Bob does ten years with the Chicago PD right out of high school, just like his old man. He’s a good cop. He goes through two partners kind of quick, but the third one sticks so no one says anything. He does his work, clocks in when he’s supposed to - maybe clocks out a little late sometimes, but not in any way his Captain’s going to bother with. He’s a good cop, maybe one of the best at his precinct. He puts in his years in Detective and he’ll be on his way to Sergeant, maybe.
That all disappears when a perp takes a metal pipe to Bob’s wrists during a collar. Crunch. Precinct lore says right after that Bob tackled the scumbag to the ground so Schechter could read him his rights, but Bob only remembers the crunching noise, in all honesty. He wakes up in the hospital two days later, fuzzy with post-surgery morphine. Schechter’s there, and his mom. Both of them looking like they’re at a wake.
It ends up that his wrists are fucked. Puzzle pieces of bone the doctors mostly manage to put back together, strapped into place with metal screws and plates. They think he’ll be okay, at first. Bob’s physical therapist is relentlessly cheerful, and when the cheerfulness runs out he’s just plain relentless. Bob gets most of the movement back in his wrists, most of the range of motion. He has some good days. Some. But mostly it’s bad days. Mostly he hurts. He has a hard time pouring a cup of coffee, much less writing reports, much less snapping cuffs on a perp. He could stay on a desk job, but that’s not for him. He’d go absolutely fucking stir crazy, and worse, he couldn’t stand the looks people would give him.
So he accepts the retirement with disability, as much as that stings, and everyone throws him a party even though there’s nothing to celebrate. Schechter gets as drunk as hell, and Bob tells him not to worry. Bob puts his brave face on. He does his exercises, uses hot and cold presses, gets his cortisone injections. He does everything he’s supposed to do, and it’s still not enough. He still can’t stop feeling useless.
When the call comes, it’s a relief to say yes.
The man who greets Bob is tall and very thin. Sharp features and graceful hands. Expensive suit, and in good taste too. Doesn't come from money, Bob's willing to bet, but suited to it now all the same. Wants to prove he deserves it. Would cut down anyone in his way of getting it. Probably Beckett.
There's a blond man standing behind him, to his left. Watching Beckett's every move with the kind of obsessive dedication that suggests a bodyguard, or lover. Maybe Beckett's security. There's another man to Beckett's right. Smaller. Daintier, even. Covered in tattoos beneath his suit, and paying attention to absolutely nothing. This is a guy who's killed people. Often. Not necessarily security, in a place like this.
Bob can't over the knee-jerk skin crawling reaction that gives him, that this whole place gives him. Only he’s going to have to get over that.
“Welcome to the Dollhouse, Mr. Bryar. You come highly recommended." Beckett's handshake is short, firm, no-nonsense.
“So this place is real," Bob says, mostly to himself. As if he didn’t already know. He signed the confidentially agreements, he was fully debriefed, but actually seeing it is something else.
Bob’s lived in Chicago his whole life. He’s heard the rumors about the Dollhouse since he was in grade school. His mother grew up hearing the rumors. The Dollhouse is everyone's favorite kind of urban legend – ridiculous, completely unbelievable, and the kind that just doesn’t die.
“The stories are true, then," he continues. "Programmable people, made to order.” Programmed into doing whatever you wanted, whatever you needed. No matter what the job. As a cop, Bob had heard more than a few half-assed stories trying to pin crimes on the Dollhouse. Kill orders, some of the larger heists. All the cops had. Dollhouse "cases" always made the best stories for retelling later.
Now, Bob wonders if any truth had been attached to them. It’s doubtful, and yet – now he wonders.
Beckett's mouth twists. “It’s a little more complicated than that.”
“Figured.” These days, Bob needs a manual just to call someone on his cell. Who knows how the fuck you program people.
“If you’ll follow me this way,” Beckett continues, “I’ll take you to meet Dr. Wentz. He can explain the Programming process for you, if you like.”
Bob’s really all right with not knowing.
Beckett introduces Bob to Dr. Wentz, who – if Bob’s being honest – seems more like a punk college student tripping on meth. Who got dressed in the dark. And didn’t have any decent clothes to begin with. He gives Bob a hug instead of shaking his hand, and ushers Bob into his office, which doesn’t make Bob feel any less like he’s fallen down the rabbit hole. There’s something loud playing on the radio, a weird chair with lights all around it. The posters on the walls are half of bands, half neon-colored brain scans.
“This,” Wentz announces, waggling his fingers in Bob’s direction. “Is where the magic happens.”
A small, dark-haired head peeks around the corner of the doorway. “Is it time for my treatment?”
"Frank! Dude, yes, come on in. Sit down in the magic chair." Wentz makes a weird sort of hand motion, and Frank obediently sits in the chair.
“Hey," he says, once he notices Bob standing in the corner. "You’re huge.”
Bob gives Pete a look that implies how distinctly unimpressed he is. “Do I need to be here for this?”
Pete sends back a look that conveys his disdain just as effectively. "Yeah. Handler imprinting requires a direct line of sight. Frank needs to be looking into those dreamy blue eyes when I do my thing.”
“And then what? Me and Tiny become best friends?” He layers his sarcasm on thick enough for this wacko to hear.
The furrows in Wentz's face deepen. “It’s not about friendship," he shoots back, irritated. "It’s about trust. From this point on, Frank will always trust you. Without hesitation, without question -- no matter what. You’re about to become the most important person in his life.”
That gives Bob a moment's pause, and he looks at where Frank is sitting in the chair, fidgeting. "Not just like being a bodyguard, then."
"Eh. Little more complicated then that. What do they tell you guys when you sign up, anyway? Frank's going to trust you. But trust you beyond all reason. You give him a gun, tell him to shoot someone? He'd probably do it."
"Well, no one's ever tried, and I wouldn't recommend it for obvious reasons, but Frank'd probably get it done." Wentz hands Bob a sheet of paper. “Here. Your script."
"Why do I --"
Pete cuts him off. "Call and response. Neural lock and key. It's part of the process. My process, so how about we stop asking so many dumb questions and get on with it? Don’t deviate, not one word. I’ve finally got this working the way I want it.”
Bob rolls his eyes and clears his throat. "Everything’s going to –“
“Whoa, whoa, dude. Hold his hand.”
“… I’m sorry?”
“His hand. Hold it. Bryar, come on.”
Bob gives Wentz his most incredulous look yet.
“Tactile proximity enhances bonding! Dude, come on, you were a cop. If you were trying to give someone your condolences, and really mean it, you’d put your hand on their shoulder or arm or whatever, right? Same thing. Now read your script."
Bob steps towards the chair, and leans over to take Frank's hand. It's warm -- which only makes sense, of course, Bob's losing it. This place has already got him thinking crazy things.
“Everything’s going to be alright," he says, calmly, and looks directly into Frank's dark eyes.
“Now that you’re here,” Frank says, and stops fidgeting.
“Do you trust me?” Bob asks, and reflexively tightens his grip on Frank's hand.
“With my life," Frank finishes, and squeezes back, tentatively.
Bob holds onto Frank's hand. Two, maybe three seconds. Wentz doesn't say anything, which is more sense than Bob would have thought to give him.
"Shall I go now?" Frank says, and loosens his hold on Bob's hand. "I feel like swimming."
"Go ahead, Frank," Wentz says gently, and Frank pops up from the chair and flashes a bright, quick grin before darting out the door.
"Seems hyper." Are all the Dolls like four year olds speeding around on a sugar high?
Wentz grins at his computer. “You have no idea. You’ve got your work cut out for you, man-friend.”
Mostly, being a Handler isn’t a bad job. It has its downsides. The hours, for one, aren’t exactly nine-to-five. Bob has to be at the Dollhouse before, during, and after Engagements, which can be any time of the week, day or night. And when those happen to be scarce on the ground, Bob’s supposed to hang around Frank in order to “facilitate the bonding process.” No interaction unless Frank initiates, though; so Bob’s job becomes mainly watching over him, which manages to be both boring and creepy – except for the times Frank decides to jump off really high things, in which case Bob’s job suddenly gets a lot fucking harder. Like the time Frank broke his leg. Not only was he in traction for six weeks, but Bob had to spend all of it entertaining Frank himself. Two weeks in, he begged Pete to program Frank with an addiction to video games, just so he didn’t have to play another million games of Go Fish.
The paperwork part hasn’t changed much from being a cop. There’s always plenty of paperwork. Reports on each Engagement, especially when something goes wrong, especially when Frank gets hurt – which happens to Frank more than any of the other Actives combined. Bob spent his first month as Frank’s Handler sweating bullets, thinking Beckett was going to come down on him for not doing his job. Turns out he’d already done better than Frank’s last Handler. Go figure.
The other Handlers themselves are a mixed bag. It takes some readjustment, because these are people Bob wouldn’t have hung out with before – actually, he probably would have arrested them. Alicia’s tattoos mark her as pure First to Last gang, Victoria has the make of a professional gambler, possibly a con-women, and Gabe is fucking crazy, flat out. They’re good people though, mostly, so. Either way, Bob worked with a lot of asshole cops, and he knows how important being part of the group is, regardless of how much you like or don’t like them. Bob’s might be the new guy, but luckily Katy’s the requisite outcast of the office already, the one who doesn’t hang out with the rest of the group. As long as Bob comes in, drinks coffee with the rest, plays a hand of poker or two – never with Vicky-T, at least not for money – he’s part of the pack. He goes out to drink with Zack, sometimes, and Nate’s got good taste in music, so they’ve caught a show or two together.
