong shoulder. "You'd think I'd be used to it by now," he told her, absently running his fingers through her mane.

You are human, you mourn for the loss of your loved ones.

"Yes, I suppose that is our weakness. We best continue our search before leaving."

She turned her head, fixing a liquid brown eye on him. Where will we go next? We have been to every country within our reach, what will we do then?

"I'll let you know when I figure it out," Link murmured. Straightening, he headed back the way he came before turning off the main avenue. He wandered aimlessly, searching the city for some sign of life, some hint of hope.

Glancing to his side, he recognized the place his feet had taken him. Kafei's, the thought accompanied by a lance of pain. The building was dark, the windows coated in layers of dust and grime. Raising a hand to the knob, he hesitated. Go, urged Epona.

He closed his hand on the knob and pulled open the door, its hinges creaking in protest. Inside, the air hung stale, dust stirred up from his passage reflecting the weak sunlight that barely made it through the coated glass. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, but he noticed the floor by the door was swept clean by the passing of feet. The dust-free path continued to the staircase to his right, one that led to the inn above. Don't get your hopes up, he commanded himself.

He followed the trail, keeping to the edge of the stairs to minimize creaks. His senses were open and alert for any signs of danger. Thieves had become rampant in this age, all government that once bound them gone, allowing them free rein.

At the top of the stairs, he saw candlelight flickering from a room nearby. Soft voices could be heard from inside, and he crept closer to their source. He mistakenly set his foot on a warped floorboard and winced at the groan the wood issued. Instantly the voices stopped. Go in or hide? he asked himself. The choice was made for him as the door swung open, revealing Anju holding a frying pan. She halted her attack in mid-swing, her gray-blue eyes going wide at the sight of him. "Link," she breathed, the frying pan slipping from her fingers to land on the floor with a thud. "By the Triad, you're alive?"

Link smiled hesitantly. "As are you. Is Kafei here?"

"Oh, oh yes, yes he is." She pulled the door open all the way and grabbed him into a tight embrace. "We thought you were dead for years, oh it's so good to see you!"

He returned the hug, thankful beyond thought that some of his friends were spared. There were lines on Anju's face that were not brought on by age alone, and her eyes were shadowed by fatigue. He hoped she had not suffered greatly.

Anju released him after a moment. She studied his face and decided not to ask any questions, much to his relief. "Still as good looking as ever," she said with a smile that hadn't been used in a while. "Come in, I'll take you to him." Once they were both inside, she bolted the door securely.

Link spotted a small girl before an unlit fireplace, her hair reflecting the same russet hue of her mother's, though her eyes were Kafei's unusual shade of indigo. She stared at him with the open gaze of a child, unafraid and direct. Unusual for anyone in this time of uncertainty and fear.

"Link, this is my daughter Aeora," Anju said, placing her hand on the young girl's shoulder.

"She's beautiful," murmured Link. He was uncomfortable around children, most running scared from the sight of the grizzled man with the sword and the haunted eyes. He had a feeling that, unlike their parents, they retained the ability to see past facades and were frightened by what they discerned beneath his.

This girl was different. She remained where she sat, her face set in solemn silence. "If you'll follow me," continued Anju. "I'll take you to him."

Link nodded and headed after her. The woman led him to a smaller room off the main chamber. Sputtering lamps filled with precious oil that had become rare lit the scene before him, and he fought the urge to cry. He walked to the bed, not noticing Anju slipping away, leaving him alone with his aged friend.

Scars covered the man's body, the parts visible making Link cringe in sympathy. The worst was his face. Where his eyes used to be, eyes that had sparkled with laughter and joy, now only blank sockets remained.

He sank onto a chair beside the small bed, still warm from Anju's vigil. He reached forward to grip his friend's hand and stopped, his fingers hovering just above the pallid flesh. What right did he have to touch this man? What had he done to deserve such a gift?

Kafei's hand clasped his own, taking his trembling hand in a warm grip. "I know it's you," the blind man whispered, a ghost of a smile on his shrunken face.

Tears fell from Link's eyes. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, his knuckles turning white from the force of his hold, one Kafei returned fully.

"Why? It's not your fault. I was attacked by a Death Rider after the Cataclysm," he said, using the common word people gave for the devastating attacks on the capitals. "You were missing still, you couldn't have done anything."

