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Smoke and Mirrors

By Brasscat and Crow

I don't want the world to see me
Cause I don't think that they'd understand
When everything's made to be broken
I just want you to know who I am

...a great weight bore down on her and she screamed silently but she couldn't scream aloud there was a hand over her beak and she couldn't scream and she couldn't breathe and the lights, the bright stark lights were in her eyes and she couldn't see and she couldn't scream and she couldn't breathe and she couldn't think and she was being jerked again and again and it hurt, oh it hurt, it hurt so much, every thrust like a fiery brand shoved deep into her belly and it was faster and it hurt it hurt it hurt it hurt...

Leila gasped and sat bolt upright in her bed, choking in deep breaths of cool night air. But it was dark, here... no lights, thank the stars, no bright lights... and she was very much alone. As the sweat rolling down her forehead cooled, Leila's panic started to fade. Her breathing gradually slowed, and her vice grip on her blankets loosened slightly. She swallowed hard and tilted her head back, looking at the dark ceiling and forcing back tears which threatened to spill over and find their way down the sides of her face as they had so many times before in the secrecy of the night...

The nausea started to set in a minute later, and two things leapt to the forefront of Leila's mind - the need to have a very strong, very hot shower, and the need to vomit. Not necessarily in that order.

She calmly slid out of bed in her tracksuit, and left unhurriedly. After all, it was a familiar ritual.

*****

She gagged and leaned over the toilet bowl, trying to control it, trying not to make too much noise.

It got a little easier every time, it really did. That was frightening, really. The possibility of developing stress-related bulimia lurked in the back of her consciousness, but she shoved that thought right back into one of the many dark corners in the depths of her mind, and left it there.

Spitting into the toilet bowl, Leila sat back on her haunches and closed her eyes for a moment, allowing herself to relax. That all-permeating nausea was thankfully gone, and the memory of the dream was following it. Loosing last night's dinner was a small price to pay for that.

She caught sight of her faint reflection in the pushed-up toilet lid, and met her own tired eyes. "Yer one screwed up bitch, deSilver. Ya know that, don'tcha?"

The reflection looked back with a weary defiance that was downright depressing. Leila grabbed the sides of the bowl and rather shakily pushed herself to her feet. She flushed the toilet, turned, unlocked the stall, took a step out-

-and almost bumped right into Ender McMallard.

Leila grabbed her chest. "Drake DuCaine! Ya nearly gave me a coronary!"

"Sorry ma'am..." Ender muttered, shuffling his feet and looking down at her awkwardly. "Um, do you want me to get Tarrin?"

She was momentarily thrown. "What...? Oh. ...Uh, no. Don' worry about me. I'm fine."

He had a kind of disapproving concern in his eyes that made Leila feel patronised. "You didn't sound fine."

Leila pushed past him and headed for the showers. "Well, I am." She was almost certain, now, that the kid had heard her talking to herself. Damn. I gotta stop doin' that. She stopped short of the row of shower stalls, feeling Ender's unnerving gaze boring into her back. Turning, she crossed her arms again, aware that that was a nearly protective gesture. "What're ya doin' up at this time o' the mornin' anyhow?"

He shrugged. "I could ask the same of you. I couldn't sleep."

Leila laughed shortly. "Join the legions." She turned back to the shower once more, hoping he'd take the movement as she'd intended it - as a dismissal. But she didn't have to look back to know he was still standing there. Damn it! She could just ignore him, of course - she was going to change in the stall anyhow, it wasn't like he could watch her there - but by now she was thoroughly unnerved. This was the last thing she needed.

As much as she tried to ignore it, Leila wasn't blind. She'd seen the way he looked at her. Up until now, she'd not been worried. He could look all he wanted, as long as he kept his distance.

But he wasn't keeping his distance anymore.

The scar across her gut throbbed, and she winced at the reminder. Remember. Remember what they're capable of.

"Leila?" His voice was gentle. "You sure you're alright? You've been standing there for two minutes."

"Fine," she said tightly, not turning around. "Look, I feel like hell. I want a shower. An' I want to be left alone." In her mind's eye she saw the momentary flash of hurt that would have passed across his features before he automatically hid it.

Ender nodded slowly, even though she couldn't see him. "Sorry, ma'am." His quiet footsteps faded toward the door, and he was gone.

Leila glanced over her shoulder then, just once. "An' don' call me ma'am..." she added under her breath.

*****

Out in the hallway, Ender paced back and forth, engaged in a silent argument with himself.

You've got to STOP this. You're freaking her out.

Freaking HER out? I'm freaking ME out! I can't HELP it!

That's a pathetic excuse. Why don't you tell her?

That unexpected thought momentarily threw Ender. Tell her about Leila? His Leila? He couldn't. She was the last person he wanted to tell! Angrily silencing the voice in his head, he leaned against the cold stone wall of the corridor and listened to the faint whisper of the shower within. He closed his eyes and pushed the palm of his hand onto the cool stone. Reaching out. Reaching through the wall. So close and yet so far.

So close he could see her, talk to her, touch her... well, see her and talk to her anyhow... anytime he pleased. Yet a dimension away. He thought he'd found her, but the fact that she was so different from the one he'd known was salt in the wound. He'd have been better off without running into this one. He felt cheated.

But he had this feeling... Somewhere, deep down, he was sure. No matter the dimension, no matter the age, no matter the differences, he and Leila were meant to be partners. One way or another.

His eyes flew open when the obvious idea finally hit. He thought about it, and almost smiled. Satisfied, he closed his eyes once more.

In the silence of the hall, still leaning on the wall and listening, Ender waited.

*****

Leila leaned against the wall of the shower stall, letting the near-scalding water rush over her of its own accord. It was as hot as she could bear it; it was the only way she could possibly feel clean again.

Her thoughts had long ago drifted away from the boy waiting in the hall. She had her own problems, and in the safety of the stall she was able to indulge in them without interruption. Pushing her wet hair back and turning her face up to the hot spray, she closed her eyes and thought desperately.

You need help.

That was the weak voice, and Leila silenced it immediately. Needing help wasn't part of who she was. If she couldn't solve a problem, she kept it to herself - there was no point in spreading her own misery around further, particularly when doing so would in this case mean humiliation. And her problem was something set in stone, something that had happened four years ago, something that she was powerless to change. She grimaced and picked up the bar of soap. Unless I happen to procure a time machine from someplace... she thought dryly to herself.

