A.N. I'm sorry this took a month to write. And I'm sorry for yet ANOTHER sequel (and while we're on the subject, I apologize in advance for the next chapter). You can all blame the awesome Sorelliena for this one! She pointed out in a review for Coping that Nabooru didn't REALLY apologize to Link for, you know...cutting off his ARM and whatnot. I imagined at the time that the apology would come later, and after putting some thought into it, I realized the Sympathy saga would not be complete until I wrote that apology...even though I had no freaking clue what to write except "Hey, sorry 'bout the arm, kid!"

So anyway, I rolled with that foundation and at the beginning things were going as planned. But then as I mulled over Nabooru's character and her reasons for being a sage, I started to wonder some things about her past. Why is she called "exalted" by the Gerudo and yet calls herself a "lone wolf" like she has no connection to them? What was her connection to Ganondorf and why does she hate him so much? Why was she even at the colossus that day when Link first met her? And in my quest to answer all these questions, this theme somehow morphed from a "Nabooru apologizes" story into a "Nabooru explains how Ganondorf became evil" story. Funny how that happens...

Sequel to Chapter Sixty-One: Coping

Remorse

"Gah! These fools are more brazen than we thought! Let's go, Kotake! This time they won't be so lucky!"

"Um, Koume...?"

"What? I said we need to—"

"Wait, Koume! What's that...on your head?"

"Eh? I don't know, but...you have one too, Kotake!"

"..."

"..."

"B-B-But it can't be! I'm only four hundred years old!"

"Right! And I'm just three-hundred and eighty!"

"That's right...hey, you can't say that! We're twins, you senile hag, so don't lie about your age!"

"Who are you calling senile? You heartless wench, is that how you treat your family?"

"Don't lecture me on how to treat my family! You've never shown me even an ounce of respect! As your older sister, I should—"

"Older sister? You just said we were twins!"

"Ungrateful brat!"

"Withered old crone!"

"You're lucky I'm dead so I can't hex you, but I'll certainly haunt you to the end of your days!"

"I'M DEAD TOO! I have no days left for you to haunt!"

Koume and Kotake's furious bickering rose to shriller tones until no words could be distinguished and their voices resembled a pair of squawking birds. Link could still hear them quarreling even as their souls were drawn upward by a distant light, and somehow he had a feeling those vile witches were doomed to squabble for all eternity.

Link lowered his sword and rolled his right shoulder, which was throbbing from the number of times he had swung it. "Well," he said into the awkward silence. "That was..."

"The strangest thing I've ever seen," Sheik said as she eased the tension from her bowstring, returning the arrow to her quiver. But she watched the place where the witches had disappeared as if she expected them to come back for another round.

"I thought it was kind of fun, actually," Nabooru said, grinning widely, and Link wondered how she could be so cheerful when she had come within inches of having her legs burned off. Her pants were nothing but charred tatters below the knees, and he had no clue what had happened to her sandals, but suspected they had been the very first casualty of a long and frustrating battle. Link sheathed his sword and brushed the ice shards from his drenched hair, rueful when he thought of the desert outside and how the blistering heat had once made him pray for all the cold water his body could possibly take. Kotake had made him regret those prayers tenfold. He had been frozen and thawed out so many times in such quick succession that his body felt stiff and achy in the aftermath.

"Alright there, kid?"

"Yeah," Link said, but grimaced as he tried to flex numb fingers. "I just thought we'd have more of an advantage. Three against two and all."

"That's what you get for bringing a sword to a magic fight," Nabooru said sagely, though she was in no position to judge when her only weapon was the Mirror Shield they had lent her. She slung it across her back and turned to him and Sheik, clapping a hand on each of their shoulders. "But I have to thank you both. You were pretty impressive. You may be a Sheikah, but I'd say your archery skills are on par with any Gerudo. And you're not too shabby with a sword either, kid. I've only met one other man who could make me say that, and he was trained by the best warriors we have, so consider it a compliment."

With that Nabooru beamed and strode between them to make for the far side of the platform, seeming intent on exploring every corner of the cavernous room. Sheik stepped closer to him while Link was still gaping after the Gerudo, mouth flapping like an indignant fish.

"Did she just...compare me to...Ganondorf?"

"I'm sure she meant no offense," Sheik assured him in an undertone. "What is she searching for?"

"Not sure," Link said, but glanced guiltily at the silver gauntlet on his right hand. If Nabooru had noticed, she had yet to say anything, but part of him still felt bad about not keeping the promise he had made in ignorance seven years ago. He felt a gentle touch on his face and looked up into concerned red eyes. Sheik traced the cut along his cheek, which he had gained in his earlier fight against the bewitched Nabooru trapped inside the armor of an Iron Knuckle.

"It's stopped bleeding."

"Probably have Kotake to thank for that," Link said with a slight smile. He reached up and squeezed her hand. "Thanks, Sheik."

Sheik stared at him in puzzlement. "For what?"

"For...you know, everything," Link said and wondered why he needed to explain. "Saving my life, for one thing. Then getting me out of that bed for another and helping me train until I was ready to come back here. It was all thanks to you. I wouldn't have gotten this far if you hadn't put a sword back in my hand first."

Sheik shook her head. "You would have..."

"No, I wouldn't," Link insisted. He glanced down at his empty sleeve and the stump of his left arm, which had also been Nabooru's doing and would forever remain with him even as his other scars did. "And even with all that, I still couldn't use the Mirror Shield like it was meant to be used. I wouldn't have stood a chance against the witches without help."

