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Retribution

By Brasscat

Disclaimer #1: This piece of fiction contains a lot of extremely adult language that may be offensive to some, but was needed for effect in the story. If you feel the language may offend you, please read no further.

Disclaimer #2: One scene and part of another are loosely based around two similar scenes in the film "Good Will Hunting". I acknowledge and respect the work of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and the inspiration parts of that film provided is indicative of my appreciation of the work.

Disclaimer #3: I cannot say that the people and events depicted in this story have no resemblance to any real people or events, because it wouldn't be true. My greatest friends and enemies are all in here, though not under their real names or necessarily even under their own characters. You may or may not recognise yourselves, guys. I'm not going to apologise for incorporating people I know into this. However, no offence was intended toward any of the people in this story. This was written for me alone.


"Lei? You awake?"

"No..."

It was only late evening, barely night. Nonetheless, in B35 the lights were out. Duke smiled slightly in the dimness of his room and tugged the blanket off his companion. Suddenly devoid of covering aside from a flimsy shirt and underwear, she curled up into a ball and opened one eye.

"Okay, maybe."

"That's better..."

Leila pulled the blanket back and rolled over with her back to him. "Mmf... well, now that yer satisfied we can all sleep, right?"

"Move in wit' me."

He couldn't see her face, but her back stiffened and she was completely still for a moment. "...What?"

Duke sat up and put a hand on her shoulder. "Move in wit' me, sweetheart. You an' Kiya; she can have the next room." She was silent; not a good sign. Duke continued, "C'mon, Lei, we've been together a long time..."

"So?" Leila's voice, like her back, was tense.

"I want ya ta move in wit' me."

"How do you know that?"

"I just know."

"Yeah, but how?" She sat up and turned to face him, pulling the blanket around her shoulders to cover herself up.

"I don't know, I just feel it."

"An' yer sure about that?"

Duke answered instantly. "Absolutely."

"'Cause that's a serious thing yer sayin'." Leila was acting almost as if she hadn't heard his reply. "I mean, we might be livin' in here together next week an' you could find out somethin' about me that ya don' like. An' ya might feel like ya made a huge mistake." She was getting visibly upset now. "But ya can't take it back because ya know it's real serious an' ya can't jus' take somethin' like that back!"

He held up a hand to stop her and she completely overrode him. "So I end up stuck in here wit' you; an' I'm unhappy 'cos I can feel things ain't right, an' yer unhappy because yer stuck wit' me when ya don' really want me; when ya just wish ya had a casual."

"Casual?" Duke shook his head, frustrated and a little confused. "I don' want a casual, Leila... I want ya ta live wit' me."

"Well I can't."

"Why not?" He countered instantly.

"Because... because I got my daughter an' my job... an'..." She faltered.

There was a short silence, and Duke broke it. "Look, Leila, if yer not in love wit' me, you can say that."

"I'm not sayin' I'm not..." she hesitated as she always did on the word, "in love wit' you."

"Then what are you afraid of?" he challenged.

She stared at him. "Whaddya mean what am I afraid of?"

"Why won't you move in here? You scared of me or somethin'? Scared of commitment? What is it? What're you so scared of?"

"What am I so scared of??" Leila was standing up, angry; furious, in fact.

He'd hit a nerve, and he pursued it. "Wait, no, what aren't ya scared of? You live in yer safe little world where nobody challenges you an' yer scared shitless ta do anything else--"

"Don't you tell me about my world." Leila jabbed an accusing finger at him. "Yer the one who's afraid! You jus' wanna have yer little fling wit' me, make me inta some kinda challenge fer you ta overcome an' when ya done that move onto the next--"

"Is that what you think--"

"-woman who you can sweet talk inta bed so you can feed yer ego an' yer nice little reputation; an' add me to the list of yer past triumphs. Then when ya finally do settle down you'll sit around wit' the rest of the pre-mid life crisis group an' talk about how once upon a time you were a casanova too." The last two words were spat out bitterly, and now she subsided, her eyes still hard.

Duke dropped his legs over the edge of the bed and sat staring up at Leila, trying to absorb her words properly. "Is that really what ya think this is?" He shook his head slowly. "Lei... that reputation's a burden ta me. Because of it, ya don't trust me. An' if I could go back an' change everythin' I did, I would, because maybe then you'd believe me. Drake, I'd give it all up ta be wit' you." He frowned. "But I can't. It's done, an' that's life. An' I deal wit' that. I'm sorry about it, but I deal wit' it. So don't put that shit on me. Yer the one who's afraid."

She tore the blanket off her shoulders angrily and threw it in his direction. "What the fuck am I afraid of?!"

Pushing the blanket aside, Duke stood up face to face with her, looking down into her eyes. She didn't move a muscle, yet he could sense an unseen part of her cringing. "Yer afraid of me. Yer afraid I won't love you back." Leila seemed to flinch ever so slightly with each statement and Duke knew he was finally, finally hitting the mark. "Guess what? I'm afraid too. But at least I have the guts ta give it a shot. At least I'm honest wit' you."

"I'm not honest?"

"So it's just a coincidence that every time we get around to talkin' about yer past you change the subject."

"Oh, is that what this is about?" Leila's voice went up an octave. "You wanna hear that I don' even know my own real name? Oh wait, here's one you'd like; you wanna hear all about how I was a stripper?! Is that what you wanna hear?"

"Yeah, Leila, I didn't even know that." Duke made an effort to counter her voice by keeping his calm.

"No. No, you don't wanna hear that."

"Yes, I do."

"You don't wanna hear about how my fuckin' mentor used me as a godamn punchin' bag when he was drunk! That he used ta hit me where the bruises wouldn't show so other people wouldn't see! That this--" and she pulled up her shirt to reveal the scar across her stomach, "-was far from the worst thing he ever did ta me!" She yanked the shirt down again, eyes squeezed shut against the tears that were trying to start and screamed, "You don't wanna hear Falcone raped me!" She gasped in a breath and continued harshly, "You don't want to hear that. Don't tell me ya wanna hear that shit!"

There was a long silence. More than a little stunned, Duke slowly pulled himself together. "Yes... I do. Did ya ever think that maybe I can help you? That maybe that's the point, that we're a team?"

Leila ran a shaking hand across her face, the movement angry and fast. "What, so you want to come in here and save me? Is that it? Damn it! Do I have a sign that says "save me" on my back??"

"I don't want to save you, Leila! I just wanna be wit' you. I love you!"

"Don't bullshit me!" Loosing control, Leila raised a hand as if to hit him. "Don't you fuckin' bullshit me!"

He could read the self-loathing and fear in her eyes as easily as if it were written there. Duke didn't back down. When he spoke, his voice was soft. "You know what I wanna hear? I want to hear that you don' love me. If you tell me that, then I'll leave you alone. I won't ask any questions an' I won't be in yer life."

There was a powerful beat of silence. Leila lowered her hand, raised her gaze and looked Duke in the eye. "I don't love you."

And she walked out.

*****

Leila emerged from her room for breakfast nearly an hour late the next morning, red-eyed and exhausted. She made her way to the Mess Hall, hoping against hope that it would be empty.

Nylessa was waiting at the door. "Lei, you're late..."

"For what?" she asked flatly.

Looking dry, Nylessa waved a hand in front of her face. "Puckworld to Leila... Your daughter?"