It takes Bob some time to get over his distaste for the whole idea of a Dollhouse. It takes times for him to stop making it so obvious. Pete knows it too. Tries to stay out of his way, mostly, and lets Beckett do the debriefings on the Engagements.
One of the first Engagements Bob takes Frank on is a date with a pretty boy that has more money than sense. Frank is Programmed as a combative, bratty little shit, in tighter clothing than Bob usually sees on hookers. He and the client spend a few hours fucking each other, racing through the city on motorcycles, then partying all night with a bunch of rich boy’s friends. Bob picks Frank up at five in the morning, helps his drunk ass into the van and listens to him chatter the entire way back to the Dollhouse. Yadda yadda yadda about how much fun he had, how this douchebag is The One, its real true love, more yadda yadda yadda. Bob tries to keep his face as blank as possible and doesn’t roll his eyes. He doesn’t know why he bothers. It’s not like Frank’s going to remember.
They pull into the Dollhouse’s parking garage. Bob walks Frank to the elevator, still listening with half an ear.
“… because most guys, I don’t know, they say they want something exciting, but what they really mean is when they only have time for it, you know? They’re not really spontaneous, they just – ”
Bob puts one hand on Frank’s shoulder. “Your treatment, Frank.”
“Oh, right! Will you wait for me? I want to go right back to the party, and see Craig again.”
“I’ll be here,” Bob sighs. Time to go debrief with Beckett.
Then Frank surprises Bob by jumping on him, hugging him, and pressing one sloppy kiss to his cheek. “Thanks. You’re the best!” Frank bounces into the elevator. “Right after my treatment, I promise!” The elevator doors close, and Frank zooms away. Up to Pete for another treatment. Another Wipe. The return to Doll state.
Bob deliberately doesn’t touch his cheek until he turns the corner.
“So they don’t remember anything, right?” Bob asks Pete one day. “That’s the deal, right. Even when they’re all done. They don’t remember anything.” Bob has seen Frank’s contract himself. Five years, and Frank’s name scrawled on the dotted line.
Pete gives Bob a sideways look and a grin. “That’s the deal. Better believe it, dude. I get to Wipe ‘em myself. Cassadee is not yet ready for such awesome power.”
Cassadee barely looks up from the computer to give Pete the finger. She’s Pete’s assistant, which mostly seems to mean she makes him Kraft dinners and gets his juice boxes in hopes of getting to touch the mainframe just once. She weighs maybe ninety pounds and kind of… bounces. Pretty perfect for working with Pete, really.
“Why do you ask, manfriend?” Pete continues, “Doubting my work?”
Bob starts to answer, but his work Blackberry vibrates against his hip at the same time Pete’s Sidekick starts blasting something obnoxious. A message from Beckett.
Meeting. 3PM. My office.
Pete and Bob share a look – and probably a feeling of burgeoning doom. Great.
“Travis and Ms. Perry are unfortunately out on an assignment which could not be rescheduled,” Beckett opens. “Mr. Saporta, I trust you’ll debrief her properly when she returns.”
Gabe nods. “Sure thing, Boss-man.”
Bob would never get away with that, but Beckett merely ignores Gabe and moves on. “Mr. Navarro and Mr. Hall have noticed a potential problem. It’s possible some of you may have corroborating information, and we’re seeking input on how to best proceed. Mr. Navarro?”
Nate taps the computer screen. “The time Jon and Spencer have been spending together has increased steadily in the past months. Most of their free hours are now spent in each other’s company.”
“With other Dolls?” Vicky-T asks.
Nate shakes his head, taps the screen again. A number of graphs appear. “On average, thirty-percent of the day with Ryan and Brendon, twenty-percent with other dolls, and fifty-percent of the day in just each other’s company.”
“Jon has been pursuing Spencer,” Zack says. “Probably as actively as his programming allows. We’ve been reviewing the security tapes and interviewed them both. As far as we know, it’s completely asexual.”
“But you don’t know,” Gabe interrupts, bluntly.
Dr. Toro clears his throat. In spite of the situation – Bob’s not totally clear on what that is, actually – Bob has to fight back a smile. He always expects Toro’s voice to be much deeper. When Beckett first introduced them, Bob nearly lost it. “Neither has had any sexual contact. Not outside of what’s been scheduled during engagements, I mean.”
“But you think… you think they’re compositing,” Gabe continues, insisting. “Or at least Jon is.”
Beckett stepped forward, arms folded. “A composite event is doubtful.”
“Like before?” Gabe mutters.
“But we’re worried about escalation,” Beckett continues, unheeded. “Dr. Wentz, should we be, in your opinion? Is Jon becoming too close to Spencer?”
Pete briefly looks up from tapping on his Sidekick. “I guess? Worried, I mean. It depends what you mean by too close.”
“Are we looking at another Robert situation?” Siska asks bluntly. “Should we be considering the Attic? Are we—”
“If we put every Doll who had a glitch straight into the Attic, there’d be none left in the Dollhouse,” Beckett interrupts. “Dr. Wentz. Is Jon’s attention towards Spencer something to be worried about?”
“Possibly?” Pete slides his Sidekick back into his pocket. “I don’t want to rule anything out, after – you know, after, but I don’t think it’s a problem. Neither of them are showing any new behaviors, simply an increase in time spent together. And it’s pointless to discourage the Dolls from forming packs.”
Pete chewed along one knuckle. “Jon hangs out with Spencer, Ryan, and Brendon more often than not. Travis, Patrick, and Greta hang together, usually Frank and Mikey are together. Packs. It’s… they don’t necessarily feel more attached, at least not on any conscious level, but its in human nature to form attachments. To belong to a group. No amount of Wiping is going to get rid of it. And Dolls don’t have any aggression, so its not like they have any negative feelings towards any other group, but the belonging is kind of important.”
“So we leave them as is,” Beckett says crisply. “That’s your recommendation.”
“Yeah. Nothing wrong with having friends, even if you’re a Doll.”
“Very well. Current policy remains as is. Leave the Dolls to their interactions. I trust Dr. Wentz and Dr. Toro, as well as the rest of you, will be monitoring Jon and Spencer more closely in the immediate future, and if further action is required they will no doubt inform me. Dr. Wentz and Dr. Pope have been quite thorough in their Wiping procedures, and there should be nothing to worry about prematurely.” Beckett picked up several folders from his desk. “Mr. Saporta, Mr. Hall, Ms. Simmons, your Actives have evening engagements. The rest of you, back to work.”
Bob waits for Beckett to hand out the folders, waits for Zack and Alicia to walk out. Waits and watches out of the corner of his eye for Gabe to throw the cobra – or whatever the hell it is he calls it – at Beckett, because that shit is too hilarious to miss. When Gabe finally leaves, Beckett waits a full two minutes before raising an eyebrow in Bob’s direction.
“Yes, Mr. Bryar?”
“Could I have a moment?”
“Very well. Everything alright with Frank?”
“Fine.” As far as Bob knows. They’ve been apart about half an hour, but it’s entirely possible Frank’s broken another bone. Pete’s been trying to find something to sedate him with, but getting around brain neurochemistry is tough when someone’s in Doll-state, apparently. Pete tried to dumb it down for him, but Bob is cool with taking things at face value. “I spent about half the meeting feeling like I’d missed something.”
Beckett raises his eyebrow again. “Yes?”
“About someone called Robert. After. After what?” The minute Siska said the name ‘Robert’ Tom had blanched, Vicky-T went completely poker-faced, and even Gabe seemed nervous. Last week Gabe’s Active, Ryan, was programmed to work on controlling a new and extremely virulent form of anthrax during an outbreak at a local university – and Gabe didn’t break a sweat. Gabe doesn’t get nervous.
Beckett sighs and reaches into the file cabinet, coming back with a glossy photo of a man. Longish hair with a bit of red dye in the ends, devilish grin, plush lower lip. “Robert is the reason you were brought in. He was an Active here. At least until he killed one of the other Actives, Brent, and Brent’s handler, Matt; as well as Frank’s previous handler, Worm.”
Bob takes a minute to absorb this. Then – “Worm?”
Beckett sighs. “A nickname, of course. At any rate, Robert showed a steady increase in glitches before the incident. Many of the Dolls glitch, but he was the first that Composited – maintained parts of previous Imprints even after being Wiped. We’re still unsure how. Dr. Wentz insists it was an impossibility.”
“Not so much?”
“No,” Beckett agrees. “But this is cutting edge science, Mr. Bryar. There is a certain amount of risk involved. Human minds, regardless of their utility and however flawless the program and parameter given to them, are not without their complications.” Beckett places the photo back into the file and sighs. “After the incident, Hurley’s team tracked Robert down and put a bullet in his brain. The situation was contained as well as we were able. However, I’m sure you can understand why we wouldn’t want such an event to reoccur.”
“The rest of the Handlers seem to be on point.”
“As well they should be,” Beckett says smoothly.
“Was that the first time something like that happened?” Is it going to happen again?
“Glitches are quite common. As much as we understand about the human brain, there is even more we don’t understand. We call the Doll-state tabula rasa. The blank slate. But if you’ve ever tried to clean a slate, Mr. Bryar, you’d know you can always see what was on there before.”
Which is pretty much the opposite of an answer. And what was there wasn’t that reassuring, as far as not-answers go.
“Right.” Bob’s not entirely uncertain Beckett doesn’t have a touch of the crazy himself. “Right.”
And Bob would leave it, but not a week later he gets another text from Beckett.