A few seconds later, the steady sound of running water was broken by a pointed thud as the bar of soap hit the shower floor.

*****

The bathroom door flew open with a ferocity that startled Ender, and he melted into the nearest empty doorway more out of instinct than anything else.

Leila hurried out, back in her tracksuit again and frantically rubbing her hair dry with a towel as she walked.

Frowning slightly, Ender decided he'd best make himself known. He stepped forward, unthinkingly silent, and dropped a hand on her shoulder.

A second later his back hit the stone wall with a force that momentarily knocked the breath out of him, and Leila's furious face was two inches from his own. One of her hands gripped his shirt front, and one of her knees was poised and ready to do some real damage real fast. It was a split-second reaction, and as soon as she registered who he was Leila let him go. "Ender... what're ya DOIN'?" Before he could reply, she held up a hand. "Ferget it. Don' apologise, an' fer Drake's sake don' call me "ma'am" again."

Well THAT narrowed down his options. Nonetheless, he'd waited for her for a reason, and this was the opportunity that he hadn't even realised he'd been looking for until a few minutes ago.

"I need to ask you a question," the two ducks chorused. They both blinked and looked at one another.

"Um, you go first," Ender said hurriedly.

She glanced around the corridor, then looked up at him. "I think... I..." she shook her head and started again. "I have a problem. I need yer help."

"My help? With what?"

She hesitated, opened her mouth to speak... and lost the nerve. Ender could almost literally see it flowing out of her. "I... no, forget it." Shaking her head slowly, she started to back away from him. "Maybe I'll talk to ya tomorrow. I need ta sleep on this, Ender."

If he hadn't been so perplexed, he might have blushed. Either way, he didn't have a chance to react before she turned and walked quickly off down the hall. More than a little concerned, Ender stood and watched her leave, wondering at her behaviour.

Wild packs wouldn't keep him from talking to her tomorrow, now.

*****

Leila locked her door behind her and fell onto her bed, weak with relief and something that came close to shock. 'I can't believe I did that. I nearly told.'

For good reason. The second voice, as usual, was well-spoken, calm, and very much in control...

No. He won't do it anyway.

But for you? the stronger voice suggested craftily, For you, Leila, he just might.

That's not fair.

Life isn't fair. You ought to know that by now.

Suddenly unreasonably angry, Leila shoved the voices back into yet another dark corner of her mind and locked them up tight. Restless, she went and opened the door to Zakiya's room, but the child was fast asleep. She'd almost wished it otherwise... It was a good two hours before Leila managed to wind down enough to sleep again.

*****

Leila, Ender noted, looked rather tired. He wondered vaguely how much sleep she'd actually had last night. Probably more than him, of course... "You wanted to see me?"

She stood up and walked around the desk to face him, throwing a quick glance at the office door to make sure it was closed. "Yeah. Thanks fer comin'. Look, first off I wanna apologise fer bein' a bit snappy last night... not ta mention fer takin' off like I did."

He kept his face carefully neutral despite his curiosity. "What was it you wanted to ask me?"

She looked slightly uncomfortable. "This is gonna sound really strange... Uh, you can travel through time as well as dimensions, right?"

"Well... yes," Ender replied carefully, hoping she wasn't going to ask what he thought she was. Drake knew he didn't want to have to turn her down, but he would... Leila or no.

"An' you took the Flashblade girl wit' you through Limbo successfully..."

Okay. Now he knew where she was going. "I can't take anyone back."

A note of desperation crept into her tone. "Why? What if it was somethin' important? Really important?" She didn't give him a chance to answer. "I know what the dangers are; I've read my share o' sci-fi. Change the past and ya change the future. But if you could... Look, theoretically speakin', if somethin' had happened ta someone a long time ago, and they'd never told anyone else, wouldn't that mean that it never affected anyone else? That it'd only change that one person?"

Ender eyes her doubtfully and tried to give voice to the blunt refusal he knew he should be giving her... but instead found himself saying, "Theoretically speaking - what are we talking about here?"

Leila opened her mouth and closed it again. She took a deep breath. When she finally spoke it was in a nearly inaudible mutter. "Theoretically speakin'... if someone was, say...." She swallowed rather abruptly in mid-sentence. "Hurt. Really badly."

He waited silently, his mind working ahead of her words.

"If someone was raped," she finished bluntly. And she didn't look down, and didn't look away - just caught him in her steely gaze. He had to admire that. She was doing it to prove something, he was sure; but she was proving it more to herself than to him.

It explained a lot. Ender didn't know what to say, so naturally he said nothing.

Her gaze didn't drop, as such - it just found a point somewhere over his shoulder to focus on. "Well?"

"I... can't. I'm sorry. It's not right to change the pa-"

"It's not right? What the hell're ya talkin' about? It's a damn sight more 'right' than what happened to me, Ender!"

"That's different, and that's besides the point. I can't just go back and change the past like that. There's a responsibility that comes with this 'porter... and I don't make exceptions." He paused. "I'm sorry."

"So am I," she said bitterly. "I'm sorry I ever opened up my stupid mouth. Shoulda known ya wouldn't understand."

He should have left that alone. He shouldn't have replied. Leila was talking out of anger and disappointment more than anything else, and he knew it... but he couldn't leave her thinking like that. "Maybe I know more than you think I do." She just looked at him, obviously fighting disappointment, so he continued softly, "You think it isn't hard for me? How many times do you think I've wanted to go back and change the past? How many times do you think I've had to fight that temptation?" Leila listened as his voice took on a bitter tinge of its own. "Someone... very special to me died in my arms one night - and I left her. I didn't go back, I didn't change it, even though I could have... I had the power to save her, I could have done it so easily... I should have!"

His own words were a revelation to him... A revelation that came far too late.

"I'm sorry," Leila said quietly, feeling guilty herself all of a sudden.

He shook his head. "It doesn't matter."

The lie hung in the air between them for a moment.

Leila put her hand on his arm. "Please. Ender, please."

He stared at her hand and then closed his eyes, keeping his hands firmly at his side so they wouldn't wander up to tug at the red bandanna at his neck.

She was closer to him, now, looking up at him, her eyes wide and pleading and her hand warm on his arm. "I'll repay it somehow, I swear. Ender, you got the power to help me more than anyone else in the world. Please.... I need yer help. I need yer help...."

