Everything seemed to happen in slow motion over the next few seconds. Faith ran toward Maggie who was now aiming the gun in her direction. Buffy was just a step or two behind her, trying to grab her arm to pull her back but Faith seemed unstoppable. Echo couldn't see Faith's face from her position behind her but she knew it had to be pretty scary judging by the way Maggie's smile slipped.
Faith's hand was already wrapped around the barrel of the gun when Maggie fired it again. She'd pushed it upwards so that the bullet lodged in the ceiling, sending tiny pieces of drywall dust showering down around them. Maggie looked absolutely horrified and if Faith felt any pain from the powder burn on her hand, she didn't show it. Echo didn't see anything more of their struggle, though, because she suddenly found herself at Juliet's side, staring down at the wounded girl.
She scanned the girl's midsection and instantly knew how bad the wound was by the amount of blood pouring out of her. Digging deep for some kind of stored medical know-how, she instantly ripped off a piece of her shirt in a strip around her waist and pressed it against the wound, making Juliet cry out in pain. Her eyes locked on Juliet's and she felt like she was drowning , but the sound of a scuffle off to her side caught her attention and she glanced over to see Faith holding the gun and pointing it at Maggie's head as she backed her up against a wall.
"Faith, wait!" Buffy yelled.
"This bitch has gotta pay, B. She shot her!" Faith replied through clenched teeth, her free arm indicating a groaning Juliet.
Echo glanced back down at Juliet's pale face. Juliet's lips were trembling but she was mostly quiet, just staring up at Echo's worried eyes.
"You're gonna be okay. I'll take care of you," Echo told her, then looked over at Buffy. "We need an ambulance. Now!"
Buffy was torn between making the call and trying to talk Faith down. She couldn't lose Faith to the darkness she'd surely fall in to if she killed Maggie, but she couldn't let poor Juliet just lay there and die either.
"Faith, I need to call 911. You need to give me the gun."
"She needs to pay, Buffy. There's no soul in there." She tapped Maggie's forehead with the gun.
"I know, baby. But it's not up to us to pass that kind of judgment on humans. The police will deal with her."
"Not like she needs to be dealt with."
"You can't kill her," came a deep voice from just off to the side. Both Echo and Buffy looked over to see Riley stumbling in, but Faith kept her gaze locked on Maggie. "You'll be arrested if you do. Just call the police . . . let them have her."
"You have no say in what we do with her!" Buffy said through clenched teeth. "You . . . you participated in this,Riley. You knew what was going on . . . you . . ."
"Buffy, I'm sor . . ." he began but was cut off by yet another uppercut to his jaw from Buffy. He flew back against the wall and slid down.
"If you apologize to me, I will beat you to death," she said to his unconscious form, then turned her gaze back to Faith. "Baby, if you kill her, I'm going to lose you."
Faith's jaw clenched a few times and her breathing picked up even more. She stole a glance over at Buffy, her hands gripping tighter around the gun.
"Don't make me live without you forever," Buffy pleaded softly.
Echo had to look away then, feeling like she was intruding on a very personal moment. She lifted the fabric she was holding against Juliet's wound and quickly pushed it back tightly when a spurt of blood escaped. "Shit," she mumbled, her panic rising.
"I know you," Juliet said quietly, instantly getting her attention. Echo looked deeply into her eyes, feeling her heart clenching in her chest. "I know your face. I feel you."
Juliet lifted her shaky hand and touched the side of Echo's face. Echo leaned her head in so that her cheek was fully in the girl's palm.
"I feel you too," she whispered. She moved her free hand up and held it over Juliet's, stroking it softly with her thumb.
"You're in my dreams," Juliet murmured, her voice getting weaker and weaker. She slowly moved her other hand from her side and held it over her chest, "And you're in here, too. I feel it now."
Her eyes started to flutter shut and Echo's breath caught in her throat. Juliet's hand was so cold. She was fading.
"Someone help us!" she yelled over to Buffy and Faith who it seemed had finally ended their standoff.
Buffy was prying Faith's fingers from the gun and finally managed to take it away, tossing it to the floor behind them. Both Buffy and Maggie breathed a sigh of relief when Faith stepped away and walked silently over to Juliet's side, checking her over with Echo.
"An ambulance isn't gonna get here quick enough," she said darkly.
"We have to help her!" Echo pleaded, tears freely falling from her eyes now.
Faith looked to Echo, then back down to Juliet. She ran her fingertips over Juliet's cheek and let them linger for just a moment, staring into familiar green eyes, before she straightened up and stepped back. She brought her hand up to her earpiece and said, "Willow, you need to zap us back. Now!"
