Chapter Two

"Please, call me Buffy," Buffy said as calmly as possible as she took the proffered hand before her and shook it gently. When Adelle stepped to the side, Buffy stepped out of the elevator. What the heck was The Dollhouse? "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice."

"It's no trouble at all," Adelle responded as she began to walk through the open office plan, Buffy following closely behind her. "Your uncle has been an important client of ours for many years now. His business has always been our top priority, so you can understand that we're more than willing to accommodate his personal needs as well."

Buffy wondered exactly what kind of 'business' Dr. Desmond Carrigan was involved in if he was into the hiring of actives, whatever that meant, but she was sure she couldn't ask questions about it without blowing her cover. She'd make sure to have Willow check it out when she got back, though.

"And I do thank you for that," Buffy commented. "I know it may be a bit unorthodox, but after speaking with him I thought that maybe you could be of use to me as well."

They entered a spacious private office that overlooked most of the busy city below. The view was breathtaking, and it took Buffy a moment to peel her eyes away from it to realize that Adelle was waiting for her to have a seat in a plush armchair. She quickly sat down and smiled nervously.

"Please don't feel nervous or uncomfortable, Ms. Carrigan," Adelle began as she sat down in her leather office chair. "Many people have come to us before you with a wide array of needs. We've never been unable to accommodate our clients. I'm sure that we can help you, no matter the situation."

As comforting as Adelle was trying to be, Buffy still felt nervous. The most Willow was able to tell her was that AFH was in the business of leasing out people known as actives. Who these actives were and what they did was completely unknown at this point, and Buffy needed to find out as much as she could, all while pretending that she knew exactly what business they were in.

She really hoped that it wasn't some kind of escort service. All she needed was an arrest for solicitation on her already blemished personal record.

"Well," Buffy began, unsure, "why don't you tell me a bit about the Dollhouse, in your own words. Uncle Desi can be so coy, and I'd hate to make a fool out of myself with an off the wall request."

Adelle smiled, her lips tight as she sat back.

"I would hardly call any request off the wall. Sometimes there are situations, Ms. Carrigan, of which we're not able to handle alone. Have you ever felt oppressed? Alone? Unable to deal with a person or a situation? We all have, I can assure you. This is what we had in mind when we began this program. Through a rigorous screening process and a series of tests, both mental and physical, we've signed a series of actives, also known as dolls. They live here at our facility, training and keeping in peak physical and mental condition. Now, they've volunteered for this program, accepting a financial settlement in exchange for their services for a predetermined amount of time, after which they are free to retire or to continue with the program."

"And the services that they perform?" Buffy asked casually, though her stomach was twisting and turning on the inside. Something was wrong. Something was off about this place, despite the sterile atmosphere.

Adelle paused for a moment and held her gaze on Buffy, trying to read her.

"Vary from case to case," she answered vaguely. "Our actives excel at protection and vigilance, often serving as personal body guards and safe escorts. They're trained in eight different areas of martial arts, as well as modern weaponry and basic survivalism."

"Sounds . . . excessive," Buffy said, choosing her words carefully.

"On the contrary. With growing threats of terrorism and local as well as global hostility, our actives can never be prepared enough. Their sole focus is the completion of any mission or objective, and they will lay down their lives in order to do so."

"Wow," Buffy said, shaking her head slightly. "I guess what I'd like to know though, is . . . how can you be sure that once they've completed your program, they won't go out and share these tales of heroism and secrecy?"

Adelle took that opportunity to stand up from her chair and walk around to the front of her desk, leaning back against it casually.

"That is actually a very simple process, which is not so simple to explain. Our actives are programmed with pertinent information for successful mission completion. Upon completion of their objectives, they return here for debriefing, by which our technicians completely deprogram them. All memories of the mission, all details previously ingrained in them, gone. They're left a blank slate; tabula rasa."

Buffy blinked several times, unable to comprehend completely.

"How . . . how is that even possible?"

"We have state of that art technology here, Ms. Carrigan. Our technicians are leaders in their field. I can assure you that our actives feel no pain during the process, nor do they ever question it. They did, after all, volunteer, with clear knowledge of what they were getting involved in. We wouldn't hold them here otherwise."