Leila's eyes widened. "Oh Drake, Zakiya... I forgot."

Nylessa looked a mixture of amused and worried. "Slake seemed perfectly understanding when you didn't show up. He said he doesn't mind keeping her a while longer; she and Rain are getting along well..."

Shaking her head, Leila sank down on the nearest bench and leaned on the table. "I'll pick her up after breakfast. Poor kid..."

Her friend hesitated. "Is... something wrong, Lei?"

Leila looked up rather quickly. "No. Why should anything be wrong?"

Hesitating once more, Nylessa finally made a rather nervous gesture toward her own eyes. "Your... um..."

Leila rubbed her face, feeling the slight swelling with her fingertips. Her eyes hurt. "Rough night," she muttered.

"Anything you want to talk--"

"No." Leila stood up. "Listen... I'm not hungry after all. I'm gonna pick up Zaki an' get ta work."

Nylessa stood aside and watched her friend leave, disturbed. It was such a shame. Up until now, her friend had finally seemed to be... well, happy.

*****

For the next few days, Leila and Duke avoided one another.

They ate apart, they sat apart, they rarely spoke, and most of all they slept apart.

Leila deSilver actually didn't like sleeping alone, despite appearances. Although she was fine with it most of the time, now and then, on the bad nights, it terrified her. Originally she'd had Zakiya sleeping in the same room, and by the time her daughter had decided she wanted her own room, Duke was over as often as not at nights. She wasn't used to being alone.

"Toughen up, deSilver," she muttered to herself. Her voice sounded oddly small in the thick blackness.

Leila rolled over and grabbed the digital clock beside her bed, turning the glowing face toward her until the dull red numbers - five thirty-six - came into view. She'd turned it away earlier because watching the minutes tick past had been driving her insane.

Sitting up, she rubbed her head and tried to work out if she'd slept at all. She'd turned away the clock at about one am, so... she'd had a few hours. A sleep of a few hours was better than nothing. She smiled to herself - she hadn't even dreamed.

"See? I ain't so bad..." she said to the clock.

It answered by changing the digit "6" to a "7".

Leila sat up with a sigh. "Well, guess I should get an early start in, huh? Might as well..." She was already sliding out of bed as she spoke, but really, she didn't expect much of an argument from her clock.

The basic morning routine seemed a little empty without Duke or the possibility of seeing him. She ignored that thought and checked on her sleeping daughter.

Zakiya was almost six, now, and had always been an independent child. When she woke up, she'd make her bed, check in with her Leila in the office next door, then go to get herself some breakfast in the Mess Hall, regardless of whether Leila decided to join her that morning or not. Then she might spend the rest of the day amusing herself in ways only a child or a child at heart can - playing with Rain, going on imaginary adventures though the mazelike Lair, or visiting her surrogate relatives.

She was particularly fond of Estelle, who, of course, was Zakiya's only other blood relative in the Lair. She liked visiting Iliana, her surrogate grandmother; and Milantha, one of many surrogate aunties, in the general access section of the Archive Hall - particularly now that she'd learned to read well enough to do it without help. And despite having referred to Ender as "wimpy" on more than one occasion, Zakiya seemed as fascinated by the quiet young man as Rain was. Kids seemed to love Ender.

For her own part, Leila had learned not to worry about Zakiya wandering the Lair - it seemed the thieves knew better than to touch the Leader's daughter. And Zakiya was almost frighteningly responsible for a child - assertive, yet measured and careful all at once. And very, very intelligent.

Leila leaned over Zakiya's bed and kissed her forehead softly, then straightened and headed back into her own room and toward the door to the hall. Even though her office was right next door, she'd never gotten around to having a doorway cut through directly. She wasn't sure she actually wanted to be THAT close to her job so constantly. Her bedroom was her one and only haven.

Which was why she was so shocked when she saw the graffiti spray-painted in bold, blood red on the outside of her door.

It took her a moment to absorb what the images themselves were, and that was the second and even worse shock.

Crude, mangled images of male and female genitalia adorned the doorway and the walls directly around it. And in every spare inch between the pictures was a word, repeated over and over and over again.

SLUT. SLUT. SLUT. SLUT.

Leila had been unconsciously backing away from the door the moment she'd seen what was on it, and now her back bumped into the opposite wall behind her, jerking her back to reality.

"Oh gods," she murmured, and put a hand to her mouth, not sure if she was trying to hide a desire to cry or to laugh hysterically. Closing her eyes she hurriedly ran her hands over her face and calmed down. She wasn't sure what to do. When you're the highest authority in a place, who the hell do you take a complaint like this to?

Iliana? No. She didn't want Iliana to see this. For some reason, she felt somehow responsible, guilty, and ashamed... and she respected the woman like no one else. No, nobody could see this. Except...

*****

Nylessa blinked and sat up, rubbing her eyes. The soft, quick knock at the door came again, and she sighed and half-slid, half-fell out of bed. Untangling herself from the sheets, she made her way to the door, grumbling sourly as she unlocked it and opened it.

"This better be good... Leila?"

Her friend smiled weakly. "You really ain't much of a mornin' person, ya know that?"

Nylessa ignored that. "What's wrong?"

The older woman sighed and made a small motion with her hand. "Come wit' me an' I'll show ya."

*****

Up to her elbows in soapy water, Nylessa rinsed her cloth yet again and suppressed a yawn. "Well, this is one lovely way to start the day..."

Leila stood back from the door and inspected their work. "We're getting' there... This is more effective than I thought it'd be." She raised her rag and started rubbing furiously at the door once more.

The younger woman stood and squeezed out her own cloth, watching the pink-tinged water dribble back into the bucket. "So..."

"Mmm?"

"Are you going to tell me what this is all about?"

Leila looked around, startled. "What?"

Pointing to the half-clean door, Nylessa made a face. "This. Why has this just come out of the blue? And of all things to write on your door..."

"Oh, so if you were gonna write somethin' on my door, what would you write?" the silver duck asked archly.

Nylessa suppressed a grin. "Not 'slut', Leila. I really don't think I could call you that and back that claim up." She paused, and added reflectively, "Now, if it was MY door..."

Leila raised an eyebrow.

Nylessa smirked slightly and raised her dripping hands in mock defense. "I'm kidding. Anyhow, you never answered my question."

Leila didn't get the chance to do so, either, because Duke chose that very moment to nonchalantly wander down their way, apparently from nowhere. Halfway down the hall he caught sight of them both crouched on the floor next to the soapy buckets, and even from that distance they could both see him crack a grin.

"Now that's what I like ta see; women knowin' their place!"

"Oh ho ho, Duke. Once again I find myself bowled over by your stunning wit," Nylessa called back.

"What brings ya this way, L'Orange?"

He shrugged. "Breakfast. Mess Hall's thataway."

"Oh yeah? So it is..." Leila sounded flat.

Duke coughed and glanced away for a second as he reached them. "So... uh, what's with the whole washerwoman thing ya got goin' here anyh--" He broke off as he caught sight of Leila's door. "Oh. Nice. Very nice. Who did this?"

Leila looked at him and shrugged.

"Lei... wait, ya don't think I did it, do--"

"Don't be moronic, Duke, this ain't yer style. If you wanted ta piss me off all ya'd hafta do is show up fer breakfast in the morning."

