A Windy, Blustery Day

Chapter 2: In the Mists of a Muddled Middle

Chapter Summary:

In which Realm and Hyrule meet, the Goddesses have some discussions, and a train fight scene sneaks its way in somehow despite totally not being in the outline.

Chapter Notes:

*quietly increments the total chapter count* So, uh. This might be a bit longer than planned, actually. I'm not saying it's gonna be novel-length or anything (god forbid), but I'm still not done, and Chapter Two turned out to be just a tiny bit more than 6k, haha. I cannot guarantee Chapter Three will be any faster, but at least the first draft is mostly written already, and I'm working on it! (Hoo boy, I'm working on it.)

(If you see any plotholes no you don't)

Hyrule waved to the boy in the middle of the swamp. The boy in the middle of the swamp waved back.

"Hello!" the boy called. "This might sound strange, but have you seen a group of boys with green tunics and swords around here?"

At that, Hyrule froze in his tracks.

The last stranger on the road to ask questions that specific had been leading a squadron of treasonous Sheikah hellbent on killing the local Hero. Any friend of the hero's was an enemy of theirs -- or so they'd said, before Wild's horse had reared up and kicked their leader in the face.

"... No," Hyrule answered, when the silence stretched a bit too long. In his defense, most of them didn't wear green tunics, anyway. Now that he thought of it, neither did Wild. "... can you describe them?"

The boy looked thoughtful for a moment. "There should be about..." He paused, and Hyrule could see him counting on his fingers. "... sixteen of them? Might not be all together, though. They've all got swords and stuff. Most of them are around my age, or younger?" Another pause. "Oh, and they're mostly blonde, and look very alike! Should've lead with that, probably."

Well, that... didn't sound like the other heroes at all. Numbers aside, most of them seemed older than Hyrule, with exception of Wind and Four (and in Four's case, Hyrule wasn't so sure if he was actually young, or just short), and while he supposed they had several blondes around, there seemed too many exceptions to call it a rule.

Hyrule shrugged, taking a first probing step past the shoreline. The shallow waters only lapped at his ankles; with enough caution and luck, he had a chance of reaching the far side without even having to get wet. "Sorry, still not ringing any bells," he replied.

"That's all right," the boy assured him. "It was a bit of a long shot anyway."

Another few steps in, and the water hadn't crept past his shins, even as the mud added a few fingers of depth by sinking away underfoot.

"Oh," said the boy, "are you coming over?"

Hyrule nodded, trying to focus on the ground. He'd forgotten to pick up a stick to test the waters with, but his old sword scabbard worked fine, and he could clean it off later.

"It's not a problem, I mean," the boy continued, "there's plenty of room. Some interesting rocks over here, too. And the view is quite nice." A croaking sound. "I even found this frog!"

Whatever Goddesses ruled this era smiled upon him, and the path stayed clear. The muck threatened the lip of his boots, a few times, eventually spilling above and over them, but Hyrule didn't particularly care. Soon enough, he stood only a few steps from the island's shore.

"What was that about a frog?" he asked the boy. Up close, he looked about Wind's age, maybe younger, wearing a forest green tunic and muddy boots that brought to mind Hyrule's own adventures, when he'd been younger and smaller and fumbling with a sword too big for his unpracticed hands. Sort of nostalgic, really, though this boy probably didn't have to worry about a whole kingdom declaring him their national hero and painting a giant target on his back after one stupid quest.

"Over there," the boy said, pointing to a clump of reeds. Sure enough, a smallish frog had made itself at home in the midst of them, sitting patient in wait of prey.

Hyrule crouched down to watch, and the boy, after a moment, settled in near him, loosely imitating his pose. A strange, heavy presence surrounded him, but Hyrule couldn't place the nature of it.

Several long seconds passed. Neither of them moved.

A cricket crept close to the reeds, hopping by. A tongue darted out in the blink of an eye, snatching it into the the frog's waiting mouth. The boy grinned, and Hyrule couldn't help smiling as well.

"It's nice to find little things like this," the boy whispered. "Makes getting lost a bit more worthwhile."

"You're lost, then?" Hyrule asked. The boy laughed.

"You have no idea. I've been told I couldn't tell directions if I had a compass on the top of my boots."

Hyrule's gaze flickered back toward the direction he'd reached the shore from. (Or at least, the direction with the most familiar-looking stretch of shoreline, which should have been the same thing. Presumably.) "I don't have a map, but I can lead you back to the nearest stables, if you'd like? I've just been exploring, but there's a roof and beds and whatnot, back there."

"A roof and bed would be nice," the boy admitted, "but I really ought to get back to my traveling party. They're the ones that know where we're going."

"Do you remember where you last saw them?" Hyrule asked. He couldn't exactly leave the poor boy stuck in the middle of the swamp; not in good conscience. The boy's face twisted awkwardly, and he shook his head.

"Yeah, no," he said, "I have no idea where we were when we got here. I think I saw one of them in a field, somewhere, but we got separated, and it was all a bit chaotic."

"Ah," Hyrule nodded. "Monsters, huh?"

"Big shooty death-beam ones," the boy agreed. "With tentacle legs."

Well, that... didn't bode well for the boy's friends. Hyrule didn't look forward to breaking it to the kid that his traveling party was probably at least half dead by now. Between all the trouble the guardians gave even a band of seasoned heroes, and the history of war Wild had alluded to only in hushed, haunted tones, he couldn't picture civilians, even with swords, standing much of a chance.

Then again, the boy sounded barely ruffled by the whole ordeal. He might have been younger, or at least more naive, than Hyrule first thought -- but just as likely, he'd already come to terms with the tragedy looming ahead. In the Champion's recovering wreck of a kingdom, either seemed plenty possible. Hyrule had seen his fair share of both in his own era.

Maybe if any of the boy's friends were better armed, or had magic, though...

Wait. That strange, heavy presence. Hyrule concentrated.

The boy had an aura of magic around him, well-restrained, but present all the same. It oozed a sense of weight and binding when Hyrule paid attention to it, like a ship's anchor, or a prisoner's shackles, and underneath it, he could almost sense something wilder, trying to escape. It was like nothing he'd felt before, but somehow, the boy didn't look particularly bothered by it.

The boy didn't seem bothered by many things, Hyrule was beginning to notice. Hyrule himself should have probably been more bothered, too, but one of the lesser perils of traveling with other heroes was that between all the charms and secrets, most red flags just started to look like ordinary colored cloth.

