The sound of designer high-heeled shoes clicking on imported Italian marble floors filled the cold and sterile corridor. It was empty of any people except for Adelle DeWitt who walked with determination towards the records room in the Dollhouse. She needed to know; needed to be sure.
No one duped Adelle DeWitt and got away with it.
Pressing her index finger against a small screen, she waited through the electronic whirring noises for the small beep that indicated that the door was unlocked. Normally she'd feel a sense of pleasure from that, knowing that she alone had access to the restricted room, but she felt too much anger today to let her ego through. Storming into the room, she walked up to a small black console and pressed a few buttons.
"Voice identify: Adelle DeWitt."
"Good afternoon, Dr. DeWitt," a computerized voice responded. "Shall I pull all recently archived footage?"
"No," Adelle replied coldly. "Pull all archives re: Travers, Quentin. Organize by date and footage location."
After a brief moment, the computer replied, "Three catalogs found. 12 September 1999, 26 October 1999, 13 March 2000."
"Display 12 September 1999. Cue to business discussions."
After a few moments passed by a still image appeared on a large plasma screen on the wall before her. Adelle tapped a few buttons on the console and the video began to stream.
Quentin Travers was relaxing back in the very same chair Buffy had been in just two days before. He was the perfect picture of cool confidence, staring down an equally confident Adelle. She hadn't heard of Quentin Travers nor of The Watcher's Council prior to his call, but with the money that he was throwing at her for a simple meeting, she figured that it might be well worth her time.
"I'm going to cut right to the chase, Dr. DeWitt. I've heard that you're developing a program to hire men and women to serve as your own personal dolls. Dress them up how you like and make them do your bidding."
Adelle chuckled and exhaled a short breath through her nose, her grin cold and tight.
"That's the crude version, though you're not far off. I'm going through a rigorous screening process with candidates as we speak, picking only the best of the best in the areas of physical being, stamina, ability to follow and comprehend orders, and submissiveness, of course."
"What if I told you that you could skip the rigorous process?"
Adelle regarded him, studying his face as she considered his question.
"At what cost?" she asked evasively.
Travers smiled conspiratorially and leaned forward in his seat.
"The organization I belong to doesn't sponsor community events and bake sales. The Watcher's Council fights evil. The Slayer - a chosen girl with heightened physical strength and special training - is the instrument with which we fight. The Council always remains, but the Slayers . . . well, the Slayers change."
"No, they die," Travers answered easily. "They're not invincible, but they are more than a worthy adversary to any foe. When they do fall, however, their powers are passed on. A new Slayer is chosen and fights until it is time for another to be chosen again. It's been that way from the beginning."
"Survival of the fittest," Travers replied with a slight shrug of his shoulders. "There is no room for weakness when it comes to being the ultimate defender of good."
"You make her sound like a superhero," Adelle said, feigning disinterest. The gleam in her eye was unmistakable, however, and it was quite clear to Travers that he had her full attention.
"For all intents and purposes, she is. There's no human that she can't take, no weapon that she can't master. She is a fighting machine, and when placed in the right hands, there is nothing that she can't do."
Adelle sat back in her chair once again, her gaze locked on Quentin's as she pondered their conversation.
"Suppose this interested me. What exactly are you offering?"
"I'm offering you the world, Dr. DeWitt."
"And you're willing to hand over your precious Slayer without so much as a second thought as to what happens in your battle for the good of man once she's in our hands?"
Quentin took in a deep breath, his unwavering cool finally slipping just a little.
"I'm afraid it's not quite as easy as handing her over. I do believe, however, that an agreement can be made."
Adelle pushed a few buttons on the console and the image stopped streaming, the image frozen on Travers' conniving face. "Cue 26 October 1999." The still frame on the screen disappeared and a new image loaded. She tapped a few buttons and the new video began to stream.
"I believe I've held up my end of the bargain, Mr. Travers. Your data has been uploaded as well as stored in our Cryo-bank. It will be accessible only as per our contracted terms, as requested. A living trust has been set up and annual deposits will be made as per the pre-approved payment schedule and terms."
"Excellent." He accepted the proffered manila envelope and stole a peek inside before closing it and placing it inside of his stainless steel briefcase.
"I've showed you mine; now you show me yours," Adelle said, anxiously stepping around her desk to stand before him.
Quentin smiled and reached into the briefcase, carefully pulling out several marked glass tubes in a clear box. He held it with both hands, lifting it ever so gingerly until it rested safely in Adelle's hands.
"As promised: Slayer DNA. I trust that you'll be cautious in who you tell about this."
"It's a secret that will never leave my lips," Adelle replied, her focus transfixed on the blood-filled tubes. "Shame I couldn't meet your Slayer, though the videos that you showed were quite extraordinary."
