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Valkyrie Someone was singing. It was soft, calm, familiar. And a smell. Something was cooking, sizzling near her ears. Lila opened her eyes, and immediately knew that she was no longer alive. This couldn’t be real. She was laying on the couch in the living room that she hadn’t seen since her mother had died. It had to be, there was the one piece of thread that she always picked at when she was bored, and when she turned her head to look at the TV, she saw a samurai bowing to an emperor in black and white. This wasn’t happening, and yet it was. She sat up, looking the other way over the back of the couch, over to the kitchen. Her heart nearly stopped in her chest. Her mother was making pancakes, humming quietly to herself. Lila tried to open her mouth to say something, anything, but she found it glued firmly shut. After a minute, her mother plopped the pancakes onto two plates and turned. She smiled as she saw Lila staring at her. “Oh, when did you wake up, Lili?” “You’re not my mother, are you?” It was nearly a statement. The imitation was perfect: the long, tangled orange hair, the bags under her tired, worried eyes, even the nickname she used to call her. But there was something undeniably missing. The woman dropped the smile, the harried, worried look faded. “No,” she said, a Celtic accent slipping through, “I am not.” “And I’m dead.” “Ai.” “So you’re... death, then?” The woman shrugged. “If you like. I’ve gone by so many names that it hardly matters anymore. Would you like a pancake? I fear they’ll soon be soggy.” After a singular blink, Lila reached out to take a plate. Death sat down next to her on the couch, the springs creaking lightly. Not taking her eyes off of her, Lila took a bite, the taste of over-sugared Aunt Marma’s syrup tickling the taste buds on her tongue. Just like the ones her mother used to make before she died, before Lila had met the Borozovs and fallen into their world. Before Niko. “Is Niko alright?” she asked. “He’ll live,” Death nodded. “Though whether he’ll be ‘alright’ or not is entirely up to him.” Lila frowned. “What do you mean by that?” Smiling, Death looked to her kindly. “This realm, my realm, is outside of time. I could show you, if you like.” Hesitating, Lila thought for a moment. The curiosity bit down on her, hard. But at the same time, did she really want to see what would happen to Niko? That was silly, of course she did. Not knowing and wondering about it was worse than any truth. “Yes. I would like that.” Death placed her plate down on the coffee table and smiled, before Lila blinked and she was gone. In fact, the whole room was gone, and Lila found herself out in the pouring rain. She herself, however, remained completely dry. It was as if she was watching a movie, able to see but unable to interact with anything in any meaningful way. She glanced around, squinting through the wet. It was dark, maybe past midnight, but from what she could see she seemed to be in some sort of graveyard. Stone slabs of various shapes and sizes jutted out of the darkness like ghosts. Lila tried to take a few steps forward, but found herself unable to move more than a few feet, as if tethered to something. She turned, and directly behind her was a very old, simple grave. Squinting, she tried to make out the name nearly corroded away and after a few moments she sat back. This was her grave, and it looked as if it had been here for a long time. There was a thump behind her, and she turned, only to see an old man staring through her at the grave. He was short, and battered, but his one remaining golden eye still shone brightly. “Niko...” the word was barely even a whisper. His face was wrinkled and scarred, his jaw hard and set, with no trace of its former humor. But it was him. She knew it. She also knew that he could not see her, that he wasn’t even real, just a shadow of a thing that would be, but she reached out to touch his cheek regardless. He stayed perfectly still, just staring down at her grave, though she could have sworn that he leaned into her gesture. Then, without a word, he pulled out his gun and shot himself in the head. Lila stood, frozen, as blood splattered her tombstone as his body fell through her towards the ground. A small noise escaped her throat unbidden, the closest to a scream of anguish that she was capable of. For the longest time, she couldn’t stop staring at the lifeless body of the old man, unable to even think let alone process what she had just seen. There was a small cough next to her ear. Death leaned on her grave. “Why would you show me that?” Lila asked, eyes still fixed on the body. “Because it’s the truth. Nine times out of ten, in most timelines imaginable, this is what will happen.” Lila shook her head. “What could possibly lead him to do this?” “Go back further, maybe you’ll see.” And with those words, Death disappeared. “Go back?” Lila asked the air. “What does that—?” But she didn’t finish her sentence, because with nary a sound the world began spinning backwards. The sun shot from west to east, then the moon, faster and faster until they became a blur. And then it stopped. It was nighttime again, though this one was considerably more cold and less rainy. Lila felt a presence, and turned to see that someone was leaning on her grave. She couldn’t see their face, as it was covered by a large fedora pulled low over the eyes. They seemed to be waiting for something. A minute later, they got it. He didn’t look quite as old this time, his hair still had a few flecks of blond and his wrinkles weren’t quite as deep. He looked angry. There were no greetings. He simply opened his mouth and began to speak directly. “How dare you,” he croaked, his voice hoarse from too many cigarettes. “You take my son, and then you make me beg for his soul over her grave?” “A fitting sort of irony, wouldn’t you say?” the man chuckled. “Considering that they both saved your pathetic life.” Niko drew his gun and cocked it, but the man just kept talking. “Think about it: what has your life really been worth? When was the last time you were truly happy? Before her death, right?” “You’re a sick bastard, Bailey.” “Face it, Nikolai Borozov, you son is the only thing of value you’ve left on this earth, and isn’t it just a cruel twist of fate that you’re going to outlive him?” “That was the last thing you’re ever going to say, cocksucker. Hope you’re pleased with it.” He drew back his arm to connect with the man’s face, and Lila caught a split second glimpse of white hair under the hat before the world began to spin again. It didn’t last long this time. Maybe only a day, maybe two. The sun was