Hyrule very nearly asked about the whole anchor thing then and there, if only to talk about something other than Guardians, but the boy changed the subject for him.

"They're probably looking for me right now," he mused, still watching the sitting frog. "The searching part of it's gotten easier now that they know how I am, but I always do feel a bit bad about leading them on such a goose-chase every time we end up somewhere new."

"I know the feeling." Hyrule pictured all the times he or Wild had wandered off-trail, and Wolfie had literally dragged them back to the camp, hours past dark, to a smouldering fire and the nonplussed face of whoever had taken first watch. "My friends don't always like my exploring, either. Most of them prefer to stay on the path. Straight-and-narrow types, y'know?"

The boy nodded. "Sometimes I think they might get tired of having to keep an eye on me, after a while. Goddess knows I hold them up often enough. Though, having someone else to handle directions has cut down my traveling times to a fraction of what they used to be." He laughed. "Some of them can even read maps!"

"I'll admit I was never good with those," Hyrule found himself saying. "Most places I've been didn't have any to spare, anyway."

Both of them fell quiet for a moment, a natural lull that let the sound of the breeze and rustling reeds fill the air.

"Say," the boy started again, "I didn't even remember to ask your name."

"It's Link." No need to offer up a nickname he barely even used at all.

The boy looked at him in surprise. "Link? Y'know, that's actually my name, too."

Hyrule stared at the boy.

Another hero? a small part of him suggested. But that wouldn't make any sense; Wild was the hero in this era -- and besides, Link was far from a rare name. Less common, maybe, in the wake of a hero that nearly hadn't been, but in other times, they came a blue rupee a dozen. (The name could turn half the mens' heads in a small enough village, in some eras. Hyrule had seen it happen before.) And this boy-- the other Link-- he'd said his friends wore green too, didn't he?

It probably meant nothing, Hyrule decided.

"I know enough Links I usually go by a nickname, though," Link added. "So, uh... call me Realm, I guess?"

"... that works," said Hyrule, finding his voice again, only to hesitate a moment later.

"Do you have a nickname of your own, too?" asked Realm, "Or should I just call you Link?"

Hyrule paused, considering. He couldn't exactly introduce himself by his hero title, unless he wanted to sound insane; the newer nickname the rest had offered up wouldn't work either -- nobody in their right mind named themselves after an entire kingdom unless they had an ego the size of the Death Mountain, or, as in Hyrule's own case, a reason so bizarre as to be unbelievable. (Really, what was he supposed to say? I'm a legendary hero from thousands of years ago you've probably never even heard of, and the whole country and also a magic sword decided to give me a title for it I never asked for?)

"'Traveler'," Hyrule managed, after the pause stretched a second too long again. "Or, y'know. Just Link."

"Alright, then, Traveler Or Just Link," said Realm. "It's nice to meet you!"

Realm straightened upright, and the frog in the reeds startled and took a flailing leap into the water, splashing them both.

Hyrule laughed. "Nice to meet you too."



"So," Not-Dusk began. "You're all heroes from different eras. Traveling together, as a group. Through mysterious--"

"They're not actually all that mysterious," Lore corrected. "We know exactly where they came from!"

Not-Dusk sighed. "Through totally not mysterious portals between different versions of Hyrule. On a quest." He took a deep breath, in and out. "And somehow, y'all're a completely different set of heroes from the ones I've been traveling with. But with the same titles, and having gone on literally the same quests."

"Yeah, that's about it," confirmed Green. "Normally Dusk would be explaining this stuff, after me and Lore, but obviously he's, uh. Not here."

"And Dusk's the one you thought was me," Not-Dusk said, a little uncertainly. Lore nodded.

"Exactly! We've been using nicknames based on our titles, mostly because a lot of our titles don't make terribly good names..."

"I almost got called Trains," Steam interjected, "which would have been awful."

"... so I assume you've got one of your own!" Lore finished.

Not-Dusk made a vague so-so gesture with his hand. "The Rancher, or Farm Hand, generally. Or sometimes, 'Ordonian'. I've been called Twilight a couple times, on account of my title, but that's only since the others learned what it was. It's not like it's anything official."

"Twilight does fit better for the kind of nicknames we've been using," Vio commented.

Lore nodded. "Twilight, definitely. And while we're introducing ourselves, I'm Lore! Hero of Legend, savior of four kingdoms -- well, three, but four if you're counting the island, which I do -- and current LiT!"

"He means Leader-in-Training," Gen added. "I think. And I'm Gen. Short for Genesis -- uh, but you don't need to call me that. Hero of the Skies, and apparently the first one in the timeline."

"I'm Green," Green said, "and those are Red, Blue, and Vio. Heroes of the Four Sword... er, the more recent ones, anyway."

"We go by the Four," the Four announced. Twilight all but jumped at the sound of their voices, and gave them all an intense, silent once-over, eyes flicking between the Four and the quartet as if trying to decipher some particularly baffling puzzle before giving up entirely. That was fair. Most people had that reaction to the Four, even with the average Hero's exposure to bizarre magic plot gimmicks. "... it's complicated."

"That's Mask and Ocarina over there," Lore continued, "and together they're the Hero of Time -- same guy, different time periods, long story -- and then this is Sketch, that's Steam, and the quiet one in the corner there is Speck."

"And you've already met me," Wind added in, with a little flourish. "So..."

"...is that really everyone?" A tone crept into Twilight's voice that Wind didn't want to call suspicion, but passed for confusion, at the least.

"Everyone here," Green replied. "Obviously Dusk is still missing. So's Realm -- the Hero of Hyrule -- but we'll probably find him later. He gets lost a lot, so it's just kinda routine now. And Shadow -- uh, Dark Link, that is -- he's probably with Dusk, since he was hanging out with--"

"Dark Link?" In the space of two words, Twilight's tone had slipped into full-blown mistrust.

"It's not like it sounds!" Ocarina cut in. "He's on our side!"

"Basically, he's our collective Dark counterpart, but he hates Ganon more than he hates any of us, so he's teamed up with us to take his grudge out on whatever versions of the guy he personally feels wronged by," Green explained. "Which is several of them."

"I think he's growing on us, too," added Red.

"Oh, definitely," said Lore. "He's on far too friendly terms for all that I'm-just-here-for-revenge nonsense now. And he's been living out of Dusk's shadow this whole time!"

