Romeo is Bleeding by lilpinkchainsaw
FeatureSummary:

An L Word/Dollhouse crossover! Set post-season six. That's all I'll say - I'm not ruining the surprise!

If you haven't seen Dollhouse, I highly recommend it! It was created by Joss Whedon, the writer/creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel: The Series, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and Firefly.
Categories: Crossover, The L Word Characters: Shane McCutcheon
Genres: action, adventure, AU
Spoilers up through: TLW Season 6
Warnings: angst, AU, character death, strong language, violence
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 6 Completed: No Word count: 26713 Read: 20913 Published: March 11, 2009 Updated: November 24, 2009
Story Notes:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

1. Foreplay by lilpinkchainsaw

2. Tensile by lilpinkchainsaw

3. I Came to Get Down by lilpinkchainsaw

4. Christening by lilpinkchainsaw

5. Glitches by lilpinkchainsaw

6. Delicate Destruction by lilpinkchainsaw

Foreplay by lilpinkchainsaw
“I knew a girl named Adele, once.” The snick of a lighter, acrid smoke drifting through the small meeting room.

“Oh?” Adelle DeWitt plastered a polite but ultimately disinterested smile on her face. The other woman didn't pay it much mind.

“Yeah. She was a... real piece of work.” Wryness was woven through the response. With something much darker underneath that DeWitt couldn't place. Bitter, like the smoke wafting around her. Whoever this Adele was that her new applicant had known, the association wasn't a good one.

“I see.” DeWitt's smile made way for a more businesslike mein as she leaned forward in her seat, picked up a file folder sitting atop a stack and placed it in front of herself on the table. Opening the folder, she flipped through a few of the loose, printed pages there. “Well, I have your results here, though there's nothing in them that would be of especial interest to you in particular.”

“I am if it means you don't want me.” Definite edge to her words, then. No refusal would be accepted.

“Your results were exemplary,” DeWitt answered honestly, voice gentle as she met the young woman's eyes across the table. Green and dark and sad, the look in them intent. DeWitt's own eyes strayed to the cigarette held negligently between the woman's long, slender fingers for a moment, a prim smile shaping her lips. “Provided you make a few changes to your lifestyle, I see no reason why you wouldn't make a very effective addition to our team.”

“So that's a yes.” Expectant. The tick in her jaw made it clear that she was growing impatient.

DeWitt sighed a little under her breath as she leaned back in her seat, hands folding together in front of her on the tabletop. “You're ... anxious to begin. I understand. However, I can't help but wonder if your situation is one that might be better served by --”

“My situation is my business. I have my reasons for wanting this. You don't need to know what those are.”

“Yes, I understand,” DeWitt replied hesitantly, reaching out to lightly rest her fingertips on the woman's file folder. “Your past was troubled and your present has been more of the same. I'm only suggesting that perhaps, with time...”

“'With time' does nothing for me,” the woman shot back, husky voice regaining that hardness, that edge that was there before just a moment ago. “'With time' doesn't make any of it go away. Not completely. I want it to go away. Entirely. For good. Do you understand?” A huff of dubious laughter. “Can you understand that?”

“I can and I do,” DeWitt reassured her as she sat up straight in her seat again, hands coming to rest atop the papers in the folder. It was obvious that this newest hopeful wouldn't be disuaded, so there was nothing else to do but leave it up to her to make the choice.

Biting her lip, DeWitt reached beneath the folder, pulling out a stapled stack of papers and slid them across the table along with a ballpoint pen. “I think you should know that a great many of the people who come to us do so as a result of being caught in straits quite similar to your own. Here, we give them a purpose. A goal to strive for. We can give you the same life. The same purpose. I hope that it will be of some consolation to you that you will be doing good things in this world, even... afterwards.”

The woman reached out with her free hand, grabbed up the pen and scribbled on the dotted line without even a moment's hesitation. “I just want it out. I want it gone. I want me to be gone.” She took a deep drag off of the cigarette, lips pursing as she exhaled an arrow-thin stream of smoke. “You can do that, right?”

DeWitt leaned over and collected the contract, turning it round in her hands so that she could read the hastily scratched signature there on the topmost page. “We can,” she confirmed, nodding as she looked up and met her eyes, “and we will. That, I can promise you. All of these difficulties will be wiped away and it will be as though you never existed.”

The woman nodded as she set the pen aside, seeming satisfied with that answer. “Good,” she said quietly, eyes no longer focused on DeWitt's face but rather on the ashtray sitting near to her hand. “Good.”

Face creased in a rare display of empathy, DeWitt reached out and placed her hand atop the young woman's, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Welcome to the Dollhouse, Ms. McCutcheon,” she whispered.

“Shane,” she corrected her, giving DeWitt a polite nod of acknowledgment. The glint of uneasiness in her eyes had been replaced with relief, her entire body relaxing, even if just a fraction. She'd got what she came for, after all.

DeWitt forced a smile as she placed the signed contract into Shane McCutcheon's file folder and closed it. Not for much longer, she thought with an inward sigh.
End Notes:
"Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
(Whats wrong with me?) Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
(Why do I feel like this?) Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
(I'm goin' crazy now) Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum

No more gas, in the rig
(Can't even get started)
Nothing heard, nothing said
(Can't even speak about it)
All my life on my head
(Don't wanna think about it)
Feels like I'm going insane, yeah

It's a theif in the night to come and grab you
It can creep up inside you and consume you
A disease of the mind it can control you
It's too close for comfort

Put on your break lights
You're in the city of wonder
Ain't gon' play nice
Watch out you might just go under
Better think twice
Your train of thought will be altered
So if you must falter be wise

Your minds in disturbia
It's like the darkness is the light
Disturbia
Am I scarin' you tonight
Your minds in disturbia
Ain't used to what you like
Disturbia, disturbia

Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum

Faded pictures on the wall
(It's like they're talkin to me)
Disconnectin' all the calls
(The phone don't even ring)
I gotta get out, oh
Figure this shit out
It's too close for comfort ohh

It's a theif in the night to come and grab you
It can creep on inside you and consume you
A disease of the mind it can control you
I feel like a monster oohh

Put on your break lights
You're in the city of wonder
Ain't gon' play nice
Watch out you might just go under
Better think twice
Your train of thought will be altered
So if you must falter be wise

Your minds in disturbia
It's like the darkness is the light
Disturbia
Am I scarin' you tonight
Your minds in disturbia
Ain't used to what you like
Disturbia, disturbia

Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
(Disturbia) Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum

Release me from this curse I'm in
Tryin' to maintain but I'm struggling
If you can go
Think I'm gonna ahhhh

Put on your break lights
You're in the city of wonder
Ain't gon' play nice
Watch out you might just go under
Better think twice
Your train of thought will be altered
So if you must falter be wise

Your minds in disturbia
It's like the darkness is the light
Disturbia
Am I scarin' you tonight
Your minds in disturbia
Ain't used to what you like
Disturbia, disturbia

Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum
(Disturbia) Bum bum be-dum bum bum be-dum bum"

- "Disturbia," by Rihanna ('Romeo is Bleeding' theme song)
Tensile by lilpinkchainsaw
“And now we move on to the latest. She's new and up for review with the board. What do you think of her?”

“Wow. I mean, really, just... wow! Okay, tell me something. Uhh, with all due respect... where the hell did you find this one?”

“We didn't find her, Topher. She was a walk-in.”

“And how did she find us? Didn't you say that she was a, uhh...” Topher grabbed the file, eyes skimming over the details. “A hairdresser?” He scoffed, hand flopping to his side, file still clutched in it. “A hairdresser? Seriously?”

“She didn't say. Maybe you'll find that out when you do her scan. I have a feeling that this one... she has a lot of secrets.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Topher said dryly, lifting the folder again to read one particular section. “Says here she was under investigation by the LAPD? For a murder case? What's that all about?”

“Accidental death, apparently,” DeWitt replied. “It was standard procedure. I've spoken with our contact in the sheriff's department and they've assured me that she's in the clear. No culpability that they could determine.”

“According to this, there was another hit on her record from 1996,” Topher said as he took a seat on the edge of the desk, grabbing a fistful of sunflower seeds from a jar sitting by his keyboard. He tipped his head back, eyes rolling downward so that he could keep reading even as he poured a few of the seeds into his mouth, chewing them as he spoke. “Soliciting? Geez, she was only...” he paused just briefly, doing the calculation in his head, “sixteen?! God. Okay, so you mean to tell me... that this girl got brought up on charges when she was sixteen years old.” Glancing over at DeWitt, he arched his eyebrow, a doubtful expression. When DeWitt said nothing, he gave her a verbal nudge. “For prostitution.”

“We're not here to judge, Topher. Not the clients and not the Actives,” DeWitt reminded him calmly. “We're here to give them sanctuary and fulfillment while at the same time appeasing our client base.”

“You sound like a PR brochure,” Topher replied, wrinkling his nose with distaste, popping a few more sunflower seeds into his mouth. “Or one of those... you know, pharmacological companies trying to sound soft and fluffy and reassuring in their commercials while, at the same time, they're warning you that the drugs you buy from them might cause anal seepage.” He made a great show of shuddering at that. “Ugh.”

“Be that as it may,” DeWitt said, an undertone of firmness winding through her words. “I'd like for you to add her to the roster as soon as possible. I expect her to be processed and ready for her first engagement as soon as she gets the green light from the board.”

Hearing that, Topher nearly choked on his sunflower seeds. “Why?” He managed through his coughing fit, his eyes starting to water. “I mean, don't get me wrong – I know, I know, that's what you pay me for – but seriously, what's the rush, here?”

“We have a considerable backlog, for a start,” she explained, folding her hands behind her back. “Too many clients on the waiting list for engagements and not enough Actives to serve them. It's supply and demand.”

“Right,” Topher said, his tone making it clear that he still didn't quite understand the urgency. “Well, I umm... I can have her ready by Friday night, but I can't promise anything sooner than that. The procedure can be --”

“Traumatic. Yes, I'm aware,” DeWitt interrupted calmly.

“No, see, it's not just that, it – it takes a while for these guys to settle in, you know? I mean, funny, right? How hard is it to settle into being a blank automaton?” Topher said with a smirk, which soon made way for a more sincere, concerned expression. “Their personalities get wiped and replaced with this basic architecture and that's a lot of work for anybody's gray, squishy stuff to recover from. So... yeah, it's ... it's tough.”

“Oh, I don't think you'll have to worry much about that,” DeWitt assured him with a serene smile. “For as checkered as her past might be, Topher, this young woman has certain qualities that I think will prove invaluable to us.”

“Yeah? Like what?” Topher asked, frowning a bit as he grabbed another handful of seeds and poured them into his mouth.

“She's a survivor. To be left at loose ends and be forced to survive on the streets takes cunning, adaptability and a gift for improvising. To not only overcome such hardships but thrive as a result of them is the mark of a truly exceptional individual.”

“Well, I don't know so much about 'thriving',” Topher broke in, wincing a little as he returned his attention to Shane's profile. “If what these preliminary psych sheets say is true, it sounds like our girl has some, uhh... issues. Big ones. Like, 'gonna need a bigger boat' big ones.”

“Any potential hindrances will be irrelevant, once you've completed her orientation,” DeWitt said evenly, reminding him, a small smile curling her lips.

“Right,” Topher said again, sounding no more certain than he had a few moments ago.

“Walk with me,” she said, drawing one hand from behind her back to crook her finger, beckoning him along. “I want you to see something.”

“Sure.” Topher's confusion was evident, but he closed Shane's file and tossed it on his desk, brushing the sunflower seed crumbs from his palms as he stood.

DeWitt ushered Topher out of his office and up to the bridge, down to a shadowed entryway that led to a door secured by a card key lock, which she opened using a coded card she produced from her pocket. “This will be your first time in this wing,” she noted, grabbing the door as the lock let out a minute beep, an LED on the keypad flashing green briefly as she opened the door and held it for him. “Please.”

Topher hurried inside ahead of DeWitt and she soon followed, making sure the door was shut securely behind them both. The solid sheet-metal walls were painted a drab gray-blue and the floor was uninspiring poured concrete, the overall affect reminded Topher of a prison or a mental hospital. He'd never been inside either of those kinds of places in his life and after being in the hall of this wing for barely thirty seconds, he resolved that he'd never do a single thing that would lead to him winding up in a place like this one.

“This way,” DeWitt said, unknowingly interrupting his train of thought as she guided him down the hallway, which came to a quick end, branching off into two other halls just as depressing as the first one that led off into completely opposite directions. Pocketing her key card, she led him down the right fork and Topher noticed what looked like giant portals built into the walls on either side. Each portal was four foot by ten or fifteen feet, almost reminding Topher of the observation windows at an aquarium.

As they came upon the first set of portals, Topher looked to his right and found two men seated on blue mats inside, seated in the classic lotus pose, hands resting, benignly, palm up on their knees. They were dressed in blue sweatpants and gray tank tops, their feet bare. In the room on the left, he could see a blond woman in a similar set of workout wear, her hair pulled back into a ponytail which bounced and whipped about as she attacked a heavy, hanging punching bag, kicking and pummeling the thing with her fists while a man with brown spiky hair watched nearby.

“Oh wow,” Topher mumbled, reaching up to scratch at his head. “This is – these aren't – they're --”

“This is our testing wing,” DeWitt supplied for him, casting a Sphinx-like smile in his direction as she gestured further down the hall. “She's in three.”

“She's --?” Topher began, blinking at her but still following along.

As they approached, the sounds of low, rhythmic grunting and the sounds of impact could be heard. The fighty bits weren't exactly Topher's area -- he couldn't say who was hitting what or how – all he knew was something was apparently hitting something else. He soon found out what, though, as they finally reached the window overlooking the third testing room. Blue mats, like in the first room, as well as a series of punching bags and pads and a laptop set up on a rolling stand with what looked like a few wires and electrodes laid out next to it.

Dressed in a gray tank and blue sweatpants like the other trainers and potentials, she wore a pair of simple white running sneakers and ankle socks, the elasticized hem of the right leg of her sweatpants, rather inexplicably, pushed up to her knee. Her hands were wrapped to the wrists and she was wearing sparring gloves. She wasn't exactly tall, but not short, either. Taller than average for a girl, maybe, but just by a little bit. If Topher had just given her a quick glance – and hadn't known she was a she beforehand – he would have assumed that he was watching a teenage boy being put through his paces. Her hips were so narrow as to be almost non-existent and the same thing could be said for her breasts, very nearly. Not that he was looking at those, because that would be unprofessional.

Slender, verging on scrawny, though the only thing that kept her from getting tipped into the 'scrawny' pile were the noticeable toned muscles along her arms and bare shoulders that flexed and bunched each time she drew her right hand back and then swung it forward in a tight, contained punch. Her fist landed squarely in the center of the square pad as it was secured to the heavy-gauge stand, the blow making a surprisingly loud smack. Topher jumped a little at the sound and then grimaced to himself, shoving his hands deeply into the pockets of his jeans and casting a quick smile at DeWitt.

“Okay, that's good, Shane,” the burly slab-o-meat trainer in the room with the dark-haired young woman was saying, nodding encouragingly as he did so. Topher couldn't remember the guy's name, but he distinctly remembered that he was former military. A Marine or SEAL or something to do with water and army-type stuff. His scans had gone into the id matrix because DeWitt had felt his tactical and disciplinary talents would come in useful for certain engagements. “Take a breather. Get some water.”

Relaxing from her fighting stance, Shane stood up straight, giving her head quick roll on her shoulders to relax the muscles there as she reached up, using the cloth wrapping on her wrist to wipe away the perspiration that had gathered over her upper lip and forehead. Her hair was medium length, cut in some kind of choppy, piece-y style that Topher guessed was meant to be the latest fashion. But what did he know from that kind of stuff? He was a geek and a guy, on top of it all. As best he could tell from his vantage point, her hair was pulled back into a spiky ponytail, with jagged fringe falling across her brow and longer pieces framing her face.

Topher was just in the process of wondering what her face looked like as Shane turned around, walking towards the window and bending down to retrieve something. She straightened, her piercing, dark eyes staring right into Topher's eyes for a moment before she buried her face in the towel she'd picked up, scrubbing away the drying perspiration from her skin. Tipping her head back, she lifted a sports-style water bottle and gave the bottle a squeeze, water squirting in an arc into her open mouth.

“She can't... see me, right?” Topher asked, uncertain, as he looked over at DeWitt.

“She can't see or hear,” DeWitt answered, hands folded harmlessly in front of her, eyes unerringly fixed on Shane as she replaced her water bottle and began pacing around the training room, dark eyes flicking from wall to wall to wall. Her circuits were aimless, just giving her muscles a chance to recover, but even then, she still seemed to move forward with purpose. Determination. “We built this wing so that the members of the board could observe potential Actives first-hand and vote accordingly, but this also makes a suitable pre-screening lab. For the most part, the graders and potential Actives are the only ones who have access, but I wanted you to see her for yourself.”

