Word Count: 3,404
"I woke up and you were gone."
She'd surprised him. Dawn was still a ways off so he hadn't been expecting company out here. It was a good thing he hadn't been baiting his hook just then or he very well might have impaled his finger instead of the worm he was aiming for.
"I was trying to catch some fish before it was light enough to be noticed."
"It's pretty secluded," she said. "Are you really worried?"
"You found me."
"I was looking. And I knew you wouldn't have strayed far."
"True enough," he replied with a shake of his head.
"Looks like you've caught something," she said, gesturing to the bucket he was using for fish he caught worth eating.
"They're barely big enough to feed us through one meal."
"There's stew left."
"I figured you might like a change of pace. Besides, it's free."
He cast the line again, the only sound near them the soft plop of the baited hook as it hit the water and broke the surface. Echo was quiet for a little bit. So quiet that he wondered if she'd gone back to the house.
"Is money a problem?"
The question gave him pause. Echo continued to astound him, particularly recalling his first impressions of her. He doubted anyone, even him, gave her credit enough to think about any financial woes he may be experiencing because of this dangerous game he'd entered them into.
"No, Echo, we'll be fine. But, while we're here," he said, reeling in another fish. This was another to add to his bucket. He gently worked the hook out, placing it with the others he'd kept. That should get them dinner anyway. Or lunch if she wanted to do it that way. "We may as well enjoy the fruits of my labor."
"You couldn't sleep."
"What makes you say that?"
"You're wearing the same thing you were when I went to bed."
He looked up from putting the fishing equipment away for the morning. The spot he'd found offered him shore access to the lake without leaving him in full view. They weren't exactly hidden, but someone would really have to be looking to see them.
"And you're wearing your pajamas," he said, though he noticed she had thought to put a jacket on. While the days and evenings were nice, the early mornings could still be downright cold.
"I was worried. I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you."
"I already told you what to do if something were to happen to me. Call Paul Ballard if that happens. He'll help you."
"I don't know that I like him."
"I don't know that I like him either, but we both think your well-being is important."
"I trust you."
"And I trust you, Echo, but the fact remains something could happen to me while I'm protecting you."
He grabbed hold of the bucket and carried it the short distance to Cliff's cleaning table. It was nothing fancy, but it had the nooks and crannies necessary to get the job done efficiently without having to search for tools.
"I've never done that," she said, watching as he started on the first fish.
"Want to learn?"
"Sure," she said.
He was admittedly surprised. Most women he knew wouldn't be interested in watching him do this let alone want to get their hands dirty actually doing it. Then nothing where Echo was concerned should surprise him.
"All right," he said, gesturing for her to stand where he was. He handed the fish scaler to her and showed her the small, quick strokes best to use to get the scales off. It took her a while, which he suspected it would given it was her first time. She wasn't squeamish, though. He gave her that.
The fish scaled, he showed her how to do the rest: cutting, gutting, beheading, and filleting. She didn't like the gutting part too much, which he couldn't blame her for exactly. He dropped the entrails into Cliff's waste bucket as they went. He'd bury them under some plants when they were done.
The fish went into a cooler filled with ice where they would stay until he was ready to cook him and his comrades later. Boyd made sure the spigot was open so the water could drain as the ice melted. It had been a while since he'd done this, but seemingly it was like riding a bike and you didn't forget how.
She reached for the second fish, giving a little scream as it splashed and wiggled in an attempt to get free. She gave a laugh then when she realized she'd gotten scared by a fish.
"Problems?" he asked.
"Oh my God! No, I just wasn't expecting it to move!"
She got a hold of the fish, setting it on the cleaning table. She glanced at Boyd who was watching her curiously. The front of her jacket and the nightshirt underneath it were now a little wet. She didn't seem to notice let alone mind. Her attentions were focused so intently on the fish she was trying to capture. She was nibbling on her lower lip as she concentrated and Boyd found it strangely attractive. Something he had no business feeling.
"Which I realize is stupid since they don't die until they get onto this table," she continued, drawing him out of his thoughts.
"Not if you unhook them right anyway."
"Well, right, which you did."
"I don't always get it right."
"Just got lucky today?"
"I guess so," he said. "Are you feeling okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said, wiping her bangs away from her face with the back of her wrist. "Why?"
"Just making sure."
The fish cleaned and stored in the ice-filled cooler, she even helped him clean off the table. He got a shovel from Cliff's garage and walked into the woods a bit before digging a hole to bury the residuals.
"Now what?" she asked.
"Now we clean up so our hands don't smell awful all day."
"That wasn't bad."
"I'll let you do the catching next time if you want."
"Sure. Funny, I don’t think I've ever done it, but I feel like I know how."
"You probably do, I wouldn't know."
"That happens sometimes."
"I just realize that I know something. I don't know how or why exactly, I just know how to do it."
"I imagine that's thanks to Alpha."
"I wonder if they'll ever catch him."
"I don't know. I imagine we're higher priorities right now."
"We shouldn't be. I'm not a psychopath."