Twilight's gaze stayed skeptical for a moment longer, but he exhaled, and shook his head. "... suppose it's not the weirdest thing I've heard today. But I can't say how well my group'll take it, least of of all without warning. Whatever we've been following has some serious dark magic, and I wouldn't put a misunderstanding past anyone. "

"I mean, Shadow doesn't come out much, but yeah, he can be pretty... intimidating," said Steam. "Hopefully Dusk hasn't run into them yet. You guys sound way more suspicious than us, honestly."

"I'd say it comes with the hero territory, but that was before meeting you all, so..." Twilight shrugged. "Either way, I'd avoid bringing it up, unless there's no other choice. If we're lucky, your friends won't meet mine, and what mine don't know won't hurt them."

"Do you normally keep secrets from your fellow heroes?" asked Sketch, sounding more curious than anything else.

"Half of 'em don't even know I'm the wolf. It's not the first, and it won't be the last."

"Anyway," Lore declared, "now that that's sorted out, I think it's high time we worked out where everyone else's gotten off to! Obviously Realm will take some work, but if we're lucky, Dusk and Shadow might have already found him, and just need to get back to us. And if we're less lucky, we'll just really hope he's staying put." He stopped, giving Twilight a look. "Say, d'you think your group might end up finding him, though?"

"I don't know about yours, but the others from my group probably aren't looking for me," Twilight admitted. Several Links frowned.

"Why not?" asked Vio.

Twilight's expression grew sheepish. "I've got a habit of coming back late," he explained, "especially when I'm scouting as a wolf. And since I was the only one out searching for..."

Lore waited, patiently, as Twilight seemed to hit some revelation.

"Aw, Din's tits," Twilight swore. Mask gasped, covering the ears of one very confused Ocarina. "Sailor's probably still out there."

"Language!" hissed a scandalized Gen.

Twilight winced, as if re-realizing his status as the lone adult in a sea of half-preteen adventurers. "... Ah, yeah. My bad. Anyways, the Hero of the Wind I know's probably still lost out in Hyrule field, so that's one more to be looking out for."

"How many people are in your group, anyway?" asked Wind.

"... eight others," Twilight said, after a pause. "Currently, I mean. We haven't picked up anyone new since we all met up so I'd say that's all."

"Only eight?" Vio asked, voicing the obvious question of most Links present.

"You've got plenty I don't recognize at all, and I'd reckon a few of ours are missing from your group, too. Unless you've got the Hero of the Wild hiding somewhere? And I sure don't see anyone who looks conscription age, either."

Setting the 'conscription age' thing aside, an odd detail swam back into the forefront of Wind's mind. "Hero of the Wild? You mean the Wild guy you were talking about earlier?"

"That'd be him," Twilight confirmed. "This is his era. Or at least, it was last we checked." He frowned. "He said something was off about the place, this time through, though. Hel- heck if I know what."

"When is this era, anyway?" asked Steam, making his and Wind's classic I'm-thinking look. "I thought we started at the end of the timelines, and worked our way back up."

"None of us have records of it, but Champion -- Wild, I mean -- says he's about ten thousand years after everyone else, at least."

"Ten thousand years...?" mouthed Gen, who looked like he would have sat down, quite heavily, had he not already settled again on the foot of the crumbling stone steps.

"... after, huh?" Mask had a look like he'd been handed a particularly tricky puzzle, more than anything; Ocarina's expression did the same. Right. Time-travelers. "If our future's already been eaten by a hole after only a few centuries, it would make sense that the future ten thousand years later wouldn't exist for us. Except half of us are from futures directly after mine and Ocarina's, and our own versions of history weren't changed... unless this point in time didn't have a Demise incarnation, maybe? Ugh... but we came through a hole to get here. And that doesn't even touch on things like what timeline we're in..."

"Yeah! Whose timeline is it, anyway?" Blue agreed.

Red punched him in the shoulder.

"Aw, come on, Red," Blue complained, "it was only a reference!"

"And you're making it worse by saying that!" Vio hissed, elbowing him.

"They do this sometimes," Steam explained to Twilight, with a practiced air of apology. "I don't what it's about, either."

"I'm gonna be honest," said Twilight. "I didn't understand... any of that. And I have no idea what timeline the Champion's in. We only got talking about the time travel thing a couple portals back, and even that was mostly the Sailor and the Old Man -- our Hero of Time -- comparing notes."

"... fair enough." Mask sounded like he was filing away the question to interrogate Twilight's 'Champion' in a dark alleyway somewhere, but Twilight showed no sign of concern.

"Hardly makes sense for the portal to spit us out here, though," said Lore. "I mean, if it wasn't an era we had to worry about, why's there even a hole on this side?"

"The enemy my group's been chasing has some kind of portal magic, we think," Twilight offered. "I'm no spellcaster, but maybe something got mixed up and you somehow stepped through one of our portals instead?"

"What do your portals look like?" Wind asked.

"Tall, dark, and purplish. Sort of door-shaped. There's stuff inside, like a miasma, or a tunnel, almost."

Lore shook his head. "Well, that can't be right, then! Our just look like holes. Big, black, round ones that everything nearby disappears into."

"Maybe this is our world, but it's after we saved everything, so there's no reason for the portals to be eating the world anymore?" Red offered.

"But why would there be a hole here in the first place, then?" said Blue, scowling.



Nayru sat down, very heavily, and stared at the nonexistent walls for a moment.

"They're in the new Hyrule?" Farore asked. It was more of a proposal than a question.

"They're in the new Hyrule," Nayru confirmed. "I cannot believe we seriously fucked this up."

Farore winced. "Language!"

"I thought you said the timeline was someone else's?" asked Din, surveying the carefully scaled map of Kind-Of-Sort-Of-Composite-Hyrule. (New Hyrule was, regrettably, taken.)

"Well, yes, but no--" Nayru shook her head. "Ugh. It's more like something tried to... combine ours with another version of itself, somehow, and this was what came out. Most of those poor mortals probably have two versions of their own memories in their heads now, and that's not counting the three independent histories I was trying to resolve before this all started."

"... at least nothing important has happened in time period yet?" said Farore. A tentative glimmer of hope wove through her words, like a clay pigeon in the split second before its destruction.

"Well, if I'd been able to maintain uninterrupted focus and control over it, sure! But then something decided we needed more problems to fix, and now there's the shreds of another unincorporated Demise incarnation floating around willy-nilly and piloting Sheikah death machines around the countryside!"