How wrong you are, he thought bitterly. Tentatively, he reached up and brushed away a lank strand of hair from Kafei's face. "You're lucky to survive a Death Rider," he said softly, ignoring the clench of his stomach.

Kafei laughed, the sound raspy and raw in his throat. "I was the only one out of a party of seven. We were searching the crater after the Cataclysm for survivors. We had just gotten to the place when one of those accursed things showed up. I only lived because I was a coward and ran." The last words came out like they were poison to his lips.

"And because of your smart sense, not your lack of bravery, Anju still has a husband, and your daughter has a father. Kafei, there was no way you could have done anything. Death Riders can't be killed, they can't be harmed by any method you could use."

A wry grin twitched the corners of Kafei's lips. "If you say so." Suddenly he pulled Link close to him into an embrace. "It's good to have you back," he whispered in Link's ear.

"It's good to be back." He tightened his hold, leaning his forehead on the man's shoulder. After a time that was infinitely too short, he pulled away from Kafei. "I have to leave now." An idea struck him then. Pulling a medallion from under his greatcoat, he removed the necklace from his neck. The golden metalwork of a leaf engraved with ancient runes reflected the lamplight.

"Here," he said, pressing the medallion into Kafei's hand. "Take this."

Kafei ran his hands over the metal. "What is it for?"

"If you take it to the Kokiri Wood, the inhabitants will allow you to pass. Their leader is a great healer; she may cure your wounds, or at the least offer you a safe haven."

"I cannot accept-"

"Take it," commanded Link. "I have no use for such a gift; you do."

Kafei smiled. "I know better than to try and outlast you in an argument, you stubborn goat. Thank you, I'm grateful."

"You owe me no gratitude," Link said, rising. "Leave as soon as you can."

The man nodded. "Until we meet again, friend."

A lump had worked its way into his throat and he couldn't swallow it down. Link patted the man's leg and turned from the room, all but running away.

Anju gave him a brief smile before she returned to her husband's side. He honored her tenderness and diligence, never forsaking Kafei despite the burden she must be bearing. Their love was truly great.

He let himself out the door, casting one last glimpse at Anju's quiet child before leaving. He quickly swept down the stairs and outside, relishing the cool breeze on his face.

Epona separated herself from the shadows and made her way to his side. They will be safe?

Link nodded. "I sent them to Saria."

A wise choice. The Lady will take good care of your friends.

"Death Riders attacked him."

The past is over, Link. I cannot feel the regret you do, and do not wish to, but you must overcome it.

Link clenched his hands, his teeth gritted in hate. Anger, however, I can feel, as well as abhorrence, Epona thought with a touch of amusement.

Shaking his head, Link took a steadying breath. He should know better than to start this kind of conversation with her. "I plan on heading to Kakariko next, that all right with you?" He gave the mare a sideways glance.

I follow where you go, she said blandly.

Letting out a soft snort, he mounted, the leather creaking as he settled himself into the saddle. Epona bore tack only because it made it easier on her back and his rump. The hackamore she wore was for show only. Too many people became curious at the sight of him riding without any known source of control.

"I want to make a pit stop before then," Link said softly.

I was wondering when the idea would occur to you.

Link grinned. "You just want to go because she'll cosset you until you're nothing but a spoiled creature."

Nothing wrong with that.

Shaking his head in amusement, he urged Epona past the crumbling gates of the city to the country beyond.

* * *

The sun hovered low in the horizon, its weak touch bloodying the land with it's crimson fingers. A moaning wind filled the air, the only sound to be heard. Ever since the Cataclysm birds had ceased to sing, insects refused to chirp, and all manners of wild beasts would only watch silently from their dark warrens.

LonLon Ranch stood before them, its new stockade an imposing sight. They had built the giant wall after thieves raided their stables and storehouses for the second time, this time setting fire to the complex. Some of the burned roofs could be seen peeking over the stockade, though most had been repaired by now.

He urged Epona to the only gate, located on the stockade's eastern side. Braziers filled with wood and a few bits of coal burned brightly, keeping the area well lit. "What do you want?" called a suspicious voice from the top of the gate. Link knew he had at least two crossbows trained on him now. "I wish to speak to Malon," he said, keeping his hands in sight and free of weapons. "Tell her Link is here."

The sounds of whispered voices arose, followed by the creak of wood as someone descended the ladder, no doubt running to tell Malon about the arrival of this stranger. He didn't begrudge their caution; this was the first time he had come here, though it would not be his first at seeing Malon after the Cataclysm.

