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As soon as he saw the opportunity, Niko snuck out of the Smiling Goat. He felt bad about not telling anyone where he was going, about not saying goodbye. But the only person who knew even a little about what was going on was currently trapped below the city, and Niko was not about to try to explain it all to the others when he himself wasn’t necessarily sure what was going on. Besides, if Cindy knew, she’d try to stop him.

He didn’t get very far before he was interrupted, though not by someone he expected. Niko had never met Laughing Jack, he wouldn’t even know he existed at all if Tommy hadn’t warned him and Cindy to stay away from the man at all costs. But the grinning creature skulking in the alley next to the pub must have been him.

“Ahh, leaving so soon?” he asked, as if he too already knew who Niko was.

“Yeah, I’ve got important shit to do.”

For some reason, Niko got the distinct impression that Jack knew exactly what he was talking about. Maybe it was the sudden smile that spread across his face, revealing teeth that looked just a little too sharp. “That’s a shame,” the man shook his head. “I was just about to go in and give you all tickets to the show.”

Niko’s hand twitched instinctively. This guy gave him shivers in the worst kind of way. He reminded him of the associates of his father’s that he’d been expressly kept away from as a child.

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s rather annoying to repeat myself, but I’ll tell you what I’m about to tell that lot,” he gestured to the pub. “Don’t leave the city yet. Not until it’s all over.”

There was only one thing he could be referring to. Nothing was going to be over, not if Niko had anything to say about it. But he didn’t tell Jack that. He got the feeling that his reaction would be more… violent than Cindy or Tommy’s. “They’re going to try to fight it, you know.”

“Of course. And that’s exactly why you all need to see the end. Now if you’ll excuse me,” he sidled past Niko and towards the door. “I’ve gotta go crush some dreams.”

Niko didn’t try to stop him. All he had to lose right now was his life, but that was the one thing he had to make sure he kept. This wasn’t how he was supposed to die.

So he just nodded as Jack opened the door, turned his back on him, and started walking.

One would think that fifty-thousand thoughts would be running through his head as he undertook the long walk down the hill, but his mind was surprisingly focused on the destination before him. He took that to mean he was making the right choice; he would have been second-guessing himself otherwise.

Before he knew it, almost too fast, he saw Outlook Rock, glowing despite the slightly darkening evening. Just as he had before, he scrambled up its surprisingly smooth surface to stand alone at the top. This time, however, he paused for a moment, feeling the wind on his face. Niko wasn’t usually one to appreciate the little things. He tended to have too much going on to bother. But right now, it felt nice.

When he was ready, he took a deep breath inward. “Alright Valki,” he called out. “I’m here.”

The response was immediate. She appeared in front of him in a small flash of light, and once again, Niko desperately tried to keep the pain in his chest down. She looked just like Lila, and now he finally knew why.

“Have you made up your mind?” she asked.

Niko nodded. “I have. Will you take me to him?”

Valki was not one for facial expression, but Niko thought he saw a hint of relief in her eyes. “As you wish.”

With a gust of wind that nearly knocked him off his feet, Valki’s wings extended. They were enormous, and seemed to cover the entire sky. She grabbed his hands, and wrapped one of those impossible wings around him, while she used the other the take off into the air.

“My wing will protect your body from the Other’s influence,” somehow he could still hear her voice over the tremendous force of the wind, “but I ask that you close your eyes, else your mind may not be so lucky.”

If he could have spoken, he would’ve, but the air pressure was so intense that he couldn’t. So instead he simply followed her orders.

Just as he thought his skull might crack open from all the pressure as they flew further and further away from the city, his ears suddenly popped. Afterwards, everything around him became eerily silent and still.

“We have crossed into the Other now,” Valki whispered. “I will tell you when it is safe to open your eyes. It should only be a few minutes.”

For a while, neither of them said anything, and briefly Niko wondered if this was what being dead would feel like. Everything was nothing and so very dark. He was ashamed to admit how much it terrified him. Was this how Lila had felt, after the end? At least she wouldn’t be alone there for much longer.

“I have a question for you,” he blurted, a little afraid that there wouldn’t be a response at all.

She paused too long for his liking, but finally he felt a small movement of air near his cheek. “What is it?”

“Do you remember… you know, being Lila?”

There was another, very long moment of nothing. “I have her memories, yes. Yet it is more as if they are a story that someone told me a long time ago, rather than if I had experienced them myself.”

His heart sank a little. “Then I don’t know whether you can really answer my question.”

“I can always try.”

Niko almost lost his nerve. He wasn’t really sure he wanted to hear the answer from her mouth. But he went ahead anyway. It would be better than no answer at all. “Then, do you know why she did it?”

“Why she sacrificed herself for you, you mean?”

Niko nodded.

“She cared very deeply for you. In a way, you were her entire world. But more than that, she believed in you. She believed that you could continue on without her. Whereas, had your roles been reversed, she would not have.”

He’d been afraid of that. And it had only been worse hearing it coming from someone so cold and disconnected from it.