"Sheikah death machines?" asked Din.

"Sheikah death machines," Nayru repeated. "I still can't believe this got so out of hand..."

"Do you think it's..." Farore glanced over her shoulder, like she expected something she didn't already know about to be watching. "... Consequences?"

Nayru made a hapless attempt at a shrug. "It would make as much sense as anything else. But if it is, our options to deal with it are limited."

A pause settled between the three, considering the implications. Capital-C Consequences manifested in strange ways, but direct threats to the fabric of reality usually weren't among them.

"Wait," said Farore, realizing something, "did... whatever this is just combine the timelines, or did it combine the actual kingdoms, too?"

Din swore under her breath. (Farore thanked the observers for small mercies.) "I can't tell. The geography seems fine, but the rest might not be."

"I wouldn't know, either, but I suppose you could check the..." Nayru looked up at Farore. "Did you even finish the species disentanglement thing?"

Farore was silent for a second in freshly dawning horror. "Oh my me, I wasn't done." She shot back over to where she'd been working, suddenly fumbling through unsorted species. "Oh, I didn't even figure out what to do with the bomb flowers, and-- I forgot the Minish! And--!"

Din and Nayru decided to leave her to it.

Nayru poked at the edge of the desert -- lightly, so as not to add any new canyons. (Actual Hyrule would be fine -- she wasn't Din, after all -- but the scale model didn't share quite the same integrity.) "There isn't even a cliff on the far side of the desert. The hero could have literally just walked out of Hyrule."

"There was a placeholder sign for the border," said Din. "It's got an invisible wall and everything. And besides, the whole inland border has a mile-deep canyon running through it, and the rest is all coastline."

Nayru sighed. "We left an invisible wall. In open air. On the world map!"

"It wouldn't be the first time. Besides, it's not like the hero wouldn't have just scaled any mountains I gave him anyway. Farore wanted to make this one a climbing type."

"A sheer enough wall would have stopped him, though."

"With the determination she gives them? He would have just drunk a dozen stamina potions and run straight up the cliff. Not that he'd make it, but--"

Leaned over the reality window, Farore interrupted them both with a squeal of delight. "Oh, girls, I found the new Courage! He's--oh." Her tone curdled into dismay. "Oh, no..."

"What?" Din craned over Farore's shoulder for a better look. "Oh. Huh."

Courage's newest Incarnation sat on a log, humming to himself as he fiddled with a strange rectangular block. It took a second to follow Farore's train of thought, but on closer inspection, Din caught the mottling of faint burn scars down the hero's side. He looked awfully similar to the other world's Hero sitting by the cooking pot at the inn, but he couldn't have been, given they were literally miles apart. Not to mention the subtler differences.

"What happened to this one?" Din asked.

"He died," Farore said, her voice wavering.

"... he's sitting right there?" said Din, a little incredulous.

"He got better," Farore clarified, but she'd already gotten teary-eyed, and Din braced herself, remembering her sister's reaction to the Shadow Incarnation.

"What went wrong?" asked Nayru.

Farore sniffed. "I abandoned him! I wasn't even thinking to check for a hero in the new version of Hyrule, but he was right there, and he picked up the sword and everything, and he died! I should have been watching out for him, but instead he's lost all his memories, and he's only alive because that Sheikah thing revived him!"

Ah. That would do it. In the back of her mind, Din started poking around for her own Incarnation's presence, more for curiosity than anything else. If the usual pattern held after the Hero's quest had ended, he was probably dead or sealed away, again. (Thanks a lot, Demise!) Unless...?

Nayru patted Farore's back as she settled behind her to watch. "It's not your fault. None of the rest of us were watching, either." Her eyes glazed into the middle distance for a few long seconds, forcing back a dozen different blaring Time Problem alarms to flip through the Kind-of-Sort-of-Composite-Hyrule's fledgling history, before she sighed. "Looks like Wisdom's been having just as bad a time as her hero. She only just figured out how to draw on her powers before she sealed herself in the castle. Poor girl."

"Would now be a bad time to mention the local Power incarnation Demise would have latched onto is technically still undead and dormant under Hyrule Castle?" asked Din.

Nayru glanced at a second reality window, still showing eighteen-odd heroes discussing time travel, and then back at Farore. "... Let's... table that one for later, maybe."



"This is fascinating and all," Gen said, trying to steer the conversation back on track, "but we should really start searching before it gets dark. Did anyone see which way Dusk might have ended up heading?"

"We thought we saw him split off east, when the Beam-- the Guardians were chasing us," the Four mused.

"Seconding that," said Steam. "I'm like ninety-nine percent sure I saw him headed in the opposite direction of that tall tower."

Twilight sighed. "If he headed east from the tower, that leaves most of central Hyrule field to search. I can try tracking by scent, but I'll be cutting my effort in half to look for him and the Sailor at the same time."

"I don't suppose you could track down Realm that way, could you?" asked Mask. "He's a bit hard to find, but I'm pretty sure he smells as bad as the rest of us."

"Probably," said Twilight. "But that's three people to look for, then."

It was around this point that Wind got an idea.

"Hey, so, if your Wind is basically me, and he did my quests and has my stuff and all that, does he have a necklace with a thing on it like this?" Wind whipped out his pirate's charm pendant, holding it up for Twilight to see.

"I've seen him use it once or twice, back in his Hyrule," said Twilight. "That's a good idea, actually. If you can reach him, you can ask where he is, and save us all some time." He paused. "You're sure it works, though?"

"It's worth a shot!" Wind lowered the charm to eye level, poking at it. Now that he thought about it, he'd never directly called someone with one of these things, but Tetra could call him with her own charm, so clearly it worked both ways. And it was magic, obviously, so if he could just remember the idea of activating a magic thing...

A chime rang out, high and already a little bit nostalgic. Wind opened his eyes, and immediately squeezed them shut again, blinking into the charm's ghostly blue glow.

"Hello?" he asked, into the charm. "Testing, testing. Can anyone hear me?"

A loud, wooden clatter filled the air, followed by the murmur of overlapping voices, a little tinny and muffled by their travel through the ether.

"Who's--?" someone started asking. Other voices, deeper and lower, warped and rippled below them. As Wind's eyes adjusted to the glow of the charm, he could make out his own reflection, bobbing in the charm's round, mirrored surface as if treading water.