"I'm on it. I need thirty seconds, give or take," Willow's worried voice said over their earpieces.
"Thanks," Faith replied, then looked over at Buffy. "What are we gonna do with her?"
Buffy looked over to Maggie who seemed much more relaxed now that she knew her life wasn't in danger. Without warning, Buffy reared back and her fist flew through the air, hitting Maggie directly in the face. She fell to the ground in a heap, blood pouring from her nose.
"That's for messing with my friends and I," Buffy mumbled. She quickly ran over to Faith and grabbed a pair of silver cuffs from her belt, then took the cuffs from Echo's belt too. Knowing that Willow would zap them back any second now, she worked quickly, placing one of the cuffs on Maggie's wrist, then the other on Riley's. She carelessly yanked them so that they were next to a large iron column, then put the second set of cuffs on their other hands so that they were effectually hugging the column, locked around it by the cuffs.
"And that's for giving me a C+ in your class, bitch," she said to Maggie.
She fought the urge to spit down at them and instead walked over to Juliet's side. After a moment she slipped around behind the chair and pulled a small cartridge out from a panel. The label on it read 'Eve' and Buffy chuckled bitterly. Adam and Eve. Maggie sure lost points when it came to originality. Shaking her head sadly, Buffy tossed the cartridge onto the floor and crushed it with the heel of her boot, sending pieces of it flying off into every direction.
Satisfied that it was destroyed and that Maggie's project was officially terminated, she walked over to Faith's side and slipped under her arm. This was all a bit much, even for her.
Juliet's eyes were closed and her body was still with the exception of a very shallow breath every few seconds. Echo pulled her hand away from Juliet's stomach and bent down on one knee so that she could be closer to her. She continued to hold Juliet's cold hand and reached out so that she could caress her face too, her thumb tracing softly over her cheek.
"Just hold on," she said, making Juliet's eyelids flutter open momentarily.
"It hurts," Juliet whispered.
A white light began to grow around them and Buffy reached over, putting her hand on Echo's shoulder. There were tears in her eyes too and they began to spill over her cheeks when the atmosphere shimmered and they suddenly found themselves back in the command center with Willow and several other people standing around them. Willow looked visibly shocked to see Buffy's clone back with them but as soon as she saw that the girl was injured, she shook her head and jumped into action. She leaned down and put her hands on Juliet, not bothering to ask Echo to give her room. Her hair and eyes began to glow white as she started up a chant, hoping beyond hope that it wasn't too late. She could heal the girl, but if she was already dead there was nothing she could do for her.
Wind began to gust through the room and Echo's eyes widened when she saw the bullet rising up into the air from Juliet's abdomen. It landed with a clink on the hard ground just a moment later and Willow grunted with effort. Echo looked down as the wind slowly ceased and waited for the bleeding to stop but the wound just kept slowly seeping. She looked up to find Juliet's eyes closed, face pale and lips blue.
"Don't go," she whispered as she leaned down and pressed their foreheads together. "Please, stay."
Her tears dripped onto Juliet's cheeks as everyone silently looked on and Buffy had to turn away, burying her face against Faith's shoulder. Faith wrapped an arm around her and held her tight, her heart clenching in her chest when she thought about the pain Echo must have been going through. They'd only just found Juliet and now they were losing her.
"Come, on . . . work," Willow pleaded but she was beginning to lose hope. Her hair and eyes started returning back to their normal color and she held her breath, hoping to see some sign of life.
The room was completely still.
"New Yorkers were once again rocked by the news this week that yet another covert human research facility was uncovered in Manhattan, just months after a similar facility was exposed. It appears, however, that the US military may be involved this time, and even more, that it was being operated by a woman who supposedly died in a building collapse in the former town of Sunnydale, California in 2000.
When the police received an anonymous call to investigate the building in uptown Manhattan, they'd discovered that it had been completely evacuated with the exception of two people who are now in police custody. The unknown male has yet to be named to the news circuits but it's our understanding that he has been cooperating fully and hasn't asked for any kind of plea deal. The woman was identified as Professor Maggie Walsh whose previously recorded death is currently being investigated by both the state of California and the FBI. While she's caused quite a bit of controversy by giving the names of military personnel who were allegedly involved, the US military has completely denied any knowledge of her or her project.
Time will tell, as a full investigation has been launched and no stone will be left unturned in this twisted tale.
There is one question, however, that everyone wants answered now: What happened to the people who were being researched at this facility?"