Nylessa winced. "Harsh, Lei..." she murmured.

"Ouch." Duke rubbed the back of his head. "Should I leave ta sew my head back on now, or do ya need some help?"

"We can handle it," Leila said shortly, and turned her back on him, picking up her washcloth.

Nylessa looked at Duke. He looked back at her, shrugged and sighed, then knelt and picked up another washcloth.

Leila stiffened as Duke joined her and started scrubbing the higher places on the door she couldn't reach. "I said we can manage," she growled softly.

"Actually," Nylessa interjected, "We can't really reach all the way up..." She trailed off at the dirty look she received from Leila.

Duke shrugged. "I'm always glad ta help a couple o' ladies in need."

"Maybe we don' want yer help," Leila said through her teeth.

Raising his gaze momentarily - and pointedly - to the higher-up graffiti above the door, Duke smiled very slightly, though there was a slight edge to his voice when he spoke. "Maybe ya need it an' yer just to stubborn ta realise it."

"Stubborn? I'm stubborn? I'm stubborn?? What about YOU?!"

Nylessa cleared her throat and stood up quickly. "Um... I think I'll leave you two to it, shall I?"

"YEAH yer stubborn! Yer the most stubborn person I ever met!"

"Hey, why don't ya look in the mirror sometime, Duke?! An' I mean fer a reason ASIDE from yer usual admiration of yer own looks!"

Nylessa blinked. "Okay then, I'll see you both later." She hurried away from ground zero of the apparently ensuing argument.

Duke glared at the silver duck. "Ya know, if ya bothered ta look past yer own hang-ups ya might see I really CARE about ya, Leila!"

"All ya care about is yerself; all ANY man cares about is himself!" Leila yelled.

Wade poked his head around the corner of the stairwell and grinned brashly. "Sure, and why not? What's not to like?"

Duke and Leila turned as one. "Wade, what?!" Leila snapped.

He backed off hastily. "Sorry, sorry. Uh... it's just we can hear you two around half the Lair. It's kinda early, y'know?" His head vanished and they could hear his footsteps fading as he went down the stairs to C Level.

There was a short silence. Duke rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. "Where were we? Oh yeah, the part where you start takin' the focus off yer own problems and blamin' everythin' on the fifty percent of the population with d--"

"Ain't we already had this argument?" Leila hissed.

"Yeah, but we never finished it," he muttered back, carefully keeping his voice low.

She turned away. "Consider it finished."

Duke stared at her back for a moment, then swore softly, tossed the rag into the nearest bucket, and walked off.

*****

Half an hour later, Leila had finished the door. All of it, that is, aside from the area just above it that she couldn't reach. One red word mocked her up there, emblazoned above her door like a signpost - "SLUT".

Alone in the dim, empty hall, the far-from-tall leader of the Brotherhood of the Blade jumped again and again, trying desperately to reach the red letters and failing, time after time.

Utter frustration finally overcame her. She threw the rag at the words with a hoarse cry and sank down against the opposite wall, covering her face with her hands.

When she'd finally gathered the strength, she went down to the Mess Hall - still not crowded, it was too early yet - and took a long-handled scrubbing brush from the kitchen.

By the time most of the Brotherhood was awake and heading to the Mess Hall, Leila was in her office and the wall was clean.

*****

Two days passed without event. Although Leila continued to be on edge about Duke, she'd started to think the graffiti thing had been a one-off. Good thing, too. It wasn't like she needed any further aggravation in her life...

So she continued as she had been; avoiding Duke, warding off Nylessa's careful questions, immersing herself in her work, taking care of her daughter, training her apprentice... Really, aside from the whole issue with Duke, of late she'd finally established herself a nice, firm, steady life. It was a safe life, a happy one. And she'd be damned if she'd let a little thing like a one-off incidence of graffiti take away a shred of her happiness. Such as it was, anyhow.

Sleeping alone was starting to get to her. She was worried that the nightmares might come back as they so often did when she slept away from others for too long.

Her tension kept her from sleeping, and lack of sleep took away some of her alertness during the day. Perhaps that's why, on the third morning, she didn't notice anything different about her office when she stepped in. But then how could she? The image on the door was only apparent when she closed it.

When she closed it.

On the inside.

The image was on the inside of the door.

Someone had been in her office.

But perhaps worse than all that was the image, and the words that went with it. It wasn't just her office that had been invaded. It was her mind...

*****

Ender knocked on Leila's office door.

"What?!" The voice that came from within was sharp and startled and far too high for comfort.

Ender frowned and pushed open the door. "It's me." He closed the door behind him. "Weren't we supposed to go to the Archive Hall this..." He trailed off at the look on her face; that particular expression was one he'd only ever seen once or twice in the year and a half he'd known her. But... she wasn't looking at him. She was looking through him.

No, behind him. Ender turned slowly and actually jumped slightly at the image on the inside of the door. "Wha... what? Lei..."

Although simply and a little clumsily spray-painted, the image itself was quite clear. In black paint, it was the profile of a raptrin - thick neck, heavy brows, and most of all a sharply curved beak.

And underneath were four simple words in large block letters: "CUMMING BACK 4 MORE"

Leila took a sharp breath, breaking Ender out of his spell. He turned and looked at her as she ran a shaking hand over her face. "It was here when I got here this mornin'. It wasn't here when I locked up last night."

The significance was not lost on him, but he was still trying to pull his thoughts together and work out how to comfort her all at once. "Lei, how did this... person... know? Who did this?"

"Ya think I'd be standin' here right now if I knew the bastard who did this?" she snapped.

Ender hid his slight sense of relief at the tone of her voice. Now that sounded more like the Leila he knew. He looked at the picture and the words once more, and felt a growing rage; a little molten ball of lead nestled in his stomach that expanded every second he continued to think about it. If he got his hands on the person who did this he'd be wringing necks, no questions asked.

On the surface, however, as always, Ender was almost entirely emotionless. "You're right, I know, but..." The redhead hesitated. "How... many people have you... um... told?"

Leila leaned back on her desk, folded her arms and glared at the floor, hiding the shame she could feel in her eyes. "You... an' Duke, as of about a week ago." She glanced at him through her hair, trying to gauge his reaction. He was expressionless.

"Anyone else?"

"Nobody else. I mean... he'd know..." She didn't need to define 'he'; they both knew who she meant. "But this ain't how he works." She pointed at the crude picture on the door. "He's too smart fer that... ha, if ya can believe that." She shrugged bitterly. "He wouldn't bother givin' me a warnin' like this. Ruin his grand entrance."

Ender winced a little. "Yeah... okay." He paused for a moment as something occurred to him. "This is the first thing of this kind that's happened, right?"

She looked up at him properly this time, her expression a little apologetic. "Well... no."

"Drake duCaine. Leila..."

"I know," she sighed. "Don't lecture me, kid. I thought it was a one-off, okay?"

Her apprentice raised an eyebrow very slightly at her. "So what is it now? A two-off?"

She sighed. "No. Now it's a problem. My problem."

He didn't miss the emphasis on the word 'my'. "Not if I can help it."

Leila flung her arms in the air in frustration. "Ah knew it! What is it wit' you an' Duke lately? Lay off, I can handle it! Jeez. I'm a big girl, Ender; I even dress myself."

He blushed and looked down.