Wind's reflection blinked. Wind almost shrieked in surprise, but it came out more as a strangled squeak, as most of his attention had been eaten up by the deja vu of yet another eerily identical stranger staring back at him.

Other-Wind made Wind's own familiar pout of a thinking face, tilting his head to scrutinize the charm, and Wind found his voice again.

"Hello!" Wind reached out to hold the charm at arm's length, and gave a little wave. Other-Wind took his own turn to yelp and fumble with the pendant on his end, righting it a moment later.

"Is it working?" asked Lore, leaning in and joining the image. "Can they see us?"

"Duuusk!" Other-Wind shouted, turning around. "I think your friends are calling us!"



Link was six inches from nabbing a Summerwing butterfly when his slate erupted into crackling, grating noise.

He very nearly fell off the rock he had climbed trying to get it, and the butterfly promptly panicked and spiraled off into the sky, beyond his reach. Fumbling for balance, Link slid the slate out of its pouch, watching as some strange and grainy version of the camera rune splashed itself across the screen.

A voice came through, full of static, but just audible, as a wavering bluish face formed on-screen, distorted like the reflection on a sphere.

"... Wild... Old Man? Can you... we're coming to the stables... yeah, it's a long story... we'll try to be there by..."

A second, lower voice replied as a new and less distorted image tried to overlap the first, giving Link the distinct, growing feeling he was eavesdropping.

"We're at the Wetland... if you can get there by nightfall..."

Wetland Stable? That was in West Lanayru -- probably a couple hours away by horseback, and hardly any time at all, if he teleported by shrine. Zelda would want him to investigate, just to see what all the fuss was about -- that, and what exactly had managed to hijack an ancient artifact like the Sheikah Slate with a stranger's conversation. That idea raised a great number of questions Link wasn't sure he wanted answers to.

The strangers babbled indistinctly over the shaky connection, and Link watched his own hands grow tight and white-knuckled on the frame of the slate.

Zelda would want to know. Zelda wouldn't be afraid, either, not like he got. (She remembered, while he was skittish and stupid and--)

Fortunately, he didn't have to worry about them very long, because a moment later, a shooting star trailed a streak of light across the dimming sky overhead. Link snapped to full attention, watching the star arc across the cloudless sunset sky until it landed somewhere to the west, casting a thin pillar of light over the horizon like a beacon.

Weird. Didn't shooting stars only appear after dark?

He could always use an armor upgrade, though. And star fragments weren't exactly easy to find. And Zelda had been patient enough to wait the better part of six months for Link to get his act together to fight the Calamity the first (well, second) time around, what with all the horse-catching and korok-finding and shrines...

Closing the strange, unlabeled rune the message had opened took only a moment, and then the sound cut out, dropping Link back into the crisp evening silence.

It was only a short warp to the stables, after all.



Farore sighed in relief. "Thank you. I didn't want to have to deal that meeting yet at all."

"I'll be honest, I don't think he's ready for that one, either," said Nayru, watching her sister nudge her rune-wielding incarnation in the general direction of Hebra. "He's skittish."

Farore tapped her chin, contemplatively. "Maybe I should scramble his slate for a while, just to be on the safe side... eighteen incarnations in one place was already pushing it."

"Eighteen? Don't you mean twenty-seven?" Din asked.

"If we're counting that walking timeline snarl of a Four Sword wielder as multiple, it's thirty," mused Nayru. "Or thirty-one? Are we counting a merged individual as one, four, or five?"

"I'm not counting them," Farore explained. "They're from a foreign continuity."

"Weren't you literally just calling the Amnesiac Incarnation your baby?"

"That's different! He's mine. The others are under what I'm pretty sure is a whole second me from another reality," said Farore, firmly. "Not my circus, not my monkeys." She paused, glancing at the window again. "Though, if they were permanently stranded here without her influence, I suppose I'd have no choice but to adopt them..."

Nayru raised an eyebrow.

"Purely hypothetically."



We would not.

You've abandoned mine before.

It's only the cycle. They are temporary. You know as well as I.

This is more than a cycle! Their gathering may not be by my hand, but they stand strong. They will not fail.

The Ancient Tragedy, the Sealing Wars, and the Era Without a Savior say otherwise.

And the War of Eras was nearly without end.

This is different from both, and you know it!

The parallels remain.

The parallels are tenuous.

And yet.

All will be resolved. I swear it.

Don't swear to what you cannot keep, sister.

Tales told by self-declared bards make no such promises, after all.

Such little faith in me! Do you take me for a fool?




... perhaps, very slightly.



"You all just heard that, right?" said Nayru. "Tell me I'm not going insane."

Din groaned. "I think we all heard it."

"They're so loud," Farore mused. "Do you think we must be that loud to mortals?"

"I sure hope not," said Din. "Damn."



In the end, the two groups worked out that the best system to ensure anyone actually made it to the Wetland Stable before the next dawn (let alone early enough for a decent night's sleep) would be teleporting. Twilight and the rest would head to the nearest shrine, and Wild would ferry the group across in twos and threes to another shrine just by the stables. It made a good alternative to walking across the entirety of Hyrule field in a group twice as large as Twilight had ever had to worry about, even more so as nightfall approached.

"Remind me again why we're going in the exact opposite direction to where you said the stables were?" asked the older not-Time (Ocarina?), who sounded like he'd only just tuned in a few minutes ago and was trying to pretend he'd been listening to the whole thing from the start.

"Because that's where the shrine is," explained Wind. "We're teleporting the rest of the distance, remember?"

"It's still pretty far..." Gen commented, looking over the hastily drawn map Lore and Wind had hashed out with Wild over their limited communication by charm.

"Well, it doesn't have to be on foot," said another of the new heroes (this one might have been... Trains? The one that had said something about Trains, anyway. Twilight didn't know what a train was, and had decided not to ask.)

Lore jolted a little more upright from his spot "annotating" the far corner of the map, and pointed an authoritative finger in the air. "You're right! I don't suppose you could magic up another passenger car for all of us?"

"Maybe with a little more leg room next time, if you can manage it?" added the tiny not-Time (Mask, right, Mask.) "Not that I don't enjoy being squashed like a canned fish, but..."

"It'll be as big as it is," said Trains (or was it Fog? Mist? Something like that--), crossing his arms. "And I was on a schedule, okay?! Plus, I can only modify the Spirit Train so much. It's not built for twenty people."

"Taking the train would be an improvement over walking, so long as we aren't planning to do any searching, too," said Sketch, gracefully redirecting the topic.