"Of course," Buffy said, nodding her head to indicate that she understood. She didn't understand though. Wiping someone's memory? Keeping them completely ignorant? Buffy didn't know the laws of nature and moral decency, but she was sure that some of them had to have been broken at this place.

Seeing the troubled look upon Buffy's face, Adelle tried a different approach.

"Protection and fighting isn't the only thing our actives are used for, Ms. Carrigan. Sometimes a lonely person just needs someone to talk to. Someone that can respond in a way that they need. Someone who can speak in a certain way, or look at them a certain way. On a rare occasion, we've had clients who merely needed an escort to a social function. As I mentioned before, nothing is unheard of here."

Buffy almost wanted to laugh. So, this top secret agency, on top of leasing out secret agents, also leased out dates? It was almost too much to handle. How was she expected to report all of this back to Willow when she could barely take it all in herself?

"Maybe you can tell me a bit about what you're looking for," Adelle continued, interrupting her thoughts.

"Oh, right," Buffy said, smiling.

Was she supposed to request an active to be her personal security guard? To deal with the newest rogue slayer and her gang? She could have used any number of excuses, but then something hit home. She could use this opportunity for good, she thought.

"Well," Buffy continued, "you see, I have this friend. Or actually, I had this friend. We were close, and then we weren't, and then we were again, and now, well . . ."

"Of course," Adelle interrupted. "You're looking for closure. Most people are unable to cope with untimely deaths, especially when there were things left unsaid, relationships left sour . . ."

"Oh, she didn't . . ." die, Buffy thought, but then she realized this was probably an excellent excuse. ". . . let me apologize to her," she finished.

Adelle smiled her cold smile again and leaned forward, putting a comforting hand on Buffy's knee.

"Guilt is a terrible thing, Ms. Carrigan. We don't know how to deal with it, especially when there are no viable ways to make amends. I believe we'll be able to help you. You can sit with one of our programming technicians. He'll go over personality, physical habits, identifying attributes with you. Our actives may not be perfect physical matches, but you'd be surprised by how much . . ."

"Oh, I'm not worried about that," Buffy said, smiling. "I'm not picky. I'm sure you have exactly what I'm looking for."

And then some, she thought.

Adelle smiled happily and reached behind on her desk, grabbing a small remote control. She pointed it at the large plasma screen on the wall and in an instant, a live feed from one of the training rooms popped up.

The actives were using various cardio machines, all of them looking determined yet at peace. Buffy's eyes immediately went to the brunette beauty on the treadmill nearest the wall.

Faith. Okay, it wasn't Faith, but it would do.

Standing up, Buffy walked slowly closer to the large screen. She stopped just a few feet away, her eyes focused solely on the Faith look-alike. Adelle strolled up behind Buffy, a pensive look on her face.

"Echo. She's an amazing specimen, one of our very best."

"She's the one," Buffy said quietly, her eyes transfixed.

"Very well." Adelle walked over to her desk and picked up a small phone. "Topher? Have Echo ready for imprinting. I'm sending a client to you for detail analysis."

Putting the phone down, Adelle noticed that Buffy was still staring at the screen. With a small smile on her face, she sat down in her chair, leaving the screen on.

Surely Dr. Desmond Carrigan would be willing to pay the exorbitant amount she was going to charge to help his poor niece who was so obviously helplessly in love.

"Ms. Carrigan, this is Topher Brink. He'll be imprinting Echo with the qualities and characteristics that you give him. Take your time, be honest, and I can assure you that you'll be happy with the end product."

Adelle took her leave of Buffy then, leaving her in the presence of Topher and a handful of other technicians.

"Okay Buffy - cool name by the way - let's see here. Looks like you're gonna be taking Echo out for a spin." He turned around and faced his computer, tapping away anxiously on the keyboard. "She'll be purely non-combatant and her aggression levels will be minimal. That's a start."

"Well actually," Buffy interrupted, causing Topher to spin back and face her, "Faith - my friend - she is . . . was an expert fighter. And even when she wasn't fighting, she was pretty aggressive. I mean . . . we weren't always friends. We had a few rough patches. But even when we were friends, she was always a bit ... grr."

Topher smiled devilishly.