Faith held out her hand and pressed a button on the remote control, turning the TV off. She gently tossed the remote onto the floor and looked up, her head still resting on Buffy's lap.
"Can ya believe that?"
"I can't say I'm surprised," Buffy said, her fingertips slowly brushing through Faith's hair.
"What about the Clean Marine? Looks like he's gonna give them whatever they want."
"Can't say I really care. Two strikes; he's out."
"Isn't it usually three strikes?" Xander asked from his seat at the other end of the couch, ignoring Faith's feet on his lap.
"This isn't baseball, it's life," Buffy replied, a hundred emotions behind her green eyes.
Faith saw the turmoil there and decided to change the subject just a little.
"And then that crazy bitch Walsh tried to sell her bosses out. What the hell did she think that would accomplish? Ain't no way the US military is gonna let its name be shit-stained with this."
Buffy shrugged, "We don't even know that they're really involved. The Initiative was shut down as a government-sponsored program after we killed Adam. Maybe they didn't even know it was up and running again."
"Seems unlikely," Faith said.
"I think it's totally likely," Buffy replied easily. "Adelle DeWitt was able to get private funding for AFH. How hard do you think it was for Professor Walsh to do the same?"
"Probably not that hard," Faith said, a pensive look on her face. "Shit, that means we ain't ever gonna be able to get the bastards that were workin' the levers behind the curtain."
"Well, whoever was pulling the levers sure wasn't a wizard," Willow chimed in as she walked into the small lounge room. She took a seat on the arm of the couch nearest Xander and got as comfortable as possible. "The paper trail is pretty non-existent but it's there. It's gonna take some time and some digging, but I'll find 'em."
She sounded more hopeful than she did reassuring but hope was better than nothing. Besides, her resolve face was on and nothing could overcome the resolve face. Not even Buffy's pouty lip or Xander's puppy dog eyes came close.
"When the hell are you guys leaving so I can get my lounge back?" Kennedy asked as she breezed into the room after Willow. Seeing as that there was no place to sit with Faith practically laying across the couch, she hopped up and sat on the back cushion with her feet resting on Faith's thigh.
"Get 'em off before I break 'em," Faith grumbled as she batted Kennedy's feet away.
Kennedy smirked and chuckled, then yelped as Faith lifted her feet up from her lap and unceremoniously dumped her off the back of the couch. She landed with a thud and quickly stood up, trying to look as unaffected as possible.
Willow had her hand over her mouth and was trying to hide her smile. She couldn't help the giggle that escaped, though.
"Don't worry Kenny," she said, "I've got the coven working on getting the portal up and running. They're not quite as quick and adept as I am, but they'll be done soon. Another few minutes and you'll have the couch to yourself again."
"You sure they're gonna do it right?" Faith asked warily, sitting up a little so that her elbows were sinking down into the center cushion. "If I come through with my ass on my front, I'm gonna be wicked pissed."
"Yeah, I like her ass where it is," Buffy replied equally warily.
"They've been training with the best," Willow said sounding just a little bit smug. "Besides, my battery is running low after all of the excitement from last week. Between the spell to bring you guys back and the . . . other spells, I don't think I have enough energy in me right now. Giles doesn't want me to try, so it's the coven or the airport."
"So long as you've got a little juice left in your battery for me, I say let the Wicca-wannabes take care of the witchy-mojo today," Kennedy said as she wrapped her arms around Willow from behind. She gave her girlfriend a soft kiss on the top of her head and just held her for a while, knowing that the emotional toll from the events that transpired were still weighing heavily on all of them.
"Speaking of last week," Xander began tentatively, "has anyone heard from Echo?"
All eyes fell on Faith who sat up a little bit more and swung her legs around so that her feet were on the floor. She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees, then hung her head down a little so her long hair hid her face.
"Nah," she said quietly, seeming like she was deep in thought. "She just wants some time alone. With everything that's happened, can't really blame her for not wanting us all up in her business."
"Do you think we should go and check in on her before we head back to the castle?" Buffy asked softly, her hand softly rubbing Faith's back now.
Faith shrugged and lifted her head back up, staring straight ahead of her and not at her friends. "Don't really think she's up for visitors, B. She gotta have some time to adjust; find a new rhythm."
"Yeah, there has to be a period of adjustment after something like this," Xander said. He sat forward and mimicked Faith's position, seemingly lost in thought. After a minute he took in a deep breath through his nose and exhaled loudly, then stood up. "I'm gonna go and make sure everything's ready for our departure."