"I'm afraid that she's quite unsuitable for travel at the moment."
"But she gave you her blood willingly?" Adelle questioned, though she really didn't care how he got it so long as it was in her hands now.
"We took it from her while she slept," he said with a hint of an evil grin on his face, remembering the way a very comatose Faith winced as he roughly drew vial after vial of blood from her while her nurse at the hospital was on a cigarette break.
"She didn't wake?" Adelle asked, finally looking at Quentin.
"It was a very deep sleep," he answered after a moment, still grinning.
"And you can assure me that this is the blood of a viable Slayer and not some hobo that you've met on the street?"
"Dr. DeWitt, what you hold in your hands is the DNA of the deadliest slayer I've had the opportunity to work with. If you can find better, well . . . it's the deal breaker. You can terminate our contract at your discretion."
Adelle smiled greedily, ignorant to Quentin's duplicitous scam.
He didn't think, however, that she would ever run into Buffy Summers.
Adelle once again tapped a few buttons on the console, pausing the streaming video. She smiled to herself, her jaw clenched tight to keep back her anger at being lied to. Picking up a black phone from the console, she dialed quickly and brought the phone to the ear.
"Topher, prep Echo, combat ready. We're going to visit an old friend of hers."
A bright light filled the transfer chamber and suddenly Buffy was in the room with an eagerly waiting Willow and Xander. She quickly grabbed the trash can Willow was holding out for her and turned around, waiting for the inevitable sickness to come. Nothing happened though. After a moment she turned around and smiled, offering the can back to Willow.
"I must be getting good at this," she said, hoping that they wouldn't notice her puffy eyes and red nose.
Suddenly her eyes widened and she grabbed the can back just in time to wretch loudly into it. There was no time to spin around and get some privacy, and she knew for a fact that her friends hadn't had a chance to look away because she could practically hear Xander's grimace.
"I think I just saw a boot come out," he said quietly to Willow who was ready with a napkin when Buffy was done.
Buffy kindly put the can down behind her and took the napkin from Willow, wiping it across her mouth before tossing it into the can.
"Are you okay?" Willow asked Buffy, a look of concern on her face. She wasn't concerned about the puking; that was something all of the slayers were generally getting used to. She was worried about Buffy's mental state. As hard as Buffy had tried to mask it, it was obvious that she'd been crying. There was a sadness behind her eyes and Willow knew that it had to do with what happened between she and Faith. Or Echo. Or whatever they were referring to her as. Personally, she was sticking with the Faith-bot.
"I'll get by," Buffy said sadly, handing her bags over to Xander who took them with ease.
"I know you will, Buff. I'm just being the worried friend. Is there . . . do you want to talk about what happened in New York?"
"Eventually. There's a lot to discuss. AFH is just full of questionable moral concerns, but . . . can we deal with that tomorrow? I need to, I don't know, think about something else. Is it too much to ask for some yummy food and some quality time with my best friends?"
Willow and Xander smiled simultaneously, happy to feel needed by Buffy.
"You know I'll never turn down my girls. Or food," Xander quipped. "I'll take your bags to your room and you lovely ladies decide what treats we'll be delighting in. Add my vote to the Szechuan chicken list."
He left Willow and Buffy to discuss their dining plans and quickly ran up to Buffy's room, depositing her bags on a chair near the door. Just when he turned around to leave, a small piece of paper fell from the bag and onto the floor. He didn't mean to snoop; he'd had no intentions of reading or even looking at the paper. But when he saw Faith's handwriting, he knew he had to sneak a peek.
Eyes wide and hands slightly trembling, Xander read the letter one, two, three more times before folding it neatly and placing it back in Buffy's bag. He didn't know what the extent of Buffy's secondary mission was while in New York, but he knew for certain that it wasn't to get cozy with the imposter Faith. Buffy's idea of information gathering was definitely more involved than he'd ever imagined!
Trying hard to pretend he'd never seen the letter, Xander quickly jogged down the stone steps and met Buffy and Willow in the kitchen to find them looking over take-out menus. He put on his best friendly smile and walked up to them, reading the menus over their shoulders.
He wanted to talk to Buffy about it; wanted to know if she was okay and what had happened. She had to speak about it on her own time though, and for now he'd respect that. Laying a comforting hand on her lower back, he was surprised when Buffy looked up at him over her shoulder. She smiled and thanked him wordlessly with a little nod before turning back to the menus.
If only she knew what he'd stumbled upon.
Buffy awoke to find herself laying on the queen-sized bed in her darkened room, but she wasn't alone. Willow lay on one side of her and Xander on the other, keeping her safe and warm in the middle of the bed. Stealing a glance at her alarm clock, she saw that it was only 9:00pm. They'd hung out for several hours, eating food and watching films before apparently crashing on her bed. It was time well spent and they'd even helped her to temporarily forget about the whole Faith situation.