“She's like a tiger in a cage,” Topher observed quietly, watching with DeWitt as Mr. Meatslab the Trainer beckoned Shane over to where he was standing near the rolling cart. Still wiping at her face, Shane sauntered over to him, listening intently and nodding as he explained some things that neither of them could make out, her expression intent and almost severe. “What's wrong with her, Doc?”

“She's... impatient,” DeWitt said, voice hushed, the words coming at the tail end of a sigh. “It seems as though what she most wants in the world right now is to just simply disappear. I suppose she thinks that offering herself up to us is the best way to make that happen.”

“Disappear,” he echoed her, brows furrowing as he frowned.

“I think she wants to die, Topher,” DeWitt murmured, eyes trained steadily on Shane as she allowed the trainer to affix a couple of electrodes to her chest, standing still with the same kind of hesitant grace a long-legged doe might upon hearing a hunter's boot cracking a tree branch a hundred yards away. “But since she's too frightened to take things into her own hands, I suppose she feels this is the next best thing.”

“Oh, Jesus,” he sighed and raked a hand through his hair. He turned to DeWitt imploringly. “Look, are you sure about this? I mean, seriously --”

“I'm not sure about anything,” DeWitt said in that same maddeningly mild voice, though there was a definite hint of exasperation there, underneath everything else. “That's why you're here. Do you think you can make this work?”

“Wha – her?!” Topher asked, pointing at Shane through the window. “I -- man, I – I don't know. I don't know, Doc. I'd have to take a look at her comprehensives again, but --”

“Okay, Shane,” Mr. Meatslab was saying inside the training room, “now that we've got these 'trodes on you, what I want you to do is approach the pad just like before, only this time, I want you to punch it as hard as you can. I wanna get some of this data onto the computer for our records, okay? So the guys with the big brains and big pocketbooks can see what you're really made of.”

Shane sighed and it looked, for just a split second, as though she might refuse, but instead, her shoulders slumped, head hanging forward – chin nearly brushing her chest – she nodded. Giving her face one last scrub with the towel, she balled it up and tossed it back over towards the window before circling back to the sparring pad on its stand.

“I can give you a few practice hits, if you need 'em, but I don't think you do,” Meaty Boy was saying as he punched a few buttons on the laptop's keyboard. “You ready?”

“Yeah,” Shane said as she sank into a fighting stance, spreading her legs a bit and bending her knees as she curled her fingers into fists and brought her fists up into the standard protective position. Her voice was quite deep and husky and the sound of it took Topher by surprise but he barely had a chance to mutter a snappy comment before she spoke again. “Tell me when.”

Meatmeister glanced at his laptop screen, pressing a few more keys before he looked back up at Shane. “Okay. When!”

No sooner did the word leave his lips did Shane's right hand shoot out with all the quickness of a viper strike, her fist connecting with the pad with a resounding THWACK. Shane drew her fist back, shifting her weight back to her right foot, fists lifting into that defensive position again. “Again?” She asked, eyes still fixed on the red circle in the center of the blue bullseye pattern painted on the pad.

“Yeah, keep it up. I wanna see what you've got,” Meaty McThickneck said distractedly, nodding as he eyed the laptop screen, fussing with more keys as he spoke. “Hard as you can.”

“Kay,” she replied, almost too quietly for the response to be heard by Topher and DeWitt, before her arm shot out again, catching the pad right in the center of the red circle. Topher could see the resulting force of the blow from the way the padding caved, conforming to her fist in that brief moment of impact before she drew her hand back again, only to drive her fist into that exact same spot.

Again and again, her arm shot out and her fist connected with the bullseye and DeWitt and Topher could both see the way that Shane tried to follow Meaty's instructions, the muscles from shoulder to forearm tensing and bunching beneath lightly tanned skin each time she swung. Whoever this girl was, she knew what she was doing, and Topher was almost afraid to look at her file again to see how she came to know how to do what she was doing so very well.

Topher looked over at the grader, eyes widening as he watched the measurement software at work. Pretty standard stuff, designed to calculate pounds-per-inch of pressure focused on a single point. Baseline control measurement, which was probably what Meaty had been testing before with having Shane hit the pad over and over again before. Now, though, Meaty was getting her to open up the throttle and work and, judging by the way the baseline kept sharply spiking each time Shane's fist connected to the pad, she was working it pretty hard.

THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!

“Okay, Shane, that's good. You can take five,” Meaty was saying as he stopped the measurement series and saved the results.

THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!

“Shane?” Meaty glanced behind him, almost startled as he saw that Shane had not followed his instructions and was still wailing away on the pad.

Topher and DeWitt both transferred their attention to Shane, who seemed to have gone into some sort of deep trance, dark eyes fixed on the bullseye despite the sweat trickling down her face and into her eyes. One punch after another, each one connecting harder than the last, if the effects on the pad itself were any indication. Her face was shrouded by a look of spyglass-in-sunlight focus, lips pursed into a firm, white line of a frown.

“Shane, I said you can take five,” Meaty said, raising his voice a little as he turned to face her, big, ham-sized fists settling on his hips as he watched her with growing concern. Frowning, he tried a harder, more authoritative army-guy voice on for size. “Shane! I said THAT'S ENOUGH!”

Just like that, as though a switch had been flipped, Shane relaxed again and straightened up from her fighting stance, chest heaving hard with each panting breath she exhaled and dripping with sweat. She didn't acknowledge Mr. Meatpie, just ambled back over to the spot where her water bottle and towel were sitting. Scooping them both up, she patted at her face - now flushed from exertion – with the towel and took a long drink from her bottle of water.

“She's intense,” Topher whispered, a little unsettled.

“She's perfect,” DeWitt said quietly, smiling like a cat who'd just noticed that canary was on the menu.
End Notes:
"Disturbia" by Rihanna - 'Romeo is Bleeding' theme song.

"Girl on TV" by Bradley - As Topher and DeWitt reach the third training room.

"Precious" by Depeche Mode - Outro, as Shane finally relents.
I Came to Get Down by lilpinkchainsaw
Author's Notes:
Shane starts her final round of testing and meets a few more members of the Dollhouse staff.
“Hello, Shane. My name is Claire Saunders. I'm the head physician here at the Dollhouse,” Dr. Saunders said as she stepped into her office. Shane had been sitting on the examination table for quite some time, waiting for Saunders to arrive, and when she did, she barely looked at Shane, seeming almost determined not to meet her eyes. Her hair was just a little shy of shoulder-length, curling sweetly around her face, long bangs falling over her left eye. “Ms. DeWitt told me that you prefer Shane, is that correct?”

“Yeah,” Shane said quietly, nodding as she folded her hands together, fitting them between her knees as she watched Dr. Saunders move over to a nearby cabinet and retrieve a stethoscope from one of its drawers.

“All right,” the doctor replied, sound a little harried as she moved about the office. “I'm not in the habit of calling people by their first names, but it was recently brought to my attention that can give people the impression that I have a stiff and unfriendly demeanor, so... I'm trying to work on that.”

“Okay,” Shane said with a small, bewildered chuckle.

Tossing a file folder – Shane's file, presumably – down onto the stainless steel counter top, Dr. Saunders opened the file and flipped through it, reading over the information inside even as she looped the stethoscope around her neck. She lifted the lid of a stainless container on the counter and pulled out a wrapped tongue depressor, stuffing it into the pocket of her lab coat as she pulled a pair of latex gloves from a box of them sitting open on the counter. She was in the process of wriggling her hands into the uncooperative gloves as she turned and crossed back over to the examination table.

Shane couldn't say for sure why, but she found herself smiling as the doctor approached her. Probably nerves. Doctors always made her feel uneasy. Still, there was something about Dr. Saunders that didn't make her feel threatened – to the contrary, it almost seemed as though Saunders expected Shane to lunge at her. There was something tentative, wary, about the way Dr. Saunders moved, as though she could feel laser sights trained on her from every corner of the room and any sudden moves of any kind would be the end of her.

Dr. Saunders glanced up and finally met Shane's eyes, offering her a small, tight smile, and Shane's eyes inevitably caught on the scars on the woman's face. Obviously the result of a brutal attack of some sort. There was a short, mostly vertical slice on both her upper and lower lips close to one corner of her mouth and there was also a long, particularly nasty gash clear across her forehead, bisecting her right eyebrow and ending just over her eyelid. Although Dr. Saunders's hair covered them, Shane thought she could see two more cuts on the woman's left cheek, peeking out from beneath those beautifully-arranged curls. Saunders drew the stethoscope from around her neck, fitting the ear pieces in each of her ears as she grasped the chest piece, fingers curling around the cold metal and warming it with her palm for a moment before reaching to lightly settle it over Shane's heart.

“Deep breath,” Saunders said quietly and then listened carefully as Shane complied. “Again. Deep as you can.” Shane drew in another, deeper breath through her nose and Saunder's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “How long have you been a smoker?”

“Too long,” Shane murmured, meeting Saunders's eyes with a wry smile. When Saunders didn't return the smile, Shane cleared her throat a little, feeling a little uneasy. “Uhh, since I was fifteen?”

“All right,” she said, lips pursing a little. Letting the stethoscope drop from her hands, Saunders reached up, fingers locating the glands on either side of Shane's throat and gently palpating there. “Have you ever tried to quit?”

“No. A couple of my girlfriends tried to talk me into it, though,” Shane replied, lifting her chin a little to assist her. “Couldn't stick with it, I guess.”

“It's easier when you have moral support from your friends,” Saunders said, retrieving the depressor from her pocket and tearing off the sterile white paper. “Open your mouth, please?”

“Umm, not – I didn't mean girls who're friends,” Shane noted with a soft chuckle. “I meant “girlfriend” like... y'know, the other way. We were together.”

Saunders blinked, just once, and then nodded. “Oh,” she said, not sounding surprised, but you wouldn't know it, from the way her hand was poised, still holding the depressor in mid-air as though she was about to put it in Shane's mouth and had simply forgotten to do so. “I see.”

“Yeah,” Shane said with another throaty laugh. She looked over and remembered Saunders's instructions, lips forming a soft 'O'. “Sorry,” she added, before opening her mouth as the doctor had asked. Before she'd distracted her, that is.

Retrieving a pen light from the breast pocket of her lab coat, Saunders clicked it on and shined the light into Shane's mouth, bending down a little as she studied the inside of her mouth and her tonsils, gently keeping Shane's tongue in place with the depressor. “You never had your tonsils out?”

“Nn-nn,” Shane hummed, the depressor still flattening her tongue to the floor of her mouth as she gave her head a little shake.

“What about your appendix?” Saunders asked as she carefully withdrew the depressor, giving Shane a curious look.

“No, I'm still all here,” she replied with a small smile. There were a few beats of silence as Shane lowered her eyes. “So how many of these have you done?”

“Exams? Uhh -- a few,” Saunders said, looking at Shane curiously. “Why?”

“I was just wondering how many of the ones that make it this far actually... make it,” Shane said quietly, brows creasing as she gave Saunders a meaningful look.

“I – well, I don't have exact numbers for that, but... I'd say your chances are very good,” Saunders replied with a little nod. She watched Shane for a moment, watched her take in that information before she felt comfortable in turning to retrieve Shane's file from the counter nearby. She returned to the examination table, setting the open file down next to Shane on the table, eyes scanning the information printed there. “Your tox results show that you had cocaine, opiates and methamphetamines in your system, but it was from quite a while ago. Have you used any illegal substances more recently?”

“How did you – how did you know about that?” Shane asked, blinking in astonishment as she twisted about in her seat, craning her neck to try to read the charts that Saunders was poring over.

“Remember when we took a sample of your hair?” Dr. Saunders answered a question with a question, lips quirking in a small smile as she looked at Shane. “It showed up when we tested it. It's been a while, though, hasn't it?”

“Yeah, uhh... about two – two and a half years?” Shane replied, glancing worriedly at the file even as she sat back in her seat, rubbing her palms over her thighs. She looked up at Saunders, that troubled look lingering as she met her gaze.

“Don't worry. This won't take you out of the running,” she assured her, that same enigmatic smile shaping her lips. “Provided you aren't still...?” She trailed off, arching her eyebrow a little as she looked at Shane.

“What? Oh, no – no, I – I haven't been,” Shane said earnestly, giving her head a shake. “I mean, I smoked some pot this one time at a party about a month or two ago, but that's all. Nothing... nothing else.”

“Okay,” Saunders said, nodding as she made a notation in Shane's file. “I believe you.” Once she was done jotting down her notes, she lifted the pen, holding it out in front of Shane's face. “Follow this for me without moving your head, okay?” Shane straightened up a little in her seat, hands still resting on her thighs as her eyes slowly slid from left to right, north to south and then back again, following the steady movements of the pen in Saunders's hand. “Good. That's good.” More scribbling. “Now, do you wear any kinds of corrective lenses? Contacts?”

“Yeah, I have to wear glasses when I'm working,” Shane replied, nodding. “I'm nearsighted.”

“Okay,” Saunders said, flashing her a quick smile as she flipped through a few pages, adding a scribble here, a scribble there.

“The rest of the time, I don't wear 'em,” she added.

“Your vision's fine for driving and other everyday activities?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Good.” Saunders initialed a few forms, making some notations about Shane's smoking habit for Topher. “This is the last round of testing before the board makes their final decision,” she noted.

“Yeah,” Shane said again, voice sounding noticeably tense.

Hearing that, Saunders looked up, light brown eyes studying her face carefully for a moment. “Are you – uhh, no, never mind,” she shook her head and hurriedly dropped her gaze.

“What?” Shane asked, frowning in confusion as she looked at her.

“No, it's – it's nothing.”

“No, really – what?” Shane insisted, leaning to one side and tipping her chin down just slightly in an effort to better see Saunders's face.

“Are you scared?” She asked as she forced herself to look up and meet Shane's eyes.

The question gave Shane pause. Sitting back a little, she folded her hands in her lap again, watching as her thumbs pressed against the sides of each of her index fingers as her hands were clasped together. Before she realized it, she reached up and rubbed fitfully at her nose for a moment. “Kind of,” she finally admitted, the words coming out on the crest of a sigh as she let her hand drop back into her lap. “But this is what I signed up for, right? This is what I want.”

“Is this really what you want?” Saunders inquired, her tone even and careful.

Shane nodded slowly after a moment, lips pressed in a thin line. “It's all I have left,” she whispered. “Knowing there's this one thing I can do and get it right.”

“So that's why you're doing this? Is this about your friend?” Saunders asked hesitantly.

“Girlfriend,” Shane corrected her very softly. “Best friend. My best friend in the world. She was everything to me.”

“Sorry,” Dr. Saunders said, face pinched a little in dismay at her slip. “I'm sorry. I – I'm prying.”

“No. No, you're – you're not,” she murmured with a sad laugh as she shook her head. “No, she was... she was in love with me. She told me. And I – I just treated her like... like all the others. Like all those stupid girls, just like she said.” Shane kept right on shaking her head, eyes growing brighter even as she spoke. “I let her down. And I hurt her. A lot. But she's gone, so... now I can't take any of it back. I can't make it better. But I can't – I can't stand to look at myself in the mirror anymore, so... I had to do something. Another friend of mine, she had these connections and said she heard about this place – maybe they could help. I guess she thought you guys were shrinks or something.” Another pained chuckle.

“I'm sorry for your loss, Shane,” Saunders said softly.

“Me, too,” Shane whispered, ducking her head. There were a few moments of silence and then she drew in a breath as if to speak, but hesitated, her lips pursing around the question, uncertain. Finally deciding, she licked her lips and looked up at Saunders. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” she said, slender eyebrows knitting together a little in concern.

“Does it – does it hurt?” She asked, and although her tone and expression were impassive, Saunders thought she caught a glimpse of a spark of fear deep within her eyes. Just the briefest flicker, but it was unmistakable.

“Yes,” Saunders replied honestly, though her tone was softer than the officious one before. “Some of it will. Most of it... will. Probably more than anything else in your life.”

Shane tensed even and took a deep, deep breath. She then slowly exhaled and nodded, all of the tension seeping from her muscles as she did so. “Okay,” she said softly, still nodding as she bowed her head. “Okay.” She jumped a little, startled, as Dr. Saunders reached out and gently took her right hand, lifting it and turning it over to scrutinize the faint bruising on her knuckles with a furrowed brow. Shane's fingers curled reflexively, closing around hers in a delicate clasp – Saunders's skin was warm and very soft against hers.