She's using me. She knows exactly what she's doing. That single clear thought cut through the confusion of emotions in Ender's head. He wanted to grab her and shake her, yell at her, tell her he wouldn't be used like this. Another part of him wanted very badly to kiss her. And another part of him almost wanted to cry. Unable to cope, Ender pulled away from Leila and walked out.

And you can't fight the tears that ain't comin'
Or the moment of truth in your lies
When everything seems like the movies
Yeah you bleed just to know you're alive...

*****

Ender tugged at the red piece of cloth at his throat. It felt awfully tight right now. He stared at his blank walls, seated on his bed, arguing with his conscience.

'It's not right.'

He sighed. I know it isn't right. But... She's my leader.

She's a lot more than that and you know it.

Not her.' Ender reminded himself. The bandanna was actually starting to irritate him. She's a completely different person.

And you really want to know why, don't you?

Ender looked down at the floor. That wasn't any better. He could still see that pleading look. Begging. She had been on the verge of begging when he finally walked out.

If you do this, you'll betray everything you've stood for-

Ender glared at nothing in particular. "Stood for, my ass!" He paused, having spoken out loud for the first time. Luckily, there was no one in the two rooms that flanked his. He tugged the bandanna again.

I don't stand for anything. And Leila... she needs me. Again. Maybe... maybe this time... I can actually...

But it's not her...

Ender stood and pulled the bandanna off of his neck, placing it on his desktop.

"I know she isn't." He grabbed his katana and strapped it to his back. "I know," he repeated, and left his room, shutting that part of him off again.

And I don't want the world to see me
Cause I don't think that they'd understand
When everything's made to be broken
I just want you to know who I am...

*****

Leila looked at the double column of figures on the paper in front of her and blinked hard, trying to focus. She balled up the paper she'd been working on and threw it in the rough direction of the wastepaper basket. Then she set aside the stack of papers. She'd ask Kalani to take a look at them later. Right now, she just couldn't concentrate.

Damn Ender! Damn him! Damn the whole stupid idea! She wished she'd never thought of it. Of all the things that had done damage to her over the years, hope had done the worst.

But it was addictive stuff. Every time she swore off it, it caught up with her in the most unexpected of ways.

Leila was almost caught by surprise at the sudden tears which sprang to her eyes, and hurriedly ran a fist across her face, in case anyone should anyone walk in. As a matter of fact, someone did. She looked up almost guiltily at Ender as he stood silently in the doorway.

He took a deep breath. "I'll take you."

*****

It was hard, but she had to explain to him in a fair amount of detail exactly what had happened to her, where it happened... and who did it.

Ender tried not to look shocked. By now he was well aware that his original dimension was very different to this one, but the way Leila described Falcone was so... He shook his head. I'll just get this over and done with, and hopefully forget the whole thing.

Leila stood up and went to his side. "So... I ain't expectin' anyone around this morning... If we do this now, we shouldn't even be missed." She tentatively put an arm around him. "Um... like this? This okay?"

Ender nodded a little too quickly. "Now is good." His voice was a little higher than he would have liked, and he cleared his throat. "Hold on tight," he warned, taking Leila's other arm and making her join her hands behind his back. "I'm not sure what happens if you lose someone in Limbo, but it can't be good."

Leila tightened her grip around his chest slightly. She was tense, and despite her hold on him, Ender could almost feel every muscle in her body pushing him away. He sighed inwardly, reaching down to his belt and activating the 'porter. He felt a slight crackle of electricity, a familiar tingling pain in his arm, and tightened his own grip on the woman.

A few moments later, Leila's office was as empty as if there'd never been anyone there at all.

*****

Leila wasn't sure what she'd expected, but it wasn't this.

It could have been a few moments, or it could have been forever. Her inner sense of time couldn't cope. Lights and colors flew past so quickly that one seemed to see the after-impression left on the eyes rather than the objects themselves. They were everywhere, and there was no relief - it was the same with eyes closed or open. Blackness, and the flashes, and the colors. Spinning, flying toward them, flying away from them. There was no up or down, no forward or backwards, only the here and now.

The gravity was the worst part, though. There WAS gravity, but sometimes it seemed to be pulling them down, other times up, other times from the side, other times from everywhere at once, and sometimes it seemed to fade out altogether, and they were weightless. It was like a rollercoaster, only ever so much faster... and, in a rollercoaster, you always know roughly where the ground is.

There was no ground here. Nothing solid. Nothing to hold on to but your companion.

Nothing real. Not in the sense that she understood reality, anyhow.

No time, no matter, no reality. No coherent thought. Stabs of fear and nausea were the only things that kept her mind firmly anchored in sanity, in reality - such as it was.

An indeterminable amount of time later, they landed.

*****

"Landing" was the only term that seemed to fit; leaving Limbo and entering this new time gave a sensation not unlike when a train jerks to a stop at a station.

Ender put a hand to his eyes and blinked hard. His slight dizziness faded almost immediately. Below his feet was solid stone, around him were thick walls. Gravity and time were back to blessed normality once more. He didn't loosen his grip on Leila, knowing full well that she was going to be too dizzy to stay upright for a while.

Leila opened her eyes and tried to focus, but the room was spinning too quickly. Her stomach lurched violently and she put a hand to her mouth and swallowed hard before speaking. "Ender..." she asked dazedly, "Are we here?"

"Yeah. Your vision will straighten out in a minute. Um, you'll probably have to throw up, too, so just let me know..."

Leila shook her head weakly and disentangled herself from him, managing to stay upright more by good luck than good management. "M'okay... wait, no I'm not-" She turned abruptly, took two steps, dropped to her hands and knees and was violently sick on the floor.

Ender stood well clear. "Ahh, memories..." he murmured, and grimaced.

*****

"You okay now?"

A few minutes had passed, and Leila was sitting leaning back against the wall of the old room which would someday be her office, waiting for it to stop spinning. Still slightly pale, she glanced up at Ender. "Drake duCaine," she muttered. "I never wanna do that again."

His gaze wandered down to his left forearm, although when he spoke his words were still directed at his companion. "Don't worry about it. Used to happen to me all the time. You get used to it." He looked at her keenly. "We're running out of time..."

She nodded and pushed herself to her feet, pretending not to see Ender's proffered hand. "I'm fine." Deep down she wondered if she hadn't just been looking for an excuse to stall. She'd never admit it aloud, but she was as nervous as all hell.