Now that she was alone with her thoughts though, it all came flooding back to her. Easing herself off of her bed, she made her way into the private adjoining bathroom and closed the door, holding it as it closed so that it wouldn't wake her friends. She put her hands on the sink and hung her head low, taking a few deep breaths before looking up at herself in the mirror, her eyes shining with unshed tears.
It was too much. All of it. She'd screwed up before she ever went to New York, but New York was the biggest screw up of all. What the hell had she been thinking? As soon as she saw Echo in the Dollhouse, somewhere deep inside of herself she knew what was going to happen. Being able to deal with a Faith that didn't put up a wall every time she got close and that wasn't hostile towards her?
It was the way it should've been from the very beginning.
The way it should've been once they'd made amends in Sunnydale.
Buffy had managed to screw that up though. It was so easy for her to slip back into old patterns when she saw Faith at Gigi's house. So easy to push down her feelings and replace them with rage. It had always pretty much been kiss or kill with them, but Buffy had never had the balls to try the former.
Scared little Buffy Summers. That's all that she was.
And now not only was she paying for that but Faith was paying for it too.
Letting the tears finally fall, Buffy took a few steps back until she felt the wall and slid down against it, burying her face in her hands. She wanted to fix this, needed to fix herself, but she didn't know how. Faith was gone, unwilling to even speak with her and resigned to the fact that they were just fucked up. And Echo, well . . . Echo was just a lie. A mistake.
Buffy didn't know how long she sat there crying until she finally heard a tentative knock at the door. She quickly swiped her hands over her face and brushed away the tears, but whoever was out there wasn't waiting for an answer. She looked up to see the door slowly open to reveal a concerned looking Xander.
He regarded her for a moment, looking back out into the dark bedroom before slipping into the bathroom and quietly closing the door behind him. He didn't speak; instead he just walked up to Buffy and slid down the wall next to her, pulling her into his arms before he was even fully sitting.
Buffy immediately began to cry harder, the tears coming easily. She buried her face in Xander's strong embrace and let her tears drench his shirt. He didn't care; he'd do anything to take Buffy's tears away. He rocked her slowly, whispering soft shh's to her until she finally managed to calm down several long minutes later.
They sat in silence for a while, Buffy clinging to him as he gently stroked her hair. Seeing her like that broke his heart. She always wore such a strong and stony exterior that it was hard to see how vulnerable she was underneath it all.
Buffy finally loosened her grip a little and rested her cheek on Xander's bicep, sighing loudly.
"I screwed up, Xan."
"I know," he answered, placing a gentle kiss on the top of her head.
"Faith wouldn't talk to me before I left. She was so angry, and really, who could blame her? I don't know why she and I always get it wrong. It's just . . . I don't know, something in her sets me off. Always has and always will. I guess I was just hoping that maybe we could turn that from a bad thing into a good thing. All the usual life drama aside, we got along pretty well when we were in LA before we came to Scotland."
"I think it's probably hard to explain things from my point of view, not looking at either of you in the Slayer way that Giles does or in the Wicca and often Jealous Best Friend way that Wills does."
"Try?" Buffy asked, looking up at him with still teary eyes.
Xander shrugged, looking straight ahead. "Opposite sides of the same coin, Buff. When you're not busy fighting it, you and Faith are eerily similar. Maybe it's a Slayer thing, I don't know. But as just two people, just Buffy and Faith the girls . . . I don't know. Kindred spirits or something, underneath all of the frontery, anyhow.
They stayed silent for a few minutes, Buffy digesting Xander's words while he tried to think of a better way to say it.
"I don't know what I was thinking in New York. Willow told me to get close if I could, and I think I stopped being sensible at some point in there because I let it get out of control. Lost my resolve; fell for the lie, hook, line, and sinker."
"Echo was programmed to be fallen for; a perfect ruse. From what Willow says it was a really clever lie. Made to be whatever you want."
"Yeah, it was," Buffy said, chuckling sadly and letting more silent tears fall.
Xander didn't say anything for a few minutes. He held her tight, still stroking her hair, until he finally asked,
"Was it what you wanted?"
Buffy thought about it for a few moments before answering, "I thought it was. Everything I never knew I always wanted, right? Isn't that what they say?"
"Doesn't matter what they say; what do you say?"
"I don't know," Buffy said, shrugging almost unnoticeably. "It felt right, like it was how it always should've been. It just wasn't with the right person," she said with a self-deprecating smile.
"Sounds like a great illusion, Buff. You can't help having fell for it. I . . ." Xander paused, choosing his words carefully, "I saw the letter, Buffy. I think I can piece together what happened."