My office. NOW.
In the eight months Bob’s worked here, he’s never seen Beckett use all caps before. If doesn’t really seem like his style, to be honest. So either Siska hijacked Beckett’s Blackberry, or Beckett’s seriously upset about something.
“Dr. Toro informed me that Brendon has had unauthorized sexual intercourse in the last twenty-four hours.” Beckett begins, and let’s that sink into the room before continuing. “Brendon’s last job was nearly days ago, as an entertainer at a high-end children’s cancer benefit. This has undoubtedly happened in the Dollhouse.”
Quiet murmurs from the Handlers. Ray looks a little sick. Ray’s too soft hearted for this, really, Bob thinks. He cares too much about all of the Dolls, about what happens to them – whether they’re in the Dollhouse or not.
“We were so sure…” Vicky-T trailed off. “Well. We’ve been watching Jon and Spencer so closely. Could we have missed Jon and Brendon?”
“Jon was clearly fixating on Spencer,” Nate argued. “Not Brendon.”
“But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have attacked Brendon,” Siska adds, ruthlessly. “Jon could be accessing multiple Imprints. Sure, one might fixate on Spencer, but another might have forced himself on Brendon. Actives go through, what, an average of fifteen Imprints a month? Jon probably already has a library of a hundred Imprints to choose from. And we select Imprints for certain traits, but a large amount of their background is filler. And fuck knows what that filler is actually comprised of.”
Everyone looked at Pete. He shrugged. “We do background checks, but I don’t have the time to go through every Imprints’ entire background memory by memory, not if we want to book any Engagements in the next five years. So, yeah, that’s technically true. I mean, Zack, you remember how that kidnapping deal went down?”
“Jesus,” Zack says. “Like I could forget.”
Bob has to remember to ask about that later, as well.
“I’ve questioned Brendon, and Jon,” Ray says. “Brendon won’t say, or doesn’t know how to say. Jon insists he hasn’t done anything.”
“He can’t lie?” Tom retorts.
“Or he doesn’t remember,” Siska chimes in. “Or he doesn’t understand. We’ve made them very simple.”
Vicky-T shifts in her chair. “I’m uncomfortable leaving Greta on the floor.”
“Forget Greta,” Gabe snaps. “Ryan. Jon hangs with Ryan more than Greta, by far.” Behind him, Nate is nodding. Alicia murmurs something into Zack’s ear.
“Everyone,” Beckett says, and waits for the room to quiet. He taps his fingers on the desktop, an exasperated click-click-click. “Dr. Wentz,” Beckett says finally. “Would a full Wipe be sufficient? Or is the Attic a better option?”
Pete’s face looks especially pale in contrast to his eyeliner. “Jon’s neural plasticity has always been a little less malleable than the other Dolls. I’m not saying a full Wipe wouldn’t be sufficient, I’m just… less sure.”
“Aren’t we jumping the gun here?” Bob interrupts. “It doesn’t make sense. We watch the Dolls every hour of every day. Even when we’re not around, there are yoga instructors, painters, lifeguards. Not to mention the cameras. The structure of this place is completely open. If Jon – if any of the Actives – raped Brendon, where the hell did they do it?”
And no has an answer for him.
“Very well,” Beckett says after a moment. “Mr. Hurley and I will be reviewing that tapes for the last two days. If Jon is or isn’t off-Program, it won’t take long to find it.”
“I suggest we isolate Jon in the meantime,” Siska added. “Sir.”
Beckett gives him a sideways look. “I’d prefer to watch how he interacts with the other Actives. Dismissed. Back to your floor.”
Something about it is wrong. Not just the obvious parts, of course. Not just what was done to Brendon, not just the way they talk about the Attic – what the Attic is, Bob still doesn’t know. Bob’s not the type to pry, usually, and something tells him he doesn’t want to know– but the way Beckett looked at Siska, the way Siska is so quick to suggest the Attic. Everyone’s on edge, and it could be because they’re afraid of another Robert, or because they’re afraid of getting caught themselves.
There’s a nook in one of the corridors leading off of one of the swimming pools. Small. There used to be an end table there, Bob thinks, which seems to have moved across the hall. And there’s cameras on each corner, but…
He takes a minute to think, and then he’s dialing Beckett, telling him to take Jon off the floor.
Then Bob waits.
It takes hours, but he’s right. It’s not a good feeling. He remembers this from being a cop – right, proven right, but not in a pleasant way. A paltry reward for figuring out exactly the way sick motherfuckers think.
Bob watches as Brendon steps around the corner and into the alcove, where Tom is already waiting.
“Do you trust me?” Tom asks.
“With my life,” Brendon chirps back, and something in Bob’s stomach sours.
“It’s time to play the game,” Tom continues evenly. “Do you remember the rules?”
“Noise is upsetting,” Brendon says, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. “And this is my quiet time.”
The sound of Brendon’s pants unzipping fills Bob with the kind of rage he normally tries to keep under control. He had warnings when he was a cop – excessive force, that kind of thing. He knows he needs to keep it under control. He’s been trying since he was just a kid, but fuck, sometimes.
Bob comes around the corner and punches Tom in the jaw so hard he feels the reverb all the way up his arm. Tom hits the floor with a satisfactory thud, head lolling back, and Brendon’s hands still.
“That was not quiet,” he says, eyes wide, and Bob agrees.
“I want you to go see Ray, okay?” he tells Brendon. “Even if someone else is in the office. Tell him what happened.”
“Okay.” Brendon zips up his pants and fixes his shirt. “Go talk to Ray.”
Brendon skips off, and Bob looks at where Tom is crumpled at his feet. He’s got a few minutes before Siska and Hurley get here. You can do a lot with five minutes.
“Dr. Wentz has done all he knows to remove any memories Brendon may still have of the event,” Beckett says, leafing through a stack of files on his desk. “Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to remove all associations without wiping him completely, so minor glitches may be a problem. Brendon’s next Handler will be thoroughly screened as well as debriefed about the situation.”
Beckett is still staring out of the window. Bob decides on silence as the better part of valor, here.
“How did you know?” Beckett asks finally. “That it was Conrad?”
“I didn’t,” Bob says. To be honest, he thought it was Siska. “But it could have been anyone who worked here, and taking Jon off the floor was the only way to lure them out.”
“You are not to go behind my back in such a manner again, am I being clear?”
Beckett turns around. “The bonus has been wired to your account.”
Bob didn’t do it for a bonus, but he’s not going to complain. “What about Conrad?”
“There’s no sense worrying about him anymore,” Beckett says, voice perfectly pleasant. That could mean any number of options Bob doesn’t want to think about. He knows, logically, there’s not way to bring the police into this. To get justice through any kind of system. The Dollhouse swallows everything and everyone up.
For the first time since this Dollhouse thing started, Bob goes home and drinks himself stupid. Really stupid. He should probably call in the next day, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t let Frank out of his sight for nearly a week. When he realizes what he’s doing, he goes out to his favorite bar. Finds someone large and built, swarthy – not tiny, not pretty. Plenty of tattoos, but lots of people have tattoos these days, right?
Later that month, Bob’s on a high-risk engagement with Frank. The client is a guy who wants someone to rock climb and white water raft and hunt deer and all sorts of really intense crazy fucking macho adrenaline stuff, and Bob maybe understands why he has to go to the Dollhouse to get a date with someone like that. Especially if he wants them to look as pretty as Frank. You pretty much have to get that shit made to order. Not that he condones it – this Dollhouse hasn’t fucked him up quite that much yet – but he maybe understands it.
Then it turns out the client doesn’t just want someone who can rock climb and white water raft and hunt deer – he wants to hunt Frank, ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ style. Needless to say, that shit is not on. Bob’s supposed to have eyes and ears on this one, but considering they’re in the ass end of ‘who the hell would want to be there’ he’s lucky to even be heading off in the right direction. He spends half an hour frantically running through the forest waiting for a gunshot, or a scream, or a really ominous crack of thunder, fuck, before coming across Frank near one of the many alcoves next to the river, wide eyes and spiked hair, looking for all the world like a scared hedgehog.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” Bob gasps out, relieved when Frank nods dumbly.
“Now that you’re here.” After a moment Frank shakes his head. “Dude, why are you here. Do I… know you?”
“Let’s not worry about that right now,” Bob says, and unholsters his gun. “Spotted Mr. Psycho lately?”
“Uhm. Top of the ridge, a minute ago. I don’t know if he saw me here, I just. I couldn’t run anymore.”
“You did good,” Bob says, and Frank nods again.
As it turns out, Mr. Psycho might not have seen Frank but he sure as fuck saw Bob. Which is how Bob gets fucking shot in the leg. Twice.
“Cocksucker,” Bob gasps. What is about arrows that sting twice as bad as fucking bullets? He’s got one hand on his leg, the other shooting two bullets at the tree the fuckhead is hiding behind. There’s a strangled yelp, so maybe Bob hit him, or he’s at least got splinter shrapnel in his ass. That works for Bob.
“You know how to shoot a gun?” Bob asks, and hands Frank the gun anyway.
“I had four older brothers,” Frank says, and takes the extra clip from Bob’s belt, “and none of them were Democrats.”
Bob is so thanking Pete later.
“Want me to distract him?” Bob asks. He’s got a few minutes before the pain really gets ugly.
Frank shakes his head. “With that bow he’s gonna have to step out from behind that tree sometime. And that’s all I need.”