“Do you need anything for these?” Saunders asked quietly.

“No, thank you,” she said, her voice equally as hushed, eyes tracing over the delicate bone structure of the doctor's slender fingers.

“Is there any pain?” She asked, the pad of her thumb lightly brushing along the backs of Shane's fingers a moment.

“Mmm, no.” Shane shook her head. She lifted one shoulder in a negligent shrug. “I guess I just... got a little carried away with the pounds-per-inch test.”

“Were you wearing gloves?” Saunders asked, a bit of an alarmed edge to her words, as though she was gearing up for a lecture.

“Yeah, I was,” she said after a moment of hesitation. When she finally looked up at Saunders, she could see her giving her a strange look she couldn't quite place.

“I see,” Saunders said, releasing Shane's hand and seeming almost reluctant to do so. She reached over and grabbed up Shane's folder, closed it and held it out to her. “You're free to go. Take this over to Topher Brinks in the scan lab and tell him for me that I'm done with your physical. Upstairs, directly across the way from here.”

Shane blinked a little at the folder that had been thrust at her, but took it. “Thanks, Doc,” she said quietly as she moved to ease herself down off of the table.

Dr. Saunders took a step back and turned, walking briskly over to her desk and taking a seat behind it. Shane was reaching for the doorknob when she heard Saunders voice over her shoulder. “Tell Mr. Gillette to give you thicker gloves for training.”

Glancing over her shoulder, Shane let out a husky chuckle. “I will,” she said, giving Saunders a polite nod as she waggled the folder. “Seeya.”

Claire Saunders's smile was polite, but with a bit of inexplicable tension to it. “Goodbye, Shane,” she replied simply before taking a folder off the top of a tall stack sitting on the corner of her desk and placing it in front of her. She opened it and promptly buried her nose in it, already endeavoring to push any unprofessional or highly inappropriate feelings to the back of her mind.



When Shane had first set foot into the Dollhouse complex, she hadn't been entirely sure what she expected, but the sight that greeted her when the double doors first opened … hadn't been it. In truth, she hadn't thought much about what the place would look like, but the name of the complex – the business – itself brought to mind a child's toy. Pink and filled with miniature furniture and suitably miniature people to fit inside it, but the reality was about as far from the toy as you could get. Everywhere she looked, there was hardwood – banisters, floors, doors – all polished to a keen shine, and the all the doors were glass. Some were clear, others frosted or textured for privacy, but there was glass everywhere she looked.

It looked like a place where tense board meetings would take place, but the energy of the space itself felt more like a spa -- with comfortable, overstuffed couches and armchairs, throw pillows and water fountains gurgling here and there. There were quite a few people who could be frequently seen walking about, a few of them in sleek, well-tailored suits or dresses, but there were considerably more people ambling about in yoga pants and tank tops, barefoot and smiling placidly as they made their way to their destinations. As Shane had passed by, she could have sworn that she'd seen a woman stretched out on a table, nude beneath a clean, white towel and receiving a massage. Yep, definitely more spa than evil empire.

Once the initial shock had worn off, she'd been led to the small room that was meant to serve as her quarters while she was being tested. Much like the rest of the complex, the interior design of her quarters was rich, yet simple and functional, comprised of a single full-sized bed dressed with soft cotton sheets, a couple of pillows and a light blanket; a small dresser and nightstand with a reading light and a small en suite bathroom with a shower, commode and sink. There was also a closet, as had been pointed out to her, where she could store her small backpack of personal belongings and, when she'd opened it, she had also discovered four sets of workout clothes inside – clean, perfectly pressed and waiting for her - on the hangers, along with socks and a new pair of sneakers.

The testing would go on, DeWitt had explained, for five to seven days and in that time, they would be able to determine whether or not she would be suitable for service. Five to seven days between her and oblivion and Shane couldn't remember when she'd last felt so anxious, so eager to just get on with it.

So lost was she in her thoughts as she crossed the complex – her attention divided between her musings and taking in her lush surroundings while she also tried to locate the office Saunders had indicated – that she plowed right into someone, the folder falling from her hands and sending papers scattering everywhere.

“Oh! Shit!” She gasped, immediately taking a step back, reflexively reaching up to grasp the shoulders of the person she'd run into, so that she could make sure they were all right. When she finally had a chance to focus herself, she realized she was holding onto a petite young brunette with long, dark hair and wide green eyes that were gazing up at her in startlement. “I'm so sorry. Are you okay?”

“I am fine,” the young woman answered serenely, her smooth forehead furrowing just a little as she looked up at Shane. “Are you okay?” Something about the way she spoke unnerved Shane – not exactly robotic, but not entirely human, either. It certainly sounded as though she was trying to speak casually, but it sounded casual the way a computer's voice sounded casual as it tried to replicate human speech. It sounded slightly stilted, halting, uncertain -- the words a bit too precisely enunciated, more like she was mimicking Shane than actually asking her a question.

“Yeah,” Shane said, nodding a bit as she released her. “I'm sorry I bumped into you. Did I hurt you?”

“No, you did not hurt me,” she replied, seeming even more confused than a moment ago. “I've never seen you here before. What is your name?”

“I'm Shane,” she said with a smile as she bent down to gather up the papers that had wound up all over the floor. “What's yours?”

“My name is Echo,” the brunette replied as she knelt down, gingerly picking up more of the scattered forms.

“That's a pretty name,” Shane mused, glancing up at her. Echo was wearing a soft blue tank top and a pair of burgundy yoga pants, like many of the people she'd seen walking around the place, her dark, shoulder-length hair falling in waves to her shoulders. “Do you … work here?”

“This is my home,” Echo said, smiling warmly as she stacked the papers together in her hands as she picked them up, careful not to crumple them. “I like it here. The people here are very nice.” She paused and sat back on her heels, tilting her head as she favored Shane with a curious look, so open and unguarded that her demeanor was almost childlike. “Do you work here?”

Shane chuckled as she rose to her feet, stepping around Echo to fetch the folder where it had landed a foot or so away. “No. Well, not yet, anyway,” she replied, holding the folder open and smiling as Echo carefully placed the loose pages inside. “If everything goes the way I hope it will, maybe I will be working here, soon.”

“I would like that,” Echo decided, smiling up at her.

Smiling, Shane closed the file folder. “Well, I gotta get going,” she began hesitantly, pointing to the office she'd been heading to when she'd run into Echo. “Maybe I'll see you around, okay?”

“Okay!” Echo said brightly, beaming at her. “It was nice to meet you, Shane.”

“You, too, Echo,” Shane replied, reaching out to give her shoulder a gentle squeeze before turning to go. “Thanks for helping me pick up this stuff.”

“Friends help each other,” Echo said with a sincerity and conviction that caused a jolt of regret and sadness to hit Shane squarely in the chest.

“Yeah,” she said, her smile slightly dimmer than it was a moment before as she released Echo's shoulder and headed towards the staircase.

Shane followed the cagey Dr. Saunders's directions and arrived at a large office with frosted glass doors and opened the door, poking her head inside to take a look around. There was all sorts of tech equipment scattered around – computers and banks of monitors and other things with blinking lights and complicated-looking controls that she couldn't identify at a glance – and in the midst of the chaos, seated at a desk at the far side of the office, there sat a man. Mop of blond, shaggy hair, hipster geek clothes, and he was hunched behind a monitor, the sound of fingers typing away and the soft hum of computer fans filling the otherwise eerily quiet office.

“I guess you're Topher?” Shane said quietly, so as not to startle him.

“That is me,” Topher replied, not looking up from his work. “Who are you?”

Smirking a little, Shane crossed over to the desk and held up the folder Dr. Saunders had given her. “New guy.”

Something seemed to click with Topher and he blinked as he looked up from his computer monitor, eyes widening when he saw her. “Oh! Hi!” He blurted, letting out a sudden, uncomfortable bark of laughter. “Uhh, hi. Yeah, I'm Topher... and you're the... new guy.”

“That is me,” Shane said with an easy smile, mimicking his own response, as she held out the file folder. “Dr. Saunders sent me. She told me to tell you that she's done with my physical and said to give you this.”

“Oh, thanks,” Topher said as he took the folder, opening it and placing it on his keyboard, picking through the loose pages inside. He was quiet for a couple of minutes, eyes scanning the information printed and written on the forms and read-outs, his right hand turning the pages while his left hand was upraised, fingertips resting against his bottom lip as he read.

The silence lengthened and Shane found herself looking around, examining all the strange instruments and panels and buttons that seemed to line every wall of the place. When she'd finished studying everything from where she stood, she glanced back at Topher, who was still reading – only this time, he'd pulled out a notebook and was making some kind of computations that didn't look like any kind of math she could ever remember seeing. But then, she hadn't even completed ninth grade in high school, so that wasn't surprising.

Finally, Shane cleared her throat a little, trying to get Topher's attention. He kept right on scribbling. When it seemed that he wasn't going to respond, she cleared her throat a bit more loudly. “Uhh, do you still need me to --”

“Just a sec,” Topher replied, holding up his left hand as he scratched out a few more things on his notepad. Seeming satisfied with what he'd written there, he nodded a little, mumbling under his breath to himself before finally looking up at Shane again. “Okay. Sorry about that. Big brain stuff.”

“Right,” Shane said, eyes narrowing a little uncertainly as she looked at him. “So, umm, should I go?”

“Actually, no. You should come with me,” Topher replied briskly as he stood up from his desk, grabbed up the file and notepad he'd been scribbling on and gestured for Shane to accompany him. “C'mon this way.” He started for the office door, Shane following behind and feeling more than a little puzzled as she did so, and Topher led her to another office a couple of doors down.

Upon opening the door, he stepped inside, immediately crossing over to another desk with yet more computers and equipment Shane couldn't recognize and began fiddling about. There was a chair set up in the center of the room that looked vaguely like a dentist's chair, though it had some extra bits, including a strange fitting built in around the headrest with what looked like a black slot in the center of it. Shane hovered at the door and watched as Topher adjusted this or punched in that on a keypad, the young man moving about with obvious ease and familiarity.

Topher turned to Shane and gestured to the odd-looking chair with a solicitous grin. “Have a seat,” he said.

“Okay,” Shane replied, still eying the chair uneasily even as she lowered herself into it. Almost immediately, the entire chair began to shift, the back lowering gracefully while the leg-rest lifted, essentially stretching her out on her back. She was faced with a rather uninspiring view of the fluorescent light panel overhead, but from this vantage point, she could also take a closer look at the strange fitting on the headrest.

It was a semi-circle, built so that a person's head could fit comfortably through the space at the bottom to settle on the headrest itself – only just - and was rigged with a thin, long panel of frosted glass, possibly plastic of some sort, rimming the inner edge of the circle at the top. She'd also noticed similar panels of white plastic on the surface of each of the flat, unpadded arm rests. There were no wires that she could see from where she was and she wasn't sure if she should feel relieved or more anxious about that fact. The apparatus loomed over her, sitting about even with her shoulders and curving up and over her head.

“Okay, sooo... if you'll allow me a moment to introduce my handsome self, my name is Topher Brinks,” Topher began and Shane could hear more sounds of fingers tapping on keys and what sounded like metal casing sliding over metal. Kind of like when Max was working on his computer – she recalled him installing a new hard drive on Jenny's Mac and the sound was very similar, to her admittedly untrained ears. “I'm the resident genius, here at the Dollhouse, and according to the lovely Dr. Saunders's notes, it seems that you are ready to enter one of the last phases of your prep. You lucky little newbie, you.”

“Um, okay,” Shane said, feeling the urge to sit up so that she could see Topher, but stayed supine for the moment. “What's this phase?”

“Now, now. Patience!” Topher tutted. “Everything in good time. Now. This funky-looking device that you find yourself currently seated in is our neuro scanner. What this does, is it … well, it... scans your neuros, basically.”

“What?” Shane asked, frowning a little in confusion as she glowered at the fluorescent panel overhead, since she couldn't see Topher to glare at him.

“Well, see, here's the thing. This is what we – well, mainly just me, since I'm the only one who touches it – this is what I call the halo. See, the scanner in the halo fires off all these tiny little waves and frequencies and they vibrate on a particular wavelength,” Topher explained, sounding quite bored. Shane could have sworn she even heard him yawning. “These little waves can penetrate all through your skull and your gray brain meats and give me what's essentially an x-ray of the inside of your brain. Neural pathways, blood vessels, molecules, brain chemistry... the whole enchilada. It's kinda like an MRI met a CT scan, they fell in love, and then they had super scanner-babies.”

“Will I feel anything?” Shane asked, biting her lip as she forced herself to remain still.

“You won't feel any pain, but you might feel a low-level vibration – kind of like when a dentist is going at your teeth with a drill,” Topher replied, sounding distracted as he stepped away from the computer he'd been typing commands into and slipped around to stand over Shane. “Make sure to keep your head perfectly still. Otherwise it could screw up the scan. You can blink or close your eyes, if you want -- but other than that, don't move. Got it?”

“Yeah,” Shane said. She only just kept herself from nodding and heard a chuckle over her head. Rolling her eyes back, she could see Topher adjusting some settings on another panel, this time on the chair's panel.

“It's okay,” Topher said, leaning down so that he was peeping into her field of vision. “I haven't started, yet. Breathe. Before you know it, it'll be finished and you'll be wondering what you were worrying about in the first place.”

“Right,” she said with a soft chuckle. Taking a deep breath as Topher instructed, she fixed her eyes on the plastic light panel overhead.

He was right: what was the point of getting all worked up? It would all be over soon enough.
Christening by lilpinkchainsaw
Author's Notes:
This chapter takes place between episodes 1x05 and 1x06 of Dollhouse. There's a reason why Claire is so defensive when Boyd suggests that Victor has hurt Sierra -- "There’s a difference between being attracted to someone and hurting them."
DeWitt had only just completed a meeting with a few members of the team to discuss vital statistics, upcoming engagements and a host of other such little fiddly effluvia that one had to concern themselves with if they wanted to keep their job as head operational manager. The handlers and trainers had just been filing out as Topher sauntered in, a file folder held in one hand and a humorless smirk on his face.

“We've got a problem,” he announced.

DeWitt looked up, a bit startled, though her expression didn't give anything away. Rather, she arched her eyebrow at him, head tilting a little. “Do we?” She asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Topher replied as he approached the long, carefully polished boardroom table. Opening the file folder, he bent the cover back on itself and sent the file, contents and all, gliding along the tabletop towards her where she sat at the end.

Her hand shot out and came to rest lightly on the folder, stopping its progress and redirecting it, sliding it over to herself as she put her glasses on once again, peering at the print-outs. “What am I looking at here? Some new sort of test you're developing?” She asked, squinting.

“Oh, I wish it was something that awesome,” Topher said with a huff of rueful laughter. “No. See, your new favorite? She's got skeletons. As a matter of fact, she's got a whole graveyard. Plus some ghosts and poltergeists. Maybe some ectoplasm, too.”

“Topher, what on earth are you talking about?” DeWitt asked as she lowered her glasses and lifted her head, shooting him an exasperated look. She waggled her glasses at the print-out. “What is this?”

“Well, after that talk we had in the training wing, I went back and did a little research of my own on Shane McCutcheon,” he replied, rubbing his palms together for a moment before stuffing his hands into his back pockets. “Turns out – Google's my friend, too. In this day and age, what happens on the internet stays on the internet and you should always use whatever tools you have at your disposal to make sure you've got all your bases covered.”

What am I looking at, Topher?” DeWitt asked crossly, eyes narrowing.

“As best I can tell? It's a, uhh... a proximity matrix. Sort of,” Topher replied, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, visibly uncomfortable. DeWitt could swear his ears were turning red.

“Proximity?” DeWitt frowned as she picked up the folder and peered more closely at the print-outs. “These are names. Mostly women. But --” Her eyes caught on something and widened ever so slightly as the pieces clicked into place. Shane's name was printed there on one of the sheets and there were dozens of small, black lines connecting her name to dozens of others and those names, in turn, were individually connected to their own sets of names. “Wait...”

“Yeah,” Topher said quietly, ducking his head. “It's a site called OurChart. It's a place where people – mostly, uhh, mostly lesbians – name their sexual partners and track connections between them. It's really incredible, when you think about it. Thousands of people, scattered all over California and the states and ... the world, maybe, and everyone they've ever slept with, somehow, they're connected to another name on that chart and that name is connected to another and another. They're all connected to each other in this... web. Kinda like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon gone global.”

“And this is recent? These charts?” DeWitt asked, a thoughtful twist to her lips as she slipped her glasses back on. She sat up, placing the folder on her desk and leaning over it, eyes following the lines from name to name to name.

