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Yggdrasill The first two days Niko stumbled through various states of delirium. Over and over again he saw that one singular moment, Lila turning away from him as he struggled against Cindy’s vice-like grip, trying to get to Lila, stop her, his throat raw from screaming her name. The reverberation never quite left his head, ringing continuously though his ears. Every once in a while, he felt the pain in his chest, inside and out, and the pain in the place where his eye used to be. The socket stung in the shape of a long, thin blade. It hurt, it felt like his wounds were being rubbed with salt. And for the first time in years, he was entirely alone to bear it. Somewhere far away, he heard a beeping, and dimly registered that he was in a hospital room; everything was white, so white that for a minute he hoped he’d died, but then the salted wound would return to remind him that he had most certainly not. He wanted to be dead. Every minute he hoped the beeping of the heart monitor would turn to a drone and he would slip away before anyone could do anything to save him. But the stubborn thing just kept on with its damn beeping, always barely on the edge of his consciousness. On the second night he woke up properly. He sat up in the uncomfortable hospital bed, and rubbed his eye, hissing as he accidentally touched the bandage over the place where it used to be without even thinking about it. But before he could actually think a coherent thought he fell asleep, properly for the first time since he had been brought here. The third day, Niko woke to the sound of birds chirping out his window and the sun shining down on his bed. For a split second, everything was fine. Then he remembered why his insides felt like they had been scooped out with a dull knife and that was that. He hadn’t cried in years, he thought he was made of tougher stuff than that. Except that Lila was fucking dead, and in that moment he realized that she was what made him tough in the first place, in both a metaphorical and very literal sense. What was he without her even? And why did she have to die? So he cried. The tears, hot and wet, ran down his face and soaked the bandage through. He hadn’t even realized you could cry without an eye. It was oddly poetic that the last thing she touched was the part of him that dripped the most. By the time a nurse came in to check on him he had gotten a hold of himself. “Oh, you’re awake,” she said, smiling. “Let me get you some breakfast.” Hospital food was bland and colorless, he knew that from experience, but this was a whole other story. Either Ede Valley hospital food was a special brand of terrible, or everything was going to taste like shit from now on. Great, another one of life’s simple joys ripped clean away. Lunch and dinner were equally terrible, in between which he watched TV or slept. The news was having a field day with St. Adelaide’s, though oddly enough, not a single thing about him, or Cindy, or any of the others had come up. One would think that four teenagers entering the school would make the headlines, but maybe Aurum had done something to cover it up. She was a dragon, who the fuck knew what she was capable of. Niko was grateful for the injuries—and for the pain killers they had him on—because without them, he never would have slept, and he needed that oblivion, so that he wouldn’t have to think about Lila’s bloody, mangled body lying in a garbage room deep within that hellish school. Wouldn’t have to think that if he’d just been a little smarter, none of that would have happened. The fourth day was exactly the same. The nurses were worried about him; he said little and ate less. Secretly, he was hoping he could malnourish himself to death, but he didn’t even have the guts to really try that hard. It was finally hitting him now, that she was dead. An innocent part of him had been half-expecting her to walk through the door every time it opened. But of course she didn’t. She was gone. He was never going to see her ever again. On the fifth day, however, he got a visitor. He was thoroughly surprised when the nurse asked him if he’d like to see them, and even more so when it was Cindy who walked through the door. She stood there for a minute, the two of them just looking at each other. It was clear Niko wasn’t the only one who had been crying. That made him feel a little better. Cindy had always seemed so… strong to him, so in control. Now she looked as though she had shrunk several inches as she leaned uncomfortably against the door frame. “Hi,” she said finally. “Hi.” There was another pause. “You can come in, you know,” he added. Cindy blinked. “Oh. Sorry, I was just thinking.” She sat in the chair next to his bed, picking at a loose thread on the seam of the arm. “So, why are you here?” Niko asked. “I would have thought Sonia maybe, but…” “Sonia is a little… indisposed at the moment.” He raised an eyebrow. “That’s… not worrying.”