"I don't think searching will matter much," Vio noted. "The only person unaccounted for is Realm, and he could be halfway across the continent by now, for all we know."

(Twilight was not going to spend time engaging in any way with his thoughts about Vio, because frankly, there were far too many of them. The same applied to the other three of his little subgroup, the hivemind one, and Speck. Given the chance, he might have tried addressing the issue more discreetly, but with only the not-at-all-private communication line of Wild's slate and Wind's charm... well. Four was in for an interesting evening, to say the least.)

Then the rest of Vio's sentence caught up with him, and Twilight did a double take.

"... halfway across the continent?" Twilight asked, at the same moment as Green replied, "I thought the earrings fixed the Wandering thing?"

"It's been hours," replied Vio, ignoring Twilight's disbelieving murmur, "and Dusk said he thought he saw him right before he found himself on the other side of Hyrule field, so I'm not putting it out of the question."

Twilight bit back a sigh. He was about to regret learning something, wasn't he?


"Realm teleports sometimes," explained Wind, "accidentally, and he's got all the sense of direction of a compass in a bucket of magnets. It was a whole... thing. He's got anchoring charms for the teleporting, now, but before that, it used to take forever to find him. He'd end up in the middle of a lake, or on an unclimbable mountain peak, or down a pit or something."

"One time he rerouted the Spirit Train to the other side of the country," added Trains (no, Steam, right, Steam.) "It's a good thing it supplies its own tracks, or we would have just driven straight into the ocean."

"He teleports," Twilight repeated, setting Steam's addition aside to review from a safer distance for his sanity. Younger Wind patted his arm sympathetically. "At random. In any Hyrule. And can't navigate." He considered a few choice words, then remembered the ten-year-olds and thought better of it. "Sweet Ordona. And you'd just been... following him?"

"It's not that hard tracking him down, actually," said Lore.

"Speak for yourself," said Green.

"We've been trying to have someone keep an eye on him while we're walking, too," Red added. "It was mostly effective, except for when they got dragged along with him."

"... which shouldn't be a problem anymore, since he's got the charms," said Gen.

"Assuming he hasn't gotten the brilliant idea to take them off," Blue pointed out. Something in his tone told Twilight it wouldn't be a surprise.

Mask waved a hand. "Realm thinks it's reasonable to spend two weeks just trying to find a dungeon -- I think it'll take a little more than four hours lost in the wilderness to tempt him. It's not like he's the only person in the world who can warp places."

Twilight couldn't say he found that reassuring. He chose not to say anything at all.

"So. Spirit Train?" Lore prompted, with an air less of impatience so much as gleeful, unbridled enthusiasm. It was probably for the best he didn't look too much like Legend; the difference in attitude might have given Twilight whiplash by now, otherwise.

"I'm working on it," grumbled Steam. "Just give me a moment."

Steam, as it turned out, shared both Winds' (and maybe Four's) impressive range of facial expressions, because Twilight could read him like a well-thumbed book. That screwed up mouth and the scrunched eyebrows made a memory-perfect I'm concentrating really hard on something face, right before he went and proved that the similarities ran only so deep by jolting up lightning-rod straight, pointing a finger at the open landscape nearby, and yelling:


A piercing whistle like a giant's teakettle drowned out Twilight's bewildered reply, filling the air with a bone-rattling shriek. His hand found the hilt of his sword in an instant, ready for whatever fresh new mess of monsters he was about to find the Champion's era harboring, but a second later, he realized none of the others had moved to do the same.

Just past the edges of the Garrison ruins, a trio of joined wood and metal carriages rolled to a stop barely a dozen paces away, steel wheels gleaming in the evening light. An innocent puff of steam drifted lazily from the chimney at the first carriage's front end.

Twilight glanced down at the nearest clusters of the group. Vio raised a bemused eyebrow at him, while Green and Wind were grinning and Mask visibly fighting back laughter, and the rest barely glanced his way.

... maybe he should have asked what a train was, after all.

"You're sure we're all going to fit this time?" asked Ocarina, eyeing the carriages with vague suspicion.

"One way or another," Steam replied. Twilight had some suspicions of his own about the height of the main door relative to his head, but declined to comment. "We might need to get creative if we run out of standing room, but it'll work."

Ten minutes later, with Lore tying himself to the roof of the passenger car and Twilight half-crouching and squashed between the four hiveminded Links at the back, he felt that counted as an understatement.

"Last time we were all crowded inside," Wind informed him, perched on the back of Gen's seat. He gripped the ceiling bar for balance as he leaned closer, one arm still free to gesture. "And it caught fire at one point, because we were fighting a demon train. This is really an improvement."

"All aboard?" yelled Steam from the engine car.

Twilight watched as Wind took a quick headcount. "Yep! All aboard!"

The giant's-teakettle whistle screeched again from the front, forcing Twilight to cover his ears as the car lurched forward with a rising churn of steel and steam. He had only known about trains for a quarter-hour, but if his sailor ever invited him to ride one... well. Twilight was starting to see it as a blessing of the goddesses that only one future had ever been cursed with their invention.

... to his knowledge.

As the train gained speed, Twilight leaned against the wall, trying to look out the east-facing window. It was easier said than done -- he had to turn his neck a few degrees farther than was comfortable and lean over the blue member of the Four's head, bracing himself with the ceiling bar as a handhold, but it gave him a good view of the scenery peeling away into the approaching dusk for the next ten, maybe fifteen minutes. The train went faster than Epona, that was for sure -- faster than his spinner, too. The endless miles of the Champion's Hyrule blurred together in a mass of greenery and shadows, the Dueling Peaks standing tall and nearly still on the horizon.

He forced down the urge to open the window a crack and lean out into the rushing wind. The trees skimmed close enough to earn him a branch to the face if the train had gone at horse-riding speed; it was definitely not at horse-riding speed, and he didn't want to find out how fast it had to go for a branch to break his neck instead.

Somehow, Lore's attempt at a traveling song filtered down from the roof, muffled by wood, steel, and the wind. Despite the sound only trailing behind them, Twilight could still make out the words:

"Nine-hundred-fifty-six bombable walls, nine-hundred-fifty-six walls! Blow one down, go on around, nine-hundred-fifty-five walls left to bomb!"

It was nearly enough to make him miss Wind's sea shanties. (Stranded on an island ten paces across, surrounded by bokoblins and then waiting for the next portal -- now that had been a terrible several hours.)