“Hot off the printer as of fifteen minutes ago,” Topher confirmed. “The matrix itself is dynamic. People are adding names to it and making connections to others constantly.”

“This is...” DeWitt began quietly, lightly tapping her finger on her desk. “An interesting development. To say the least.”

“That's why I brought it up to you as soon as I found out,” Topher replied, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “I mean, don't you think that... well, won't this make her job working as an anonymous agent a tad difficult if every lesbian in West Hollywood knows her face?”

Licking her lips, DeWitt closed the file folder and sat back in her seat. “We can limit her engagements to clients who prefer discretion. Nothing out in the field that might put her at a... disadvantage.”

“Yeah.” A ragged laugh was startled out of Topher at that. “'Cause you don't want to bump into any of the twelve hundred women you've slept with while you're working that espionage tip.”

“It's not for us to judge, Topher,” she said tiredly, one hand lifting to gingerly massage a spot between her eyebrows. “We knew, going in, that she had history. She just... has quite a bit more of it than we anticipated. That's all.”

Topher eyed DeWitt skeptically. “That's all?”

“That's all,” she said, lowering her hand and letting it settle atop her other hand as she looked up at him. Her expression was cool, collected. “Romantic engagements and engagements outside of the city only. For now.”

Lips pursing, Topher looked down, slowly nodded. “Got it.”

--

Saunders gingerly stepped through the heavy emergency door, the soles of her shoes crunching on the gravel and grit underfoot as she set foot onto the roof of the Dollhouse complex. She'd never been up there, before, and was startled at the breadth and scope of the view that the centrally-located building provided.

The majority of the complex itself was underground, with numerous false-front businesses filling the offices of the high-rise at ground level and above, leaving the Dollhouse itself buried underneath the earth like a bunker – no windows, no daylight, no fresh air that didn't come from the A/C scrubber.

It could be a stifling existence, but Saunders found herself wondering, suddenly, why it had never occurred to her to come up here, herself.

It only took her eyes a moment to adjust to the waning daylight - the sky a fading gold overhead, shaded in purples and deep rose tones as the sun sank beneath the horizon – and she smiled a little to herself as she located the person she'd come up to the roof to find.

Shane stood at the edge of the roof, not staring down but rather looking out at the ever changing hues of the sky and at the sun as it set. Her hands rested lightly on the broad marble ledge and everything about her body seemed utterly quiescent and relaxed.

“I thought you might want one of these,” Dr. Saunders said as she slipped up behind Shane. She pulled out a fresh, unopened pack of Marlboro Reds and a lighter from her pocket and held them out to her with a small smile. “To celebrate.”

Head whipping about in surprise, Shane found Dr. Saunders standing there and her eyes darted down. She chuckled as she reached out and took the offered cigarettes and lighter and held them in her hands, staring down at them pensively. “Thanks,” she said quietly. Opening the pack, she pulled out a cigarette and fitted it between her lips. She looked up and over at Saunders, brows creasing a little. “Oh -- d'you mind?”

“No, go right ahead,” Saunders said, smile widening a little as she turned her attention to the view that Shane had been admiring when she'd approached her. “You could have gone anywhere for your last day. Mr. Gillette told me that Ms. DeWitt gave you leave. Why didn't you?”

“There's nowhere I wanna go,” Shane replied simply as she sparked the lighter and held the flame to the end of her cigarette. A few quick puffs to get it going and then one long, deep drag to fill her lungs. “Nobody I need to see. I already said my goodbyes.”

“But why did you want to come up here?” Saunders asked softly, eyes straying over to where Shane was gazing out over the city, her expression strangely serene.

“The contracts are signed and initialed and now they've got the board's stamp of approval. It's all a done deal. I guess I just... wanted to see something beautiful before I go,” she whispered. “You know, I – I thought that when I finally heard their answer it would make me feel even more scared. Because I know what's coming next? But... the closer and closer it gets, the quieter it is inside.”

“And that's a bad thing?” Saunders asked, eyebrows knitting together, lips twisting into a perturbed frown.

“It's supposed to hurt,” Shane replied, her throat working as she swallowed around the knot in her throat, her tone almost accusing. “You told me it would. It should hurt.”

“Why?” She asked, startled.

“I have to – I have to be punished,” she whispered, lower lip trembling ever so slightly, eyes glistening with tears as she looked out over the city. “This is the only way I can ever make it up to her.”

“Do you think that she'd want you to suffer this way?” Saunders replied, a distinctly skeptical edge to her words.

“No. She wouldn't. That's why I have to. Because I broke my promise and now I have to deal with the consequences.”

“But these didn't have to be the consequences, Shane. You chose this for yourself.”

“I can't stay in this world, knowing she's not here, Doc,” Shane whispered, voice choked, a tear slipping from the corner of her eye to go rolling down her cheek. “It's too much. Without her, it's all just too much. One day without her was too long -- how am I supposed to go for the rest of my life? Knowing that...” Shaking her head, Shane sniffled, reaching up to hastily wipe at her eyes with the heel of her hand. “Right now, I'm on life support. All I'm doing is biding my time, waiting for someone to do me a fucking favor and just pull the plug, already.”

“I can't even... begin to imagine what that must feel like,” Saunders said softly, feeling an aching tightness in her chest as she gazed at Shane. “The way you talk about her, it's like she was your soul mate.”

“She was my soul,” Shane corrected her, breath hitching in her chest even as she brought her cigarette to her lips for another drag, tears streaming down her face. “I just don't wanna do this, anymore. Not without her. So I'm not. I don't have to.” A low, weak chuckle rumbled in her chest. “I kinda feel like the luckiest person in the world. 'Cause I get something not many people do: the chance to decide how I get to go out. Does that makes me sound crazy?”

“I don't think it makes you sound crazy,” she replied evenly. “You've made your decision and it's what you feel is right. There's nothing crazy about that.” Shane simply nodded, sniffing a bit as she wiped at her tears with the flat of her palm. “What was her name?”

“Jenny,” Shane said quietly. She drew herself up, inhaling a deep, deep breath and letting it out again in a long sigh. “Jennifer Diane Schecter. She was 25.”

“So young,” Saunders whispered, a pained expression settling into place on her scarred features as she looked back out over the city.

“Isn't all of this already in my file?” Shane asked, eyes cutting over to peek at Saunders and narrowing slightly.

“It is,” Saunders confessed. “But it's different, seeing facts and dates and names printed on a piece of paper in somebody's file and hearing it from their own lips, in their own words.”

“Isn't that a little... troublesome... in your line of work?” She asked, still staring steadily at Saunders. She tilted her head inquiringly. When the doctor looked over at her, noticeably confused, Shane elaborated. “I mean, you're supposed to be caring for these people and helping them when they get hurt, right? Doesn't it... make it harder for you? Knowing all those things about them and then seeing them wind up like Echo?”

“You met Echo?” Saunders asked, blinking a little in surprise.

“Yeah,” Shane said with a soft chuckle as she turned her gaze back to the sunset. “When I was on my way over to Topher Brinks's office with those files you gave me.” The hint of amusement in her smile faded a little. “But does it? Does it make it harder?”

“I --” Saunders began, brows creasing as she frowned, eyes sliding away to stare out at the street lights switching on below. “I never thought about it.”

“It would make it harder for me,” Shane admitted, stubbing her cigarette out on the bottom of her pack, fitting the cold butt into the pack before drawing a fresh cigarette out. “Seeing them when they're normal people and knowing things about them, their lives, what they're like... and then seeing them like that, but... I guess she had her reasons. Right? Like I have mine.”

“They all had their reasons, Shane,” Saunders said quietly, wrinkles on her brow smoothing a bit, a barely perceptible undertone of sadness and compassion winding through her words.

“At least, this way, it'll help people,” she said, breath and smoke leaving her lungs in a heavy sigh as she rested her elbows on the ledge in front of her, hands loosely folded together, cigarette seeping smoke between them, white-gray wisps slipping between her fingers and curling towards the sky. “They get what they need; I get what I need. Everybody's happy.”

--

“Now that that's settled, was there anything else that you wanted to talk to me about?” DeWitt inquired even as she gathered up the file folder Topher had passed over to her, preparing to close it.

“Uhh, yeah, there's one more thing,” Topher hedged, shifting his weight from one foot to the other again. “Something else you should see. It's after the print-outs.”

Casting Topher a withering glower, DeWitt tossed the folder onto the table, opened it again and began flipping through the pages inside. Ten pages in, past the print-outs of the strange proximity matrix Topher had been telling her about, and then her breath caught on a gasp as her fingers seized on page eleven, lifting it from amidst the other print-outs there. “God in heaven,” she murmured softly.

“Yeah,” Topher said, rather unhelpfully. “It was a nation-wide advertising campaign for Hugo Boss about a year and a half ago. We're talkin' coasters, posters, full-size billboards, magazines, tie-in movie promotions -- the whole shebang.”

“Were there any more of these?” DeWitt asked as she looked up. She turned the page around and held it up so that Topher could see what she was referring to.

It was a full-page ad, the ragged edge along the left-hand side of the glossy stock paper making it obvious that it had been torn from some sort of magazine. Shane stood in front of a blue-gray marbled stucco background, naked but for a pair of white, y-front briefs, head cocked at a defiant angle, though her expression was strangely impassive. Her hands were curled into loose fists and one fist covered each of her small breasts, obscuring her nipples from view. Though it didn't do much to lend any sort of modesty to the photograph, since everything else – from her lean, muscled arms to her toned stomach – was on bold display.

“As far as I can tell? No. It was just the one ad. It just wound up everywhere. Checking around on the marketing forums and blogs around that time, it sounds like it was a pretty popular campaign. I had Ivy do some calling around and she wasn't able to find any agency information for it, though,” Topher replied, reaching up to scratch at the back of his head. “So that means she didn't have any representation. This looks like it was just a one-shot deal.”

“She never mentioned it,” DeWitt replied distractedly as she turned the page back around, her free hand lifting to her mouth, the side of her index finger brushing over her bottom lip, a pensive expression settling into place on her aristocratic features. “I wonder why that is.”

“Embarrassed, maybe? Hard to say,” he said with a shrug. “If you ask me, the whole thing doesn't really seem like her shtick.” When DeWitt lifted her head and searched his face, he held up both hands yieldingly. “Not that... I know what her shtick is or am, in any way, insinuating that I do know what her shtick is. She just...” Trailing off, he sighed, shoulders slumping a little. “She just doesn't seem like the type. That's all.”

DeWitt hummed in acknowledgement, eyes tracing over Shane's features as they stared back at her from the magazine page. “No, she doesn't,” she agreed quietly. Inhaling a deep, slow breath, she placed the page back into the folder and closed it, sliding it back over to Topher with a distasteful wrinkle of her nose. “For now, my decision holds: discreet romantic engagements outside of Los Angeles. You also might want to do some research to find out just how far this... campaign... reached and formulate a list, so that we have a better idea of her operating area. We should avoid any urban areas with a high level of concentration for this hideous advertisement, for the time being.”

“Gotcha,” he said, scooping up the folder from the table top as it reached him. “And speaking of our supermodel... uhhh, where is she, right now?” Tilting his head, he aimed a narrow-eyed look of curiosity at her.

Sighing to herself, DeWitt sat up straight in her chair, folding her hands together on the table in front of her. “Upstairs,” she replied. “The word came down this afternoon: the board has given her the green light. You should begin making preparations for her tissue mapping and wipe in the morning...”

“Oh,” Topher said, head bowing as his lips pursed into a firm line. “So she's...”

“Yes,” DeWitt confirmed quietly. “She's not being monitored, but I'm confident that she can be trusted. Considering where she asked to go, it's unlikely she'd try to make a break for it, now.”

“Do we tell 'em?” Topher asked, half-heartedly lifting the folder he held in his hand.

“I don't see what difference it would make, Topher,” she said primly as she sat back in her chair, hands folding in her lap, elbows resting comfortably on the arms of her cozy executive chair. “We've dealt with more volatile and conspicuous volunteers than Shane. She's just a bit more conspicuous than was anticipated.”

“What did she say when you told her the news?” Topher asked, eyebrows furrowing a bit.

“She said... 'thank god',” DeWitt said softly, her smile strained and distinctly rueful as she tapped her right index finger against the back of her hand. “I've never seen someone look so pleased.” There was a beat, her eyes slanted off to one side, a pensive glint in them. “Before you do her wipe tomorrow, I want you to incorporate her scans into the id matrix. I meant what I said: I think she has certain qualities that could prove to be invaluable to us.”

“As good as done, Capitan,” he said, lifting his right hand in a jaunty, dutiful salute. “Have you given any thought to what her new name will be? Who did you pick for her handler?”

“Well,” DeWitt began, leaning her head on her hand, ironic amusement winding through her tone. “Considering the information you've shared with me today... Romeo seems... awfully fitting, don't you think?”

“Uhh... heh, yeah, I guess,” Topher said, aiming a wry smile at her. “So have you decided on a handler for her, yet?”

“Not yet,” she replied, giving her head a brief shake. “I thought I'd gather a few of the vets and allow them to sit in on her exhibition so they can see what they'd have to work with.”

“Ugh, the exhibition,” Topher grumbled with a grimace. “No matter how many times I do one of these, I always forget about that part. Maybe it's because my brain remembers what a drag it is and purposefully blocks it out so that I don't just quit.”

“Be that as it may,” DeWitt started, flashing him a forcefully serene smile, “she should be ready for her exhibition day after tomorrow. Bring Jupiter with you when you come.”

Topher's eyebrows shot up along with the rest of his head as he looked up at DeWitt, obviously surprised. “But I thought you said --”

“There's nothing wrong with letting her stretch her wings a little,” DeWitt replied, her own shoulders drawing up a bit as she stretched her arms out in front of her, muscles tensing for a few moments before she let out a breath and allowed her muscles to slacken again. “She'll do just fine. It might even remind some of the handlers that there's more to this than romance and melodrama. Those are the easy engagements, but they aren't all easy.”

“Should I go and ...?” Topher began, shifting his body a little and gesturing to the door.

“Give her a little while longer,” she said, giving her head a slight shake. Her expression was almost somber as she closed the file folder, placed it atop her stack of folders and binders and gathered the lot up into her arms. “It's not every day that you get to see a sunset, knowing that it will be the last one.”

--

There was barely a sliver of the fierce orange sphere peeking out from the lip of the horizon, the brilliant streaks of fuchsia and yellow having made way for pale blueish gray, fingers of night time stroking their way over the sky.

Shane and Dr. Claire Saunders had long since stopped paying attention to the horizon or the city or the view or the sunset or the sky. They stood facing one another, Shane grasping Saunders's arms in a secure but gentle grip, their faces – their lips - scarcely five inches apart from each other. Shane's breath was ragged, shallow, and strained as it feathered over Claire's slightly parted lips, her fingers tightening on Claire's biceps, as though she wasn't sure whether she wanted to pull her closer or push her away.

Claire stood rooted to the spot, eyes searching Shane's face as she gazed up at her, her expression open and anxious and exhilarated all at the same time. Her hands rested lightly on Shane's hips, face turned up so that she could study her, silently trying to put a name to the emotions flickering in Shane's dark eyes and coming up mystified.

“You're shaking,” Claire whispered, something in the back of her throat catching, making it feel painfully dry and forcing her to swallow. In spite of herself, her bottom lip quivered, just for a moment.

“I can't do this,” Shane whispered back, eyes lowered and leveled on a spot somewhere beyond Claire's left shoulder.

“Do what?” She asked, her eyebrows knitting together. She leaned to one side, tilting her head a bit in an effort to meet Shane's gaze, but Shane purposefully, almost determinedly, averted her glance.

“What I always do,” she said softly, fingers tightening around Claire's arms for a moment before she finally released her, drawing her hands back as though they burned just from touching her. Letting her hands drop to her sides, she turned away from Claire, rubbing her hands against the soft knit cotton of the track pants covering her thighs. “It's not right and I don't wanna make trouble for you.”

“What were we doing?” Claire asked, doing her best to sound confused, clueless. Innocent.

“I haven't read the entire rule book, yet, but if I had to guess, I'd say there's probably a rule against it,” Shane replied ruefully, leaning her elbows on the ledge as she fitted another cigarette between her lips and lit it. “And even if there wasn't... it doesn't change the fact that my girlfriend died three weeks ago.”

“Shane, I'm sorry, I – I didn't mean to...” Claire sputtered, hands fidgeting at her sides before she finally slipped them into the pockets of her lab coat. “I sincerely apologize if I did anything that made you feel uncomfortable.”