When he was gone, the room was silent for a few minutes until Willow finally asked, "Do you think that she'll be okay? I mean," she paused for a second, "well, you know."
Faith thought about it for a moment and the tiniest of smiles graced her full lips.
"She's strong. Don't meet many people like her, yunno? Little bit of time, she'll land back on her feet."
Buffy leaned in and wrapped her arm around Faith's back and pressed her lips to the side of her head. She hoped that she was right.
Maggie slowly followed the armed guard before her, the wool blankets in her arms itching her skin even through the prison-issued jumpsuit. She ignored the catcalls from the other inmates as she passed and picked up her pace so that there was less distance between her and the guard. He led her down a long row of cells and stopped only when they reached the very end of the corridor. There was a loud buzz and the door to the last cell opened, revealing a small room with a bunk bed and a small shelf.
The guard stood and waited for her to go in, looking more and more annoyed as the seconds passed. Taking the hint, Maggie gripped her blankets a little bit tighter and walked through the narrow doorway, jumping when the door shut loudly behind her.
She could see another prisoner laying on the top bunk but instead of messing with formalities, she quickly made her way over to the lower bunk and sat down. Her nerves were frazzled and she desperately needed a stiff drink. This was a nightmare.
"Well I see you, too, have had the opportunity to meet one of the original slayers," came a familiar voice from the top bunk.
Maggie's eyes widened and she slowly stood up from the bunk and turned around to find Adelle laying there, arms crossed under her head with a mildly amused look on her face.
"I believe we've been, what the kids these days call – fucked over," Adelle continued.
Completely at a loss for words, Maggie flopped back onto the bottom bunk and tossed her blankets to the side. She laid back on the mattress that smelled a bit like urine and sighed deeply.
Oh yes. A stiff drink sounded great right about now.
The shrill timer on the microwave went off and Echo quickly sidestepped over to it, hitting the 'off' button so that it would stop trying to make her ears bleed. She made her way back over to the stovetop and twisted the knob to cut the gas off. Grabbing the silver pot by the black handles on either side, she lifted it up . . . then promptly dropped it back onto the iron burner with a loud clang as it scalded her fingers.
"Son of a…!" she yelled and balled her hands into tight fists, trying her best to bite back the pain. When she unclenched her fingers, she looked down at the angry red welts on her hands and sighed. Thank god they'd heal pretty quickly.
Taking a calming breath, she opened up the drawer next to the stove using her unaffected pinky finger and pulled out two towels, holding one in each hand. She bumped the drawer shut with her hip and moved back in front of the stove, determined not to injure herself.
Domesticity sure was hard.
She cautiously grabbed the handles of the pot with the towels and lifted it, pleased with herself when she didn't get scalded. Ever so carefully, she moved the pot over to the countertop near the sink where she'd placed a cooling rack and gently set it down. She tossed one of the towels onto the countertop and used the other to take the silver lid off, alert enough not to let the steam burn her. Leaning over the pot after most of the steam wafted away, she took in a deep breath and expected her senses to be flooded with soupy goodness but nearly gagged from the stench.
Chicken soup wasn't supposed to be gray. She was pretty sure it wasn't supposed to smell like that either. It was supposed to be comfort food, not make you want to cry food!
She quickly placed the lid back on and, in a panic to get rid of the foul odor, grabbed the previously discarded towel and clutched both handles again. Walking quicker than was safe, she headed right for the screen door and all but ran outside and down the wooden steps. When the pot was a safe distance from the house, she put it down on the ground and looked at it distastefully.
"I'll be back to bury you later," she grumbled.
Feeling defeated and more than a bit overwhelmed by her lack of blessing from the Kitchen Goddess, she made her way back up the steps and into the kitchen. The door to the familiar cupboard creaked when she opened it and she grabbed one of many small boxes stashed in there before letting it creak shut. She'd have to oil that hinge later.
Grabbing a much smaller silver pot from the rack above the island countertop, she poured some water in it and put it on the stove over the still warm burner. She tilted the knob until the flames jumped back to life and then plopped down onto the wooden barstool just behind her, sighing loudly.
"Boiling water. That's all I'm good for. Fantastic."
It didn't take long for the water to bubble and for her to finish the quick and easy dinner. She'd made it what felt like a thousand times before so it didn't take much effort to finish off. Satisfied that it was edible, she took the pot to the counter and scooped some of the contents into the ceramic bowl she'd placed there a few minutes before. She filled the bowl until there was a rounded heap of bright orange in it, then stuck a fork into it and smiled proudly.