Ender could tell, though he wouldn't let on. His older companion was obviously tense; her body language was sending out screaming signals. His own Lei, Ender remembered, had always gotten a little nervous before doing a job. She'd hidden it with bad jokes and smart comments, but he could tell anyhow. She'd known he could see it, too... but that had never stopped her. The one and only time she'd ever admitted to being afraid of something was just before...

Ender shook his head and stifled that particular thought. What's wrong with me today?

The older woman in front of him turned to him and forced a smile. "Let's do it."

Ender's heart jumped into his throat - she reminded him so much of his own Leila at that moment. The way she'd said those words - the same words Lei had said, like a mantra, before they broke into whatever building their target was in. Every time, without fail. Funny, the things you remembered...

He remembered Leila's smile... she had the sweetest smile, small and a little cheeky. Just a slight curve of the ends of her mouth. He could see her right now, in front of him, sitting on the edge of her bed, smiling. Smiling at him. He walked towards her, a little scared. He'd always been a bit nervous, before... each time. Just a slight tingle in the stomach, really. But that kind of made it better, in the end. She reached out and took him into her arms, stroking his hair and murmuring his name... "Ender... Ender..."

"...Ender!"

He shook his head suddenly and focused on Leila - her concerned face was about two inches from his own.

"You still with me, kid?"

Ender nodded wordlessly. Kid... Ignoring her curious expression, he pushed past her and out into the hall. He didn't want her to see the look on his face.

And I'd give up forever to touch you
Cause I know that you feel me somehow
You're the closest thing to heaven that I'll ever be
And I don't want to go home right now...

*****

Tarrin Avias scooped up his black medical bag on the way out, throwing a quick glance back at the Infirmary bed where Leila lay unconscious. He hesitated for only a moment, then followed the worried Presaber out the door. Leila would be fine on her own for half an hour. What with the painkillers, she'd probably still be out like a light by the time he got back. And even if she did wake up in the meantime, it wasn't like she was going anywhere with that injury.

The young doctor pulled the door shut behind him, and hurried off down the hall.

*****

Ender glanced over his shoulder at Leila. "Stay here. It's best Falcone doesn't see you, just in case. I'll make sure he doesn't do anything..."

She tried not to look as relieved as she felt, but couldn't help asking something that had been bothering her since they'd arrived. "If yer gonna do this alone... why'd ya bring me?"

His face was expressionless. "I'm doing this for you. I figured you should have some sort of responsibility in what happens, even if it means you just being here when it does."

Leila looked chagrined, and didn't reply.

Ender glanced down the hall once more, making sure that Tarrin was well and truly gone, and the coast clear. "I'm going now. Wish me luck."

The older woman grabbed his arm in a plainly nervous gesture. "But what if he comes back after we leave?

"I can't kill-"

"I know, I know. But what if-"

"Look," Ender sighed. "I know this is important. I'll do my best." He relented a little. "If it's taking a long time and I don't seem to be having any luck... I guess it wouldn't hurt too much for you to show up." It'll probably scare the pants off him, actually...

Leila nodded silently, secretly not liking this switch in authority, but knowing full well that she was in no position to complain. So she waited and watched as the younger man slipped across the hall and into the Infirmary.

*****

Ender waited silently, glancing around the surgery. Leila hadn't been able to give him an exact time, just a rough approximate. Tarrin had left more than ten minutes ago, now. If Falcone was going to come, it was going to be soon.

The lights were very stark and bright. Ender remembered the cool dimness of both Leila's office and her room, and wondered...

Despite having resolved not to look, he couldn't help letting his gaze wander down to the still form in the bed on his right. Leila. And so very much like... his Leila. More so than the one he'd arrived with. Yet already the differences were there - the long hair, for a start, but something in the weary face too... a kind of pinched loneliness that, by day and while awake, Leila covered so well he'd never consciously noticed it before. But he recognised it in this girl, and he knew exactly who he recognised it from.

She looked vulnerable lying there, and Ender felt a slight twinge in his chest. He looked away.

At that moment, soft footsteps echoed outside the door, and the redhead ducked into the bathroom in the back of the surgery.

The outer door opened silently.

Falcone had arrived.

It was undoubtedly him, right down to the shaven head and the cape... and yet not him. Not the Falcone Ender had known. For that, Ender was thankful.

This Falcone had different eyes - in the bright fluorescent lights of the surgery, they were plainly blue. Both of them. Both one shade - a rather unpleasant cold light blue, in fact.. That couldn't be right... sure, there were large differences between the same people in different dimensions, but they rarely extended to hair and eye color. Was Falcone an exception there? Or perhaps he was just wearing contacts... Ender made a mental note to ask Leila later, then reconsidered it. Falcone wasn't a hot topic with her. No goddamn wonder.

The large raptrin had stood in the doorway for some moments now, and Ender frowned and leaned forward slightly, trying to get a better view through the thin crack of the slightly ajar door.

Falcone's face was expressionless as he watched the sleeping woman. Ender saw no sign of the violent temper Leila had told him about, yet there was something in his posture.... something which put Ender right on edge. Something dangerous...

The powerful raptrin straightened and stepped into the room, heading towards the unconscious duck. Any minute now, according to Leila, he would lean over her. She would awaken. He would start to talk with her - she hadn't remembered the exact conversation - and when he realised that she was going to report against him for intentionally injuring her in their duel, he was going to loose his temper and show her just how much power he had over her in the most barbaric way possible...

Ender shoved back the door and stepped out. He didn't get angry very often, but what this man was about to do, knowingly... Ender could barely manage to form his next words. "You son of a bitch," he hissed, drawing his katana blade.

Falcone's head snapped around and he jerked back, shock momentarily plain on his face. A moment later it vanished beneath an expression of smug certainty; certainty that he hadn't been caught, that he would get away with this. "Why, hello... I don't believe I've had the pleasure of making your acquaintance," he said smarmily.

Ender's fist tightened around his hilt, and he mentally rebuked himself. Don't do anything stupid, McMallard. Drake knows what'll happen to the timeline if you kill him... tempting as it is... "I know what you were about to do," Ender growled. "And I'm here to tell you that if you touch her, now or any other time, I will personally cut off both your hands," He paused, then added, "and see to it that you'll never have to worry about getting another girl pregnant again."