"I don't believe that," Sheik said firmly, and he stared at her. "Not anymore. Maybe I had my doubts before, but you proved me wrong. You would have found a way to defeat them, even as you did with...with Nabooru. You've never let anything stop you from accomplishing great things."

A surprised but pleased smile came to his face, and the initial rush of victory became ten times as heady. There had been a time not long ago when Link feared he would never have that feeling again. From the moment he lost his arm, he had balanced on the knife's edge as he tried to accept his maimed body and still convince himself that it didn't make him any less a swordsman or a hero. It was a battle he was still struggling with. But now the first steps had been taken. With any luck all the steps after would come easier. Sheik shared his smile with her eyes, shared his silent elation...and then she utterly poleaxed him by leaning close and tugging down her veil to kiss him on the cheek. Link stopped breathing for a split second while her lips hovered by his skin, a new kind of headiness overtaking him, and he started to turn his head at the same time as Sheik, their lips barely brushing...

"Nothing!" Nabooru announced in a loud and cross voice, and they jerked apart like they had been shocked. He snapped his eyes open, but Sheik had already covered her face again and looked aside quickly, the opportunity stolen away before it could be grasped. Link ground his teeth and tried to hide his aggravation as Nabooru stomped back to them. "No rupees, no coins or cache of priceless treasure...nothing! I can't believe this! I spent seven years as their mindless slave, and now it turns out they didn't have anything worth stealing!"

"Stealing?" Sheik said in confusion. "You mean...that was your intention all along? You didn't come to the temple to defeat the witches?"

"Gods, no!" Nabooru said with a toss of her head. "Do I look like a sorceress to you? I planned to stay well clear of them and be gone before they noticed I was here. You can see how that worked out for me."

"I see," Sheik said, shooting Link a furtive look, and he shrugged in equal uncertainty. He thought Nabooru might be the final sage, but that was only because none of the other Gerudo had shown a desire to come near the desert colossus. Nabooru was the single most likely candidate, but Link was none the wiser on why she hadn't been awakened yet. He hadn't been with the other sages to see how they actually became sages. It had just sort of happened while he wasn't watching.

"Well, that's that, I suppose," Nabooru said under her breath, still disgruntled and taking no notice of the way Link and Sheik were watching her intently. "Should we go then? We don't want to stick around long in case anyone else shows up. The other Gerudo aren't the only ones we have to worry about. You can bet Ganondorf won't be happy when he finds out what happened here..."

"Wait!" Link blurted out. "We can't leave yet!"

Nabooru rounded on him with an arched eyebrow. "And why not? Is there something else you need here? Aside from those silver gauntlets you stole from me?"

"No, it's...hey, I didn't steal them!" Link stammered, distracted. "I was going to give them back!"

"Now's a good time, then," Nabooru said, holding out her hand with an expectant smile. Link faltered, staring at her hand and decided with reluctance that there was no backing out of his word. He used his teeth to tug the gauntlet off his right hand and handed it over, then retrieved the left one that he had tucked into his belt. Nabooru gleefully donned them both while Link watched with a little pang in his chest, already missing the boost of strength they had granted him.

"Thanks, kid!" Nabooru said brightly and again turned for the door. "You really came through for me in more ways than one. Now let's get out of here."

"Not yet!" Link said, scrambling for some excuse to keep Nabooru inside the temple until she awakened as the sage. He cast a beseeching look at Sheik. "We need to...I mean, we haven't..."

"We haven't explored the entirety of the temple," Sheik said quickly, which was a blatant lie, but more believable than the truth. "If you would like, we can help you search for the treasure you sought."

"Yeah, the treasure!" Link said in relief. "It's got to be here somewhere, right? Maybe in a secret room or...?"

"This is their secret room," Nabooru retorted and waved her hand at their surroundings. "The only room not included on the ancient maps of the temple. If there was anything stashed away, it would be here. And I've just about lost my taste for treasure anyway. The gauntlets and the shield are enough...oh, you don't mind if I keep that, do you? It is a priceless inheritance of the Gerudo, it really doesn't belong in Hylian hands."

"The shield too?" Link whined in dismay and began to wonder if this was what it felt like to be robbed. The other sages had made gifts of the items he found in their temples, and perhaps that had spoiled him, but it still seemed unfair. "I...yeah, I guess you're right. But that wasn't exactly what I was..."

Nabooru watched him curiously for a moment, one hand on her hip, the irritation slowly fading. Amber eyes flicked between him and Sheik, and her painted lips stretched into a slow and cat-like smile. "Oh, I see...say no more, kid. I know exactly what you're getting at."

"Really, you do?" Link said in relief.

"That's right," Nabooru said, nodding as she stepped closer. "You're waiting for me to keep the promise I made seven years ago."

"Promise?" Sheik said with a questioning glance at Link. "What promise was this?"

Link almost shrugged, his mind drawing a blank, but then his eyes widened in sudden realization. If you bring me those silver gauntlets, I'll do something really nice for you. Something most boys your age would have to wait a few years to experience. He hadn't thought much of those words back then, having been completely focused on the task at hand, but it was a different matter now that he was old enough to decipher the enticing tone Nabooru had spoken with...and how it was kind of similar to the enticing look she was giving him now.

Nabooru took another step toward him, and Link took a hasty one back, laughing nervously. "Oh...oh, that promise! I completely forgot about that!"

"Hehe, you haven't changed a bit," Nabooru snickered, a hungry edge to her smile. "You're still a horrible liar. Come on, don't play coy with me. I said I would reward you if you brought me the silver gauntlets, remember? You didn't think I would back out on my word, did you?"

"I-I never thought that," Link said hoarsely, gulping as he retreated further from her prowling advance. "But it was a really long time ago..."