Leila sighed. Ender was almost as bad... no, worse... than her when it came to anything remotely personal or physical. She'd postponed a practice once and explained to him that it was because of a heavy period, and he'd avoided her for almost a week. "Ender."

"What?"

"I can't ferget what I am."

"And what's that?"

"I'm a leader."

"So? You're also a person. And a mother. And a mentor."

"But I'm a leader first an' foremost, or at least I'm supposed to be. Damn, I had this exact conversation wit' Duke once..."

"Did he ask you what the fact that you're a leader has to do with how you handle something like this?" Ender jerked a thumb at the graffiti on the door.

"No. Why, you askin'?"

"Yeah."

Leila shook her head. "Duke didn't have to. He already knew. When yer a leader yer supposed ta deal wit' other people's problems. You ain't supposed ta have any of yer own."

"Well that's about the most unrealistic thing I've heard all day," Ender said flatly.

Leila paused, and smiled slightly. "About? About? Ya mean ya actually heard somethin' more unrealistic than that today? Gee, an' it's only nine..."

Ender tried not to smile in response, but it didn't work very well. "Stop trying to change the subject."

The older woman sighed. "Look, I can either dwell on this all day wit'out workin' anything out, which I assure you is exactly the outcome I'll get; or you can help me clean this up an' we can get down to the Archive Hall an' get on wit' our lives."

He glanced back at the door, and hesitated. "I'll help you clean it up, but..."

"And I'll get Cutter ta change the lock."

Ender sighed. "Deal."

*****

Unfortunately, the situation didn't get any better over the next few weeks. Leila still wasn't talking much to Duke, and when they did talk it was tense and awkward. Nylessa was perplexed at Leila's silence on the topic of the graffiti, and Ender was angry. Well, he didn't look much different than he ever did, but Leila knew him well enough to know when he was angry.

She'd had Cutter change the lock on her office door, and since that point it appeared not to have been invaded again. However, both the doors and the walls outside her bedroom were hit with various images and messages every few days.

One saving grace for Leila was something that she usually disliked - the grapevine, the most efficient and most unofficial system of communication throughout the Lair. Good old fashioned word-of-mouth. It took no time at all for news of the graffiti to spread around the Lair. Leila was quite frankly surprised by the number of people who volunteered to help clean off the walls, and even more surprised when a number of them offered to sacrifice their night's sleep and keep watch outside her door.

Of course, news of the impromptu guards was all over the grapevine in an instant as well, and the graffiti artist never showed hide nor hair around Leila's room after that point.

Instead, graffiti started appearing elsewhere.

The Mess Hall was the worst. Whoever the offender was, he preferred to leave his messages in prominent places - either where Leila would see them right away, or where a large amount of people would be exposed to them.

What really got to Leila, however, was that she KNEW there were some people out there who were... well... glad. Okay, not glad... but not particularly horrified either. There were people out there who were enjoying seeing her get "payback", she knew it. Of course, she also knew better than to voice that particular thought to anyone, because she knew full well she'd end up either with empty reassurances or a frown and a lecture about paranoia.

She longed to simply pull rank and search every room in the Lair for anything she could find; empty spray cans, anything. But there were a lot of people in the Lair who would object to their rooms being searched for various reasons, most of the reasons probably being ones Leila would prefer not to know. Besides, there were now hundreds of Brotherhood members. A full-scale search really wasn't an option; not for something as trivial as a little graffiti.

Pacing her office as she thought, Leila gradually became aware that one of her fingers was hurting. She pulled her hand from behind her back and examined it.

She'd bitten off all her nails, one to the point of bleeding. It was yet another symptom of her growing anxiety. "Oh gods," she muttered heavily, and sat down in her desk chair with a thump.

The latest lovely morsel had been written on the wall of the spare room that Rain and Zakiya used as a playroom. The basic gist of the message was that Zakiya was an unwanted "rape baby". Rain had found the message first and asked her daddy what it meant. Slake had come to Leila about it and she'd spent almost half an hour apologising profusely to him. He, of course, had spent the half hour insisting that it wasn't her fault.

Leila stared at her ravaged fingernails and remembered the shadow of... doubt? Disturbance? The expression of a vague, sick suspicion or realisation that had crossed Slake's face when he told her what was on the wall of the playroom. Or more specifically, when he'd read her expression as he'd told her.

She moaned softly and sank her head down onto the desk. She was loosing grip of her secret. People were going to find out now; it was virtually inevitable. The little son of a bitch knew, and he was going to torture her with it for a while before he announced it flat-out to the Lair in general. Leila wasn't sure she'd be able to handle it. All those people knowing. Their pity, their disgust. The humiliation. The fucking humiliation.

She took a deep, shaky breath, wanting to cry badly. But even that would be a point on his side, and she wouldn't let that happen.

Closing her eyes, Leila reminded herself of the reassuring elements of what was happening. The good points, few of them though there were.

The graffiti person didn't know everything, and that was a point in Leila's favour. She hadn't lost the fight yet. Knowledge was a weapon and she was starting to read the unwitting clues he left around when he demonstrated the gaps in his knowledge about her.

For instance, Zakiya had been born long before the incident with Falcone. Whilst her conception had been mostly accidental, and she had been unwanted by her father, Leila herself had very much wanted the baby.

So the person didn't know when the rape had occurred. That was good. Perhaps he hadn't even been in the Brotherhood when it happened. He seemed to know roughly when, within a year or two, and he certainly knew who'd committed it, but she didn't think he knew much more than that.

Of course, that was more than enough...

Leila lifted her head and stared around her empty office. She and Ender had scrubbed for hours trying to get the raptrin silhouette off the back of her door, but when she looked hard she could still see it, very faintly.

The Leader closed her eyes. She missed being able to talk to Lessa. And she missed Duke. "You were right, you sonofabitch," she murmured aloud. "Am I afraid? Fuck no, I'm terrified outta my mind. An' I don' even have the guts ta admit that to yer face." She sighed. "All I can do is sit here an' hope yer smart enough ta see through me." She rested her chin on her hands. "An' hope everyone else is dumb enough not to."

*****

That night, Leila's hidden enemy struck one more time.

*****

It was the first time she'd had one of her nightmares in months, and she'd awoken late the next morning, sweat-drenched and shaking. She wasn't sick - she could barely remember the last time that had happened - but she wasn't exactly bright and fresh, either.

She'd known the dream was coming. She'd been a ball of tension alone in her bed that night; every muscle in her body so tight it almost hurt.

Leila managed a small, slightly wry smile as she brushed her hair. "I woulda killed fer a massage last night," she told her reflection. "Or better yet, fer Duke. Say no more, huh?" She was trying to cheer herself up... and failing dismally. Glancing at the look on her face in the mirror once more, Leila sighed and put down the brush. "Fine, be a misery guts all day. See if I care..."

She wasn't angry with Duke now. In fact, she could barely remember why she'd been angry with him in the first place. All she knew was that she regretted leaving him, and most of all regretted what she'd said to him on their last night together. That was the kind of thing you could never take back.

Still a little exhausted and bleary-eyed, Leila slowly made her way to the Mess Hall. Even as she approached it she could hear the oddly muted mutter of conversation from within. Strange... she was actually rather late for breakfast. Usually there weren't many people still eating by this stage.