Then, beneath the clamor of rattling wheels and the engine, he heard it.

The cabin seemed to freeze, tension spilling through the crowd like icewater, and Lore's singing broke off in an instant, shouting something Twilight didn't need to hear to understand.

One encounter, it appeared, had been plenty enough to learn what a guardian sounded like.

Twilight only had a second to duck below the window, pushing two of the Four down beneath him mostly on instinct before the bip-bip-bip turned into a high-pitched whine, and the air flashed bright with heat. The blast hit the side of the carriage with all the impact of a cannonball, jolting everything askew for half a heartbeat as the cabin flooded with the smell of burning wood.

Through ringing ears, Twilight caught Steam's voice -- "AGAIN WITH THE LASERS?!"

The heat gave way to winter cold a second later -- Twilight looked up to see Mask at the front of the carriage shoving an ice arrow at the root of the flames, halting them as quickly as they'd begun. Beside him, Sketch frantically patted out flames on the hem of his tunic with one hand while pressing the end of an ice rod to another burning patch of doorway with the other, and Ocarina raised his mirror shield as though trying to level it to the height of the window.

"Alright, who wants to shoot at it?" proposed Green, but Wind was already one step ahead, wriggling to the scorched front of the cabin to open the door at the end.

"It's cannon time!" announced Wind. Lore cheered from somewhere above them, a few others joining in. Now that Twilight thought about it, it was good to know Lore was still holding on up there. The ropes had seemed secure, but even Twilight could tell the top of the car wasn't exactly built for passengers.

Wind kicked open the door and shimmied over the gap to the smallest carriage of the three -- a mostly open platform on wheels, housing a single cannon turret. Twilight couldn't watch him too closely, though, not with the sounds of the guardian steadily powering up another shot in the distance. Between glances, he spotted Mask following Wind onto the platform, his own mirror shield raised -- cover, then, in case Wind didn't get a shot in before the next blast. Another reassurance, though not for Twilight's confidence in how the cannon car would take the hit.

Someone shouted something from the engine car, and Mask turned and relayed it along. "How long 'till we're out of blasting range?"

Twilight squinted out into the scenery -- the guardian was getting closer, not further away. Not good. If a memory of Wild dodging beams while paragliding served as a reference, it didn't take much mental math to know the guardian would still have another shot before they left its field of view.

Then he caught the glimmer of rippling, very-much-intact legs, and recalculated.

"Depends on how quick it can follow us," he called back, after another second. "The train'll outpace it, but it could shoot twice more, at least." Wind shouted something in the other direction, probably passing the answer back to Steam.

A second beam seared through the windows, inches from the ceiling, and Twilight thanked just about every spirit and goddess he could think of that he'd let go of the handhold about ten seconds ago when he'd dropped to the floor, instead of staying standing. Then he remembered their passenger on the roof and glanced up again.

"I'm not on fire!" Lore assured them all from somewhere overhead. "Just very lightly toasted!"

Twilight brushed broken glass from his wolf pelt as he stole another look out the window, trying to hone in on the guardian's position. It hadn't given up yet, but the train had passed nearest to it during the last beam, and it was starting to lose ground again. Even if it pursued past its usual range, it wouldn't be able to keep up. It was just a matter of how quickly they could lose it.

"Cover your ears!" Wind declared over the rush (and the crackle of Mask's ice arrows.) Twilight obliged, but he didn't so much hear the cannon fire as he felt it, the train carriage shuddering and bouncing from recoil.

"Did you get it?" asked Red, after a moment.

Mask shrugged at them all, then narrowed his eyes at the horizon. "Looks like?"

Several seconds later, the third blast made it clear one cannonball hadn't been enough.

Twilight found himself crouching for balance as the car shook and swung, feeling an awful lot like the rider of a less than willing mount. The shouts of surprise blended into the cacophony of grinding rails beneath them, wheels jerking and spinning as a bright buzz of panic finally kicked in.

It would have all been easier on foot. The train's moving speed and the size of their collective target made trying to reflect a beam back at the source a pain, and with the guardian's long range, return fire might not be an option. But more than that, the carriages might not withstand another hit: even if the car itself survived, getting knocked over at their current speed while tearing through the wilderness... they'd be lucky to only go rolling downhill, and not ram straight into the nearest cliff.

"Are we out of range yet?" someone shouted above the din. (Hah. Din. Was she laughing at them right now? Looking down from above, doing whatever goddesses did when they weren't creating worlds or pulling terrible cosmic pranks?)

"Not sure!" Twilight yelled back. "Wind, Mask, are you both alright?" he added, overlapping with Gen's "Are you two okay?" Gen looked vaguely miffed by that, but didn't comment on it.

"We've got all our limbs and stuff, yeah," replied Mask. "It looks like it hit the engine car."

Twilight bit back a curse. Fortunately, this time, only the violet member of the Four was close enough to hear.

"Is Steam--?" Gen began, before Lore interrupted from the roof.

"Does someone else need to come up front and steer the train?"

Wind grimaced and Mask shrugged. "I'll check?"

A second later, a fresh wave of smoke rushed into the cabin as Wind opened the engine car door, choking the air in bitter charcoal. Twilight held his nose and breath, shielding his eyes as he tried to see anything at all -- the cabin, the guardian, Steam or the others with him -- but the smoke and wood ash covered everything, the air full of cinders and windblown heat.

The blast must have set the front car ablaze. Was there anything to put it out with up there? Probably, but Twilight hadn't thought far ahead enough to plan that out and make sure of it. Mask probably had more ice arrows, at least, but that would only go so far.

Something cold flashed by overhead, and the smoke slowed a bit, ice glinting on the engine car roof. A triumphant cry from Lore explained the rest. Twilight tried to keep his sigh of relief to something subtle, but it wasn't needed; everyone else seemed to have had the same thought by now.

"Does anyone have a bow they can use?" he found himself asking instead. The violet member of the Four raised his own, either in answer or in offering. It was small -- nearly too small to use, really, barely the length of Twilight's forearm. Four had a bow like that, Twilight remembered. His Wind did, too. They didn't use them often, and the range wasn't much, either. Nothing like Wild's bows, that was for sure.

"Does anyone have a bow with a... longer range than that?" Twilight repeated, a little lower. Sketch and Ocarina raised theirs as well, but Gen frowned, shaking his head.

"We're not going to get any long-range hits in like this. Let me do something first."

