disclaimer: disclaimed.
dedication: les, sonya, eleni, & emily. thank you for working when the planet is melting.
notes: my first foray into this fandom. also, the randomest shit happens in these games WHY DO I LOVE THEM.
notes2: six hours of sleep and tumblr. is killing me.

title: wither
summary: Because sometimes, home is the hardest part. Because sometimes, home is just too small.

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Standing in the doorway to his childhood home was the hardest thing Link had ever done.

It shouldn't have been, really.

It was a tree-house; he'd always lived in trees, and he knew that now. Maybe he'd known it always—he'd refused to live on the ground, an orphan child living in a tree-house because he had nothing else.

They'd indulged him, because of that.

And because the horses liked him.

That had been it—the smallest in the smallest province (Ordon was beautiful, there was no denying it), and working as a pseudo stable-hand, herding goats, and watching the younger children with Ilia. That had been his life.

And Link had been, for the most part, very happy.

But now, an adventure and a half later, he stood in the doorway, hand on the doorframe, and hesitated.

"You can go in, you know," Ilia said quietly, smiling.

Link made a sound low in his throat.

"Uh—I'll just… go. We'll talk after you get settled in."

Link nodded. His gaze remained trained on the interior of his (ex-)home. He listened to Ilia climb down the ladder. Her feet crunched the grass—it was late summer, August, drier than it had been in a decade. The summer heat hazed across Link's green-clothed back.

He stepped across the threshold, and closed the door behind him. He stood in the muted semi-darkness of the room for a split-second.

The sword in his grip clanged to the ground.

Link, wide shoulders pressed to the door, sank to the ground and pressed his face into his hands.

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The night was empty and cold.

Link stared out the window, eyes hard. He hadn't slept—he hadn't needed to. The toll travelling non-stop had taken on him was slowly creeping up on him. He didn't sleep. He didn't eat.

He didn't need to.

A battered shield hung on the wall next to a scuffed sword sheath above the front door. Neither item was very special; a decent sword and a less-than-decent shield. Neither ought to have held any significance at all.

But they did.

They were the last visible reminders that he'd ever left Ordon at all.

He'd stored the rest of it all in a trunk in the basement—the Mirror Shield, the Clawshots, the Iron Boots, the tunics. Everything. Everything. It was all put away, hidden down in a trunk in the dark.

It had felt like shutting away his soul.

And so Link stared out the window, and didn't sleep for yet another night.

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It became routine.

He would get up. Eat. Head to the ranch. Let the goats out. Wait. Eat. Wait. Wait. Herd the goats inside. Head home. Settle Epona down for the night. Go to bed.

Rinse and repeat.

And repeat.

And repeat.

Sometimes, when no one was looking, Link would stare towards where the Ordon Bridge was, and would think about what was just beyond it.

He would think about Zelda—the Forever Princess—and about Midna—the Twilight Princess—and about a girl with long red hair that he'd only seen in dreams who sang Epona's song. He would think about breathing underwater and flying through the sky, shot out of a canon towards the heavens, and Waking the wind across an ocean of rain.

But he said naught, because it would upset Ilia. She was doing her very best to forget it all.

But Link couldn't forget.

He just couldn't.

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When the chance finally came to leave, Link grabbed at it.

Or he tried, at least.

It would just be delivering a package to Malo in New Kakariko (Link had called it by that moniker since he'd stood in Old Kakariko and had a vision of the place thriving with life and Cuccos and golden spiders at the base of Death Mountain), but it was more than he'd been allowed to do in weeks. Link leaving Ordon (again) had been a vigilantly avoided subject by all the townsfolk; Link leaving would mean Ilia's carefully constructed mental crutches snapping. Link leaving would mean a suspicious lack of help. Link leaving would mean the end of the strange illusion of normalcy they'd all been living under.

"No, Link, I'd prefer it if you'd—" the mayor said, nose wrinkled delicately.

Link didn't care that this man was more invested in keeping him in Ordon than others. Link didn't care that this man was Ilia's father.

"Please," Link said. It was a desperate gesture, but Link never asked for anything, never; and just to ride again, to ride at a gallop across Hyrule's empty fields. For once not to be caged.

Freedom. It dangled tantalizingly in front of him.

He could almost taste it.

"I'll come back." Link said, voice cajoling. It was almost a promise (but only almost), and he reached for the package again.

Rusl's hand on the mayor's shoulder spooks them both. "Bo, let the boy go. You can't force him to stay here."

The look on the mayor's face soured immediately. There was obvious reluctance in the movement, but the minute the package was within reach, Link grabbed it and ran.

He would not be denied this.

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The thud of hooves across wooden planks. Bright green-gold blurs and dappled sunlight through Faron. The splish-splash of the spring as they raced by; bent low over Epona's neck, one creature, one mind.

They burst out into the bright sunlight of Hyrule field, and Link crowed exultation.

Freedom.

Freedom.

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But freedom was never something to last.

Malo, six years old and a business genius, looked up at Link in the golden heat of the New Kakariko sunlight. "You miss it, don't you."

It wasn't a question.

Yes, he did miss it. Yes, he missed the things that lurked in the deep, in the dark. Yes, he missed a shadow-girl imp with neon hair and a snarl-smile. Yes, he missed the chafing of wrist-guards. Yes, he missed the torn clothing. Yes, he missed the sweat and the work and the clear water of Lake Hylia. Yes, he missed running over sand dunes, wolf paws large and deceptively quick. Yes, he missed the monsters. Yes, he missed the bustle of Castle Town. Yes, he missed sitting in the Lost Woods, sitting on a deserted stump, blowing gently in an Ocarina. Yes, he missed having no responsibilities. Yes, he missed saving the world.