“It’s…” Cindy struggled with her words. “Hard to explain. I’ll be able to show you once you’re out of here. She’s alright, before you ask,” she added as Niko opened his mouth. “But I’m here because you’re my friend, and Lila was too.” Niko’s hand tightened around his sheet. “How’s your eye?” “Peachy keen,” he managed a minuscule smirk. “If it’s not in my head it can’t hurt me, right?” “That’s one way to put it,” she shrugged. “It’s a little hard to see,” he admitted. “But the doctor told me it’ll get better once my head adjusts, though my dreams of being a professional beach volleyball player are utterly crushed.” Despite herself, Cindy laughed. “So, are you gonna get a glass one?” “Nah,” he shook his head. “In my line of work, an eye patch is much more intimidating.” “Oh, I almost forgot!” Cindy said suddenly. “I brought you something.” She dug into her tiny bag, and much to the chagrin of physics at large, pulled out something long and thin that never in a million years should have fit into it. It took Niko a minute to realize that it was a katana. Lila’s katana. He froze, his veins turning to ice. “How did you get this?” he asked. “It was the strangest thing,” Cindy frowned. “I woke up this morning, and there it was at the foot of my bed. I figured that you’d want it.” He hesitated. He almost felt like he wasn’t worthy to touch it. Like he would burst into flame from the metal itself. But he couldn’t leave Cindy hanging, and so reached out to take it. Thankfully, it didn’t burn him, it was just a sword after all. It didn’t look quite as impressive in the harsh, white hospital light. Or maybe because it wasn’t Lila who was holding it. It was simple metal, unadorned, but even with only one eye Niko could see just how deadly sharp it was. Lila had taken good care of it. The small pit in his stomach grew larger. “Thank you,” he whispered. Cindy placed her hand on top of his, and smiled sadly. She stayed for a few minutes longer, and then departed. And again, Niko was alone. He didn’t sleep well that night, tossing and turning. The sword seemed to be staring at him, accusing him. By the next morning, he had come to the admittedly irrational conclusion that it was his fault she’d died. It had to be, didn’t it? If he hadn’t let things get out of hand, if he had been smart enough to keep the situation in control, if he hadn’t got his damn eye cursed or whatever the hell it was that that guy Gil had done to it, then Lila wouldn’t have had to sacrifice herself. She shouldn’t have anyway. They should have left Niko behind instead. His mind kept circling around and around, all the things that had caused this. If they had never gone to that school, if they had never met Cindy, if they had never come to Ede Valley in the first place. They never should have done that. In hindsight, that had been the dumbest decision he’d ever made. When he’d been at the hospital for a full week, he asked the doctor when he could leave. He couldn’t stand being trapped between these four white walls any longer. But apparently, he was in a difficult position. He was still a minor for another week, and they couldn’t let him leave without a guardian’s say so. No one had told them who he was, of course, so the doctor had no choice but to keep him here until he was eighteen. There was no way he was staying there for another week. No way. No way in hell. He’d go crazy sitting here, doing nothing. He’d have to leave. But where would he go? He couldn’t stay in Ede Valley any longer, that much was certain. There were people here who thought he could lead them. If he was put in charge of anything, even himself, someone would get hurt. So that left one option: to go home. He held out for two more days; he had to make sure that he was well enough, and so that the hospital staff would forget that he’d asked. On the ninth night, he got ready to leave. He slowly, painfully pulled on the suit that was hanging next to the bed. The shirt was still ripped, but no one would notice if he buttoned the coat. As he stretched his arms, the gash on his chest complained painfully, but he managed. And yet, there was still a voice in his head that told him he was abandoning Cindy, and Tommy, and the others. “I tried,” he told it. “I tried and I failed.” What did you try? “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. “It’s time to go home.” He turned to the sink, to splash some water on his face. But when he looked up at the mirror, he froze. Quite inexplicably, the glass was fogged, and one word was written there, in familiar handwriting: “Pancakes.” And all of the sudden, it all broke, all of the guilt, all of the fear. The pain was still there, but he doubted that would ever truly go away. He sat back down on the bed and laughed into his hands. It was her. He didn’t know how, but he knew Lila was still there. She was still watching over him. “Well, I guess you want me to stay, huh Lila?” He addressed the air. “Alright then, if you insist. You always did prefer the hard road.” Of course, there was no response, but he didn’t need one. He grabbed Lila’s sword, finished pulling on his jacket. The fact was that all of them, Cindy, Aurum, Tommy, Marcell, they were all very knowledgeable and skilled, but none of them could plan. They needed him. But he couldn’t scheme in a goddamn hospital. He needed quiet. The house, the abandoned house. That was the place he needed to go. It would be strange to be in that place alone, but that was his. His space. Alone for the first time, but with Lila’s sword at his side, Niko headed out into the night.

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