His foot slipped off the edge of the platform, and he flailed and nearly fell, but Nabooru snagged the front of his tunic to keep him in place. "And why should that make any difference? Besides...no matter how long it took, you saved my life along with bringing me those gauntlets. I think that's earned you a little more than a kiss on the cheek. Maybe a lot more, now that you're old enough to appreciate it..."

"The Hero of Time has no need of rewards," Sheik cut in sharply, and Link could decipher that tone readily enough. The one that meant she was seconds away from becoming a whirlwind of daggers and fists. "All that he does is for the good of Hyrule and its people, not for personal gain or glory. Right, Link?"

"We...I...yes?" Link stammered and hoped that was the right answer to give. It was hard to think straight when he was cornered by two very dangerous women. And it didn't help when Nabooru decided to start playing with his hair, the silver gauntlet creaking by his ear and reminding him that she now had the power to snap him like a twig if he made a wrong move.

"I think the Hero of Time can speak for himself on what he fights for," Nabooru replied. She let her eyes roam over him from head to toe, which gave him simultaneous tingles and chills, and he was acutely conscious of Sheik standing there and glaring in that fierce way only she could. "So what'll it be, kid? You can ask anything of me, no matter what it is."

Link hesitated, struck by the hope that maybe the gauntlets weren't lost to him after all. "Really, anything? You're not just saying that?"

Nabooru smirked and leaned so close that they were practically rubbing noses. Her hand moved down his left shoulder until her fingers caressed his stump, which tickled in a bizarre but not unpleasant way. "Surely even a hero has...desires. Needs that cannot be fulfilled by slaying evil alone..."

A slender hand seized Nabooru by the wrist and jerked it away from Link. "You presume too much, thief," Sheik spat.

"Do I?" Nabooru said, but there was fire in her eyes that belied her blameless tone. "Well, we thieves are nothing if not bold. Stealing the innocence of young heroes is our favorite pastime."

Sheik shoved her away hard enough to make Nabooru stagger back a few steps. "Those heroes did not have Sheikah as their protectors!"

Nabooru eyed them both, but rather than being thwarted, she seemed even more entertained. She flicked her hand, and from nowhere appeared a familiar throwing knife, which caused Sheik to jerk in surprise and pat the empty sheath on her wrist. "Very well, I see how it is. But don't think I'll give up so easily. Shall we settle this in the Gerudo way? Fight to first blood, winner gets the man. Agreed?"

"Very well," Sheik said, bristling as she yanked out her dagger.

"First blood?" Link said, alarmed by how events were escalating. He sidled between the two women and held up his hand in a placating manner. "Hold on a minute, don't I get a say in this?"

"No!" Sheik and Nabooru shouted at the same time. But before either woman could make another move, a deep thrumming resounded in the chamber like a bell tolling. Link jumped and Sheik and Nabooru both looked around in alarm, their dispute forgotten. A column of blue light descended and touched the floor only steps away from them, and Nabooru spun around to face it warily. Sheik reacted with equal apprehension, but only until Link touched her shoulder and gave it a meaningful squeeze before drawing her back. He had seen this before, though he had always been alone when it happened. A light just like this always appeared to him after he cleansed each temple, and it was in that light where Link would meet the sage and receive their power as his own. He found himself holding his breath as Nabooru moved toward the light, her expression shifting from curiosity to bewilderment, and then to dawning wonder.

"What do you mean?" Nabooru breathed as if answering a voice only she could hear. The hand holding the throwing knife slowly fell to her side. "S-Sages? Sage of Spirit? Wait, I don't understand...what do you mean I'm the last?"

"The final sage to be awakened," Sheik murmured as if she thought speaking too loudly would shatter the moment. "One of six who have been chosen for a great destiny, to aid the Hero of Time in saving Hyrule."

"Hero?" Nabooru repeated and tore her attention from the light to look at Link doubtfully. But then she caught her breath, and her eyes suddenly seemed to pierce through him. "I...I see it. Oh goddesses, I can see. Everything you've done, all the people you've saved...there've been hundreds. And you're going to save even more before you lay down that sword."

"I hope so," Link said, strangely humbled by her certainty. All the sages had shown him the exact same faith. "But I need your help too, Nabooru. I know it's a lot to ask after what you've been through. It's...a really big sacrifice. If there was any other way, I would take it."

Nabooru remained silent at first, staring at him hard. She turned back to the light, head bowed. "You want me to help you kill him," she said in a low voice. "You want me to give up everything, even my life, so you can walk up to my king and shove that sword in his throat."

"But...I thought you said he wasn't your king anymore," Link said in confusion. "You said you hated what he'd done to Hyrule and you could never bow to a man like that..."

"That doesn't mean I want him dead!" Nabooru shouted, still refusing to face either of them. "Tell me, when did I say that? He may not be my king anymore, but the rest of my people don't see it that way! And...and there's more to it than that, more to him than...what right do you have to judge him when you didn't even know him?"

"What right do we have?" Sheik said in outrage and advanced on Nabooru. "I have every right to judge him! After the number of Hylians he has killed, after he razed Castle Town and murdered my...murdered my king before the eyes of the princess! It was his hand and no other which committed the act! You cannot believe he is worthy of our forgiveness! Tell me, what right do you have to defend a monster like that?"