The look on the bastard’s face when Frank’s shoots him is actually pretty fucking priceless. It’s almost worth getting shot with an arrow. Maybe not twice, though. After that, Bob maybe browns out for a second, thinking about how he’s really gonna have to thank Pete for giving Frank sharpshooting skills too.
“Dude? Dude, hey, stay with me.” Frank slaps the side of Bob’s face. “Wake up, dude.”
“I’m completely awake,” Bob growls, and tries to bat Frank’s hands away. It’d be more impressive if he wasn’t failing miserably. “Stop slapping me, or I’ll push you off the cliff.”
Frank snorts. “Sure, dude. Like you could even stand up right now.”
When Bob starts to get up, just to show him that he totally could, Frank squeaks and sits on Bob’s legs. “That was not an invitation! Jesus, stop being so hardcore.”
“Hardcore?” Bob snickers. Blood loss must be getting to him. Or the adrenaline. “Talk about hardcore. You just shot a guy in the chest.”
After a moment, Frank starts to laugh. “You took an arrow to the leg! Two arrows!”
“Hardcore,” Bob agrees, and tries to press down on the wound. “You wearing a belt?”
“Yeah, sure, you – oh, tourniquet, good plan. The not bleeding-out plan.”
“Personal favorite of mine,” Bob agrees, while Frank takes off his belt and loops it around Bob’s upper thigh, and tightens it until Bob grimaces.
“Think that’ll work?”
“Hope so,” Bob says, muzzily. “Help’s on the way, just have to… stay put. Stay alive.”
“Okay,” Frank says quietly. He’s perched on Bob’s good leg, one hand pressing on the wound, the other looped around Bob’s shoulders. “Hold on, okay?”
“Okay,” Frank says, and settles in.
Hurley’s team finds them curled up under a tree, Bob’s hand dwarfing Frank’s where it presses over the arrow wound.
“It was really cute,” Ray tells him later, when he’s getting stitched up. “Mixon might have taken a picture for blackmail purposes. He’s kind of like that. Watch out for that at this year’s Christmas Party, is all I’m saying.”
There might have been more, but Bob was on a morphine drip and really entranced with the way Ray’s hair moved around when he talked.
Bob gets two weeks off, then a month light duty, with all of Frank’s Engagements low-risk only. Frank has some healing of his own to do, so there’s no need for a temporary Handler in the interim, which Bob is almost stupidly grateful for. Stupidly.
When Bob comes in after his two weeks, Frank wanders over to him almost immediately. “Pete told me you were hurt,” he says. “Did Ray fix you? Were you getting better?”
“Yeah,” Bob says. “Yeah, Ray fixed me right up.”
“Ray’s nice,” Frank says, chewing on his thumbnail. “I like his hair.”
Bob laughs, maybe a little harder than he should. He’s still on like, Percocet, okay? “It’s amazing.”
Frank beams. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Me too,” Bob says – mostly to himself, because Frank’s already bopping away to the main floor. “Me too.”
The thing about Bob is, he doesn’t buck the system. He does his job, to the letter, the way its supposed to be done, and he takes a certain pride in that. He believes in the rules. He thinks they’re there for a reason, and they mostly work, and you don’t try to fix something that isn’t really broken, and you never mess around with something you don’t already need to fix. It’s why he became a cop.
The thing about Bob is, he’ll only surprise you when push comes to shove. That’s when he starts to surprise himself.
It’s a Tuesday night. A lot like any Tuesday night, though instead of driving Frank to some Lonely Hearts engagement with a bored society wife, Bob’s sitting in a van near the warehouse district. The client wants a particular piece of artwork, currently stored in one of the more beefed-up warehouses before it goes on display in an exclusive gallery in Tokyo next week, and is apparently willing to pay through the nose to get it. Which means Frank gets to play the perfect second-story thief. Frank’s got the build – tiny, flexible; even graceful if he’s paying attention – and the rest is easy enough for Pete to program. Fake back-story, some art knowledge, some tech, gun skills and hand-to-hand, just in case. The client also provides the hookup with two real criminals – Dewees, who has the specs on the place, and a skinny little kid named Marshall, for tech.
It’s not the type of job Bob expects to go sideways.
Bob’s wired in on this job, which is pretty standard for any that isn’t a Lonely Hearts. So he knows exactly when things go wrong – after Frank’s in, after the security guard makes his way to another floor on his rounds, after Frank finds the painting, and right when he’s going to remove it.
“Oh shit,” Frank breathes into his intercom, and Bob tenses. On screen, Frank’s vitals have just taken a spike – heart rate, skin conductance. Panic. And Frank is not really programmed to crack under pressure.
“Oh shit, what?” Dewees asks testily. “Those are two words I didn’t need to hear.”
Frank’s vitals are slowing, but he’s still panicking. “It’s on timer. Thirty seconds. Fairly standard issue, but this wasn’t on the specs.”
“Rich paranoid bastards,” Dewees swears, like he didn’t just prove their every paranoid suspicion correct “Marshall, where…”
“Security was near the stairwell last I had eyes. Should be just about on you, Iero.”
“Almost got it,” Frank snaps. “How close is he? Should I bother setting it all back up, or just snatch and grab?”
The gunshot pretty much answers that question. Frank’s vitals skyrocket – but they’re still there. Bob is already autodialing the Dollhouse.
“What the fuck,” Dewees shouts. “Iero?”
“Pigs are on their way,” Marshall announces. “Dewees, I’m out.” Click.
Silence. Frank’s stats waver, he grunts once or twice, then nothing. Thirty seconds lag time.
“Guard’s down,” Frank says, finally, and mostly to himself. “I’m gut shot. Not sure how bad.”
Dewees hesitates, whether because Frank’s hurt or because of the potential payday is anyone’s guess. Then – “Iero, I’m out. We’ll be at the drop site, if you make it.” Another click.
And finally, Beckett on the phone.
“The Engagement’s botched,” Bob says, as calmly as he can. “The guard’s down, but Frank’s still inside with a shot to the abdomen. Could be bad.” The sirens are loud in the background now, close. “Police are en route.”
“I’ve been informed,” Beckett snaps. “Apparently there was a unit in the vicinity. Mr. Hurley says the police are less than two blocks away. There’s no time. Get out.”
Bob reaches for the door immediately, before it hits him that Beckett means without Frank, and his fingers freeze on the handle.
“Frank – ”
“Was spotted by the security guard he disabled, has left blood all over the scene, is more than likely dying even without factoring in complications from his Epstein-Barr, is more than probably without the client’s artwork, and your chances of extraction without detention are roughly nil. Leave.”
Bob knows that they’ve got fingers in every law enforcement agency there is. Not for a solid fact, maybe, but they get away with too many things they shouldn’t for it not to be true. Beckett could get Frank out of this, if he tried. It’s like he just decided Frank wasn’t worth the effort. Wasn’t worth the favor.
Bob maybe sees red, for a second. It surprises him. He cares for Frank, but that’s mostly his job. Bob’s the type of guy who does his job. Maybe he cares for his Active a bit more than some of the other Handlers do, but that doesn’t take much. It’s not like – he shouldn’t be so angry. He shouldn’t be so involved.
There’s a minute where he thinks about just heading back. Leaving Frank where he is. Shot. Scared, if his stats are anything to go by. It’s not a moment Bob’s proud of, but you don’t mess with someone with Beckett, with the people who run the Dollhouse. Not without serious consequences. And Bob likes this life. Why wouldn’t he? He likes his health, and the money, and even the job, to a point. Why throw it all away on someone who’s probably dead anyway? So yeah, there’s a minute where he thinks about not bothering. Then he realizes he’s already opened the door, striding towards the building, without any kind of conscious decision whatsoever.
Frank is in the alleyway outside of the building. Bob almost overlooks him – Frank’s tiny, he’s dressed in dark colors – but in the end the raspy breathing is kind of a giveaway. When Bob takes another step towards him, Frank looks up, eyes wild. He’s got one hand pressed to the wound, the other reaching for the gun tucked into the back of his jeans.
“Would you like a treatment?” Bob asks. The hand going for the gun drops and Frank nods. Bob steps forward to press down onto the wound, his fingers sliding over Frank’s Everything already slippery with blood. Bob slides his arm around Frank’s waist, through more blood. A through-and-through, then. Could be worse. “Come on,” he says gently, “Let’s get in the van.”
Only he can’t take the van, he realizes. It’s bugged all to hell, without a doubt, and even if it weren’t its leased in the Corporation’s name. New plan. He half-drags, half-lifts Frank to a car parked around the corner. Four-door, dark color, maybe ten years old. No alarm and easy to hotwire.
Bob’s mind’s going a mile a minute. He’s having trouble processing. Keeping up. He’s used to thinking like a criminal, but so he could find people, not because he was the one trying to escape. He thinks, first, that he’ll hide Frank somewhere and smuggle him away later, after all the debriefing and paperwork, but Beckett won’t be happy until Frank shows up in the morgue somewhere. People like Beckett expect bodies. Suddenly these first few minutes, the hours – they’re critical if Bob’s going to get any distance away from Beckett, and all the people behind him. It isn’t going to take long for Hurley to figure out Frank’s not in police custody, and it’ll probably take even less time for Beckett to figure out Bob’s gone AWOL.
He settles Frank in the back. Yanks off his hoodie – Bob sends up a brief prayer for being the kind of guy that always dresses in layers – and presses it into the stomach side of the wound. Leaves Frank bleeding all over the seat from the back and hopes gravity’s going to be enough.
“Hold onto that, okay?” he says, and Frank nods, pressing hard onto the sweatshirt.
