Things at the new dollhouse were busier than they'd been since the secret second location had opened. They'd brought in nine new dolls in the last week alone to meet the growing demand. Unlike Adele's house, this house didn't facilitate romantic engagements or any type of everyday life situations.
Why run a common escort service when they were already rampant in most major cities?
No, Maggie Walsh was a military woman and she tended to choose her clientele based on their engagements and on things she was practiced in: science, combat, and protection. The world climate was changing. Threat of world war hung over the head of every human, every day. A global black market for some kind of super-soldier was growing and she had a secret weapon that would put all other attempts to shame.
Her moment of intense self-pride was interrupted by the sound of someone quietly struggling nearby. She none-too-gently put her tumbler of scotch down on her desk and walked over to the door, anxious to see what was happening on the other side. She was more than surprised to find Juliet there having some kind of disagreement with one of the potted trees.
"Juliet?" she asked, her voice deceptively soft. "What on earth are you doing?"
The pot was tipped over on its side with the soil spilling out onto the marble tiles. The branches from the small, leafy tree were covering the floor and the inch-wide trunk was damaged in several areas. Juliet looked up at Maggie innocently, a soil-y smudge on her cheek.
"I'm trying to be my best. The girls in my dreams; they all have small trees in their hands." She paused and looked down at her dirty fingers, then back up at Maggie. "My hands are empty."
"As they should be," Maggie replied and offered Juliet a hand which the girl reluctantly took and stood up, bringing them face to face. "Pay no attention to your dreams, Juliet. They're not real."
"They feel real. I can feel them in here," Juliet pointed to her heart, then to her head, "and here."
Maggie studied her for several long moments, wondering exactly what was going on inside that pretty little head of hers. She couldn't wait to be able to crack it open and find out once and for all. Just as she was about to reply, something caught her eye from the side and she saw Riley and another handler quickly heading down the hall toward them. He looked relieved, which probably meant that he'd been looking for his active for a while now.
"There you are, Juliet," he said, smiling nervously as he looked between her and Maggie.
"Hello, Riley," Juliet replied pleasantly.
"You were supposed to be at your yoga class," he said with a nervous smile but Juliet just continued to look at him innocently, completely unfazed. "Would you like a treatment?"
"I enjoy my treatments."
"Shall we?" he asked as he held his arm out down the hall. When Juliet nodded and walked past him toward the programming room, the smile fell from his face when he saw the look Maggie was giving him. "It won't happen again, ma'am."
"See to it that it doesn't. And find someone to clean this mess," is all that Maggie replied before walking back into her office and slamming the door shut behind her.
Riley looked down and closed his eyes, shaking his head slightly as he fought to keep his composure. A moment later and he quickly turned and headed after Juliet, hoping that she wouldn't get him into any more trouble.
The transport center of the New York slayer cell glowed blue for the second time in that day as a portal opened to let yet another group of people through. A few young slayers were already waiting with trash cans for the expected queasiness of their new visitors but the anticipated round of portal-sickness never started. Instead, Buffy and Faith stepped through with a look of pure determination on their faces and not even a hint of nausea.
"Where are Kennedy and Robin?" Buffy asked as the portal glowed and sparked behind her.
A young slayer stepped forward and saluted her – actually saluted! – and replied, "They're having a meeting in the central command room, ma'am. One of our recon teams had some new information to share and they didn't want to waste any more time."
Buffy nodded and Faith said a brief ‘thanks' before they headed off toward the command center, leaving the portal still swirling behind them. The slayers still standing there eyed it suspiciously and nearly jumped out of their skin when Xander came stumbling through with several slayer-issue bags slung over his arms and shoulders. He fought to regain his balance for several seconds and smiled proudly when he finally caught it, standing up straight and tall.
His smile faltered for a moment . . . and then he promptly bent over and hurled all over the place. The young slayers grimaced and groaned, trying their best not to watch as he seemed to turn inside out before their very eyes.
"Knew I shouldn't have had that sushi for lunch," he said with a hiccup as he wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. Suddenly noticing that his travel companions were missing, he furrowed his brow. "Either I came alone or I came very fast." He paused and then quickly added, "Wow, that came out so very, very wrong. But just to clarify, that usually never happens to me. I mean, unless I'm tired. And even then, rare. So rare. I'm talking dodo bird rare."
One of the slayers pointed him in the direction of the impromptu meeting in the command center and he nodded, laughing nervously. He was struggling to carry all of the bags but there was no way was he going to let his manliness take a hit by letting Buffy and Faith carry their own luggage.
He was a man. A manly man. A manly man with a group of teenage girls giggling at him now. Taking that as his cue to leave, he gathered the bags – and the last of his self-esteem – and headed off down the corridor to the command center.