Buffy's tear-rimmed eyes immediately widened.
"What do you mean?" she asked cautiously, gauging what exactly he knew.
"The letter. From the Faith/Echo person. I saw what she said, about the rocking of her world."
Buffy's brow furrowed as she completely disregarding the part about Xander knowing about her extracurricular bedroom activities.
"What letter are we talking about?"
"The one in your bag?" Xander said warily as he watched Buffy sit up.
Buffy's eyes were suddenly wide and she sprung to her feet, half way out the door before Xander could even get up from his spot on the floor. She ran over to the chair where her bags were still deposited and began to fumble through them, stopping only when she had the small sheet of paper in her hand. Unable to read it in the dark of the room, she headed back to the bathroom where Xander was waiting for her in the doorway.
She quickly poured over the words again and again, struggling to understand exactly what it meant. If Faith - no, Echo - if Echo had written that in the morning, it didn't make sense. She wouldn't have been programmed to be Faith any longer. She was being recalled to the Dollhouse, her mission was done, yet she'd written as if she was Faith.
Buffy idly wondered what Adelle and the programmers would think about that but a soft hand on her shoulder pulled her from her thoughts.
"You're acting like this is the first time you read that," Xander said, paying close attention to Buffy's face as she stared at the letter.
"It is," she said quietly, her eyebrows furrowed. "She must've put it there while I was sleeping. Hid it, even. She . . ." Buffy paused, a look of realization on her face, "she made sure I wouldn't find it until I left. She knew I'd go after her if I'd found it."
"What are you thinking, Buff?" he asked, still studying her face.
"I needed to talk to Faith before I left for New York but she wouldn't listen to me. Now I have a reason to make her listen." She finally looked from the letter up to Xander's concerned face. "Xan . . . I hate to ask, but . . ."
"You're gonna need my help," he said, a knowing smile on his face.
"Ah shit. Another dead end," Faith said, adjusting her earpiece so that she could hear better. "This one's crafty, Giles. Saw me coming a mile away. You hearing all this?"
"Loud and clear," Giles answered through the earpiece. "Perhaps it's time we ask Marina for her assistance . . ."
"No, not yet. You know these girls spook when we use the force against them."
"I'd hardly call a locater and transportation spell 'the force', Faith. As you've repeatedly told me, this particular slayer is crafty."
Faith sighed and rubbed her hands over her face, finally feeling how tired she was. She'd been after the same Slayer for almost three days now without more than a simple break for food here or there. Just when she'd get near the girl, she'd escape her grasp and disappear for hours at a time. Growing up on the streets of Taiwan gave the girl a distinct advantage, but Faith's wasn't a slug either when it came to being streetwise.
"Just . . . just give me one more day, Giles. I'll get her, got my word on that."
"Are you positive? I've got Marina on standby . . ."
"Tell her to take a break, Giles. I can't bring this kid in by tomorrow she can zap her to wherever the hell we need her to be."
"Very well then. Perhaps you should take a few hours rest. You haven't slept in days."
"No rest for the wicked, man. I can sleep when I'm dead," she replied easily, looking around the alley.
Suddenly a gust of wind swept through the alley, kicking up the loose debris on the ground. Faith watched with interest as the air began to crackle alongside both buildings on either side of her. Suddenly a jolt of energy sent her flying backwards but she quickly jumped up to her feet in a fighting stance, ready to attack. That's when she saw a figure standing there among the mystical haze. She squinted her eyes, trying to figure out who it was.
"Luxian?" she asked, her voice low and hoarse. Of course it would be too easy for the Slayer she'd been chasing to land right in her proverbial lap.
But then she noticed something. Long blonde hair.
Faith's eyes narrowed as the girl retched quietly and then stood up and turned around to face her.
"Faith," Buffy began and Faith's eyes immediately widened.
"Giles," Faith said aloud, her eyes locked on Buffy's.
"Has it really been that long that you don't remember my name?" Buffy asked, confused. "It's Buffy."
"Giles!" Faith said again.
"Buf-fy," Buffy enunciated.
"There's no need to yell, Faith," Giles replied through the earpiece.
"Get Marina. Get me outta here."
"Who's Marina?" Buffy asked, tilting her head to the side. "Have you been drinking?"
"She's already returned to her room," Giles began. "She'll be back shortly and I can . . ."
"I need an exit, now!" Faith said, her jaw clenched tightly.
"Wait, Faith, I need to talk with you," Buffy said, immediately figuring out what was going on.
"Let me know when you've got a location," Faith said quietly to Giles.
She regarded Buffy for one more moment, shaking her head slightly in disbelief before turning around and hauling ass out of the alley.
"Faith, wait! Shit!" Buffy yelled, quickly running after her.
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