Falcone forced a light laugh. "Calm yourself, young man. I was simply checking on her. I'm an old friend. That's no crime, is it?" His tone hardened imperceptibly. "I would be more inclined to wonder what you were doing hiding in the bathroom, actually..."

Ender had had enough. He hadn't made as much of an impact on Falcone as he had hoped. If so much hadn't been riding on what he said and did over the next few minutes, in all actuality he would have felt kind of ridiculous. As it was, he was just frustrated. Either the raptrin wasn't worried, or he was doing a damn good job of hiding it. "Look, Falcone, I'm not going to play this game. You and I both know what you came here to do. I want to know what I have to do to stop you from doing it - ever. I'll do whatever it takes."

Falcone's short laugh sounded like a bark of disgust, and for a moment the terrible truth was clearly visible in his eyes. "I don't know who you are or where you have come from - or how you presume to tell me what to do - but I will tell you this. There is ultimately nothing you can do, old boy, that will stop me getting my way."

"I'll kill you if I have to." It was an empty threat, and somehow the raptrin seemed to sense that. Ender gritted his teeth. "I will stop you."

"Pah! You can't."

"I can." Leila's voice, clear and strong, split the still air. Both men automatically looked toward the bed, where the younger Leila was slowly coming to. But it wasn't she who'd spoken.

Falcone turned slowly, genuine fear worming its way across his features for the first time. When his gaze reached the doorway of the Infirmary, he met the eyes of another Leila. Older, harder, stronger, and with a bitter tinge to her features that he wasn't used to... but she was unmistakably Leila.

"Hello Ernie."

This time, her voice had a slight break in it. In the face of the man who haunted her nightmares, Leila's initial bravado was wearing off. But she'd be damned if she was going to let him see that.

As Ender smiled slightly, Falcone's panicked gaze jumped from the doorway to the bed and back again. "But you- you're..."

She ignited her saber. "I'm ready to fight ya fer her. An' I'll win, too."

Falcone backed away hastily - right into Ender, who grabbed his wrist in a steely grip. "Not so fast, old boy."

The raptrin appeared to be shrinking into himself, now. "Now, listen... I think there's been a misunderstanding here..."

"Yeh, there sure has," Leila said sharply. "The misunderstandin' was that you had any right or justification' at all ta come near her! Ya don't. An' I'll know, Falcone, I will know if you ever touch her. If ya do, I'll come back fer ya. An' ya won't get off so easy the second time." She looked at him contemptuously. "Yer a bully an' a coward, Ernie. They always come unstuck in the end." Their eyes met and held for a long, still moment, and when Leila spoke again she did so without breaking that silent contact. "Ender. Let 'im go."

Releasing the raptrin's wrist, the wirey young man stood back and shook his head. Falcone possessed the strength to have freed himself any time he wanted, yet he hadn't. There was some lesson or something in that, Ender was sure...

Falcone hesitated, and Leila stood aside. As he crept out the door, she gave in to a nasty little temptation, stuck out a foot, and sent him sprawling to the hallway floor. He picked himself up and slunk off without a word, thoroughly unnerved. Leila, in a final gesture of bitter dismissal, slammed the door behind him.

There was a long silence.

"Well..." Leila said presently. "That was an anticlimax. I mean, I imagined this moment a million times before, but... I don' really feel much different..." Her voice shook a little, and Ender winced.

Oh boy... she's not gonna cry, is she? He didn't think he could stand seeing that.

She turned away from him suddenly, and stayed with her back to him for a long moment, making neither sound nor movement. When she finally turned back, her eyes were dry. "Um.... thanks."

Embarrassed, Ender glanced down. "No problem. I hope it all works out for you."

"I won't remember anything when I get back, will I?"

He shook his head silently.

Leila met his eyes. "Don't remind me, then." There was a short pause, and she seemed to change somehow. Her expression grew a little harder; her back straightened. "Tarrin'll be back soon. We should get going." She didn't wait for him to reply, just turned, pulled the door open, and walked out.

Ender started to follow, then hesitated. Despite the wishes of his brain, his legs independently moved him over to the side of the bed.

The younger Leila was waking up. She shifted slowly, and her brow creased in a frown of pain as the stitches in her stomach registered on her consciousness.

Her eyes opened - beautifully blue and deep - and she looked right at him.

"Hi Leila," Ender said softly.

"Hi," she murmured sleepily. "Who... are you?"

Commonsense kicked in, and Ender hastily backed away from the bed. "Nobody," he said softly. "Nobody at all." He reached the door. "You're, um, safe here. Go back to sleep."

She nodded slowly, still dazed and a little out of it, and her eyes drifted shut again.

And all I can taste is this moment
And all I can breathe is your life
Cause sooner or later it's over
I just don't want to miss you tonight...

*****

Ender closed the door behind him. The older Leila looked at him and sighed. "Let's go home."

The young assassin nodded slowly, wrapping his arm around her waist carefully and activating his 'porter. He closed his eyes through the trip, trying to forget the younger Leila... wishing he could just forget everything. It wasn't easy though. Not with her clinging to him like she was.

The chaos of Limbo quickly died down, bringing Ender to the reality of what was actually going on. Leila was still holding him, one arm around his neck, pulling him over slightly, kissing him hungrily. Just like she... used to. For a moment, he could only stand there, torn between confusion and memory. Then he broke off, stepping backward and staring at her.

She raised an eyebrow, looking a tad disappointed. "Somethin' wrong, Baby?"

Ender opened his mouth and closed it. And he knew that something had gone terribly wrong.

*****

And I'd give up forever to touch you
Cause I know that you feel me somehow
You're the closest thing to heaven that I'll ever be
And I don't want to go home right now...

He was out the door before he knew what he was doing; almost running.

"Ender! Ender, wait!" Leila hurried after him - with her shorter stride she actually did have to run to keep up - and grabbed his arm. "What's the matter, hon?"

He jerked his arm away, trying to think coherently. "Nothing! Nothing. I just... I'll talk to you later, okay?" He walked off quickly, leaving her standing in the middle of the hall. If he'd turned around at that point, he might have seen the fear in her eyes. But he just kept walking.

He reached the Mainframe a few minutes later and entered without bothering to knock. Startled, Shockwave looked up from the monitors... and Ender had to conceal a wince.