There’s a police car up the block, cutting off the traffic going out. There’s no place to go. Bob’s not getting far, not in this clunker, and it’s too late to go back, in more ways than one. Beckett doesn’t like people who go outside the box. Particularly against his orders. Bob might have come out on top of the Conrad situation, but this isn’t even close to the same thing.
Bob slows the car, just a little – too much and it’s just as suspicious as speeding right past – and says over his shoulder, “This is going to hurt, but I need you to get on the ground. As small as you can.”
Frank nods. “Small,” he grits out. “Small I can do.” With one hand still pressed to his side, he slides onto the floor and curls up. He’s still dressed all in black, of course, and as long as keeps his face and hands tucked away, it could be worse. They’re already playing the long odds on this one.
Bob rolls down the window in anticipation of answering questions –
Of course… of all people, of all the cops in Chicago, it’s Brian. This was part of their beat, but he never. Fuck.
“Was just around the neighborhood.” Bob’s barely bothered to wipe off his hands. There’s blood under his nails, in the creases of his knuckles. Bob isn’t stupid enough to think Brian hasn’t noticed. They were partners for five years. At the very least, he knows that Bob’s lying.
“Look, Bryar –” Brian glances towards the back of the car. Whether he sees Frank or not is anyone’s guess.
“Schechter. Brian, I –” Bob run one hand through the stubble on his face. “Did I ever ask you for anything? Even once?”
The truth is that cops are more The Shield than Law and Order. They’re not paragons of virtue. Most of them are far from it. They’re on the grift, they let dealers go for a taste, they turn a blind eye towards the corner if the girls working there give it up for free. Evidence gets planted or even completely fabricated, confessions get beaten out of perps, witnesses get “help” remembering. There’s no such thing as a completely clean cop – at least not one that’ll ever get off the main beat. And your partner, whoever he is, gets dragged right along with you because no one rats on their partner, ever.
No cop does it completely by the book all the time, but Bob did better than most, and so did Brian. He hopes to God that counts for something now. Because he’s got one hand on his gun, and he won’t shoot Brian but he’ll sure as shit clock the hell out of him if that means getting away.
“Don’t suppose a thirteen-thirteen counts when you’re only an ex-cop,” he says wearily.
Brian’s new partner – Jamia something. Bob remembers her, there’s not that many female cops in the precinct even these days – is looking curiously from the front seat. She’ll get out in a minute, and Bob can’t count on her to be completely distracted if he decides to gun it.
Brian only hesitates for a second. “Once a cop, always a cop,” he says. “You know that, Bryar.”
Bob’s chest tightens. “Thanks.”
“Now get the fuck out of here, asshole, before the suspect description comes in matching the guy on your floor,” Brian says, and waves Jamia off. “You’re going to be a shitty criminal.”
When they turn the corner Bob pulls Frank back up onto the seat. Drives for thirty minutes, about as long as he thinks Frank can stand. The first town they roll through with a drugstore, Bob stops. Grabs rubbing alcohol, bandages, Tylenol – which is kind of like trying to dam up a flood with grains of sand, but better than nothing. A stop for a high-proof alcohol somewhere down the line would not be out of the question. Then he heads to the nearest evil-conglomeration-mart for the needle and thread. That’s where criminals make their mistakes, to be honest – not necessarily that they buy suspicious things, but things that are suspicious in combination together. It takes more time, but if they get caught Frank’s as good as dead anyway. Maybe not this time, but sometime. His next Handler won’t care as much. Beckett doesn’t really care at all.
Bob parks behind what looks like was once a grocery store. Frank seems to have passed out, which is probably a blessing, but when Bob douses the wound in alcohol he wakes up quick enough and bats at Bob’s arms before realizing what’s going on. Bob shoves the bloody hoodie behind Frank’s head before stitching him up. Pads the wound, briskly makes Frank drink a bottle of water, swallow some Tylenol, and attempt a cup of soup he’d picked up at the local McD’s. Frank’s barely awake for it, which is just as well.
Bob gets back into the front and spends two minutes staring at the steering wheel before realizing that could have been two minutes getting farther away from Beckett.
This time he heads for the highway. They can’t stop at a hotel. It’s easy to find them, especially considering how close they still are to Chicago. Bob wants to keep going. He doesn’t want to stop driving until he hits the coast, really. He’ll get as far as he can, but he can’t keep going with Frank like this.
Two hours later he sees a turn-off for a lake, and takes it on a whim. If the place is big enough, there’ll be summer houses somewhere – places nice families go to commune with nature for a week or two. Fish. Maybe go hunting. He takes another turn-off and hits the jackpot. A house set off in the woods, done up in fake hunting lodge style. Kind of ugly, really, but an easy place to stay for a few days. Even if the place has a caretaker, at best they’ll stop by to make sure no one’s broken in a window. They won’t look for squatters.
There’s a small bedroom downstairs. Small bed. Kid-size. Good for Frank, really. When Bob tucks him in, Frank barely even opens his eyes.
“Who are you?” he asks muzzily, and curls into the covers.
“I’m who’s taking care of you,” Bob says gruffly. “Stop moving, or you’ll pull the stitches.”
Frank wrinkles his nose. “’Kay.”
Bob force-feeds him another bowl of soup and more Tylenol. Checks for fever then gets back into the car.
He has to do this now or never. Beckett’s looking for them in Chicago, of course, but not nearly as heavy as he’s looking elsewhere. So Bob drives back. Paranoid as fuck the whole time, of course, but he needs this. He’s got no more money – he can’t use his credit cards anymore, and he can’t take out anything from his bank accounts. Lucky that Bob’s always been a cautious kind of guy. He’s got some money stashed away, just in case something like this happens – not that he ever thought it would be something like this, but getting involved with an ethically nebulous organization that isn’t even supposed to exist was reason enough to be cautious. His mom has access to all of his accounts for just that reason. She’ll be taken care of, at least. He’ll have to find a way to talk to her, later. Not right now. Probably not even any time soon.
He manages it. Ditches the car somewhere it won’t be found for a while, buys another one just as disposable. Goes to buy someone painkillers too – because Frank is sure as shit going to want those – and he doesn’t think much of anyone saw him either way.
By the time he gets back to the house he’s shaky from exhaustion, the bursts of adrenaline. He carefully pulls the car around the house and grabs the bag of supplies from the backseat before going into check on Frank.
And – oh, great, Frank’s found the gun.
Frank’s gaze is sharp. Lucid. And the hand holding the gun is steady. So at least Bob’s not going to get shot accidentally. Small comfort, right now.
The problem that Bob didn’t think about… well, Bob basically just didn’t think, okay, he gets that – but the big problem he didn’t dwell one quite yet was that Frank was going to still be who he thought he was for the mission. Francis Anthony Iero, a.k.a. Tony Pizzagalli, a.k.a. Tiny Frank. He thinks he grew up in Jersey, for Christ’s sake. He thinks he has mob connections. He thinks he was, like, blessed by one of the five dons. And now he’s got a gun on Bob, because he doesn’t really have any idea who the fuck Bob is.
“Hands up,” Frank orders, and Bob obediently sets down the bag he was carrying and does so. “Who the fuck are you?” Frank spits out, and isn’t this perfect.
“Frank,” Bob tries, cautiously. “Frank, put the gun down.”
“Like fuck I’m putting the gun down.”
“Okay. Fine. Just –”
“I’m only gonna ask you one more time. Who are you?”
Bob tries to keep his voice even. “My name’s Bob. I’m your Handler.”
“I don’t have a handler. I’m a free agent.” Frank’s eyes narrow. “And I’ve seen you before.”
Something else Bob didn’t exactly think about. How the hell to explain this. There should be graphs. Little charts explaining all the different levels of fucked up.
“I know you,” Frank insists, and the finger on the trigger tightens. “Who are you? Who sent you?”
“Oh Jesus.” Bob lets his hands drop out of sheer frustration. “This is going to sound crazy.”
Bob takes a deep breath. “Have you heard of the Dollhouse?”
“Are we talking the kind of gift you give to your seven year old niece, or…?”
“Like the urban legend.”
“Sure. What kid hasn’t. Your point?”
“It’s real. You’re a part of it. You’ve been programmed.”
Frank pulls a face. “Okay, wow. I’ve heard better stories from fourteen year olds who shoplift.”
“Seriously. You’re one of the Dolls. Programmed. I’m your Handler. You’re a little confused right now, just…” Bob has a sudden flash of inspiration. Jesus, he should have done this right off. “Everything will be all right,” Bob says.
Frank’s grasp on the gun loosens. “Now that you’re here.”
Bob waits. After a moment, the blandly pleasant smile fades from Frank’s face. “Uhm. What did…”
“You’re programmed,” Bob says wearily. “I told you.”
Frank’s grip on the gun retightens. “So say it was true. Say I believe you. What the hell’s going on?”
“You remember the job, right?”
“The Sarmiento piece, yeah. At the warehouse.”
“You remember getting shot?”
“That’s where it starts to get fuzzy. Look, I don’t –”
Frank’s eyes are going wild, but the doubt is there. “When you were five you had a dog named Pansy. It’s also what you called your first guitar. You got your appendix out in the third grade, only it burst first and you almost died because you were a really stubborn little shit who didn’t want to go to the hospital for a stomach ache. Your last boyfriend dumped you because you didn’t tell him what you really do for a living and he thought you were cheating on him. Uhm.” Bob tries to remember anything else Pete had let slip while he was programming. “You’re vegan, which. Sorry about that, the soup I’ve been feeding you is definitely full of meat byproducts. I don’t know what meat byproducts, but definitely some.”