With that, Gen reached elbow-deep into his traveling bags, trading his bow for an elaborate set of bellows Twilight might have seen Sky with, once. He swung the pipe end around, aimed it into the miasma of smoke, and pumped.

The difference was nearly instant. The bellows pushed the smoke aside like a shockwave, clearing the cabin in seconds -- one of the colors coughed, catching a faceful of fleeing smog -- and the grey haze Twilight had only barely noticed wrapping the scenery of the carriage interior disappeared, leaving all clear through the windows as well. The smoke spun off the west-facing side of the train like the updraft of a campfire, darkening the windows along that side, but it didn't matter so long as they had a clean line of sight to the guardian.

"Well," offered Sketch a moment later, "if nobody else is going to shoot it, I guess I'm up."

"I can handle that," Twilight began, but Sketch shrugged it off.

"I mean, I've got a magic arrow supply, so it might be more efficient...?"

"Will one of you just shoot it already!?" snapped Blue. "We don't exactly have all day before the next bea--"

The beeping rose again, sending most of the cabin diving for cover. Ocarina and Sketch's mirror shields flew up, and this time Twilight was treated to a front-row seat to the rare, surreal split-second display of a guardian's beam blasting through the carriage window, ricocheting off one shield, hitting and ricocheting off the second one, and shooting back out through the next window over.

"We all saw that, right?" murmured the Four in awe beneath him.

"That was so cool," whispered Ocarina, looking down at his own shield as if it had acted all on its own.

"Any damage?" yelled Mask. Twilight looked out to see him standing on the cannon car again, Wind busy behind him with a fistful of arrows. The smog outside the cabin had finally cleared, revealing Speck clutching some kind of pot that spun and vibrated like a peahat taking flight, sucking up smoke as quickly as the lingering flames could produce it .

Red waved a hand in the doorway. "Nope! Deflected it!"

Somewhere in the not-so-far distance, something exploded.

"It's also probably dead now!" reported Green. Another cheer echoed through the group.

"Are you all okay up front?" asked Gen, a moment later.

"We still have a driver, if that's what you're asking," said Vio. "And he's upright and talking, which is a start."

"It burned my hat," Steam lamented, loud enough to be heard. Twilight's position in line with the door gave him a glimpse of Speck consoling him with a pat on the shoulder.

"It also burned the train," Mask pointed out.

"Yes, but I can resummon that!"

The remaining twenty minutes turned out slightly less eventful.

Steam, as the group up front relayed, had been knocked into the wall by the third guardian beam and needed a red potion to resettle his head. They had him drink it at the controls -- partly because, in his concussed stupor, Steam had refused to be parted from his beloved scorched hat and stick shift, and partly because nobody wanted to risk the train running without a driver. The last thing they needed was to get past that guardian only to crash because the sole hero who could operate a train was out of commission.

Trees and countryside rushed past in peace, now, without even monster camps breaking the illusion of the land as something homely and rural more than empty and devastated -- though, Twilight supposed, it really was more rural than empty anymore. Since Ganon's defeat, and maybe for some time before it, Wild's Hyrule had been recovering: new villages had sprung up among the old like seedlings growing from the carcass of a log, green life pushing through to see the sun after a long and unkind winter. No one could say how long the regrowing might take, but it was more than a wasteland; he'd seen that himself. It would be a disservice to Wild and his people's resilience to brush off that healing so quickly, however hazardous his world had remained.

Still, Twilight's heart didn't quite calm until the blue chimney of the shrine came into view over the horizon.

Wild was already waiting for them by the pedestal, a comic picture of toe-tapping impatience. The others must have sent him early, just in case. Twilight caught him opening his mouth to speak, but the train let out another deafening whistle as it pulled to a stop, drowning it out and throwing Wild into a full-body flinch like a startled deer. He recovered well, though, the shudder channeling back into a frantic wave and grin.

"Sorry!" came Steam's no-longer-slurred voice from the engine car. "Force of habit! Also rules and regulations, but I don't think those apply here."

Getting out of the train car was a little easier said than done, given the crowding and the damage to the cars. Wind and Mask hopped off first, still at the front from manning the cannon, while Speck and Vio emerged from the engine car while Steam finished up whatever it was he needed to get the train safely in place. From there, the rest of the smaller heroes would still take a minute or so to exit single-file out the cabin doors, so for the sake of addressing Wild, Twilight opted to lean out the shattered window instead.

"Good to see you're still in one piece," said Wild. His eyes didn't meet Twilight's for more than a second, too busy with the herd of child adventurers piling out of the train. He took to the sight better than Twilight had back at the camp in the ruins, but his curiosity seemed to make up for it, drinking in the chaos of too many half-familiar faces. "... How many of these guys did you say there were again?"

"There's eighteen of us in all, but we're down a few," Lore explained. "Realm's unaccounted for, and you've got Dusk and Shadow."

Wild started a second time, his gaze jerking up to the roof. He opened his mouth as if to say something, and then shut it again.

"You could have mentioned the guardian on our route, cub," Twilight said, not bothering with another greeting. He followed the last few smaller heroes off the train, relishing the moment his feet hit solid ground. He wouldn't have gone so far as to kiss the dirt or anything, but the slight give of grass and real, unmoving earth under his boots still came as a relief.

Wild let out a nervous laugh. "Whoops. Guess it slipped my mind. Looks like you guys had it handled, though?"

Something wasn't right. Wild's fidgeting hands moved too quick and twitchy, like he was waiting for a fight to break out. Between that and the look on his face a few seconds ago, when Lore had mentioned...

"Champion," Twilight began, a little hesitant. "Is there anything... else you'd like to tell us about?"

The fidgeting stopped short, and Wild's hands folded together. The nervous grin stayed.

"Yeah, so... uh." Wild gestured to the shrine's central pedestal, then glanced over his shoulder as if checking for something in the distance. "There's some problems."

Twilight would have sworn, just then, that the northeast horizon carried a wisp of smoke.

Chapter End Notes:

The Goddesses have 0 actual appearances in the Linked Universe comic, so I'm calling this one fair game to go hogwild with fanon. For all that I've tried to mostly follow canon, Linked Universe is still basically 50% fanon/headcanons by volume, lol.

Also, I've realized that DL's sequel is supposed to take place (BOTW-wise) somewhere after Rune has dealt with his first Divine Beast, way before endgame, but I have a plan, I swear. I can make no guarantees of quality, but I have a plan.