Ender was waiting at the Mess Hall doorway, and he stepped up to her and put a hand on her shoulder. There was a pained look in his green eyes that she'd never, ever seen to such a degree before; and the sight of it awoke her properly in an instant.

"Ender... what is it?" she asked apprehensively.

He shook his head and took a quick breath, pushing her gently back from the Mess Hall doorway. "Lei, don't. Please..."

Sick fear settled into her stomach. "What is it, Ender?" He didn't reply, and she suddenly shoved his shoulder angrily, barely budging him. "Let me through!"

"Leila..."

"I said let me through!!"

Ender closed his eyes briefly and stood aside, letting her pass. Leila shoved through the doorway.

Every gaze in the room fell on her, and conversation suddenly stopped. But that barely registered on Leila's consciousness.

What did register were the savage words slashed in red paint over every wall in the large Hall.

THE HOOKY RAPED THE DESILVER BITCH

FUCKED HER TIL SHE SCREAMED

RAPED DESILVER AND SHE LIKED IT

FUCK HER NEAR DEAD

RAPE

RAPE

RAPE

The room did a slow spin. Leila's stomach lurched and everything went a little darker, and for a moment she felt close to fainting. In her peripheral vision she could see faces, people she knew, people she'd known much of her life. Close friends, respected acquaintances, and worse yet, enemies. All of them looking at her, all those eyes, and the pity she could see in their expressions; the pity and the ghoulish curiosity was too much, too much...

And the shame was just as she'd imagined, only worse. The fucking humiliation....

Leila turned, perfectly composed, and walked slowly from the room. Her head was held high, her shoulders straight. Nylessa reached out for her friend as she passed, but Leila didn't even seem to see her. No murmured condolence reached her ears, no hesitant question seeking affirmation. She didn't see the expression on Duke's face as his heart tore for her, and she didn't hear Ender say her name as she passed him at the door.

When she reached the end of the hall and turned out of sight, she started running.

*****

In the Mainframe, Cutter tracked Leila through the security monitors. He watched her on the screen as she ran up the stairs and through the hall toward the exit, then gently reached out and turned off the cameras. She deserved that much at least.

*****

Leila burst out the doors of the cover hockey rink and into the cold, blinding white morning outside. She took two steps and fell to her knees in the fresh snowfall, burying her fingers into it as if to make sure it was real, as if to check if this was really happening. Wishing that it wasn't.

She half-pulled herself over to the side of the building and curled up against the wall, taking deep shuddering breaths and trying to calm herself. She couldn't go back, she couldn't face them all like that again. She wrapped her arms around herself tightly, shielding herself against the cold, and then found herself wondering why she was bothering.

She hated the body she was trapped in. Hated it! A sudden, violent impulse seized her from deep inside and she punched herself in the stomach, again and again and again until she was coughing and gagging on her hands and knees in the snow and it hurt too much to keep doing it.

Choking miserably, she picked up a small handful of snow and rubbed it across her face. She started feeling a little better, although her chest hurt. It wasn't from the punches. It had already been hurting before she'd done that to herself. Her whole body hurt. Everything was tight and tense and there was a kind of dull, throbbing pain going through her deep inside, which she felt was probably something mental rather than physical. It didn't matter, it just hurt. She hurt. Hurt all over.

She closed her eyes and wept softly, letting her tears fall into the scattered snow. Going back felt impossible, but she was going to do it anyhow. She had to.

Her whole life was "had to".

*****

Tarrin wasn't particularly surprised when Leila walked into his infirmary. He wasn't even all that surprised at the painful, slightly bent-forward way she was walking. He nodded her to the left-hand bed. She glanced at it, then moved away from it and sat on the right hand one.

"So what did you do to yourself, hmm?"

"Nothing. But you better look at my stomach. Think it's kinda bruised. Can't breathe properly."

Tarrin nodded and waited for her to undo the back of her bodysuit. He noted her wince as she pulled it down, and knew that the wince was not one of pain. Tarrin had always been very observant.

Leila watched quietly as the doctor poked her stomach around and above the long scar, glancing up when she made a sound and double-checking her ribs.

"You don't like that left-hand bunk much, do you," the younger man said quietly. It wasn't a question; it was a statement.

"Go ahead, ask whatever ya want," she said dully. "Question one; is it true? Yeah."

He sat back on his heels and looked up at Leila as she pulled the top of her bodysuit back up. "I don't need to. I already knew."

That took her by surprise for just a moment. "Oh. I always did wonder what ya made of that... thing... with the shower." Leila felt completely detached, and it struck her as vaguely odd that she could talk so casually about what had happened.

"I'm sorry," he said.

She shrugged. "I'll be hearin' that a lot today. You got nothin' ta be sorry for."

"Yes I do."

Leila looked down at him, suddenly a little less distant. "Why?"

The doctor shook his head unhappily, his youngish features aged by the growing expression of distress on his face. "I left you. It was terrible security. After that duel and everything I'd seen from him I should have known..."

This time Leila really was surprised. "Tarrin... It wasn't yer fault. Things happen, ya did what ya could." She looked carefully at him. "You haven't been blamin' yerself fer four years, have ya?"

He shrugged, and stood. "Why not? You do the same thing."

A careful knock on the door interrupted Leila before she could answer, and she was glad.

Tarrin went to the door and opened it. There was soft conversation, and the person left. The Doc closed the door again. "They've been looking for you, you know. There are a lot of people out there who care about you."

She laughed shortly, and it hurt her stomach. "Can't think why after the way I treated all of 'em."

Tarrin knew better than to inquire. "Lie down a while. You've had a rough day."

"I'm fine; ya didn't find anythin' wrong wit' my stomach..."

"No, but your pupils are unusually dilated. You're in shock, Leila. Lie down."

The room seemed to be darkening around her, and the feeling of detachment grew as she lay back on the bed. "I don'... feel... uhm..." Forgetting what she had been about to say, she closed her eyes and let herself fall into gentle darkness.

*****

She wasn't alone. The thought pierced the sleepy fog in her mind, but there was no fear with it. The presence with her was comforting, not threatening.

Leila opened her eyes and looked at Duke, who was sitting in a chair beside the bed, just watching her. He sat up a little as she awoke, but aside from that didn't make a move. Leila could hear Tarrin moving around in the back room.

She sat up. "Hello," she whispered.

He watched her silently, and didn't reply.

"Duke, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I know... I know ya probably don' even wanna hear it, but I gotta say this. I was arrogant an' selfish an' you were right, you were right about everything. I was scared, Duke. I AM scared. I ruined what we had because of it an' I'm sorry..."

He held up a hand, silencing her. "You had me at 'hello'." And he smiled a little shakily and took her hand. "There's something I gotta say ta you." An' fer once in yer life yer gonna listen, got it?"

She nodded wordlessly.

"Leila, I respect ya like no-one else. No, I mean it. You've... you've got this... authority, this dignity, this strength, this... fantastic inner strength that I can't even come close ta understanding. Gods, Leila, I respect ya so much it scares me. An' I love ya too much ta think about. You could kill me wit' a look an' I'd let ya do it, willingly, happily." He paused to take a breath and Leila blinked back tears. When Duke spoke again his voice was low, and intense. "Tell me ya love me. Fer once in yer life put yer ass on the line, tell me ya feel the same!"