The portal had already snapped, crackled, and popped itself closed, but before anyone could clean up Xander's mess, a third portal opened. Just like Buffy and Faith, Willow and Echo walked through calmly and casually, taking in their new surroundings. Echo was so busy looking around that she failed to notice that she'd walked into Xander's mess until it was too late.
"Oh, that's wicked gross," she mumbled to herself as she lifted up her foot and grimaced.
"Oops! My bad," Willow said apologetically. "I should've warned you to watch your step. You'll get used to this whole portal-travel thing in a jiff."
"The learning curve seems pretty steep," Echo said distastefully as she tried to clean off the bottom of her shoe on a concrete step, ignoring her own woozy stomach. "Got a place where a girl can get cleaned up around here?"
"Sure, of course," Willow replied with a smile. "Vacant dorms are up on the third floor. They're all pretty much the same so take your pick, though Xander usually takes the third on the left and Buffy and Faith take the fourth on the right."
Echo's eyebrow twitched at hearing Buffy's name but she kept her cool and offered Willow a small smile before adjusting the bag on her shoulder and heading over to the rear staircase. Willow watched her go until she'd disappeared up the steps and then turned to the slayers.
"That's the last of us. You guys can join the others in the command center as soon as the portal closes up. I have a feeling they're gonna need everyone involved in this mission."
Echo counted the doors as she slowly made her way down the dim corridor with her slayer-issued duffle bag slung over her shoulder. She wasn't exactly part of the slayer team these days but that hadn't stopped Faith from hooking her up with the fancy gear everyone else had before they'd gone off on their journey together months back.
She came to a stop when she reached the third door on the right and looked back and forth between the doors on either side of her. Shit. She should have been paying more attention to what Willow had been saying. Xander gets the third room on the right while Buffy and Faith take the fourth on the left? That sounded about right. Not wanting to share a wall with Buffy and Faith, Echo stepped up to the room past Xander's and tried the doorknob, smiling when it twisted easily open.
"Home sweet home," she mumbled to herself as she walked in and closed the door behind her. She stopped only to drop her bag on the bed before beginning to pull her clothes off as she made her way into the bathroom.
Willow entered the command area and quickly took a seat next to Kennedy, giving her a brief kiss on the cheek and trying her best not to interrupt the meeting that was already in progress. Robin was at the front of the room and explaining some of the footage one of the teams had taken earlier in a newly renovated building in upper Manhattan that had seen a flurry of activity lately. Buffy and Faith were sitting front and center, their gazes fixated on the large screen before them. Faith had her hand on Buffy's lower back and her thumb was gently caressing the exposed skin there; it was probably the only thing keeping Buffy grounded at the moment.
Ever since they'd found out about the possibility of a Buffy-clone two days before, Buffy had been in a state that no one quite knew how to deal with. The only person she let close was Faith, and that was really only because Faith insisted on staying with her every step of the way. As far as girlfriends went, she was doing the job perfectly.
No one quite knew why she'd insisted Echo tag along but they didn't think twice to question her motives when she'd said that it was important. Faith hadn't exactly gotten around to telling anyone about Echo's dreams but she didn't want to get them nervous for nothing until she talked with Echo and figured out what was happening. They'd talk as soon as Echo arrived from Texas. Besides, maybe having someone along that had lived inside a functioning dollhouse before would come in handy. At this point they needed all of the luck that they could get.
"What you're looking at here is the site of the former dollhouse. You'll notice that there's still a strong police presence as well as tight security from all angles. We've managed to briefly get a two-man team inside and they corroborate what we'd already suspected: the house is no longer functioning," Robin said.
"This is news?" Faith asked with one of her eyebrows arched.
"Keep your pants on, he's getting to the good part," Kennedy said, ignoring the look Faith gave her.
Robin clicked a button on the remote control in his hand and a new picture came up on the screen.
"One of our teams stumbled upon this when they were chasing a pod of Var a'shad demons throughout the sewers. They were in the secondary line and it came to a dead stop. That gave them the idea that it was probably some kind of security measure to stop any possible intruders from getting into the building from underneath it," he explained. "Seeing as that Willow was able to give us a four block radius to work with for where the unknown Buffy is, the team put two and two together and figured it was worth checking out."
"So when they were done slicing and dicing Var a'shad ass, they went to the surface and got their spy-game on," Kennedy jumped in. She stood up and took the remote from Robin's hand, ignoring his glare. "That's when they saw this."
She clicked a button on the remote control and the picture jumped to life. All eyes looked toward the screen again as a plain black van pulled up to the building and was greeted by an armed military guard before being allowed in the underground lot. The guard walked back into a small booth and waited there for a few moments until another vehicle approached. He smiled and saluted the driver, and that was where Kennedy paused the video.