The boy looked older than his years, and haggard, as if he'd neither eaten or slept for some time. Worst of all were his eyes, though... dead eyes. The eyes of someone who had long since ceased living within, and was waiting for the outer body to catch up...

An emotion - just a flicker of surprise - momentarily animated his features, and he sat a little straighter. "Ender. Hi."

Ender finally found his tongue. "Hi, Sparky. Where's Cutter?"

Shockwave stared at him blankly for a long moment. "Ender... he's been dead for three months."

Just for a moment, Ender had trouble drawing in a breath. Oh, no...

"Are you alright?"

He nodded, then shook his head. "I... hit my head this morning," he lied quickly. "I fell down the stairs. I think I have some short term memory loss..."

Shockwave looked at him flatly, his disbelief plain. "Why bother lying?"

Ender swallowed. "I'm not..."

The boy wasn't finished yet. "-Genesis did it, didn't he?"

Ender's stomach cramped up automatically at the sound of that name; in fact his whole body cramped up. Not that. Not again. Okay. First item of business: find out what the hell is happening here.

"Sparky. I want you to tell me everything that's happened here since I got here for the first time. Just like I can't remember any of it, okay?"

For the first time, a real emotion showed through Shockwave's masklike face. Fear. "If he hears us..."

"He won't." Ender grabbed a chair and sat down, staring at the younger drake. "Talk."

So he did.

Twenty minutes was all that was needed, and the chain reaction Ender and Leila had set off when they changed the past was now all too clear. One tiny change set off another, which set off another... It was like knocking down a line of dominoes, only in this case each domino was bigger, and the effects of its fall more far-reaching, than the last...

Falcone never had raped Leila that day. Shockwave didn't say so, of course, but Ender could gather that from the rest of what he said.

Everything had happened how it was supposed to after that for a time, though - it seemed that it took a while for the effects of the change to become apparent. Falcone had left the Brotherhood and gone to earth. Canard had taken power. Duke had eventually returned.

But he'd never been rescued. It seemed that somehow, this time around, the decision on whether to risk rescuing Duke from the jail he'd been thrown into had swung the other way.

Ender had a feeling that Leila probably had something to do with that. But he didn't want to know how, or why, so he didn't ask.

Duke had been executed in that jail. A year later, Ender had shown up, and apparently... "become involved" with Leila. Sparky skirted around that a little, actually, and Ender didn't press.

Shortly after Ender had arrived Genesis had followed. Everything happened exactly how it was "supposed" to... except this time, there'd been no Duke to help Ender defeat Genesis. So Ender had lost.

He'd been badly hurt, and out of it for a long time.

Shockwave stared at the older man. "What about the scar? Don't you remember that?"

"Scar?" Confused, Ender followed Sparky's gaze to his left forearm, then slowly lifted his sleeve. And swallowed. A thin white scar ran down the length of his arm, and he could tell at first glance it had been a deep, violent wound - the sort that, when it finally healed over and scarred, no feathers would ever grow on again.

"Genesis did that," Shockwave nodded. "Gee, you must have taken some hit to the head there."

"Yeah... sure. Keep going."

It seemed that, in the time Ender had spent recuperating, all the Brotherhood members who opposed Genesis had been slaughtered by the man. That didn't particularly surprise Ender. What did surprise him, though, was that Leila hadn't been one of those who stood against Genesis. He queried Shockwave on that, and the boy explained how Genesis had threatened to kill Leila's daughter and Ender both.

Alright. That explained that.

Shockwave seemed downright reluctant to continue from that point, and Ender didn't press the issue. He could work out the rest himself. Evidently, "himself" hadn't stood up to Genesis either. And it was because of Leila.

Oh, the irony...

Ender stood.

The younger man looked up, a shadow of surprise flitting across his features. "Where are you going?"

"To clean up the mess I made..." he muttered, and left.

In the privacy of the hallway, Ender leaned against the wall and allowed himself a few minutes to think.

What he hated most was that, if it wasn't for Genesis, he'd be tempted to stay. He wasn't sure he had the strength to go back as it was. Here, he had Leila. But he didn't have most of his friends, and he didn't have freedom.

Oh-ho, you should have been careful what you wished for, Ender my boy... Because this time, you got it.

It was ironic, really. In this timeline, he and Leila both got exactly what they wanted. And what a cost...

Heavy-hearted, he glanced down at his forearm. What else could he do?

Ender activated his teleporter and set it for three hours previous, to the original past where everything had been normal - the timeline in which Leila had been raped. Because three hours before, in that place, he'd been sitting in his room arguing with himself, nothing had been decided, nothing had been changed... and everything had been okay. It was his task, now, to see if he could keep it that way.

*****

Three hours previously, Leila looked at the double column of figures on the paper in front of her and blinked hard, trying to focus. She balled up the paper she'd been working on and threw it in the rough direction of the wastepaper basket. Then she set aside the stack of papers. She'd ask Kalani to take a look at them later. Right now, she just couldn't concentrate.

Damn Ender! Damn him! Damn the whole stupid idea! She wished she'd never thought of it. Of all the things that had done damage to her over the years, hope had done the worst.

But it was addictive stuff. Every time she swore off it, it caught up with her in the most unexpected of ways.

Leila was almost caught by surprise at the sudden tears which sprang to her eyes, and hurriedly ran a fist across her face, in case anyone should anyone walk in. As a matter of fact, someone did. She looked up almost guiltily at Ender as he stood silently in the doorway.

He took a deep breath. "I can't take you."

She stood slowly. "Ender, I begged you. Don' tell me you weren't considerin' it."

"I'm sorry," Ender said simply. He inwardly heaved a sigh of relief - his refusal to change the past with Leila was all it took; and the bleak future they'd created would cease to exist. Unfortunately, he hadn't included Leila herself in his calculations...

Hating herself for what she was about to do, Leila walked around the desk and put a hand on the hilt of her saber, meeting Ender's eyes and staring him down. "Then I command ya ta take me. I command ya!"

Ender was momentarily shocked speechless. And in the time it took him to find his tongue, an idea occurred to him. "Alright..." he said slowly. "You want to go? I'll take you."

*****

Later, and elsewhere... Leila swallowed as Genesis burst into her office. She'd known this was coming ever since Ender started acting strangely. The older man grabbed the front of her shirt and shoved her up against the wall.

"Ya promised to keep an eye on him, ya half-wit! Unda yer control my ass!" He slapped her...hard.

Leila winced, but glared back at him. "Hey...maybe he's just feelin' sick, ya know?" It was lame, but... she really couldn't explain his behaviour herself. He'd never turned down her attentions before, much less practically run out of the room. But... Ender never got sick. Ever.

"Like hell! I shoulda known better than to let him live. The little fool has used his 'porter belt! Tracers say he's trying to alter the friggin' timeline again!" The look of shock on Leila's face told all... She really had no idea that had happened. Genesis shook his head in frustration.

"Thought I could trust ya. If ya can't even keep a kid almost a decade younger than ya under control, why the hell did I think I could keep you as second command?" He snarled viciously, mostly to himself now, and pulled out his riflelauncher, then turned and started to storm out.

Leila quickly got between him and the door. "Wait... ya can't kill 'im! He hasn't done anything yet!"

"And I intend to keep it that way," he replied, shoving past her. She grabbed his arm.

"No...please, L'Orange, no!"

The ageing time traveller activated his teleporter, ignoring her pleas, and muttered something about insubordinates.

Leila grabbed at his arm. "Stop! Please listen ta me!"

The man gave her a look that would freeze the most stalwart of contenders. Still she pleaded.

"Please...I love him..."

Genesis shrugged. "Fine. Have it your way." Without a second thought, he raised his rifle and blew a hole in her head.

He was gone before her body hit the floor.

*****

A few minutes later...

Limbo, then the landing. Nausea. After a slight struggle, Leila managed not to make a fool of herself again by loosing her lunch, and after a minute or so of limbo-variety jetlag, she was able to see straight. "Hey... somethin's different. This ain't what my office looked like four years ago." They were standing behind the large desk, and she glanced at Ender. "But it IS my office... what's goin' on, Ender?"

"This is the future that we're gonna make if we change your past."

She stared at him, then grinned slightly. "Ominous. Lemme guess - next thing we're gonna be in a graveyard an' yer gonna strike a match over my gravestone, right? Ebeneeeezer... Repent yer wicked ways..." She walked around her desk, ignoring the annoyed look on her young companion's face.

And stumbled on her own corpse.

"Holy SHIT!" Leila leapt back like she'd been stung; Ender was at her side in a second. He stared at the body, an exact replica of the living woman beside him. Except, of course, for the hole in the head.

The young man crouched beside the corpse and studied the wound. "Nasty. Looks like a riflelauncher." He glanced up. "Looks like you were right, Ebenezer. You're dead."

Leila was still trying to cope with the adreneline which had been dumped en masse into her system a moment before. "Ya THINK?!"

Ender stood slowly. "Genesis did this. Only he has a sick enough mind to shoot someone close-range with a riflelauncher."

"Ender, Genesis is DEAD."

He pointed at the corpse. "So are you."

She stared at him a moment, then it sunk in. "Oh. I see...." Leila shook her head. "What's goin' on?"

The time-traveller made his explanation as short and non-confusing as possible, which was really no easy feat. Nontheless, Leila seemed to have grasped the essence of it when he was done.

"So this is a definite if we change the past?"

"Pretty much."

"Then I won't do it. There're lives involved here... an they're far more important than my little bouts of insomnia." She glanced at the corpse, disturbed. "Not ta mention I was hopin' ta live past thirty-five... an' this ain't the future I want fer Zaki--"

Ender cut her off with a wave of his hand; he'd been deep in thought since he saw the body. "We have a problem."

"What?"

"We have to go back to our original timeline. We've gotta find... well, me."

"You? Why? I already said I didn't wanna change the past no more..."

Ender pointed at the corpse lying in the middle of the floor. "That's why. He kept you alive all that time for a reason; and the reason was because you were controlling me! Now, all of a sudden, he shoots you. Why?"

Realisation hit. "Because I ain't controllin' you anymore. An' if ya want somethin' done right, ya do it yerself..." She wrapped her arms around him again, unselfconscious in her urgency. "Let's go."

*****

Three hours earlier, Ender tugged at the red piece of cloth at his throat, unaware of what was going on between Leila and the other him. It felt awfully tight right now. He stared at his blank walls, seated on his bed, arguing with his conscience.

It's not right.

He sighed. I know it isn't right. But... she's my leader.

She's a lot more than that and you know it.

Not her. Ender reminded himself. The bandanna was actually starting to irritate him. She's a completely different person.

And you really want to know why, don't you?

Ender looked down at the floor. That wasn't any better. He could still see that pleading look. Begging. She had been on the verge of begging when he finally walked out.

If you do this, you'll betray everything you've stood for-

Ender glared at nothing in particular. "Stood for, my ass!" He paused, having spoken out loud for the first time. The last thing he expected, however, was an answer...

"Heh. And they say I'm nuts."

No. Not him. Not now. Ender jumped up, his hand going for his pucklauncher, but Genesis was a step ahead of him. One muffled shot later, the older man stared down at the body at his feet, shaking his head almost sympathetically.

"Talking to yerself, kiddo? Tsk."

The blood was spreading out across the floor. Genesis stepped back, not wanting a stain on his boots. He knelt down to peer at the kid, then frowned. He pulled the dead boy's arm out of his sleeve.

"Hmmph. Wrong one," he muttered. The kid was missing the scar he'd given him just after taking over the Brotherhood. "Well, no big deal. It just means I get ta kill ya again."

"Or not."

Genesis spun to face his attacker... only to feel the hot-cold sear of a metal blade plunging deep into his chest. His physical shock almost immediately blocking out the pain, Genesis simply stared at his attacker.

The red-head sighed. "Boy, is this ever deja vu."

The gray duck smiled weakly. "Oh, there you are... kid... you..." He broke off, coughing up some blood. Ender pulled his katana out of the older man none too gently. Genesis stumbled backwards, staring at the second newcomer, then fell to his knees, a hand going to the wound in his chest. Leila stared back at him, looking disturbed and repulsed. She was suddenly very glad that she'd never gotten a chance to know this version of Duke.

"Eh... you must be... this timeline's... deSilvah..." Hunching over his wound, Genesis shrugged... or tried to. He painfully started to pull his rifle up again. "Hey, I don' mind killin' ya both... again. Heck, if I... live through dis... I'll bury ya togeth-"

He never finished the phrase, as Ender shoved the tip of his blade through the gray duck's throat, silencing him permanently.

Ender closed his eyes. There, Leila. I promised I'd do it for you, and I did it twice. And I'd do it again if the chance came by.

Leila swallowed, then moved to the second body. "Yer, uhh...dead."

Ender nodded, his face devoid of emotion, his eyes distant.

"Join the legions..." she said softly. She looked at him, wondering at his detachment. "What do we do now?"

Ender blinked and seemed to snap out of it, then crouched by his own corpse, and slid his arms under the limp shoulders. "Help me."

*****

Half an hour later, in the alternate world, Jedar Stormwing pushed open the door without a thought. "Where's Genesis? I need... to..." The drake trailed off as he took in the sight before him. Lying on the floor of Leila's bedroom, side by side, were two still bodies. Leila, shot through the head. Ender, shot through the heart.

And there, against the far wall, was Genesis - also dead.

Taking a step closer, Jedar spotted a square of white paper lying between the first two bodies. He crouched and picked it up carefully, and read the single short sentence written there in Ender's printed handwriting. Then, perplexed, he read it again.

'Bury them together.'

*****

Back in her own time and place, Leila braced both hands against the wall and leaned there for a moment, waiting for the almost familiar dizziness to fade. Carrying three bleeding corpses through dimensional limbo hadn't been the most pleasant experience she'd ever had. But right now, something else was on her mind. "I saw what you wrote."

Ender shrugged, but she wasn't looking at him anyhow. "We had to take the bodies back to that dimension. It was an equilibrium thing... there should never be more than one version of a person in any one dimension for too long. Even if they aredead."

He hadn't answered the question; but then, she hadn't actually asked it.

Leila wisely changed the subject. "You were gonna ask me something last night." Smiling slightly, she glanced at him. "Seems like years ago."

Ender nodded. "Actually... um, I know this isn't usually how it's done, but... you wouldn't happen to be looking for an apprentice, would you?"

The older woman was taken aback. "Ta be honest, that's the last thing I expected ya ta ask. But now that ya mention it, I been gettin' some pressure ta take on an apprentice. Don't wanna make the same mistake Duke made, y'know."

He looked concerned. "Does your apprentice have to go on to become the next leader?"

"Not at all." Leila shook her head adamantly as if to underscore the point. "That was somethin' which had been done a few times in recent years, but generally the Council trained the next Leader properly. 'Cept fer some practical stuff. Ta be honest, I'm hopin' Marshall will find the next person fer the job. I was never meant fer it, an' I'm far from the best Leader the Brotherhood's ever had..." She trailed off. "Anyhow..."

He nodded slowly. "Well... I know you're busy, and I figured that's why you hadn't taken on an apprentice already... Which is why I thought maybe we'd be good for one another. I don't need much teaching in the combat department... all I really need is a bit of training in Brotherhood Lore. And you know that's almost all independent work anyhow. I need to be apprenticed to climb the ranks, but nobody's wanted me yet."

"It ain't because yer no good, ya know. Probably the opposite. I think you unnerve people." She smiled openly this time. "Boy, yer really sellin' yerself here, ain't ya?"

He actually gave her a very slight smile back. "We make a pretty good team. Trust me, I know."

She didn't ask. "Well... actually, I can't see why not. Yer right, it'd be convenient on both sides." Ender suddenly found himself presented with a hand. "It's a deal. We'll take it through the official channels later."

Taking her hand, Ender shook. As he did so, his sleeve slipped back slightly, revealing the end of the thin scar on his arm. Leila's gaze fell on it.

"What Genesis said about ya...being the 'wrong one'... don't ya find that kinda creepy?"

"What?"

"That... the Ender who belonged ta this timeline is dead, an' yer here instead, though you belong ta the other timeline... Don't that make you a slightly different person?"

"Only physically. I got a scar here on my arm that I don't remember getting. But mentally I'm the same person you were talking to this morning; just three hours later. The Ender of that other timeline ceased to exist when I arrived..." He sighed. "It's not like I actually belong to any timeline anyway."

Leila shook her head. "That's some powerful artillery ya got there, Ender." She hesitated. "Ever thought about getting it removed?"

"My 'porter? It's not giving me any problems, so..." He shrugged. "No. I figure as long as I'm responsible with it, I can't do any harm this way."

The silver duck looked abashed at the reminder. "I'm sorry fer... doin' what I did." She grimaced. "I seem ta be doin' a lot of apologisin' lately..."

"Forget it."

"I was misusin' my position of power..."

"I said forget it. I could have just refused you flat."

Leila pushed back off the wall, satisfied that she could stay upright without support now. "Know what? I wouldn't wanna be you, Ender."

"If it makes you feel any better, the sentiment is mutual." Ender saw her wince at that, and mentally rebuked himself for reminding her.

Leila leaned her back against the wall, then slid down and sat on the floor, suddenly feeling more tired than she ever had in her life. "What we tried ta do... It could never have worked the way I wanted, could it?"

Ender studied his feet, but remained standing. "No."

She sighed. "Guess there are some things ya just can't change."

"I probably could have told you that to begin with." There was no sting to the words, though.

She smiled slightly. "Rub it in. Oh, well... Ferget the past, huh? I guess I always got the future ta work with..." Her good humor fading out, she closed her eyes for a long moment. For a while, there was a companionable silence, and Leila didn't feel threatened by his presence. She liked that. Finally, she opened her eyes - and her gaze locked with Ender's.

Each, in a moment of weakness, had let their barriers down and opened up.... but of course, neither of them had thought the other was looking at the time. And suddenly, unexpectedly, they could see straight into each other through their eyes, down into the darkest, deepest hidden places they'd both protected so carefully...

And that degree of honesty scared the hell out of both of them.

Leila broke the spell, hastily tearing her gaze away. "We're a pair of sad sonsabitches, ain't we?" she murmured.

He nodded, the sudden slight pain in his throat making it hard for him to speak.

She looked up at the ceiling, resting her head back against the wall. "Think we'll ever be happy?"

"We can hope," he said quietly. If you're willing to take that risk.

"Yeah. We can only hope."

The difference, Ender reflected, was that she meant it.

And you can't fight the tears that ain't coming
Or the moment of truth in your lies
When everything seems like the movies
Yeah you bleed just to know you're alive

And I don't want the world to see me
Cause I don't think that they'd understand
When everything's made to be broken
I just want you to know who I am.

I just want you to know who I am...

 

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