Leila clung onto his hands and hitched in a shaky breath. "Of course I love ya, you stupid idiot. I never stopped, even when... even when I said... Ah hell, since when did ya start listenin' ta anythin' I say anyhow?"

For the first time in weeks Duke smiled properly, he really smiled, and Leila wrapped her arms around his waist in relief. He hugged her gently back.

"Sorry about all the crap I put ya through," Leila whispered. "I jus'... It's jus' that until ya said all that, I... couldn't even understand why someone like you would wanna be anywhere near someone like me."

Duke's smile faded. "Drake Almighty."

"What?" Leila genuinely didn't understand what she'd said.

"Sweetheart, there's nothin' wrong wit' you, okay? Nothin'. Yer worth as much as any other person in this Lair, in the world, ya know that."

She smiled wanly. "I know it here," and she tapped her head, "but not here." And she laid a hand across her heart. While Duke was still absorbing that remark, she continued, "What happened ta me today... that kinda thing only ever happens to me. It doesn't happen ta other people. Jus' me."

"Don' be ridiculous. Of course that kinda thing happens ta other people. You were jus' unlucky enough ta get some asshole who decided he was gonna make yer private life public. That kinda thing comes wit' the Leadership badge, y'know? It's the down side ta bein' a celebrity of sorts. You don't deserve it."

She shrugged and looked away. "Yeah, I guess."

Duke paused, thinking, then reached out and lifted her chin so she'd look at him. "No, I mean it. Ya don't deserve it."

Leila forced a smile. "Sure."

His mind was racing ahead, now. Stars... she really believes that! He hesitated, and drove ahead. "Leila. It's not yer fault. Ya don't deserve all that crap."

An odd expression stole across Leila's eyes. "W... yeah.... I-- I know."

"No ya don't," he said calmly. "You don' deserve it. You don' deserve any of it."

She swallowed. The expression in her eyes was fear, bewilderment. "Don't you start screwin' wit' my mind, Duke, you understand that? Not you too."

He was intense now, driven. "Ya don't deserve it. Ya didn't deserve it."

Leila suddenly found herself blinking back tears. "I know. Don't fuck wit' me!"

"Ya didn't deserve it, Leila, nobody ever does. Ya didn't deserve it!"

"I know, I know!" Her tears started in earnest now, and she tried to turn her face away. Duke wouldn't let her, holding her chin in his hands and staring into her eyes.

"You didn't..." he whispered, and she broke and started crying hard.

Duke took her into his arms. Shuddering with the force of her tears, Leila resisted him for a moment. Then she flung her own arms around him desperately and clung to him like she never wanted to let go, sobbing like a baby. The gray drake gently cradled her and let her cry.

*****

Although Leila was really fit to leave the Infirmary whenever she wished, Tarrin allowed her to remain in there for the rest of the day without remark.

She had a steady trickle of visitors as the day wore on. One of the first was Iliana.

The Loremaster stood at the foot of the bed, and Leila quickly stood up to greet her. Iliana smile faintly and waved her back down, and Leila sat. "I have some news you may appreciate. It seems we've identified our graffiti artist."

Leila sat up slowly. "You have? How??"

The slow, amused smile on Iliana's face was something to behold. "He boasted of his 'accomplishments' to a certain Blade Brother, who chose to report what he'd heard after he saw the damage in the Mess Hall this morning. Vindictive fools of our graffiti artist's variety all eventually come unstuck by their own folly."

"Who reported him?"

Iliana's smile only grew; Leila wasn't sure she'd ever seen the woman look quite so amused. "One Keen Lightstorm, actually."

"K-- Keen? Keen Lightstorm?" Leila stammered in utter disbelief. "Are you sure?"

"Quite sure," Iliana said crisply. "He charged into my Archive Hall announcing that someone had 'gone too far' and proceeded to describe the entire conversation he'd had with the young man almost word for word."

Duke chuckled appreciatively. "Unbelievable."

Iliana nodded. "Angels can come in the most unlikely guises..."

Taking a deep breath, Leila cut in. "Who did it?"

The Loremaster seemed to switch into businesslike mode, then. "Niellos Fetha; rank Presaber; age nineteen. He has been known to cause trouble within his own rank at times."

"I don' believe it," Leila said flatly. "He's just a kid."

"Considering the content of the graffiti, I'd have been most surprised if he wasn't." Iliana straightened a little, already preparing to leave. "He is being held down in the cells on D Level until we decide how to handle his case. After all, not only has he not broken any Brotherhood Law, I believe little of what he did can be construed as violating outside law either, aside from the single breaking and entering offence. There are sadly very few laws dealing with harassment in any system; least of all the Brotherhood's."

Leila had gone a little white under her feathers. "Are... ya sayin' we can't really do anythin' to him within the Lore?"

"I'm afraid that may be the case, yes. However, we both know that under special circumstances the Lore can be adjusted to suit the situation. I warn you, though, that that's generally only in life-or-death situations. If he had threatened you physically, it might be a different matter."

"That damn coward," Duke muttered.

Iliana paused, and spoke again. "Aside from Keen's word, we have no solid evidence to indicate Niellos actually did this. According to the Lore, we really can't hold him for more than two days without proof that he committed the crime. I'm afraid a search of his room revealed nothing. He has been covering his tracks carefully."

Leila still looked distressed, so Duke asked the question. "But you think he did it, don't ya?"

Iliana nodded. "After having spoken to him, I am quite sure. However, the adage of 'innocent until proven guilty' still stands, and I'm afraid that I must act upon that rather than my own opinion."

Leila seemed to have composed herself a little. "Thank you, Loremaster. I'll be down tonight ta deal wit' him. Let him stew in his own juices fer a while."

Iliana nodded gracefully and left.

Leila watched the closed door for a moment, then looked at Duke. "She didn't... say anythin'."

Duke shrugged. "I doubt she thought it made a difference, Lei. It doesn't. Any intelligent person'd know that. You know, I talked around a little this mornin' while you were asleep. Ya'd be surprised how few people care about it. Most people just said he'd gone too far an' they hoped we find out who it was. Others wished ya well. Nobody I talked to said anythin' derogatory, though."

Leila smiled slightly. "Is that the truth or are ya just sayin' that ta make me feel better?"

"Probably a mixture," Duke admitted. "I mean, it's the truth, but it ain't like I've talked to all that many people yet."

"Well, thanks fer makin' me feel better anyhow," said Leila, and she meant it. She linked her hand with his as the door opened again.

It was Nylessa. Leila glanced at Duke. "Can we have a couple minutes?"

He nodded, squeezed her hand and left.

Nylessa hadn't missed the hand holding, but she didn't comment. "Hi," she said warily.

Leila smiled. "Hi."

A smile. That response seemed to stump Nylessa. "Are... you okay?" she asked.

"Gettin' there. Gettin' better all the time. They found the guy..."

"Yeah, I heard. I see you and Duke are getting along again, too."

Leila nodded. There was a short silence, and they both suddenly tried to talk at once.

"I been meanin'--"

"Lei, why--"

Leila sighed. "You go first."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Nylessa asked, looking a little hurt. "I thought we told one another everything. I could have helped. I would have tried, at least. Drake duCaine, Leila, you've been carrying this alone for four years? What were you thinking?"

Leila waited patiently for Nylessa to finish. "I always meant ta tell ya one day," she said apologetically.