Eyes closing for just a moment, Shane shook her head silently. She took a couple of puffs on her cigarette and then a longer drag, opening her eyes again as she stared out at the city scape spread out in front of her. When she finally pulled the cigarette out from between her lips, she licked them briefly before speaking at last. “I just don't want to leave with any unfinished business,” she explained softly. “It'd be better for the both of us if this just never happens.”

“You're absolutely right,” Saunders said after an excruciating stretch of silence, her words sounding strangely brittle as she turned to face the ledge again, eyes searching outward and avoiding looking at Shane.

“But for what it's worth,” Shane began quietly, “that sunset wasn't the only beautiful thing I've seen tonight and... I'm grateful.”

“You don't mean that,” Saunders whispered, a barely perceptible tinge of bitterness creeping into her voice.

“No, I do. I really do, Claire,” she assured her, shoulders rolling back and square as she drew in a deep, deep breath. Her head lolled back on her shoulders, eyes pointed to the stars as she smiled. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
End Notes:
"Disturbia" by Rihanna - 'Romeo is Bleeding' theme song.

"Pretty Buildings" by People In Planes - As Claire steps out onto the roof to find Shane there.

"It ain't kind and it ain't right
when you wore away the shine, what did you find?
still, you were say you're not afraid
to lay down your bones on the bed you've made

Someone made a sound and turned you right round
I wasn't cold enough to care
brother, I dared

See it tear you up and it calls your bluff,
when the lie that keeps you warm
is the truth you're counting on..."

"Bluff" by Pilot Speed - As Shane smokes her cigarette and cries.

"And I thought you had ruined it all
and I thought you were going to hell
and I thought I had ruined it all
and I thought I was living in hell

But I get it, now - yeah, I get it now

And they said that I had to be strong
And they said I should stick to the plan
And they said that it wouldn’t take long
And they said "just remember the plan"

And I get it, now
yeah, I get it, now

But sometimes, it gets a little cold inside
And I know you tried
yes, I know you tried

But they told me, they told me,
"Things aren’t always as they seem,"
they seem
And they told me, they told me,
I should just concentrate and breathe
breathe, breathe

And I thought I was doing okay
well, I thought you were doing so well
And I know you were doing okay
but I know there is that deep well
that you won’t look into,
no, you won’t look into

But sometimes, it gets a little cold inside
And I know you tried
yes, I know you tried

But they told me, they told me,
"Things aren’t always as they seem,"
they seem
and they told me, they told me,
I should just concentrate and breathe, breathe --

With little lungs I
breathe
with little lungs you
breathe
with little lungs I
breathe
with little lungs you
breathe
with little lungs I --

And I know you were doing okay, then
I know you were doing so well and
[You changed this all, you changed this all.] x2

And I didn’t reply to your letter 'cause,
no, I didn’t reply to your letter 'cause,
[I’m not here, yet] x2

With little lungs we
breathe [x16]
with little lungs we --"

"Little Lungs," by An Horse - As Shane pushes Claire away.
Glitches by lilpinkchainsaw
Author's Notes:
Some memories are brought to the surface that Shane has trouble dealing with and Claire has an unexpected issue.
“Jen...”

She was standing at the edge of the balcony, before the gaping space where the structure had been left incomplete. There was nothing more than a simple length of nylon tape spanning the gap – tied to either post where the plank should be – the very tip-toes of Jenny's high-heeled shoes peeking over the edge of the landing. Seeing her standing there made something in the pit of Shane's stomach tighten but beyond that tiny twinge, she felt numb through and through.

Jenny turned, hands folded together at her stomach, almost as though she was feeling sympathy pangs of Shane's own tension. Her expression, though, was calm. Sad, but strangely serene.

“Shane,” she whispered, so very sweetly, a tiny smile forming on her glossed lips, her eye shining. Welcoming – always welcoming – but without that soft, sweet delight she almost always exhibited, these days, when she was near. “How are you?”

“I'm ... I'm --” Shane stammered, shaking her head a bit, hands held palm-up in front of her. Questioning, pleading, praying. Begging Jenny to make sense of this for her.

It was as if she knew. The way that Jenny's expression changed, it was as if she knew exactly what had happened and she understood. Her smile dimmed and faded and she ducked her head, looking down at her hands. Her lips pressed together into a tight line and she slowly nodded.

“Okay,” Jenny said softly, still nodding all the while. Under her breath, as though she was speaking to herself. “Okay.”

“Look -- Jen --” Shane began, uncertain of what she intended to say, but feeling the need – the damnable instinct – to say something. Because this was Jenny. It was still Jenny. Even after everything, it was still Jenny.

Jenny held up both hands in a silent entreaty for silence, head still smoothly shifting from side to side. “No. Don't. Don't do that,” she said, her voice quavering only slightly as she spoke, doing her best to keep her words even. Trying not to snap. Trying to sound determined. Like her heart wasn't breaking. “Okay? I don't want you to. I don't want you to do that.”

Shane's hands fell limply to her sides, head coming to hang deeply, chin nearly touching her chest as she stared down at the freshly stained wood just ahead of her on the landing.

“It's okay,” Jenny whispered and when Shane looked up, she could see Jenny folding her arms around her mid-section, hugging herself. Rather than shaking her head, now, Jenny was nodding – just as slowly as she'd been shaking her head before – but with just as much of the characteristic Jenny Schecter stubbornness that she'd come to know so very well. Her expression was that same determined frown but even as Shane watched, the corner's of Jenny's mouth twisted down sharply, her shoulders drawing up a little and beginning to shake as she started to cry. The word came out in a tearful rush, “I really think you should go inside, now. I put the tape on – the tape I made for Bette and Tina – everybody's probably inside watching it, now. I think you should go and join them and have fun. Okay?”

“Jenny --” Shane said, moving to take a step towards her, only to draw up short as Jenny held up her hand again.

“No! Please. Please, no,” Jenny managed, a soft sob escaping her as she clapped a hand over her mouth and turned away. “Please go inside and watch the video, Shane. Please.” Shane could see her shoulders shaking, could hear her breath hitching as she cried. After a moment, Jenny sniffled. “Go inside... I'll come back inside in a little while.”

Shoulders slumping, Shane nodded and turned to go, not saying another word. She heard a quick rustle of movement behind her. Jenny's dress. That ridiculous dress covered in thousands of ridiculous silver sequins. Jenny'd never looked more beautiful.

“Shane?”

Shane hovered in the doorway, but didn't turn around. She braced her hands on the door jamb on either side of her, clutching so hard her knuckles turned white. “Yeah?”

“I love you,” Jenny said very softly, voice strained with misery and sadness, as though she was having to force the words out. “I always will. And I'm gonna keep my promise: I'm always gonna be there for you.”

Shane very nearly turned around, then. She came so close to just turning around, grabbing Jenny up into her arms and holding onto her as tightly as she dared.

“Me, too,” she whispered numbly, the words a dry, barely audible rasp in her throat as she went back into the house, the sounds of Jenny's quiet sobs chasing her away.


--

Shane sucked in gulp after desperate gulp of air, every muscle along the length of her body taut like a bowstring and painfully so. She'd reflexively curled her fingers around the edges of the armrests and now every last joint in each finger – from the tips all the way to the joints where each finger met the palm of her hand – now ached deeply. Blinking unseeingly at the fluorescent panel, she gasped, fighting to catch her breath as she finally collapsed back into the halo chair, shivering uncontrollably.

“That's another year or two out,” Topher was saying to his assistant. A cute, petite little Asian chick with pigtails and funky street clothes and biker boots underneath her lab coat. He circled around to the drive bay and gingerly pulled out the searingly hot drive using the very tips of his fingers. “Ow! Ooh. Ahh, god! Hot potato! Ow, damn,” he grumbled as he hurriedly minced his way over to the bank of empty drive bays and slid the drive into the next available slot in the row beneath a piece of tape with the name 'McCutcheon, Shane' written on it.

For her part, Shane was still shivering and yet as she finally sank back into herself, became more aware of her surroundings, she could feel a sheen of sweat slicking her skin, chilling her to the bone as she trembled. If anything, rather than releasing the arm rests, she clung to them more tightly, tears springing into her eyes as she quickly clamped them shut again, her breathing quickening.

“Hey, Ivy? Can you do me a favor?” Topher was saying as he began running a diagnostic on the contents of the drive of memories he'd just captured from Shane's mind, eyes focused on a nearby monitor. He was speaking to the petite lab assistant garbed in a crisp white lab coat, her dark hair pulled back in braided pigtails.

“Yeah?” She asked.

“Can you get her some water or a paper bag or a cookie or a teddy bear or something so she doesn't explode or do something else really gross all over my chair?” Topher asked dryly, punching buttons on a panel beside the drive deck. “Pretty please with sugar and a cherry on top?”

“Right,” Ivy said, pursing her lips as she crossed over to a mini fridge in the corner. She retrieved a bottle of cold water and returned to the halo chair with it, tentatively leaning over Shane, whose eyes were still stubbornly pinched closed. “You should drink this,” she said quietly.

Shane drew in a sharp breath through her nose, eyes opening with startlment, streams of tears trickling from the corners of each of her eyes to land glistening in her hair. Finally releasing her death grip on the armrests, she began to sit up, only to have Ivy hold up a staying hand. She circled around to the control panel of the halo chair and punched a few buttons and Shane could feel the back of the mechanized seat being tilted up once again. As soon as the oiled gears of the seat came to a stop, Shane bolted up, wiping at her face hurriedly as Ivy stepped around the chair to hand her the bottle of water.

“Thanks,” Shane whispered, her voice little more than a pained croak as she twisted the cap off of the bottle and took a deep drink.

“You're welcome,” Ivy said softly, the sympathy evident in her words as she watched her, brows creased with concern.

Shane cast a quick, embarrassed glance at Ivy but she couldn't take the pitying look in her eyes. Lifting her head, she looked over at Topher, who had begun swearing at the drive deck – or, to be more specific, what the monitor screen hooked up to the drive deck was telling him. Whatever that was.

“What's wrong?” Ivy asked, confused, as she moved to join Topher at the monitor. Grateful for the momentary respite, Shane sighed, upending the bottle and pouring a bit of water into her cupped hand, which she splashed onto her face, rubbing away the sticky trails of drying tears.

“I can't believe it!” Topher was saying as he flicked a frustrated hand at the screen. “This can't be right. It doesn't make any sense. These drives hold six terabytes of memory. For most people, that's enough to hold two years of memories.”

“Right,” Ivy replied, narrowing her eyes at him as she looked at the screen. “That's standard. So?”

“So? So... this six terabyte drive holds exactly eight months of her memories,” Topher said, glancing back over his shoulder at Shane, jerking his chin at her, his tone almost accusing.

“So the drive's defective?” Ivy asked, hand settling onto her hip.

“No, it's not my drives! My drives are perfect. It's her! It's her brain!” Topher said as he turned back to Ivy, lowering his voice. “I don't know what the hell is on this drive, but whatever it is, eight months of it was all the drive could handle.”

“Here, let me see,” Ivy replied, nudging him out of the way of the keyboard so that she could bring up the information about the drive. “Wow, you're right. It's eight months, sixteen days. But here, look at the density patterns.”

“Yeah, I see,” he said with an annoyed grimace. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“She has a very good memory. It's all... almost picture-perfect vivid,” Ivy said softly, a faintly wondering tone to her words as she entered a few commands into the system. “It's like looking through a photo album.”

“Right...” Topher said expectantly, all but hopping in place for her to spit out the rest of her thought.

“Well, what happens when you take dozens of photos? They take up a lot of space. Hundreds and hundreds of pictures. This is everything, exactly as she remembers it. Everything.”

“So it's just memories? What's with the density ratio? It's through the freaking roof!”

“It's feelings. Everything has emotions attached to it and there're millions of them,” Ivy said, fingers tapping away at the keyboard as she pulled up a cross-section of the data. “Some of the memories are long – hours worth – but others last for just seconds. There are so many of those, scattered throughout the sample. The emotions are so intense, they're woven through every second of these memories. Like a psychic residue.”

“So she's got residue?” Topher asked, aiming a dubious look at Ivy. Her impassive stare was his answer and he sighed raggedly, raking a hand through her hair as he turned to look at Shane. “Okay, listen, you can mosey on back to the dorms. You're free to go until later.” Turning back to the monitor, he grumbled under his voice. “I'm gonna have to take apart some of these six-T drives and expand their capacity. At this rate, we'll go through hundreds of drives and won't even get as far as adolescence.”

Rolling her eyes, Ivy turned to look at Shane, who was rather wobbily trying to push herself out of the halo chair so that she could do as Topher had instructed, her elbows looking as though they might buckle and send her flopping back into her seat again. “Shane, do you need some help getting back to the dorms?”

“No, I – I got it,” she said softly, lips pale and pursed into a tight line as she tried to push herself up, legs falling slipping off of either side of the padded chair's leg rests, sneakers thumping against the carpeted floor. Letting out a soft grunt as she suddenly lost her traction and leverage, Shane sat down hard on the chair again, the water in the bottle she held tightly in her left hand sloshing about inside.

“No, here, it's okay – I'll call Dr. Saunders to help you,” Ivy said as she scurried over to a phone sitting on a desk nearby. Picking up the handset, she punched in the extension to Saunder's office before Shane even had a chance to take a deep enough breath to tell her that it wouldn't be necessary.

Shoulders slumping, Shane sighed as she watched Ivy calling Claire. Funny, how she had stopped thinking about the doctor as Dr. Saunders and had started thinking of her as Claire. Ivy spoke a few words into the phone, casting a quick look at her over her shoulder and offering her an encouraging smile.

“Okay, thanks, Doc,” Ivy was saying, “she'll be ready by the time you get here. Do you want me to... oh, okay. Cool. Mr. Gillette's coming with you? Okay, great. Thanks.”

“Fuck,” Shane muttered under her breath, reaching up to press the heel of her hand against her forehead, just over her right eye. She could feel the steady, sickening thud of a headache settling in at her temples and behind her eyes. Whether it was from the halo chair or something else, she wasn't sure, but she felt like hell.

“Shane?” Shane was startled to hear Claire's voice calling her name and she gave her head a little shake as she lifted her chin and lowered her hand from her face, finding Dr. Saunders standing there, staring at her with open concern. There was no way that Claire could have gotten from her office to Topher's lab that fast – what the fuck was wrong with her? “Are you with me?”

“Uhh, yeah. Yeah, I – I am,” she said quietly, nodding as she licked her lips, finding them parched. She took another deep drink of water from her bottle, only to find Claire leaning over her with a penlight, aiming it into her eyes.

“You had me wondering, there, for a second,” Claire said, a small smile curling her lips as she shone the light into Shane's left eye and then her right, the smile disappearing after just a moment. “Does your head hurt?”

“A little,” Shane admitted, nodding.

“Just a little?” Claire asked, eyes narrowing as she straightened up. She clicked her penlight closed and slipped it into her pocket.

“Okay, more than a little,” she conceded and ducked her head.

“Okay,” Claire replied, giving a brief nod as she glanced at Mr. Gillette who was waiting by the door. He crossed over to the chair, giving Shane a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Mr. Gillette and I will be helping you back to your room, but first we'll stop by my office and get you something for that headache, okay?”

“Do I have a choice?” Shane asked as she looked up at Claire warily.

“Not really,” she said smoothly, offering Shane a faintly sardonic smile as she shuffled around to Shane's right side and slipping her hand beneath Shane's arm to take a gentle hold of her elbow. “Here, let's get you to your feet and Mr. Gillette will help you outside. I wanted to talk to Mr. Brink and Ms. Yamahara for a moment. Okay?”

“Sure,” Shane said, nodding her head carefully as Claire and Gillette helped her up from her chair.

“You look like hammered shit, McCutcheon,” Gillette observed wryly. “You ain't wussin' out on us now, are ya?”

“No fuckin' way,” Shane said, muscles tensing a little as she drew herself up, leaning into Gillette's side even as she strained to look into his eyes, meeting them as steadily as she could manage right then.

“Good,” he said, giving a satisfied nod as he slipped his arm around her shoulders, giving her a chummy sideways hug. “C'mon, let's get you outta here.”

“Kay,” Shane murmured, head hanging wearily as Gillette guided her out of the lab.

Saunders waited until Gillette had shut the door before turning on Topher and his assistant. “What are you doing to her?” She demanded, frowning.

“What are you talking about? I'm doing what DeWitt told me to do! I'm getting her ready for her wipe and to do that I have to do a comprehensive map of her memories. It's procedure,” Topher explained, his tone sharp. “DeWitt wants her backed up on the id. So that's what I'm doing.”

“Her pupils were fully dilated,” Saunders shot back, aiming a glare at him.

“So?” Topher said with a careless shrug.

“I bet if I were to check her pulse, it would be going a mile a minute right now. She was terrified. What did you do?” Saunders asked, both hands settling on her hips.