Nabooru spun around, and the knife in her hand was at Sheik's throat so fast that Link had no chance to speak or react or do anything but catch his breath in sudden fear. His first instinct was to rush forward and intervene, but the knife held him frozen, not knowing if he could move fast enough to make a difference or if Nabooru would read it as an attack and do something rash that could leave Sheik bleeding her life out at his feet. Sheik's eyes darted to him with flicker of fear, but she remained utterly still as Nabooru stared her down with fiery eyes and clenched teeth, breathing hard. She looked so enraged that Link thought she would curse them both or launch into a screaming tirade. But Nabooru sucked in a breath and looked to the side, eyes squeezed shut. Her hand jerked the slightest bit, and Link flinched and reached out uselessly.

"Don't—!"

The knife clattered to the ground, the blade still clean. Nabooru shoved past Sheik, taking a running leap down to the lower level and fleeing through the massive doors. Link didn't spare her another thought as he hurried to Sheik's side and touched the veil where it covered her throat, paranoid he would find it stained red.

"I'm not hurt," Sheik said, reaching up to rub her throat, though she still looked in the direction Nabooru had fled. "Just a little shaken. I think...she only lost her temper. She meant no harm."

"She could have killed you," Link said and wished Sheik wouldn't be so cavalier about that fact. His heart was still pounding in the aftermath. Sheik didn't answer, merely leaning down to pick up her throwing knife, then jogging after Nabooru while Link belatedly followed. There was no sign of her in the chamber where he had fought her as an Iron Knuckle, nor in the larger sanctum where the statue of the sand goddess resided. It wasn't until they reached the antechamber at the temple entrance that they found a sign of her. The Mirror Shield had been abandoned carelessly on the stairs, and Link paused to stare at it before hurrying to catch up with Sheik, who had already gone outside.

The sunlight dazzled him after spending so long in dark chambers with dimly lit torches, and Link had to throw up his hand to shield his eyes until they adjusted. Sheik touched his arm, and he followed her gaze until he spotted Nabooru perched high up on a huge rock not far from the temple. Even from a distance her profile looked angry and brooding, arms wrapped loosely around her knees as she glared at the sun listing toward the horizon.

"Has this ever happened before?" Sheik inquired. "A sage refusing their calling, I mean?"

"No," Link said, troubled as he watched the distant figure. "At least...not that I know of. I didn't get a chance to meet with the other sages before they were awakened so I don't know how they reacted."

Sheik made a thoughtful noise and crossed her arms. "What should we do now? We must convince her somehow, but I can't think of any argument or reasoning that would not provoke her more. She has no reason to care about the fate of Hyrule..."

"It sounded like she was more upset about being asked to fight against Ganondorf," Link pointed out. He chewed on his lip and turned to Sheik. "Does it really have to be her? If Nabooru doesn't want this, then it's not like we can drag her back to that light and throw her in. I mean...we could, but wouldn't it be better if we found someone else who actually wants to be the sage?"

Sheik only looked at him with sad eyes and waved a hopeless hand. "Who else, Link? The last sage must be a Gerudo, but the rest of Nabooru's people are either ardent supporters of Ganondorf or else too afraid to speak out against him. And...there is a reason Nabooru was chosen. I don't know or understand what that reason is, but I know better than to question it."

Link sighed. "Then I guess I'd better go talk to her," he said and set off across the sands, leaving Sheik to wait at the temple. At first he was stymied on how to climb up to Nabooru. The rock was scoured by the wind and sand and its vertical sides were smooth. Eventually he located the barely visible handholds on his second time circling around, and it took him an embarrassingly long time to climb up with only one hand, but he managed it after much scrambling and nervous sweating. Nabooru didn't look up at the scrape of his boots as he crawled toward her, refusing to acknowledge him even when he was sitting right next to her. Link leaned back on his hand and surveyed the desert straight ahead, but to his eyes there was nothing to see except endless dunes.

"What are you looking at?"

"The sun," Nabooru said and tipped her head back. "The sand, the wind...it's been so long since I stood under the open sky and felt the heat of the desert on my skin. I'd forgotten what it was like to be free. I don't even know what I should do now or where I should go."

"What do you mean?" Link said in confusion. "Don't you want to go back to the fortress? That was your home, right?"

Nabooru snorted. "Sure, you could call it that. It's where I was born, where I grew up. By the time I left, I had earned the highest rank a female can achieve. I was the exalted one, second only to the king, the most skilled fighter and most devout in service to our goddess...and then I threw it all away to chase my own personal vendetta. Of course I want to go back, but I can't. What makes you think my clan would welcome me back now?"

"Because they asked me to look for you," Link insisted and smiled when Nabooru looked at him in shock. "Really, they did! Well, at first they just wanted to throw me in a cell and keep all my stuff...but after the third time I escaped, Aveil told me I had good thieving skills and decided to let me go. I was even adopted as an honorary Gerudo."

"Honorary Gerudo?" Nabooru said, looking very much as if she had swallowed a lemon. "What the hell are you talking about? There's no such thing!"

"There is now," Link said with a hint of smugness. He dug out the tattered paper and presented it for her inspection. "Look, I've got a membership card and everything. But Aveil said only you could make it official and told me to look for you here at the desert colossus."

Nabooru stared at the scrawled writing on the paper, her skepticism waning. "She sent you to look for me...even though I've been dead to them for the past seven years?"

"Of course she did!" Link said, but his grin slipped when he realized her point. He hadn't questioned Aveil when she sent him into the desert at the time, assuming it was the normal course of things for the second-in-command to live apart from the rest of her people. He hadn't learned until much later that Nabooru had actually been missing for many years, which made Aveil's actions seem strange now that he looked back on it.