He had come upon her by chance at Calatia's capital during one of his sojourns to the sites of devastation that had befallen the land. Her reaction had been remarkably like Anju's when she had seen him, her eyes going wide with disbelief and hope. Once she got over the initial shock, she'd threatened to beat him within an inch of his life, much to Epona's amusement. There had been tears in her eyes throughout her tirade, and when she finished, Link gathered her into his arms, giving her a safe haven for her weeping.

Her sobbing was almost as bad as seeing Kafei mutilated. The hurt and pain that had built up for seven years pouring out like a flood in the form of tears. He had whispered nonsense in her ear, anything to ease her sorrow.

Soon the crying abated, and Malon had told him why she was in the eastern lands and not at her ranch. Her father had disappeared over a month ago, and no word had arrived since then. She knew he had come to Calatia for the same reason Link had; to see if the government still existed, though Talon whished to establish ties to said government in order to keep his Ranch running.

Malon had demanded that he give an explanation for his disappearance, one Link was not about to divulge. He had just found his friend and had no wish to loose her again. After promising her he would tell one day, he offered to help her find her father. She accepted his aid, and they found Talon almost a week later, the victim of a bandit raid. He was bedraggled and starved, but otherwise unhurt, much to Malon's delight.

After ensuring both Malon and her father were safely guarded and on their way home, he had left her once more to renew his wanderings. He had not seen her since.

Wonder how she'll take my sudden appearance, thought Link, shifting in the saddle.

Will you quit your dancing up there? Epona snapped.

"Excuse me, majesty," said Link.

You shouldn't fret, she'll welcome you with open arms.

"I'm worried about questions she might ask," he muttered.

Humans, Epona said with a sigh. You think too much.

"You're partly right," said Link. His ears perked, the sound of the gate's bolt being pulled free breaking the quiet.

See? I told you, Epona said, an infuriating smirk heard in her thoughts.

Link resisted the urge to bop her, a move that would end up with him on the ground in less than a second, and kept an eye on the opening gate.

The firelight accentuated her hair, adding a golden glow to her skin, the shadows deepening the lines of her face. Everyone seems so old, thought Link with a touch of sorrow.

"It's about time you got here," Malon said with a small grin, her hands on her hips.

Link dismounted and gave the woman a one-armed hug. "I'm not late, am I?" he said with a wry smile.

"Precisely on time, as always." Seeing Epona by his side, she said, "I see you brought the pretty one. I still would love to know where you found her. If there are any others of her kind, they'd be a great asset to our bloodlines."

Epona preened at her words. Don't get a big head, he warned her silently, humor tingeing his thoughts. She answered by gently nipping his shoulder.

Turning to Malon, he said, "Maybe someday I'll tell you, but I think I'm justified in saying she's one of a kind, which is a good thing."

Epona laid her ears flat, causing Malon to giggle. "Let's go inside," she said, grabbing his arm. "We shouldn't leave the gates open."

Nodding, Link allowed himself to be pulled in, ignoring the curious stares of the guards. He knew they must be wondering why anyone would wander outside with all the danger that lurked, both in human guise and demon.

Malon ushered them to a stable deep within the center of the stronghold. "This is the safest place we can put your mare," she told him.

Link knew Epona would be safe even if she wandered into a den of thieves, but he kept the thought to himself. Can you suffer to be in there for one night? he silently asked her.

If I must. I hate these prisons, she grumbled. "Thank you," Link said to Malon. "Is there any particular stall I should place her in?"

"I can have a stable hand do this for you," she offered.

Link shook his head. Anyone that tried would end up missing body parts. "No thanks, she's a little skittish around others."

Epona snorted. "If you insist," said Malon. "I'll wait for you in the house."

Nodding, Link led Epona into the stable, the scent of hay and horse filling the air. "I should put you near the end," Link said.

There's a stall in back with no other horses nearby, that one should work, Epona informed him.

He walked with her to the stall, thankful the stable was devoid of people. At the sight of Link and Epona, the animals backed away, their eyes rolling. A few let out a shrill whinny, but most were blessedly silent, aside from anxious shifting.

You'd think they'd never seen a horse before, Epona thought, amusement coloring her words.

Link laughed softly. "I think you enjoy discomforting others too much."

That is what I'm here for.