“I told you! I didn't do anything out of the ordinary! I'm prepping her for wipe!” Topher said again, his tone harsh, now, and growing angrier by the second at being questioned. “I'm doing the same thing with her that I do for every last one of them. What, did you think these were all just one big teddy bear picnic with lollipops and cuddles? I'm digging into her brain and fishing out all of her memories! Some of them go easy, some of them go hard.”

“What would the scan have picked up that would cause her to come out of it in this state?” Claire asked, brows creasing as her eyes darted over towards the monitor that Topher and Ivy had been conferring over.

“Got me,” Topher said with another shrug of his shoulders. “It's different for everybody. This is just harder on her, I guess.” Reaching up, his fingers tapped at the monitor screen, dancing over it with practiced grace for a moment – the display blinking and flickering at his touches – and soon he was turning and pointing to a spot behind Saunders.

As she turned, she could see that the virtual map screen had been called up – a holographic display that showed everything on the monitor screen at about 400 times its original resolution, occupying a space of about six feet by five feet. The holographic projector rendered the deck monitor with crystal clarity, displaying the contents of the screen, including a 3-D rendering of Shane McCutcheon's brain. Crossing over to the hologram, Topher gestured at the strings of numbers running in a constant string in a smaller window beside the 3-D brain render, while the fingers of his other hand rubbed at his chin. “When we scan a person's mind for the OEM dupe decks, sometimes the memories are so deep that they have to be coaxed up into the short-term memory, here. The halo is programmed to do it automatically with the deeper memories, just to make the whole process faster.”

“OEM?” Saunders asked, glancing bewilderedly at Topher's back and then over at Ivy.

“Original equipment manufacturer,” Ivy supplied helpfully as she retrieved a file from the desk, opened it and began making notes. “It's a term used in regards to computers, referring to the original software or infrastructure of a system. In this case, he uses it to refer to the original pre-wipe memory architecture.” The blas attitude they were displaying about the whole thing was starting to rub Claire the wrong way and she could feel her hackles rising.

“So...?” Saunders asked expectantly as she moved to stand next to Topher, peering up at the holograph searchingly. “The system does it automatically, but I have a feeling that's not all there is to it.”

“Some of the more... persistent memories can linger,” Topher confessed finally, shoving his hands into his pockets. “We don't know why. They just do. I've run test after test, but even as brilliant as I am, I can't understand why the memories get stuck like they do.”

“Well, will this happen again?” Saunders asked, turning her eyes from the holograph to look at Topher. For his part, Topher's head snapped to the side, eyes meeting hers, and she couldn't place the look in them. “I need to know what kind of stressors she's dealing with so that I can prescribe treatment as I see necessary,” she said matter-of-factly, gazing back at him with what felt like a good approximation of the blank, detached look she'd seen on Topher and Ivy's faces. “If she's under excess stress, there's a chance that the wipe will...”

“'Cause her brain to go kerflooey? Yeah, it would,” Topher replied, eyes sliding back over to the holograph. “The circuitry of the brain is ... delicate, like a moth's wings, if they were made out of blown glass. If you try too hard to catch it, you could crush it in the process.”

In spite of herself, Claire flinched and pursed her lips, lowering her gaze. The thought of that happening to Shane troubled her far more than she could have anticipated and just that single reaction was enough to leave her puzzled. “Exactly that, yes,” she said finally, clearing her throat carefully. “I'll be giving her a standard over-the-counter pain reliever for the headache, but if anything like this happens again, you come and get me immediately. I'll sedate her, if need be.”

“Well, right on!” Topher said, pulling his hands from his pockets and clapping them together. “That was good for me. What about you? I think these talks are getting easier -- what do you think?”

Saunders narrowed her eyes, glowering at him. “You'll call me,” she repeated.

“Fine, fine, I'll call,” he replied, waving a dismissive hand at her. “Are we done? I've kinda gotta get back to the business of figuring out a way to manufacture some homemade storage so that DeWitt's new favey doesn't break my decks. If you don't mind, of course.”

Saunders didn't say another word, simply continued glaring at Topher as she headed over to the door and let herself out of his office, shutting the door after herself. She felt her lips draw back into an involuntary smile as she spotted Gillette and Shane standing at the railing together, looking out over the Dollhouse complex.

Their postures were eerily similar, though it was about a 2:1 difference in scale, the beefy Gillette very clearly towering over Shane's smaller, lean form, his shoulders looking a barn door compared to the compact construction of Shane's physique. Gillette was leaning his elbows on the railing, while Shane stood in a beautifully elegant slouch next to him, her right hand resting lightly on the railing in front of her while the other still held on tight to the water bottle she'd had with her when she and Gillette had arrived at the lab.

The two of them were chatting quietly – Claire couldn't hear exactly what they were saying, but she could see Shane turn her head ever so slightly towards Gillette, her lips moving, and Gillette letting out a hearty, booming laugh at whatever she had said to him. Claire could see the corners of Shane's mouth turn up faintly, briefly, in a smile and the sight tugged at something in the center of her chest. She caught herself, caught herself feeling that feeling, and took a moment to inhale deeply and try to center herself before calling out to them.

“Shane?” She said finally, licking her lips as she moved to join the two of them at the railing. She reached out, placing her hand lightly on Shane's shoulder – bare under her hand, thanks to the tank top she was wearing – and felt a jolt of heat go through her, traveling up her arm and dispersing through her body like a short fuse.

Feeling the touch, Shane turned a little, lips drawing back into a broader, warmer smile, though it was visibly weary at the edges. “Hey,” she said. “What's up? Are we still going to your office?”

“We are,” Claire confirmed, giving a quick nod. “I wanted to get you something for your headache and... have you eaten, yet, today?”

“I, uhh... breakfast? I think?” Shane replied, turning around to face Claire even as she reached up, free hand scratching through her messy hair, her expression uncertain. “Maybe?”

“Maybe,” Claire echoed, a little huff of laughter escaping her as she glanced at Mr. Gillette, who had a similar expression of wry amusement. “Okay. Well, the analgesics work more effectively on a full stomach, so how about we take you downstairs and get you something to eat, first?”

“Cool,” Shane said with a small, grateful smile.

--

Once they arrived in the cafeteria, Dr. Saunders had offered to go back to her office so that Shane could eat in peace, but Shane had insisted she stay and have lunch with her. Shane took a seat at an empty table bearing a tray of food, eyes lingering on Claire almost pleadingly.

“I feel kinda... out of place around here,” Shane admitted, glancing over at table after table of the Actives, eating and smiling at each other serenely before looking up at Claire again, brows creased, a rueful smile shaping her own lips. “They're all so nice, but...”

“I understand. They... don't make the best conversational companions,” Claire finished for her with a small smirk. Looking around for a moment, she bit her lip as she considered Shane's request. “Okay. I'll go and get my lunch and get some files from my office. I can work on them while we eat.”

“Great,” Shane said, her smile broad and genuine. So sincere and unguarded, it made Claire's chest tighten. “Thank you.”

Claire simply nodded and hurriedly excused herself, running off to her office to grab half of the large stack of files sitting in her 'In' tray before returning to the commissary to fetch a plate of food from the buffet that was set up each day for the Actives. Fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, tofu-based dishes, fish, water and juices of all sorts. All the best for their Dolls. Claire returned to Shane's table with a salad and an armful of files and as soon as she was within a few feet of the table, Shane looked up from her food and smiled, waving her over.

“Take a load off,” she said as she pushed out one of the empty seats across from herself with her foot.

“Thank you,” Claire said with a shy smile as she lowered herself into the chair, carefully settling the tray and stack of files side by side as she settled herself. Opening one of the file folders, she grabbed half of a tuna sandwich, her eyes fixed on the file as she began skimming the words written in the file, trying determinedly to read and focus on her work, but finding herself completely incapable. She could feel Shane's eyes on her, watching her, and she felt an electric jolt go up her spine at the realization. Finally, she gave up and lifted her head, finding Shane's eyes waiting there, meeting hers dead on as she looked up.

“What?” Shane asked, brows wrinkled a bit as she looked at her, a bright, shiny red apple held loosely in her hand, lightly tanned fingers curled gently around the round fruit. She lifted it to her mouth and took a bite, even teeth sinking into the red skin, puncturing it and causing a fairly loud crunch to sound as her teeth bit into it.

“Nothing,” Claire said quickly, “it – nothing.” She lowered her eyes again, purposefully shoving the corner of her sandwich into her mouth and taking a bite of it, just so she wouldn't have to speak. Chewing, she retrieved a pen from the breast pocket of her lab coat and squinted at the forms in front of her, determinedly trying to concentrate and get some work done.

“Do you always do that?” Shane asked, sounding pensively.

“Do what?” Claire asked, the corners of her mouth turning down a little as she tried to get her brain to cooperate and let her read.

“Do you always work and eat at the same time, like that?” Shane clarified and even though she wasn't looking – stubbornly refusing to look – Claire could see out of the corner of her peripheral vision that Shane had rested her elbow on the edge of the table and was leaning forward a bit, as if to see what was contained in the file she was studying.

Almost startled by the randomness of the question, Claire blinked and looked up at Shane, then glanced down at the pen in her right hand, which rested on the sheets inside the folder, the left hand holding her sandwich, and blinked again. “I – I hadn't really thought about it,” she said. “I suppose I do. Why?”

Her answer was a single tanned shoulder shrugging up. “I don't know,” Shane replied, taking another bite of her apple. When she spoke again, it was around a mouthful of apple. “It just seems like it kind of kills it. I mean, this food is fantastic and you're not even tasting it. Doesn't that suck?”

“I -- never thought about it that way,” Claire said, eyes shifting to stare a bit more purposefully at her sandwich. “I don't have much time for things like food. There are a lot of Actives here. They all need to have routine check-ups and post-engagement physicals...”

“How come you don't have an assistant?” Shane asked, lips twisting into a puzzled frown. “Topher's got an assistant.”

“I don't need an assistant,” Claire replied, a slightly defensive edge to her words. “I can do the work. I'm the resident physician. What else would I do?”

“Don't you... I don't know... go out? Have fun? Go shopping, to the movies? Something?” she asked, a disbelieving laugh escaping, though the expression on her face was clearly concerned.

“I – I don't,” Claire said haltingly as she lowered her sandwich, placing it back onto her tray. Frowning to herself, she put her pen back into her pocket, closed her file folder then picked up the tray with one hand while she gathered the files up in her other arm. “I'm sorry, I have to go, now.”

“Claire?” Shane's mouth dropped open, confusion and concern winding through her voice. “I – look – shit, I'm sorry. I should mind my own fucking business. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to --”

“Excuse me,” she said softly as she pushed the chair back from the table, stood and walked away.

Resting both elbows on the table, Shane stared down at her own tray, slowly shaking her head. “Goddammit,” she muttered under her breath. Tossing her apple down onto the tray, she buried her face in her hands. “Stupid.”

--

“I am supposed to return to this laboratory in the event of an engagement code break,” Whiskey announced as she stepped through Topher's open office door. A thick stack of file folders was cradled against her chest with one arm and with her other hand she was holding a... commissary tray?

Topher, a sandwich lodged between his own teeth as he tinkered with one of the dupe deck drives, looked up and then shot a bewildered look at Ivy, who was doing diagnostics across the way. Lowering his soldering iron and taking the sandwich out of his mouth, he rose from his seat. “Uhh... okay,” he said, scratching at his cheek. “We can, uhh, we can take care of you, Whiskey. Just come with me, okay?”

“Okay,” Whiskey replied simply, but remained in place, still holding that ridiculous tray.

“Ivy, could you --” Topher said as he took the tray and files, passing them over to her as she approached them both. “Here, take that back to the comm and go and put those back on Dr. Saunder's desk in her office for me, wouldja?”

“On it,” Ivy said dutifully as she took the proffered items and slipped out of the lab without giving Whiskey a second glance. Whiskey turned a little, watching her go, and then turned to face Topher again, her expression eerily blank.

“Okay, come on, Whiskey honey,” Topher said with a sigh as he gently took her arm and guided her through the double doors that led to the halo room. “Right this way. We'll have you all fixed up in no time. Just sit yourself down here and I'll take a look and see what's the matter.”

Whiskey seated herself in the halo chair and with a few buttons pressed, she was being eased back into a reclining position, the inner ring of the halo beginning to glow as the machine started its scans. Topher sorted through everything that had happened to Saunders since she'd left his lab in her usual snit, eyes widening slightly as he caught sight of something that got his attention. Tapping a few buttons on the display, he delved back a bit further ... hours, then a couple of days – four. Digging in a bit more deeply, searching and hitting on the same dynamics again and again. All tied in to one occurrence, all going back to one moment.

“I'll be damned,” he muttered, shaking his head in amazement. He let out a bark of astonished laughter even as he rubbed at his forehead. “I'll be damned!”

He knew just what he needed to do.
End Notes:
"Disturbed" by Rihanna - Romeo is Bleeding theme

"Ooh, for so long I've tried to shield you from the world
Ooh, you couldn't face the freedom on your own
Here I am left in silence

You gave up the fight
You left me behind
All that's done's forgiven
You'll always be mine
I know deep inside
All that's done's forgiven"

--"Forgiven" by Within Temptation - As Shane turns her back on Jenny and then jolts out of the scan.

"It's just a simple line
I can still hear it all of the time
If I can just hold on tonight
I know that nothing
Nothing survives
Nothing survives
I think I'm turned around
I'm looking up
Not looking down
And when I'm standing still
Watching you run
Watching you fall
Fall into me

Am I making something worthwhile out of this place?
Am I making something worthwhile out of this chase?
I am displaced
I am displaced

And she's my friend of all friends
She's still here when everyone's gone
She doesn't have to say a thing
We'll just keep laughing all night long
All night long

Am I making something worthwhile out of this place?
Am I making something worthwhile out of this chase?
I am displaced
I am displaced

It's just a simple line
I can still hear it all of the time
If I can just hold on tonight
I know that no one
No one survives
No one survives."

--"Displaced," by Azure Ray - When Claire/Whiskey excuses herself to return to Topher's office and as Topher works on scanning her.
Delicate Destruction by lilpinkchainsaw
Author's Notes:
A jumble of memories crowded in a skull too small to contain them.
“Shane, you need help...”

At the dulcet sound of Helena's accented voice, Shane forced her eyes open. She turned her head ever so slightly on the pillow, eyes just barely slitted open so that she could look over at the curly-haired beauty beside her.

“What?” She muttered, her voice a sleep-filled rasp.

“I know that you heard me,” Helena continued, her expression sombre and filled with sympathy, her eyes filled with warmth but also sadness. She pressed on, “But I don't think that ... this... I don't think it's helping you. I don't think it ever could.”

“I dunno what you're talking about,” Shane whispered as she slowly pushed herself up, weight propped on her elbows. Reaching up, she rubbed at her eyes. They felt dry in their sockets – probably bloodshot, she knew. She hadn't been getting much sleep, lately.

“This, Shane,” Helena said quietly as she sat up in bed, gathering the sheets up to cover herself as she drew her knees up and rested her elbows on them, elegantly manicured hands clasped loosely. “I was lonely because of Dylan and... you were in pain because of Jenny and... this was just about the worst bloody thing I could have possibly done. I've realized that, now, and I – Christ, I'm so... so sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing to me?” Shane asked, opening her eyes a bit more as she looked over and gazed at Helena's naked back. Strong, lean, muscles like a Pilates coach's wet dream. Nothing like Jenny. Insanely beautiful and classy and wonderful, but... not Jenny.

Shane pushed herself up into a sitting position as well, the sheets puddling at her hips. She was bare-chested and completely unmindful of it as she leaned over the side of the bed, straining to reach her jeans where they lay on the floor. Once she caught hold of the hem of one of the legs, she pulled them to her, digging into the pockets for her cigarettes and her lighter. Lighting one, she then sat up again and scooted closer to Helena on the bed. She could feel the bare skin of her own hip brushing against Helena's own lacy underwear.

“You don't have anything to apologize for,” Shane whispered, reaching up with her right hand to gently draw the thick fall of Helena's curly hair back to reveal her shoulder. Ducking her head, Shane placed a soft kiss to the warm, smooth skin there as she loosely draped her right arm around Helena's shoulders. “You've been great.”

“Oh, Shane,” Helena sighed softly, bowing her own head for a moment. She reached out, one palm settling on Shane's cheek, lightly caressing there. “I've only been using you.” At those words, Shane tensed ever so slightly. “And you've been using me. Best we both just own up to it, now, don't you think?”

“I didn't – I didn't mean to...” Shane began, lifting her head, eyes scanning Helena's delicate profile in the dim light. The sun had only just barely started to rise, yet. “I didn't mean to hurt you.”