Out of nowhere Nabooru burst out laughing, the fragile paper crinkling in her hands. "Only you, Aveil," she said in affection and shook her head. "Only she could come up with something so farfetched. Honorary Gerudo...ha! She and the others at the fortress know better than to cross Koume and Kotake. Even if she knew I was imprisoned here, she couldn't do anything about it or that would make her look like a traitor to Ganondorf. She would have ended up just like me in one of those armored suits."

Link stared at the membership card, and his jaw dropped. "So instead...?"

"Instead she recruited herself a hero!" Nabooru said, chortling as she tossed the crumpled paper onto the sands below. "Better yet, she recruited our king's worst enemy to find out what happened to me and kill the old hags in one fell swoop. I always knew she was a devious opportunist, but this is her best ploy by far! I'll bet she didn't even try that hard to keep you imprisoned. She probably just strung you along to see how skilled you were before sending you off to do her dirty work..."

"But...but...she said I was really good!" Link protested. "She said I defeated four of the most experienced fighters in the fortress!"

"And killed them?"

"I, well...no," Link faltered and felt heat creeping up his neck. "But it's not like I was really trying to kill them..."

"Such a modest kid," Nabooru teased. She propped her chin in her hands, eyes distant as that same brooding look returned. "So they didn't give up on me after all. I thought...I knew what I was getting myself into when I left. I thought everyone, even Aveil, would see me for the deserter I was. Ganondorf had them all seduced with his plans to steal the Triforce, and it seemed like only I could see that all he wanted was power for himself and not the rest of us. Some king he turned out to be...but then, a king is only as good as those who advise him so who am I to talk?"

She broke off in frustration, raking her fingers through a patch of sand and flinging it away pointlessly. The granules scattered on the wind and caught the sunlight like specks of gold. "I should have stayed," she whispered. "I can't believe how selfish I was. The whole point of a second-in-command is to make sure the king acts for the good of everyone else, which is just what I failed to do."

"It's not your fault though," Link assured her, cautiously hoping he had found a way to convince her. "I tried to stop him too, and so did Zelda. I don't know if anyone could have stopped him at the time. But...but we have another chance now. Aveil told me that a lot of the Gerudo are bitter about the things he's done. I guess Ganondorf promised they wouldn't have to live as thieves once he had the Triforce, but the truth is that nothing has changed. They don't see him as a king any more than you do. If you become the Sage of Spirit, then you'd be able to help your people like you couldn't back then! Once we..."

"Once you kill him," Nabooru snapped at him. "Once you pay him back in blood and bury him in some forgotten grave, then everything will be better, right? Is that what you were planning to say? You talk about him like a rabid beast that needs to be put down, but there was a time when he was different! He was a real king, a man that we were proud to call our own! If you want to blame anyone for the way things turned out, then blame those damn witches! They were the ones who put the idea of Hyrule in his head, they pushed him and manipulated him until he couldn't see anything but Hyrule. He could have been...if they hadn't gotten their claws in him, then everything would have been different..."

Tears spilled down her cheeks, which startled Link and made him look the other way quickly in embarrassment. And her reaction made him feel ashamed. He had never seen Ganondorf as anything except an adversary. Even as a child he had seen only a callous and wicked man who lived to make others suffer, someone to be hated and feared. And after all the pain that Ganondorf had caused him, maybe some of those feelings were justified...but that didn't make whatever Nabooru saw in him any less real. She had been his second-in-command, the one who led the Gerudo alongside him. That meant there had once been trust between them. If there was some part of Nabooru that could still cry for Ganondorf, then there must be some part of him worth shedding tears for.

What right do you have to judge him when you didn't even know him?

"So...what was he like?" Link said and found the question much harder to ask than he thought it would be. "Before all of this, before he became...what kind of person was he?"

Nabooru wiped away her tears and swallowed hard like she was forcibly bottling up her emotions. "Are you sure you want to know? Won't that make it harder to do what you have to do?"

Link hesitated. "Maybe it will. But if I'm too afraid to know my enemy, then what kind of hero would that make me? Besides...a friend told me once that I should never run from the truth no matter how painful it is."

"Sound advice," Nabooru remarked with a glance toward Sheik waiting at the temple entrance with her arms crossed. She said nothing else for such a long time that Link began to think she had changed her mind and wouldn't tell him anything.

"Do you know what it's like to be told you're a king from the moment you're born?" Nabooru asked. When Link stared at her blankly, she gave him a rueful smile. "Neither do I. But if it was me, I think I'd rebel the moment I could speak for myself. But not Ganondorf. He was born to lead and he knew it. He thrived through every moment of his training. He was intelligent and perceptive and so sure of himself. He not only knew the name of every Gerudo king there ever was, he could point out everything those kings had done wrong and how he would have done better. And boasting wasn't the only thing he was good at. He had a weapon in his hand almost before he knew how to walk, and by the time he was ten, he could hold his own against our most experienced swordswomen. Those same four that you were so proud of defeating."

"Huh," Link said, wondering if he should be impressed or peeved. He was even tempted to accuse Nabooru of exaggerating, but decided that might not be the wisest course of action.

"Try not to look so awestruck," Nabooru said with an edge of reproach. "I know it means nothing to you, but to us it was an omen. A strong king means a hundred years of prosperity for our people, which was something we sorely needed. Is it any wonder that Ganondorf pushed himself to live up to our expectations? He was determined to be the greatest king we had ever known...so determined that he didn't even wait until the customary age to enter the Gerudo training ground for his ordeal of kingship."

"Training ground?" Link said slowly. "Wait...are you talking about that one locked door at the fortress that nobody would let me through even with the membership card?"

"That's the one," Nabooru said with an amused arch to her eyebrow. "Don't tell me...you tried to go inside?"