They reached the far end of the stable and Link stripped the mare of her tack with an ease borne of countless practice. Finding a bucket of brushes, he rubbed her coat down. Epona's eyes closed with pleasure as she leaned into his strokes. This is why I love you, she all but purred.

"Spoiled horse," he said affectionately. Finished, he opened the stall door. She walked in, testing the depth of the straw with her hooves. I guess this will work, she told him. Link filled her water bucket and found grain for her, which she accepted gratefully. "It still amazes me that you have to eat," he said to her, watching her greedily devour her food.

Energy, my dear boy, she said, her eyes peering over the top of the bucket. Everything needs energy to survive. Besides, it tastes good.

Shutting the stall door, but leaving it unbolted, he gave her one last pat. "See you later, horse."

Later, faery boy, she called, using the term a Kokiri child had given him. She knew it annoyed him to no end.

Inside the lightened farm house Malon and her father lived in, Link waited for a servant to tell Malon he was back. He studied the foyer, the wood paneling shining a ruddy mahogany in the lamplight. He had always liked this house, and not for the fact that it was the second largest building in Hyrule, the castle being the first.

The edifice dated back to the Imprisoning War, the first battle that had been fought to rid the world of evil. Since then numerous owners had kept adding on until the structure sprawled for acres and rose up four stories, each addition standing out from the next. It was the most eccentric house he'd ever seen, and he loved it.

"You don't have to stand in the entryway," Malon said, appearing from around the corner.

Link smiled. Removing his coat, he set it on the rack beside the door. "I hope I don't track too much dirt into your house," he said, only half-joking.

"Don't worry," she said. "I'll make you clean it up if you do."

Link chuckled. She motioned for him to follow and led him into one of the many parlors, this one from a period where low ceilings and dark paneling were the rage. Must be the same guy who designed the foyer, he thought. A low fire lit most of the room, bitter smelling lamps taking up the rest of the slack in the far corners. Dark carpeting covered the floor, softening the sound of their footsteps, the hue black in the firelight. Armchairs that looked more than a little worn hulked in front of the hearth, their legs appearing to have been the chew toy of many a dog.

As if in response to his thoughts, one such dog waltzed in. He had the lines of luopanus, the Kokiri word for Wolfos, once a great threat to their woods, a giant beast that preyed on their people. Hylians had somehow domesticated the wild breed; those who had not submitted to their will were killed.

The dog's brindle fur rose slightly at the sight of Link, its lips curling back in a silent snarl. Another trait of luopanus. They never made a noise unless it was to howl right before its teeth sank into the soft throat of its prey.

"Easy Cirion, it's all right, " Malon cooed, wrapping her arms around the beast's neck, her arms sinking into the thick fur. Link had the sudden urge to pull her back. "He's not a big fan of strangers," she said, smoothing the dog's hackles.

Link's lip quirked. Somehow he didn't think his being a new person was the only reason. Malon released her hold on the dog. Cirion cautiously made his way to Link, forelegs stiff, tail thrust aggressively upwards. Link sank to his knees, making himself appear less of a threat. With tentative sniffs, the wolf-dog tested Link's scent, its amber eyes never leaving his. I won't harm you, Link thought, trying to will the dog to understand him.

Something about his demeanor appeased the wolf-dog. Cirion backed off, heading towards Malon, taking a position close to her side. Brave dog, he thought with appreciation. Most animals ran at the sight of him.

Rising, Link said, "Thank you for taking me in."

Malon smiled. "I couldn't let you wander around at night. You know you're always welcome here." She motioned to the armchairs. "Let's sit by the fire."

Link obeyed, keeping a wide berth around Cirion, who pointedly ignored him. Sinking into the cushions, he leaned his head against the high backrest, watching the firelight dance through half-closed lids. He felt Malon's eyes on him, studying his profile in the warm light. He imagined what must be going through her head just then. His face looks haggard and thin; is he getting enough to eat? Those clothes are faded and worn, the boots scuffed beyond repair. Hair too long, shadows under the eyes. What is he doing to himself? Why is he wandering around like a nomad? All valid questions and each one he'd rather die than answer.

"How're things on the farm?" he asked, steering her thoughts elsewhere. If he could keep up the small talk until she went to bed, he would escape unscathed.