Yes. He missed it.

Link turned his face away. "No."

Malo shook his head slowly. "Time is money. Stop wasting both yours and mine. Good day."

Link took this as a dismissal. Despairingly, he slipped outside. Epona stood at the edge of New Kakariko's spring. Her eyes were liquid and dark, tired. She trotted towards him, reins trailing in the red-brown dust.

"Beautiful girl, you beautiful girl. You want to run, too, don't'cha girl? Yeah, I know. Me, too," Link murmured quietly, crooning praises in her ear. She nibbled at his clothes, searching for snacks, something, anything. Link produced a lump of sugar or two, and a bit of carrot. She nuzzled his face with a low whinny and a contented nicker.

Link pressed his face into her mane, and wondered if he was willing to live like this.

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"Hi."

Link looked up into Ilia's smiling blonde face. He nodded a little, and tilted his head to his side. "Sit."

She did.

There was an inch between them. Static prickled along Link's skin as he cleaned Epona's tack of dirt and grime. It had been a long trip.

(Not long enough.)

"I… didn't think you were… going to come back."

Link could see the Triforce Mark on the back of his left hand as he swiped leather-cleaner along the saddle. The Mark was faint—had been fading slowly, day by day, since Link had left the outside world.

"Neither did I."

Ilia's head was bowed. "So… why did you come back?"

Because he had no answer for her. Because there was a misguided sense of duty. Because they'd been friends once. Because sometimes the guilt sat in his stomach. Because he knew that he wouldn't be thinking this at all, had he never held a sword. Because he'd once thought he was going to marry her. Because part of him was still good. Because part of him was still waiting; for her, for Zelda, for Midna, for someone to be there, to be alive, to be real. Because that part of him was waiting for someone to stay.

But he didn't say any of that.

"I don't know. I just did."

Ilia shook her head. Link could feel it in the movement of her body—he couldn't look at her. Wouldn't. She bent, and pressed her forehead against his shoulder, head hung, blonde curls brushing bare skin. Tears, both his and hers, hot and wet on his collarbone.

They sat there together, suspended in half-memory and barely touching, trying to fix the present and ignore the past.

Link did not push her away.

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The dreams came.

An ocean of blood, superseded by walls of fire. The world burned as ice flooded his veins, and he clutched the precious bundle in his arms—the child's mother was dead, eyes wide and staring and sad in the flickering glow of a house alight. He'd held her as she'd died, blood redder than her hair, staining the dress and his hands crimson. Epona screamed horse-rage in the distance, hooves raining metal and death, and he was caught up in trying to save the baby's life, trying to stave off the grief, trying not to die—

Link sat up, shaking, in a cold sweat.

He took two deep breaths, silent, in through his nose. There was fresh blood on the sheets, twisted around his legs, like he'd tried to shove them off his body and failed. Link looked at his hands. There were deep gouges in his palms and his wrists, up his arms—nail marks.

He'd scratched himself to bleeding.

Link clenched his fists.

There was pain. He ignored it. He had to get a hold of himself.

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The morning was spectacularly clear. Link stood on the terrace in front of his door, and stretched in the early morning light. There was a chill; autumn threatened, and already, Link could see the leaves turning colour. It would be winter, soon, and the snow would block them all in for days on end.

When winter hit, there would be no escaping Ordon. There would be no escape.

Link's fingers shook.

And it hit him, then—that this place, it was deeper and darker than anything he had faced. It held secrets, long-dead and untouched, that Link did want to deal with.

They were not his secrets, and this was not his future.

Link turned. His leather boots made no sound as he padded across the threshold and into the basement.

He had packing to do.

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He left in the middle of the night, and Ilia found him, anyway.

"So you're leaving."

"I have to," was all he managed. His throat was thick, but for the first time in weeks, he looked her in the eye. Green eyes—Ilia had always had green eyes.

She smiled, a little wistful. "I knew this was coming, you know. I knew that you could never stay. Not after—not after everything."

Link looked at her and thought of another girl; another childhood friend from a different life, when he was a different Link. She'd stood in front of him on a bridge in the Lost Woods, green hair and green eyes gleaming sadness and had handed him a Fairy Ocarina because she'd had nothing else. Because she'd wanted to stay friends. Because everyone needed something to hold on to.

Linked looked at Ilia and thought of Saria, and knew that there was no way he could make it through.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"Don't be," she replied, shaking blonde curls emphatically. "I don't blame you. I know you can't—stay. You're different. You always were. Maybe it's why I liked you so much."

Link almost chuckled. There was exhaustion in his bones. "Maybe."

Ilia tucked her hands behind her back, shrugged, and smiled up at him. "Just come back, one day, okay? Even if you don't stay. Just… promise you'll come back."

Link nodded.

But it was hollow, and they both knew it.

"So I'll see you, I guess," Ilia said. Her eyes were overbright, tear tracks shining on her cheeks in the moonlight. There was something about it that set Link's resolve—she was trembling up and down, and it was his fault, but he couldn't bring himself to make it stop. Link attributed it to the autumn's cold nighttime air.

"Yeah."

He almost raised a hand in farewell as he clucked to Epona. Almost said the final words—almost said "goodbye". But the words didn't manage to pass his throat. The Ordon bridge loomed just around the bend, and beyond it, freedom.

Link took a breath, and set Epona off at a trot.

A minute sob followed him.

He didn't look back.

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fin.
notes3: wow, i actually like how this turned out. please review, and tell me what you think! :)