"Well, tried," Link said in annoyance. "Kind of hard not to be tempted when it's right there out in the open. And there's even a sign that says only the boldest may enter! The Gerudo who was guarding it just laughed in my face when I asked if I could try it."

"The sign should really say only kings may enter," Nabooru informed him. "And the entrance is purposely out in the open so that our young kings never forget the trial they must face at the age of fifteen. An ordeal to prove they have not only the strength and skill, but also the heart and spirit to lead our people. For most it takes a full seven days to defeat every monster and evade every trap until they find the Ice Arrow to bring back as proof of their triumph. But Ganondorf chose to sneak past the guard and face his ordeal a few years early, when he was only thirteen. Want to guess how long he was in there?"

"Ten days?" Link guessed and was forced to reconsider when Nabooru only stared at him humorlessly. "Um...eight? Six? Three? No, there's no way it took him less time than that..."

"One day," Nabooru said, and before Link could look properly stunned, she bowed her head. "That was how long it took him...to fail the ordeal. He was defeated inside the first chamber and forced to crawl back to us half dead. It took him days to awaken from his fever and weeks before he could even leave his bed. I remember how terrified everyone was, how all the younger girls couldn't stop crying and all the elders just shook their heads and said what a tragedy it was. Tragedy doesn't even begin to describe it. We had lost our king before he could ever be crowned."

"Lost him?" Link said in confusion. "But you just said that he survived. Couldn't he try again once he was fifteen?"

"Not according to the elders of our clan," Nabooru said in bitterness. "Not according to centuries of tradition and custom. There is no trying again, no second chance. A king who fails his ordeal is unworthy of being our leader, simple as that. And without his kingship...he was just another man who had no place among our people. As soon as he recovered, Ganondorf was banished into the desert and forbidden from ever returning."

"Cast out by his own people?" Link said, aghast. "But...how could they...?"

"My thoughts exactly," Nabooru said, and her hands clenched so hard that the silver gauntlets creaked. "How could they? How could we raise him as our own flesh and blood, give him our love and devotion, and then treat him like an interloper to be cast out? To this day I still don't understand how we let a bunch of hidebound drivel dictate our actions. They wouldn't even let me go with him! I wasn't allowed to see him, not once while he was recovering. The elders made him leave in the dead of night so no one would see which direction he went in and follow."

"But that's...horrible," Link faltered, sympathy welling in him, and it took him aback to have such a feeling directed toward his worst enemy. But he could see it so clearly. He could see the faceless Gerudo boy trudging off into the darkness, head bowed and feet dragging, watched by the cold eyes of the Gerudo that had once welcomed him with open arms.

"Yes, it was horrible," Nabooru murmured, and for some reason she smiled faintly. "But it wasn't the end of Ganondorf. Like a true king, he refused to let himself be defeated. For the next two years he lived on his own in the desert. He survived by stealing water and fruit from the hidden oases...and occasionally stealing from Gerudo scouts who never caught a glimpse of his face. And once I was old enough to be given my own horse and sent out on patrols, I started bringing him supplies from the fortress. I couldn't believe it when I first saw him out in the desert. I never thought he could be alive after all that time, and yet there he was pilfering a canteen from my saddlebag! I can't even remember what he said to me then...something about how much more womanly I looked. I just remember the way he stood there with that arrogant grin, like he was waiting for me to fall at his feet and cry about how much I missed him. And I will admit to shedding a few tears...but only after I kicked him in the head for not telling me he was alive sooner!"

She trailed off, gazing at the horizon with the most genuine and happy smile that Link had ever seen. It was hard to believe that memories of Ganondorf had given her such an expression, and something about it made him wonder and compelled him to ask. "Nabooru. Were you and Ganondorf...um, close?"

Nabooru turned to him, and her smiled gained a flirtatious edge as she reached up and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. "That depends on what you mean by close."

Link flushed as he edged away and hoped Sheik wasn't watching too closely. "Were you...friends?"

Nabooru sighed and let her hand drop. "I thought we were. We spent many days together out in the desert. I was the only one he had to confide in, and that's why I was the first to know he planned to apprentice with Koume and Kotake until he was strong enough to return to the fortress and his throne. He said it would take a long time before he was ready...and he asked me to wait and support him when he came back. He was my king and my closest friend so what could I do but give my word? It was only much later that I realized what a mistake that was. He spent years with those hags, learning their own blood magic and demon arts, the kinds of dark rituals that even the Gerudo condemn. And by the time he returned there was no trace of the Ganondorf that I had known. That Ganondorf had died at the hands of those witches and left behind a man I didn't recognize. Someone completely absorbed in himself and his power and completely indifferent to the rest of us. A...a monster in human form."

Link swallowed, imagining perfectly the transformation that Nabooru described. "So what happened then? What did the Gerudo do when he came back?"

"You can probably guess," Nabooru said in a dull voice. "When a man has the power to incinerate someone with a single look, how foolish would you be to stand in his line of sight? No one dared to stop him when he entered the training ground a second time...and this time passed with flying colors. No one dared to breathe a word when he took the throne, named me his exalted second and set things in motion to attack Hyrule. The others at the fortress even began to support him, as if trailing along in his wake would keep them sheltered from his wrath. And me...I tried for awhile to keep my promise, and you can imagine how hard that was when I couldn't bear to look at his face. Eventually I fled. I left him to his plans and went after Koume and Kotake."

"For...treasure?" Link said, mystified by her motive.