"No, but you're their prized asset and us walking the streets is a danger to them. Alpha doesn't seem to want to cause the Dollhouse any harm, at least from the aspect of bringing the FBI to them or anything."
She smiled a little as they walked back toward the cabin, Boyd carrying the ice chest containing the fish. She bumped against him, and it took him a minute to realize she'd done it intentionally. She looked away almost as soon as he figured it out. Was she flirting with him? Did she think he expected her to do that?
"I know I have information about the Dollhouse, but not the type we need or that would be useful."
"We'll figure it out, Echo. I hope to be able to get you back to your life as Caroline."
"And then you can go back to your life?"
"Something like that."
Not that there was much of a life to go back to. He'd given up everything to take the job with the Dollhouse, so there was nothing for him anywhere. No family, no job, and now that he'd pulled this disappearing act with their star active he wasn't going to get a reference from his employers.
He realized last night that he'd have to make money once they got settled somewhere. As much as being a security guard left a foul taste in his mouth, he imagined that was what he would look for. Maybe he'd luck into a cushy job somewhere, but he doubted somehow he'd be so fortunate.
"What if I don't want to?"
"Want to what?" he asked, distracted by his thoughts.
"What if I just want to be me? The me I am now. I mean, in order to get me back to Caroline, I have to go through another treatment. Right?"
"I would imagine so, yes."
"I mean, I have like no memories of being Caroline. All of my memories are of whoever I've been."
"Because Alpha didn't want Caroline in there."
"I suppose not. And, if I'm already having problems…"
"Yes, I know, Echo. It's something I've considered as well, but I guess I just assumed you wanted to go back."
"Not if it means needing medical treatment, drugs, and living in dark rooms for the rest of my life."
There wasn't overwhelming proof that's what would happen to her, but Boyd had found proof enough and wasn't willing to take the chance either.
He wasn't sure what he expected. If Eve Delray was being paid off by the Dollhouse, it certainly wasn't handsomely. When he first realized her address was near the beach, he had pictured something expensive. While the home was nothing to sneeze at, it wasn't outrageously costly. It was just one of many cookie-cutter types for people who cared more for location than the appearance of where they lived.
He had checked carefully on his way to ensure he hadn't been followed. It was a nice day, so seeing that the windows on the small house were all covered gave him pause. Then again, perhaps windows weren't covered on the other side of the house. Besides, he'd come all this way he may as well at least be able to tell himself he'd pursued the lead.
He crossed the street carefully, checking once again to see if any cars he recognized as being the Dollhouse's were in the vicinity. At the front door, about to ring the bell he paused, unsure of just what he was going to say.
He rang the bell, not giving him any more time to contemplate backing out. Confidence wasn't usually a problem for him, but he no longer carried a badge and Paul Ballard wasn't along to flash his. So, really, he had to count on the fact Miss Delray would be cooperative.
The front door opened a crack. He caught a glimpse of long blonde hair and a dark eye. He couldn't tell what color specifically. Her legs were bare and her shirt was a bright red.
"Can I help you?"
"I hope so. Are you Eve Delray?"
She opened the door a little wider. Wide enough that he was able to determine her eyes were a dark green and that her legs were not bare but rather she was wearing shorts along with the bright red shirt.
"May I ask who you are?"
"My name is Boyd Langton. I'm head of security with the Dollhouse."
Her eyes widened a little but she gave a slight nod in response and opened her door. And that gave him pause. He wasn't sure what he was expecting from Eve Delray, but an open invitation into her home was not it.
She led him into a dark room where she took a seat on a comfortable looking couch. He remained standing while she looked him over. He did the same. She was tall, he'd noticed that following her into the room. Attractive, but then the Dollhouse didn't seem to invest in actives who were not. There was a washcloth on the coffee table in front of the couch, which appeared damp. Her hair was longer than he'd first guessed. The ponytail fastened loosely, giving the deception that her hair stopped around her shoulders. It went well past the middle of her back.
"Where's the papers?"
"Aren't you here to do the alive and well check on me?"
"No, I had some questions for you, if you're willing to answer them."
"I'll try, Mr. Langton is it?"
He took a seat then in a nearby chair.
"Yes," he said, realizing that using his real name may have been an error but there wasn't anything he could do about it now that he'd given her his name. And it wasn't as if questioned and she described him they wouldn't know who he was anyway.
"You were an employee of the Dollhouse?"
"Yes," she said simply.
"For how long?"
He noticed her squinting as he spoke. "Would you like me to turn a light on?"
"No," she said quickly, adamantly.
"You were…" He wasn't sure how to phrase the question. He assumed she had been a doll, but perhaps he was wrong.
"Yes," he said.
"That is correct, Mr. Langton."
"How did they get you to sign up?"
"I was married to a drug addict who got me into debt up to my eyeballs. It wasn’t bad enough the debt collectors were calling me night and day but I had drug dealers knocking on my door looking for him as well. And then one day he got caught trying to steal gasoline from a station. The police officer knew he was lying when I told him he hadn't been living here for two weeks by then and surely he'd realized between that time and now that he'd left his wallet here."