"So it's true?" Nylessa said softly.

"Yeah." Leila's smile was a little sad. "I wanted ta tell ya so badly. I imagined how I'd tell ya in a million different ways. I rehearsed it in my head. I was gonna start by tellin' ya that four years ago, when I was lyin' injured in the Infirmary, I had a nightmare. In the nightmare, Falcone came in while I was alone an' he raped me." She paused, and leaned forward a little. "I was going to finish by saying that I never woke up from that nightmare. You would have known what I meant." Another short pause. "But I think I finally woke up today. An' the nightmare... it's just a memory."

Nylessa blinked back tears. "Oh Lei. Dammit. I should have known; the things you said and did... But you never told me... Why are you so blasted stubborn?!"

Leila grimaced and shook her head. "Not stubborn, just shit-scared. I'm sorry, Lessa."

She held out a hand, and Nylessa hugged her instead.

"I'm sorry it happened, Lei..."

"So am I, but it did." Leila pulled back and smiled slightly. "I'm alive an' well; it's a start. An' I got my friends."

Nylessa smiled back. "Always." Something occurred to her. "Oh Drake, what on earth must you have been feeling that night Jedar killed Henbane Featherfrost?"

"I was thinkin' it woulda been nice to have had a Jedar of my own when I needed one," Leila said a little wryly.

The younger woman gestured to the doorway. Shadows moved underneath it; someone was walking around out there. "I think you already do."

Leila glanced over and seemed to warm a little. "Jus' took me a while ta realise it."

Nylessa nodded.

"Oh, before I ferget..." Leila paused, and glanced up at Nylessa. "How's Estelle?"

The redhead looked a little pained. "I was... hoping you wouldn't ask."

"That bad, huh?"

"I'm afraid so. She's an early riser..."

Leila sighed.

"She hasn't really been out of her room since. Milantha was in to see her last time I checked."

"You think she'll come see me? Estelle, I mean."

Nylessa shook her head. "I think she'll go out of her way to avoid you."

Leila nodded. "I'll call her up to my office tomorrow."

"What'll you tell her?"

"Somethin' I probably should have a long time ago. The truth..."

Nylessa smiled faintly. "Good luck." She stood. "As much as I'd love to monopolise all your time, Ender is also waiting out there. He's got that worried puppy look..."

Leila raised an eyebrow at her friend.

"Well he has!" Nylessa said defensively. She grinned a little, and left.

*****

Ender shuffled in through the door, closing it carefully behind him.

Leila was sitting on the edge of the bunk, feet on the floor and elbows on her knees. "How ya doin', kid?"

He smiled wanly. "Shouldn't I be asking you that?"

"Probably. But if I hear one more person say 'sorry' today I think I'm gonna scream. So don't even think about it."

"Gotcha." Ender sat on the end of the bed and looked over at her. "You've been crying," he stated.

Leila was rather surprised. That was the kind of thing he'd generally pretend not to notice. "So I have. It was the good kind, though."

He nodded, understanding that. "It's weird. Everyone's assumed you'd be... well, really torn up about this."

"I was torn up. I jus' got put back together though."

He nodded again, and there was a companionable silence.

Leila broke it. "You know the little ball of tension ya get at the top of yer stomach when yer hurt or havin' a bad day?"

He smiled slightly. "Yeah. Don't leave home without it, huh?"

"I did."

"What?"

"It's... it's gone."

"It is?"

She actually laughed. "Yeah! I feel... I feel so... weird. So light. I mean, the thought of confrontin' this kid is still an awful one, an' so's the thought of showin' my face aroun' the Lair again, but... somehow everythin' doesn't seem as bad as it did before."

Ender nodded slowly. "Duke talked to you, didn't he."

She looked up at him, a little surprised. "Yeah. How'd you know?"

Ender favoured her with one of his rare smiles. "Oh... I can just tell. Someone did the same thing for me once."

Leila felt a sudden lump in her throat. "C'mere, kid. I need ta borrow yer shoulder."

"That's okay." He moved up until he was sitting next to her. "I believe I owe you one."

*****

Milantha was sitting in a chair outside the cells on D Level, having evidently been given guard duty. Her expression was possibly as sour as Leila had ever seen it. She stood as Leila and Duke approached.

"Hi. He's in the first one on the left," she said shortly.

Duke and Leila exchanged a glance. "Been gettin' trouble from him?" Duke asked.

"We've talked. Well, once I learned how to translate from "dog", anyhow." She paused. "I wouldn't go in there right now..."

"Why not?" Leila was tense.

"I let Ender in."

"You did WHAT?"

*****

Ender glanced up as footsteps echoed down the hall toward the cell, then glanced back at Niellos. "...and that's a promise," he hissed.

By the time Leila and Duke reached the bars, Ender was standing up.

The youth, Duke noted, was pale as a sheet under his feathers. Leila had noticed too. She caught Ender's sleeve as he passed. "What'd ya say ta him?"

Ender shrugged, smirked slightly and left, passing Milantha on the way out. The latter waited just outside the cell, holding the keys and watching with a mixture of faked disinterest and genuine distaste through the bars.

Turning to study the occupant of the cell, Leila found herself almost devoid of the anger she'd been sure she was going to feel. The kid himself was... well, 'pathetic' was a harsh word, but it wasn't like she owed it to him to be nice, particularly in her own thoughts. She could see why he was still in Presaber, anyhow. He was skinny and small, with short brown hair, off-white feathers and very dark, intense eyes. Altogether he was rather unhealthy looking, as if he saw the light of day even less than most of the other Brotherhood members. Even though his obvious nervousness he was wearing a sneer as he stared back at her, and she could tell right then that the sneer was a common expression for him.

Leila detested "sneery" teenagers.

"I've seen you before," she said.

"So?" Niellos said rudely.

Leila smiled faintly. "You sit alone ta eat in the Mess Hall." She could sense Duke looking at her curiously. To be honest, she too was a little surprised at herself. She'd half-heartedly considered saying many things, but this hadn't been one of them. "You been in the Presaber rank fer over a year. The other Presabers don' like you, do they?"

He glared at her. "Who gives a fuck?" he muttered sullenly.

She stepped up to him, face to face. "I don't like you," she murmured. "An' I'm not a Presaber."

There was a momentary flash of fear in his eyes. Then, "You can't touch me, bitch. There's fuck-all you can do." A cocky grin grew on his face, and Leila thought the expression was perhaps uglier than the sneer. "I got freedom of speech in the Laws, you can't fuckin' touch me."

Leila paused before answering, treading carefully. "Within the laws, no, I can't touch ya. An' I gotta stick to the Laws." She lowered her voice so that only Niellos could hear her next words. "But I have friends who don' hold those Laws in such high regard. I know people who would be more than happy ta do a lot more than jus' touch ya."

His eyes widened but the smirk faded only slightly. "You threatening me? You can't play the game, bitch. I tell, you loose your job."

Duke and Milantha watched silently in the background. Only Duke was close enough to hear the conversation. He looked from the youth to Leila.

The smile on Leila's face was almost patronising. "Fine, tell." She straightened and backed off. "You'll find there's precious little laws about harassment. I did. An' I don' think you'll get much sympathy from anyone, let alone the Loremaster." Her eyes went hard, and the smile was gone in an instant. "Tread carefully. We know what ya did, an' we'll know who it is if it happens again."