"For revenge," Nabooru said, eyes flashing. "That whole treasure bit was just an excuse to spare your innocent little ears. I don't really know what I hoped to accomplish. I couldn't defeat them, but I thought if I raided the temple and looked hard enough, then maybe I could figure out what they had done to him. I stupidly thought I could make everything the way it used to be. I even hoped..."

Her breath hitched, and she shut her eyes. "When I was captured by the witches...I hoped for just a moment that Ganondorf would be the one to come after me. I really thought he would forget about Hyrule and come save me from them. But obviously our king had other things to worry about. More important than the one person who still cares about him no matter what he becomes..."

Nabooru fell silent at last and let her shoulders droop as if she had exhausted every emotion and could not bring herself to feel or say anything else. Link tried to think of something to say, but all that came to mind were meaningless platitudes. He settled for reaching out and giving her a tentative pat on the shoulder, which turned into a one-armed hug when Nabooru didn't lash out or shove him away. They remained that way long enough for the silence to no longer be heavy and the wind to carry their words away.

"Tell me something, kid," Nabooru murmured. "Is there any chance that he can be saved? Is there anything left of the king that I served?"

"I...don't know," Link said, surprising himself with such an uncertain answer. "If there is, then I've never seen it. Ever since I took up the Master Sword, I've known the only way to stop him was to kill him. But...if you want me to try. If you want me to spare his life somehow..."

But Nabooru was already shaking her head. She shrugged off his arm and stood, brushing the sand from her legs. "No, never mind. I'm just being stupid again. If I really thought words would make a difference, I would have used them myself back then and never let him within a hundred miles of Koume and Kotake. There's no changing any of that now...but I'm still alive for a reason. I have a duty to the rest of the Gerudo, and no matter what I felt for him once, I'll be damned if I run away again."

It took Link a moment to wrap his head around her words, and then he started. "So does that mean...?"

"Yeah," Nabooru said with a weak half smile. "I'll be your Sage of Spirit, kid."

"Thank you," Link said softly. Part of him wanted to jump up and cheer and hug her, but now that he understood how hard her decision had been, his relief was dampened by intense remorse. "Nabooru," he blurted out as she began to turn away. "I...I'm sorry. I never thought..."

Nabooru put a hand on his shoulder to silence him. "Don't thank me," she said in a pained voice. "For all I know, I'll be the reason you end up getting killed against him. Wasn't that your sword arm I cut off?"

"Well, yeah," Link said with an awkward glance at the missing limb. "But it's not so bad. I've still got the other one."

"And if he cuts that off too?"

"Um...I still have my teeth?"

Nabooru grinned and threw her head back, laughing loud enough for it to echo around the valley. She ruffled his hair just like she had when he was a kid. "You know, you're making it very hard for me to apologize. Too damn optimistic, that's what you are. Any real man would have demanded an eye for an eye. Isn't there a vengeful bone in your body?"

"Nah, it got lobbed off with the arm," Link joked, but sobered again with rising hope. "Actually, there is something that might make up for it..."

"Oh?" Nabooru said, and when Link glanced meaningfully at her hands, she pondered the gauntlets. "Ohhh, I see what you're getting at. Alright, fine. I suppose I won't need them where I'm going. But...there's one thing you have to do for me first. To prove you're worthy of them."

"What thing?" Link said, miffed when she stripped off the gauntlets and held them tauntingly above his head. "Come on, just tell me!"

Nabooru winked and nodded at the temple. "Kiss that overprotective Sheikah of yours before the sun goes down. Trust me, she's not going to make the first move."

"What?" Link blurted out, swiveling his head between Nabooru and Sheik off in the distance, caught in paralyzing indecision. But he took another look at the gauntlets, then an even longer look at Sheik, and turned back to Nabooru with a stubborn set to his jaw. "Okay."

"There's the man inside the boy," Nabooru said in approval and dropped the gauntlets in his lap. He didn't get a chance to respond because she was already jumping down from the rock to jog for the temple. Link watched her go and then turned to gaze out at the desert, thinking over all she had told him. Thinking about the chain of events that had led Ganondorf on the path to the Triforce, and thus led Link on his own fated path to stop him. In a way, he could understand why Nabooru had focused her anger on Koume and Kotake. It was easy to point fingers at the hags, to say it had been their twisted methods which caused Ganondorf to lose his way, but a stubborn part of Link maintained that Ganondorf had been the one to seek them out in the first place. He must have badly wanted the power they could offer him. Maybe at the time he had thought there was no other way, no one else he could turn to. His own people had already abandoned him and taken away the one thing that he had thought he was destined for. Link wondered what that would be like, to spend his entire life preparing for a great task only to have it snatched away in an instant of pure carelessness...

Then he grew cold inside and reached over to clasp the stump of his left arm. No, he didn't have to wonder. He knew exactly what that felt like. He had felt it the moment he was struck down by that axe, the moment he opened his eyes after the battle and looked down to see his maimed body. I can't wield the Master Sword, had been his first thought. I can't be the hero that Hyrule needs, had been his next. Even now he could remember the despair that had caused him, the misery and self-loathing that made him languish in bed and wish fervently for death. It had taken weeks for Sheik to drag him out of that dark place in his mind, and there were times when he could still hear that abyss calling to him, mocking him, reminding him that he was no longer all that he had been. No matter how much stronger he became in the future, all it took was one look at his missing arm and the doubt would start to eat at him again.

What if it was me? Link thought as he considered Ganondorf's decision with more familiar eyes. If those witches had come to him when his arm was newly severed and offered to give him power to make up for it...would he really have chosen any differently? Would Sheik have been able to stop him, or would she have been helpless just like Nabooru was with Ganondorf?

