NOTES: Written for DollhouseFlash Challenge #008: Desire.

He wasn't sure why it had cut to the quick to hear her tell someone else she trusted him. Of course she did, she was programmed to trust whomever the Dollhouse told her to. Until recently, that had been him. He never dreamed his job description would change. He never believed that it would bother him to no longer be the one in charge of ensuring Echo was kept safe.

He'd thought for the briefest of moments that she was looking at him when she said the words that bonded handler and active. Surely he was imagining it, seeing things that weren't there. She had completed the imprint, creating the bond between active and handler.

Or was he imagining it?

Echo had proven more than once that she was different. He didn't see it as a malfunction in her programming as Topher believed. He liked to think that she was evolving. Taking bits and pieces of the personas she'd been programmed with and becoming her own person. No longer Caroline, but no longer just a blank slate either.

More than once she'd reacted indifferently to the trigger phrases that were supposed to make her heel and do as he told her.

He made his way through the corridors, not knowing exactly where he was headed. His feet seemed to know where to take him, though. He had free access to just about anywhere now. He wasn't proud of that fact, wasn't keen on his promotion, didn't see it as one at all.

He didn't want this promotion. He hadn't signed up to become a security officer. He'd signed up to be a handler. Echo's handler. He'd grown foolish enough to believe she needed him. And only him. He wanted to believe that even now.

And what kind of name was Travis anyway? A boring one. Certainly not a strong one to keep up with Echo's strong personality that always seemed to come through no matter the imprint.

He wanted to look into her eyes and find out for certain if it had been him she'd been talking to. He needed to know if it was real or just a figment of his imagination. His desire for her rearing its ugly head now that he had no valid reason to be around her any longer.

And that thought depressed the hell out of him. Desire? He shouldn't desire her. Didn't that make him just as bad as Hearn? He hoped not, because he didn't like being in the same category as scum.

What was more, he realized that he liked Echo. He enjoyed the conversations they had whatever the personality she had been programmed with. Oh sure, he knew in a half hour's time she'd forget whatever it was she was gung-ho about, but for those moments they spent together he found himself listening to her every word. And wondering what it would be like to have her talk so enthusiastically about him. And to him. Boyd Langdon not just some stranger she intuitively trusted for some unknown reason to her.

It never ceased to amaze him how busy the Dollhouse was. Other than at night there were actives everywhere, always doing something. Arts, crafts, meals, swimming, exercising, martial arts, and more. You name it, the Dollhouse provided it to keep its actives calm and both mentally and physically fit.

He found her in the pool. He'd passed one active he knew only by sight coming out as he was going in. He'd never admit it to anyone, but seeing her eased something in him. Made him want to stand down just for a minute. She was okay. He wondered if that instinct to keep her safe, to look after her was somehow imprinted on him permanently.

He leaned against the wall, watching as she completed her laps. Like everything she did, she swam flawlessly, efficiently, barely disturbing the water around her anymore than necessary. In this state, the dolls were supposed to be asexual beings. Showering arrangements and sleeping arrangements were co-ed. Boyd, however, was not asexual and couldn't help but let his eyes follow the length of her body as she swam and as she emerged from the pool.

Of all the female dolls he'd encountered thus far he could wholeheartedly understand why Echo was one of the most requested. There was something about her appearance. She was beautiful, for sure. Sexy as well. He'd have to be blind not to see that. But there was more. A look that bespoke confidence in herself and the situation she was in, even in the wiped state that look was there. Perhaps not as obvious to others but there nonetheless. Boyd saw it. Then Boyd liked to think he saw everything.

"Hello," she said simply, pausing at the edge of the pool to look at him. If he didn't know better, he'd think she was looking him over as intensely as he'd just done to her. He was thankful he was wearing more clothes than she was.

"Hello Echo. Did you have a nice swim?"

"Yes, it relaxes me. The water was warm."

"Good, I'm glad."

She reached for a towel, sliding it over her body and then wrapping it around her head so it stayed put over her hair. He watched raptly, unable to stop himself from feeling that desire once more, and that made him feel ashamed once more.

"Everything's going all right?" he asked. It was a stupid question, because he knew how she'd answer.

"Yes, fine. I painted a picture in art class today."

"Did you? I'll bet it was a nice one."

She nodded, but he noticed the slightest frown on her lips. He read her well enough by now. It was one of the things he did best. He wondered what it was for, whether she'd tell him. She had no reason to tell him, she was no longer programmed to trust him so why should she.

She started toward the door and he followed, opening the door for her.

"Echo?" he whispered.

She stopped, her hand resting on the door just under his. If he lowered his hand a fraction of an inch, he'd be touching her. "Yes?" she replied, without looking at him.

"I just need you to know."

He paused, hating how much her answer meant to him.

An affirmative one meant that he wasn't wrong, that she was more than just a shell.

A negative. Well, he didn't even want to think about that. A negative meant that he was getting caught in a web he would have preferred not to be tangled up in. It meant she was Travis' completely. And that didn't sit well with him.

"Everything's going to be all right."

"Now that you're here," she whispered without pause or hesitation of any sort. He breathed a little easier, surprised at how good her answer made him feel.

She moved her hand that fraction of an inch and he felt her skin touching his, still slightly damp from her swim.

"Do you trust me?" she asked.

He smiled with a shake of his head, recalling the last time she'd reversed their roles and asked him that question.

"With my life," he replied, letting her pass.

What else was there to say?

They both knew the significance of one another's responses. What it meant. And what it potentially meant for the Dollhouse.

She stopped briefly just the other side of the threshold, placing a kiss on his cheek.

He shouldn't have been affected by it, shouldn't have wanted more. He was in no position. She was in no position. She wasn't even. He had no idea what state she was in but he knew it wasn't full consciousness. And still, as she strode away to the changing area, he found himself smiling.

They could give her a new handler, think that they were re-programming her, but he knew that for whatever reason she was still his. And that to Boyd was all that mattered just then because even if it was from a distance he would still look out for her.

~The End~