“The Morrigan was right,” Valki sighed. “Her presence certainly did complicate things.”

“Then why did you go in the first place?”

“Because I couldn’t simply leave you alone, especially not with Bacchae in the same state doing who knows what. But I still believe it was the right choice. Had she not been there to sacrifice herself, you would have died. And that would have been a much larger inconvenience.”

“Would you not talk about her like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like she was just some pawn to be conveniently plucked off the board.”

“But that’s exactly what we are.”

“No, she was… she was so much more than that! But she never really got that, so I guess I can’t expect you to either…”

“What exactly was she to you, then? If not a pawn to be used and discarded?”

Niko didn’t answer for a very long time. But in the end, he could only give one response. “I… I don’t know. I never really… got the time to figure that out.”

“For beings so short-lived, you mortals are obnoxiously complicated,” Valki scoffed. Then, before Niko could retort, added: “We’ve arrived. You may open your eyes now.”

Indeed, Niko’s ears popped again, and ambient noise returned, though it really only amounted to a small bit of wind. It made sense why once his feet touched solid ground again and he opened his eyes. This reality was minuscule, just one hill atop which sat a lonely mausoleum. Much like Discord, it didn’t need a sky, yet the bubble itself was tinted with a slight orangey-yellow glow, casting the entire hill in perpetual sunset.

“That’s a little cliché, isn’t it?” Niko gestured to the mausoleum.

She looked at him oddly for a moment. “Maybe so,” she said finally. “But that’s where the Morrigan laid him to rest. Go on. He’s waiting for you.”

“Right,” Niko mumbled. These shoes were definitely not made for walking over such rough terrain, but he made due as he approached the top of the hill. The tomb was a simple, stone building with little in the way of adornment. That made sense; Niko never would have believed they were the same guy otherwise.

He paused at the slab over the entrance. He wished for a moment that he could feel the sun on his face one last time. But he guessed the very existence of the “sun” was a lie anyway, so what did it really matter?

Something was on the other side of this door, he could feel it. He guessed he probably shouldn’t keep Okin waiting. So he put a hand on the slab, and it immediately sunk into the ground with a low, grating noise. After staring inward for a moment, Niko stepped inside.

It should have been dark in there, that was the only thing that really made sense, yet it wasn’t. Instead, right above the stone coffin that lay in the center of the room, there was a soft, yellow light, which pulsed gently as if something within was drawing breath.

“So this is all that’s left of ya, huh?” Niko asked. “That’s a little depressing.”

He didn’t know why, but Niko suddenly felt its gaze turn to him. “Indeed,” a voice, one that sounded more like it was coming from inside his own head, but was clearly originating from the ball of light chuckled. “It appears I got the short end of the stick in this arrangement.”

“Well, that’s why I’m here,” Niko said. “To restore things to the way they ‘should be’.”

“You don’t sound very pleased.”

“Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. I mean, imagine one day you get told your entire life up until this point didn’t matter.”

“It wasn’t necessarily pleasant.”

Niko paused. “Oh, yeah, right. But at least you got to do cool shit after. I just… have to die.”

The light examined him for a moment. “I am not a charlatan, nor am I dishonest,” he said suddenly. “So unlike certain… individuals I have the displeasure of being acquainted with, I will not lie to you. I know why you have really come here.”

“And why’s that?”

“To save a friend from what you consider an ‘unjust’ fate.”

“I don’t know if I would call him a friend, but go on.”

“You intend to use my power to reverse his fate. But I will tell you this now: Douglas Bailey is already gone.”

“What are you talking about?” Niko frowned. “His execution isn’t for another day at least, there’s still—“

“He was offered a similar choice to the one you face now, and he elected to take it.”

“A similar… son of a bitch,” he muttered. He really couldn’t believe he hadn’t figured this out much sooner. For someone who prized himself on his wit, he could be a real moron sometimes. “Bacchae is in the labyrinth.”

Was,” the light corrected. “The god of madness has already returned.”

Niko leaned against a wall, and shook his head. He couldn’t believe he was feeling things for Doug Bailey. Yeah, he’d been kind of a raging asshole, but he’d just been a kid, just like Niko, just like… just like Lila had been. Niko had to admit that he might… might almost end up missing the overinflated douche balloon.

He didn’t say any of this to the light, however. He probably already knew what he was thinking anyway. So Niko decided to put on some false bravado, for his own benefit if nothing else.

“There goes my selfless sacrifice, I guess,” he hated the small shake he heard in his voice. “I was kinda banking on that to get me through this.”

“It sounds like you haven’t really made up your mind,” the light intoned.

Niko ran a hand through his hair. “I thought I had, but…”

“I’m sorry if I caused you confusion,” the light seemed to sigh. “I didn’t want you to give up your life without truly being ready for it.”

“That’s real… noble of you.”

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t be. For me, it’s only a matter of time before I live again. But you only have the one life. It would be a shame to waste it.”

Erupting into laughter, it took Niko a minute to realize that he was being genuine. “Sorry,” he said, trying to explain. “It’s just rare that I meet someone so… genuinely well-meaning.”