There, that wasn't so bad, was it?
She picked up the bowl and carried it over to the small round table in the corner of the kitchen where there was already a glass of milk and a couple of napkins set up. The bowl was pleasantly warm in her hands, not like the devil-soup that had scalded her would have been. Really though, if it came to soup or macaroni and cheese? She'd always pick the latter.
Arranging the bowl of pasta neatly between the glass and the napkins, she sat down on the chair in front of the setting and took a minute to just breathe. She'd been going nearly non-stop since she'd woken up that morning and it felt good just to be still for a moment. When the familiar ache started deep in her chest, she closed her eyes and tried to fight it back but it was just too much. The house was too quiet and she just felt alone, no matter how busy she'd made herself.
She finally opened her eyes and stood up, shaking her head slowly. Looking down at the bowl of mac and cheese, she reached down to pick it up . . . along with the rest of the items on the tray she'd placed it on. She took a quick sniff of the single daisy that she'd placed in a tall clear glass and turned around, a small smile on her face. Making sure not to spill anything, she started a slow walk toward the bedroom and knocked softly before peeking her head in.
The small figure on the bed stirred and eventually a blonde head peeked out from beneath the sheets, looking sleepy and disheveled.
"Hey," Echo said quietly, unable to keep the smile from her face. She pushed the door open a bit wider with the tray and stepped into the room. "I tried to let you sleep as long as I could but I was going crazy out there all alone."
Juliet smiled brightly and moved to sit up but winced in pain, her hand covering the bandage on her stomach. Echo was instantly at her side, the tray hastily placed on the nightstand beside the bed.
"You okay?" she asked, putting one knee on the bed so that she could help Juliet sit up the rest of the way.
"Yes. It's still a bit sore."
"You took a bullet to the gut and survived a crazy scary operation, Jules. Of course it's sore."
Juliet smiled again and peeked over Echo's shoulder at the night stand.
"You made me mac and cheese. It's my favorite," she said brightly.
Echo looked bashful for a moment as she moved around and arranged herself so that she was sitting with her back against the headboard next to Juliet. She grabbed the tray and moved it across her body to place it on Juliet's lap.
"Yeah, well," she began, "I tried to make something different for a change. Drove into town while you were sleeping and bought some vegetables and chicken. No one ever told me that ya need to be some kind of rocket scientist/kitchen goddess to make soup though."
"I think that there used to be a rocket scientist in here," Juliet said, pointing to her head with her fork, "but Willow made it disappear. Now I'm just . . . a blank slate."
"You can learn it again," Echo said with a shrug. She looked over and smiled as Juliet put a forkful of orange pasta in her mouth, ignoring the one noodle that escaped and rolled down the front of her t-shirt. Grabbing one of the napkins from the tray, Echo tucked it carefully into Juliet's shirt, earning a smile from the girl. "You can do anything you want. Especially now."
Juliet looked thoughtful for a moment while she chewed, then met Echo's gaze again.
"Right now, I'd just like to be eating mac and cheese."
And Echo couldn't help but smile. Her heart felt immediately full again, a relief from how empty it had felt being only as far as the kitchen. She couldn't even remember how she'd dealt with the loneliness before.
Hopefully, she'd never have to feel that again.
"We'll just save the rocket science for later then."
Echo happily watched Juliet tuck into her bowl of mac and cheese, smiling at the happy little grunting noises she made whenever she was really enjoying her food. She couldn't help it as she reached out and used her thumb to push some of Juliet's hair behind her ear, just needing to touch her. To know that she was real and not another cruel dream.
Juliet swallowed the bite she'd been chewing and closed her eyes, basking in the touch. She leaned her head in and sighed happily when Echo's thumb caressed her temple.
"I'm so happy you're here," Echo whispered, her eyes staring at Juliet in wonder.
"I am too," Juliet replied, turning her head so that she could fully look at Echo. She smiled when Echo tentatively leaned across the small space between them and kissed her softly on the lips, her thumb stroking over her cheek now as they rested their foreheads together with eyes closed.
It wasn't weird that they'd only met each other a week ago. They'd known each other far longer; dreamt about each other and felt each other when no one could explain it. Now that they'd finally found each other, they were never going to let one another ago.
The dollhouse had imprinted them again and again, but they were never able to take them from one another. It was inexplicable. No one could understand it.
But as it turned out, after more than five years of drama, mixed signals and bullshit, and after the imprints were gone and they were left in their natural state, all that remained was what was inherent in them from the very beginning: