The space between
Author notes: This takes place during season two, around the time of "Meet Jane Doe" when Echo has left the Dollhouse, is aware of herself as Echo and separate from Caroline, and when Paul is helping her. The story begins the night before they are going to return to the Dollhouse.
It had taken Echo some time to wind down after her sparring session with Paul, the last that she would have the opportunity to do before their return to the Dollhouse- and very possibly, the last she would have the opportunity to do at all. In this last session, she had put all her strength, all her focus, all her energy into every movement of her body, making herself fight him with both instinct and with practiced deliberateness, using her body as a weapon, an instrument of her own making. It was ironic that only through having allowed herself to be an instrument of others' making could she finally come into her own.
It had been the longest they had fought so far, with both of them stretching and straining themselves far more than they had previously dared, each almost forgetting in the moment that they were not actually enemies, that they were not truly fighting. In those minutes it had seemed very real, very intense, very serious, and they had fought with earnest sincerity, until their muscles ached, their heartbeats raced out of control, and Echo's hair was strewn about both their faces and shoulders as they panted, trembling with effort and adrenalized exhaustion.
Paul had a full foot and 75 pounds on her, easily. He had less people and therefore considerably less distraction and conflict in his head, and he had been trained to fight, both as a detective and as a boxer. In any normal situation, he should have taken Echo down with a single blow. But he had not. She had given back to him everything he dished out, and bested him in many instances. She had been able to block the majority of his blows and use his own strength against her, and she knew she was capable of causing him genuine and severe pain, even death. She had seen this and been deeply pleased, not because she wanted to hurt Paul, but because she wanted, she NEEDED, to be able to hurt men like him. Paul too had seen this, and when they parted, she had seen him smile, an expression so rare on his usually intense, serious face that she knew more unequivocally than ever that she had done well, perhaps even surpassed both of their hopes.
Echo knew then that she was ready, or at least as ready as she would ever be. It was time for them to return to Rossum…time to enact step two in taking them down for good.
There would be no telling what would happen when she set this plan into action. There was no telling what she would have to do, or how, not yet, for as of now there was only one plan in mind, one so vague and broad and full of the possibility of mishaps that they could not begin to narrow it into specifics at this point. She or Paul could be badly hurt, she or Paul or any of the others they wanted and needed to help them could be sent to the Attic, or could even die. Her headache, nearly constantly present now, was only mild at the moment, within her ability to block out and tolerate from her perception, but she knew very well that it could worsen until it was almost unbearable. If Echo were to lose control of herself, or her sense of self, if she were to become the blank slate or confused muddle of semi-selves she had once been….then it would not just be her failure at stopping Rossum that would result, it would be her failure to retain her own self. In a sense, she could die not just in body, but in mind, losing the person she had become.
There were terrible possibilities of what could occur, terrible consequences of what she was going to attempt. But Echo knew she could and would risk them all without flinching, because what was at stake was so much more. To attempt to save millions, maybe billions of innocent lives, to free the minds and souls of those already enslaved, to bring down Rossum at last or at least to be a persistent thorn in their sides and a hitch in their spoke, she would give everything she had. Maybe even all she was.
But though all of this was very much true, she had regardless been able to let other thoughts slip into her consciousness as she fought with Paul, thoughts and sensations that had nothing at all to do with their mission and everything to do with Echo herself…and with Paul. It was not just the specifics of the sparring and her movements, her own skills compared to Paul's, that Echo was paying attention to. Even as she focused on technique and performance, she was not unaware of the feel of Paul's body beneath hers, of his muscles, taut and straining against her, of the scent of his sweat against her own skin, his heart racing against her back. Each time his powerful arms had wrapped around her to pin her down or to attempt to keep her from escaping him, for the brief moment in which she had not yet fought to escape, Echo had found herself excited, even enjoying it.
Paul never held her in any way outside of training, never touched her beyond a brief hand on the shoulder unless it was necessary to assist her or to take care of her in some way if she were injured. Through their sparring sessions, Echo had the pleasure of having vent to her growing desire for him, and though he never said anything to indicate it, probably never would, she strongly suspected that at least unconsciously, Paul was enjoying them too.
For several weeks now she had thought of all the different ways she could seduce Paul, but he was not a man who was easy to break of his convictions. She had tried pointed gestures and words, even direct confrontation of what existed between them which he would not acknowledge, and she had gotten nothing but his pulling back and denying his own wishes, of his putting up a martyrdom and protectiveness of her that was very much unnecessary. She had tried calculated touch and movements which he again pulled away from or averted his eyes from, and when they finished their sparring, more than once she had debated simply walking into the shower once he had started it up and slipping in close behind him, wrapping herself around him so he could hardly help to react. She had considered walking nude out of the shower when it was her own turn and passing where he could not help but see, but in the end she had always decided that this was not the answer- not so much because she did not have the nerve, for she was not at all shy with her body, but rather because if he were to reject even this aggressive move, she herself would feel too rejected to recover from it as quickly or easily as she would like.
Echo had thought of a thousand ways by now to show Paul what he already knew, and had spelled it out to him in words as well, and still he did not seem to understand. She wanted him, every bit as much as she needed him and his help, and she was fairly certain by now that she loved him. She, Echo, and for this was who she was now…not any one of the personalities inside her head on its own, but a composition of them all, forming Echo, a person every bit as real as Caroline Farrell. She knew this in her own head and heart, and she knew that it was Echo and no other who mattered who felt as she did.
But Paul did not, or could not, and Echo knew that when he looked at her, even if he mentally acknowledged the existence of Echo, it was still Caroline alone whom he believed in at his heart.
She had thought countless times of how to fix this, how to make herself seen as someone separate and true in his mind, and at last she had come up with a tentative plan of action, one she had not yet attempted. It was risky, but then, any time one puts one's heart on the line, it is unavoidable to take risks.
They had begun to prepare for bed as soon as the darkness spread over the night's sky, knowing that they would need adequate rest to get through their next several days. Echo had taken her time in readying herself, taking a longer shower than usual, brushing her teeth and adjusting the simple yet subtly sexy shift she was wearing to bed, one that she had noticed more than once often made Paul avert his eyes from her. She had fixed and re-fixed her hair in the small mirror of their bathroom, not because she cared how it looked or thought it would matter in their dimly lit sleeping quarters, but because it gave her a way to occupy her time until it felt like the moment was right.
But one thing Echo had learned over the past several months, or even perhaps over the past several years, before she was Echo at all, was that there was no such thing as a truly perfect time for anything. And so when she was sure that Paul was lying in his own twin bed across from hers, sleeping or waiting for her to join him in sleep, she emerged from the bathroom and made her way with soft but sure footsteps back to the bedroom area.
Twin beds. That alone was indicative of Paul's careful view of their relationship to each other, for it had been he who set up this bunker for them, he who had provided it with what he thought they would need for the three months they lived there. Twin beds, a chaste distance apart from each other, clearly defined borders, clearly defined space between. And each night, no matter how tired or hurt either of them was, no matter how sick at heart or discouraged, no matter if nightmares plagued their dreams, they had remained in those spaces, not crossing the imaginary line in the center of the room. Each night they could hear each other shifting on their mattresses, their breathing change as they fell into sleep, grunts or sighs or gasps for breath in nightmares, the other person as vulnerable as they could be for the other to be aware of, and trusting the other to know this vulnerability and keep it to themselves. And yet there was no touching, not at night, not in this particular room, even though, or perhaps because of, it was the most private space they had to themselves.
There was only one small plug in light to show her the way to Paul's bedside, but Echo did not need it to find her way. Esther, the personality inside her who was blind, was useful in that manner when she needed her particular developed skills, and so Echo made her way about easily regardless of the lighting of any place she might be. Standing by Paul's bedside, she could see the outline of his form beneath the thin blanket, could see that he was lying on his side, facing the wall rather than her, breathing in deep, even exhalations. If he was not asleep, he was close to it, if not entirely relaxed, beginning to drift rather close to it.
She would soon interfere with this. The question was whether he would welcome the intrusion, if she forced it on him persistently enough, and this was a question whose answer Echo sincerely did not know.
Echo stood over Paul for a few more moments, aware of her heart's steady pounding in her chest, and then with a careful, practiced motion took the edge of his blanket and held it up just high enough for her to slip beneath it. Even before she was entirely in bed she could sense Paul's body tense, alert to her presence, but still Echo persisted, pulling the blanket over top herself as she shifted closer to him, pressing the whole of her body against his back. Paul was rigid, his skin very warm, and as she wrapped her arms around his chest, kissing the center of his neck, he spoke softly but firmly, in a voice meant to pause her actions.
That was all, but she understood his meaning. He wanted to know what she was doing, why she would break the delicate balance of their relationship by adding something so potentially messy and complicated to its already complex nature. He wanted her to stop, to return to distance and caution and planning. But to Echo, what she was doing was not complicated at all. To Echo, it was in fact all very simple.
She wanted Paul. She respected and appreciated, maybe even loved Paul. And that was all that mattered in guiding her actions.
"That's my name," she murmured in response to Paul's single word, and she kissed his neck again, letting her lips drag slightly over his skin as she worked her way up towards his ear. "Say it again, Paul…let me hear you say my name, in every….possible…intonation…"
"Echo," Paul said again, more insistently, with some urgency now, as her hand slipped over his stomach, then lower, lower, with firm certainty. "Echo…ECHO!"
"That's right," Echo smiled, even as Paul's hand covered hers, attempting to pin it down without hurting her from being able to move along even an inch further on her skin. "That's exactly right."
With her other hand she squeezed Paul's hard, pressing both their hands together against his upper groin area, and then she began to move them both downward, feeling Paul stiffen even more in response. She thought for a moment that he was giving in, that he was finally beginning to see the light…but then he spoke again, his voice still quiet, but it was the word itself and not his tone that froze her from moving any further.
Her hand stilled immediately, and then with an abrupt motion she pulled it away, almost throwing his hand from her own as she shifted her body a couple of inches from his, so they were no longer touching. She could sense his own body relax almost instantly the moment she was no longer touching him, and as Echo clinched her jaw, she spoke in a low, strained mutter that did not hide her anger.
"I am not her."
Paul said nothing, but then, he didn't have to. He seemed to be waiting for her to speak herself, as if he had no doubt she would, as if his own silence, his nearly wordless rejection of her, was an explanation in and of itself. Echo could feel her cheeks burning from frustration more than embarrassment as she continued, trying yet again to make her feelings, herself and who she truly was now, understood as Paul could not fully seem to.
"I'm not Caroline, Paul. I'm me. I'm Echo. I'm a person, every bit as real and alive as she is. I'm not playing a part or slipping into some predisposed role. I'm Echo, and I know what I want." She paused, then said deliberately, "I know what you want, and you don't really want to pull away."
What she half dreaded, half feared to know without ambiguity, however, was whether the reason Paul did not want to pull away from her, the reason he sometimes almost gave in to his own desire, was not because of herself, and the merits of Echo, but because she shared the same body as Caroline. And his words did little to reassure her.
"Echo…what we are doing together, to complicated this with…"
"We don't know if we'll even survive tomorrow, Paul," she interrupted, sitting up now and facing him, though only their shoulders touched. "Why not take what we want and need tonight?"
He did not speak for a long moment, but the look in his shadowed face, the set of his shoulders, and the length of time between his response was an answer in and of itself. He would not be swayed. He would not understand, and not one of her 40 personalities could do the task.
Without a word Echo threw back the blanket, walking the few steps towards her own bed, and got beneath the covers with no apparent anger in her motions, but with a set to her jaw that might belie her body's claim. She knew that Paul was watching her even before he spoke.
"Echo…you know I've got your back."
"Yeah," she said distinctly, with a faint laugh at its end. "As long as it always looks like Caroline's."
"Echo," he started, but she cut him off, turning to face him in the bed.
"Forget it, Paul. Big day tomorrow, right? Better get some sleep."
She lay down on her back, staring up at the ceiling, and when Paul finally lay down as well, after watching her for several moments, Echo closed her eyes, though she did not yet sleep. She was no longer angry, so much as resigned.
She knew that Paul was speaking with sincerity, that he would always do everything he could to protect her, help her, look out for her, every step of the way, even to his own endangerment and potential death. But she was not asking for his protection…she was asking for his body, his hands, if not yet his heart, if only for one night. She was offering her own.
The problem was that as distinct as those things seemed to her from Caroline's, on a metaphorical sense, in reality, they were always very much attached. It was Paul's eyes, and not his heart, that got between them, and no matter how closely she lay against him in any given bed, there would always be Caroline, even without a physical form of her own, lying in between.
Tomorrow was to be a very big day, but even big days consisted of small moments of reaffirming her identity, securing it…and if this moment was one of failure, then perhaps it wasn't such a great omen for the next day.