“No, Shane, you didn't hurt me,” she assured her, thumb slowly stroking over Shane's cheekbone. “But I'm afraid that I might've hurt you. I've been taking from you and... you've already lost so much.”

“So have you,” Shane pointed out quietly, almost absently, as she lowered her head again, lips resting against the rounded, lean muscle of Helena's shoulder.

“Not the way that you have,” she said, hand trailing up to stroke Shane's disheveled hair. “You've given me so much and it's helped – a lot – but ... I don't know that I can help you the way you've helped me.”

“You don't have to do that,” Shane murmured, giving her head a slight shake, her words barely audible.

“I know I haven't been a friend to you as long as some of the others,” she whispered as she leaned in, nuzzling her face into Shane's hair. “And I haven't been as good a friend to you as they have. As good a friend as I could've been, like you've been to me. But I wanna make up for that, now.”

“What do you mean?” Shane tipped her head up, warily meeting Helena's eyes.

“There's a friend of mine who I think might be able to help you,” she said, lowering her own gaze to stare at the rumpled sheets. “I have her card. I can make some calls and get you in to see her. Straight away, if you like.”

“Why? Why would you do that?” Giving her head a little shake, Shane narrowed her eyes as she looked at Helena.

“Because I think you need it more than you need this, right now,” Helena said simply, a long finger uncurling and flicking back and forth in the small space between them. “More than you need any of this. The drinking, the drugs, the ... well, everything.”

“I don't need a doctor, Helena,” she said wearily, turning her head to rub at her eyes with the heel of her hand for a moment before bringing her cigarette to her lips for a drag. “I don't need some shrink... telling me not to blame myself for fucking completely destroying the one person who ever really meant anything to me. I am to blame. I'm completely fucking to blame. So what's the point?” She sat silently for a moment, watching the smoke curl and wind its way up to the ceiling. “I don't wanna get better. I just... I just wanna disappear.”

“Well, in that case,” Helena began hesitantly, hand settling on Shane's thigh and moving in soothing passes. “I have another friend I can call who could help you with that.”

“You do?” Shane asked, sparing a quick, uncertain glance at Helena. “What, kind of like that thing with your mom? She could hook me up with passports or something? What?”

“I think I'll leave the explaining up to her,” she replied with a small smile as she leaned in and pressed a soft, lingering kiss to Shane's lips. “It's a trifle more complicated than that, but ...it's up to you whether or not you want to go through with it all.” She turned her hand at the wrist, the backs of her fingers carefully sliding over Shane's cheek. “You've always been so lovely to me, even when you didn't have to be. Let me do this for you, Shane.”

Shane nodded wordlessly, lips pursed as she dropped her gaze. Pulling back slightly, she took another drag off of her cigarette and then drew it from between her lips so that she could snuff it out in the small crystal ashtray sitting on the nightstand. The first time she'd spent the night at Helena's, the ashtray had been spotlessly clean – brand new. Helena rarely smoked, herself, and only kept the ashtray around for visitors. But now the bottom of the ashtray was limned with a thin layer of tamped down ashes from her cigarettes from all the nights she'd slept over, ever since everything had come crashing down around her ears. Too many for her to count, too many for her to even remember, now.

When she was certain the cigarette was out, she turned back to Helena, moving in close, and kissed her. Not hungrily or passionately, but gently... gratefully. Helena returned the kiss, sitting up and shifting a bit in place to angle herself more towards Shane. She took advantage of the change in position, her right hand cradling Helena's cheek even as her left hand began to wander, pushing the sheets down and away from Helena's upper body, one broad palm settling on her breast.

Helena let out a soft hum, her muscles tightening briefly, and she carefully broke the kiss as Shane was moving to ease the both of them back onto the bed. “Shane,” she whispered, long, slender fingers splayed over her cheeks as she drew back to look at her.

“What?” She asked, brows furrowing slightly as she looked at Helena.

“Let's just -- let's just rest, shall we, hmm?” Helena murmured, moving her hand from Shane's jaw to her throat and then finally to her chest – over the strong thump of her heartbeat - a quieting, staying touch. “Can we do that? Let's just sleep.”

“O-- okay,” she said, shifting her weight a bit and settling on her side next to Helena on the bed. Even as she moved, though, Helena's hand stayed right where it was and Shane reached up to clasp it, her grip strong. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Helena said softly, her voice sweet and pleased as she stretched herself out on the bed alongside Shane - the two of them facing each other - as she rested her head on the pillow. As Shane laid her head on the pillow, Helena reached up, hand stroking her hair. “Just sleep, Shane. It'll all be better soon. I promise.”

Her eyes were closing before she even had a chance to protest, to tell Helena that she was wrong. That there was no way anything could ever be better or good again. Instead, she fell asleep, lulled by the soft sound of Helena's voice and the soothing touch of her fingers stroking into her hair.

“You're so fucking beautiful,” Jenny whispered, one hand on each of Shane's cheeks, gently cradling her face as she gazed at her in quiet amazement, blue eyes shining.

You're beautiful,” Shane replied quietly, a deflection – a not-quite contradiction - fingers lightly stroking Jenny's arm as she averted her eyes. Jenny's skin was so white under her fingers, almost transparent, and impossibly soft to the touch.

They were both naked beneath the rumpled sheets, legs tangled together, Shane's arm fitted beneath Jenny's head, the other arm hooked around her small frame, keeping her close, almost cradling her.

“Shane?” Jenny said softly, one hand straying from Shane's face to slip down along her chest, fingertips delicately tracing a heart over the spot where Shane's real heart could be found.

“Yeah?” Shane asked, reaching with her own hand to brush the strands of jet black hair from Jenny's collarbone, fingers following the shadow of bone there.

“This is my favorite memory,” she replied, her palm coming to settle on Shane's chest, over the spot where she'd been tracing the heart. Confused by those words, Shane looked up at her, brows creased a bit. “Of my whole life. This is the best thing that's ever happened to me. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me. In my whole entire fucking life.”

“Jen...” Shane whispered, pushing herself up on her elbow slightly so that she could gaze down into Jenny's face, fingertips smoothing over Jenny's dark eyebrow. “Don't say that. Your life's not over yet. It's not anywhere close to being over yet.”

“Well, one day it might be,” she said simply, as though that was the end of the discussion. Even so, she smiled up at Shane sweetly, fingers sliding into her hair, stroking it, tucking it back behind her ears. “So just in case anyone wants to know... you know, for my obituary or something... this was my favorite day. My favorite memory. With you.”

Shane gazed at Jenny wordlessly for a few moments before she finally eased herself back down to lay half atop her girlfriend. She stared at Jenny steadily, eyes taking in every possible detail of her face in that moment – wide blue-gray eyes gazing up at her with such trust and happiness and calm, a small, peaceful smile only just faintly turning up the corners of her soft lips – and could feel her own mouth shaping into a smile. She touched Jenny's cheek, the backs of her fingers tenderly stroking there, and nodded.

“Me, too,” she whispered.


“Thank you... for doing this, Jen,” Shane said quietly, hands tucked into her pockets as she leaned in the doorway. Jenny was packing up the last small box that remained from her latest crazy whim: to turn Shane's bedroom into a writing studio so that the two of them could share Jenny's room.

Jenny had insisted on changing everything back on her own, no help from Shane, and had spent the better part of a day restoring Shane's room to its original state. There had been a number of loud thumps and swearing coming from behind her door, but any time Shane went in to check and offer her help, Jenny would just primly smooth her hair back into place and politely refuse before returning to her work.

“You don't have to thank me,” Jenny said, noticeably subdued, as she put a jar of pencils into a small cardboard box along with some of her other supplies. “It was a bad idea. I shouldn't have done it without asking you, first.”

In spite of herself, Shane felt a tug in the center of her chest and she followed the tug's lead, pushing away from the doorway to nestle close to Jenny's back, arms winding around her waist. Turning her head just a bit, she kissed Jenny's hair. “True,” she admitted, “but I didn't mean to come down on you so hard. I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry.”

“No, I understand. It – I was the one who said we should have boundaries because we live under the same roof and then look at what I do,” Jenny murmured, shaking her head sadly to herself.

“Honey, put this stuff down,” Shane insisted, reaching out to lightly grasp Jenny's wrist for a brief moment. Jenny put down the stapler and box of paper clips, hands hovering uncertainly at her mid-section. Shane drew her arms from around Jenny's waist, wrapping them instead around Jenny's shoulders, pulling her in close, embracing her gently from behind, face nestled close to Jenny's. “I love you,” she whispered into Jenny's ear. “You know that.”

“I do,” she said, voice cracking a little as she spoke, hands curling to rest on Shane's forearm.

“I do. Right? You know that,” Shane echoed, arms tightening around her slightly. “I told you before. You mean the world to me, Jenny. You're everything to me.”

“Okay,” Jenny replied. Even though Shane couldn't see her face, she could tell that Jenny had started crying – her voice sounded raspy, choked, like it often did when she got upset. “You mean everything to me, too, Shane.”

“I'm sorry,” Shane said, giving Jenny a careful squeeze. “I shouldn't have been so harsh with you. I'm really sorry, okay?

“Shane? What's happening to us? At the start, everything was so wonderful and now it's – it feels like it's all just falling apart and I can't stop it,” she whispered in a tiny, confused voice, tensing ever so slightly in Shane's arms. “We were so happy. What happened to us?”

“Nothing happened,” Shane murmured, hands gently stroking over Jenny's arms as she held her. “Things just -- they just changed, that's all.”

“I don't want to scare you off with the... crazy Jenny show,” she said, fingers tightening their hold on Shane's forearm slightly.

“Fuck,” Shane sighed as she took half a step back and gently turned Jenny around to face her, shaking her head to herself. Jenny's eyes were glistening with tears, eyes filled with fear and uncertainty as she looked up at her, and Shane grasped her shoulders, holding her in place with a firm, steady grip. “I never should have said that to you. It was fucked up and I'm sorry.”

At that Jenny rolled her eyes a bit as she reached up to wipe away the wetness that had gathered just beneath her eye. “But it's true, Shane. I was in the hospital for a month,” she muttered, shaking her head.

“And you got better and came home,” Shane finished for her, left hand straying up to cup Jenny's cheek, using the pad of her thumb to wipe away the tears there, Jenny's eyelids fluttering closed for a precious moment as she leaned into the touch ever so slightly. “Look, you're not gonna scare me off. Okay? I promise. After all the fucked up shit we've been through, it's gonna take more than you rearranging my room for me to get scared.”

That startled a laugh out of Jenny and Shane chuckled along with her for a moment. Shane leaned in and pressed a kiss to Jenny's forehead as Jenny let out a ragged sigh of relief, her muscles relaxing beneath Shane's hand. “I love you,” Jenny said, fresh tears welling in her eyes, though it was obvious these were thanks to something else entirely. Her smile was impossibly bright and grateful as she went up on her tip-toes to loop her arms around Shane's neck in a tight hug. Shane returned the embrace, burying her face in the crook of Jenny's shoulder as she held her close, hand smoothing up and down her back.

“I love you, too, baby,” Shane murmured, the words muffled by Jenny's hoodie. “You're my girl.”

“Is this okay?” Jenny asked, carefully glancing over at Shane, trying to be very careful to not move a muscle.

“Perfect. Okay, hold that for me for... a second,” Shane replied as she peered through the camera's viewfinder, one hand cradling the lens and making a few minute adjustments, while the index finger of her right hand hovered over the shutter button. One tiny nudge more to the lens and she hit the shutter button before she had the chance to change her mind.

She hit it twice more, just to be on the safe side, and snapped one more shot of Jenny in her original pose, but then one of Jenny relaxing from it. Jenny's shoulders slumped a little and she reached up to lightly rub the back of her neck, the tiny charm on her necklace twinkling in the light that poured in from the windows. Eyes softly closed, dark lashes a fan against her fair cheeks, lush lips lightly touched with gloss and shaped into a shy, impossibly sweet smile. In the natural light, Jenny positively glowed.

It had taken days for Shane to convince Jenny to sit for her – the girl who'd posed for book reading promotional posters and magazine articles without batting an eyelash – but she'd finally gotten Jenny to relent and agree to let her take some pictures.

Shane lifted her head to look up at Jenny, feeling a strange, wrenching feeling in the pit of her stomach as she looked at her directly without the aid of the camera's viewfinder. “Are you tired? Do you wanna take a break?” She asked, biting her lip as she advanced her film.

“I'm okay,” Jenny assured her as she opened her eyes and looked at Shane, her smile reassuring, adoring. “How are you?”

“I'm fine,” Shane said with a quiet chuckle, shaking her head to herself a little as she stepped away from her camera and walked to the back to retrieve a bottle of water from the small fridge in her dark room. Jenny really had thought of everything. She cracked the seal on the lid as she walked back into the studio proper, pitching it into the trash bin by her desk as she crossed back over to Jenny and handed her the bottle. “Here.”

“Oh! Thank you,” Jenny said, smiling gratefully as she accepted the bottle and took a careful sip of it, completely relaxing from her original pose. She sighed happily as Shane reached out, fingertips gently brushing the messy, long fringe out of Jenny's eyes. Shane cradled her cheek, lips settling against Jenny's forehead in a tender kiss, the two of them falling perfectly still, just existing together for a few moments.

“You look so pretty,” Shane whispered against her skin, hands slowly sliding down along Jenny's throat in tandem, to her shoulders, where they carefully kneaded the muscles. Shane could feel the tension in Jenny's shoulders and neck and silently cursed herself for taking so long – it was a rookie mistake, expecting the models to stay still for too long a time without a break. But she could make it up to her now, at least a little.

“Mmmm... you make me pretty,” Jenny countered, a warm smile in her voice as she wound her arms around Shane's waist and tipped her head back to look up at her and Shane could see the smile in Jenny's voice matched the one on her face. “When I'm with you, all the rest of it... all the fucking bullshit... it all just goes away. I feel like someone new when I'm with you. There's no baggage, there's no past... there's just you.”

Uncertain of what to say, Shane just nodded, feeling a knot forming at the back of her throat as she slipped her arms around Jenny, face nestling into her neck as she pressed close, holding on tightly. Just like that first time.

All she'd said was 'thank you' when Jenny had presented her gift to her. She'd obviously been working on the place for weeks, getting it set up so that everything was just so – perfect, for Shane's first glimpse of it.

Then just a day or two later, she'd brought Niki there, kissed her there, and there was still a part of her mind that railed at it, that shrieked at her, demanded to know what she'd thought she was doing, bringing Niki Stevens to the studio Jenny had given to her.

Shane still didn't have an answer for that part of herself, even now. Yet when it came to making a choice as to who would be the first person to do a session for her, Shane knew it would be Jenny. It was an automatic, elementary decision – of course, it would be Jenny. Of all of her friends, Jenny was the only one who truly understood her frustration with her current career and was the only one who had sincerely supported her when she'd first started exploring her interest in photography.

There'd been Molly... but that had been over for months and Shane had long since tried to put the determined young law student out of her mind, knowing that what she'd done had been hurtful, but the best for both of them in the long run. It had been an experimental dalliance for Molly but after Phyllis had confronted her at the museum, Shane realized she'd only been fooling herself.

As much as they cared about each other, they were just too different. Molly practically forced herself to see the goodness in people – she had to, if she was going to be a public defender – but had been too privileged to ever understand the way Shane, herself, had very often seen the world and the people in it. The way Jenny had too often seen them.

There was something, though, that felt strangely like relief whenever she was around Jenny. An unspoken understanding that they didn't have to pretend that everything was okay around each other. She could relax and just be herself – not always having to worry about what stories she could tell about her past or try to figure out how to explain some aspect of the life she'd lived. Not just the tricking, but growing up knowing she was a lesbian – knowing from such an early age that she'd been that different – and having basically no one to turn to for help when she needed it. There were priests at the shelter, of course, but she wasn't their only concern – there were hundreds of kids who'd turn up every week.

But with Jenny, she didn't need to explain, didn't need to censor herself or carefully monitor her words. She could just talk. Jenny never pushed and that made it a great deal easier to open up to her – to want to open up to her. She might insist that they discuss a snag their relationship had developed, because she believed complete honesty was important to a healthy relationship, but apart from that, she was grateful for anything Shane might decide to tell her about herself. No judgment, no censure, no uncomfortable, probing questions. Just her comforting presence and her patient silence.

“Shane?” Jenny asked softly, her hand coming to rest between Shane's shoulder blades. “Are you okay?”

Inhaling deeply, Shane gave Jenny one last squeeze before straightening up to meet her questioning gaze with a reassuring smile. “Yeah, I'm fine,” she replied with a quick nod as she leaned in to press a delicate kiss to Jenny's lips.