"We're the only supplier of livestock, poultry, and produce for miles. Every other business fell after the Cataclysm; they couldn't function without the Royal family's aid. Ingo's ecstatic; he wants to completely rip off everyone. Thankfully papa won't listen to him. We've plenty of money, no threat of starvation. In other words, we're awful."

Link steepled his fingers before his face, elbows propped on his chest. "Maybe it's selfish of me," he said, "but I'm glad you're profiting from all this."

A soft chuckle escaped Malon's lips. "You would say that. How're you doing?"

Keep it vague, keep it broad, he reminded himself. "Fine, as fine as we all can be. You know, something's always puzzled me. Why do you keep Ingo if he's such a shark?"

"Because he's a shrewd shark," she muttered and lapsed into silence.

He said something to offend her, he could tell by the way she stared into the fire, her face slack, devoid of emotion. He always knew when she got upset with him. You should let it go, the wiser side of him advised. Asking questions will only work out badly for you. Unfortunately he didn't have a good record of listening to his smarter half. "What's the matter?" he said softly, dreading the answer.

"You are!" she shouted, his words spurring her to action. "Every time I try to talk to you, to find out how you are, what you're doing, you push me away. You hide behind some goddess' damned wall and keep me out." She turned to him, her face open and pleading, the glimmer of tears beginning to shine in her eyes. He felt a headache coming on.

"Why do you keep these secrets?" she demanded. "We used to talk about everything. I even told you about my first kiss, when Jarris Karrulyn kissed me on a dare, then told everyone I was awful at it. I cried for hours until you came and asked me what was wrong. And I told you! I told you everything, despite how embarrassing it was!"

Malon, he grieved. You're so innocent. If only this was as simple as a failed first kiss. "There isn't much to say," he said lightly, not meeting her gaze.

"There must be something. Anything. Where have you been? What are you doing? Why in all the nine Realms do you go from capital to capital, as if you're on a pilgrimage to atone for some past sin of yours?"

He winced at the accuracy of her words. Not completely true, he told himself. There is no way you could repent, no matter how hard you try.

So why do you? asked a part of him, one he normally kept hidden from even himself. Why do you resist day after day? Giving in would be so much easier.

No! No, never, not ever again! he shouted to that despicable voice, forcing it back with all his strength.

"Are you even listening to me?!" He jumped, seeing Malon right in front of him, caging him in his chair with her arms. Looking up, his heart broke at the sight of her falling tears. How many times? How many times must I hurt her? He turned his head away, saying coldly, "Please stop, Malon. You're embarrassing yourself."

His words stung her, each one a knife to her heart. "You can't mean that."

Schooling his expression, he faced her again. "I do mean it. What I do is my business, not yours. You are acting like a child having a temper tantrum." Push her away, he told himself. Keep pushing her away and she won't be hurt anymore.

She reeled back at the acidity in his words. "What is wrong with you? Why are you acting like this?"

Seeing an opportunity to escape, he rose up from the armchair and began to walk away. Her hand grabbed his shoulder. "Link, what's wrong? Please, tell me why you're acting like this."

"Nothing is wrong," he voice deadly quiet. He felt her recoil, her instincts reacting to the menace he was projecting. Keep driving her away and I will never hurt her again. "I'm tired and wish to sleep."

Cirion growled softly, his feral gaze meeting Link's. Link resisted the urge to snarl back at the beast, instead using his raging emotions to stalk towards the door. "Take the first room on the second floor," he heard her say from behind him.

He nodded curtly, never turning to meet her gaze, and headed for the room. Once inside, he shut the door and rested his throbbing head on the worn oak. Hot tears that he'd held back leaked out despite his best attempts to keep them inside. This will protect her, he reminded himself. This is for her own good.

Then why does it hurt so much? he asked his aching heart. She was my last friend, my last connection to my old life.

She was a liability, his cruelly practical side said.

Cutting off the internal debate, Link opened the window in his room, welcoming the touch of cool air to his hot face. Clouds darted across the silvery surface of the moon, casting alternate light and shadow over the world.

Finding a chair hiding in the corner of the room, he pulled it over to the window and sat. Propping his elbows on the weathered sill, he watched the stars peek out from behind their gauzy curtains. He wished he could distance himself from his pain, to be as far away as the stars, so cold and remote.

Wishing will get you nowhere, he thought harshly. A ragged sigh escaped his lips, his head dropping to the ledge. The hurt look on Malon's gentle face haunted him, and no matter how many times he told himself he did the right thing, the pain remained.