"Keep your eyes on the driver side mirror," she said as she clicked a few more buttons and zoomed in several times, then enhanced the picture.
Buffy squinted a bit and then wrinkled her nose when she realized who it was.
"Riley? What's he doing there?" she asked, confused.
"That's the question of the day," Kennedy said as she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at the screen.
"We haven't been able to dig up much info on the building," Robin cut in. "It was purchased late last year by private shareholders and we can't find a paper trail connecting them to AFH or Adelle DeWitt. That being said, we can't really find a paper trail at all."
"Sounds a little too similar to when you guys were researchin' AFH," Faith said.
"Yeah, but it's Riley, guys. Riley," Buffy said his name slowly for effect. "He's always been one of the good guys, even when he was working for the not-so-good guys."
"And now he's working for the not-so-good guys again, Buffy. You told us that yourself; he's with the Initiative again," Kennedy replied.
Buffy took a deep breath and sighed. She wanted so much to believe that whatever Riley was doing with the Initiative was completely separate from anything Adelle DeWitt had been involved with, but deep down in her gut she knew that she couldn't put it past The Initiative to be involved in something sneaky and illicit.
"She's right, B," Faith said quietly, her voice soft and low as she continued to rub Buffy's back with her thumb. "We should probably check it out, cross it off on the list of suspects so that we can move on to the next contender."
Buffy didn't speak; instead she nodded as she looked sadly down at her lap. Why did everyone around her always seem to turn on her at some point? If Riley was even partly responsible for her clone running around New York, well . . . that was certainly unforgivable and not something she could just let go. Not when he'd contacted her under the pretense of friendship during her last visit to New York.
"That's set then," Kennedy said, determined. "We'll wait until we have the cover of night to check the place out."
"Everyone who's going, rendezvous in the transport center at 10:00pm sharp," Robin said. "Everyone who's not, make sure you're back in the command center by then. You're gonna be our eyes and ears from here."
All of the younger slayers, along with Robin, Xander, Willow and Kennedy stood up from their seats and gradually left the room, headed off in different directions throughout the building. Buffy and Faith were the only ones who remained in the room, the few young slayers that were stationed there having taken the hint to give them a few minutes alone.
Buffy didn't say anything but just found herself stepping into Faith's waiting embrace. She pressed her forehead against Faith's shoulder and breathed deeply, trying to relax.
"It'll be okay, B. We'll check out the lead and go from there," Faith tried to soothe her.
"Do you really think Riley is involved in all of this?" Buffy asked.
Faith thought about that for a minute. She hadn't really had a good opportunity to ever get to know the guy when she was body swapping years ago. All she knew for sure was that he loved Buffy, he could barely master missionary in bed, and that no matter how nice he seemed, he was still working for a shady organization. She didn't quite want to tell it to Buffy like that though so instead she shrugged and kissed the top of Buffy's head.
"I dunno. But if he is? We're gonna handle it. We're slayers, girlfriend. It's what we do."
"Slayers kill vampires and demons. Evil, human-cloning corporations aren't supposed to be our forte."
"What can I say? We're branching out. Besides, I don't care if they're demons or not. If they're messing with my girl, they just made an enemy outta me."
Buffy chuckled softly and looked up at Faith, a soft smile playing at the corners of her lips. She brushed her thumb over Faith's cheek and then let her fingertips push softly into her hair.
"I don't know what I'd do without you," she said honestly.
"Probably burn the motor out on your vibe," Faith replied and laughed when Buffy used her other hand to pinch her side. "Jeez, I'm kidding! Mercy!"
Buffy tried her best to pout but couldn't help but smile through it. "I was trying to be serious, jerk."
"I know, I know," Faith said and ran her hands down Buffy's arms until their fingers were interlaced. "Hey, I've got a good idea. How ‘bout you head on up to our room and get a nice hot shower goin' for us and I'll go and get our bags and meet you upstairs? We can kick back and relax for a bit before we go all covert ops later."
"Mmm, that sounds good. I can use a bit of relaxing."
"Good, it's settled. Gonna grab our bags and meet you up there. Maybe I'll even do that thing you like with my tongue," Faith said and wriggled her eyebrows as she took a step backwards.
"It's a date," Buffy said, smiling. "Ooh, wait. I'm gonna go a check in with Willow really quickly and make sure that she doesn't need me for any locator spells. First one up gets things started?"
"Sounds like a plan."
Buffy yanked Faith back against her and gave her a quick peck on the lips before squeezing her hands. They took off in separate directions, both anxious to get upstairs so they could spend a bit of time together before things started to get intense later.