The look on Frank’s face is somewhere between gobsmacked and angry. “You don’t seem like the stalker type.”
“I used to be a cop,” Bob offers, and Frank tilts his head.
“Yeah, okay, that I believe. You’ve got that look.” Frank sighs and sets the gun on the nightstand. “Okay. Okay, fuck, what the ever-loving fuck. I trust you, I don’t know fucking why, but I trust you. So I’m gonna believe you, which is good because I can’t hold this fucking gun up any longer. Shit.”
“Got painkillers in the bag,” Bob explains. “And soup, if you feel up to it.”
“Shit,” Frank says again. “Just don’t tell me about the meat byproducts.”
Bob gives Frank space for the rest of the day. He watches TV, mostly. Dozes on and off. He comes in to check Frank’s bandages once, and to give him more painkillers. The gun sits on the bedside table, which is something like a step towards trust, even if Bob has another one.
Bob brings Frank more food later. “Eggs and toast. If you can keep it down.”
“I don’t have a scar,” Frank says flatly. His hands are tightened fists on the bedspread.
Bob missed something here. “What?”
“My appendix. I had surgery. I… I remember having surgery, but there’s no scar. And there’s a bullet graze on my arm,” he continues wearily, “that shouldn’t be there. I think I’d remember getting grazed by a bullet.”
Pete Wentz: not so infallible after all.
‘I told you’ doesn’t really seem right for the situation. “You got that on an Engagement,” Bob explains, anyway. “It… went kind of sideways.”
“Like this last one?” Frank asks, kind of wry but a lot angry, underneath. “Bang up job you’re doing, handling me.”
Bob has a brief moment of crystal clear rage where he’s tempted to shove the Vicodin down Frank’s throat and pour the soup over Frank’s head, as he reminds himself Frank doesn’t have any fucking idea what Bob gave up. What kind of trouble they’re really in. Also, he hasn’t slept in like two days now, and Bob’s never been good at doing that without at least a Starbucks run or two.
“At least the first time no one ordered you left to die,” he says bluntly, and watches Frank flinch. “More soup. More Vicodin. Yell if you need anything.”
They stay at the summerhouse for another week and a half, until Bob thinks Frank’s good enough to travel. No fever, the stitches are about gone, and Frank’s been holding down increasing amounts of food, staying awake longer. He still can’t really walk unassisted, but Bob picks him up and shoves him the car anyway, even though Frank fumes and ignores Bob for the first three hours of the car ride, until Bob turns the radio to the Jonas Brothers and Frank gives him a look – a look that’s so… so Frank, so familiar, suddenly, that Bob can’t help cracking a smile.
There are little things he’s noticed that translate no matter who Frank thinks he is. The nervous way he chews the skin around his nails, the high-pitched giggle and bright grin – not that Bob’s seen either of those lately – the irrepressible daring. Frank’s been programmed to be meek or quiet a time or two, but it doesn’t really stick. It probably drove Pete crazy, thinking he’d done something wrong, but really? Bob know it’s just Frank. He never thought the Dolls were really as blank as everyone seemed to believe.
They go for two days, taking turns driving, napping, and chugging Red Bull. Bob tells Frank about the Dollhouse, about the people who run it – what they look like, what they do, how they operate. Frank’s still not a hundred percent on board, but Bob can see it sinking in – what’s the point of lying? And why such a ridiculous, fantastic lie?
They pick a larger town to settle in, not quite a city. Small towns gossip too much, and cities always have some organization running underneath the surface it’s best not to get caught up in. Bob and Frank rent a house on the outside of town – a little run down, but more than enough for their purposes. Bob puts out some feelers on whether there’s anyone around here who could get him and Frank fake IDs – the good kind, the kind that come with new identities attached. Any kid with a decent copier and printer can make an ID to get you into a bar, but Bob needs something that will stand up against a background check, and that’s going to take time. Frank offers to get in touch with some people, but Bob cuts that off at the start. Nothing of Frank’s old life can come with them here. Beckett knows everything Frank knows – all his contacts, all his memories, all his history.
Frank is sullen. Nearly silent, most of the time. He spends all day in his room, never cooks, never even helps with the clean-up. It’s like living with a teenager. And Bob lets it slide for a bit, because – because Frank gets some fucking processing time, you know? If Bob found out he used to be a programmable doll, and that all the memories in his head weren’t real, and that everything he thought was true was a big fucking lie, he’d want some processing time too.
But it’s not just processing time. It drags on, until it’s clear that Frank is trying to push him. Punishing him for the job, for what he did, and it’s partly – Bob takes it for a while. He doesn’t say anything, just takes it, because he knew what was going on, he knew that things that were being done to Frank, and he didn’t exactly care as long as it all went to script. There’s a certain kind of wrong there, yeah, and he can admit to that. There’s a certain kind of guilt that comes with it. But overall, Bob is a pretty pragmatic guy, and he saved Frank’s fucking life, he took two goddamn arrows for him, even if Frank can’t remember it, and he doesn’t expect Frank to be grateful but he needs –
“For you to stop being such a moody, useless fucking little shit,” Bob snarls, and when Frank’s fist smashes into his face it’s almost a relief – because at least it’s a reaction.
The fight is short but fairly brutal. Pete, true to form, programmed Frank with completely unnecessary ninja-like ass kicking skills, but Bob’s bigger and heavier, so they smack each other around pretty evenly until Bob manages to get the drop on Frank and hold him down.
“What do you want?” Bob asks. “Seriously, Frank, wh—”
“I hate this!” Frank shouts, furious. “I hate this, I hate this place, and I hate this house and I hate you! I hate that I don’t – that I remember shit but it’s not really mine, I hate that everything got so fucked up, I hate that I was a Doll, I hate… I hate that I’ve probably got a real family out there somewhere, I hate knowing that there’s somebody out there that could fix me –”
“Except they’d kill you first. You don’t – they do what they want with you, Frank. You signed up for it," he says helplessly. "All the Actives did. I don't... I don't know if you were coerced, okay, I don't know if they plucked you off the street, or helped you with a prison rap, or just offered you money, I don't know. But it was your signature on the paper, signing away five years of your life."
Frank’s eyes are wet. “You’re lying.”
“Why would I? If you didn’t agree, why aren’t there people looking for you? For all of the Dolls?”
“Maybe there are, okay? Maybe – ”
“People don’t disappear unless they want to,” Bob says simply. Or unless someone else wants them to, but that goes without saying. “I don’t know why, I only know that it was.”
They lie there for a minute, Bob heavy on top of Frank. Too drained to move.
“What did they give you?” Frank asks finally. “Or. What did they have on you?”
Bob’s grip tightens on Frank’s wrists.
“I know you wouldn’t… you’re a good person. That’s the… that’s the fucking irritating part, is that you are, so. You wouldn’t do something like that if they just asked you.” Frank has his head turned, to stare at the wall. “So why.”
Bob lets go of Frank’s wrists. Sits back. "Surgery," he says finally. "Cutting edge. Beyond cutting edge, it was – my wrists are -- were -- completely fucked up. Perp smashed them on the job. Smashed them into fucking pieces, you know? Thirty years old, and on my worse days buttoning my fucking jeans made me want to cry. And there was nothing to do.” Bob shrugged, rubbing a hand over his wrist. “I’d had surgery but I couldn’t afford more, and it wouldn’t have helped with the pain anyway. There were cortisone shots for mobility but those hurt like fuck to begin with, and they weren’t going to fix. There wasn’t anything out there to fix it.”
“But the Dollhouse fixed it.”
“Beckett came to me and said they’d be like brand new. All I have to do is give them five years of my life -- five years of basically being a bodyguard, and they fix my wrists and still pay me enough money to buy a small island at the end of it? Yeah, I was in. I didn't ask questions. Maybe I should have, I don’t know. I just wanted it so badly.”
“Yeah.” Frank says quietly. “I get that.”
Frank spends the rest of the day in his room, but he makes dinner that night. It’s burnt garlic bread, and undercooked pasta with red sauce and something that might once have been tofu sausage, but it’s a start.
Bob gets a job at a local record store, and Frank starts tending bar at one of the dives in town – doubtful that Pete programmed that in himself, but its there nonetheless. They’re not exactly hurting for money, but they don’t want to be the creepy dudes who live on the edge of town forever. That’s memorable. The guy who holds down a shitty minimum wage job? Not so much.
The store itself is cool. There’s a small college a few blocks over, and the whole neighborhood has an indie/hippie feel to it that Bob can get behind, even if he doesn’t quite fit into it. The other employees are two college kids, both called Alex. For nearly a month they barely say two words to him, until Frank comes in to visit and climbs all over him, gives him a wet willy, and only survives because he offers to buy Bob lunch. After that Bob finds out Johnson-Alex plays drums, and that Singer-or-DeLeon-Alex (Bob still isn’t sure; at work he mostly just yells “Alex” and deals with whichever one gets there first) has a faily douchebag of a boyfriend with horrendous tattoos called Cash. Cash. Bob is less surprised once he finds out they’re from Vegas, if still equally appalled.
They try to live off the grid as much as possible. The record store owner is cool with paying under the table. Bob pays their rent in cash and all the utilities are in their landlord’s name. Frank spends a few weeks beefing up the house security anyway. Multiple deadbolts on the door, locks on the windows. A gate around the whole house. None of these are exactly deterrents, but they’ll slow someone down a bit, and sometimes that’s all you need.