"A real firecracker then, huh? Okay, we can work with that." He spun back around and started typing again. "So we're looking at aggressive, but not alarmingly so, and able to stand up for herself. What else can you tell me about her personality?"

Buffy thought about it for a few moments. She wished she'd taken more time to get to know Faith. Sure she knew some of the basics, but Buffy was sure that there were parts of Faith under her external layers that she would have loved to have seen.

This was a perfect opportunity to see them, she thought.

"Well, she was a bit brazen. Sarcasm was often her friend. A shameless flirt. She wasn't book smart, per se, but she knew a lot more than she ever let on. She didn't like us to know that she cared, but she did deep down inside. I guess that under her tough girl exterior, she just really wanted to be our friend. My friend."

She looked down sadly, unable to hide the sadness she felt at discussing Faith. Topher regarded her for a moment or two before turning back to his keyboard and typing in more of the info.

"Okay, Buffy, that's all great. I know it's hard, but you're doing a great job. Now we can get to other stuff. Mannerisms. Does she have an accent? Any physical habits? Anything that we can do to make her more like your friend?"

"Well," Buffy began, "she's from Boston. I guess that's where her accent comes from. I don't know much about her upbringing, but I know it was kinda rough. Her mom's dead, and I never heard her mention her dad. She's got attitude, and you can see that in the way she stands. Oh, she has a tattoo on her upper arm. A tribal dealy. I can draw it if you want, just for a basic idea. The girl can eat, I'll give you that much. And she smirks a lot. It's kind of her trademark," she said and smiled fondly, staring off into space as she imagined it.

"Gotta love a girl with a cute smirk," Topher said with a grin as he typed away again. "Okay, I think we've got a great basic profile going on here, Buffy. Our technicians and personality experts will fill in some of the details with basic information from standard profiles. Before I send the information to them, is there anything else you wanted to add? Anything to make this experience more real, more of what you need?"

Buffy met Topher's gaze then and paused for a moment, fighting her initial hesitation.

"She should call me B. And . . . somewhere under all of her layers, in even the tiniest of ways . . . she should love me."

After Buffy finished up with Topher, she was told that they would contact her the next day when everything was set. Echo, or whoever the girl was, would need to undergo her programming and be made ready for her mission.

Buffy still wasn't sure what Echo's mission would be. She'd asked Adelle what she should expect, but the older woman assured her that it would all be to her liking and that she should just wait for their time together to see how things went.

If there was anything that Buffy lacked, besides the obvious size advantage over any one of her past foes, it was patience and the ability to give up her control. She'd always been in control of her friendships. That is, except for when it came to Faith.

And now that she'd be dealing with 'Faith' again, she was expected to give up her much coveted control and just let things happen. To 'wait and see'.

Understandably, that night of waiting was one of the longest nights of her life.

However, it was just before noon the next day when Buffy received a call confirming their plans. Meeting "Faith" at AFH wasn't an option, or at least that was what she'd been told. Instead, they'd made arrangements for them to meet by chance near a restaurant on 5th street.

Buffy looked down at her wristwatch nervously as she paced back and forth in front of the specified restaurant. She wasn't sure how this was all supposed to work, and come to think of it, she wasn't even sure that she wanted to go through with it anymore. But she had to find out what was going on at the Dollhouse, and she needed to find out why this girl looked so much like Faith.

Still, the ball of nerves in her stomach was slowly winning out, and just as Buffy turned to leave, she found herself standing face to face with what could only be described as an exact clone of Faith. It was astonishing. From her clothes to her grin to the way she was standing there looking as sure as ever . . . it was an exact Faith replica.

"Fancy meeting you here," she said in an almost perfect Faith-accent. It wasn't 100% perfect, but it was enough to stir up the butterflies in Buffy's stomach once again.

"Yeah, imagine that," Buffy said nervously. "Whole city of New York and we end up at the same spot at the same time."

"Talk about your weird coincidences. You look good, B. It's been too long."

Said so casually that Buffy almost forgot it wasn't Faith. It was Echo. Forgot that somewhere across the world, the real Faith had written her off and didn't want to hear from or see her ever again. Forgot that she was supposed to do research and not make it entirely personal.

She had to make it at least a little bit personal.