It was nearly ten minutes later when Buffy finally made it up the stairs to the dorms and down the hall to their usual room. Willow had taken the opportunity to talk her ear off about the different kind of locator spells she was going to use, complete with all of the technical jargon that went completely over Buffy's head. She'd smiled and nodded like a good friend, though; Willow was doing this for her, after all. Without her, they never would have known about the clone in the first place.
She stopped at the fourth door on the right and smiled when she could feel Faith before she even entered the room. Knowing her girlfriend, she was probably already buck naked and watching cartoons while waiting for her.
Smiling, Buffy opened the door and walked in, surprised to find the room bathed in darkness except for the light coming from the partially opened bathroom door. The thick curtains were drawn and the only sound in the room was that of falling water from the shower. The scent of blackberry amber shower gel filled the air and Buffy almost pouted when she'd realized Faith had started without her.
She didn't waste any time getting undressed and nearly tumbled over when she was pushing her tight jeans over her hips. The wall was the only thing that stopped her from falling as her palm hit it with a gentle thud.
"Someone here?" Came Faith's voice from the shower.
"It's just me. I can't believe you started without me!"
"Never mind, it doesn't matter," Buffy said as she removed the last of her clothes and walked into the bathroom completely naked. "I love Willow like a sister but the girl can really talk your ear off. I didn't mean to take so long."
She pulled the shower curtain back just enough to slip inside without the water dousing the tiled floor and quickly shut it behind her. Faith was facing the showerhead and looking a little bit tense herself. Smiling softly, Buffy wrapped her hands around Faith's waist and let them rest on her stomach as she pressed her lips against the back of her wet neck.
"I'm sorry. I'm deflecting my stress onto you and that's not fair."
"Shh. Maybe I can help get rid of some of that stress."
She began to slip her hands slowly down Faith's stomach and grinned proudly when Faith actually trembled at her touch. A sound from the other room startled her but not as much as the voice she heard walk into the bathroom a moment after.
"Jeez, a bit anxious to get things started, B?" Faith asked with a chuckle from the other side of the curtain.
Now it was Buffy's turn to say, "Umm...?"
Thinking quickly, she slipped her hands higher on the abdomen she'd been busy groping and panicked when she couldn't feel the scar she knew should be there.
"Oh boy . . ." she uttered just as Faith pulled back the shower curtain from the other side.
Faith's eyes widened comically as she looked in on a wide-eyed Buffy and a completely naked, wet, and blushing Echo.
"What the . . . ?" Faith managed to say just as Buffy made a mad dash from the shower and into the bedroom with nothing to cover her modesty but a small washcloth.
"I . . . didn't see anything," Echo said quickly as she grabbed the shower curtain and slid it shut.
Faith looked from the shower, to the bedroom door, and then back to the shower before shaking her head and running a hand through her long hair.
"Oh man. Coulda been the hottest threesome ever."
"You have to stop wandering off like that," Riley said softly as he helped Juliet clean her hands off in one of the porcelain sinks.
"Why?" Juliet asked. She was watching the way his large hands softly rubbed at her much smaller ones, every motion gentle and even.
"Because it's not safe. I can't protect you if you're constantly taking off every time I turn my back."
"Protect me from what?"
Riley looked around them cautiously and then down into Juliet's questioning green eyes.
"From everyone. Everything. You're very special, Juliet. They don't understand you and they want to find out what makes you work. Please don't give them a reason to do that. Just do as you're told and you'll be safe."
Obviously his old feelings for Buffy were clouding his judgment and his ability to perform his job as specified. He was supposed to be her handler, not her friend. Looking into Juliet's eyes day after day, though, he knew he couldn't let any harm come to her.
"Okay. I'm sorry, Riley. I'll try to be my best."
He watched her silently for a moment, his guilt threatening to consume him. Instead he shook it off and gently patted her now cleaned hands with a towel.
"Come on, Reagan is waiting to give you your treatment."
Riley led Juliet through the double doors and into the imprint room where the programmer was waiting with his assistant.
"You're late," Reagan said stoically, noting the clock on the wall.
"We had some technical difficulties," Riley replied, avoiding his gaze as he helped Juliet into the chair. "She's ready now though."
Reagan stepped behind his console and waited for Juliet to finish fidgeting before he finally ran the program, a small smile on his face. There was nothing more exciting than seeing one of his flawless imprints being used on their most deadly doll.
The machine whirred quietly and Juliet reclined back in the imprinting chair, her head resting back comfortably on the headrest. She kept her eyes locked on Riley's as it began to tilt back, a soft smile on her face. No sooner than she was fully reclined did her body go rigid as the imprint started to upload.
Less than a minute passed and the chair started to rise back to its regular position. Juliet tilted her head to the left, then right, letting her neck crack twice. When the chair stopped moving, her eyes shot opened and a little grin played at her lips.
"Guess who's baaaack?" she sing-songed.
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