"And yet I was still responsible for his debt. I refused to pay it. I was not going to be a party to his problems any longer."
He could see where the Dollhouse might have swept in, though he was wondering how this woman had shown up on their radar at all. He did not understand how the Dollhouse obtained their actives.
"You're under medical care I understand."
She glanced at him with interest then.
"May I ask for what?"
"I'm not sure exactly, I mean my condition hasn't been diagnosed. Or at least I haven't been given a name for it or anything. I have frequent headaches, migraines. With them I sometimes get vertigo, tinnitus, and motion sickness," she said with a gesture to the room. "My eyes are very sensitive to light all of the time whether I have the headaches or not. I'm probably living in the wrong place, but I can't bring myself to leave home entirely even if I'm miles away from where I started."
"Did you have these problems before becoming an active?"
"No," she answered without hesitation. "Never."
"The doctor you see, Dr. Colson, is he one of theirs?"
"He must be, or perhaps a client. I don't know for certain."
"What does he say?"
"He doesn't know, Mr. Langton. If he did I imagine he'd know of some way to get it to stop so I can function normally again."
"Do you think it's possible he does know, the Dollhouse knows but they're somehow keeping the truth from you?"
She shrugged. "Anything's possible, Mr. Langton. You work for them, is that who you think you work for?"
He didn't know how to answer that question, because his was a tricky situation just as many of the actives situations were. The truth was, yes, he could see them withholding the actual information from her, medicating her without telling her exactly what they were treating.
"Were you treated for anything like this in the Dollhouse?"
"I don't know," she said with a slight laugh. "I don't remember, but my contract was for five years and I was released early. I suspect this was why."
"And you're sure you had no history of any of the medical problems before working for the Dollhouse?"
"Quite positive. Other than a bout of pneumonia in college I've always been healthy."
He stood then, mulling over what she'd told him. "I appreciate your time, Ms. Delray, I'm sorry I came by unannounced. I saw your name and grew curious."
"It's no problem, Mr. Langton. I don't leave my house very often so it's not as if you kept me from doing anything."
"You don't leave?"
"I can't during the day unless I have dark sunglasses on. And even those allow enough light in to be bothersome on some days."
"I see," he said, trying to picture that. Being restricted in when he could come and go because of something like that. He couldn't fathom it. "Thank you for your time. I'll see myself out."
"You're welcome," she said. She did stand and walk with him to the door, locking it behind him he heard. He couldn't blame her. If she was prone to migraines and the other things that went with them, she could be incapacitated for some time. His mother had her fair share of them and he knew how bad they could get.
He played their conversation over in his head. There had to be a connection between Topher's treatments and what had happened to Eve Delray. Was her reaction just a fluke or were there others out there like Eve Delray who after serving the Dollhouse were left permanently altered?
And what about Echo? Their top active? Being so popular meant being subjected to Topher's treatments with more frequency. He didn't know Caroline, but he knew Echo. And Echo deserved better than living in a drapery-enshrouded room, unable to go outside during the day.
"I don’t know what you want me to say. I left to keep you safe," he said, setting the cooler down on the edge of the deck so the melting ice would drain into the bushes below.
"Then keep me safe."
He looked out over the lake, the sun was just finally making its appearance for the day. He'd expected to have showered and gotten breakfast started by the time she woke up. Instead, she'd found him out here. It was an odd feeling, having her with him. He liked it and he knew there wasn't anyone on this earth who would try harder to keep her out of harm's way. Not even Paul Ballard.
"That's what I'm trying to do."
"I'm not sure returning me to Caroline's life is the way to do that. Wouldn’t they find me that way?"
"I've thought of that, yes. Everything happened so quickly from the time I found information that led to my removing you from the Dollhouse. I knew that returning you to any form of her life as Caroline would put you in harm's way."
"So, you want to stay on the run with me?"
He laughed a little.
"Why not? I think we both agree I can't go back to that life."
"And we can't go back to mine."
"You said yourself you won't just leave me."
"No," he said and meant it.
He couldn't do that to her not knowing if she would start getting headaches or any signs that something was wrong. No one else knew where she'd been, what had been done to her. "It won't be pretty, Echo. It won't be nice. There will be no 5-star hotels or the cuisine to match what you're accustomed to."
She pointed at the cooler, linking her arm through his.
"I just cleaned fish, didn't I?"
He chuckled a little, regarding her intently now.
"Yes, yes you did."
"Echo, you can stay with me as long as you want to. If we find a way to reverse what the Dollhouse and Alpha have done …"
"I don't know that I'd want to go back anyway."
"She abandoned me. Things got tough and instead of facing the music she let them pimp me out."
He grimaced a little, but she spoke the truth. "So, you're giving up on yourself?"
"No," she said simply. "I'm becoming a new self."
He didn't know what to say to that, because she'd been becoming a new self since almost the beginning of his association with her.
"You change your mind or decide it's too much."
"You could, too."
"Yes, because being on the run with someone as attractive as you are is such a hardship. Anyway, we've only been at this a few days. We have time ahead of us to make decisions. Let's worry about staying safe and smart for the time being."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com