He heard a scrabbling behind him and glanced back as Sheik crawled over and took a seat by his left shoulder. "Nabooru has gone inside the temple," she told him.

"I know," Link said and made himself lower his hand to the silver gauntlets in his lap. "She...agreed to help us."

"Then why do you look so unhappy?"

Link heaved a sigh. "She told me some things. About Ganondorf. She used to be friends with him when they were younger, before all of this happened. Isn't that a weird thought? Ganondorf having friends? And I guess it just made me realize...I'm not so different from him than I thought."

"What are you talking about?" Sheik said with a hard edge to her voice. "You are nothing like him!"

"No, I don't mean that I'm like him!" Link said hastily. "I meant...he used to be like me. He wasn't born wanting to take over Hyrule. He used to be just a kid with a family and people who cared about him. Nabooru was one of them. But...something happened to change him, something that made him stop caring about anything but himself, and now I keep wondering what would have happened if things had gone the other way. Is it always such a thin line between good and evil? And if a good person can become bad...then can a bad person ever become good again?"

Sheik gaped at him, her eyebrows flying higher with every word, and he was grateful that she didn't scoff and instead considered his words with a troubled look. "I think...perhaps it is possible. But I doubt after all this time that he would see the error of his ways. And even then, redemption is one thing but absolution something else entirely. The lives he has stolen can never be returned, and it would be the height of injustice to let his sins go unpunished."

"I know," Link said, remembering the Great Deku Tree with a tightness in his throat. "I'm not saying that he shouldn't pay for what he did. There was a time when I wouldn't have thought twice about killing him. Maybe it's too late now, maybe he can never go back to the way he was, but after everything Nabooru said there's a part of me that wishes I could save him too. I know he has to be stopped, and I won't hesitate when the time comes...but I might feel bad about it afterward. Does that make me a bad person?"

"No," Sheik said after a long moment and bowed her head. "It makes you a far better person than I could ever hope to be."

"What do you mean?" Link said in surprise. "Sheik, you are a good person."

"In your eyes, perhaps," Sheik said and wrapped her arms around her knees. "In my own...while I know Ganondorf may be deserving of my pity, I cannot bring myself to give him even that. I hate him with everything that I am, and I cannot imagine that will change even after he is dead. I suppose that is why you were chosen to save Hyrule. Mercy and compassion...those are the things that make you different, not just from Ganondorf, but from myself as well. Your capacity to forgive others is to be admired, Link."

Link frowned a little, inwardly wondering how it could be seen as a strength when all it did was weaken his resolve. But then...if he had been incapable of forgiveness then he and Nabooru wouldn't have been able to face one another. And Sheik had plenty of compassion too, even if she didn't think the same. Link thought back again to those weeks of recovery after losing his arm, the resentment he had harbored which made him lash out whenever Sheik tried to help him, and he imagined it had taken the compassion of a saint to put up with that.

Link scooted closer to Sheik and started to reach for her, then paused with a huff of annoyance. Sheik gave him an odd look when he stood up, and she seemed even more bemused when he merely circled around and took a seat on her other side.

"Link...?"

"I was on the wrong side," Link said a little sheepishly and draped his arm around her shoulders in what he hoped was a casual fashion. Sheik stared at him and snorted in amusement, but leaned into his embrace all the same and rested her head on his shoulder. And there was no more need for words. It was a wonderful feeling to be this close to her, knowing he could let his guard down, knowing that nothing could break them apart now. Sheik had stuck by him in his worst moments, had seen every single side of him, even the parts Link tried to hide. To have her here at the end of it all made everything—absolutely everything—seem worth it.

Kiss her before the sun goes down, Nabooru taunted in his mind, and Link banished the voice with difficulty. Sheik stirred, tensing and then relaxing, and he had a slight moment of panic as he wondered if she had read his mind. But Sheik merely nodded in the direction of the temple.

"Nabooru has awakened. I sensed it."

"Good," Link murmured and shut his eyes in relief. That made six sages...and that was a wonderful feeling too. That was the end of the temples, the end of the awakenings. All that was left was Ganondorf, and for the first time that thought didn't frighten him or fill him with dread. He was calm and committed to his path. He was ready.

"You should go into the temple now," Sheik told him. "So you can receive Nabooru's blessing in addition to the other five sages."

"Sure, I will. But..."

"Hm?"

"Can I take a nap first?" Link asked plaintively. Sheik blinked and laughed out loud, shaking her head as if wondering just what to do with him. But she looked up again, their gazes lingering long enough to make his heart pound a little faster. He watched as Sheik seemed to decide something and reached up to tug down her veil. The sight of her face, so suddenly and nonchalantly revealed, almost threatened to dumbfound him until he made himself regain his composure. And decided that he was looking at the most stunning woman in the world. Not even his fading memory of Zelda could compare.

"There is...something I need to tell you, Link," Sheik said, uncharacteristically anxious, and he instantly fell in love with the way she nibbled on her bottom lip. "Something I've been keeping from y—"

"Later," Link said in a rough voice and kissed her. And Sheik, after a gasp of surprise, eagerly returned his sentiments.


A.N. Eighty chapters in and the finish line never looked so far away. Sigh. I'm kind of disappointed by my lack of inspiration lately. I HAVE ideas for pretty much all the remaining themes, but I can't make myself sit down and actually write them for any length of time. I'm also going through a phase where I'm looking back on previous themes, and I've picked out two specific ones that I REALLY want to go back and rewrite (well, one would be a complete rewrite, and the other would just be altering the ending slightly). If I decide to go through with it, I'll announce in an author's note which chapters and why, and hopefully you guys will see where I'm coming from and give your blessing.