Frank goes from not wanting to talk about anything to wanting to know everything Bob knows about the Dollhouse, about being a Doll– which isn’t much, or at least anything helpful. The brain chemistry stuff is way out of Bob’s league. The last time he took biology was 10th grade, and he’s pretty sure that was mostly the dissecting frogs type.
“I wish you knew how to change me,” Frank says one day, tapping a finger on the side of his temple. “Take them away, you know? Now that I know they’re not mine, I just. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have any at all.”
Once they were all out drinking and Pete got completely sloshed, said something about being able to return Actives to Doll-state, without the chair. Bragging about it, a little, like he would¬. Bob mentions it – stupid, really, why – and Frank lights up.
“Do it. If you know how, do it, I …”
“Remote deactivation won’t change you back,” Bob says sharply. “Not to… to who you were. Just back to being a Doll. You’d be like a child. Worse,” he continues, ruthlessly. “Bland, happy, stupid, trusting, no personality. A sitting duck.” He thinks of Brendon, of all the Dolls, their blank and trusting naivety. He’s angry, suddenly, and it’s not really at Frank but Frank’s the only one here. “I’m gonna,” he starts, and then just goes outside. A walk. A walk would be good.
“I don’t know how to do it anyway,” Bob says, later. “This stuff, it’s… there are only so many people in the world who understand it. Who could fix you. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to look.”
“I know,” Frank says, gentler than Bob would give him credit for. Or maybe just more defeated. “I just… how can anything be real, if most of what’s in my head is made up?”
Bob shrugs. “I dunno. Is most of what’s real that stuff that goes on in your head?”
“Huh.” Frank takes another swig of beer. “Now I wanna watch The Matrix.”
Pete worships The Matrix. Pete is one of the people who could fix Frank. Bob knows where Pete lives, but even if Bob could trust him, even Beckett wasn't having Wentz watched, Pete doesn't have what he needs to fix Frank at his house. Cassadee either. Bob wouldn’t trust Cassadee under that kind of pressure anyway. Busting into the Dollhouse isn’t an option either. Bob helped with the security – it’s not going to happen, he knows that. Not without a tank or his own faction of Black Ops. The more time goes by, the more apparent it becomes he didn’t think this whole thing through.
Bob nods. “You get the beer, I’ll hook up the DVD player?”
Then he gets distracted because Frank has done something like beaten his own high score on Wii bowling and spends fifteen minutes running around the house crowing about it, and Bob doesn’t much care about the rest.
On Frank’s night off, they go to the bar where he works and get drunk for cheap. Deleon-or-Singer Alex is DD-ing for his douchebag boyfriend and offers to drive them home. They manage to get back to the house without too much trouble, and Bob half-carries, half-supports Frank into the house, where they collapse on the couch.
Frank starts pestering Bob about the Dollhouse. It’s… old, except not really, because Bob’s pretty obsessed with it too.
“So I’m trying to… I mean. So I was, what?” Frank asks. “A whore?”
Bob’s hand briefly tightens in the fabric of the couch. After a moment, he says, “if anything, a highly – highly,” – he would like to emphasize the highly – “…priced escort.”
“No no no no,” Bob says, because once he starts it gets a little hard to finish. “No, seriously. I don’t know how expensive, but at least seven figures.”
Frank stills. “Seriously?”
“They were paying me high six,” Bob says honestly. “Higher risk jobs, people would pay through the nose for you.”
He and Frank give each other a sideways look, like they’re just realizing how ridiculous the conversation is. Or that he’s trying to reassure Frank by convincing him he was at least a high class rent. They start to snicker, and it’s awhile before they can stop.
“So why’d you do it?” Frank asks suddenly, drunk-serious. “Why’d you… why’d you help me, and run if … Why’d you give up your life for, for all this?” he asks, and waves a hand around their living room.
“Don’t know, really,” Bob says, because he still doesn’t. “It was my job to protect you. I mean, I was a cop, I always… occupational hazard. Personality hazard. It’s what I do, I just… It didn’t always mean the way they told me to. And I couldn’t shut it off when they told me not to.”
Frank hums a little in response, and they both fall asleep on the couch even though Bob’s back is completely fucked the next morning. Frank offers to walk on it but that way traction lies, so Bob just tells him he can make breakfast. Lunch. A meal for whatever time it is.
Frank makes pancakes which this special wheat flour or some shit, which are vaguely too chewy but all right with a small flood of syrup. Bob eats two, then when it looks like his stomach is willing to handle it, three more. Frank eats four and possibly some of the batter as well. Which is… whatever. Not worth the fight.
Bob does the dishes, and tries to ignore the way Frank is hovering behind him, moving from the counter to the table and back again, bouncing as he does it. If Bob asks, he’ll say nothing is wrong, then scurry off and be emo for the rest of the day. Better to just let him come out with it whenever.
He gets through the glasses, the silverware, the plates, the mixing bowl, and is about to start the pan when Frank pipes up.
“You said. You said sometimes the Dolls broke. Went wrong.” Bob doesn’t have to turn around to know Frank is chewing on his bottom lip. “What went wrong?”
“They glitched. Or Composited.” Bob washes the pan, sets it in the drainer. “Basically memories that should have been Wiped were still there.”
“Did anyone ever…?”
He turns around to face Frank. “The last guy who glitched killed three people.” That hangs a little heavier in the kitchen than Bob expected. “Granted, that was in Doll state. No Programming. But I’m not,” he makes an expansive gesture. “This is not my thing, I don’t know. I think it would be like… like if suddenly you had memories that don’t feel like they’re yours. People you don’t have names for. Suddenly being able to do something you couldn’t do before.” Bob tries to remember anything about Robert he was ever told, anything Pete said, or the other Handlers let slip. “I mean, you’ve been good so far, right?”
Frank shrugs, forcedly nonchalant. “What would you do? If I started to glitch?”
Bob huffs. Frank looks stricken, now, and Bob doesn’t know how exactly to convey I trust you, not so sure about your brain chemistry. “Hide the sharp knives?” Also, the guns. Better than last time.
Frank’s giggle is nervous, sudden. “Did you know I know how to kill people with my bare hands?”
Bob does, in fact, know this. He ignores the way the hand holding Frank’s cigarette is shaking and goes to lean up on the counter next to Frank. The top of Frank’s head is roughly even with his armpit. “I think I could take you.”
Frank grins just as suddenly, mercurial as always. “Fuck you. Not everyone is a goddamn Viking, Bryar,” he says cheerfully, and bumps Bob’s hip with his own.
It’s a miserable night. Cold. Rain making soft sounds on the roof, just eerie and unsettling enough to have the opposite effect of lulling Bob to sleep.
He hears feet in the hallway. Frank. Light footsteps that start off slow, slow, slow, then all of a sudden hurried, like he’s afraid he’s going to lose his nerve. It’s how Frank does most things – maybe, wait, I don’t know, fuckitletsgo!
A light tap on the door before Frank pushes it open. Tiny little feet, white and probably cold. Toes curled under.
“Yeah. Everything okay?”
“I’m. Yeah, everything’s okay.” Frank runs one hand through his hair. “Can I come in?”
Frank gets nightmares, sometimes. Fucking horrendous ones he says he can’t remember after he wakes up, but the actually waking up part – the screaming, the sweat-soaked sheets – seems bad enough.
“Sure, come on,” Bob says, and the words are barely out of his mouth before Frank takes a running leap and clambers onto Bob’s bed with none of the grace that Bob knows he has, that Frank always had, even strolling blank-faced through the Dollhouse.
Bob allows himself a moment. One moment. One press of his lips to Frank’s, one scratch of stubble on his face, one touch of slim fingers to his chest, cool and shaking with nerves. He doesn’t even close his eyes, and he sees the look on Frank’s face when he pushes Frank away.
“Frank. Frank, no.”
“Bob, please, I want…”
“You don’t know what you want,” Bob says harshly. “You don’t even know who the hell… you’re not even you.”
“I’m somebody,” Frank shoots back, fists clenching in the sheets. “And yeah, maybe that’s not Francis Anthony Iero, but it’s the only person I am. Probably the only person I’ll ever be.” His voice wavers. “So – so fuck you. Why’d you save me if you didn’t think I was a real person anyway.”
“Frank.” Bob grabs his arm. “It’s not.” Bob doesn’t know how to say it – that one day Frank could be himself again, the real Frank, and then he’s going to feel different. And even if he isn’t – right now he’s programmed to trust Bob – to listen to him, to like him, who knows what else. Anything this is built on isn’t real. He thinks of Brendon, and Tom, and – and Bob’s never been in the business of deluding himself. He thinks of all the people Frank might have to go back to, all the history Frank doesn’t know he has. All the futures that Bob and Beckett and people like them have killed.
“I can’t,” he says finally. “I just can’t.” And he lies awake in bed long after Frank quickly hops out of the bed, and slowly treads back to his room.
“You are a real person,” he whispers, and it’s too bad it’s only to an empty room.
Bob gets up the next morning like usual. Makes a pot of coffee, drinks half and leaves the rest for Frank with the sugar already out, even though Bob doesn’t use it. At work, Alex-squared invites him out to some music show at the college. Apparently they’re in a band with douchebag Cash – who has somehow managed to grow on Bob, like the proverbial fungus – and some other kid, Ian, who can shred like nobody’s business, if Singer-Deleon’s wide-eyed and springy-haired enthusiasm is to be believed. Bob calls home to leave Frank a message, that he’ll be late and to get dinner without him. It’s SP not to answer the phone, so Bob’s not worried.