“It's only been a few days since you had that awful food poisoning. Do you feel okay?” Jenny asked, reaching up to lightly smooth her hand over Shane's brow, letting it slide down to cup her cheek.

“Oh, no, I'm totally fine, now. Promise,” she said, sketching a cross over her heart dutifully as she smiled. “I was just... I don't know... thinking.”

“About what?” Jenny asked, head tilting to a curious angle.

“I don't know,” she said, lifting her shoulder in a slight shrug as she glanced out the window and watched a mother walking by the shop with her daughter, the handles of half a dozen shopping bags hanging from each of her hands.

She turned her head further still, to the white wall that Jenny had prepared for her so that she could display her finished work. Right now, it was a drawing board, of sorts – a place where Shane put her new photos whenever she was trying out a new technique or style so that she could study them in the proper light and see what appealed to her eyes the most.

There was a photo of Sounder that she'd taken at the house. Processed in black and white, his orange and white fur turned various washes of gray, but the sunlight bouncing off of the hardwood floors from the living room surrounded him in a halo. He was 'smiling' as best as a little dog could, perking up as Shane called his name to get his attention.

There was another shot that she'd taken at the Planet by sitting her camera down on the table top, aiming it a bit and then hitting the shutter. She'd done it surreptitiously while they were all having lunch and it showed: amid the plates and cups and coffee cups, Bette could be seen running her index finger along the front of her teeth, lips curled back. Tina was smiling at Angie, who was seated on her lap and facing her as she played with her tiny hands. Alice had her laptop open and she was typing and Tasha, seated next to her, was slouching back in her seat and watching what Alice was up to. You could just make out Kit's lower half as she approached the table, her dark slacks and brightly-colored blouse a dead giveaway. There was a tiny bit of Jenny to be seen, off in the corner, nearly out of the shot, seated in her chair at the end of the table, and leaning her head on her hand. Her eyes were focused on something behind the camera and there was a serene, almost secretive smile on her face.

Shane hadn't shown the photo to anyone besides Jenny, but when she had shared it with her, Jenny had stared at it for quite some time without speaking. When she'd finally broke out of her reverie, Jenny had said, “This is the most amazing thing, Shane. The way you've captured them. All of us. It's perfect. You have to put this on your wall. It's good. No, seriously, it's really good!”

“I was just... thinking about this place,” Shane said finally, withdrawing from her reminiscences to turn back to Jenny. “Thinking about you. This is the most amazing thing that anyone's ever done for me, Jen.”

“You deserve it,” Jenny replied with a loving smile, her hand slipping down to rest on Shane's heart. “I knew you could make beautiful art and I was right.”

“I'm not an artist, Jen,” she said with a soft chuff of disbelieving laughter as she shook her head. “Uh-uh. You're the artist, here, I'm just – Jen? Where are you going?”

Jenny had hopped off of her stool and slipped past Shane, marching her way over to where Shane's camera was standing. Going up on her tip-toes, she pressed a few buttons to access the camera's digital memory backup and peered through the viewfinder to take a look at the shots Shane had taken during their session. “I'm looking at your work,” she said absently, brows furrowed as she squinted, finger pushing the button a few more times before finally stopping. Her eyes widened. “Shane... come here, quick!”

Worried that something might be wrong, Shane immediately hurried to Jenny's side, frowning. “What?” She asked. “What is it? Are they fucked up or something?”

“Look. Look at that... and tell me what you see,” Jenny insisted, taking a step back from the camera, making room for Shane so that she could step up, lean in and peer through the viewfinder.

“What am I looking at?” She asked, squinting as she shielded her eyes from the light pouring in through the front windows. It was one of the photos she'd snapped of Jenny a few minutes before. Diffuse daylight spilling over Jenny's face, her expression calm, but something about the image... there was an undeniable quiescence, but Jenny radiated happiness. It seemed to manifest itself in the gentle lighting, the thoughtful tilt of her head.

“You're looking at art, my love,” Jenny replied, certainty and pride evident in her words.

Shane straightened up, drew back a little, feeling strangely startled on the inside as Jenny's words reached her ears, as her brain absorbed that information, measured it against what her eyes were telling her. “That's what you see?” She asked, eyes widening a bit as she looked over at Jenny.

For her part, Jenny's smile was warm, tender as she nestled against Shane's side, hand settling on her chest. “I told you: you make me pretty,” she whispered. Leaning in, she pressed a kiss to the long, pale column of Shane's throat. “You're the only who's ever really seen me, Shane. You're the only one who ever could.”

Still feeling startled and unsettled at the realization, all Shane could do is wrap her arms around Jenny's shoulders, holding on tightly to her, cheek settling against the top of Jenny's head. She was unable to draw her eyes away from the image of Jenny in the viewfinder. Quiet, peaceful, happy.


Jenny didn't say a word as she stepped through the front door. She'd unlocked it and stepped in, leaving it sitting open as Shane trailed word lessly after her into the house, shutting the door after the two of them and locking it. Jenny lifted her right foot, fingers struggling with the tiny buckle on her dancing shoe. She grunted, wobbling on her left foot and hopping a little to keep her balance as she tried to get the leather strap of her shoe loose. Letting out a tiny ragged sigh, she gave up, lowering her foot again as she strode further into the living room to take a seat on the couch.

Shane took a few steps into the living room, standing impotently by the papasan chair, fussing with the stitching on the soft cushion in it, eyes fixed on the spot. The stitching was coming loose.

Taking a seat on the edge of the couch, Jenny reached up, fingers searching out the silver barrettes she'd clipped into her hair to hold her bangs out of her eyes. One by one, she popped the metal clips open and pulled them from her hair, letting them all fall to the floor with tiny, almost musical clatters.

Shane drew in a deep breath and forced herself to cross to the couch, though she didn't take a seat next to Jenny. She didn't dare risk it, at that point. Instead, she perched on the coffee table, favoring the end that put her at an angle to Jenny – not in front of her, though she could have chosen that spot as well – and put some distance between them. She rested her forearms on her knees, eyes leveled on the floor as each of the barrettes landed on the hardwood, bouncing as they hit.

Once all the barrettes were gone, Jenny smoothed her fingers over her bangs, combing her fingers through them for a moment before reaching up and back to start pulling out the hair pins holding her snug bun in place at the nape of her neck. Much like with the barrettes, the hair pins were tossed carelessly to the floor

Hands twisting together between her knees fitfully, Shane finally leaned down, reached out and gently took Jenny's foot at the ankle, lifting her foot into her lap to start working on the tiny buckle on her shoe that she'd been having such a problem with. The repetitious metallic tinktink of the hair pins falling on the floor stopped and when Shane looked up, she found Jenny staring at her, eyes widened slightly as she looked at Shane, surprise at the edges of her pained expression.

Shane didn't say anything, simply lowered her head again to focus on the small task she'd set herself. The buckle was gold and tiny and it took a few seconds of coaxing, but she finally managed to nudge the tongue of the shoe's strap back out of the buckle, gently pulling it free from the pin holding it in place and slipping it out. She cradled Jenny's heel in her hand, carefully easing the shoe off of her foot before setting it aside on the floor. Her hands moved over Jenny's foot, tenderly massaging along her instep and the sole of her foot to ease some of the tension there before she lowered Jenny's foot back to the floor and reached for the other.

As much to her surprise as to Jenny's, Jenny allowed Shane to lift her right foot into her lap so that she could unbuckle her other shoe. Jenny let out a soft sigh and when Shane looked up again, she found Jenny staring at her, wetness rimming her sad eyes.

“So when are you going to see Niki?" Jenny asked softly.

"'m not," Shane replied, shaking her head deliberately as she tried to coax the leather tongue of the strap from its buckle.

"You can, you know. Whenever you want. That's why I bought her for you," she whispered and out of the corner of her eye, Shane could see Jenny ducking her head, shoulders slumping with an unseen weight.

"You shouldn't have done that, Jenny," she said quietly, her voice a husky rasp at the back of her throat.

"What?" Jenny asked, her own voice sounding strained, hurt.

"What you did. At the dance, all the -- and the studio," she murmured, shaking her head to herself. "All of it."

"I did it for you," Jenny replied, that agonizingly sweet, adoring undertone to her words, underneath the pain and confusion. All it did was make Shane feel even more nauseous, her stomach doing dreadful flip-flops deep in the pit of herself.

"You shouldn't have," Shane insisted, frowning to herself as she finally worked the leather strap from the buckle, pushing it out and tugging it free before she carefully pulled Jenny's heeled dancing shoe from her foot. "I'm not worth it."

"Maybe not to them. Maybe not to Cherie or Paige or even Niki... but you are to me," Jenny whispered, voice breaking. After a moment, Shane forced her head up to look at her, taking in the sight of Jenny, hair tousled and half undone, falling about her face and down her chest, tears streaming down her face, visibly trembling with pain. Her eyes were wide, swimming with tears as she searched Shane's face. "Okay?"

Before she even realized what she was doing, Shane pushed herself up from where she was sitting on the coffee table and took a seat on the couch next to Jenny, slipping her arm around Jenny's huddled form and drawing her in close.

"I'd rip my soul out of me and give it to you, if I could," Jenny whispered as she nestled her face against the silken black of Shane's shirt, tears soaking in as she cried, arms winding around Shane's waist as she held on tight. "I'd do that for you."

Shane stared at the tiny pile of hair pins and barrettes, tears pooling in her eyes as she smoothed her free hand over Jenny's hair.

The kiss was slow and sweet and when they finally got moving again, they were stumbling their way through Jenny's door, letting the door knob bang against the wall as they blindly made their way into the room. Shane's arms were draped over Jenny's shoulders and Jenny's were wound around Shane, the two of them holding each other close, pressed flush against each other from chest to hip as they moved as one body to the bed.

When the toe of Jenny's pump hit the side of her bed frame, she turned her body a bit, pulling Shane with her as she bent her knees to take a seat on the edge of the bed, arms unwinding from around Shane, hands settling on her shoulders, pulling her close.

After a moment, Shane broke the kiss, hands gently grasping Jenny's wrists and drawing her hands down as she eased herself to the floor beside the bed, kneeling in front of Jenny. Still clasping Jenny's hands in hers, Shane smoothed her thumbs over the backs of Jenny's fingers, callused thumbs against soft, pale skin. Looking up, she met Jenny's eyes for just a moment, seeing the confusion and concern in Jenny's faded blue eyes and her breath caught in her lungs for a moment at the sight.

Shane slowly bowed her head, lips settling against the back of Jenny's hand and pressing there, resting there for a moment. She lifted her head a fraction, lips sliding over Jenny's skin before coming to rest in another spot along the side of her hand, the tender spot between Jenny's forefinger and thumb. She heard Jenny draw in a soft, sharp breath but didn't stop, shifting on her knees to press another, firmer kiss to the knuckles of Jenny's right hand. Jenny uncurled her fingers, fanned them open and she reached up, resting them on Shane's cheek.


"Shane..."

The sound of Jenny's voice was there -- soft and gently insistent -- so close, so close and loud in her ears in the quiet but as much as she tried to fight her way up, she felt pinned, a hard weight bearing down on her chest, unrelenting. Her jaws were clenched together so tightly that her entire skull ached, the pain radiating through her from head to toe, making her feel shaky and dizzy.

“Shane, wake up.”

I love you I don't care not abide anyone who threatens you're my family

Almost as soon as the threads of memory resolved themselves, they slipped away, maddeningly, from her grasp before she had a chance to catch hold of them. Gone.

The rush slammed into her again and she came to like bolting out of a night terror, a drowning man's gasp dragged from her lungs as she clutched at the arms of the halo seat, eyes wide and painfully dry as her body seized in the chair. It only lasted for that one moment - that one moment of dying - but it left her trembling and cold from the sweat glistening on her skin. After a few more seconds, her body collapsed back into the chair and she was left panting, the most horrible, spent feeling settling over her like a dirty, tattered shroud as she reclined there, making her skin feel gritty and unclean.

"Okay, she's out." Ivy's voice was steady but there was a definite undertone of what sounded strangely like relief in her words. A gasping, breathless quality that nearly matched Shane's own struggling gasps for air.

"Great, get her up and get her something to drink, okay?" Topher was saying and he sounded distracted, though there were the sounds of his fingers depressing buttons, clicking switches, fiddling with his keyboard. “Get her a towel or something, too – she's sweating like a gym sock.”

“Nnggm – nngh!” Shane tried to speak, grimace at the unfamiliar object fitted flush against her palate. Reaching up, she yanked the bite guard from her mouth and wiped the saliva from her lips with the back of her wrist. “No.”

“No? No what?” Topher asked in his usual bored drawl. “You want juice or something instead? Ivy can hook you up. Can't you, Ivy?”

“No! I don't want to take a break,” Shane gritted out, doing her best to remain still though everything within her was telling her to sit up and look at Topher straight in the eye. So that he could see just how serious she was. Instead, she curled the fingers of her free hand into a tight, trembling fist. “I don't wanna take a break. I wanna keep going.”

“What are you talkin' about? We've been at this for over an hour, you should --” Topher began as he circled around to stand alongside Shane as she lay in the chair.

“No! I want it out,” she all but growled, and the glint in her hollow eyes was like the light catching on the edge of a razor blade, horribly keen and focused but at the same time there was a hint of coldness, there. Fear. Desperation. Pain. “She fucking told me you could make this all go away and every time we have to stop and then start again, it's just digging the knife in deeper and deeper all over again. Please!

“Jesus, I – god, okay, fine!” Topher mumbled, eyes round with surprise as he stared at the young woman. Taking a deep breath, he raked a hand through his hair, casting a helpless glance at Ivy, who stood a few feet away, having been on her way over to the chair from the mini fridge in the corner, a bottle of water clutched in her hand. “Okay, fine, if that's what you want, I can do that. But I don't know how much more of this your brain can take today. If your brain's in that state for too long, undergoing all that kooky excitement, it could short you out. Like, gone, sayonara bye-bye, for good.”

Shane stared at him for a moment, the fierceness in her gaze dimming only just slightly as she let out a huff of cynical laughter. “Either way,” she said and the stuffed the bite guard back into her mouth, wrapping her lips around the large piece of shaped latex so that she could close them. After a moment, she lowered her head back down onto the headrest and closed her eyes.

Feeling unspeakably shaken by what he'd seen in Shane's eyes, Topher looked at Ivy again but Ivy had no answers to give him. She shrugged and turned to replace the bottle of water in the fridge, leaving Topher to work things out for himself.

Rubbing at the back of his neck, he turned his eyes to Shane again, laying in the halo chair like some kind of sacrifice on an altar, and then crossed over to the stack of freshly revamped decks he'd fashioned for Shane's OEM dupes and retrieved a fresh one. Gingerly tugging the full deck out of the slot, he then slid the fresh drive in and keyed in the commands to lower the chair into place again. “If anything happens to you, Saunders is gonna frickin' kill me,” he muttered to himself under his breath as Shane sucked in a sharp breath, muscles tensing as she was immersed back into the dupe state.

Holding one plastic corner of the almost smoking-hot deck between his thumb and forefinger, Topher carried it over to the rack and fitted it into an empty slot. That done, he rested his hands on his hips, staring fixedly at the several bays that they had already filled with Shane's memories.

“What are you thinking about?” Ivy asked as she appeared at his side, holding out an open bottle of YooHoo to him.

Sighing, Topher accepted the bottle of chocolatey heaven and took a deep swig, much like a harder man might take a shot from a bottle of whiskey, eyes still scanning over the labels of each of the decks. “Have you ever had a memory so bad that you'd be willing to risk turning yourself into a well-steamed eggplant just so you could forget it?”

“No,” Ivy said, shaking her head a little. She'd hesitated, just briefly, but enough to let him know that she wasn't being entirely truthful. Reaching out, she lightly ran her fingers down along the series of decks in Shane's column. Eight in total, so far. “Maybe for her, it isn't just one bad memory.”

“Maybe,” Topher said quietly, though Ivy could tell by his tone of voice that he wasn't entirely convinced by that explanation.

There was a sound from behind them – another low, sudden gasp, like the strange, dark woman in the chair had just been punched in the gut with a five-hundred pound weight – and it sent an awful shudder creeping up Topher's spine. He didn't have to look back over his shoulder to see that she was tensed in the chair again, back arched, muscles bunching and twitching in tiny, fitful seizures from the torment of memories that were assailing her.

In that moment, he wasn't sure if he was hoping that Shane would be okay when they brought her out of the dupe stasis or hoping that she wouldn't be. Either way, something felt very, very wrong.
End Notes:
"Disturbia" by Rihanna, "Romeo is Bleeding" theme.
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