He shrugged carelessly. "You got nothin' on me aside from Keen's word, and there ain't nobody out there believes a fuckin' word that moron says most of the time. I did it, and I'll keep doing it. You got nothing on me, bitch."

Leila threw a look over her shoulder at Duke. He smiled charmingly, pulled a small tape recorder out of his pocket, and briefly hit the rewind button, then hit 'play'.

Niellos's voice came from the small speakers, soft but quite clearly discernible nonetheless. '...moron says most of the time. I did it, and I'll keep doing it--'

Duke stopped the tape and shrugged at the boy, who looked horrified. "Life's a bitch, huh?" the older drake smirked.

"Fuck you."

Leila frowned briefly. "How'd you know, anyhow?"

He sneered at her again. "You told me, ya dumb cunt. Yelled it out one night when I was walking past his room."

Duke and Leila exchanged a glance. That argument. Of course. Sound travelled well in the Lair... and they both remembered Wade's complaint when they'd been arguing in the hall. If someone had been walking right by Duke's room when she yelled at him... Leila shook her head in anger. The kid had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, that's all. All of this could have been prevented.

She looked up at Niellos again. "Well, yer gonna be let out shortly. I'll be keepin' an eye on ya. I suggest ya don' cause any further trouble, not now we have that tape." She took a step closer to him. "You know, people always get what they deserve in life. Sometimes it takes a while, but eventually, in one way or another, people pay for what they've done ta other people. Yer time'll come."

There was a short silence, then he smirked. "Well then you must have really fucked up, because ya got your brains screwed out by that fuckin' raptrin, didn't ya? And now, you got me. So, did you get what you deserved? Fuckin' serves ya right."

Something snapped inside, and Leila grabbed him by the front of his shirt and shoved him up against the wall. He struggled weakly and she glared into his eyes with a mixture of utter disgust and pity for a moment. "It's lucky fer you that you accidentally did me the biggest favour I ever been done, an' it's damn lucky fer you that I got the shred of honor you seem ta lack. Because if I were any less of a person... you wouldn't be leavin' here in one PIECE."

She let him drop, turned on her heel, and walked out past Duke.

The grey drake watched her leave, then stepped forward from where he'd been leaning against the wall, walked up to the young man, and promptly punched him in the head. The boy slid to the floor and stared up at him, putting a hand to his left eye where signs of swelling were already apparent.

"I'm less of a person," said Duke icily. Then he too left.

*****

Milantha watched them both go, then shoved the heavy barred door closed and locked it.

Niellos started to pick himself up off the floor, a hand pressed to his face. "Did you see that??" he squeaked.

The blonde girl turned to leave, then paused, glanced over her shoulder, and smiled sweetly at him. "See what?" she asked.

She'd left before he'd found the words to reply.

*****

Late that night, Leila lay curled into Duke's chest. He stroked her hair gently, and they lay together in a kind of warm silence for a while. Finally she sat up and started to straighten out the tangled sheets, then reached over and picked up Duke's watch from his bedside table.

"Whas up?" he murmured sleepily.

She looked at the watch face for a long moment. "He'd be out, now. He's out there in the Lair somewhere, right now, an' he's pissed off ta boot."

Duke was woken up a little by her words. "There also ain't nothin' he can do, not now. I don' think you'll get any more problems from him, sweetheart."

Leila gave him a doubtful look.

"And so what if ya do? He's jus' one person. I think today proved yer dealing wit' ninety-five percent friends an' only five percent malcontents in yer life. Could be a lot worse. Heck, I'd gamble on those odds..."

"I worked hard fer that ninety-five percent," she murmured. "He coulda blown all that away in a day."

"But he didn't," Duke said. "That's what's important, sweetheart."

She sighed. "Yeah. I jus' hate leavin' these things unresolved, y'know? Yet somehow I always do. Fer some reason, my problems never quite seem ta go away. They jus' kinda hover in the background fer short periods, then come back ta haunt me. There's never any closure. I never get a happy ending. I--"

Duke lifted her chin and kissed her softly, effectively silencing her. "Sometimes ya gotta work wit' what ya got. Make yer own happy ending."

Leila smiled faintly. "I love you."

"Mmm. Ditto." Duke stretched and sat up, then looked across at the woman beside him, hesitant to ask the question.

Leila frowned faintly. "I know that expression. Whatever ya wanna say, say it."

"Promise not ta hurt me?"

She smirked slightly. "Can't make any promises, 'sweetheart'..."

He grinned. "Sounds fun. Alright... wait, no, I gotta do this properly." Duke jumped out of the bed, seeming suddenly energised, then turned and knelt on the floor in front of Leila. "Leila, would ya do me the honor of moving in wit' me?"

She put a hand to her chest and laughed a little nervously. "Drake duCaine, fer a minute there I thought you were gonna ask me ta marry you."

His expression became serious. "What if I had?"

Leila blinked and swallowed. "I... um..." She forced a smile. "I probably woulda killed ya."

Duke gave her a reproachful look, but didn't want to start anything - not tonight. "I'll let ya off jus' this once... but ya gotta answer the first question. Will ya move in wit' me?"

"No."

There was a long silence.

"No?" he repeated disbelievingly. "Why... why not?"

Leila paused for a long moment, then broke and grinned. "If anyone's movin', yer movin' in wit' me. I don' wanna move away from the office an' my room's already all set up, an' Zaki's door is cut through, not ta mention--"

Duke stood and silenced her with a kiss. "Shut up," he murmured. "I'll move in already."

"Nice way ta talk to me," she mock-grumbled, sliding her arms around his neck. "An' I'm startin' ta wonder if the only reason ya kiss me is ta shut me up."

He smiled crookedly and kissed her again. "Nah, I wouldn't do a thing like that. Want me ta prove it?"

Leila tried not to look amused and failed dismally. "Lucky fer you I'm tired an' need ta catch up on work tomorrow, or I'd have ta hurt ya like I promised..."

The drake grinned and shook his head. "Work, what work? C'mon. Sleep in, it won't make a difference. Another day, another diamond..."

She hit him gently, then pulled him back onto the bed. "C'mere, you."

"Wit' pleasure..."

Leila didn't get much sleep at all that night. But it certainly wasn't because she was too tense. And she certainly wasn't complaining.

*****

Niellos Fetha sat alone in his bare room, staring up at the ceiling light. Even those who had previously at least pretended to get along with him had forsaken him. He'd found that there wasn't a person out there who sided with him. Nobody to defend him. Niellos was more alone than ever.

For some reason, he couldn't sleep. He was tired, but he couldn't sleep. Too many thoughts running around in his head, around and around until he thought he might go insane. One phrase in particular, ever repeating, fluttered and whirled in the forefront of his thoughts like a great black bird, clawing, stabbing at his mind, pecking and tearing away at his sanity.

So Niellos sat there, staring at the ceiling light, alone and sleepless while the woman he'd tried to destroy lay two floors up, with someone who loved her, happier than she'd been before. And the one thought, the one phrase repeated over and over and over in his head as he sat, alone, contemplating all the nights of the same that stretched ahead of him. And all the time, those words in his head...

People always get what they deserve in life.

Always get what they deserve in life.

Always get what they deserve.

What they deserve.

 

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