When he comes home the door’s ajar. And Frank’s a messy fuck as far as the kitchen and his room are concerned, but he’s not stupid. He’s not careless.
Bob doesn’t carry his gun in the day-to-day. He doesn’t want anyone to see it, he doesn’t want to have to explain it, he really doesn’t want to get in trouble for carrying around something that’s technically not his. He’d be back on Beckett’s radar in a second. He’s kind of regretting that decision now. When he steps in the place doesn’t look ransacked. But when he goes down the foyer the gun taped under the front shelf is gone – not a good sign no matter who has it – glances in the kitchen quickly, then in the living room.
Frank’s tied up on the floor, angry, but mostly afraid. There’s – it’s dark, that could be blood, that could be a lot of blood…
Bob hears the click of a gun safety from the darker corner of the room. He freezes. “There’s money in the kitchen,” he says cautiously, even though he knows it’s not a B&E. A burglar would never have gotten him and Frank, even on a bad day. But if it was Beckett, they’d either be dead or on their way back to the Dollhouse. Bob doesn’t know what this is, and that makes him more uneasy than either of the first two options. “In one of the bottom cabinets. Just don’t hurt anyone.”
“Turn around,” someone says. A man. Raspy voice. “Hands high on the wall.”
Bob obliges. Not much of a choice. Not like this, gun gone, Frank tied up, when he doesn’t even know if anyone else is in the house.
“Now hands behind your back. Slow.”
Again, Bob obliges. Then the quiet zip of a pair of flexicuffs being put on. Tight. The plastic digging into his wrists.
“Why don’t you sit down,” the voice suggests. “Get comfortable.”
And then their intruder steps into the light. He’s wearing red sneakers, a hoodie, jeans. His hair is longer. Greasier, unkempt. But it’s him.
“Robert,” Bob says. “What do you want?”
The part that surprises Bob – okay, the part besides how Robert is alive, although Bob really shouldn’t have trusted Beckett’s word on fucking anything – is how fucking tiny he is. As tiny as Frank, easily, and Bob smolders for a minute at being taken down that easily before he remembers that, oh yeah, this guy killed three people last anyone knew.
Robert grins – like a jackal, Bob thinks, like he’s enjoying showing every one of his teeth.
“See, you know who I am,” he coos, and one of the only things visible in the room is the glint from his knife. “That just makes this easier.”
It gets bad, but not the worst it’s ever been – Bob’s wrists still have that honor. He tells Robert about the Dollhouse, about running, everything Robert asks, over and over. He tells him things he heard, he overheard, things he just supposes.
“Bob. Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob Bob,” Robert chants, “I get the feeling you’re not paying attention.”
“You’re asking the same questions,” he says wearily. “And it’s all the same answers.” He’s worried about Frank. Bob’s not sure how long Robert was here before he came home, but it looks like a while. From the blood. From the way Frank’s leaning to one side, listless.
“Hmm. True. I guess we’re done here.” Robert tilts his head to the side, like a bird before it pounces on the worm. “If you’ve lied to me,” he says finally, “I’m going to carve the sparrows out of his stomach.”
Bob’s stomach twists so hard he thinks he’s going to puke.
“Now.” Robert pops back up. “I’m going to leave the knife over here, okay? For the restraints. Don’t go for it until I’m outside, or Frank gets the end of the one still in my shoe.” Robert’s voice is bizarrely cheerful. “He’s not going anywhere anytime soon. And you’re going to need to fix the basement window. Better locks, this time. It’s tiny, but so’m I, and I think we’ve all seen how well that went.” He ducks through the entryway, and Bob counts thirty seconds – the thirty slowest fucking seconds of his life – before he goes for the knife.
It takes a minute to get free, to get over to Frank and pull the rag out of his mouth. Cut the ties on his wrists.
“Cocksucker,” Frank rasps, and reaches up to press on what looks like a broken nose. “Him, I mean, just – fuck, Bob, I thought –”
Bob runs his hands over Frank’s arms, his legs. “Want a treatment?” he whispers, not quite sure why he’s whispering, and Frank’s stomach ripples under Bob’s hands, desperate laughter not-quite-caught in his chest.
There are some bruises, shallow cuts. A longer one on his chest, but still not far into the surface. Which makes sense – you torture someone by inflicting pain, not by piercing an internal organ – but Robert didn’t seem like he was operating on all cylinders, and Bob’s just – glad. Too grim to really feel it right now, but it’s there.
“Hold this,” Bob says grimly, and presses the knife into Frank’s other hand. “I’m gonna go—”
Frank nods. His eyes are wide and even in the dark he looks ghostly fucking pale. “Yeah, okay.”
Bob relocks the door, checks the windows. There’s repair work to be done on the basement window, like Robert said, so Bob locks the door to the cellar and then drags the bookshelf in front of it for good measure. Not impossible to get around, but impossible to do so without making some noise.
Bob grabs the first-aid kit from the kitchen and heads back to the living room, clomping loudly the whole way so Frank doesn’t get crazy with the knife. Frank’s got the knife in one hand, the rag catching the blood still coming from his nose.
“Here,” Bob says. “Bite on the rag.”
“Gross,” Frank whines, briefly, but does it. Bob pops Frank’s nose back into joint. “Mgghn.”
“Good. Now lie back.” Frank spits out the rag, and Bob peels away what’s left of Frank’s shirt to peer at the wound. Jesus. He’s gotta pull himself together. “A few stitches,” he says finally. “Just let me – I’ll go to that clinic on Elm tomorrow, see if I can’t sweet-talk Jane into giving me more antibiotics.” Bob can buy the painkillers elsewhere. Hell, Cash probably knows. Him and the Alexes are really only into weed, but they probably know somebody.
“Bob. Bob, dude, are you okay?”
He knows Frank’s talking about how Bert was whaling on him, about the ache in his shoulder and the two teeth on the left side of his mouth that feel dangerously loose, the black eye that’s swelling so bad he might not be able to see later, but that’s not what he cares about right now.
“I don’t want to stay here,” he bursts out, and makes a round-about motion with his hands. The house, he doesn’t – “I don’t think he’ll come back, but I can’t…” There’s a bloodstain on their carpet, and glass all over the basement floor, the space Frank keeps trying to convince him is perfect space for a puppy. Bob had almost given in. God help him, he’s a sucker for strays.
“Bob.” Frank’s hand curls in the hair at the nape of his neck. “It’s okay. We’re okay.”
“Yeah.” Bob lets his forehead rest on Frank’s shoulder. Just one minute, one long breath, just to steady himself.
He’s been a cop since he was twenty years old, and he’s been pretending he wasn’t gay for longer. Not to himself. Bob always knew what he was. But he had to pretend, for other people. The occasional random hook-up was no problem. But for all the kinky one-offs telling people he was a cop got him, a relationship was never going to happen for him. Not while he was on the force, not with the hours he kept, not when he couldn’t be out without losing his job, or being a spearhead for a fucking movement. He’s used to keeping his feelings locked down, sublimating them into other things. He lost two of his partners on the force before getting paired up with Brian. He watched one of them bleed out before the paramedics even got there, and he’s never – he’s still never felt anything like this. Not when Frank was shot the first time. Not when the doctors told him his wrists would never be right again. He never felt this. He didn’t know he could.
“It’s okay. I’m okay,” he says finally, and scoops Frank up like he doesn’t weigh a thing. His shoulder holds, so it’s gotta be okay.
“This damsel in distress shit is getting old,” Frank grumbles. “Why’m I always getting hurt?”
I took two arrows for you once, even if you don’t remember, Bob wants to say. I left my home and my family and my friends, to live in a shitty house with mold in the basement and asbestos in the walls, because the thought of you dead was painful enough to lose it all. He wants to say it, because sometimes he doesn’t think Frank really gets it, you know? But then he realizes that’s not what matters. Not even that he did it. Only that he loved Frank enough to bother.
He takes Frank to his bedroom and tucks him in carefully, fuck the state of the sheets tomorrow. Then he grabs painkillers from the bathroom along with a glass of water – because swallowing pills dry is apparently a life skill Pete didn’t think was relevant – and makes Frank swallow four before popping two himself and setting the bottle on the nightstand.
“Thanks,” Frank slurs, and Bob crawls into bed with him. Frank turns to look at him then, all wide eyes. No amusement, none of his normal mischief. Scared serious.
Bob moves carefully. He’s solid, and Frank is tiny – Bob honestly doesn’t think of him that way, often, but it’s a physical truth, and right now Frank looks almost fragile, and Bob just – He presses his lips to the crown of Frank’s head, sweaty matted hair. Reminds himself to breathe, again.
“Of course you’d crawl into my bed now,” Frank says finally, half-asleep, half-heartedly wriggling around to find the most comfortable position. Part painkillers, part post-adrenaline coma. “Motherfucker.”
“I’ll be here,” Bob says, and he doesn’t mean tonight or until you’re better or until you kick me out. He means better or worse, he means Frank or Francis Iero, programming or no programming, thief or cop or Doll or client, forever and ever. Bob fucking loves Frank, okay, it doesn’t matter if it won’t last, because what the fuck will? It doesn’t matter if it’s not real, because what the fuck is real? What the fuck could be more real than the feeling in the pit of Bob’s stomach when Robert cut into Frank, when Bob finally and truly realized the terrible, cold possibility of losing him?
“Go to sleep,” he says again. “I’ll be here.”