setting, casting red fingers over the graveyard. This time it was Nikolai in front of the stone, staring down at it, his hand on the top. She felt a warmth on her shoulder, as if that’s where his hand was, and not on the grave at all. “Alright!” said a voice. “I’m ready to rumble.” A boy, he couldn’t have been older than eighteen, was approaching Niko with a spring in his step. He was taller and thinner than him, but he had the same, golden eyes. “What’s the passphrase?” Nikolai asked without looking up. The kid rolled his eyes. “Aw, come on, dad. Do you really need me to say that crap?” “I need to know it’s you, and not some daemon.” “Lila,” he sighed. “There, I said it. Can we get going now?” “Alright,” Nikolai nodded, beginning to walk away from the grave. “But promise me you’ll be careful out there tonight. I hear Bailey’s back in town. And when he’s involved, there’s always trouble.” Lila wanted to step forward, to stop them, but she couldn’t move beyond her grave, much less get them to hear her. There was nothing she could do to stop the inevitable from happening. And then everything was flying away once again. Backwards, backwards, how many days, how many nights? It was raining again, the sky a muted shade of grey. Somewhere across the graveyard was a funeral, people in black huddled around an open grave, umbrellas. And yet here came Nikolai, middle-aged, his scars and misery fresher. He stood there, once again staring down at her grave. “Niko…” she muttered, and to her surprise, he pricked up his ears. But then a second later, a young boy, his son again, Lila assumed, approached him. “Daddy,” he asked, “when is Mommy coming back?” Nikolai sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He glanced once more at Lila’s grave. “She’s not, kid. She’s dead. Once you’re dead you don’t get to come back.” Eyes widening, Lila understood. This was his wife’s funeral. This was his wife’s funeral and here he was at Lila’s grave instead. Further, go back further. Now it was a cool spring day, the leaves rustling in the trees. And there was Niko, her Niko, maybe only a few years older than how she remembered him, sitting in front of her, staring at the ground as if unable to look at her. “I got married today,” he said finally, in such a tone that should never fit with those words. “She’s a Mirelli. Who would’a thunk, right? Finally the family feud has come to an end.” He shook his head and sighed. “I don’t feel anything for her, and I seriously doubt she could say differently.” After another minute, he looked up at her. “But the whole time, when she was walkin’ down the aisle, when we were sayin’ our vows, I kept… I kept thinking she was you, like she would lift up her veil and it would be you smiling at me instead. Crazy idea, right?” he laughed. “I couldn’t help being a bit disappointed when it wasn’t.” Even if she could have said something, Lila’s mouth was frozen shut. All she could do was shake her head and try to hold back the tears. She failed. And so she cried for him. She cried for the boy she knew who the world had beaten down until he was nearly unrecognizable. She cried for all the pain and hurt that he didn’t know he would have to endure. And she cried for her inability to do anything about it. When she next looked up, she was someplace else entirely. A hospital room, the beep of the heart monitor. Her sword was against the wall. And again, she found herself unable to move away from it. Niko was standing, trying to get his torn shirt on, though he was still clearly in pain from the slash across her chest. “I tried,” he was saying to himself. “I tried, and I failed.” “What did you try?” she asked him, even though she knew he couldn’t hear her. He seemed to respond anyway. “I thought I could make it on my own, I thought I was clever.” “You are.” “I’m not clever. I never was.” He sighed. “So what are you going to do now?” “It’s time to go home.” He shook his head. “I can’t do this on my own.” And there it was, the decision that would make all of the things she had seen happen. She didn’t know how she knew, she could simply feel the future diverging right at this moment. “No!” she shouted before she could stop herself. “Don’t go, you idiot! There are people who care for you here! People who will help you!” But without a second glance, he grabbed her katana and was out the door, into the yawning night beyond. After that, the world faded, and Lila was left in darkness. She sank to her knees. This was all her fault. If she hadn’t died, if she had found a way to get them all out alive, then Niko might have had a chance. A chance at a different future. “It’s not fair,” she whispered to the darkness. “He doesn’t deserve this.” Is that your judgement?” asked a voice. It took her a minute to realize that there was no one else here. The words had come out of her own mouth. “What—?” she began. Is that your judgement?” the voice asked through her again. “You find his life unjust?” “Yes. Yes I do.” Then why not do something about it?” “What could I possibly do?” Try.” And she found herself in the hospital room again. Again Niko was pulling his shirt on. Again he was talking to himself. “I tried. I tried and I failed.” Then all you can do it try again,” said the voice from her mouth. She had to stop him, she had to do something. But what? “I thought I could make it on my own.” You still can.” Lila approached the mirror above the sink. Desperately, she breathed on it, and much to her surprise, it clouded. She nearly cried out in joy. But what could she write? What would let him know that she was still here, that she was still watching and he couldn’t give up yet? She smiled and began to write. A minute later, Niko approached the sink and froze as he saw the word written there. He stumbled backwards and sat back down on the hospital bed. Putting his face in his hands, his shoulders shook. Was he crying? No, for a second later he tilted his head back in laughter. “Well, I guess you want me to stay, huh Lila?” he looked over at her sword. “Well, alright then. If you insist. You always did prefer the hard road, huh?” Lila smiled, and nodded. She faded away just as the word “Pancakes” on the mirror faded as well. She found herself again in the darkness, but this time she wasn’t alone. Death smiled at her. What is this place?” Lila asked. “It is uncertainty,” said Death. “There are many possible futures for that boy now.” I helped him,” Lila said. “I want to keep helping him. How can I do that?” “You can remember.” Remember what?” “That voice that you hear? The one using your mouth to speak. It’s your true voice. Welcome back, Valkyrie.”

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