“You are… very different from how I imagined you being.”

“Not living up to your expectations, am I?”

“It’s not that. You do possess a moral compass, a sense of order, I suppose. But they are very… different than mine. It’s odd, considering that you came from me.”

“We’ve lived pretty different lives, farm boy,” Niko snorted. “You didn’t grow up getting told you might get shot any second just because of who your absent father is. You haven’t… lost people because of that.”

As Niko stared off into the distance, the light pulsed slowly in thought. “I have lived for a very long time,” he said. “But I think, somehow, in your short time in this cosmos, you’ve lived far more than I have.”

“I’m sure that’s not true. You’ve killed gods.”

“But I’ve never struggled as you have, never faced so much hardship,” he sighed. “Deep down, do you truly want to give up that body?”

“When I came here I… I thought I was ready, but now… now I’m not so sure. Doug… Doug didn’t really get a choice, you know? And I feel like… like given the chance, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t want me to give up the ghost just yet.”

“You do know that someday, we will meet again.”

“And on that ‘someday’, I will have a much better answer for you. But… is that really okay? I kinda went back on my word.”

“Go and live a full life, Niko. And when you do return to me, we will both be better for it.”

“What will you do until then?”

“I think I must drift away again. I’m only conscious now because you’re so close. But I will be watching you, Nikolai Borozov.”

“So don’t disappoint you?”

“All I ask is that you simply do not die.”

Niko chuckled, and the light asked what he found so amusing.

“Oh nothing,” he replied. “I was just thinking that the two of us might not be so different, after all.”

~~ o ~~

Valki looked up expectantly as Niko exited the tomb. This… wasn’t great. He had no idea how he was gonna break it to her, and he had the distinct notion that she wasn’t going to take it very well.

“Okin?” her voice echoed over the hill, and her eyes were so hopeful that it made his chest tighten.

He took a deep breath. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s still just me.”

Valki’s face fell, her eyebrows knitting together in confusion. “What do you mean? What could have possibly happened?”

“We just had a little talk, that’s all. I… I admit that I came here with an ulterior motive. I had a… friend that I was hoping to help out of a bad situation but… I guess he won’t be needing it anymore. I told the big man that I didn’t wanna go yet and he agreed to wait a little longer.”

Though he tried his best to explain it to her calmly and rationally, Niko was learning that rationality was not a quality Valki valued highly. She practically bristled, and stood from where she’d been perched atop a crumbing stone fence. “You… Who do you think you are? You can’t do that.”

“I don’t think that’s really your call to make.”

“The hell it’s not.” She walked pointedly towards him, reaching for the sword at her belt. “Do you know how much I’ve worked, and waited, and sacrificed, all just to get him back?” Even as she came closer, Niko didn’t move, not even to reach for a gun. “I am not about to let some mortal child get in the way.”

With one swift motion, Valki’s sword was now pressed firmly against his jugular. But still, Niko didn’t move. Even if everything else was different… her eyes. Her eyes were still the same, and he had been here before.

“Are you gonna kill me, Lila Valki?”

For just a split second, he thought he saw something in those eyes, some sort of recognition. She froze, but after her teeth clenched in frustration, she pulled away.

“I… I can’t,” she muttered. “If I kill you, then there’s no hope left.”

Niko chuckled, and she frowned.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, it’s just… You’re really not her, are you? I keep waiting and hoping, but you’re just… not her. You never can be. Because… because Lila is dead. She’s dead and she’s not coming back.”

It was so simple. He’d said it to himself so many times, thought he’d come to terms with it. And yet this whole time, Niko had still been waiting for her to come back. But all of this, all this cosmic bullshit didn’t mean anything, in the end. It didn’t change anything.

“And that’s exactly why I have to live. Because she can’t anymore.”

“Why can’t I get you to understand?” she growled. “She was always meant to die. You are meant to die. Neither of you are real. You do not matter.”

“Maybe once I’m gone, maybe then no one will remember us. But as long as I live, so did she. So just be patient and wait for me to be done. You have eternity, don’t you?”

He walked past her, down the hill. As far as he was concerned, this conversation was over. If she didn’t get it by now, she wasn’t going to.

“Then what am I supposed to do?” she shouted at him.

He turned back around, and stared at her.

“My entire existence, I… I live only for him. If he’s… if he’s gone, then what… what am I supposed to do?”

Niko paused, as he remembered then that she was an immortal angel. She had never experienced loss before. Even if a temporary one. Valki was not Lila, but there were some ways that they were so similar it hurt.

He knew what he had to do then, what he had to say. It was that thing that he so desperately wanted to say to her, the reason why he wished that he had died that day instead. Because Valki was feeling the same. He wasn’t Okin, but he was all she had. She was asking him for benediction.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “It’s your life. Do whatever you want.”

Benediction was not something he could give her.

So he turned away. That was all he could do. He had his life to live, and she had hers. Niko sincerely hoped that she’d take his advice to heart. But if she didn’t that was her problem.

It was time for her to move on. And it was time for him to move on as well.

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