"Listen, Faith . . ." she almost had a hard time saying her name, ". . . I know that we're not on great terms, or at least we weren't the last time we saw each other, but I need to tell you . . . I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I messed everything up. I should never have accused you like I did, and I . . ."

"B, it's okay. You don't have to . . ."

"No, I do," Buffy interrupted. "I really do. I need to get this off my chest or I'm going to explode into a million little Buffy pieces that you'll be forced to scoop up and take back to Dawnie and Willow, and I'm pretty sure that they don't like people bringing a potpourri of body parts on airplanes these days."

"I get it, Buffy, I do, and listen . . . it's cool, okay? I don't want you to be apologizin' forever cos honestly? There's more to life than regret. Yunno what I mean?"

"Yeah," Buffy agreed quietly, but she still hung her head down. She'd hoped that getting all of that off of her chest would make her feel better, but it only made her feel worse. Made her see how badly she'd screwed up. How much it really was her fault. How much Faith's forgiveness really meant to her.

"Yeah? You sure? Cos you're lookin' like someone just ran over your puppy."

"No. I mean yes, I'm sure. I guess this is all just a bit surreal for me," Buffy said, shaking her head.

"What's surreal?" Echo asked, confused.

"Oh, nothing." Buffy said and looked up again, smiling. She looked over at the restaurant, then back at Echo. "Since we're both here, what do you say you let me buy you some dinner? It's the least I can do."

"You know I'm never one to turn down free food, B. Come on."

And like it was the most natural thing in the world, Echo took her hand and led her inside the restaurant.

Sure, it wasn't a very Faith-like thing to do, but maybe somewhere under all of her layers, Faith would have wanted to do the same thing. She didn't strike Buffy as a hand-holding kind of girl, but the people that programmed Echo were experts, right? Maybe they knew something that she didn't.

True to Faith-form, Echo tucked away her entire meal of a triple-decker roast beef sandwich with a side of kettle chips and pickles and still had room to pack in the left over french fries that remained on Buffy's plate.

"That was some good grub, B," Echo said as she pulled a piece of fresh baked bread from the basket on the table and took another bite. "Really hit the spot. Thanks."

"You sure?" Buffy asked, amused. "I think there's a crumb that you missed somewhere on the table."

"Hey, yuk it up all ya like, but so long as the body's bangin I've got nothin to be worried about."

Echo finished up the last of the bread then and wiped her mouth with the cloth napkin that had been resting on her lap. A few rogue crumbs clung to the corner of her mouth, which made Buffy laugh unceremoniously.

"You've got a little bit of bread . . ." Buffy began, pointing up to Echo's mouth. Echo reached up and ran her fingertips over her full lips, but the crumbs remained. "Here, I'll get it."

And before she could stop herself, Buffy ran her thumb over Echo's lips and gently brushed the crumbs off.

When she realized what she was doing, Buffy immediately looked up at Echo, who was staring back at her with something in her eyes that Buffy didn't quite want to analyze at that point.

Still, her thumb rested gently on the corner of Echo's lips and her fingertips gently held her face. A few moments passed where they just stared into one another's eyes, and Buffy pulled her hand back only when she felt Echo lean into her touch a bit.

"Umm, sorry about that," Buffy said as she looked down at the table and fidgeted nervously. "I just have a thing about crumbs. One time Dawnie let me walk around the mall for hours with a piece of the soft pretzel we shared stuck to the side of my face."

"It's okay," Echo said softly, a look of confusion upon her face. "Did . . . shit, maybe I'm goin crazy here, but did you feel somethin' just then?"

Buffy looked up and met Echo's eyes - mirror images of Faith's - and she couldn't lie. She didn't understand it. She couldn't explain it. But she had indeed felt something.

"You're not crazy," she said quietly, her gaze locked on Echo's.

After a moment or two, Echo finally blinked a few times, the slightest hint of a smile playing on her lips.

"Whattaya say we get outta here? Go do something."

"Like what?" Buffy asked, curious.

"Anything. Everything. Don't matter to me. Let's just . . ."

"Okay," Buffy interrupted, a small smile on her face as well. She stood up and held her hand out to Echo. "You lead the way."

And with that simple gesture, she gave up the last of her control that she was clinging to. She'd let Faith lead them, and she'd follow her. It was new, and it was scary, but it was time.

Giving up never felt so good.

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